Croatia… Is this really the way the Mediterranean used to be?
If this was the way the Mediterranean used to be as the TV adverts say, I had the Mediterranean all wrong. Croatia offers an abundance of culture, outdoor and subterranean adventures to satisfy any travel cravings.
The Croatian government has been embarking on an aggressive advertising campaign for several years to draw tourists to its Mediterranean coastline and ancient cities. Croatia, which has applied to join the EU, is now a stable peaceful country filled with opportunities for various tourism escapes.
The city of Zadar and the Velebit national park and reserve system in the central part of Croatia, offers a great jumping off point for an adventure exploring the Croatian people and countryside. The national park encompasses a large mountain range that separates the dry coastal sun drenched city of Zadar and the Mediterranean shores from the cooler interior covered in pine trees, running rivers and fertile pastures.
The park, located just northeast of the port city of Zadar, is a short 45-minute drive starting point to begin river rafting through the national park. Zadar’s history mirrors the rest of Croatia. Foreign powers have occupied this ancient city including the Romans, the Venetians from Italy, the Germans during World War 2, and finally the Soviets during the period of communism. The center of the city is protected by a fortress wall almost 50 feet tall in places and protected the city from Turkish Ottoman invasions during the ventian period.
The entrance to the city still contains the old hinges from the solid wood and iron doors that protected the entrance with inscriptions carved in stone over the main city entrance proclaiming that the city was taken by peaceful means. The city was actually sold to Venetians in the 1400’s and remained in Venetian control until 1797.
The Hotel Bastion, located in the historic city core, was built on the remains of the medieval fortress “Kastela” from the 13th century. The hotel has luxurious rooms with a fantastic restaurant serving fresh seafood and local meats. The hotel is a historical journey complete with port views where you can watch the ferry man rowing across the port entrance, for a few coins, as has been done undisturbed for centuries.
I was lucky enough to team up with Zeljko Kelemen, who owns Huck Finn Adventures. Zeljko has been offering outdoor adventure excursions including sailing, mountain biking, hiking, rafting and sea kayaking trips for over 11 years and provides adventures for REI (Recreational Equipment Inc) from Seattle.
Here in the Velebit national park, the Zrmanja River snakes through canyons to the coastline and Huck Finn Adventures offers a beginner to moderate rafting trip and a great way experience the remote side of Croatia. The best times to explore the Croatian river systems is the spring when mountain run off is at its highest, but all the river trips operate year round, even when water levels are lower and make for a “soft adventure”, suitable for any experience level.
The Zrmanja River combines a mixture of serene peaceful sections to take in the tranquil beauty of the region along with sections of short rapids to add a bit of adrenaline to the day. There is a portage around a 50-foot waterfall and ample opportunity to swim and do some cliff jumping into the cold “refreshing” river. The landscape is a mixture of rocky limestone and fertile pastures along the river valley, where locals wave as you float by. The day was finished off with an early dinner of succulent lamb cooked “under the bell’. This large cast iron metal dome enclosing the meat, is slowly cooked over a wood fire and made a fantastic finish and heart warming closing to a day in the Croatian country side.
From the city of Zadar, the journey to another national park called Plitvice is just 4 hours by car and a 1 or 2 day trip to explore this region known for its crystal clear lakes and waterfalls is well worth it.
If you stay overnight within the park, the Hotel Jezero, is a “charming” large drab communist concrete facility from the outside and is more akin to a movie set from the 1970’s. Decorating each room is the orange bedspreads and other dated décor, which you would expect from the outside. There is even a stiffed black bear in the hotel lobby, encased in glass, which is more protection from the tourists hordes than the actual animal. However its aged charm begins to wear on you and is offset by the phenomenal view, and sunsets, from the rooms overlooking the national park.
The entire park is a major attraction for throngs of Italian and German bus tours, so hiking the more difficult trails or starting out first thing in the morning is a must if you want to avoid the crowds. If you are caught in the hordes, being patient is a virtue as the crowds around some of the waterfalls can be somewhat daunting in this natural park. But the countless waterfalls and still lakes are an absolute must and hopefully receive the protection to preserve their beauty.
Croatia is perforated with cave systems because of its limestone geological make up. Subterranean trips are available in a number of locations, but one of the most interesting and cathedral like in size is the cave system just outside the small town of Knin. Knin is south east of Zadar and a short 1.5-hour drive through rolling hills and a mountain pass and the caves are only open during day hours, which makes a fantastic day trip.
The site named Parc Prirode, is actually home to 3 large caves of which 2 are open to the public and each range in length from 1300 meters long to 2400 meters long.
These caves are enormous inside and the air extremely cool at 8 degrees Celsius. The view stalagmites and open cathedral like caverns is an amazing sight.
My female Serbian guide spoke great English considering the vast majority of visitors are either Croatian or German tourists, and she explained how they found prehistoric remains of lost civilizations and remnants of prehistoric cave bears and animals who used the caves as shelters. A railway engineer doing survey work accidentally discovered the caves in the 1920’s and you can still feel the train rumble by from time to time which adds to the isolated, subterranean feeling.
In the southern part of Croatia off the shores of the ancient city of Dubrovnik, lies 3 islands named Lopud, Kolocep and Sipan. These Mediterranean shores are perfect to take in kayaking, bicycling and sailing while soaking up the Mediterranean sun and enjoying Croatian hospitality. The islands of Kolocep and Sipan provide ample bicycle riding through small Mediterranean towns through olive groves and along their sandstone shorelines.
Dubrovnik is a well preserved medieval city that escaped the many invasions of past conquering empires including the Venetians and German WW2 aerial bombardments. The high fortress walls and masterful negotiating skills of past city administrators negotiated full autonomy from the Venetians and became a wealth family strong hold of which the current residents are extremely proud.
The island of Lopud was a summer vacation getaway for the wealthy residents and royalty of Dubrovnik during the 1500’s and was home to over 4000 residents along with 2 large shipyards. Some of the summer homes are still in use along the island’s beaches, but house restaurants, gift shops and other tourism necessities. The island is now home to 100 residents with an exploding population of 300 during the summer months.
Hidden behind Lupod town’s waterfront buildings is the family run restaurant called “Peggy” owned by Gaby Pavlovic. Gaby’s knowledge of the islands past is unsurpassed and even wrote a book about the islands colorful past. Her restaurant overlooks the Lopud Bay and serves the most amazing medley seafood, wood fired cooked local fish and fantastically fresh Mediterranean salads. It is an epicurious adventure, which is truly memorable.
The Croatia I experienced was not lounging on a beach, being served drinks, surrounded by thousands of other tourists. Croatia offers so much more.
The people are fantastic, welcoming and warming. What a shame it would be to miss out on what the Mediterranean really was, and currently is...
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"The harder it is to get to, that's where I want to be." As a former commerical pilot, a certified professional photographer, and now owner of Industrial Pixel Visual Effects (www.ipvfx.com), travel and photography has always been my passion. My stories and photographs have been published in newspapers, inflight magazines, outdoors and travelers magazines.
Located: Vancouver Canada
Likes: Culture, Food, Adventure, Unique experiences, the hidden gems.