On my way out of Bleiburg I passed this defaced election poster of Jörg Haider, the populist Carinthian politician who has caused some controversy over the years and who died in a car crash a couple of weeks ago after driving from a night club under the influnce. The grafitto says "alc(ohol) kills". The two young Austrians I spoke to in Bleiburg summed him up: to the rest of the world he looks like a nazi, but in Carinthia people understand him.
I left Bleiburg, Austria, on Saturday with a light hangover and the Alps to cross. I stopped at Eisenkapell, a spa town at the foot of the steepest section leading to the 1216m Seeberg pass into Slovenia, for some sustenance before the climb. As I munched a schnitzel sandwich I noticed a broken spoke on my rear wheel. I wasn't sure whether or how quickly the wheel would deform but with no bike shops anywhere near I decided to press on. To take my mind off the effort I began an imaginary conversation with myself about what I would find at the pass. My sceptical side said there wouldn't be anything, but my imaginary interlocutor laughed derisively and predicted at least two monuments or memorials of some kind. Yes, after six weeks on the road this is the mental state I've reached: one spoke short of a trued wheel in more ways than one. In any case I thought it was a pointless conversation because it would be dark by the time I arrived and whatever was there would not yield to my cameras. But to my surprise I made it to the top without really breaking a sweat and quicker than planned. I was helped by the road, superbly designed to keep a steady bike-friendly gradient. Civil engineering rules OK again. The quick ascent had a huge positive psychological effect and carried me on another 60km in the dark to an overnight stop in Radovljica. The first 20km was a glorious downhill following a cascading mountain stream whose white water i could make out in the moonlight. There turned out to be nothing at the pass but border markers and two small border control offices (redundant and abandoned, of course, like all the others I've passed through on this trip). On the way up, at a cluster of mainly abandoned houses called Vellach, on one of the bends in the road below, I met Ignaz Wutte, who described himself as the last Austrian. He lives alone in the most southerly inhabited house in the country, a few hundred yards from the pass. He was walking a fierce Dobermann that definitely wanted a piece of me, but was himself a placid and friendly character. Relations with Slovenians over the hill were good, he said.
On Sunday night I reached the small town of Bovec, a resort in the middle of the Julian Alps, Slovenia's highest mountains. I came there over the Predel pass (1156m) from Italy and then down and along a valley flanked by 2500-metre-plus peaks. It had been a beautiful sunny day but, as has been the way of things for the last couple of weeks (in fact, for most of this ride) I arrived at the pass in the dark. So I entered probably the most scenically dramatic section of the whole trip at night. But if you're going to have to do it by night, then let it be a clear moonlit night. And that's what I had. All I could see were the dark outlines of the peaks and this somehow made them more dramatic.
Bovec is in the centre of the Isonzo/Soca front, a major battle line between the Italians and Austria in the first world war,and the area is filled with memorials, cemeteries and reconstructed trenches and gun emplacements. I spent the morning looking at some of these before following the alpine blue Soca river down to Kobarid (Caporetto to the Italians; it's mentioned in Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which is about the Italian retreat), where there is a big WWI museum. I then followed the river on to Nova Gorica as the sun went down. It had been another fine day and as the bare limestone peaks turned pink and the mist rose in the valley, I told myself how lucky I was to have the means to do a trip like this.