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Walking the Alpe-Adria Trail

Europe’s newest long-distance trekking route takes hardy hikers from the foot of Austria’s highest mountain across the border into Slovenia and onwards to Italy’s Adriatic coast. Even a short walk along its 470-mile length uncovers a unique Alpine landscape where battles have been fought and fresh alliances are being won

Walking the Alpe-Adria Trail
Image: Getty

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The beast eyeballs us from the middle of the track before lumbering away, its bell clunking. “The cattle are allowed to roam everywhere in this region,” explains Günter, one of my two guides for the day. “EU freedom of moo-vement!” I reply. Günter remains stony-faced; my joke lost in translation. Perhaps Carinthian cows converse in a different language on the Alpe-Adria Trail. 

In truth, the Trail has always been about overcoming the challenge of things lost in translation. Winding through Austria, Slovenia and Italy, it crosses and recrosses boundaries like a thread stitching together a patchwork of national and cultural fabrics. It was created in 2012 as a three-country initiative, the brainchild of people of different tongues and temperaments, of shared but contrasting histories; nationalities that once went to war and more recently would have expected to scrap over the tourist dollar rather than help each other to earn it.   

“This project is unique,” says Günter, as we walk along the path. “A few other hiking trails in Europe cross borders but they’re ancient pilgrimage routes like the Camino de Santiago. The Alpe-Adria Trail was set up from scratch.” He pauses. “It hasn’t always been easy.”

The trail runs 470 miles, from the foot of the Grossglockner — Austria’s tallest mountain — to the Italian fishing town of Muggia on the Adriatic coast. I’m told its 43 stages can be hiked in six weeks, if you’ve the stamina and time to spare. Sadly, I have neither, and will instead get a taster of each country’s sections. I won’t even be burdened by a heavy rucksack because Günter’s booking agency will transfer my luggage from hotel to hotel. 

First up is Stage 7 in Austria, and a morning’s wander north from Mallnitz into the Seebach Valley; evergreens covering its sides like brushed fur. Far above us, waterfalls streak from craggy clefts through the forest, and higher still the trees thin to reveal the white peaks of mountains.

“That’s a dipper,” says my other guide, Munja, fondly as we watch a chubby bird rootle in the stream we’re following, stirring up swirling puffs of sand in the clear water. “We’ll see a lot of those today, I think.” Originally from Frankfurt, Munja visited this valley on a school trip 20 years ago, falling in love with the place — and a local man — and settling here for good. “The Romans built Mallnitz to keep the Germans out, but luckily things have changed,” she jokes. Munja made the man her husband, and together they run a hotel and lead walking tours.   

Peace reigns in the valley. We step carefully over a traffic jam of black newts searching for somewhere to hibernate, and reach a reedy lake called Stappitzer See with wooden hides at either end. Munja talks about the wildlife camouflaged on the slopes: red deer, chamois and steinbock with scimitar horns. “We had a special guest at the lake this year,” she says. “A fish otter. But it wiped out all the fish. These otters kill 10 for every two they eat.”

The trail loops south, back through the cuckoo-clock hamlet of Mallnitz. We pass a railway station as cars trundle off an open-sided motorail train that’s toiled through the mountains from Salzburg, then climb a gate onto a wooded path. Alongside us now is the Mallnitzbach stream, which isn’t the gently babbling thing you might expect as you trace its blue wriggle on a map. This is water that gushes and crashes down the narrow Rabischschlucht gorge towards the River Möll. In occasional sheltered hollows, weathered sticks lie trapped in messy piles, like nests built from bones by some otherworldly creature.

For 40 minutes, the path winds through the gorge, until it emerges into the thin autumn sunlight and leaves the din behind. We skirt a house in a glade where a man saws logs, and duck under a bridge sheltering a restaurant with a green door. It’s a reminder that this alpine outpost is a place of people as well as nature, and that ultimately the trail is about them. “Three years ago this restaurant was closed, but now hikers are bringing business,” says Günter. “The Alpe-Adria Trail is reviving forgotten communities.”

But the communities in Carinthia weren’t always forgotten — far from it. The Romans travelled back and forth through here, carrying salt and silk to Italy, and wine the other way. And in the 16th century, gold was found in a valley near Grosskirchheim, on Stage 3 of the trail, causing speculators to flock here from all over the world. “That restaurant was originally a toll house to tax the traffic,” explains Günter. “Grosskirchheim has a population of 1,300 now, but during the gold rush there were 10,000.”

Our El Dorado for today is the town of Obervellach, rich in heritage from the gold era, and the end of the stage. But between us and a warming meal is the huge Groppensteinschlucht gorge, its sheer rock face set with a plank walkway that wraps around one thundering waterfall and tracks the river on its mad cascade to another, even bigger drop. Signs warn against climbing onto the walkway’s handrails, and I wonder who’d consider perching above this booming torrent.    

We reach Obervellach in late afternoon, and stop at a ring of three hooded iron posts in the town centre. From a distance they might be street art, but in fact these are stage markers. “You’ll find them at all the 21 stages in Austria,” says Munja proudly. “The idea was to use the same design throughout the trail, but the Italians have put up a statue of a hiker on their stages instead.”

“If you ask me, it looks more like a gold miner,” mutters Günter. The alliance of nations, it seems, isn’t without its hairline cracks.

Dying for the views

Next day, my hike takes me to Italy — just. The Tarvisio to Rifugio Zacchi section lies on the Italian, Austrian and Slovenian borders; part of an offshoot of the main trail called the Circular Route. Claudia, my guide, is waiting for me at the statue of the hiker in Tarvisio. We leave early, and when we reach the Fusine Lakes, the shoreline is all our own. The lower lake stands as still and perfect as a plateful of mercury, fringed with beech trees that blaze copper and gold. As we make our way down the western side, vast chunks of scored limestone loom among the woods, dumped by an ancient glacier. At the upper lake, we watch a pair of dishevelled ducklings being marshalled by their mother, and then the craggy Mount Mangart appears above the treeline and I sense our morning’s excursion is about to get tougher.

The Rifugio Zacchi mountain hut lies an hour’s slog up a rocky path that rises nearly 2,000ft in the space of one-and-a-half miles. The views are to die for, I’m assured, and it quickly becomes clear I might end up paying that price; Claudia teaches Zumba in her spare time, and sets a Zumba teacher’s pace, even in the increasing warmth. “This corner of the country has a special microclimate,” she tells me as I pant alongside. “Tarvisio is chilled by valley winds, but as we climb the temperature warms for a while before dropping again. It means pines grow at lower levels than you’d expect, and deciduous trees far higher.”

If the flora is slightly mixed up, the culture in this borderland region is properly scrambled. Signs are displayed in Italian, German, Slovene and the local Friulian language, and dialects change within the space of a neighbourhood. Claudia tells me her grandparents are from Marlborghetto and mainly speak Windisch, which is a combination of Slovene and Austrian. “The villagers next door, in Camporosso, wouldn’t understand them,” she says. You’ll find echoes of an Austro-Hungarian past in baroque architecture and goulash, but there are also the seafood dishes and Neapolitan accents of those who came from the coast. North rubs against south. 

“The blend is lovely, but sometimes people don’t feel they really belong,” Claudia says when we finally reach the top, and I slump at a table on the terrace. Prayer flags flutter from the eaves of the mountain hut, and the peaks of the Julian Alps are arranged all around us. The scenery is indeed worth nearly dying for. “Which is why the Alpe-Adria Trail is so valuable,” Claudia continues, as a waiter appears with a platter of speck meats and cow cheese made in local pastures. “It brings a common focus.”

Late that afternoon, I ride a gondola from Camporosso up to Mount Lussari above a forest trail used by pilgrims for centuries. The church on the peak commemorates a miracle said to have taken place here in 1360 — a shepherd who found his lost flock kneeling before a statue of Mary in a juniper bush. A fresco shows him making the discovery with goggling eyes and jazz hands. But it’s a scene outside that strikes me most. At a restaurant serving Italian gnocchi and Slovenian beer, a portly man in lederhosen regales the diners with a burst of yodelling. It’s a cameo that captures the spirit of the trail, and its promise to draw different cultures closer within, as well as across, borders.

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Monte Lussari, Udine, Italy. Image: Getty

Bringing up the bodies

“I saw a body on the trail last month,” says the man at the adjacent cafe table. “An Italian soldier, in the undergrowth.” It’s quite a conversation opener over a breakfast croissant, but it goes no further because at that moment my guide arrives to collect me. “Ah, yes,” says Marko as I quiz him during our drive south from Kranjska Gora into Slovenia’s Triglav National Park. “Skeletons pop up now and then, usually after landslides.”

Today’s hike will take me into the Soca Valley, where the Soca River meanders through the Julian Alps. During the First World War, it was part of the Italian Front, a bloody horror of a place where Italian forces tried to push east and Austro-Hungarian forces tried to push west. Lasting over two-and-a-half years, the stalemate ended in an Austro-Hungarian hailstorm of poison gas shells. The death toll exceeded 300,000; the landscape is still yielding corpses. 

The village of Kobarid is home to a First World War museum that documents this battle of the absurd through the eyes of the soldiers. Three privates stare numbly from a photo, an army chaplain offering them God’s blessing before they attempt to storm a ridge they’ve twice failed to capture already. Letters home speak of inadequate equipment, of woolly hats rather than helmets; images show surgeons working on broken skulls with hammers and drills, and the distorted face of a man who lived the rest of his life without a jaw. The exhibits aren’t organised by nationality — you could be looking at an Italian or an Austrian, a Hungarian or a Slovenian. “We don’t divide between good guys and bad,” the curator tells me. “This museum is about people.”

The road we’re driving now, snaking up to the Vrsic Pass, was a key supply line for the Austro-Hungarians. Russian prisoners of war constructed it, and in 1916 over 100 were buried in an avalanche. Marko stops at a memorial chapel erected afterwards. “I nearly died in an avalanche near here,” he says as we return to the car. “I was part of a group that was due to climb a peak, but some of us drank too much the night before and overslept. By the time we woke, the others had already left. Five of them were killed.”

When Marko drops me at the top of the pass it’s into drizzle and the smell of damp leaves. There’s a frisson about the trail this morning, something darkly romantic and forbidding as it descends through the forest. Boulders the size of bungalows are evidence of winter landslides that might catch out the living or uncover the dead. Mist like mustard gas rolls in between the trees. As I walk, my mind’s eye sees the shadows of the wolves Marko said live in the mountains, and the ghosts of smugglers who used this route to bring goods into what was then Yugoslavia.

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Alpe Adria Bike Trail. Image: Alamy

Between the lines

It’s something of a relief to meet other people at the source of the Soca, even if they prove utterly foolhardy. The water springs from a fissure in a granite cliff, settling in a secret pool before spilling over the brim and starting on its way to becoming a river. You can climb out to view the pool; an exposed and slippery ledge, perhaps a foot-and-a-half wide, runs around the cliff to the fissure, and someone has pinned a thin cable into the rock above it. I don’t really have to walk the ledge, of course. But I do.

This is the first dangerous part of the trail; if I fall, who will find me in this lonely spot? And then a woman in skin-tight jeans appears from the other direction, inching nervously back along the ledge from the pool. I press myself flat into a recess and she continues past, a lapdog peering back at me from the opening in her leather shoulder bag. Soon her partner follows, one hand on the wire and the other clutching a toddler to his chest.

I survive, and the weather clears. Skeletons won’t come out today. Wagtails work busily at the water’s edge and I catch the scaly flash of marble trout beneath a rickety footbridge. This is one of the prettiest stretches, the milky blue river shushing through stands of hornbeam, beech and dwarf ash. For two hours, I meet no one else, although there’s a worker’s cottage and a pasture, a derelict sawmill, and the remains of long-forgotten, 18th-century iron forges — each in its own way a marker of people scraping an existence in the landscape.

On my last day, I drive further south, and alongside me the landscape mellows in the warmer air of the Adriatic, sprouting cypresses and cherry orchards and mint-green olive groves. One thing never changes, though: the trail remains about the people, and their pasts and presents. Among the vineyards of Brda, on Stage 31, I meet Matjaz and Katja, who trained as artists in Venice but moved here to make their own wine. “We learnt mainly from our mistakes,” Matjaz says ruefully. “It’s an expensive school!”

Others tell me about the historical tug of war over this region, how under fascist Italy the residents were shot if they spoke Slovene, and how when the border was redrawn after the Second World War, it separated owners from their vineyards, and even bisected a cemetery. “For a while, people would creep out at night to move the white line,” says my guide Peter. Today, the border is invisible, tourists are coming to hike the trail and taste the wine, and the locals — Italian and Slovenian — are jointly applying for Brda to have UNESCO World Heritage Site status. 

But it’s a taxi driver’s family tree that speaks loudest of the challenges and benefits of the Alpe-Adria Trail. “I live in Italy but I’m Slovenian,” explains Luka as he takes me to the harbour at Muggia, the route’s final stop. “My grandfather went to German school, my father to Italian school. Me, I served in the Yugoslav army and speak Serbian, but my son is at Slovene school.” In this cultural churn lies a tale of empire and war and dictators, and it’s a tale only recently finished. With the tumult of the 20th century still fresh in many people’s memories, the trail is more than a hiking route — it’s an act of community healing. There will be misunderstandings along the way, disagreements over stage markers and funding. But for all that’s lost in translation, there’s a great deal more to be found.

Essentials

Getting there & around
The airports on the Alpe-Adria Trail are Salzburg (Austria), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Trieste (Italy), although Venice is also a popular arrival point (it has a cheap shuttle service to Slovenia). Various airlines fly from the UK, including Adria Airways, British Airways, EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizzair

Half of the Alpe-Adria Trail’s 43 stages are in Carinthia (Austria), with the rest divided between Slovenia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia (Italy). Each takes roughly seven hours to hike.

When to go
The season runs from April-October, although the lower sections can be walked year-round. It takes six weeks to hike the whole route; it’s best to start in late August or early September, as deep snow can remain on the high passes until early summer, while the lower areas can get very hot in July and August.

Where to stay
Eggerhof
Seehotel Hoffmann
Hotel Rododendro
Pri Plajerju
Hotel San Martin

More info
Alpe-Adria Trail. RRP: £14.99. (Bradt Travel Guides)

How to do it
Visits can be arranged via the Alpe-Adria Trail Booking Centre: a five-day trip, with accommodation, breakfast and dinner, luggage service and airport transfer costs from £370 per person, flights excluded.

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)