Ljubljanica Kayaking: Vrhnika to the Ljubljana Marsh and the Capital’s Iconic Bridges

We did this kayaking trip down the Ljubljanica River on the 7th of March, 2024. Starting in Vrhnika, we paddled down through the largest marsh in Slovenia to the capital city Ljubljana. In Ljubljana we paddled through the center a bit before returning upstream to go home and deflate our boat. This trip is in preparation for paddling the Danube again.

Ljubljana, Slovenia: the Long Way to the Danube

Click to read about why we chose a city not on the Danube to get to the Danube

Picking up kayaking gear at our mother’s houses in the Netherlands and Germany before paddling down the second half of the Danube is understandable. Taking a detour via Ljubljana – a city not on the Danube, but on the Danube river basin – might seem like an odd choice. Why not simply travel back to Budapest and take the bus to Mohács, like we did in reverse in 2019?

Well, because (1) I crave new experiences all the time. Also (2), Ljubljana (and Zagreb) are capital cities I haven’t been to yet. Moreover (3), Slovenia is one of the countries I’ve technically ‘been to’ before twice, but haven’t stayed in. This obviously needs correcting. And lastly (4), I now have a friend in town, Heidi Koelle from The Southern Space Cadet. But since she travels a lot as well, there’s no guarantee for a meet.

But I’m not the only person who is traveling. Jonas is too and he also has opinions. He’s never been to Slovenia before and as long as the trip to and from Ljubljana is not too much a pain in the ass, it’s okay with him. Also, Ljubljana has a river flowing through its center that is suitable for kayaking. That means we could do a fun day trip that also helps us get back into the kayaking.

So I presented a plan to go from Germany to Ljubljana by (day/night) train. The exit from Ljubljana would be in the direction of Zagreb. I did some rough research into kayaking the Sava River from Slovenia to Zagreb as well, which he also found interesting.

But the deciding factor would be accommodation. While on the ferry from Holwerd to Ameland, I did a casual bit of research into Airbnbs in Slovenia. Heidi had given me advice on which neighborhoods close to the Ljubljanica River are nice. That plus the intel that the kayak club Bobermarine is nearby, made us choose the most central part of Trnovo neighborhood.

A quick search in that area popped up a place with a lot of cat-themed things. When reading the description, it said that the neighboring Airbnb hosts had six (6!!) cats. And it’s possible to visit them. I showed it to Jonas and he was sold immediately. We booked it for 10 nights. If that sounds like you, check out That Cat Flat on Airbnb.

My first paddling route idea was to go from the Bobermarine jetty down the Ljubljanica via the famous bridges in the center all the way until Laze pri Dolskem after the confluence with the Sava. About 20 kilometers. But that would require us to portage the kayak around four weirs or hydroelectric plants. And I couldn’t find info about where to portage, or clear satellite/streetview footage to figure it out myself. Portaging around weirs and dams four times is quite a lot, but it would be cool to paddle the confluence with the Sava.

The train ride from Siegburg to Munich, Munich to Villach, and Villach to Ljubljana was pretty amazing. Most of it was on the German ICE trains, which have a restaurant that serves Weizen beer in the iconic glass and has vegan Currywurst on the menu. We crossed a lot of tributaries to the Danube by train, but further upstream than we did in 2019. And the Alpine section in Austria to Badgastein and from Mallnitz at sunset was incredible.

Taxi to Vrhnika + Inflating Zucchini Under Pressure

Just a few days before taking the train to Ljubljana, I thought maybe it’s better to start upstream on the Ljubljanica and then paddle down to the city center. About 23 kilometers. A quick search showed that upstream there’s a town called Vrhnika (rough pronunciation: VURKHKH-nika). It’s pretty close to the actual source of the Ljubljanica itself. The advantages are that there are zero weirs en route and that it goes through a natural area called the Ljubljana Marsh(es). There are no rapids on this section. But if we wanted to paddle under the iconic bridges of Ljubljana, we’d have to backtrack the last 1.4 kilometers to get home and paddle against the current.

During our 10-day stay in Ljubljana, we didn’t have a lot of sunny and dry days to choose from. ‘Tis early March, after all. We picked a day and looked at how to get to Vrhnika. There’s a bus, but it leaves about two kilometers from our home. Walking that distance with Zucchini on my back is pretty brutal. Jonas found a taxi app called Cammeo (Google Play + Apple) and it gave a price of about €25 for the journey. We didn’t know if it would work, but we decided to give that a try before going by bus.

Where would we launch our boat from in Vhrnika? With the help of satellite imagery, streetview, and my OSM app, we found a water level gauge next to a bridge. Water level gauges tend to have stairs into the water, as seen in this photo. Worst case, we still have to walk around a bit to find the perfect spot.

In the morning, Jonas arranged a taxi via the Cammeo app. It worked very nicely and seventeen minutes later I was hauling Zucchini down to the street. The taxi driver was a nice man who suggested we’d take the small road to Vrhnika instead of the highway since it’s a daily traffic jam. He dropped us off at the desired location and the total came down to €24 including a small tip.

I walked around a bit to take photos and find the perfect launch spot. It was on the left bank next to the bridge and downstream from it. We unpacked Zucchini on the grass and inflated her to the threatening noises of a very large and fluffy dog barking her lungs out. I was afraid at first, but she was on a fenced-off terrace and couldn’t get to us. Still, it was highly unpleasant to listen to ceaseless murderous barking for twenty minutes. The upstairs neighbor also came out to yell at the dog to shut the fuck up.

Down the Ljubljanica to Podpeč

Once we were done and dressed for success, we put Zucchini in the water. The currents after the bridge were a bit bumpy and strong, but not enough to call them rapids. It required a bit of attention to not become one with a tree branch a little downstream.

We hopped in with much excitement and began our kayak trip down the Ljubljanica. We quickly passed under some highway bridges and past a fishing club fish restaurant. I was just wondering about the nutrias, when I spotted one nutria making her way through the water, escaping certain death by the authorities that seek to eradicate these big-toothed rodents.

The flow slowed down and we were left to our own paddling skills. Just the way I’d hoped, to be honest, because we’ll need to build arm strength for the Danube. It all serves a greater purpose.

The Ljubljanica twists and turns calmly though the landscape. Though there’s enough water to paddle in, the embankments are quite high and most of the time I can’t see the tall mountains in the distance. It’s easy to forget from here that we’re not traveling in a flat country. Then a turn reveals not one, but two churches on hilltops and mountains nearby. One is definitely Sveta Ana in Podpeč. We take some photos.

Kayaking the Ljubljana Marshes in Slovenia mountains

A train in the distance honks its horn before crossing the bridge. When we approach the bridge, there are some maintenance guys around in high-viz jackets.

Upon approach to Podpeč, we pass by the airstrip. There’s a windsock and Jonas spots some old-looking plane that’s definitely out of service. It’s hard to see from down below. Jonas says the airstrip can’t be that short since this plane that definitely landed here at some point is quite big.

Jonas spots a white and black cat on the left bank, and we paddle to them while saying pspsps. But the cat eventually runs off. So we keep paddling and pass a restaurant with a nice landing for kayakers on the right bank.

After the bridge of Podpeč, things calm down and become more agrarian again. There are swans in the water periodically. We pass each other without the swans getting agressive.

Kayaking the Ljubljana Marshes + Lunch Break

After this bridge, the Ljubljana Marsh Landscape Park officially begin. But it’s not just wild nature; some people have their boats in various conditions of decay moored to the shore. The marshes flood periodically in spring and autumn, which is why the humans have dug perpendicular canals on both sides of the river. The Slovenian Wiki says that humans used to live on higher ground to not get flooded, but that today many settlements are in the bog. I quote:

“The price for apparent human insubordination to nature is frequent flooding in ground floor rooms.”

We paddle towards another bridge, which was mapped as a pipe bridge to transport water (vodovodni most). I’d read about it the day before on Google Maps. It said it was going to be demolished and replaced with a pedestrian/cyclist/water bridge. A wise Slovenian wrote this about it in 2022:

“Slovenia could – following the example of Austria and Slovakia and others (cycling recreational routes along the Danube) – make a cycling / recreational route along the Ljubljanica, e.g. from the center of Ljubljana to Vrhnika.”

Not long after this bridge, we find a suitable landing spot to eat our lunch. We land Zucchini, take the food and our seats ashore, and plop down to eat bureki and sandwiches. A cloud pulls in front of the sun and I get very cold. I grab my winter jacket, but I’m still cooling down rapidly. Maybe we should have brought food we can cook on our stove and make hot, like last time on the Sieg.

After about half an hour, we had finished our break. We climbed back in Zucchini, making her dirtier than hoped. Back on the river, I also could not warm up again from paddling. I lost feeling in some of my toes. And the clouds that had come were here to stay and also deliver some shitty rain. I put on my poncho, but it mostly helped keep me warm, not dry.

Entering Ljubljana + Ljubljana Kayak and Canoe Club

We kept paddling to get out of the Ljubljana Marshes and into Ljubljana itself. For me, the start of the city is the A1 highway bridge. I must have hitchhiked it before in 2014. That’s also where the confluence of the Ljubljanica and the Iščica/Ižica happens. It didn’t add significant flow to our river. Thankfully, the rain had stopped.

The Ljubljanica straightened out and there were many more boats tied to shore, including the first tourist boat. We could peek into people’s backyards with all the random stuff they store outside. We kept paddling to the next bridge, which is the Most na Livadi. There’s a small campervan site, a riverfront restaurant, and a kayak club nearby. Beyond that bridge, we sometimes saw Ljubljana Castle on its hill, flying its flags. There was some blue in the sky, but it wasn’t as beautiful as I’d hoped from the weather this morning.

A young woman with a headband in a racing kayak paddled upstream faster than we were going downstream. She didn’t acknowledge our existence either verbally or with a nod. We were approaching her spawn point at this Livadi bridge.

The water sped up a little bit. After the bridge, we were parallel to the kayak club. It was busy with teenage boys in slalom canoes making sharp turns around the poles suspended from wires. I wonder how long they’ve been training again since it’s still early March. Can’t have been for very long.

This area is also the location of a fishing club. It’s on the left bank, where the Mali Graben joins with quite a speed. There are signs to not enter the Mali Graben by boat, but I wonder if that also applies to kayaks. This river is a relief canal for the Gradáščica River, which used to flood our neighborhood in Ljubljana called Trnovo very often. There are a few rapids on this artificial distributary.

Right after this confluence, the Ljubljanica splits off into two: the Ljubljanica goes left to the city center, while the Gruber Canal takes a right. This canal was built between Ljubljana Castle Hill and the Golovec Hill to help the city not flood during the biannual flooding of the Ljubljana Marsh.

We took a left here, paddled past another kayak and SUP rental called Bobermarine, and immediately encountered one of the tourist cruises. We stuck to the left very closely to the edge. The waves from the ship weren’t big enough to throw us off-course.

We’d entered Slovenia’s capital. We paddled under the Prulski Most, after which we were very close to our home next to the Greek embassy.

Padding Under the Iconic Bridges of Ljubljana

Jonas and I had previously discussed what to do. I wanted to kayak until the Mesarski Most, from where we could see the Dragon Bridge and then turn around to paddle upstream to our home. A moment in the rain an hour earlier made me doubt that, but now the weather had cleared, I was feeling it again. The current was not too strong to paddle back against. In total, we would have to paddle 1.4 kilometers upstream after that final bridge. Jonas agreed to it because it was mostly my dream.

We slowly paddled downstream next to people strolling on the embankment. On the corner with the Gradáščica River, a man was fishing. We paddled around his line, but otherwise stuck to the left. After this confluence, the Ljubljanica was surrounded by high walls with the occasional ladder. We paddled under Hradeckega Most and made a test landing at the ladder closest to our favorite bakery: Dunajska Pekarna.

The next bunch of bridges flew by. People on the terraces were looking down at us and sometimes filming us. We dodged a few more cruise ships on the way to the triple bridge Tromostovje. Because of its structure, it creates a bunch of weird vortices. We didn’t want to go all the way left because of those, so we went through the middle, but had to speed up because a cruise was coming from the other side.

Next up was our final bridge, Meskarski Most. It’s also where some of the cruises originate. We were mostly breaking our speed at this point. From there, I took some photos of the famous Dragon Bridge of Ljubljana. Then we turned the boat around and paddled to the other side of the Ljubljanica against the current.

Paddling Against the Current + A Stop at Dunajska Pekarna

We spent the next 1.4 kilometers paddling on the right-bank of the Ljubljanica in a tiring fashion. The current was much stronger than anticipated, but we could manage. We stopped a total of four times, holding on to the ladders that were available. Once a river cruise overtook us from behind, we crossed to the right (the left bank) and continued paddling over there.

Jonas was a little annoyed that we had to paddle back this far, but with the breaks, it was fine. We never felt in danger or that we could not move back upstream like a dumb fish. The only thing was the people looking down on us from the bridges like… paddle so you can entertain my stupid child.

Once we were close to the Hradeckega Most, I grabbed the ladder below Krakovc Pivnica and close to the bakery. Jonas put his paddle in the boat in a way it wouldn’t fall out and climbed out of Zucchini via the ladder. It was maybe a little sketchy, but he managed. I held onto the ladder while he bought some fresh lepinja breads for tonight’s Tunisian ojja.

Dunajska Pekarna bakery lepinja bread Slovenia Ljubljana kayak

He climbed down the ladder with one hand while I pushed the ladder behind me. He put the breads in the boat and climbed back in. Once everything was packed away, we paddled back past the fisherman on the Gradaščica confluence and toward our landing spot in front of the Greek embassy.

We lifted Zucchini out of the Ljubljanica and unpacked her. There were quite some people enjoying the riverside while we turned her upside down to let the water out. Instead of packing her up, we kept her inflated and crossed the road to our Airbnb. With some 3D thinking, we managed to get her up to the first floor gallery, where we let her dry semi-deflated for two nights before we packed her up, ready for her next adventure.

Where shall that next adventure be? Still not the Danube. First, we’re going down a bit of the Sava from Brežice in Slovenia to Zagreb in Croatia. This concluded the second test of Zucchini before her deployment on Europe’s most international river.

Map of Kayaking the Upper Ljubljanica River

Zoom in and out on this map and use the menu button top right to find more info about places. For information about the water levels on the Ljubljanica, check out these websites: Vrhnika water level gauge, Kamin water level gauge, and Ljubljana Moste (Bridge) water level gauge. If you want to know what kind of items are helpful when self-organizing a kayak trip or joining one in Ljubljana, check out my kayaking gear list.

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