The lovely Lidia, a good friend of Pam and Lexi, who is of Croatian descent, has advised us to not miss the Plitvice Lakes National Park. We had approached the tourist information office and been advised the highway to the park was closed for two days because of wind.
We did not get much of an explanation as to how wind could close a highway for two days and were left at a loss as to what to do next. We were advised our options were to either catch a bus, which went once a day, and stay overnight in lodging at the park or to take a car service which seemed fairly expensive.
Pam did some research online regarding weather forecasts and we booked a guided tour for Friday at a more competitive price than the car service we had discussed in the tourism office.
As we go to bed Thursday night Pam expresses her excitement regarding the tour and we cross our fingers for continued fine weather.
Our tour is booked with Romeo and Juliet Excursions Zadar and we are to be met at 8:00am by our guide at the apartment building. We set our alarm for 6:00am to make sure we are good to go on time.
Knowing I have to wake to an alarm has me tossing through the night and waking regularly. The last time I wake is 5:11am and I don’t sleep again.
Pam is also awake early and we have plenty of time to prepare. We are really not sure how much gear to take and my little backpack is stuffed with cold weather gear by the time we leave. My trusty Pacerpoles are strapped to the side ready for come what may.
As we hit the Old Zadar streets in the cool air we find our guide Dejan waiting, he greets us, introduces himself, and shakes both our hands. We walk swiftly out of the old town area and meet our second guide Ivica. The greetings and handshakes occur once more and we pile into the Citroen Zara Picasso which has plenty of headroom for me in the back.
Pam and I are a little perplexed at the need for two guides however both the young men seem very friendly and give us a little commentary regarding the history of Zadar and the Dalmatian area as we travel out of the town.
The conversation is light, the young men talk about their home area, we tell them a little about Australia.
We ask about school hours and are told that because of the lack of education facilities and schools that children go to school in two shifts. A morning (7am – 1pm) and afternoon shift (1pm – 7pm). So children in the same street at the same school may not necessarily go to school at the same time.
We have an explanation for the kids wandering in the park yesterday.
In no time we are on the freeway heading for the snow capped mountains we had seen for the first time yesterday. Dejan advises us we are looking at the Velebit mountain range which goes for about 150km along the Adriatic Sea and has a highest peak of 1750m above sea level.
We pass the Novigrad Bay Area via the Most Maslenica which is a large freeway bridge built as part of the massive infrastructure improvement in Croatia after the war. Dejan explains that the winds coming down off the mountain can exceed two hundred kilometers per hour in the valley the bridge crosses. He further states that the highest measured wind speed in Europe 304km/h was here and that the wind has forced the highway to be closed for the last two days.
Wow, lucky we didn’t try and walk there.
We continue up the mountain and pass through a little tunnel. Dejan tells us we are approaching the second longest tunnel in Croatia (Sveti Rok Tunnel) which is 5.7km long and to be ready for the change in landscape and climate once we exit.
The temperature gauge is showing 7C as we enter the long two lane tunnel.
As we drive through the tunnel I comment how impressed I am by the modern infrastructure in Croatia and what a massive effort must have been made as a nation to bring it to such a high level so soon after the war. Dejan explains that the western side of the tunnel we are travelling in was completed in 2003 and the eastern shaft 2009. Ivica chimes in and says ‘though Croatian’s rarely agree and like to complain about the government everyone thinks that a good job was done with the infrastructure’.
‘It’s the one thing they got right’ he jokes and we all laugh. I reply ‘that bitching about government is a world wide phenomenon and not unique to Croatia’.
We eject from the tunnel, mist surrounds the freeway, light snow covers the ground, the temperature gauge shows -3C. It is like another world entirely.
Our guides explain they don’t consider it snow as it is not covering the grass however to Pam and I it is like a wonderland of ice. I say that ‘the last time I saw snow was twenty eight years ago’ and our guides laugh.
They tell us tales of their youth, going to mass when there was no church and the service was conducted in the falling snow with people standing under umbrellas and dressed as warmly as they could. School in classrooms with no heating.
The drive continues, the temperature gauge steadily dropping as we go further into the white landscape ahead.
We stop for break at a restaurant/cafe where many other travelers also appear to rest. Our guides have turned the heating off as we approached so that we ‘don’t get a shock from the cold air on exit’. The air is brisk outside the car but not as cold as I had expected. Probably because the day is perfectly fine with not a single cloud in sight and there is absolutely no wind at all.
I nearly slip over on the first piece of ice I encounter. My boots have no grip at all on ice.
Our guides have advised us that ‘wild’ animals are kept in fenced areas out the back and Pam and I meander over and apologise for interrupting the hibernation of the two brown bears shuffling around the fence. There are some deer and goats inside fenced areas mulling around in the cold.
Inside the restaurant door we come face to face with stuffed animals. Bears, boars, foxes, deer stare at us through glass eyes.
After a quick coffee for Pam we are on our way again.
Dejan explains that during the Yugoslavia era hunting for brown bears decimated the species and that now only four hundred remain in the wild in all Croatia. The bears are now a protected species and one of the largest remaining group of wild bears roam the Plitvice Lakes National Park. He laughing assures us that we are very unlikely to encounter any on our walk.
I tell him that coming from Australia where we have the most venomous spiders, snakes and jelly fish, with crocodiles lurking in rivers and sharks in the ocean and ‘drop-bears’ in trees that I was just not that worried about a brown bear attack.
The mist has crept over the flat land we are now driving through. Dejan tells us we are passing the Krbava Field which is a huge flat area where many battles have been fought in wars throughout Croatian history. He hopes the mist has lifted by the time we return so we will actually be able to see the field.
Two tanks flanking the gates of a military base and airfield float by like hostile ghosts in the mist. They look small for all the damage they are able to inflict.
Soon after we are entering the Plitvice Lakes National Park gates and alight from the car. My first action is to lengthen my Pacerpoles and take the rubber tips off.
I am sure being a quadruped will have advantages in the ice.
Like the two soft little Australians we are, we don our gloves. Our guides tell us it is better to stay warm rather than get cold and try to warm up.
We make our way to the main building where Dejan checks for conditions. He is told the lower walks are dangerously iced and that a female tourist fell, breaking her leg, there the previous day. The upper lake region is too heavily snowed under to pass.
We elect to take the upper ring route of the lower lakes system and descend for a boat tour across the largest of the lakes. Better safe than sorry. We have to last a year.
Off we go along the icy, slippery paths. Our guides advise us to walk on the side of the path where there is snow to compact under our feet which will help to prevent slipping.
This is a great tip and we make reasonably good progress keeping to the far left at all times to avoid potentially slipping towards the very steep valley sides on our right from which there would be no unbroken return.
Along the path Ivica asks us ‘what the one thing is that most stands out to us about Croatia’? I reply ‘that for me it is how young, beautiful, stylish and smart’ the population is.
They both look at me like I am a little touched in the head and I feel like telling them that they themselves are prime examples of what I am talking about.
Both our guides have language degrees and speak multiple languages. On the drive up to the park Ivica has expressed how in Croatia, which has a long history of adaptation, speaking another language makes ‘one person become worth two, and if they speak three languages they are worth three people’.
What a superb national attitude. These young men are so used to this being the norm that it passes unnoticed, taken for granted.
Croatia is undoubtably full of history and natural beauty. It’s beautiful people make it unique.
Our pleasant slippery walk continues.
The views of the valley of falls in winter surpass both the abilities of the iphone and the scope of my vocabulary.
Dejan warns us we are about to start the descent to the lakes with the words ‘we are coming to a tricky bit’. Given that both of us have very nearly gone arse up half a dozen times already the warning is apt.
My Pacerpoles are proving their worth again and have already saved me from falling a few times.
Our guides have informed us about how the falls are created over thousands of years by sedimentation of Calcium Carbonate and that the main lake used to be two divided lakes. Over time the growth of the second fall outstripped the first leaving the first submerged in the now conjoined larger lake. They show us a plaque that has a cross section of the lakes area showing the submerged spike and statistics regarding depth and area.
At the bottom of the descent we cross the clear cold stream flowing around tall grasses via a wooden bridge that fortunately has rails for us to hold onto. I nearly lose my footing taking a photo.
That would have been a brisk swim.
After crossing a little slope going around the hill corner we approach the docks and buildings for the lake boat service. We eat the lunch provided by our guides standing up as all flat surfaces are covered in either snow or dripping water.
Driving up to the park we had passed fields full of unmarked snow glittering like diamonds in the sun and I am able to capture this effect on the camera. Dejan stamps his name out in the snow like a little kid and he and Ivica throw a few snowballs at each other.
Pam and I compact a few snowballs and throw them as well however this is a conflict I am loath to start as I know I will have to concede to a soggy defeat of snow down my collar if I actually hit her.
In the distance we see the boat slowly making its way to shore.
We board soon after the small group has disembarked and the boat reverses, turns and we set out across the still waters of the lake.
The boat engine is barely idling, our progress is slow and smooth and barely leaves a wake. Reflections from the snow covered slopes and sun waver in the still cool clear water.
At the far side we pass a series of lower falls where the river enters the lake and disembark ready for the walk back up the valley side.
At the first set of stairs we encounter a little group who has paused to watch two squirrels dance and weave their way up a tree trunk.
Such incredible speed and reflexes.
The uphill section seems to be going fine for me, I am talking to the two guides about Football and we are making good progress when I suddenly realise there are only three of us instead of four.
Pam is having trouble walking uphill on the icy stairs. Like a true gentleman Ivica returns to help her. He offers his arm as support however Pam is too afraid of slipping and taking them both down to accept his aid for long.
She tells me later that she had visions of them both slipping over the steep side and sliding all the way into the lake calling ‘goooodbyeeeee’ as she goes.
Once Pam has caught us up our ascent slowly continues. The conversation has increased in depth by now as we are all comfortable with each other. Our guides give us lessons in the history of the latest war and even more importantly lessons in acceptance and forgiveness and the need to continue life with a minimum of hostility.
‘What can you do when your neighbour of many years suddenly is pointing a gun at you then returns to live alongside you again after the war’? Ivica asks rhetorically.
Adaptation is close to the heart of the Croatian people. We have spoken to many people who have mentioned the importance of adaptation in our short time here.
At the top of the slope is a manned building and Dejan speaks to the person inside and advises us that there will be a bus to take us back to the park entrance which is about three kilometers away.
Pam and I surprise our guides by asking if ‘we could walk instead of catching the bus’?
The guys are happy to accommodate our request and we crunch along the snow on the side of a bitumen road for a little while before rejoining the icy track we have walked in the other direction.
The sun is higher in the sky by now and I take many more pictures. Our guides are happy to pose and give permission to use their pictures on our blog. They ask us to forward our blog address to their facebook page once it is written.
All too soon we are walking back past the entrance buildings heading back for the car.
Enroute I see an entrance sign to the park with a give way to bears symbol on the lower right side. I walk towards the sign to get a close up photo and lift my eyes from the ground as I walk. My right foot finds a patch of ice the moment I am distracted and I am suddenly sliding …… arms and Pacerpoles waving madly ….. my back is arching and I feel I am about to kiss the dirt hard for the second time since leaving Australia ….. my sliding foot leaves the ice ….. and miraculously I find myself upright with my brain still in an intact skull.
Whew…..I take the photo and we pile into the car.
As we are driving back through the Krbava Field our guides tell us that they are going to take us to a couple of stops they don’t normally include in the tour to compensate for the shortened walk around the lakes due to the icy paths and weather conditions.
We leave the main road and pass a sawmill belching smoke. The smoke rises, hits a strata of different temperature air and spreads horizontally at the barrier between strata.
From here the road climbs uphill to the village Udbina where we stop and walk up to the Church of the Croatian Martyrs. This was built by the Catholic Church to honour the fallen during Croatia’s turbulent history and was completed in 2010. A bronze statue of Pope John Paul II stands in front of the stark white building.
To the right of the church is a square with a tall white cross and a wall lined with dated headstones. To the rear of the church the hill falls away down to the snow covered expanse of the Krbava Field.
Ivica tells us little details such as the looping three stranded figure eights on the cross representing the local style of weaving. The stones show dates of conflicts and massacres throughout Croatian history. The metal cross above the main entrance at the church front is the first letter in the Cyrillic alphabet and that in earlier times Croatia was the only country allowed by the Catholic Church to conduct their mass in Old Church Slavonic rather than Latin.
Dejan tries to enter the church and finds it closed, however as we are walking around the outside a man comes and opens the side door for us. Compared to the many ornate Spanish churches and cathedrals we have seen the interior is very simple.
Sparsely decorated white walls rising to a high, completely unadorned, white central dome. A simple stone altar and pulpit once again in white. In the middle of the central aisle is a baptismal font which is replica of the baptismal font of Croatian prince Višeslav from approximately the year 800 AD.
This church has a presence which defies its stark interior and recent build. As we exit I mention to our guides that ‘there is an air of permanence here’.
Pam is very moved by the whole occasion and has a little tear in her eye.
Our guides tell us that we are the first ‘group’ they have brought to this church and seem appreciative of our attention to their narrative.
I notice Ivica respectfully touch the statue of the Pope as we leave the church ground, a little private gesture that conveys his sincerity.
We pile back into the car and soon we are entering the magical tunnel that transports us between worlds. On the coastal side we pop back out into the green and stone countryside once more.
Rather than just driving back to Zadar our guides veer from the regular tour once more and we stop at the Stari Most Maslenica which is a older red bridge crossing the narrow stretch between two bays that we had driven over on the newly built freeway in the morning.
As we emerge from the car Dejan points to a pole topped by a ring encircled by tattered fabric and tells us that this is the remains of the windsock that normally flys here. He tells us that the wind from two days ago had ripped the sock from the ring and that it is regularly replaced on such an occurrence.
That must be some wind.
In the time we are there (and in fact for the entire day) the air has been completely tranquil and it is hard to imagine such destructive force.
Out in the middle of the bridge which our guides laughingly call the Croatian Golden Gate (it is painted a similar red colour) is a blue bungie jumping rig for those souls brave/stupid enough to risk the long drop into the cold water below.
On the way back into town we are talking once more about the multilingual skills of the Croatian people and Ivica tells us that compared to Croatian English is a very easy language to learn with a lot of similarly derived words. He mentions that Croatian has no ‘articles’ in their grammar.
It has been a long time since Pam and I were in school and studying grammar and I have no memory of what an ‘article’ is so I am forced to ask. Ivica laughingly replies ‘an article is a word like ‘the’ or ‘a’.
Now we have had a lesson in English by a Croatian. We joke ‘that if speaking another language makes one person worth two does not understanding your own language completely make us worth half a person each’?
All too soon we are back in Zadar wishing our guides all the best for the off season. It is Ivica’s 26th birthday tomorrow and we both wish him happy birthday before walking back through the Sea Gate of Old Zadar and back into the town.
The entire day has been magnificent. We have had a one on one guided tour of a truly spectacular natural place on Earth accompanied by two friendly, humorous, highly educated young men, who have taken the time to ensure our physical safety in conditions we are not used to as well provide us with an extremely interesting and often quite personal account of Croatian history.
We meander back into the old town and sit for a while to reflect on our great fortune in one of the many bar/cafes that line the central street.
We sit next to a gas fire facing out to the ruin remnants in the Forum for quite some time and are a little tipsy by the time we leave to take in the sunset across the water from the Sea Organ.
‘The pipes, the pipes are calling’….the Sea Organ is playing a lively tune and I take shots of the setting sun and a video to capture the sound. As part of my directorial input I take a video shot going from in front…up to the sky… and back down over my head towards the setting sun….and nearly spill into the Adriatic as a result.
At least that landing would have been soft.
We dine at a waterfront restaurant before weaving our way back to our lovely apartment under the clear night stars.
Life is grand.
Pam and Mick