Go with the flow in Slovenia

Take a paddling trip to discover a nature-shaped hidden gem.

By Matt Carroll
Published 14 Jan 2019, 09:35 GMT
Slovenia Water_UK

The impossible colour of the water is the first thing that strikes me about the River Soča. While my guide, Jakob, bustles away preparing our canoe, I stand on a small bridge transfixed by the ribbon of turquoise water threading its way between the narrow cliff walls below. Along with the vivid greenery of the surrounding hillsides, the scene feels as if someone has tinkered with Mother Nature’s colour settings.

Things get even more surreal as I let my eyes scale the contour of the craggy peaks that line the river. It’s as if all the Julian Alps—the band of limestone mountains that runs from northwestern Slovenia and spills over into Italy—have conspired to keep this real-life fantasyland a secret from travellers.

Into the blue
Over thousands of years, the River Soča has carved out The Great Soča gorge – creating a spectacular, rocky corridor.
Photograph by Julian Hanton

The tactic appears to be working. While Slovenia may be in the heart of Europe—just a stone’s throw from mainstream tourist hotspots like Austria and Italy—it is still a mystery for many people. And yet, the country offers everything you could want—pristine lakes, towering peaks, world-class cuisine, and hidden valleys—all within a two-hour commute from the capital, Ljubljana.

Slovenia’s landscape is shaped by earth, wind, fire, and water, all of which made their mark over the millennia. Today, however, I’m content to go with the flow for an afternoon of lazy paddling.

The River Soča is known for the world-class stretches of whitewater that pepper its 85-mile length, but plenty of sections cater to those of us who prefer a more leisurely journey—exactly what I have in mind as Jakob and I make our way downstream.

Biding her time
An amateur photographer stands ready to capture the perfect shot on the Soča River.
Photograph by Julian Hanton

Our entry point is just below the Velika korita, or 'Great Gorge', a narrow corridor of rock where it’s barely wide enough to swing a paddle in places. On sun-soaked days (of which there are many), you’ll see bronzed bodies clustered together on the crags. Occasionally, someone leaps from the rocks into the water below, cheered by curious onlookers.

Heading west, the river is surprisingly shallow. Speckled brown freshwater trout swirl on the sandy bottom, hoping to snare a passing fly. Fishermen position themselves strategically along the shore, trying to land something for supper and, in many cases, for their Instagram accounts.

National Geographic photographer, Ciril Jazbec, completes a rafting run down the Soča River.
Photograph by Julian Hanton

Jakob and I don’t hang around, however, for a catch. The plan is to paddle our way along the Trenta Valley, ending up at nearby Boka—a manageable eight miles or so as the crow flies.

As we travel through the dappled light of overhanging trees, we soon leave all signs of civilisation behind. On either side of us, forested hillsides give way to saw-tooth peaks.

Rafters float gently down the Soča River on one of its calmer sections.
Photograph by Julian Hanton

The untamed landscape feels more like Montana than central Europe. At times, the only sound puncturing our splendid isolation is the splash of paddle on the water or the call of a startled bird on the shore.

With the sun starting to slip away behind us, bathing the world in its warm afterglow, a bridge ahead signals our arrival at Boka. We drift right and drag the boat onto the shore, then head up a nearby track that leads to the eponymous hotel. Much-needed beer and burgers await.

Following the footsteps

With the Slovenian capital city, Ljubljana, so close, why not start the day with brunch at one of the cafés or restaurants that line the riverbank? From here you can take a spectacular drive to the River Soča, via the Vršič Pass. In just a couple of hours you can go from sipping lattes to splendid isolation.

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