Old soldiers. It’s an ironic term I heard many, many years ago when my train rolled into Lympstone Commando to unload its latest batch of recruits who were subsequently jeered at by the ‘old soldiers’ – other trainee commandos who’d arrived at the base only a couple of weeks earlier, but who now knew the score.
From rural Bohinjska to lively Ljubljana
Sitting on a wooden bench in the early morning sunshine at pretty little Bohinjska Bistrica train station – flower baskets hanging from wooden eaves frame pine-clad hills and the timber yard opposite – we’re old soldiers. The only other people waiting are a young couple who check and re-check a timetable which shows there are only two destinations from this station – Nova Gorica and Jesenice. The timetable doesn’t say from which platform either departs and there are no screens listing train arrivals and departures. We smile knowingly at each other. That was us two days previously. After already having caught the Nova Gorica train to Slovenia’s version of Tuscany, we now know a) a red-capped station master will appear whenever a train trundles into the station and b) any train travelling to the left is going to Nova Gorica and any heading right is on its way to Jesenice via Slovenia’s longest railway tunnel. It’s simple… once you know the drill.
And that’s our mission, to get to know the drill. As is often the case we’re guinea pigs, on point to make sure the way ahead is metaphorically clear for the Slow Travellers who will follow; erasing potential obstacles by gaining knowledge of them from first hand experience. In this case it’s for one of Inntravel’s latest Slovenian holidays – a cultural rail journey which takes in some of the country’s most diverse scenery as it winds from the rural hinterlands to the sparkling Adriatic.
Those who book the holiday will complete the journey in three stages over the course of a week. We’re doing it in a day.
A departure time of 09.05 gave us plenty enough leeway to eat breakfast and finish ablutions before ambling from the hotel to platform, five minutes away. The train arrives on time. It doesn’t hang around long, just enough for us to lug our luggage on (platforms are at ground level) and take to our seats, whichever seats we want; there aren’t many people sharing the train with us.
From Bohinjska, the corrugated carriage trundles north for forty minutes, passing rivers, mountains (this is Julian Alps territory), and Lake Bled before arriving at Jesenice on the border with Austria.
From Jesenice to Ljubljana
Which train we catch to get to Slovenia’s capital is up to us. We’ve already spent a few days in Ljubljana so the plan is to use a flexible couple of hours in Jesenice… until we see Jesenice. The setting is scenic, but the town fits the image of what Communist Eastern Bloc towns looked like in my head before I’d ever set eyes on an Eastern Bloc town. It’s a lanky, grey, industrial affair spread out along a valley. It feels like a town whose appearance was once designed to advertise to its Austrian neighbours ‘look how successfully industrious we are.’
Jesenice train station is sizeable but, again, there are no information screens on any platform. Neither are there any lifts. We carry our cases down stairs, along an underground passage and up more stairs to reach the main station where there’s a ticket/information office (window). Two backpackers in front ask the question for me.
“Which is the platform for the Ljubljana train?”
The official behind the scratched perspex window looks at something out of sight up to his left.
“Platform 4,” then he shrugs and adds. “Maybe.”
Platform 4 was the platform we arrived on. Of course it is. It turns out the next Ljubljana train is in a few minutes. We change plans and decide that a couple of hours back in Ljubljana is a far more appealing option than spending any surplus time in Jesenice.
Jesenice to Ljubljana
I have to check we haven’t strolled into the first class carriage. Our six-person compartment is airy (there’s only us two), spotless, and a mood-chilling turquoise colour. We haven’t. It’s just this train is immaculately Austrian. It feels like old school train travel as we quietly and smoothly head south in our cosy cocoon; the rugged Julian Alp landscapes softening into mellow meadows. It’s an effortlessly enjoyable 1hr and 15minutes before we pull into familiar surroundings, Ljubljana train station.
Ljubljana does have info screens, and platform numbers, and ticket booths where staff know exactly which platform trains arrive into and depart from. It also has lifts big enough for cyclists to ride into without dismounting. There are even luggage elevators; conveyor belts which transport your bags up to the platforms. A small plaque beside the main platform commemorates a visit by James Joyce. Whether that’s to the city or just the station I’m not sure.
There are regular trains south toward Italy and Slovenia’s coast, but we’ve got a pre-arranged taxi to take us on our final leg. So a couple of hours in Ljubljana it is, or at least a couple of hours in the train station as we don’t fancy dragging our cases around the city centre.
Like the old city itself, the station is lively and youthful. A cafe/bar adjoining the main building doubles as a club after dark. Even during the day it doesn’t lose the music bar vibe, and the sounds are good… if your partying years were the 80s and 90s. I haven’t heard Tanita Tikaram’s Twist in My Sobriety for years. It’s an easy place to singalong-away two hours with a sandwich and a couple of beers. On one side are the platforms, on the other is the bus station; both offer a constantly changing people panorama for us to gawp at, a factor which puts time into fast forward mode.
Ljubljana to Piran
This is the longest leg of our journey at 1hr and 34mins. Our train terminates at Trieste but we’ll be leaving it at Divaca. It’s an Italian train and looks it. In fact it doesn’t look quite like any other train I’ve been on; as though a conventional Italian carriage snuck into sidings where a Swiss panoramic carriage was snoozing and mated with it. Carriages are modern, funky coloured, have huge windows and enough cycle-storing space to accommodate Team Sky (Team INEOS now). There are more passengers than on the other trains we’ve travelled, but still sufficient seats for everyone.
We’re the only people who get off at Divaca where our Goopti taxi is already waiting to transport us the final forty minutes or so to the Venetian-esque coastal town of Piran.
We started our journey at a civilised hour in a rural valley surrounded by mountains in the north of Slovenia. By the time the setting sun has filled the sky with soft mauve strokes (four locations, three contrasting trains at a combined cost of less than €20pp, and one taxi ride later) we’re refreshed, relaxed and happily tucking into seafood a few metres from the Adriatic on Slovenia’s southern border. Odd though it may sound, travelling the length of the country in one day wasn’t tiring and didn’t feel in the slightest bit rushed.
When train travel is as effortless and easy it was in Slovenia, it is my second favourite mode of getting around. Walking being number one.