“Look out, Dad!”
We were listening intently to the audio version of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” and the rental car almost swerved off the road when Frederic Henry got hit by a trench mortar shell. I tried to reconcile the scenery outside the car window with what Hemingway describes in his classic novel, published 90 years ago. The “picturesque front,” his narrator called this area of present-day Slovenia where intense fighting occurred between the Italians and Austro-Hungarian forces during the First World War.
Never mind that my young kids were riled up in the back seat, complaining loudly about the lack of pop music on the radio, now in hysterics after their grandfather’s blunder. They were quieted when we rounded a bend and the Soca River (Isonzo in Italian) flashed into view. It is otherworldly, the color changing in the sunlight: sometimes emerald, sometimes turquoise, sometimes an intense electric blue. The river splashes through dramatic gorges, the white sand and limestone rocks at the bottom reflecting the water’s stunning hues.
I want to take a cue from Hemingway’s pared-down prose, but the Soca Valley is so beautiful it makes me want to gush adjectives.
From our rental house in the town of Bovec, Dad was driving us to shadow my husband, Pierre, who was cycling up Slovenia’s highest road pass (5,285 feet). It was the end of February and the Vrsic Pass, a formidable ascent with dozens of serpentine switchbacks, had just opened for the season. It was built by Russian prisoners of war in 1915-1916 as a supply route for the Austro-Hungarians battling at the Isonzo Front. The mountains rise in dramatic craggy formations, their cliffs coated in snow as we climbed higher. When they built this road out of the impregnable wilderness, many of the POWs died as a result of avalanches and sickness.
Pierre was goaded on by our car following closely behind him and doggedly pedaled the rental bike, a bulky mountain model instead of the carbon road bike he’s used to. When we caught up, the kids were thrilled, yelling, “Go, Papa, go!” We handed a water bottle and snacks through the car window, Tour de France style. And he powered through to the summit, surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Julian Alps and Triglav National Park. We leaped out of the car into the raging wind and attempted to walk through the snowdrifts, but we didn’t last long. The sunny Soca Valley beckoned down below.