The Balkans: Europe’s backyard playground. Easily accessible by car, the Balkan Peninsula (unofficially) stretches from Slovenia to Greece and hosts endless single or double-bladed aquatic adventures. Food is inexpensive and tasty, locals are friendly and there is an immense variety of water to play on and landscapes to explore. Simply pack a tent, paddling gear and strap your watercraft of choice on the roof, and hit the road! (Or…if you don’t trust your roof racks, there are ample places to rent boats along the way.)
Here are a few suggestions of how you can paddle the Balkans and explore whitewater, saltwater and freshwater.
Splash through Slovenia | Whitewater Kayaking
Where: The Soča and Sava Rivers. Start in Bovec or Kobarid to paddle the Soča, or between Bohinj or Bled to paddle the Sava.
Who: Whitewater kayakers comfortable with class II-IV whitewater.
If you’ve ever dipped a paddle in a Slovenian river, it’s highly probable it was one of these two. They both originate in the northwestern corner of the country and offer a variety of whitewater segments with easy access. The emerald Soča starts in the Trenta Valley and winds its way south before crossing into northeastern Italy and meeting the Adriatic Sea. On the other side of the Julian Alps, the deep green Sava meanders southeast from its source near the Austrian border, transecting the entire country before crossing into Croatia and flowing into the mighty Danube River.
Both have quality whitewater appropriate for various abilities, but watching water levels and weather means you can get optimal flows for your skill level. Spring is often the time to be on these rivers with mountain snowmelt feeding them, but if rain is added to the equation, then the rivers become less friendly for beginners and more appealing for the pros.
The Sava River
Start your trip on the Sava by running her south fork, the Sava Bohinjka, offering a combination of semi-continuous and pool-drop rapids. Drive from Bled to Bohinjska Bistrica and put in just below the Soteska dam, about halfway between the two towns. Take out 5 kilometers downstream just off the main road in the outskirts of the village of Bohinjska Bela.
Or, make it a multiday trip like the BRT5 crew did in 2021, paddling the entire stretch of the Sava in Slovenia. The Sava connects many major cities in the country, including the capital city Ljubljana, and flows through countless villages and towns. Capitalize on the riverside campgrounds and restaurants serving local food to make logistics easy. Rivers where you can enjoy the contrasts of wild stretches when it’s just you, your boat and paddle, and the fish and birds with the option of stopping for a coffee without even taking off your spraydeck is magical.
But the Sava River in Slovenia is currently threatened by 10 new hydroelectric dams. So, paddling here can have more purpose than just a river trip—it can also show locals and decisions makers that their river is something special, something worth traveling to paddle and without a doubt worth protecting.
The Soča River
The Soča has multiple sections of whitewater, which a local outfitter has nicely broken down each section on this site. Base-camp at one of the many riverside campgrounds, and enjoy the quick shuttle access to lap your favorite section, or go on a full day run and paddle the 35 kilometer stretch from Lepena to Tolmin.
Start at the Lepena put in and paddle past the small town of Čezsoča near Bovec where you can stop in for a beer at the historic local outfitter and kayak producer, Prion. Enjoy the mellow eddies and bends of the rafting section, and arrange a shuttle to get around Soča’s grade V. section, the Kataract. Get back on the water and enjoy the stunning Otona section, with its white boulders and views of the surrounding mountains before paddling under the iconic Napoleon bridge in Kobarid and on down to the take out just before the town of Tolmin at Maya Rafting, where thick-crusted pizza and cold beer await on their patio.
Local tip: Grab a sandwich or ‘burek’ at a local grocery store or bakery and have a ‘shore lunch’ on the river. (Take all your trash with you!) And don’t forget to buy a river pass for the Soča, now available online.
Cruise the Croatian Coast | Sea Kayaking
Where: Northern Croatian coast
When: Spring or fall, to avoid hot summer temperatures
Who: Beginner to intermediate Sea Kayakers
With a sea kayak, you can leave the busy mainland of the Adriatic Sea behind and find solitude and simple routes with just the pull of a paddle stroke. From day trips to multidays, pick a route that suits your holiday style. If you want to dabble in culture and culinary attractions, stick close to the coastline of the islands and enjoy views of the tall, sand-colored stone buildings with their red clay roof tiles. Stop when the need for coffee, gelato or fresh seafood calls. Even stay in a hostel or hotel if luxury is what you are after. Let the slow seaside vibe guide the trip.
Or plan out a route that’s within your paddling ability level and fitness and pack a tent and overnight gear. Buy some veggies, a bag of rice, and a fishing license and see what you can hook! Camp (respectfully) on the rugged islands, but be sure to bring enough potable water, temperatures can get hot and midday shade can be scarce.
Boats can be rented from local outfitters, but be sure to bring your own properly fitting PFD and safety equipment. Although the islands may seem close, some crossings can be surprisingly exposed and the coast is known for its strong bura winds – a name derived from the mythologic Greek god Boreas, meaning North Wind. A fitting name for the cold north to northeastern wind that blows along the Adriatic coast predominately in winter but can be gusty on summer evenings when the land cools down. Bura winds can be extremely dangerous and can catch uninformed paddlers by storm.
Simple and creative round trips can be easily planned by just scanning the map. For example, a three-night loop circumnavigating the island of Lošinj in the northern Adriatic Sea makes for a great intro to the region. Located just southwest of the popular Cres Island, Lošinj Island is often overshadowed by its larger, more popular neighbor, making it an off-the-beaten-path paddling location
A simple loop with a mix of lively villages and remote bays, this trip doesn’t require any complicated logistics and no shuttle is needed. Take the ferry from the Croatian mainland to Cres Island and drive over the bridge to Lošinj. Start the Lošinj island loop in the village of Osor and paddle over the north tip of the island and make camp along the west coast.
Wake up with the (hot) sun and fall into the rhythm of a multiday, paddling past calm coves and jagged limestone rock formations, carved by Adriatic through a millennium of winter storms. Choose to take a mid-day break and explore the village of Mali Lošinj, where you can have a coffee, seafood lunch or restock water or food. Or, bypass the bay altogether and set camp on a white pebble beach. Dry your gear on bleached driftwood logs and relax in the salty evening breeze.
For the final day, take the canal through Mali Lošinj and either paddle along the east coast of the island back to Osor, or cross the bay to paddle the sheltered southwest coast of Cres to get back to Osor. Pay attention to weather patterns as currents and wind can disrupt the six-kilometer crossing. If you get a calm day, it can be like paddling on glass, with views of the world of water under your boat. This loop is about 50 kilometers with an ideal ratio of culture to nature leaving you sunkissed with a taste of sea kayaking multidays.
Local Tip: Enjoy the space available in a sea kayak to bring extra gear for variable weather. Also, be sure to carry enough freshwater to cook and stay hydrated.
Skim across Lake Skadar | Stand-up Paddleboarding
Where: Just a half an hour’s drive from Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, to Skadar Lake, plus another 30 minutes to Murići Beach or one hour to Ckla.
When: Spring or fall to catch mating or migrating season.
Who: All skill levels of stand-up paddlers and kayakers
Paddling not only provides a pleasurable means of transportation but also an opportunity to observe your surroundings from a different perspective. In a kayak or canoe, you drift along at water’s level. The higher vantage of a SUP opens another world of discovery. And that unique view becomes even more interesting if you’re paddling on a healthy and biodiversity-rich body of water.
Skadar Lake is the largest lake in Southern Europe and acts as a border between Montenegro and Albania. It’s located in the southern pocket of Montenegro and less than 15 kilometers as-the-crow-flies from the Adriatic coast. Skadar is an incredibly unique ecosystem known worldwide for its aquatic and birdlife. Which makes it an exciting place to stand-up paddle.
Local tourist agencies offer kayak and canoe rentals; however, SUPs are harder to find. Bring your own to ensure you can get that stork-like view over the water. Unlike the turquoise waters of the Soča or the clear Adriatic, Lake Skadar is a darker color, evidence of its rich biodiversity. Reeds, seaweed and insects feed both fish and birds. Locals love fishing on the lake, and if want to taste the catch of the day, restaurants serve great local recipes. Birdwatching tours from traditional wooden motorboats are offered, and if you prefer to have logistics handled for you, then book a guided SUP trip by Montenegro Expeditions. The lake’s main settlement, Virpazar, is worth exploring and has the Skadar Lake National Park Visitor Centre.
Lake Skadar is connected to the Bojana River Delta, and together form one of Europe’s most important sites for wintering birds. The Bojana River drains the southern tip of Skadar into the Adriatic Sea, providing an ideal location for a SUP trip. Plan two-three days to paddle from Ckla along the lakeshore into Albania. Be sure to alert local authorities ahead of time by calling the local police directly, or requesting assistance from a local guiding company to arrange the aquatic border crossing for you. Watch the landscape and river life change as you paddle down the lake and into the Bojana River to the Adriatic. Reserve one of the several camps or hotels along the Bojana River. Be sure to save a day to bask on the beach at Ada Bojana, the island that the river delta forms, known for its beachside huts and bars.
However, if a base camp with day trips is what you fancy, camp at Murići Beach on the lake’s southwestern shore and paddle to the Beska Monastery to learn about the region’s rich history (and drink fresh pomegranate juice). From there you can paddle to the small village of Bobovište about 16 kilometers away. In Bobovište you can meet local fishermen and farmers and learn about the local tobacco production. Or, drive to the northern tip of the lake and paddle up the sinuous Crnojevića River to the pretty historical village Rijeka Crnojevića.
In recent years, attempts to develop the lake and build a mega-resort have threatened the healthy ecosystems of Skadar Lake. By paddling, birdwatching and supporting local camps and hotels, you can contribute to the positive argument that the healthy lake and natural shoreline is what attracts tourists. Through the full sensory experience of paddling on Lake Skadar you will feel how the lake feeds the landscape, and how the fish, birds and even humans, are all connected here.
Local Tip: Plan ahead if you want to cross the border by lake. And buy a bird book or Colins Bird Guide app from Apple or Google Play.
Editors Note: Unless otherwise noted, photos of the Sava River by Katja Jemec courtesy of the Balkan Rivers Defence, photos of the Soča River by Andraz Krpic courtesy of the Balkan Rivers Defence, photos of Lake Skadar courtesy of Montenegro Expeditions, photos of Croatia by Jens Klatt.