Reviving a centuries old tradition of rafting on Slovak rivers

Rafting, using traditional wooden craft is making a comeback in Slovakia. By reviving the centuries old tradition a dedicated band of enthusiasts is keeping history alive and attracting tourists. Our reporter went along for the ride, starting at a village in northern Slovakia.

Strecno is a small village in Northern Slovakia surrounded by the beautiful landscape of the Mala Fatra Mountains. The village is located on the shore of river Vah which the longest river in Slovakia. Rafting has a long history in this region.

The history of rafting in Slovakia begins in the 11th century. The rafts were made of 6 to 16 wooden pieces that were connected together. The rafts were 40 meters long and the longest of them was able to stand about 180 cubic meters. One raft was driven by up to 5 men and the most important one was always going in front of the convoy. The greatest time of rafting on the river Vah started in the 18th century lasting until the beginning of the 20th century when the railway to Kosice, connecting Western and Eastern Slovakia was built. We can say that the official end of traditional rafting came in 1935.

In 1999 Pavol Albrecht started to put in practice his idea to revive rafting in Strecno. He set up a company that so far has offered cruises down the Vah river to almost 30,000 tourists. There are another three such companies in Slovakia. Albrecht says that rafting has started to become a serious business. Well it's a seasonal one because it can be done only between April and October.

"We have designed our 6 rafts by ourselves and then they had to be licensed by the Slovak Shipping Agency. We have 30 employees working on the rafts and all of them had to pass an exam in order to get a sort of driving licence for these rafts. They have to be able not only to pilot the rafts but also to ensure the security of the people on board. It's a very serious job."

Rastislav Melo has been piloting wooden rafts for almost ten years. He says that it is a demanding job but one that brings plenty of satisfaction too.

"You spend your working hours in the nature. The landscape is very nice. You meet interesting people. And often the hard work is fun. For example we once had very low water level and a corpulent German lady on board. The raft got stuck in some stones on the river bed and we had to work hard to push it forward. We woke up with terrible sour muscle the day after"

In Strecno locals try to pass the tradition of wooden rafting from generation to generation. Children in the local kindergarten are eager to learn this trade as soon as possible, according to its director, Zofia Rajnakova.

"Children as young as three are allowed to step on board to have their first ride on the wooden raft. They like it so much. When they are a bit older, around 5 or 6, they start their apprenticeship under the supervision of adults. We even have some competitions for the best young pilots."

Children are also involved in the cultural activities related to rafting. Dressed in their folk costumes they sing or play traditional instruments to entertain the passengers on board. Tourists are delighted.

"My name is Peter and I am from the Czech Republic. I grew up in Czechoslovakia so I know that there are beautiful mountains here. And good people so that's why I am here."