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Slovenia Grand Circle SUP Tour (Review)

The Idrijca River

The Idrijca River

11 days of paddling, exploring and indulging

“Why would I go on a SUP holiday? my friends were asking me almost in shock as I told them about my plans to spend my summer time off on a standup paddle board. Because of this – I showed them the photos on you web page … ” told me one of our guests, as we drove from the airport to Ljubljana where our Slovenia Grand Circle SUP Tour was about to start. Flattering but also true. Slovenia offers a great variety of amazing places, all condensed in one small country. And we were about to discover the best ones – on a SUP.

The Slovenia Grand Circle tour is the longest SUP tour in our repertoire. In eleven days ahead of us, we woud travel through five geographical regions to discover nine SUP spots: Alpine lakes Bohinj and Bled, the emerald-green Soča river, well known among kayakers, then the costal town of Piran and the nearby salt-pans, followed by Lake Cerknica, the largest intermittent lake in Europe, and the remote Kolpa River canyon on the border with Croatia … closing up with the island-town of Kostanjevica on The Krka River and a night SUP through Old Town Ljubljana.

But this tour isn’t just about paddling. Along the way we would also discover rich historical and cultural sights and indulge in local cuisine and cosy boutique hotels.

Slovenia Grand Circle SUP Tour

Slovenia Grand Circle SUP Tour

Day 1: Arrival in Ljubljana

Welcome aboard! Finally, after a few months of emails and preparations, we are all here – a small company of five, gathered at the welcome dinner in the lively street in Old Town Ljubljana. One couldn’t imagine a more colourful team – an Australian rowing veteran, surfer and standup paddler in his ’70 and his wife with a career in politics. Add a UK doctor working with aboriginal tribes in Australian backcountry – a novice to SUP. And finally, two SUP guides with advertising and graphic&interior design careers. A one-of-a-kind combination is promising an interesting week and a half ahead of us. High spirits and great expectations are in the air. Tomorrow we hit the road, the water, life …

Old Town Ljubljana in September

Old Town Ljubljana in September

Day 2: Lake Bled

The next morning we make a 40 minute ride from Ljubljana towards the Julian Alps, to Lake Bled, a world-famous lake, featuring an idylic island with a church and a medieval castle above the lake. After checking-in at our villa-hotel on the waterfront we are ready to glide.

Lake Bled, Bled Castle and the island

Lake Bled, Bled Castle and the island in the distance

The official world cup rowing track is waiting for us – but this time we take it as easy as possible, as it is the views and the sights we are after, not time. Nevertheless, we paddle the full lenght before stopping at the island for coffee and smooties. Barbara – who doesn’t SUP – arrives to the lake with the pletna boat, a traditional wooden man-propelled boat that can only be operated by the descendants of original Pletna paddlers, similar to gondoliers in Venice. Mike has been at Bled many times before, competing for the Australian rowing team, so he has many stories to tell … we learn that in their circles lake Bled is known as a rowing paradise, as God himself created the lake just for rowing. The fact is that the lenght of the lake corresponds with the official lenght of the rowing track, exactly 2000 m.

An easy paddle takes us back to the villa, followed by a short drive up to the castle where we indulge in traditional Slovenian cuisine – with a phenomenal view of the lake, the island and surrounding mountains.

The views of Lake Bled

The views of Lake Bled

In the afternoon we have time off and Samo and I take this opportunity to climb up to a view point on the other side of the lake. Probably the best one around, as all the postcard photos are taken here.

Day 3: Lake Bohinj

The next morning we drive about an hour deeper into the Alps to a more natural and intact Lake Bohinj. As opposed to Lake Bled it is much less visited, with almost no touristic infrastructure seen around. Being there in late September it is no wonder we are alone on the lake.

Lake Bohinj

Lake Bohinj

Lake Bohinj

Lake Bohinj

We set for an easy 4 km paddle across the lake, enjoying the reflections on the glassy surface, stopping a few times to rest and enjoy the tranquility of the place. As we reach the other end we can spot the Savica Waterfall pouring out of the mountain wall in the distance. And here before us its freezing cold water is feeding the lake as The Savica River.

Up the Savica River

Up the Savica River

The water of The Savica River is relatively high this day so we can paddle up pretty high on the emerald-gold shallow water. We have a first swimmer! Alan falls off the board and gets a taste of what 7 degrees Celsius feels like in liquid emerald-green state. No worries, we have dry clothes with us for such cases. This experience upgrades his skills from beginner to intermediate 😉

Paddling for a few hours now, it is time to reward ourselves with fried Bohinj trout and a glass of malvazija, before we paddle back across the lake.

Later in the afternoon we make a 20 min hike up to the Savica Waterfall which turns out to be bursting with water and offering spectacular sights.

The Savica Waterfall

The Savica Waterfall

On our way back to Bled we stop at the Alpine Dairy Farming Museum to meet centuries-old local traditions of cheese-making and mouinaineering.

By this time everybody has noticed strange ladder-like structures standing on pastures all along the road. Time to meet the hay-rack, more than 99% of the existing ones can be found in Slovenia.

A double hay-rack, called toppler; original ones were made completely out of wood, with no steel nails.

A double hay-rack, called toppler; original ones were made completely out of wood, with no steel nails.

For dinner we choose a restaurant with traditional Slovenian cuisine, famous for buckwheat dumplings, sauerkraut, carniola sausage, boar and bear goulash among many delicacies. Our guests’ daughter and her boyfirend from UK join us as their mountain biking trip in Slovenia crosses our route. A family reunion was not in the itinerary but turns ot to be a nice add on to the evening.

Day 4: The Soča & Idrijca River

The weather doesn’t look good today. In fact we could be grateful for the past two perfectly sunny and warm days with no wind at all – which is more of an exception than a rule in the Alpine region. Today the clouds are closing up and it is raining already. But having a hell of a ride ahead of us we are not letting this spoil our adventure.

So we take off from Bled to Bohinjska Bistrica, pull our van on a train and cross the mountain ridge through a narrow old-timer tunnel, build in 1904 during the Austro-Hungarian reign. The diesel engine pulls the car-loaded train through 11 minutes of complete darkness … on the other side the Soča valley is awaiting us – and it is not raining!

The Soča River at Most na Soči

The Soča River at Most na Soči

We get on the water as quickly as possible. Starting on the Most na Soči we paddle downstream the emerald-green Soča River. Soča is widely known as a wild river with rapids and gorges – that’s why it is recognized especially among kayakers – for its rapids, the emerald-green colour and pure natural scenery. Its significant colour comes from the melting limestone that the river washes away in its upper part. However, on the part of the river we are paddling the water is almost still thanks to the dam a few km further downstream.

The Idrijca River

The Idrijca River

Soon we turn into The Idrijca River which opens into a spectacular canyon with rocks scattered around as little islands. The rain finally starts but that doesn’t bother anybody. We have to turn around anyway due to the low water level. After a few km of rain-paddling we are back at the starting point, sipping warm tea and coffee in a bar. To Alan’s content, today we were all wet.

Entering The Idrijca River at Most na Soči

Entering The Idrijca River at Most na Soči

We drive up the Soča valley to Kobarid for lunch to try delicious local iota and later visit the Kobarid Museum, dedicated to WWI battle of Soška fronta (Isonzo Front), which was one of the biggest battles in the hilly terrain in the history of mankind. Ernest Hemingway served there as an ambulance truck driver and has described the softer side of the battle in his masterpiece A Farewell to Arms. I am not surprised to find this book later on, on Barbara’s seat in a van.

The Kobarid Museum

The Kobarid Museum

The remaining of the afternoon we spend driving down the Soča valley all the way to the coast, to accommodate for the night in the tiny Venetian town of Piran.

Day 5: Piran – rest day

The weather is still moody, cloudy, with strong bora winds blowing off land to the open sea, making up to 1,5 m waves. We are tempted to go on the water anyway but even the areas sheltered by the houses at the waterfront and in the harbour are not safe.

Roof-terrace of our hotel in Piran

Roof-terrace of our hotel in Piran

So we take a day off for walking along the cliffs, chilling in the cafes and exploring numerous art galeries in the narrow streets of Piran … we meet again at dinner to indulge with home-made gnocci with scampi sauce and delicious house desserts.

A windy day in Piran

A windy day in Piran

Gnocchi with scampi sauce, spaghetti with sea shells

Gnocchi with scampi sauce, spaghetti with sea shells

The best chocolate cake in Piran

The best chocolate cake in Piran

Day 6: Piran and The Sečovlje Salt-Pans

The wind is gone and we are eager to hit the water and explore the coast and the town also from the water perspective. As we bring our boards out to the peer a nice surprise awaits us. It is the Royal Clipper, a magnifiscent five-masted cruise ship that can frequently be spotted when passing Piran. Today it has dropped its anchor just a mile or so from the shore, proudly presenting itself to spectators.

The Royal Clipper

The Royal Clipper

We paddle out towards it to admire it from up-close, stopping at the stairs to ask whether we could come up for a cup of coffee. But unfortunatelly all the crew has gone ashore to get supplies so the bar is closed. Next time … we decide to explore the Piran harbour instead.

Exploring Piran from the water

Exploring Piran from the water

Later on we drive to The Sečovlje Salt-Pans to crown our final moments at the coast at the best fish restaurant in the neighbourhood. As usually we order a bit too much.

Starter: shrimp, caviar, octopus salad and polenta with baccalà

Starter: shrimp, caviar, octopus salad and polenta with baccalà

The afternoon is reserved for a visit to another world-famous attraction – the Postojna Cave, an underground cave with 20 km of passages and spectacular halls full of calcite formations, stalactites and stalagmites abounding in a variety of shapes, colours and age.

To round-up the day we have one more surprise awaiting us. This night we are trading a 4-star hotel for a 200-year old farmhouse, completely renovated and turned into a self-sustainable luxury guest house. A very special place – we all agree – as we are enjoying a delicious domestic donkey goulash, sitting in an ex- barn, now turned into a restaurant.

Ex-barn transformed into a restaurant

Ex-barn transformed into a restaurant

Day 7: Lake Cerknica & The Vineyards of Bela Krajina

We get up early and take a 30 min drive to Lake Cerknica, a spectacular Karstic lake which is declared the largest intermittent lake in Europe and, when full of water, also the largest Slovenian lake.

Unfortunatelly this is not the case today, since there hasn’t been enough rain lately to fill-up the lake. So, the vast lake we have expected to paddle on has shrunk significantly. Nevertheless, we launch our paddleboards and enjoy the scenic landscape until a strong wind turns against us and switches our leissure paddle into a serious workout.

Lake Cerknica

Lake Cerknica

Comfortably tired we drive to a nearby village to visit The Museum of Lake Cerknica featuring a 3D living model of the lake. Still under the impression of paddling on the lake … our experience is further enriched by numerous fascinating stories and facts about the lake and its intermittent nature.

The Museum of Lake Cerknica; the founder explains traditional wooden boats making

The Museum of Lake Cerknica; the founder explains traditional wooden boats making

In the afternon we head south towards Slovenian-Croatian border to discover another region of Slovenia – Bela Krajina (The White Land), named after forests of birch trees. This is also the land of vineyards, famous for its red and white wines, so it would be a pitty to miss the opportunity to explore that part of Slovenian culture.

So, we trade our dinner for a private guided tour at one of the best wine cellars around, with wine-tasting led by the owner himself. It happens that Mike’s and Barbara’s families are also engaged in wine production so we turn out to be rather interesting guests. The owner is overwhelmed by the questions we ask and consequently extends the wine-tasting from 5 wines to 7, from planned 1,5 hours to three. Before we leave we have a coulple of boxes of the award-winning dessert wine sent to Australia.

Jožef Prus, the owner of the Vina Prus wine cellar

Jožef Prus, the owner of the Vina Prus wine cellar

Late at night we head back to our hotel in the old-timer fire-truck (and old-timer driver) – a surprise from the staff at the Hotel Bela Krajina where we will be staying for the next two nights.

Our retro transfer

Our retro transfer

Day 8: The Kolpa River Canyon

At the hotel we double check the water conditions with the locals and as all seems fine we set for the most demanding paddling course on our tour. The Kolpa River canyon is one of the most remote places in Slovenia. Even from our hotel in Metlika it takes us nearly an hour drive to reach our starting point. But it is well worth the effort. It is about 10 km descent on a wide and mostly calm river, with small rapids and dams changing its rhythm every few kilometres.

The Kolpa River

The Kolpa River

The place is truly magical – high, steep slopes of dense forests rising straight out of the winding river. Here you can meet the tranquility in person … until, just as we get on the water, we hear a bear roaring from the slope above us. And then … another one on the other side. Paddle on, guys …

Easy rapids on The Kolpa River

Easy rapids on The Kolpa River

This part of the river is quite challenging for suppers, the place to test our skills. Paddling against the wind channeling through the canyon, walking across the shallows, crossing the dams by stepping on rocks through the running watter or just paddling over the rapids, kneeling down or standing up – it is demanding, versatile and fun! With a little help of neoprene non-slippery shoes and inflatable boards we all pass it well. Especially Alan, who joined the tour as a SUP novice. It is a pleasure watching him paddle over the rapids with confidence and comfort.

Dams can be by-passed over land or crossed over the rocks

Dams can be by-passed over land or crossed over the rocks

Being so far away from the civilisation one wouldn’t expect a lunch bigger than a sandwich. But we like to do things a bit different so we order in – to our private island on the river. A delicious stew, buckwheat dumplings with cottage cheese, panna cota and – wilderness. Again, all the credits to Matjaž from the Hotel Bela Krajina for this warm surprise.

Lunch in our private restaurant

Lunch in our private restaurant

As we are exploring our skills on the river, Barbara stays in Metlika to have her dose of history and culture at the Museum of Bela Krajina. We get together at dinner to exchange the impressions over some good local food.

Day 9: The Kostanjevica on The Krka River & Night Paddle in Old Town Ljubljana

It is time to leave Metlika and head towards Ljubljana. I can tell we are all a bit tired, but still hardly waiting untill we reach the next paddling site – Kostanjevica on The Krka River, a small town on the island, with two beautiful wooden bridges connecting it to land. Before we hit the water we drive Barbara to The Božidar Jakac Gallery (named after a famous Slovenian impressionist) which is hosted in a nearby ex-Cisterian monastery and features collections of works by major Slovene artists connected to the region. Two hours and a half would be just enough to get a quick impression of the show and for us, paddlers, it should suffice for a sup around the island and maybe exploring The Krka River even further.

A wooden bridge to the island at Kostanjevica on The Krka River

A wooden bridge to the island at Kostanjevica on The Krka River

The sup is good. The water level is unusually high which gives us a unique opportunity to paddle over the shallows and explore the part of the river we haven’t seen before. On the way back a light breeze turns into a strong wind against us to spice up the session. But nobody struggles with that. On the contrary! After seven days of paddling it feels good to se everyone in such a good shape.

Exploring The Krka River

Exploring The Krka River

Around the island at Kostanjevica on The Krka River

Around the island at Kostanjevica on The Krka River

The time-plan works out well for everyone and as we sit down for lunch we all feel richer for some inspiring new discoveries.

We reach Ljubljana in late afternoon which gives us some time to refresh at the hotel and check out the lively scene in the streets of the Old Town – before we take off for the night sup. As the night starts to fall we are back at the waterfront, this time at our club just around the corner from the Old Town. The river is almost still and glassy, letting the city lights magically spill over its surface. At this hour the boat-traffic on the river is ending for the day so we are alone on the river, enjoying the privileged views of the Old Town from a new perspective. As our guests decide to have the rest of the evening for themselves we drop Alan and Mike in the city centre and pull their boards back to the club.

Night sup in Old Town Ljubljana

Day 10: The Ljubljanica River

The next day we take it easy. Just a late morning paddle on The Ljubljanica River through the Marshes of Ljubljana followed by light lunch in our favourite waterfront restaurant, the rest of the day is off.

Through the Marshes of Ljubljana; The Ljubljana Castle in the background

Through the Marshes of Ljubljana; The Ljubljana Castle in the background

Ready for lunch

Ready for lunch

In the evening we gather for the last time (this year) by the pool on the roof terrace of our hotel to sum up the impressions. It is not hard to discover that during a week and a half we have become quite a good company, with much more in common than our passion for standup paddling. We have learned a lot from each other, shared our stories and experiences … and had many good laughs on our accounts. Over all, I would say we have also become better standup paddlers – more in a spiritual sense rather than technical 😉

Day 11: Departure home

As our guests head to the airport and back towards Australia, Samo and I have a talk about their well-intended recomendations: “You could go lighter on meals” they said. Well, this could be a tough challenge as in sLOVEnia we say that “LOVE goes through the stomach”. But we promise we’ll do our best. Nevertheless, less time eating and more time paddling sounds like a great idea!

Thank you Barbara, Mike and Alan for spending a wonderfull eleven days in our company. Also great thanks to Matjaž and the staff at the Hotel Bela Krajina for original and superb service.

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