The Magic of the River Soca
Dr. Franjo Zdravic
A peaceful mountain river nurtures a man and his family
It was late autumn 1947 when I struggled with my old mike up a steep dirt road in northwestern Slovenia through the Vrsic mountain pass and down into the valley of the Soca River. At that time, shortly after World War II, a bicycle was the only available means of transportation; few people had automobiles and trains or buses were infrequent. The brakes of the bike were not too reliable, so I had cut a small pine tree and tied it to the frame in such a way that its branches increased the braking power and made the descent safer.
My first glimpse of the Soca came unexpectedly, after I had crossed a small bridge. The river was not as spectacular as I had expected from the stories I had heard. But only a little farther down the road I came to a second bridge and stopped, for now a long stretch of the river was before me. It was very clear, of a particular blue-green color. Its sound had an unusual quality, a weaving of many water melodies and the sound of rocks tumbling in the riverbed. It was fast but there was nothing aggressive about it; its movement was quick and vivid, like a ballerina’s. As I stood looking and listening, I was pervaded with a sense of peace and gratitude that Mother Nature had created such beauty.
At this time I was a young doctor on assignment in Bosnia, looking after a great number of young people who were involved in the construction of a railway from Samac to Sarajevo. I took care of everything from vaccinations to minor and major injuries to diseases that ranged from common colds to typhoid fever. Doctors were scarce, and each of us had many patients, so we worked long hours and had to be available day and night. As the months wore on I had become progressively more tired. I had begun to dream of water, of a clear, cool river somewhere in the mountains. It was the desire to rest beside such a river that drove me to go on an autumn bicycle journey. I had but five days to spend.
From the bridge I continued slowly down the riverside road for about two kilometers, then stopped at a mountain inn called Zlatorog, at the entrance to a village called Trenta. It was a simple but very friendly place, where you immediately knew that you were welcome. There were few tourists, mostly local people, and some hunters. These hunters, all excellent mountain climbers, also take care of the game, mostly chamois, high up in the Julian Alps. They are, in effect, national park rangers in the service of the local government. In the years to come, I would become good friends with most of them.
The sound of water pervaded everything in the valley–the river, its tributaries, the waterfalls on the opposite bank of the river worked like a sleeping pill and a tranquilizer combined. I slept well that night. The next morning I continued my journey down the valley, passing the village of Soca, the small towns of Bovec, Kobarid, and many other pleasant villages as far as Gorcia, about 80 kilometers from Bovec. Here the Soca crosses the border into Italy for the last stretch of her journey; at this point she is just a slow running large river, tired after her long journey, flowing into the Adriatic Sea.
Of course, you cannot understand a river on your first visit, as you cannot understand a human being after only one meeting. To truly know her you must visit her often. I returned to the Soca Valley whenever I could, and was soon joined by my family, friends, and colleagues with their families. In time we acquired an old abandoned farmhouse on the riverbank and spent many hours repairing and renovating it in our spare time. It became our true home, even if we lived most of the time in Ljubljana. Visitors came both from home and from abroad over the years. We even had small medical meetings there, and scientific workshops with prominent scientists from many countries. These meetings were combined with leisure and long walks in the surrounding countryside. The sense of peace and contentment that pervaded the Soca Valley immensely improved our lives and was, in addition, a continual source of energy for coping with hard work and the problems of existence in the post-war period in Slovenia.
Water is deep in our genetic memory, and it has a healing power. We are all instinctively attracted to it, so that when we go on holiday we want a room that looks out on the sea, a lake, or a river. On the Soca, our children, especially, were always eager to go down to the riverbank. They found stones of many shapes and colors there, and piles of firewood brought down by the frequent floods. Sometimes they would go for a quick swim in the ice-cold river (at most 8 degrees centigrade), then run back to warm themselves by the fire we kept going most of the time in a big outdoor fireplace.
I came to think of our exceptional river as a reflection of the many phases of human life. She starts in the depths of snow-covered high mountains and seems to be projected by some hidden force down the steep riverbed through narrow passages, deep canyons, over precipices. When squeezed too much, she reacts by loud sounds of distress, like a human being. When her path becomes easier, her sound changes to a pleasant murmur, which diminishes as she moves through the flatland in the last stretch of her journey. Then merging with the Adriatic Sea, and through it, with all the oceans of the world, the Soca River gets her deserved rest.
We learned to know the Soca in all her changes through the seasons, but not until my son grew up and became a filmmaker and sound artist did our river’s underwater life become visible to us, through his work. He recorded the river’s journey, using special underwater equipment, creating a film-poem of great beauty. This is particular comfort for me, for this river may not be the same in the future, unless humanity ceases its course of self-destruction.
The Soca should remain in a river for thinking and dreaming and enjoying the company of friends, and also for promoting constructive work and good decisions. Her banks are the right place to make a bonfire for special celebrations and pay respect to the gods. Or to light a candle and weep for those beloved persons who are no more.
I had a dream the other night. When my journey here comes to the end it would be nice to find on the other side, as I did in my dream, a river like the Soca. And maybe even a nice little white dog like the one who was my companion for many years in our wanderings along the Soca.
Dr. Franjo Zdravid was a surgeon and a professor of reconstructive surgery and burns. He was head of the Department of Plastic Surgery and Burns at the Medical Center in Ljubljana,. Slovenia , for many years. During his career, he shared his medical expertise with many developing countries, including Algeria, Laos, and Kuwait. He died in December, 1999.