08 October 2005

Croatia, Part Deux

We woke up in Krk town and decided to island hop via the southern ferry to Rab island and from there back to the mainland. We drove from Krk town on the west side of the island down to the southern port of Baska. Thus began the first of many drives on the winding, ill-paved roads of Croatia at roughly 2X the local speed limit. We frequently ended up stuck behind rickety trucks belching out black smoke reminiscent of the Winnie's exhaust system or Germans towing campers at 40 kph. These obstacles allowed us the enjoyment of madly overtaking on windy one lane hill roads. Scotticus would not be happy driving on the roads of Croatia.

We got to Baska only to discover that the ferry doesn't run after August, so we got to relive the drive back up the hills, across the interior of the island, over the bridge at the northern tip and then down the coast (imagine a big U). Coastal driving was pretty but inefficient as the road hugs every inlet and headland, making it a lot longer than it looks. We spent even more of this drive staring at the back of a huge truck right in front of us until Rob would pull another white-knuckle passing maneuver (you'd fit right in, Dad).

One of Dave's biggest goals for the trip was to visit Plitvice National Park, so we decided to head that way and check it out in the afternoon. It's somewhat inland so we had to drive up the switchbacks ("serpentina" in Croatian) over the coastal mountains and back down again. We arrived in the early afternoon and bought two day tickets (they were only a few kune more expensive than single day and we wanted the option of coming back in the morning if it proved worthwhile).

The real attraction of the park is the series of lakes and
waterfalls that have been formed by erosion of the soft chalk in the
valley. It's been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 and that really shows; this was one of the best planned natural tourist destinations I've ever encountered. They manage to allow thousands of tourists (mostly fat Germans) through the parks every day without completely ruining the natural beauty. You start off at the park entrance at the top of a ridge which forms one side of the valley of the lower lakes and falls. Your first vista is a spectacular wide-angle view of the biggest waterfall and several of the lower lakes. Minerals in the local soil give the lakes a variety of green and blue hues. As you walk down the path toward the bottom of the valley you're presented with wooden walkways passing over the lakes and around the falls. There are a variety of hikes up to different points of the valley walls offering a chance to see the area from many viewpoints (Dave insisted we do them all). It's a really cool experience to see the same geological and aquatic formations from so many perspectives. The lakes are also filled with thousands of tame fish who hang out along the tourist walks in hopes of getting some food; they must be the only species left, because they seemed incredibly apathetic about life. Somebody should toss a few killer sea bass in there to kick-start the ecology.

After exploring the initial lower lakes area we hiked along the middle lakes to where a ferry (about 15 minutes) takes you across the largest of the lakes to the upper falls. This area was of a different nature than the lower falls: more waterfalls of less individual height, presented as a series of terraces. We spent an hour investigating these (as it started to rain) before deciding to head out for the night. By this time I had about had my fill of waterfalls, but David was keen on coming back in the morning to see the final uppermost area of the park and the increasing rain wasn't too inviting for a long drive so we decided to stay in one of the local hotels.

Since we had been fairly frugal so far we opted to splurge on a bit of luxury for the night and stayed in the Hotel Jezero (Lakes Hotel). Interestingly, the Plitvice region was the first flashpoint in the recent Yugoslav civil war, so this area had been extremely heavily damaged only ten years ago and the local hotels had been co-opted as barracks by Serbian insurgents. Give its place as one of the key tourist attractions in Croatia, a lot of effort went into rebuilding the hotels and services, meaning that they're all fairly new now, although occasionally suffering from side effects of hasty construction (like a leaky roof in part of the hotel). David opted for a massage after we checked in, while Rob and I headed to the pool, which was a small affair (shaped like a quarter of a circle with a radius of about 15 feet) without much room to swim. It was equipped with neat-o water jets, which could be configured to gently massage or to provide enough force such that you could swim comfortably in the stream while remaining stationary. We dined in the hotel restaurant (mediocre), closed out the hotel bar (less exciting than it sounds—populated by our friends the fat Germans) and then hit the sack.

We got up early the next morning to do our final hike so we could bomb down the coast that day in hopes of finding some beach weather in the South. The pool time and those few drinks the night before had set me up nicely so I really enjoyed the upper lakes hike. It's the least accessible area, so there were far fewer tourists, especially that early in the morning. The changing colors of the trees an the more typical water color of the upper lakes actually reminded me a lot of New England. This upper area had fewer falls and larger lakes, but it was a nice change of pace. We had finished by late morning and hopped on the ferry back to where the car was parked only to realize that we had just hopped on the ferry to the lower lakes. With nothing to be done but to enjoy the ride we landed at the other end, got some lunch at the cafe at the ferry stop and then ferried back across to get the car.

From here we encountered the other kind of driving experience in Croatia: the massively empty, brand-new superhighway. My suspicion is that there are some infrastructure requirements to EU entry (Croatia's currently in EU admittance talks) so they built this huge highway down the middle of the country. It has fancy electronic signs warning of weather conditions and upcoming traffic and is signposted in unbelievable detail. Fortunately for us, nobody actually drives on this road, making the electronic traffic warnings a bit superfluous. The quality of the drive is better than you might expect: there are boring stretches, but also lots of really nice views and none of the grotty industrialized towns that the more local roads wind through.

Next update: the Beach and beyond.

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