I will preface this article by saying that this is not the Kayaking Gods guide to the Bovec Soča area in Slovenia. But I hope that it will give some useful information to those who have been thinking of visiting, or are visiting later this year. I feel that while Slovenia can be popular with kayakers, not nearly enough UK clubs give it due consideration when compared to the French Alps. We went with New Wave Kayaking, run by Ross Montandon, who provided an all inclusive trip, with accommodation, food, and boats.
I should also add that there is more to kayaking in Slovenia than the Soča. An hour or so east from Bovec is the Sava, near lake Bled, which I’m told offers up to G3 rapids, and is also a lovely area to visit. Slovenia, with good snow melt and rain, also offers many steeper runs. There is also the Krka River and the Savinja River. Although I have not paddled these.
That said, the main attraction for visiting Slovenia for white water kayaking is, no doubt, the Soča. Known as the Emerald River, it is easy to see why. The photos you see of the river have not been enhanced. It really does look like that. So clear that even in the deepest sections you can see right to the bottom, unless it has been raining hard, in which case it does cloud over. But it always maintains its beauty.
The area is steeped in history, including heavy involvement during the The Great War. Remnants of which are still very visible in places.
When to visit
I have been in both the latter part of April and also late May. The Soča, like most alpine runs, largely depends on snow melt. So earlier in the year with a preceding good snow season makes for good levels. Failing that you will be dependent on rain, which is usually forthcoming at some point! Later on in the year towards August, rain will be the main provider of levels. However the Soča always has something to offer, even at low levels later on in the year.
Travelling to Bovec
The two main options for getting to Bovec are to drive there, or to fly and drive. The latter offers the choice of taking your boat with you (hassle), or to pay the quite reasonable rates that it costs to hire a boat there. Of course you will have the cost of car hire to consider, too, along with how you will perform shuttles and tie the boats down.
Driving to Bovec is the option we have taken twice now. It is a long old trek, so we broke it up with an overnight stop in Germany on the way the second time around. I can recommend the Holiday Inn Express in Neünkerchen as a reasonably priced halfway stop.
Note that you will be crossing Austria as part of this journey, and as a result you will need to purchase road tax before you hit the border, else you risk facing a hefty fine. Slovenia also requires road tax. You can usually purchase both Vignettes for your windscreen at the same time, just before the Austrian border at one of the service stations. The last petrol station (an Agip) before the Austrian border on the A8 offers some fantastic views, and the opportunity to buy these essentials!
If you miss this, there is an official, well signed, post on the approach to the border, giving you a last chance to purchase a Vignette. The way these are arranged can be frustrating, depending on your length of stay. The Austrian Vignette can be purchased in 10 day, 1 month, and 1 year options. While the minimum Slovenian one is 7 days. Annoying if you are staying for 8 or 9 days!
One final note regarding these Vignettes. Make sure the correct numbers are punched into them. I have known people to buy them and the cashier has forgotten to punch them, making them invalid, leaving you risking a fine.
One last point of law is that when you are driving in Slovenia, you are required to have lights on at all times.
Once you cross the border into Austria, the scenery quickly becomes rather wonderful. The Alps are looming, and it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on the road. Make sure to look out for the Landzeit Tauernalm Autobahnstation on the A10, just before the Tauerntunnel. This is a fantastic place to stop for food. If you think that the Gloucester and Tebay services in the UK are good, be prepared for a surprise! Not only can you by the most amazing meats, cooked to your liking right in front of you, but if you are early you can have a fantastic breakfast, including honey fresh from the honeycomb, all with a view of the mountains!
Something for everyone
The Soča is not for extreme steep creeking thrills, offering as it does everything from G1 to G4. Many of the rapids are pool drop in nature, although there are some wonderful continuous sections in places.
Most of the white water sections of the Soča run through the province of Bovec. The Soča itself is a hugely long river, although by the time it reaches the town of Kobarid it becomes largely flat.
Bovec itself is a wonderful little town, sitting close to the Italian border, nestled in the Julian Alps. In fact if you wanted to take a break from boating, it is only an hours drive to places such as Venice.
Bovec has a heavy outdoors sports influence, with many providers of rafting, climbing, caving, mountain biking, and even paragliding experiences. There is something for everyone here, from peaceful walks along the river, walking up the mountains, or adventure sports. Right through to cafe culture in the town itself. Up above Zaga, there is even a 2km long zip line to have a go on, for a price.
Local amenities & facilities
Amenities are very good. There are a selection of restaurants to choose from, many of them serving local trout from the river. Many cafes are around too, often serving amazing ice cream! The Tourist Information office is a good size, and the people there very friendly and helpful.
If you are self catering or camping, there are two decent supermarkets, along with a fantastic fruit and veg shop serving a quality of produce that can only be dreamt about in the UK. On a Wednesday there is also a mobile fishmonger, serving a fantastic selection of fresh seafood. Along with this there is a good size pharmacy, and cash machines. In other words, you do not need to worry about forgetting to bring anything!
Kayaking wise there are two good equipment shops. One at the Prijon Centre, and Alpin Action near Trnovo. Both offer guiding services, and boat hire is easy at Alpin Action, too. Do not be fooled into thinking you’ll get a bargain however. Both shops sell at very similar prices to the UK. So you won’t be buying a Sweet cag for half price!
Campsites are also well featured. One of the most popular is at Kajak Kamp Toni, near to the confluence with the Koritnica. This is a pleasant site, with a mountain backdrop, and is a favourite haunt of kayakers. Noise is well controlled, so it is a peaceful place to be.
Alternatively there are many good self catering apartments available, too, particularly around Zaga, about 15 minutes from Bovec, on the banks of the Soča.
Food generally is pretty good. If you really want to push the boat out (boom boom!) there are places such as Hotel Hvala and Hisa Franko. Both have a focus on sea food, and are regarded as some of the best places to eat in Slovenia.
What to wear
I have been both at the end of April, and at the end of May. My advice is to pack for all weathers. On my April trip, air temperatures were well into the mid/upper 20’s Centigrade. While on my late May trip, which theoretically should have been much warmer, in fact varied from 14 through to 25 degrees depending on the day.
In summer you should generally expect hot weather, but pack for every eventuality. Being alpine runs, the water can be very cold. Furthermore, generally when it rains, it really rains, and this can take your temperature right down. I went from wearing a drysuit one day, to wearing a long sleeve semi-dry cag the next, through to a short sleeve cag after that!
The choice of boat to take will depend on what you are after doing. Flare boofing, rock splatting, and technically weaving in and around rocks is the order of the day for much of it. Personally I prefer a boat like my Veloc for its speed. Although some people might prefer to take something a bit more playful, and spend their days tail squirting and surfing on every feature.
The Soča is the main river that you will be paddling. However, with a good snow melt or a bit of top up rain, there is also the option of the equally wonderful Koritnica.
The Soča itself is generally broken up into upper, middle, and lower sections. While you can go up as high as Trenta, the most commonly paddled part of the upper section is the Bunker section. This is, in my eyes at least, a good technical G4 before easing off into G3-G2.
Most sections on the Soča are fairly short, so it is easy to get in multiple runs per day, and to spend time running sections over and over. The shuttles are also short and easy, too.
The nature of the water means that lines are clear to see, and rarely will you need to get out of your boat to scout, if ever. Most sections are between G2-G3. Although the Classic section between Sprenica 2 and Trnovo 1 has some good sections of clean, flowing G3+ to G4- in my opinion, depending on levels. For extra length, and an easier get-in, launching from the beach at Sprenica 1 makes for a good warm up.
Below Trvono 1 there lies the slalom section. At good levels this is certainly a G4 to G4+, and is more pushy than a casual observation from the bridge would suggest. Make sure to have a good roll on this part of the river, and speedy rescue skills, particularly towards the end of the section. A swim at the end of the slalom run could risk getting taken into the Kataract (siphon) section of the river (the final “large” eddy at the end is actually moving water, flowing into the next section). While I do not wish to linger on the potential danger, it is something to bear in mind if some of your group are a bit shakey or unable to properly judge their own capabilities. However if you have the skills, it is a fantastic section of water, and can be run again and again without the need for a shuttle. The path that runs alongside makes for great photographic opportunities.
The Kataract section is often run. But it is a serious undertaking, and swimming is simply not an option. A quick walk down the bank of the first part will confirm this! Much better would be to go to the section below, Otana to Kobarid.
Most other sections of the river run at a leisurely G2, with a bit of G3 thrown in. Although these sections won’t challenge the advanced paddler, there is still plenty of fun to be had with flaring and finding technical lines. And you certainly won’t become bored with the scenery!
The Koritnica is the other main river that you will run in the area. It is mainly a G2 run with an occasional burst of G3, and is a tributary of the Soča. The get-in is just before Fort Kluse, on the road that you will have come in by via Italy. Be warned, it’s a long walk down a steep path to the river. The river then weaves its way through a beautiful gorge, finishing in a G3+ rapid right next to Kamp Liza. You can either get out here, in amongst the many people sunbathing on the rocks, or you can carry on into the Soča and run down to the get out at the Prijon Centre.
Slovenia is well worth a visit as an alternative to the French Alps. Okay, there isn’t the sheer variety of rivers that you would find on a trip to Briançon, but the area makes up for it by the sheer beauty of the river itself and the tranquil nature of the area. Unlike a trip to the French Alps, you won’t need to take out a mortgage to buy a coffee or a beer, either. Quite the contrary!