Slovenia: An unlikely Adventure Eden
It's a rush of freshwater to the head. Paddle grasped, feet tucked, I'm whirling down the most pristine Alpine white-waters as a burst of surf spectacularly muffles my euphoria.
Slovenia's raging Soca Valley: where gushing emerald-green rivers free-flow dramatically beneath the chocolate box beauty of the magnificent Julian Alps. I'm drifting through a Toblerone wilderness. Where's my GoPro camera when I need it?
As a destination, Slovenia may be more synonymous with go-slow lake and mountain brochures than high-octane escapades, but I've come to Europe's unheralded adventure paradise to uncover a getaway with a few more beats per minute. Facilitating my initial Slavic adrenalin kick are local sporting outfitters Hydromania (hydromania.si; €38) who offer a range of vanilla-to-expert rafting trips on the mercurial River Soca.
Along with svelte local guide, Dean Melihen, my fellow passengers are the Austrian Familie Kofler - seasoned pros on the weekend rafting scene who have border-hopped over from Klagenfurt for the day.
"Can we go over rocks, now?" quizzes the matriarch, using an authoritative Germanic tone that I suspect won't go unanswered. And it doesn't. Soon we're tumbling down class IV rapids, bounding off rocks, ricocheting over boulders and colliding back into the ripples with wails of laughter silenced by get-your-breath-back gulps.
After 10km of ecstasy, we finally seek refuge on a massive boulder. Dean flips our vessel, turning it from raft to inflatable slide with MacGyver-like finesse. Now, we're plunging into whirlpools in a scene reminiscent of the Swiss Family Robinson meets Disney's Blizzard Beach.
Kayaking on the Soca
I've got an eclectic repertoire of adventure sports under my belt, but bounding down a Soca blitzed by sunshine ranks as a lifetime highlight. Taking my leave of Dean and the Koflers, I'm buoyed with an outdoors enthusiasm that convinces me I'm going to buy myself a raft the minute I land back in Ireland. Or a canoe. Or at the very least, a roof-rack.
The base for my rafting adventure is Kranjska Gora, a pocket-sized resort in north-west Slovenia. With its proud Alpine-not-Balkan identity, the village has a certain Tyrolean feel. Traditional homes feature ornate balconies and fairytale lüftlmalerei murals, while my anthropological findings from the local Spar and hotel buffet suggest folks here are fittingly high on efficiency, and low on chit-chat.
As for the hotel? I've checked into the suitably named Kompas, a four-star mega-chalet at the foothills of the Alps. My spacious pad flows out upon a geranium-lined balcony, snapshotting hills, mountains and the village's onion-domed skyline. And what's that? Cowbells? When you've got vistas like this, why take out a Credit Union loan for Switzerland?
Kranjska Gora is the type of town one can take at any pace or gradient. Streets here harbour a mix of silver-haired Britons lacing up for leisurely strolls, and local Slovenes dusting down their gear for everything from paragliding to canyoning. Knowing that it's best viewed from above, I wander towards the screensaver-style stunner that is Lake Jasna, before hiking up to Mount Vitranc. Unlike the throngs at nearby Lake Bled, tourist numbers peter out here. A herd of goats, a smattering of Germans and a lady who had affably ladled my scrambled eggs at breakfast are the only souls crossing my path.
Curious creatures in Slovenia
Having rafted down rivers and trekked across bluffs, an escapade on my humble hotel rent-a-bike would wrap up my Slovenian triathlon. Kranjska Gora is surrounded by a mouth-watering spaghetti network of cycle trails; from easy flat stretch routes to testy BMX tracks. I'm gearing my way to Dreilaenderecke, however - an uphill viewpoint marking Slovenia's three nation frontier with next-door Italy and Austria.
Kranjska Gora behind me, I'm soon two-wheeling along a 'scape of retro rustic farmland; scythes and sickles in full swing, vintage tractors in full throttle. This is postcard pastoral life in its real-time hay day, and it feels amazing.
The crossroads hamlet of Ratece marks the beginning of my two-hour ascent. As I grind up off-camber mountain trails, each hairpin bend reveals a different canvas of Alpine colour, from lofty butter-cupped pastures to sun-speckled forest floors.
There's a sunset up there somewhere... I just have to pump these legs and beat the treeline to catch it.
Just as my reserves of Coke Zero and trail-mix run dry, I finally emerge from the shadows: Italy to my left brake, Austria to my right. I park up along the infinite panorama, all alone but for two friendly shire horses, nationality unknown.
I'm now on top of Europe's most pristine outdoor playground, the iconic Mount Triglav, one of the few peaks still hueing with the sun. Amid the adrenalin of the week's activities, this is the moment to sit back with my equine friends and breathe in the vistas of an off-radar Alpine crossroads. In a few moments, I'll be biking back down, free-wheeling through clouds.
Slovenia? It gets your heart racing.
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What to pack
Apart from your paddle, the only thing you'll find yourself reaching for on the Soca River is a water-resistant camera. For the road, and the outdoors, consider investing in a GoPro. It will capture your adrenalin-fuelled adventures better than any Instagram or iPhone snap.
Thomas travelled to Slovenia with Crystal Summer (crystalsummer.ie) who offer holidays to the region from June to September. Flights operate from Dublin to Salzburg in Austria, from where it's a two-hour transfer to Kranjska Gora. For rafting (hydromania.si), the Soca Valley sits a one-hour drive from the resort.
Where to stay
Seven-night packages to Kranjska Gora with Crystal (crystalsummer.ie) start from €515pps based on a self-catering stay at the three-star Vitranc Apartments. Down the street at Kompas Hotel (kompashotel.com), half-board rates start from €695. For more, visit the Slovenian Tourist Board's website at slovenia.info.
1) Chase Waterfalls
Where: Triglav National Park; Slovenia's very own pocket-sized Yosemite.
Why: Over 300 waterfalls cascade down Slovenia's Alpine valleys. Head to Savica Falls near Lake Bohinj to witness the most visited of them all
2) Fairytale Kayak
Where: Blejski Otok; otherwise better known as the chapel-topped islet at the heart of Lake Bled.
Why: Bled's magic lies on its waters - beyond its rather sterile town centre. Why not rent a kayak and ripple towards this iconic postcard scene?
3) Toast the Inn-Crowd
Where: The family-run Gostilna Psnak; a farmhouse inn 2km north of Kranjska Gora is full of rustic charm, great service and local fare.
Why: Try ordering some hearty ajdovi krapi (stuffed ravioli) quaffed down with a local Union lager.
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