The turquoise waters of the Soca river lure adventure-lovers from around the globe - to walk beside it or canoe down it. Harriet O'Brien takes a less-beaten track over the mountains to Slovenia

The mountains were resounding with the call of cuckoos as we walked into Slovenia. It was a persistent soundtrack to something of a non-event: we weren't entirely sure where our path from Italy actually ended and this former state of Yugoslavia began. But we had a hunch that a signpost artfully fashioned from the remains of a tree marked the man-made division. Our passports lay buried in our daypacks as we walked on, carpets of butter-yellow ranunculus giving way to pale blue bellflowers. For all the network of well-trodden footpaths it seemed we were the only two people for miles around and that this sublime landscape was ours alone.

We were sampling that happy innovation of the modern world: an independent, organised walking holiday on which comfortable accommodation is arranged for you, and your luggage is whisked from A to B. All that you are required to do is to read your instructions and make your way on foot, expending sufficient energy to justify the sustenance and wine proffered at the end of the day.

At least that's the theory. In practice, the going can get muscle-achingly tough and the directions brain-teasingly complex. Still, we felt pretty smug about our choice: a hike through the Julian Alps from a little-visited corner of Italy into Slovenia and onwards along the Soca river valley. What's more, we even had a few hours in Venice. En route from the airport to the railway station we stopped for lunch, feasting on seafood risotto while watching barges, vaporettos and water taxis negotiate the Grand Canal in front of the terrace of our trattoria.

The first stop on our itinerary was Cividale del Friuli. Suffused with the perfume of jasmine and honeysuckle, this ancient town lies just below the Julian Alps on the banks of the Natisone River in Italy's overlooked eastern Udine province. Here the serious purpose of our holiday began. With walking boots laced up, map and route notes in hand and compass (a talisman I had little idea how to use) to the ready, we set off - by car.

Our hotel provided transport to zig-zag about half an hour up the mountains and drop us near the top of Monte Matajur. Feeling like cheats we ambled off, but any sense that this was just a little too easy rapidly evaporated during the sharp ascent to a chapel dramatically perched at the summit. From there we gazed at the blue silhouettes of mountains in one direction and caught a distant glimpse of the Adriatic Sea in another. Thereafter it was downhill pretty much all the way to Slovenia's Soca Valley. But, again, this was no simple stroll: four or five hours' through rough terrain required stamina as well as good hiking boots - this was not a trail for insubstantial footwear.

A rain cloud accompanied us into the pretty Slovenian village of Kobarid, where we dripped into the lobby of an extraordinarily stylish hotel. The sleek minimalism of the Hotel Hvala made me wonder whether I'd taken several wildly wrong turnings and had wound up in Sweden by mistake.

In fact, we were subsequently informed by other guests that this is one of the best hotels in Slovenia - and that its name alone is memorable: "hvala" means "thank you" as well as being the surname of the owners, leaving one wondering about the predilection for politeness of the Thank You family. Along with its chic rooms, the hotel has a highly regarded restaurant (the lobster and sea bass are particularly good) and it doubles as the centre for trout fishing in the region. Somewhat eccentrically, it also offers the services of a dental clinic, although given the growing popularity of neighbouring Croatia for dental care "holidays", perhaps this is less surprising than it seems. Hotel Hvala exemplifies the enterprise and prosperity characterising modern-day Slovenia. About the size of Wales, and with a population of just over 1.9 million, this successful little nation declared its independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991. Other than a 10-day war with the Yugoslav army it did not experience violence in its push for independence, which was concluded before the bloodbaths that occurred in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Slovenia was admitted to the United Nations in May 1992 and in May last year was one of the fresh intake of European Union members.

Alpine Slovenia seemed very like Switzerland, only more exotic with its impenetrable, consonant-strewn language. Each village we passed through was trim, spotlessly clean and exuded a sense of pride: every available windowsill was coated with geraniums; vegetable patches were painstakingly nurtured; rows of onions forming perfectly straight lines. In one hamlet we even saw a topiary garden, its carefully clipped hedge display culminating in two exotic birds.

But there was also evidence of grimmer times. The Soca Valley was witness to some of the fiercest fighting of the First World War, with Austrian and German troops against Italians. During the Battle of Caporetto (the Italian name for Kobarid) more than 60,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The subsequent Italian retreat was documented by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. The war memorial at Kobarid is still known in unfortunate and literal translation as "the Italian charnel house", but in many ways it expresses the butchery that took place here. The award-winning Kobarid museum presents poignant displays of war photographs and memorabilia.

We explored the museum and the surrounding area on a so-called "rest day", included on the trip so that walkers can familiarise themselves with a place rather than feeling compelled to march endlessly onwards. We opted to follow Kobarid's waymarked historical trail, a five-hour walk that took in Roman archaeological sites (sadly, most excavations are currently under tarpaulin, but the views are terrific), paths through First World War trenches, and waterfalls. But best of all we simply walked beside the amazing Soca river, a rush of crystal-clear water that is truly the colour of turquoise.

The following day we saw more of the extraordinary river as we walked on to Bovec, the self-proclaimed adventure sports capital of Slovenia. Our route took us into sun-dappled woodland and through alpine meadows filled with clouds of butterflies. We passed old-fashioned hay ricks, saw auburn deer cantering into forest and watched kayakers swishing down the vivid river. Contrary to expectations of an edgy, rather crowded town, Bovec turned out to be a pretty, laid-back resort as yet relatively undiscovered. It offers skiing in winter and during the summer turns its attentions downhill to the Soca river. It was a mark of its old-time charm that the ice-cream parlour opposite our hotel was the most bustling joint in town.

From Bovec we returned to Venice by train, a taxi initially taking us across to Tarvisio Boscoverde station in Italy. As we approached the frontier an obliging border guard waved us through, passports unchecked. The cheerful informality had its appeal, but at the back of my mind was another borderland, one filled with wild flowers and cuckoo song.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE Getting There

Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Stansted and Adria Airways (020-7734 4630; www.adria-airways.com) from Gatwick and Manchester. Venice is served by many airlines including easyJet, Jet2 (0870 737 8282; www.jet2.com), Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk).

Inntravel (01653 617935; www.inntravel.co.uk) arranges independent walking holidays in the area in September and October. The six-night 'Hidden Italy and Slovenia' trip starts in Cividale del Friuli and ends in Bovec. The holiday costs from £718 including flights to Venice, rail transfers, accommodation, most meals, route instructions and maps.

Staying There

Locanda Al Castello, Via del Castello, Cividale del Friuli, Italy (00 39 04 32 733 242; www.alcastello.net). B&B from €110 (£73).

Hotel Hvala, Trg svodoge 1, Kobarid, Slovenia (00 386 538 99 300; www.topli-val-sp.si). B&B from €68 (£49).

Hotel Alp, Trg Golobarskih zrtev 48, Bovec (00 386 5 388 4000; www.alp-chandler.si). Doubles from €54 (£39), including breakfast.

Visiting There

Leaflets on the historical walk are available from the Kobarid Tourist Office, Gregorieva 10, (00 386 5 380 0490; www.kobarid.si).

Kobarid Museum opens Monday-Friday 9am-6pm, weekends 10am-5pm; SIT800 (£2.20).

Further InformatioN

Bovec Tourist Office, Trg gologarskih zrtev 8 (00 385 5 384 1919; www.bovec.si).

Comments