Several people are sitting around a bonfire, holding a beer, and listening to joyful country music. Behind the guitarist, and beyond the tents is the sound of the splashing Hron River.
People have gathered at this outdoor camp, equipped with just a simple latrine and rainwater showers. Some have paddled the river a hundred times and they still enjoy it, others – trying to dry next to the fire – just had their first experience to Slovakia. Rafting is probably not the main reason to journey. The country is not noted for its adrenaline-pumping rides but kayaking or rafting can enrich any stay. There are a number of beautiful rivers to enjoy boat time with friends, watching the surrounding countryside drift by, and gain some skills with a paddle. For the more adventurous there is the occasional white-water spot too.
The main advantage of Slovak rivers is diversity – doesn’t matter if you are beginner or advanced – there is a river to suit your skills. “Boating is an escape from the city, noise, and bustle to nature and silence. It offers the opportunity to spend a weekend with friends,” said Zuzana Polakovičová, a finance manager from Bratislava and regular paddle enthusiast.
At one with nature
The Hron is the second longest river in Slovakia and among the most popular for watersport lovers. Most of its 300 kilometres are suitable for paddling in a canoe or raft. It is one of the few Slovak rivers that includes significant infrastructure on shore – mostly small outdoor camps. The Lodenica na Mlynčoku is one of them, near the main road from Banská Bystrica to Brezno in central Slovakia.
Rafting in Slovakia
The Hron can be divided into three parts. While the upper Hron from its source in Červená Skala to Brezno is navigable almost only during the spring and is intended for experienced boaters, the middle part is the best place for people of all ages and skill levels. The most popular stretch of river begins next to motel Nemecká and ends in campsite Lodenica na Mlynčoku (about a two-hour journey), where you can spend a night or continue to Banská Bystrica and beyond.
Several campsites are available on the way to the Hron’s confluence with the Danube near Štúrovo in south Slovakia. “We tried other campgrounds on the way, but there is no place with the atmosphere of Lodenica na Mlynčoku,” said Ľudmila Švoreňová, while disembarking from a raft in the camp. “I am not sure if it is about the surrounding, the people or the services.”
Castles above, water below
The Váh River, the longest in Slovakia, is another rafting or canoeing destination. A few kilometres from Žilina, on the way to the Tatras, are the massive ruins of the Strečno Castle. Tourists can float around it in rafts but more comfortable (and safer) wooden boats are available. Visitors can also take in another impressive castle – the Orava Castle – in the same way. The Orava River is suitable for beginners, but advanced water-lovers will find joy there too. All of the previously mentioned rivers offer short or long multi-day routes. For people who prefer calm and slow rivers, the Malý Dunaj (Little Danube) located just a few kilometres from Bratislava, offers a relaxing trip through the woods of the Danubian Lowland. The first stretch starts on the outskirts of Bratislava. It takes about five hours of paddling to reach Tomášov, where you can finish or continue to Komárno.
The eastern part of the country also offers river adventure. “When we were kids, we used to play next to the Hornád River,” recalls Ľuboš Grajcár, the owner of a travel agency dedicated to rafting. “Once we suddenly spotted boats on the surface – we watched all those beautiful canoes until the last of them disappeared. It was like a revelation… Some time after we found a tractor inner tube – and that was the beginning of our rafting.” Originally, he wanted his son to follow his hobby, but in Košice, the largest city in eastern Slovakia, it wasn’t possible to rent a canoe. “After I joined a local kayak club, I decided to set up my own business and offer this experience to others,” Grajcár said.
Grajcár considers Slovak rivers ideal for beginners, families and tourists. While the Hornád was not very well-known for water tourism, three years after he started a business with canoe and kayak rental and as well as a school, tourists from Germany, France, Israel and South Korea followed. “You can see places you know from the river bank with a different perspective,” Grajcár said. Today, the most popular river journeys are from the reservoir Ružín to Košice, and then even further to the Hungarian border.
In Slovenský raj (eastern Slovakia) the Hornád Canyon (Prielom Hornádu) after a longer period of time has been again opened for boating. But contrary to other rivers, there is a limitof boats that can pass it daily since this is a protected area.
Following a tradition
While Grajcár wants his son to follow in his footsteps, in other parts of eastern Slovakia, a strong multi-generational connection with river is already apparent. “Our great-grandfather Matej Laincz started rafting in 1910, and after World War II, our grandfather devoted himself to rafting,” said Helena Lainczová, a rafting company owner from Červený Kláštor. “His sons – my husband was among them – also followed in his footsteps. Today our sons are taking care of the business.” But on the Dunajec, a river on the Slovak-Polish border in the heart of the Pieniny National Park, rafting is not the same as elsewhere.
Dunajec is well-known for its traditional wooden boats, previously used to transport goods. Nowadays, the boats consist of a few wooden canoes, guided by men in traditional folk costumes, who sail through a picturesque canyon surrounded by steep rocky crags.
“Every year, thousands of foreign tourists come to Pieniny,” said Lainczová. “At first sight it is a severe landscape, but it abounds with unique folk architecture, historical monuments, and natural beauty.” A 100-minute boat ride starts in Červený Kláštor and ends near village called Lesnica. Renting a bike at the end of the boat ride is recommended for returning to the beginning. The bike trail on the riverbank offers a view of the surrounding mountains, especially the majestic Tri Koruny hills.
Dunajec is also popular for rafting in inflatable rafts or canoes. Beginners can take to the water with an instructor. On hot summer days the river can be calm with lower water levels, but melting spring snows change the Dunajec into a wild river. One rafter attracted by the latter atmosphere is Branko Bugorčík, a kayak instructor from Košice. “Slovakia has mountains, thus also more wild mountain rivers suitable for rafting, but just few of them are navigable throughout the year,” he said.
For those who want to ride the rapids in a rubber raft, Belá River is the best choice. Belá rises under the majestic peak Kriváň, and flows wildly into the Váh River in Liptovský Hrádok. The most extreme experience in a raft is available only during April and May, while snow from Tatra mountains is melting. White-water rafting at Belá River is recommended only for experienced rafters, but with the help of an instructor, others are also welcome.
Like a champion
In recent years, Slovakia’s most successful Olympic sport has been kayaking, specifically the white-water slalom. Michal Martikán, Elena Kaliská and the twin brothers Peter and Pavol Hochschorners are among those who have won gold medals at the Olympic Games. According to Bugorčík, their successes have increased the popularity of water sports in Slovakia. The rising popularity of white-water rafting can be visible in Liptovský Mikuláš, the so-called city of Olympic champions in central Slovakia, where Martikán, Kaliská and several other successful athletes live.
Groups of people wait every morning for Ondrej Cibák’s slalom area on the outskirts of Liptovský Mikuláš to open. In this artificial canal beginners can try wild waves alongside athletes training for the Olympics. Even advanced kayakers are bound to face a challenge. Closer to the capital for those in western Slovakia is Čunovo, 25 minutes from the city centre of Bratislava, home to an artificial water channel similar to what is on offer in Liptovský Mikuláš. Options abound from teambuilding rafting to individual kayaking classes.
Even though the infrastructure is developed on some rivers, state efforts to harness hydroelectric power are a frequent impediment to white-water adventure. In 2011, the Ministry of Environment suggested building another 368 small water electricity plants in the coming years, including some on the most popular rivers for water sports. Dams and electricity plants pose a barrier for boats, and tourists need to carry the rafts a few hundred metres along the shore before continuing on the way. According to Grajcár, such facilities are a major threat to rafting on the Hron since the river remains the most popular place for paddle hobbyists. “And we are fighting to keep it that way,” Grajcár said.
Boat rental and rafting trips
Rental of various types of boats and rafting on Hron, Váh and Malý Dunaj
B Čunovo: Areál Divoká Voda Čunovo (Čunovo White Water Area), www.divokavoda.sk
W Eliášovce: Flowing on Malý Dunaj, www.malydunajsplav.sk
Selected rafting and canoeing areas
23 Malý Dunaj (Little Danube)
Boats rental and rafting trips
r2 Lodenica na Mlynčoku (Hron), www.splavhrona.sk
1 Červený Kláštor: Traditional wooden raft rides (Dunajec), www.pltnictvo.eu; Rafting on Dunajec, www.rafting-pieniny.sk
18 Slovenský raj: Prielom Hornádu (Canoeing and kayaking), www.splavujeme.sk
27 Liptovský Mikuláš: Areál vodného slalomu Ondreja Cibáka (Ondrej Cibák Area of Water Slalom), www.raftingadventure.sk
49 Orava Castle: Traditional wooden raft rides (Orava), www.plte-orava.sk
67 Strečno: Traditional wooden raft rides (Váh), www.plte-strecno.sk
1 Košice: Rentals of canoes and kayaks (Hornád), www.splavujeme.sk