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Calm after the storm

There has been no fighting in Croatia for over two years. Since then, the former holiday paradise has been luring tourists to the beaches of the Adriatic again. Vacation or risk?

Josef Seitz


I was only on the road for a few hours, it’s just 600 kilometers from my front door in Bavaria to the Istrian border, the northwesternmost tip of Croatia. All of a sudden I realize how close the cruel civil war was, which tore apart the former Yugoslavia, which turned Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian neighbors into bitter enemies. Although there was no fighting in Istria, I can already feel the changes during the first few kilometers: since the tourists stayed away, the streets are almost deserted even in summer, and the former strongholds of mass tourism have become noticeably quiet. I drive slowly along the coastal road along towards the south. Stony ground extends to my left, only a few fields now and then, with a few vines in between. What has not been laboriously cultivated is covered with thick undergrowth. Few of them make a living from agriculture. To my right, the real capital of the country: the rocky coast and beaches, on which the waves of the deep blue Adriatic gently beat. A few kilometers further the road then leads along the Limski Canal. Like a Norwegian fjord, it cuts a nine-kilometer swath south of Vrsar into the country. A climate zone of its own has formed between the up to one hundred and fifty meter high slopes, which covers the whole mountain with strong green – and the fjord water is said to have the best mussels and oysters in Croatia. Behind Pula, the oldest city on the Adriatic, is the eastern coast of Istria is even more inhospitable, even more barren. After a while the road climbs slowly and leads to the foothills of the Cucarija Mountains. The higher I get, the clearer the air becomes, the further I can see. Rijeka’s skyscrapers can already be clearly seen from Cape Masniak – and the smog that envelops the city like a bell. I decide against this Moloch and for the small ferry that chugs from the offshoot in Brestova to the island of Cres. It doesn’t take long for the island in front of me to jut out of the water – a gray, barren rock that is defenseless against the rough sea wind . Even undergrowth hardly finds a hold on the rock. In some places long walls made of rough stones were built to protect plants, but these protective walls have long since lost the battle against the storms. Only small, gnarled holm oaks that seem to grow out of the bare rock from time to time claw firmly. Again asphalt under the wheels, I drive across the narrow island and discover a small path that winds in the northeast down to Beli . The small village is idyllically situated on the rocks above the sea, but appearances are deceptive: hardly anyone lives here because there has long been nothing to earn. I am the only guest in the small pub at the entrance to the village, and as much as the peace and quiet is good for me, it is so eerie when walking through the narrow streets. Cres, the largest town on the island, also seems deserted. There’s not even anything going on on the promenade. Only a few fishing boats bob around in the harbor. No trace of the once numerous sailing yachts. Even the only gas station is closed. I move on, by ferry I go to the island with the almost unpronounceable name of Krk. Between stones and bushes, a wonderfully winding road waves over the hills down to the southern end of the island. Right and left views of the deep blue sea again and again, above a no less blue sky, in between only the gray, rocky island. The hot wind drives the salty smell of the sea through my visor, causing the first hint of holiday mood. Shortly before sunset I reach the village of Baska on the southern end of the island, which is beautifully located in a sheltered bay. Narrow streets lead through the old fishing village, past houses, of which hardly one is the same, where there is hardly a right angle to be discovered. But it is precisely this apparent chaos that breathes life into the stone walls. Here every house reflects the individuality of its owner, and yet everything fits into a harmonious work of art. To get back to the mainland, I have to go back to the north end of the island, which is strictly speaking no longer such. Since 1980, a huge arched bridge, supported only by a boulder in the sea, has spanned the mainland. As far as Senj I stick to the coast, then it goes up to the almost 700 meter high Vratnik pass. A pleasure on two wheels. Curve by curve, the road climbs up the mountain and leaves the coastal strip far below. It quickly becomes clear how the climate zones change after just a few meters of altitude. Compared to the lush and green coastal vegetation, the land around the top of the pass looks so barren and gray, as if the last snow had melted just a few days ago. Houses suddenly and unexpectedly destroyed, bombed by grenades and often burned out. My heart beats up to my neck in this horrific scenery. The same picture in the next small town, houses without windows, without roofs, walls blackened with smoke, charred beams, outer walls strewn with bullets. The residents have long since given up their house and yard. The deadly silence that reigns here tightens my throat. I step into one of the buildings anxiously. There are a couple of rusted saucepans on the floor, the plaster has broken off the walls, and in one corner the metal remains of a burned cot are rusting – like a memorial against the inhuman actions of a merciless soldier. Just a few kilometers further I discover in the middle of a field a church. The interior is almost completely looted. Only a few benches are lost in the room. Every step echoes eerily from the bare walls, the wind incessantly beats the boltless door against the stop. Apocalyptic mood creeps under your skin. With an oppressive feeling in my stomach area, I drive on. I knew I would find traces of the war, but it is far worse than expected. Just get out of here. But where to? I follow a narrow tarred road that finally turns into a gravel path. I remember the warnings from newspaper reports that there are still numerous mines in some regions. But after a while I discover tire tracks on a car on the road. Still, I’m nervous and try to follow the lead exactly. Far worse, however, is the feeling that I haven’t met anyone in this remote area for a long time. There is an almost apocalyptic mood over the country. It was only much later that I found out that many Serbian families used to live in the destroyed houses. The houses were systematically destroyed by the military so that none of the hated neighbors would return. Locals tell me about family tragedies. D0 of the fact that married couples had to separate just because man and woman belonged to different – and thus warring – nations. And I learn that at the moment a child is killed by a mine in the wider area almost every week. I feel frustrated, sad and angry. And helplessness. Behind Skare I hit the main street again. It leads up to the Plitvice Lakes – the largest attraction in the country after the Adriatic coast. Fierce fighting took place here too, and the area has only been open to tourists again since last summer. But the number of visitors is still quite meager, only a Japanese tour group marches on the winding paths. Lime deposits have formed 16 lakes in a kilometer-long gorge, and numerous waterfalls create picturesque crossings. The highest, the Plitvicafall, falls more than seventy meters from a cliff edge. Narrow wooden walkways lead across the ponds to the individual cascades. When the sun breaks through briefly between the clouds, the lakes shimmer like green gemstones between the rocks, and for a brief moment colorful rainbows form in the fine clouds of mist that surround the waterfalls. A great spectacle, nevertheless, the impressions during the last few kilometers leave no room to enjoy it to the fullest. The images of blind, furious destruction that I still have before my eyes were too oppressive. I drive through the hinterland via Knin, along the new Croatian-Bosnian border. The path leads through wide valleys, behind which there are inhospitable mountain peaks. Since the last fighting almost two years ago, when Croatian troops recaptured the “Serbian Republick Krajina”, an almost deserted area. I’m drawn to the coast again, take a short break in Split, then let the Honda run south. With every kilometer it gets warmer and with every kilometer the route becomes more spectacular. High above the sea, the gray strip of asphalt winds along the steep coastal mountains and provides a fantastic panorama. Again and again the gray rock walls rise into the stable blue sky. Deep down, between rugged edges and the foaming sea, sheltered bays offer space for a handful of houses or small villages. To Makarska, formerly one of the tourist strongholds on the Dalmatian coast. But instead of paying guests, only French aid troops are waiting in the bars and restaurants for a possible deployment. I slowly make my way back. Despite everything, the routes in the hinterland near the coast are a dream for motorcyclists, curvy, varied – and almost deserted. Likewise, leave the nature reserve around the Krka waterfalls, which have carved their way deep into the karst rock and formed numerous lakes and cascades. The water rushes over the 17 steps of Skradinski buk at its most spectacular. A foaming natural work of art that is over 45 meters high and almost makes me forget the traces of the war on my way north. But only for a short time: Between Sibenik and Zadar the road leads through villages that have been almost completely destroyed. Even worse: According to a map of the mine that a German businessman gave me up in Plitwitz a few days ago, a tour of many of the secondary routes in this area is still impossible. I don’t leave the coastal road until Karlobag. It’s winding up into the mountains. From the last hairpin bend, I take another look at the offshore islands before disappearing behind the mountain tops. Suddenly it’s very cool. The bora, a cold land wind, lives up to its reputation, completely unexpectedly the northern slopes of the mountains are even covered with snow. Only in Plitwitz does it get a little warmer again. From there I venture a detour towards Bosnia. However, fifteen kilometers before Bihac, I come across a provisional border system. In the middle of a wide plain, some barracks were hurriedly set up, with long queues of trucks waiting in front of them. For me this is the end of it. I turn back and set off for Karlovac. Again and again wobbly tables to the right and left of the street, where old women offer honey and fresh goat cheese. Money that has been urgently needed since the tourists left. With honey and cheese in my luggage – and with mixed feelings in the back of my head – I disappear at Bosanci across the border into Slovenia. Vacation country or crisis area – the answer is difficult for me.

Info – Croatia

Since the end of the unrest – and because the coffers are empty – Croatia has been trying to win the favor of tourists again. But the traces of the war are still omnipresent in many places, especially inland. It is still difficult to decide whether Croatia is a worthwhile travel destination again.

General: Since 1995 the war in Croatia has ended. The areas along the new Croatian-Bosnian border from Karlovac to Knin, the hinterland between Zadar and Sibenik and Dubrovnik in the south of the country were particularly hard hit by the fighting. Most of the coast remained untouched by the fighting. There is no security risk for travelers there. Since there are still minefields along the Bosnian border and in the hinterland between Zadar and Knin, it is absolutely advisable, if at all, to only move on tarred roads. Arrival: The fastest way is via the motorway from Munich via Salzburg and Villach to Udine and on via Trieste to the Slovenian border. The Austrian two-month vignette costs twelve marks for the motorcycle. The passage through the Tauern tunnel is an additional 15 marks. Travel time: In midsummer it gets very hot in the coastal area, only in the higher hinterland it is bearable. May and June as well as September and October are therefore suitable for motorcycling. Spending the night: There is still a wide range of private rooms and guest houses along the coast. In most places there is a room service that organizes not only hotel accommodation but also very good private accommodation. The following places are particularly recommended because of their appearance or because of their location: Rovinj, Cres, Baska, Primosten, Makarska and Dubrovnik. Campsites can be found along the entire coast and particularly numerous in Istria. The Croatian National Tourist Board, Karlsruher Strabe 18/8, 60329 Frankfurt, phone 069/252045, fax 252054, has more information about the country and its people. Gastronomy: There are no supply bottlenecks along the coast. Grills, pizza bakeries or fish restaurants mean you are spoiled for choice. The typical Croatian inn is called Gòstionica. The prices have risen sharply in the meantime. Fish dishes are often more expensive than in Germany, which is difficult to understand because the fish is pulled from the sea right in front of the restaurant. Pork on the spit is regarded as the ultimate Croatian specialty. Finances: Since the political changes, Croatia has also had its own currency: the kuna, which is divided into 100 lipa. Foreign currency, Euro checks (max. 1500 Kuna) or travelers checks can be cashed in exchange offices and banks. The Baedeker “Istria, Dalmatian Coast” for 39.80 marks is very extensive. The current work: »Discovering the new Croatia« by Andor Poll from Trescher Verlag for 29.80 Marks. The Marco Polo map Slovenia / Croatia on a scale of 1: 750,000 is suitable for a tour through Croatia. Distance: approx. 1500 km, time required: 10 days.

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