The Vršič Pass, which rises to a height of 1611 metres, is the highest pass in Slovenia. It connects, in the north, the Sava Dolinka Valley in
Gorenjska to the the Soča Valley in Primorska, in the south. The road, impassable in the winter months, is an exhilarating and spectacular drive, climbing and descending 49 hairpin bends, each one numbered and with height recorded, taking you across the spine of the Julian Alps. It is not a difficult route, though not recommended if you are towing a caravan. What makes the drive so special, apart from the views and scenery, is the history behind its very existence.
We begin the traverse on the northern side at Kranjska Gora. The road soon passes the blue waters of Jasna Lake, which on a calm day reflect the majestic mountains that form the lake’s backdrop. Nearby, upon a large boulder is a statue of the mythical golden-horned Zlatorog. Continue on, climbing a little, along the side of the Pišnica Valley to the first numbered hairpin bend that gives a taste of the steep climb that is to come.
A little history. The Austro-Hungarian authorities decided early in 1915 that they needed a road to supply their forces who were preparing to defend their border with Italy (to become known as the Isonzo Front). Building, using Russian prisoners-of-war as forced labour, was begun in March 1915 and, unbelievably, was completed by the end of that year. The pass needed to be keptopen all year so prisoners were stationed in camps to shovel the snow off the road during the winter months. In March 1916 an avalanche buried one of these camps killing around 400 prisoners and 10 of their guards. There is a small Russian cemetery near hairpin 4. To commemorate this disaster and in remembrance of their comrades, other Russian prisoners built a beautiful Russian Orthodox Chapel on the site of the camp and this can be seen by stopping at hairpin 8. To honour the Russian prisoners the road was renamed in July 2006, as the Ruska cesta (“Russian Road”).
After hairpin bend 10 there is some respite from the twists and turns for about one kilometer until just after the mountain hut, Koča na Gozdu. Again the road climbs steeply, the cobbled bends coming in quick succession. Just after hairpin 16 the angle eases and there is an opportunity to stop, get out of the car, and admire the mountain views. Beyond, more steep hairpins follow and you soon pass another mountain hut, Erjavčeva Koča. Two more bends and a steep final section lead to the pass summit where there is plenty of parking space (a small fee is charged which goes towards the high upkeep costs of the road) and it is well worth stopping. This is a great kick off point for high level mountain walks but one of the most popular is the relatively easy walk to Slemenova Špica (Walk 10).
One of the great highlights of the pass is Ajdovska deklica, the rock face of a maiden, on the flanks of Prisank to the east of the road. You may have spotted it from the road on the way up but the best view is found by walking up the track beside the Tičarjev Dom mountain hut (turn left at the first junction).
“Legend has it that the Ajdovska maidens foretold the people of Kranjska Gora their fortune at birth. They also advised the people when to sow their crops and when to harvest them. One of the maidens foretold the son of a hunter that he would kill the Goldenhorn which inhabited the surrounding mountains. This prophecy angered the other maidens who punished Ajdovska deklica by turning her into rock”. Quote from this Kranjska Gora website.
Refreshments, can be purchased from the mountain huts and at the souvenir kiosks.
The descent is perhaps a little easier and the bends are not cobbled. Soon, theviews open out over the Upper Soča Valley and Trenta far below. Look out for the signposted lay-by, Razgledna Tocka (viewpoint), at the end of the first long straight. From here, the site of an old military observation area, there is a fine view of Jalovec (2645) and, to the left, Bavski Grintavec (2347m). There now follows a steep twisting descent with little chance to stop until you reach hairpin 48. Here, beside the road is parking place and, opposite, a short footpath to the Kugy Monument, a wonderful bronze statue of the pioneer climber and author Julius Kugy. This is a beautiful place, so do not miss it. Our walk along the River Soča (Walk 12) visits this scenic spot.
One more hairpin to go and it is just a little further on. At hairpin 49, you can turn right to Izvir Soče, the source of the River Soča. Less than 2km up this road, a path leads from a car-park and the mountain hut, Koča pri Izviru Soče (refreshments available) up to the source. The top is a bit of a scramble but there are wire cables and iron pegs to help you over the tricky bit (Walk 12 visits here also).
From the last hairpin the road continues down in to Trenta and the Soča Valley, but that is another journey!
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Tags: Ajdovska deklica, driving, Isonzo Front, Izvir Soce, Jasna Lake, Julian Alps, Julius Kugy, Kranjska Gora, mountains, Russian Road, Slovenia, Slovenian, Slovenija, Soca Front, Soca Valley, Transport, travel, Vrsic, WWI, Zlatorog