18 August 2011

Croatia - A Country full of Surprises!

Croatia - A Country full of Surprises!
Dubrovnik

Croatia has seen much tourist publicity lately and this is certainly a country worth visiting. Whilst we opted for an organized tour, it could be done by other transport means, particularly if you prefer more time in each place. Tourism is a major industry together with Ship building (orders until 2015 for a ship-yard in Split) and Cement works. The Croatians have experienced much trauma in their lives and the war with the Serbs only ended in 1995. This war has played a major part in the general air of neglect that hangs over most of the buildings in Croatia – in fact, some of them are crumbling so badly that one wonders how people can inhabit them safely. The older generation, particularly the women, have very worn expressions and don’t appear to smile very often. This generation also mourns the end of Communism as it now means that they do not have enough money to live on and are struggling to make ends meet.


Croatians, on the whole, do not favour pre-cooked or frozen foods. They go to their open air markets in the mornings with their baskets over their arms to choose the freshest vegetables, fruit, fish, or meat for the day. The markets are an eye-opener; the one in Zagreb was huge, covered in red umbrellas, with a wonderful vibe and the most amazing selection of fresh produce. The stall holders vary in age and some offered us free samples! The best cherries ever!

                                                                                                                 
All of the local restaurants that we visited welcomed the group with a glass of very potent alcohol! Unfortunately, alcoholism has always been a problem in Croatia and it is a social problem that the country has recently started working on. Many Croatian farms are very small as the land passes from generation to generation and has often been divided with time. Most of these farms are still tilled by hand and we saw many women working their fields as late as 20.30 hrs with a scythe. I last saw a sickle as a small child and thought they were all in museums by now. Farms will also have some pigs and chickens and all produce is basically for their own use. Set amongst rolling hills with the farmhouse perched at the top and the fields running downwards, it looks quaint, peaceful, and romantic and one hopes that these farmers are content with their lives.


The country, as a whole, is very clean and we passed a lady in Zagreb picking up the smallest pieces of paper along the verges with a specially designed fork. The Bura wind in the Split area also blows everything away from time to time. When the locals start getting edgy and short-tempered, it is said that the Bura is overdue. Once the wind has blown, everybody starts smiling again! Our Tour Guide, a born and bred Croatian from Split used to line her pockets with rocks to keep her from being blown away as a child – she was terrified she would be taken by Bura and never be seen again! The mountain range is fully covered with forests on one side and is just bare rock on the other side where the wind blows. This only happens along the coast but is such a fierce wind that roads and schools can be closed. Luckily, it blows for 2 or 3 days then stops – until the next time!




The Dalmatian coast has over 1000 islands of which approx. 67 are inhabited. We visited Lokrum which is just a short 15 minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik. It is a peaceful, wooded retreat with the ruins of a Benedictine monastery and Botanical Garden with palm trees and exotic plants. According to legend, the story of the monastery begins in 1192 when Richard the Lionhearted found himself stranded on Lokrum after a tempest. He was so enchanted with the island; he made a generous donation for a monastery to be built on the island. The Benedictine order that established the monastery used their island to warn the mainland of approaching dangers such as pirates or tempests. The inhabitants of Dubrovnik learned to watch for fires coming from the island's hilltop or incessant bells ringing from the monastery church.


The islands other attraction is the Adriatic Sea. Even before we reached the island, I was determined to swim in the Adriatic, notwithstanding that Croatia was experiencing the coldest June in 82 years! The sea is just so inviting, it practically talks to you! Beaches are rare, most are just ladders set into the rock, and you climb down and swim in the crystal waters. I needed to walk into the sea so we clambered over rocks and eventually found a small cove with a sandy bottom. The swim was worth it – 15 minutes of pure, cold, but refreshing Adriatic. When I first saw our hotel’s private “beach” I was dumbstruck – concrete with rows of deck chairs and a ladder into the water. We did pass some beaches further along the coast but the ladder into the sea seems to be a common occurrence.


Split

Croatia has a huge Café culture and the pavement cafes are all over, even in small, narrow alleyways. If a chair and table fits, it finds a space and is called a café! Along the promenade in Split there are thousands of chairs and tables, where people will gather from early morning till late at night. Dubrovnik has cafes tucked into the weirdest spaces and it is advisable to find one away from the large square, where the hordes of tourists gather. Ice-Cream is something you just have to experience in Croatia. Forget about the boring chocolate and vanilla – the Croatian ice-cream has so many flavours you will need 2 weeks to get through them all. In penance, we walked up the many, many steps up one of the small “roads” that wind up from the square to see how the 4000 locals inside the walled city live. Everything they buy has to be walked up these steps and I must say I did not see any overweight locals. Each door has pot plants of some sort to make a small oasis along the never-ending steps. Dubrovnik gets a huge amount of tourists but the city walls are still fairly empty – too much effort for most? This is a “must do” and the walk is approx. 2 km and not strenuous. However, we did all those killer steps first so ……..!


Wherever one goes in Croatia, you will see laundry hanging out to dry. It is quite a fun game to guess how many occupants each “window” has, plus the age and sex as it is all blowing in the breeze for all and sundry to see. We also saw bird cages attached to shutters and a drying rack full of plates and cutlery suspended from a window. As I never knew what we would see next, I became quite focused on windows!


As Croatia has become more westernized, the drug problem has surfaced and the divorce rate has gone from 6% to 11%. At this stage, secondary school is not yet compulsory for children and there are many drop-outs after primary school level. However, many young citizens are gainfully employed and reaching out towards their new found dreams.


The highlight of Croatia was the Plitvice Lakes area. This area has been a major tourist attraction since the late 19th century. The first hotel was built in 1896 and in 1949 the Communist Government of Yugoslavia made this area a National Park. The park became a UNESCO listed Heritage site in 1979 in recognition of its “outstanding natural beauty”
In March 1991 the first shots of the Croatian War of Independence were fired in the park which was then held by forces of the rebel Republic of Serbian Krajina and suffered much damage as the hotels were used as barracks. It was recaptured by the Croatian army in August 1995 during “Operation Storm” which ended the war. It was de-mined by the Croatian government and was again listed by UNESCO in December 1998 after having been on their Endangered Sites list for a number of years.
The 16 lakes are divided into the Upper lakes (Gornja Jezera) and the Lower lakes (Donja Jezera). We walked from the Lower lakes to the Upper lakes and the area is stunningly beautiful and very photogenic with over 72 waterfalls, trout in the lakes, fallen trees, ducks etc. The park is also home to bear, foxes, rabbits and deer, but we saw none of those. One can catch a boat across the Lake Kozjak, walk some more and then catch a train back down to the hotel. The hotels are Hotel Jezero and Hotel Plitvice. A memorable visit which will live on in our memory – the rushing sound of waterfalls, the peaceful swimming of the trout (needless to say, they do become supper!), the gentle lapping of the lake along its shore, the bird calls, the colour of the water, the trees and ferns – the natural beauty over-awes the senses.


The Famous roofs of Dubrovnik


All in all, a wonderful country to visit with plenty of accommodation packages from budget to 5*






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