Friday, October 23, 2009

Caves and conflicts and cars

Yesterday when we checked in here at the Guesthouse Franjkovic, there was a notice on the wall stating that the Babac cave was the underground equivalent to the grandeur of the Plitvice Lakes above ground. We had initially thought to go and take a look at them yesterday before the worsening weather saw us hurry to see the lakes.

We leave the guesthouse where Lillian and her husband made us very comfortable in a large ground floor room (yay, no stairs) and saw us on our way with a large jar of their own honey. We are headed in to the Croatian capital Zagreb today to have a look before Donna flies out at some ungodly hour on Monday morning. Can't believe that her two weeks is almost up!

The day is still damp although thankfully a little warmer than yesterday and we all have dry clothes :-). We program Kate for Zagreb avoiding the motorways - I mean, there is no real benefit to getting anywhere in the wet. We head north on a road that is a highway but thankfully it is not restricted by view detracting safety barriers or divisions or huge sound shields on the roadsides. So we get to see lots of the countryside as we travel, a little slower than normal to take account of the weather conditions.

And just a little time after we leave the guesthouse we see the signs for Barac's Cave. Well hey, gee - at least it will be dry in the cave huh! We turn off and travel the 7.8 kms along a narrow winding road up into the hills and then down the other side. At the parking place it is still 500 m to the cave down a rocky path. Taking the umbrellas as a precaution against the heavy clouds bursting down on us, off we head. At the base of the path is a kiosk where you register for the cave tour. Turns out that they are only operated on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at this time of the year - thank goodness it is Friday! BUT, it is still a climb up the hill in the forest to get to the mouth of the cave. Michael goes to suss it out and comes back to say that the path is uneven on timber log steps with lots of autumn leaf litter. Well - I know my limitations, so I walk back up to the car disappointed not to see the cave. But the most important thing is that Donna gets to see inside her first cave - I had not realised that she had never been in a cave before. I am nice and warm and dry in the car, reading, when they come back up the hill under umbrellas in the rain that has started to fall again. A good stop!

The report back to me? Spectacular for Donna and even Michael was impressed. Caverns with stalactites, stalagmites and stalacnites (columns), a mound of guano (bat droppings) that was over 300 years old in a cave system that houses more than 10,000 bats all balanced by stories of prehistoric bears with teeth up to 20 cms long and a human skeleton and military machinery next to it that appears to date it to one of the wars. Turns out that the shell of the cave is very thin with tree roots growing through and they think that the next major shake could bust another entry through into the cave. However both Michael and the guide concur that our Jenolan Caves back at home are far more impressive.

So we head back to the highway and north again for Zagreb. We are stunned at the number of buildings even out here in the rural countryside that show the damage of the Croatian War for Independence, known locally as the Croatian Homeland War
. We can't imagine what it must be like to either be evacuated in the time of war from a peaceful life in the country, or worse still, to be in your home as it is being fired on or shelled. In every town we pass through there are multiple buidlings - civic as well as homes that are pock marked or have holes in walls from mortars. Some buildings are abandoned with large holes or collapsed roofs, or holes that have broken right through walls. Others though are still being lived in - even with this daily reminder of horrors that are still so recent - the war was resolved in 1995 - my god, that is in OUR recent past.

It is so sad to see the evidence of intolerance town after town after town.
When we reach the towns that make up Karlovac - especially Turanj the damage is the greatest we have seen. We pass a collection of military hardware - tanks, guns, planes in a park but are passed before I can turn in. So we swing back around to stop and have a look, despite the rain. Despite the rain, Michael gets out to have a better look.

The park is a collection of the carcasses of buildings, tanks, APC's, pontoon carrier and aircraft. This is a forlorn place, I suppose more so due to the persistent downpour and to a banner which proudly lauds: "Location of the Collection Future Museum of the Homeland War". These relics are the remnants of a struggle which ravaged this beautiful country between 1991-1995.

The buildings are just shells, pockmarked by bullet and shell impacts; walking through them is eerie to say the least. I won't dwell too long on this visit, as the signatures of the "Homeland War" is evident throughout Croatia. However, I will state from the four days I spent touring Belgium, the Somme Valley and visiting the remnants of the 1914-18 conflict and those forests of marble has provided me with a different perspective on military sites and monuments.

Michael returns to the car, and we prepare to move onto Zagreb. Well, we weren't going anywhere - the car wouldn't start! Stupid me has left the headlights on which had obviously sapped most of the available power to turn the engine over. I guess it was light enough for us not to notice they were on while we sat in the car waiting for Michael who was gone for only about 10 minutes. We had interior lights, but as for momentum we weren't moving. Michael sets off in search of assistance, and heads for a cafe/bar located next to the park.

The proprietor speaks very little English, however Michael makes himself understood that we were in need of help. The proprietor gets on his mobile and phones a friend who will be around in "5-10 minuta". Anyhow, this fellow (who also speaks no English) turns up in a blue VW Combi, and after much gesticulating and hand signals 'jump starts' our car. He indicates we should leave the engine running '5 minuta', then he disappears into the cafe/bar. Michael follows him and shouts him a beer or two to follow the earlier one we could smell on his breath when he arrived. Our gallant knight reappears and checks the car again, Michael slips him a handsome reward for his trouble whereby the fellow sets off back to where he came and we resume our journey. Such accommodating and helpful people in a land that is so beautiful. Lets hope that conflict in this part of the world is done - just look how lovely it is.

I'm not taking any more chances at this point of being stuck on back roads, so on to the motorway for the last 50 kms to Zagreb. Its not long before we are driving through the outskirts. Lots of high density apartment blocks reminiscent of those we saw in Slovakia. They are grey, drab, appear to be covered in mould or with concrete render peeling off. What is it about these countries that use cheap render? Or is there some hidden nasty that we are breathing in that causes concrete cancer????

We don't actually go in to the city en route to the Hotel Paradise. And as we check in the 'boss' (owner?) tells us that his daughter is living in Sydney and that he talks to her on Skype regularly - seems like nearly everyone has a link to us all!
The hotel staff recommend the nearby Zelen Dvor Restaurant for dinner and so in a light drizzle off we set. They are quite busy - always a good sign, and there are plenty of staff to tend to your every wish.
Njoki s gorgonzolom (Gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese) Michael
Njoki u umaku od škampa (Gnocchi with scampi sauce) Donna
Pohovani sir lokalne (Breaded local cheese) Maria
Paprika Ramstek 'St Petersburg' s votke i vrhnje (Pepper rumpsteak 'St Petersburg' with vodka and cream) Michael
Pileći file s umakom od tartufa i rezanci (Chicken fillet with Truffle sauce and pasta) Donna
Weiner šnicl (Weiner schnitzel) Maria
Without a doubt, Donna's entree was the best meal of the night - actually, it came close to being the best meal of her trip with us - certainly one of the top two. The bill was very reasonable as well - what a bonus.
After coffee we return to the hotel in drizzle.

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