Krka, land of slaps, potoks and the odd otok
On our last trip to Croatia we had spent most of the time exploring the coast. This time we wanted to see some of the inland areas, notably the National parks of Plitvice and Krka, both famous for their lakes and waterfalls, and the less well
known Lonsko Polje, a wildlife habitat south east of Zagreb.
First was to be Krka and on Sunday we set off from Zaton for the short 60 or so mile drive to Autocamp Marina, one of a number of sites in the Krka area. Marina had been recommended by several people as a good base for exploring the park, and initially we had to wonder why. Our route took us to the town of Skradin, the centre for the park, but then another five miles further and a thousand feet higher to the plateau above the park. We finally saw the sign to the campsite which I misread completely and turned right too soon, ending on a tiny lane. I quickly spotted my mistake and was contemplating what to do next when the campsite owner, Marina herself, came running out of a side gate. We had a rather complicated conversation which went something like this:
"Are you with the group?"
“Yes, we have ACSI”
“So you are with the group!”
“No, we are on our own but have an ACSI card”
Then it dawned on her, and on us, that we were using the ACSI discount card, while she was expecting a convoy of about 10 Dutch caravans and motor homes on a trip organised by ACSI, which is of course, amongst other things, the Dutch equivalent of our Caravan Club!
Marina opened the side gate, I reversed up the road and was able to turn in and manoeuver round the trees and an enormous coach sized RV onto the main site, where we were directed to a pitch. It was then that I spotted the two correct entrances, which would have made life so much easier! It all seemed very haphazard at first, with caravans and motor homes parked at odd angles, but we soon found that this was Marina's way of packing us in without us ever feeling too close to other campers. In fact, the longer we stayed the more “right” it felt.
There was a small smart restaurant with a larger half open part and then lots of outside seating, next to a small swimming pool which some of the brave Dutch used. The toilet block was smart and kept spotlessly clean, inspected by Marina on a regular basis during the day. In fact Marina ran a very tight ship, sitting in the bar watching the comings and goings and running out to greet any newcomer. As we sat and ate our lunch that first day we watched as she trotted out to meet the Dutch rally as they arrived one by one.
After lunch we drove back down into Skradin for a wander round. The waterfront, on the banks of the Krka river which at that point had widened out to a lake, was a bit tacky, with restaurants, some smart, but mostly for tourists. Further along the waterfront, past the small marina, was a marshy creek, from which was coming the sound of several million frogs croaking their hearts out.
By contrast, we walked into the town itself to find quite a different place. Gone was the tackiness. Skradin proved to be a lovely old town with a pleasant town square edged by a large church and two very fine mansions, then a long and narrow main street flanked by some very grand Venetian style buildings, many of which unfortunately were in a poor state of repair. There were plenty of restaurants and cafes which seemed to be thriving. Above the main street was a steep climb up to a ruined castle.
We visited the tourist office, which was in fact the National Park office, to try unsuccessfully to make sense of the entrance fees to the park and where best to get in. We left no wiser, if anything more confused. The Campsite was offering a day long tour which looked good value, but we are not ones for organised packages, far preferring to do our own thing. When we returned to the campsite we sat with a beer working out what would be the best approach. The ACSI tour leader was sitting close by so we asked her opinion. “Go on the tour” she said, without hesitation. I suppose that made our minds up. We would do the day tour, then perhaps go back if we felt we had missed out on anything.
So next morning, we two English bods joined 22 jolly Dutch men and women in two minibuses for the trip. Our first port of call would be Skradinski Buk, at the foot of a steep descent. We paused briefly for a photostop half way down, with a lovely view of the lake formed where the river Cicola meets the Krka, then parked at the bottom for the longest of our walks, two hours around the falls and cascades. Janni (Marina's husband) acted as our driver and guide, and he took us first down to the old watermill and the wool washing house to see how the force of the water had been harnessed over the centuries. We were then free to walk the circular tour along the wooden walkways and bridges which criss cross around this amazing set of waterfalls. There are seventeen falls, (more at high water), over a 500 metre stretch. Most have been caused by the formation of travertine barriers. Here the water, rich in calcium and minerals, petrifies the moss and lichen it flows over, raising ridges and dams. It is the same principle as the petrifying well at Mother Shipton's cave in Knaresborough. The river and lakes are teaming with fish, while the calmer areas are a rich source of flora and fauna, many rare plants, several species of snake and of course dragonflies and croaking frogs. Apparently at night it is common for wolves, bears and wild boar to come down to drink, but they keep well away during visiting hours, as do the 18 species of bat!
At the foot of the largest series of falls are a host of wooden huts with drinks, cakes, ice cream and souvenirs. Fortunately for us at this time of year there were not many people around, but in high summer this must be heaving. Apparently the pool at the foot of this fall, the only place where swimming is allowed, is packed in hot weather.
After a coffee we crossed the long bridge to the ruins of the hydro electric power station. It would have been the first in the world, but Niagara beat it by two days. Small consolation that the designer of the Niagara power station was Tesla, himself a Croat. However it was the first in the world to be properly linked up to the town and to supply electricity.
We were then faced with a very steep climb back up to the minibuses, so steep that three of the older Dutch couldn't manage it and one of the buses had to go down to fetch them. The minibuses took us back up to the high plain and about ten miles north, first along a main road which ran parallel with the Cicola gorge, then descending down steep hairpins into the gorge and back up the other side, then along tracks which we would not have known about, to the edge of the Krka gorge and a view down to the clear blue-green Visovac Lake and Visovac monastery on its little island.
Back along the tracks, which the Dutch were likening to a safari with cries of “Oliphant” , “Vildebeast” and “Giraffe”, onto the main road again and once more down hairpins and up hairpins to a view point over Roski Slap, the second series of waterfalls. Here the river drops over a series of small falls over a half mile or so. Seen from above, we could see why the locals call this “the necklace”, quite an unbelievable sight.
Down another series of hairpins took us to the foot of these falls where we disembarked and were shepherded into a roofed but otherwise open area for lunch. Lunch of ham and cheese was included in the trip price and to be honest we were expecting a bit of a rip off - a slice of cheese, piece of ham and small glass of wine. Wow. There was a long table set with 24 places, and to start with we were each given a glass of cherry schnapps which I suspect was illegally brewed on the still at the back. Very tasty but I have even more hair on my chest now. Then appeared bottles of water and each couple was given a jug of wine, a huge plate of various local cheeses, a huge plate of local cold meats and a basket of fresh home made brown and white breads. The cold meats were delicious, but rather interesting. As well as the usual thinly sliced air dried ham and salami, there were lumps of what can best be described as dried, smoked black pudding, and of course the usual Slav addition of cubes of bacon fat. It seems that in this part of the world they cannot survive without fat, and if there is not much visible on their meat they have to serve slabs of lard on the side of the plate to compensate. Finally our hosts came round with jugs of their special juniper wine. This is the same as their home made red wine but stored in juniper barrels and served in juniper wood mugs. An interesting addition to the taste spectrum.
We had a great chat with our neighbours, who knew England well and whose son was currently living in Woking having been seconded to the Bank of England. They enjoyed the same sort of sites and trips as we do and we compared notes on many of the sites we had both visited in Croatia and Spain. We learned that the Dutch group were on their way to tour Albania, then a week in Corfu. We were quite envious. Needless to say a great time was had by all. The conversation got louder and louder and when it was time to return to the minibus most were a little unsteady. Just as well that most of the walking had been in the morning.
Our next stop was to be the Krka Monastery, the spiritual centre of the Serbian Orthodox faith. One of the issues that separates Serbs from Croats is, like in so many places, their religion or interpretation of it. The Croats are, on the whole, Catholic, while the Serbs are Orthodox. After the break up of Yugoslavia (the war of liberation, or homeland war) many Orthodox churches fell to ruin, but many, like this, were preserved and carried on. Set by the river in a little valley, it was an oasis of tranquillity. The church is much restored, with freshly painted frescos, but in the foundations are Roman catacombs.
From here there was one last viewpoint to visit, down yet another little track to an area where we could look down over the gorge to the Manojlovac Slap, and I have to admit that the absolute beauty of this view literally took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. Photos or words do not do it justice. I could quite happily have sat there and looked at it for the rest of my life.
The trip finished with a drive by a Roman archway, one of the last remnants of the huge Roman settlement of Burnum, the barracks for two Legions. We got back to the campsite at 5pm precisely, exactly the time we were told it would be back. Watching the trip over the next couple of days it was always the same.
I have to say that any doubts we had had about this tour, either what it would encompass or whether it was good value, were completely dispelled. It was an absolutely superb day out, one I will remember for years to come.
The campsite restaurant had also been recommended on various reviews, so we thought we would give it a go that night. We rather fancied some meat, so ordered the roast lamb with a side salad. What arrived, in due course, were half a dozen thick lamb steaks, grilled to perfection, crispy fat, pink inside, with fries and griddled courgettes. Two beers each, all for less than a tenner a head. Who could ask for more?
Anything after that would be an anticlimax so the next day was to be a trip to the supermarket, which was set in a huge mall on the outskirts of Sibenik. We could have been in England, but for the pall of cigarette smoke drifting out of every coffee bar. Croatians have obviously not yet cottoned on to the rest of Europe and its smoking ban.
After a day of rest we decided to spend the day in Sibenik, which again was on the list of recommended cities to visit in Croatia. The approach through the suburbs was dire, much as one would expect from a former Communist Bloc state whose industry had died. I know that technically Yugoslavia was not part of the “Communist Bloc” but there are strong similarities, and some out of the way city suburbs are very reminiscent of Romania and Bulgaria, with huge drab apartment blocks and empty rotting factories.
We parked and walked along a very ordinary seafront wondering what all the fuss was about. We came across an alleyway that lead up to the cathedral, whose spire and dome were covered in scaffolding, which is par for the course from our experience. You can almost hear the message flashing from one bishop to the next, “the Jefferis are coming, get the scaffolding up quick!”. However we rounded the corner onto the cathedral square and wow, there was the beautifully cleaned side of the cathedral, with a wonderful doorway, facing a very smartly renovated 16th century loggia, now an hotel and restaurant at which were sat a few gentlemen in Croatian national dress. The front of the cathedral was equally clean and majestic, but a huge tour was just walking in so we decided to leave it til later.
We started the ascent to the castle, up narrow streets and stairways, with buildings arching overhead in a very Italian Renaissance style. In fact Sibenik had been part of the Venetian empire for nearly 400 years. These little alleyways were so far removed from what we had seen in the suburbs that we might have been on a different planet. Half way up the hill we came across the 'Medieval Mediterranean Garden of St Lawrence's Monastery', a lovely little garden, laid out in 2007 on the site of the old monastery garden. There was a nice cafe there, so of course it was time for a coffee, this time with a Slimming World biscuit bar. (We’ve had too many sinful cakes lately!) The place was advertised in the guide book as a haven of tranquillity. It might well have been, but today it had a huge party of schoolkids running riot on their school trip, while the teachers sat with a coffee and a smoke. Once they went, though, peace returned and it was a lovely spot.
We continued up to the castle, properly known as St Michael's Fortress, which according to the Rough Guide is a pile of rubble with good views. Our guide book is out of date. The views are still good, but the castle has been renovated inside to provide a superb outdoor concert hall, at which plays, ballets and concerts are regularly performed.
We wandered back down another maze of narrow streets and stairways towards the town centre, passing a number of splendid old palaces, churches both Catholic and Orthodox, and plenty of restaurants and cafes. By this time it was getting a bit cold and drizzly and we were getting hungry. Nearly all the restaurants, apart from the really posh ones, were based on outdoor eating, so we picked the one with the largest sunshades and sat under their shelter and ate a very good value set meal, watching the procession of umbrellas walking past. It was not until we got up to go that I realised that I had picked the wrong chair. Whilst I was in the dry, my cagoule, which had been on the back of my chair, was soaked. Not to worry!
More narrow streets and stairs led us back to the cathedral which we entered to see the sight of scaffolding around the inside of the building. They were starting the mammoth task of cleaning the interior stonework, blackened by years of candle smoke and neglect. We watched one lady with a tool no bigger that an artist's paintbrush, painstakingly brushing at some carved stonework, while a man up a ladder was using some sort of power tool not unlike the one a dentist uses when cleaning your teeth. The parts they had completed looked really good, but it will be several years or even centuries before the job is done. One part which had been completed was the small baptistry with an intricately carved ceiling.
So back to the caravan to plan the next part of our journey, to the Plitvice Lakes, which in parts are supposed to be even better than Krka. However we would never find out. We arrived at Plitvice at lunchtime the following day and parked up at Camping Korana. Enquiries at the the campsite elicited that there was a daily bus service free of charge, 9 am from the campsite to drop off at either of the two main park gates, with a pick up to return at 5 pm. So which would be the best gate to go for? Well, you can go to either, and there is a boat that takes you down the lake and a road train which brings you back, or vice versa. So if we went under our own steam, which should we go for? The largest falls are at Veliki Slap, of course. However, we were told, it would be raining for the next few days and that the walkways to Veliki Slap were already under water.
We went on line to check the weather forecasts and, of course, if you look at four forecasts you will get four different answers. This time though all were forecasting rain except one, which promised tomorrow morning would be fine. Decision made. If when we got up tomorrow it was fine we would race to the lake. If it was not, we would move on. We got up, it rained, so as the washing basket was overflowing we decided to move on to Zagreb, where there were washing machines, and, more importantly, tumble driers. Plitvice would wait until another time.
By the way, in case you hadn’t realised, a “slap” is a waterfall or cascade in Croatian, a “potok” is a lake and an “otok” is an island.