For rugged scenery and a remarkable number of tunnels and bridges, few routes in Europe can compare with the magnificent 89km (56 mile) Bohinj Railway in western Slovenia, which stretches from the town of Jesenice, near the Austrian border and 64kms (40 miles) north-west of Ljubljana, to Nova Gorica on the border with Italy.
The Bohinj Railway forms part of what is known as the Transalpina route, a link between Central Europe and the Adriatic Sea at Trieste that was authorised by the Parliament in Vienna in 1901 and was built between 1902 and 1906. Its most impressive feature is the 6327m (4.2 mile) long Bohinj tunnel, opened by the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, in 1906.
At the time of its opening, the tunnel was slightly longer at 6339m, but German action at the end of the Second World War destroyed an impressive northern portal – the southern one survives to this day – leaving the tunnel 12m shorter than at the time of its opening.
There can be no better way of appreciating this remarkable line than from one of the regular steam-hauled trains, which run down to Nova Gorica on Saturdays during the summer season, taking passengers in a collection of vintage 4-wheel coaches, with open balconies and a buffet car for those needing refreshment during the three hour trip.
To operate the service, Slovenian Railways maintains a handful of steam locomotives at its works and museum in Ljubljana (also well worth a visit). On 19 May 2019 the service was in the hands of one of the oldest and most authentic survivors, 2-8-0 no. 25-026, built almost a century ago by renowned Austrian engineering company Florisdorf in 1920.
Setting out shortly after 09.00 from Jesenice, the seven-coach train quickly leaves the sprawling town behind, crossing over the Sava Dolinka river and on towards its first pick up point in the charming town of Bled, a famous tourist resort, whose principal feature is Bled Castle, standing on a cliff high above the town.
Numerous coach parties join the train here and at its second and final pick up point, Bohinjska Bistrica. Immediately south of here the train enters the Bohinj Tunnel, which is one of 28 tunnels along the route and the longest in Slovenia.
Such is its geographic importance in linking the alpine world to the north with the Mediterranean region to the south that regular car-trains run through the tunnel from Bohinjska Bistrica to the next major place on the line, Most na Soci.
These trains (pictured below) carry up to 20 cars and their passengers at a time on open flat wagons, which are shunted into a siding at each station and the raised sides lowered for the cars to drive on and off.
Continuing south from Most na Soci, the route follows the valley of the Soca River, with the whole Soca Valley being a monument to the victims of World War One and described in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”.
Shortly before its midday arrival in Nova Gorica the train steams across another of the Bohinj Railway’s remarkable features. This is the Solkan Bridge, spanning the valley of the River Soča (pictured below), whose stone arch, at 85m in length, is the largest stone-arched bridge in the world. Like the Bohnij tunnel, it also suffered war-time damage, in this case during the First World War, but was thankfully restored to its former glory.
Journey’s end at Nova Gorica brings you to a place better known for its recent history as a place that peacefully spans two countries. The border with Italy passes immediately in front of the magnificent railway station and is marked by a plaque on the ground along with a mural created by local students to mark Slovenia’s accession to the EU in 2004.
For anyone who likes to mix their train travel with a relaxing drink, there is a splendid bar on the station which means that you can enjoy a beer – I can recommend the Lasko dark – while sitting on the platform and watching the steady flow of freight trains, as Slovenian locomotives are swopped with Italian ones for their journey on into Italy.
A return ticket on the steam special costs €41.00 – or €75.00 including a coach tour and lunch. The trips run on Saturdays up to 3 November (although not every weekend) and advanced booking is essential as most journeys become fully booked. Details (in English and German) at http://www.abc-tourism.si