First things first: backpacking is a lot more fun without the backpack. Forget any student holidays spent hauling grubby camping gear from hostel to hostel. Today’s self-guided walking tours are altogether more grown-up. The company supplies a route, takes care of accommodation and transports your bags. There’s no group walking, you’re free to stride up an Alpine hillside with nothing more in your daysack than a bottle of water, a packed lunch and the name of that night’s hotel. It’s a liberating way to explore a new country step by step, and you don’t have to smell like an undergrad.
There are any number of self-guided walks to choose from. I went for Slovenia, one of those places everyone kept telling me I ought to visit. And they were, annoyingly, quite right. The former Yugoslav republic is a tiny, unspoilt treasure, still just about on the right side of an EU bailout and possessed of an endearing pride in how the map of its borders resembles a chicken.
I had walked with Macs Adventures before in the UK, so the chance to try out its new route in the Julian Alps was too good to turn down. For this trip, Macs partners with a local operator, Helia. It makes sense to draw on local expertise, but things didn’t start well when the car that was meant to pick me up failed to arrive at the airport. Once that hiccup was sorted out things went much more smoothly. Equipped with a neat little guide of the route, complete with photos of major turning points, I was soon ensconced in the first hotel at Jezersko.
The view was spectacular, the room basic. That proved par for the course along the route: with one or two notable exceptions when a swimming pool and hot tub proved the perfect end to a long day’s walking, the accommodation was not luxurious. However, as you spend your days walking the hills and forests rather than in your room, this is less of a hardship than it sounds.
And the hills are spectacular. Some 58 per cent of Slovenia is forested and the Alps provide a northern and western border with Austria and Italy. You feel truly out in the European wilds, one reason why the lack of polish in country inns where you can’t look too closely at the carpet feels like an acceptable price for exploring these wild valleys.
After all, part of the point of exploring off the beaten path is surely to be reminded why most people have chosen to beat a path to civilisation rather than live the life of an Alpine peasant. At one point, clambering to the top of a hill, I collapsed onto the bench at a cabin, advertised as a lunch stop. Gesturing weakly for sustenance to the old woman who lived there, I was handed two of the most authentic bowls of food I have ever encountered. One was a shallow dish of milk that had been left to go sour. Its thick and gelatinous skin parted only to reveal pallid, rancid curds. It was paired with something dark and unintelligible. The texture was crumbly and stale, the colour a murky brown. Perhaps it was old bread or dried meat. It could have been cardboard ground with shoe leather. Still, the effect of both together was electric. When the old lady returned, she saw only my back heading rapidly downhill, a bare mouthful having restored my energy so successfully I was practically running to reach my next hotel. Happily the evening meals all belonged firmly in the twenty-first century.
The walks were 12-18km a day and overall were pitched at about the right level for a desk jockey who takes himself out for reasonably regular weekend hikes. Some of the days involved walks that either demanded clambering up hillsides with the help of metal wires or, at times, hauling myself from rock to rock with hands and feet. This was fine in sunshine but would have been much more challenging in rain. A walking pole was essential. The firm also offers a more challenging “high trails” route in the same area and personally I wouldn't have fancied any extra levels of difficulty.
But all of the challenges aside, the opportunity to wander this timeless landscape is glorious. The routes are varied – one day scrambling up slopes, the next wandering merchants’ tunnels through the rock, the next looking up as you follow the bottom of a spectacular gorge. At one point you can explore a castle that squats across a valley, the fossil of a twelfth-century protection racket. Everywhere you go, there is the hum of the endless beehives turning the Alpine meadowflowers into delicious local honey. Some of the local wine is excellent, including one dry and subtle rose a million miles from the sugary, pink plonk that gets served at too many British barbecues – and you’ll deserve a few glasses after trekking up hill and down dale all day.
The walk builds to a climax with two wonderful lakes. First, Lake Bled, lovely but a little built-up after the peace of the mountainsides. Second, and even better, the stunning Lake Bohinj which seems like it would make an idyllic holiday location in its own right, with crystal waters, rockfaces ideal for climbing and paragliders swooping from the high summits from which your tired legs have carried you down. As I lay back beside its still waters and enjoyed the view, I was already planning my trip back.