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
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.
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.