Croatia’s adventurous heart
The Mreznica River is a 62km, grade three to four rafting river that gets the adrenaline pumping. (Robin McKelvie)
Less than 20 years ago, the fledgling nation of Croatia was in the throes of the bitter Croatian War of Independence as it declared sovereignty from Yugoslavia. Front lines were drawn, road and railway connections were cut by the fighting, and tourism was dead.
In the years since the war ended in the late 1990s, Croatia’s coastline and its 1,244 largely unspoilt islands have emerged as one of Europe’s top tourist hotspots. The likes of Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar and Rovinj have added a new range of hotels and restaurants to their already attractive Venetian- and Roman-era architecture, and the Adriatic waters are now alive with yachts.
But Croatia’s interior, where the war began and hit hardest, has been largely left behind, and swathes of the Lika and Karlovac regions -- which lie between the capital of Zagreb and the coast -- remain devoid of visitors. In the city of Karlovac, the capital of the Karlovac region and the former front line of the war, many of the buildings remain pockmarked by bullets, and the damage intensifies as you reach the outlying villages that had been taken by Serbian forces. Today, however, a range of newly popular active sports are reinvigorating the former battlefields, as travellers discover a world of ice-blue rivers, rugged hills and thick forests, which unfurls south from Karlovac to meet the vertiginous Velebit mountains that rise up towards the coast. This may be Europe and a country that will join the EU in 2013, but it is also a remote escape where wolves and bears still roam wild.
Given the undulating and unspoilt local terrain, hiking is an obvious attraction, and hundreds of kilometres of trails cover the Lika and Karlovac regions. In the last few years, local tourist authorities have started to promote tourism to the area through the creation of trail maps and improved trail markings. Many of the region’s trails are also suitable for mountain bikers, including a 51km circular route from the town of Generalski Stol and a 26km route along the Mrežnica river from Juzbašići village.
Some hiking trips can also be combined with visits to two of Croatia’s most interesting caves. In the Lika region, the Grabovaca cave is massive -- large enough to hold the classical concerts that are sometimes staged within. There is a small information office 2.6km outside the town of Perusic, which marks the entrance to the Grabovaca Cave Park, with a rough trail then leading a further 2km through a flat meadow and up a short steep hillside to the cave entrance. In the Karlovac region, 75km south of Karlovac city and just outside the town of Rakovica, the Barac cave is a more confined affair, which becomes even more claustrophobic when the guides turn off their flashlights to let visitors experience total darkness.
As popular as the land-based activities are, water sports are at the heart of the interior’s regeneration. A flurry of operators, such as Kanuing Avantura, take tourists out on the local rivers, including the Mreznica, a 62km grade three to four rafting river that provides just enough of a test to get the adrenaline pumping -- with rapids to negotiate and waterfalls to drop down -- while still being suitable for beginners. On the trout rich River Gacka, travellers can take out an open canoe and join the swans and herons for a far more relaxing experience, idling along the still, reed-shrouded waters. Trips can be booked through the local tourism office.
When I first visited in the 1990s, some of the worst fighting had been around Gospic, an area in Lika where the economy was badly depressed following the war. But today, the area is home to Rizvan City Adrenaline Park, where a team of guides take visitors along a high-wire obstacle course shrouded amid the tree canopy. A giant three-storey funfair-style swing also offers a thrill as it hurtles people towards the ground and back into the air.
Rizvan also organises quad bike trips to explore the local hillside trails. Riders are soon lost in a world of tall trees and rugged hills, with tantalising glimpses of the distant peaks of the Velebit mountains.
I ended my time at Rizvan playing paintball -- snaking through the woods in search of the enemy. It was surreal to be dodging paint pellets in an area where there were once real bullets whizzing through the air. It was yet another sign that the region where war first came to Croatia may now finally be on the road to recovery, thanks in no small part to the drama and ruggedness of the very landscapes that were battlegrounds in the all too recent past.