I sit ever a good idea to take a road trip and camp in summer with the constant threat of rain ruining your plans? Given that you’ll never be able to control every aspect of your travel itinerary or your life, my husband and I have decided to do it anyway, storm predictions be damned. It is the summer of 2019 and we have chosen to travel east. East of Switzerland, that is, just across the Alps—on the other side with northern Italy wedged in between—to Slovenia.
After flying in to a buzzing Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, we rent an SUV, and spend a whole afternoon between setting up the GPS and picking up camping supplies for the next four days. By the time we get to our first stop in Bled, the sky has changed colour from a cloudless, sunny blue to an overcast, moody grey, threatening to send torrents our way any moment. Sheets of rain pour for the next 40 minutes, blurring our view, suspending a sheer curtain between the car windows, the dense forested mountains and glacial lakes that sit like emeralds on our route.
In Slovenia, we experience good roads and little traffic—perfect conditions for travellers who are only on their second road trip after a camping and driving journey through Iceland earlier. Although the differences between the Nordic Island nation and the Balkan Alpine state are vast and incomparable, we are completely charmed. It is said that Slovenia is so small and neatly put together that one could drive most of its motorable distance in under six hours. Predictably, we have reached Bled, its touristy crown jewel, in under 50 minutes from Ljubljana and after a brief misunderstanding (we almost parked in someone else’s garage at the suggestion of the B&B owners’ 10-year-old), we are greeted by the proprietors, a Chinese couple. While the man introduces us to Bled and its surroundings in halting English, I watch his wife clear up the dining room. The woman wears a fixed smile as she goes about her tasks, avoiding eye contact, and I wonder how out of place she must feel in a country so different from her own, with a hotel to run and a family to raise. With nightfall still a couple of hours away and the rain gone, we step out to explore the cool, forested village of Ribno.
We find narrow village streets lined with quaint alpine huts, their balconies brimming with summer blossoms, the air moist and chilly from the rain, mist rising over Sava Bohinjka, which begins at the outflow of Lake Bohinj. Here, we pass by a couple dressed in fishing vests and thigh-length bootfoot waders, standing still, holding their lines straight in the fast-flowing teal tributary, the gush of waters so loud that it drowns out the birdsong. We reach Bled, hire a pletna (a local wooden rowboat, inspired by the Venetian gondola) and climb the steep path (99 steps to be precise) up the island and get a good look at our surroundings. The medieval Bled Castle stands across the lake, half-hidden from view, atop a cliff in the distance. The 17th century Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary looms behind us, alive with visitors and the ringing of its famous bell, which is said to grant long-held wishes. The turquoise lake below teems with fish and I regret not having fishing gear to stretch the evening in an endless loop.
In the morning we drive west to Bohinj in Triglav National Park, in the lush Julian Alps. The road ahead of us, straight and smooth, fades into the distance between rapeseed farms and mountains of dense woods beyond. Occasionally we pass a tour bus dropping off passengers or a pair of sturdy hikers wearing enormous backpacks walking the road between the villages and where wilderness awaits them.
We arrive at Camp Zlatorog Bohinj, which sits in one sheltered, wooded shore of Lake Bohinj (Bohinjsko jezero in Slovene) the country’s largest permanent lake. The receptionist with bright eyes and wild curls asks, “Hey, are you from India?” We say yes. “I’ve been to India—to Bombay and Madras!” she says, her eyes growing bigger. I’m a little surprised to hear the colonial names of the cities that have long transformed into spaces unrecognisable, but return her excitement with enthusiasm. “When were you there?” I ask. “A few years ago. I travelled by train… I loved it!” she finishes with a grin before introducing us to the camp rules and walking us to the zone where we pitch our tent.
Luckily, it’s still early in the day and there are a few good spots left. We set up facing the lake with a wide panorama of the mountains on the other side, sheltered from the sun with tall spruces growing all around. Tented up, and feeling adventurous, we rent a canoe, pack it with supplies for lunch—camping stove, eggs, rice, vegetables, cutlery and cookware—and row it slowly across the glacial lake.
It’s our first time on the canoe, and though S is a decent swimmer, I can’t say the same for myself. Although we’re wearing life jackets, I feel fear sitting knotted at the base of my stomach: what if the unthinkable befalls us and the boat capsizes! After the initial 30 minutes of uncoordinated paddling, we settle down— S in the bow, me at the stern— and drift along the shining green heart of the lake, taking in the secluded pockets with mist rising silently where the sun wouldn’t reach. The Triglav range is all around us, and there is a deep quiet that hovers despite the activity on the lake. Even at midday the mountain breeze takes the edge off the sun’s heat. We pass families, groups of friends, a few soloists on stand-up paddle, and watch out for the occasional arrival of boats laden with visitors, their wake strong enough to unsettle our little yellow canoe and churn us into the depths of the freezing waters, if we don’t manage to hold steady.
Following a brief scout, we find the perfect spot to stop for our picnic. After securing the canoe on a patch of pebbled beach, perfectly out of the sun, we get our lunch fire started. An hour later, we’re feasting on the most basic but delicious egg-fried rice, our feet in the water and smiles on our faces. We throw bits of fried eggs to the mallards that come our way, as clouds gather overhead.
That evening, the grounds come alive with tents and travellers with screeching, excited children lobbing grenades into their parents’ delusional plans of a calming camping vacation. We take a stroll as the day dims over the glowing lake. Campers take out cooking gear, chopping boards, and barbecues. A Scandinavian couple chat away, seated at a shiny metal table, topped with glasses of Chardonnay, their crockery and cutlery impeccable, roasting bell peppers for their elaborate meal. Meanwhile, I’m glad that we are eating pizza at the camp pizzeria.
Night falls and with it rolls in the rain. Having finished dinner, we sit in the car, sipping whiskey, watching the thunderstorms crash on the lake, the dark mountains illuminated at intervals by white flashes of lightning. It feels thoroughly wild to be out camping amidst summer rain, but as the hour of sleep nears, I think not about our waterproof tent, but the grounds, soaked and muddy, imagining worms and insects that could invade our mattress. Camping is not for wimps, I tell myself (my companion never needs such assurances) and crawl into the dry tent, falling asleep to the sound of rushing water.
The weather improves only slightly the following day. We endure queues and messy grounds to freshen up and shower. There’s a stubborn drizzle, but we hike the trails along the lake anyway. Later, the downpour returns, forcing us to sleep in the car. On day three, the rains finally peter out. But like good city-dwellers, we tire of sleeping on wet, hard earth, and cooking meals under leaky skies, no matter the novelty. We fold up our dripping tent and check-in at the only available apartment in town.
The B&B is clean, dry and has a real bed, a kitchen counter and a hot shower. I almost weep with gratitude at its sight. The balcony offers a view of the small valley below. The sky is cloudless, exploding with stars.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2021.
Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.