High mountains. Endless forests. Chalk white beaches. Pitch dark grottos.
Dixi Strucl’s ecological dream in the heart of Slovenia lets you bike through it all.
BEST EAST SIDE
Text: Geir Anders Rybakken Ørslien
Photos: Kari Medig
The sound is dampened by a few million liters of water–and it’s hypnotic. Hundreds of thousands of small, smooth pebbles click and clunk rhythmically back and forth on the bottom of this crystal clear salt-water sea. I float naked in the Adriatic in the evening darkness off the coast of Croatia after four intense days of trail riding in Slovenia and Croatia.
And it is here, at Cape Kamenjak, with the moon straight over me that I slowly, and much too late, begin to understand what these four days have been all about.
IT STARTED ACCORDING TO PLAN.
It started aboard flight LH2444 from Frankfurt to Ljubljana with an invitation from the Sacred Rides guiding company and my impatient face pressed hard against the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of what awaited me down there.
From seat 19A, this, to put it mildly, looks promising.
The brutal peaks of the Julian Alps seem to burst through the thin cloud cover at me. I see dramatic mountainsides, green meadows at an elevation of nearly two thousand meters, mighty valleys and wild rivers. I see the small mountain and woodland nation of Slovenia, here on Europe’s best East Side in all its splendor from an altitude of 10,000 feet. I conclude–instantly, of course–that this will be a spectacular success.
WHAT IS SUCCESS?
For a hardened trail rider seeking adventure, the answer is part of a narrow-minded dream. The answer is always waiting just up ahead, at the end of a relentless search for The Perfect Trail. Naturally, this borders on pure, monomaniacal fundamentalism. There is absolutely only one path to paradise: a single track that wipes out everything else, a strip of hard-packed dirt and stone that curves gracefully along steep mountainsides, through mighty forests, and over open fields in a hypnotic combination of elegant curves, technical challenges and maximum flow. It’s an experience that never ends, that rolls farther and farther on knobby tires, away from the world as you know it and into another one, away from the apathetic waiting in line at the supermarket, the ritual typing of customer identification numbers for online banking, the daily drudgery of sorting laundry.
I tear myself away from the view and sink back down in my airline seat.
I’ve seen enough.
This has the scent of paradise.
THE NEXT DAY
I find myself on the outskirts of the village of Crna na Koroskem with my friends Kari and Emily on a small trail of hard-packed dirt and stone that goes on and on, kilometer after kilometer.
One thing is a bit unsettling.
We are 200 meters under the surface of the Earth.
The headlamps create strips of light out front, while pitch darkness instantly closes in behind us. It is 10 degrees Celsius, with high humidity. We are pedalling through a 350-year-old lead and zinc mine, one of the largest of its kind in Europe, a mindboggling network of more than 900 kilometers of tunnels, shafts, and underground chambers the likes of which I have never seen.
What we are doing has nothing to do with trail riding, as I know it. But this is happening on a bike and it is truly mind blowing.
THE PERFECT TRAIL?
Wrong question. After six kilometers and several short stops for lectures on the cruel history of the mine, we reach the exit. Drizzle sprinkles the pine forest around us. After two hours in a cool, odorless limestone chamber, the warm smell of wet grass and pine needles is explosive.
A 52-year-old man with small glasses and clean-shaven head apart from a tiny and lonely ponytail down his neck is waiting outside with a satisfied grin.
His name is Dixi Strucl, our guide. Dixi studied sociology and geology at the University of Sarajevo, and has been an enthusiastic mountain biker since 1987. He is also a passionate owner of Slovenia’s only ecological farm hotel for cyclists, where we started the trip with warm beds and delicious meals. Dixi makes his living by guiding mountain bikers around his homeland. He has just applied for EU funding to help build 40 kilometers of mountain bike trails on the mountainsides around his farm, where he is now living his dream of ecologically sustainable mountain bike tourism. He wants cyclists to experience the best of the country’s nature and culture–in agreement with agriculture and landowners–on trails anyone can enjoy.
What we just experienced is part of Dixi’s dream.
WHEN THE NEXT DAY END and I’m lying sleepless in a hotel bed in the medieval town of Motovun, the dream of the perfect trail still haunts me, as it has for 20 years of trail riding. The trails around the farm and village were nice, but not very long. The scenery was fabulous, but what about the riding experience? It’s ok, but where is the perfect trail? Is this the wrong place? Or has the time come to lift my gaze?
The next day starts at Bukovnik, Slovenia’s highest farm at an elevation of 1,300 meters, takes us through beautiful landscapes, idyllic villages, homemade lunch, and ends on top of Plesa (1,262 meters above sea level) in the Nanos range, with a panoramic view of the Slovenia coastline, the Adriatic Sea and Italy’s Trieste on the horizon. Thats where we stand at evening time, watching the half-moon rise over the day’s last rays of sunlight.
THE SHEER FACE OF THIS MOUNTAIN creates notorious gusts of wind on the highway that traversed the flatlands below us. With gusts of up to 150 kph, winds have knocked over trucks as if they were cardboard cutouts. We stick to the trail high up on the edge of the cliff, where it lead down toward the Vipava valley on the day’s longest downhill run.
But is it perfect? Not yet. Loose stones hamper the flow, the trail demands diligent braking, and it all makes me feel like a superficial, narrow-minded fortune hunter. Come on, man, look around! Look at the fantastic view! The beautiful sunset! Look at the idyllic chapel, high up in the mountains! Look at the meadows with flowers on the mountainside! This is beautiful! This is an experience!
Just the same, I close my eyes in the hotel that night and envision the same landscape with another trail; one with fewer stones, a little narrower, with more gentle curves and more ‘cheap’ speed. And a thought strike me: whatever is most seriously wrong here might be within me.
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH Dixi Strucl. The man is a mountain biking pioneer in Slovenia. He has founded a successful mountain biking club. He has arranged countless downhill races for young and fearless men. He has painstakingly explored trail after trail in the mountains that surround his life, and is happy when he can spend the highest possible number of workdays on the seat of a bicycle.
Next morning, he drives us to Hum, Slovenia’s smallest town, for lunch, and lead us onto trails that passes enormous sandstone formations, goes through calm rivers and blossoming fields of sunflowers, along broad cart tracks that seem to tunnel through the dense leaves of the forest.
He takes us over the border to Croatia, and, the next day, shows us trails around the town of Premantura and Cape Kamenjak. Local mountain bikers have built some cool sections of single track along the white pebble beaches, so we ride past a delightful mix of camping tourists, happy naturists, and entire dinner parties enjoying the sun on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
IT IS AT THE END of this day– when we watch the evening darkness engulf the white rocks innermost in a cove–that I finally begin to see what this is all about.
It is here, in a flash, that I am able to see beyond my own blinkered view of measuring success for trail riding. I put aside my bike, peel off my sweaty clothes, and slip into the cool water, it’s almost an act of ritual cleansing. Trail riding is more than just the trail, more than just the riding itself. If that’s all that matters, then head for the Alps and join one of thousands rushing down for the perfect run and the legendary adrenalin laugh. Dixi Strucl doesn’t want to compete with the big Alpine destinations and their streamlined bicycle tourism machines.
He offers more. He lives in a small country where trail riding is still a niche activity. He has just ten guestrooms on his farm. He still wants to shake hands with every guest. He offers riding interwoven with history, culture, food, conversation and surprises. Like now, with a spontaneous cool dip in the pale moonlight.
I rest my head on the surface of the water, and hear the waves thump lazily against the small white beach out there in the darkness. I catch the faintest glimpse of my bicycle’s silhouette. I see Dixi wading out.
Then I duck my head under water, and hear the rhythmic ‘soundtrack’ of the pebbles, the heartbeat of the Adriatic Sea, as yet one more reminder that a mountain bike vacation on Europe’s best East Side is so much more than just the riding alone.
All you need is a dream that fits.
Welcome to Slovenia and Croatia
WHERE: Slovenia and Croatia are small countries, innermost on the Adriatic Sea, with populations of 2,1 million and 4,5 million respectively. Both countries broke out of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and now have booming economies with sharp increases in tourism. In Slovenia, cycling is also gaining ground, mainly with road bikes.
WHAT: Our tour was just a small taste of what Canadian guide company Scared Rides can offer in the two countries. Sacred Rides founder Mike Bric has offices in Fernie, Canada but has family roots in Croatia and has personally researched trails in Istria, in the northern part of the country. Sacred Rides, in cooperation with Dixi Strucl/Mountain Bike Nomad, offers a nine-day mountain biking package tour in Slovenian and Croatia. Read more on www.sacredrides.com
TRAVEL: We flew Lufthansa from Oslo via Frankfurt. Sacred Rides offers a full package with accommodation and meals so you can focus on the experience. Each tour starts at Dixi Strucl’s ecological farm hotel at an elevation of 730 meters, where you can rent mountain bikes (hardtails only). All guides are certified mountain bike guides.
Geir Anders Rybakken Ørslien