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Russian road through the Alps

How small is Slovenia? The internet puts its relative size as slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey, but that’s not all that descriptive. Far more illustrative is the fact that little more than half an hour after catching the freeway from Lake Bled, we inadvertently drove across a barely-marked border and, much to our chagrin, found ourselves in Italy.

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We were on our way to Bovec, Slovenia’s self-styled adventure-sports capital, which lies in the Soča River Valley on the other side of the Julian Alps from Lake Bled. We had glanced at the map before starting the drive and anticipated spending quite some time on the main road before veering into the mountains, so we were a bit surprised to pass through a disused border post that popped up unannounced in the middle of the countryside and find ourselves on a road whose name left no doubts that we were no longer in Slovenia.

Soca river

The road that gently wound itself down into Italy was not necessarily the wrong one. In fact, our GPS kept stubbornly trying to reroute us onto it even after we had turned around and reentered Slovenia because it was the easier, if somewhat longer route. We could have driven around the steepest of the Alpine peaks on the Italian side of the border and then turned east again to reach Bovec. However, doing so would have meant missing the Vršič Pass and the so-called “Russian Road,” which cuts straight through the Alps, earning it a spot on Lonely Planet’s list of must-do Slovenia experiences.

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Starting at Kranjska Gora at an altitude of 800 meters, the Russian Road ascends quickly up to the 1611-meter Vršič Pass through a series of switchbacks and abrupt turns before plummeting almost 1200 meters down to the Soča River Valley on the other side of the Alps. Not all of the inclines were marked, but the few that were had signs indicating a 14-degree slope. The road is mostly paved, though it retains cobblestones on its more than fifty numbered hairpin turns, evoking visions of what it must have looked like when it was first forged a century ago by Russian prisoners of war. How many of them died during the road’s construction is a mystery; a small roadside chapel commemorates the more than 400 POWs who perished in a single avalanche.

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Even in the fog that enshrouded the Alpine peaks, the Russian Road was a spectacular drive. A storm had pounded the Alps during the night, and it was still raining when we left Lake Bled. The weather was not much better when we arrived in Bovec in the late afternoon, so the day would have been a complete wash had we not enjoyed the magnificent misty views from the Vršič Pass.

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