Thursday, October 22, 2009

A gaggle of gorges and water everywhere ...

Sad news this morning - Gen is online when we log on to have a final email check and tells us that the body of her former school mate has been found. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and prayers. And as if to mirror the news, the day is drab, grey and raining over the water.

Now, Croatia = cats. We do not think we have ever seen so many cats in one country. And while some of them are obviously not 'owned' (yeah right, a dog has masters, a cat has slaves so when is a cat ever owned?!), most of them are friendly enough and will let you pet them. Maybe they have the status of a sacred cow? As we leave Aparthotel Buratovic I say one last goodbye to their cat as well.

This morning we thought that on our way over to Plitvice Lakes National Park we would take a drive and have a look at the gorges across the inlet from Vinjerac that have been fascinating us with their changing moods in the different lights of the day. We have looked it up on the web and we are heading to the gorges of Velika Paklenica and Mala Paklenica in the Paklenica National Park which are part of the South Velebit mountains and their wilds. The drive is only 25 minutes from where we are and en-route we pass a Baka (yiayia or grandmother) tending her small flock of ten sheep just up the road from us.

From here we drive around the edge of the inlet across the amazing Stari Most Malenica - a steel bridge that spans 315 m length over a 50 m high chasm. There is the gear(?) for bungee jumping across on the other side of the bridge. Now I KNOW our WH&S guys would die of shock. Where the mechanism is bolted in to the bridge path, you can see that it has pulled! There were gates at either end of the bridge that would allow them to close the bridge, but we are not sure that it has anything to do with the bungee jumping - it might just be for high winds! Anyway, wile everything about this bridge is amazing, it looks up the gorge to an even larger bridge - steel and concrete. I can't even find the name for this bridge - it seems it might be a new bridge built to partner this one.

So we move further on to the entrance to the larger of the two gorges within the park - Velika Paklenica. This must be a very popular spot in the summer as the infrastructure is well developed. There is quite a bit of parking and an information and ticket booth that is open even on such a dismal day as today. We drive as far as we can into the park (2km beyond the entrance). Right from here the gorge is very evident and there are climbers getting ready to scale the cliffs - it is a very popular climbing venue it appears with over 300 route of varying grades available. The weather is not great, but Michael wants to walk in to the gorge. Donna and I are not so sure - the path is steep and rocky and that rain ain't too far away. Off he sets and Donna and I take a short amble (about half a kilometre) to watch some of the climbers.

(Michael's turn) The gorge during a clear and sunny day must be an absolute wonder to admire. However, the weather doesn't dilute the magnificent architecture of nature. The first 100m of the walk is on a fairly flat gravel surface, and to the left is a kiosk/cafe which has been dug into the cliff face. A few metres on, a set of toilets which have also been dug into the face. The ablutions are fortunately of the flushing kind and not just squat holes.

Walking further on, the terrain becomes more challenging, as the flat surface is suddenly replaced by an uneven rocky track where begins a gradual steep incline. Making my way along this slippery surface there are keen abseilers preparing for their respective upward climb. By thuis time the wind has increased and blowing a fine mist of rain. As I follow the ever rising path, I come across even keener wayfarers trekking their way to their respective destinations. The rain has started to increase in intensity by this time, and their are more abseilers making preparations!

The gorge presents a stark but captivating picture with the valley being encroached on both sides by towering cliffs and crags. Vegetation is in abundance, which appears to have colonised along a dry river bed - which I assume will no longer BE arid after this rain. As the rain continues to fall, the cliff faces glisten with the moisture and the red oxides develop a deeper colour. On a clear day the oxides must just glow in the sunlight presenting the cliff faces with a marbling effect. I pass tunnels which are being dug into the cliff faces but for what purpose is not identified and entry is prevented by secure shoring.

The rain is beginning to intensify as is the wind, and yet I am greeting more adventurers who seem to be undaunted by the deteriorating weather. I ask one the this group where they are headed; and I'm informed they hope to reach a 'Wayfarers Hut' which is about six kilomteres ahead. It is there they will possibly spend the night before pressing onwards, to complete their 30k trek over the next couple of days. I guess the route will be fairly strenuous?

After half an hour, the rain has begun to bucket down and the wind is howling. I guess it is good enough reason to head back to the car. The return journey is somewhat longer as the path has become quite slippery and treacherous. Albeit, the weather hasn't daunted the abseilers as they are still making their preparations! Oh, well, whatever rocks one's boat....

We make a quick call into the Mala (small) Paklenica gorge. There is way less infrastrcture here and the path is less defined. In fact there is a warning sign announcing 'dangerous mountain paths' and another with 'climbing prohibited'. OK, so they prefer you to explore the larger gorge. We don't want to spend too much time here so after a few quick photos that includes some of workers crushing and leveling a rock fall with a noisy old grader creaking along on its tracks and an odd assortment of domestic tools such as shovels, a rake and a small hand held hacksaw, we push on. The weather is still s***.

And so onward we push. We climb up and over the Velebit Mountains with some stunning views marred by the weather. At one point there is a pipe from a hydro water scheme that come from inside the mountain above us and then just runs straight down the side of the sheer drop to the valley far below where it takes off like a snake seeking water, heading for a lake we can see.

Once we are over the mountains it is like we have entered a different world. All the rocks on the eastern side of the range seem to have been picked up and hurled by some legendary giant over the mountains to the western coast with some of them maybe falling into the sea as the smaller islands. Coming over the top, we travel through the clouds being formed up here in the nursery that is the higher altitudes.

Over this side the land is not quite so haggard - the hills are more rounded and there is a lot more grazing country and subsequently a lot more livestock. Funnily enough on the western area we have just left we saw plenty of yellow warning signs about cattle on the road but only ever saw sheep. Here we see the cattle and I'm looking out for the sheep signs! Maybe the cattle signs are cheaper!!

We see our first signs that are the reminders of the Homeland War or the Croatian War of Independence with a shelled building painted with UN signs. This was to be the first of many unfortunately. I guess that the events that ended 14 years ago are still very recent both in history and in the memories of local populations.

Seems like today is a day for the national parks of Croatia as we head towards the Plitvice Lakes National Park. First we pass Entrances no 1 and 2 to go and find our accommodation witout seeing a single sign of the natural wonders that are supposed to be the lakes and waterfalls. We have a little trouble finding the accommodation - we have found the correct road, and are definielt int he right area as the name is on a number of buildings. Michael seeks out info and the family Baka finally points us back down the road (she speaks no English and our Croatian is nowhere near good enough to understand anything she is saying). We then see the brother who points us around the front of the correct building just as the owner turns up from work! Seems that everyone out here has a room to let with the Zimmer (Rooms) sign on just about every building - fancy or not.

Anyway, once we have checked in with Lilliana, she tells us that the weather is better today than it is forecast for tomorrow!! You have to be kidding. So we decided to hightail it back to the park. Lilliana suggests that Entrance 2 would be easier as you get a glimpse of some of the lakes and falls very close to the car park. So off we go. The car park is almost empty - as you would expect on a cold wet day. You park on one side of what is essentially a very busy road (highway) and cross via a timber footbridge. In this weather, with lots of fallen leaves rotting underfoot it is slippery so we cross on the road level instead. As it is so late and the weather so terrible, the park entrance ticket seller gives us discounted tickets. We only have to walk about 50 m to get our first glimpse of this wondrous site. The Plitvice Lakes National Park is the most visited tourist attraction within this fascinating little country. We understand why now!

The weather has set in and the rain continues albeit lightly. But the ground is very sloping and uneven. The last thing I want to do is slip and fall, so rather disappointed, I head back for the warmth of the coffee shop and souvenir stand. But Donna really really wanted to see these, so I encourage Michael and her to continue to go a little way. And as these photos show (although they really don't do the area justice) this is one of the most beautiful places. Check out their website photos on the link above too.

Anyway, Donna and Michael head out down the path. At some point they separate and go along different paths. The rain is getting heavier, but each of them wants to go just to the next corner. Eventually, the time gets closer for us to re-meet and they come back separately. Both drenched. I mean, like drowned rats. Dripping drowned rats.

They both excitedly exhange the high points of their respective jaunts. Donna not only got to see three of the lakes with falls between, but also some caves. Michael saw the tallest falls in Croatia that are on the first photo of this set, but from the bottom. Anyway, they were on a real high! And I was the dry one.

So we returned to the guest house where thankfully there was a heated towel rail so that we could dry their sodden clothes fully. We drove down the road a little to a small restaurant - Restaurant Degenija - even though it was very early - 5:30 pm.
We began with Cold mesni narezak - pršut, domaći sir, sir Basa (Cold meat platter - smoked ham, local cheese, Basa cheese) and Pohani sir s tartar umakom (Breadcrumbed cheese with Tartare Sauce) before moving on to our mains.
Teleći odrezak-Degenija - odrezak s umakom, šunkom i sirom i povrćem (Veal Escalope-Degenija – veal escalope with sauce, ham and cheese and vegetables) Michael
Teletina Cordon Bleu s francuskim krumpirići (Veal Cordon Bleu with French fries) Donna
Čevapčići - Hashed meso njoki s francuskim krumpirići (Hashed meat dumplings with French fries) Maria
The food was fresh and hot and hearty - just what we need on a cold autumn evening. After coffee we return to the guesthouse and warm beds. Ahh what a day. My brain is filled with wondrous sights!

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