Starigrad-Paklenica, Croatia

Croatian Talent.

I very very nearly treated the free day on offer as an actual free day. The thought of lounging around for the day, catching up on the little chores in life one seems to accumulate while sipping on cold beer was an extremely attractive prospect. But, I couldn’t do it. As far as my ageing memory can remember I have never turned down optional activities if they were on offer in order to spend the day relaxing, no matter how much a relaxing day is desired. This day offered the chance to go rock climbing in Paklencia National Park, on our doorstep which, is famous for climbing. It therefore seemed a tad mental for me not to go, and so I did! I attempted a lot of climbing and abseiling during my time at Scouts but back then I was afraid of pretty much everything and so it was never something I felt comfortable with. However, I appear to have gone through a bit of a renaissance over the past few years, where I found myself falling in love with ice climbing followed by a fantastic spot of rock climbing in Morocco not so long ago. I and five other not so professional climbers jumped in a landcover and headed into the park just after lunch with rain clouds threatening overhead. Luckily the rain stayed at bay and we geared up ready for our first climb. Even though our first climb was only twenty meters or so it was still rather intimidating as we were climbing around the visitors centre where there were plenty of people about although, they were probably more interested in watching the guys scaling the higher climbs to our left, our right, and behind us. Indeed, there were climbers everywhere! What I have learnt about climbing is that you must trust the rope, yourself and, your shoes. The shoes particularly stand out. If you feel like one of the ugly sisters trying on Cinderella’s lost glass slipper then you are most likely wearing the correct shoe for climbing. Basically your toes are squished into the end of the shoe up to the point of all blood supply being cut off from them. I’m not sure if this is exactly the correct fit but I feel it is more or less so. The upside of this is that by wearing the shoes and trusting them, you feel like you can scale any sized vertical rock thrown in your way. It’s is quite incredible what your toes and fingers can cling onto when the only other option is to fall to your death. Throughout the afternoon our climbs got higher and more difficult yet, as has always been the case with this group, everyone kept giving it a go and everyone continued to reach the top. For me, I got more nervous with every climb. I was loving every moment and the adrenaline was flying around my system as I got higher but as my confidence grew so did the thought that at one point I would get too confident and then fall. As with most things in life, I can do them to some degree but usually my technique is bloody awful and I assumed it was no different with my climbing. As it turned out my instructor said I had a talent for rock climbing and I should definitely continue it! I nearly laughed in his face partly because I have never been told I have a talent for anything and partly because he said I was very good at thinking and planing a route up the cliff face. In my head, quite simply, I thought it was stubbornness and pig ignorance that was getting me up the mountain! Either way it must have been a damn good afternoon for all concerned because it was gone 7pm when we returned to the apartment, thanks to our guides spending a good hour longer with us then originally planned.

Sea kayaking was the plan for the following day but even though the sun was shining and the sea appeared calm, our instructor called off the trip due to high winds. The wind is very weird here. On our first night it sounded like the apartment roof was about to be ripped off, the gusts were that strong. All through the week the wind would blow at gale force for a minute or two and then there would be nothing. Anywhere between three to thirty minutes would pass by in absolute calm and then there would be a few more category five gusts before more calm. It is something to do with the mountains but something I don’t believe I have experienced before. In place of the kayak tour we decided upon a 4×4 safari up into the mountains. I jokingly asked if it included cheese and wine, it didn’t but, several minutes later after a few phone calls both the cheese and wine had been organised for an extra few euros. As disappointing as it was not to be out on the water it turned out to be jolly lovely going up into the mountains, covering more distance than we would have done on foot or on bike. The views were incredible both looking down towards the sea and, looking down into the valleys of the mountain range with the odd farm dotted around wherever there was enough flat mountain to grow some grass and graze some animals. Our cheese and wine stop was at a delightful little villa type building which belonged to a local farmer who had apparently nipped to the local supermarket for some wine, cheese and bread and then flogged it to us at ten times the price but, what he had purchased was delicious and we enjoyed it in a beautiful part of the world. Anyhow, we had hardly spent a penny so far on the trip so it did no harm indulging a little!

No thanks to the wind and cancelled kayaking the trip had taken a turn from being full of activities to becoming quite a relaxed. This was no bad thing. The cheese and wine safari had been a stunning day out and our final day was to take us to one of Croatia’s most famous landmarks. Unfortunately, this meant it would be full of tourists but, that so was the Taj Mahal and that was an incredible experience. Plitvice Lakes National Park is unlike anywhere I have been before. I wouldn’t describe it as dramatic or incredible but simply, rather bloody lovely. It is pretty much a series of waterfalls that fall through a valley with lakes interspersed between them. The amount of water falling over them isn’t anything special but there is a wide range of falls to take a look at, short, fat, skinny, high, the park has them all. The water is perfectly clear and the whole area is surrounded by trees, rushes and, bushes. There is miles of wooden decking which transports the hoards of visitors through the park. This doesn’t sound so special but the decking is only as wide as two people, there are very few railings and a lot of the time you are walking along the water’s edge or directly over it. On several occasions we would be ascending wooden stairs over a small waterfall. All of this I found very cool. To cap it all off lunch was an absolute bargain! This place was full of tourists and school kids even though it wasn’t peak season yet but, slap bang in the middle of the park we were able to pick up a big tasty burger, fries and a beer for just over five pounds. Somewhere similar in the UK would have cost three times more and would have tasted three times worse! It turned out to be a jolly nice day out, even the ninety minute drive there and back was through stunning countryside.

Final night dinners on tour tend to be a good event and this tour was no exception. We had booked into a little restaurant just outside of the main town. It sat on a little village square where we found ourselves seated at a huge wooden table on a large wooden deck, nestled between some trees. The evening managed to stay warm and the beer and wine began to flow from about 6pm. We had every right to be excited by dinner and we were not disappointed when our slow, bell cooked lamb and veal turned up on the table along side roasted vegetables, bread and olive oil. Yes, I said bell cooked. Apparently the meat is slow cooked under a bell or, something along those lines. What I can say for sure is that it was absolutely delicious and fantastically I failed to get any pictures. Just imagine meat that falls off the bone and melts in your mouth, that’s what we experienced. It was divine! As midnight approached half of the group called it a night while the other half, including me stupidly decided to go in search for another drink. We knew our chances were slim, tourist season had still not fully taken off and the town was a sleepy one but, as luck would have it we spotted a restaurant owner enjoying a post work drink with a friend. Suddenly he was surrounded by four women and me but, without hesitation he told us to sit down and went to fetch a heap of cold beers. Several beers and three hours later we departed with the restaurant owner refusing to accept any money for his hospitality. Looking back I do question whether it was his restaurant! However, I forget to tell you about our apartment owner! She too was fantastic. She made us a cake and got a heap of beer and wine delivered to keep our afternoon cheeky drink sessions alive and well, not to mention the snacks she also provided. Not once did she ask for any money! We all left a generous tip for her on our departure but it can be safely said that my experience of Croatian people is absolutely fantastic. Everyone we met was super kind and friendly which really added something special to the trip that you don’t always get.

An incredible group to travel with, a fantastic guide, awesome locals, good cheap food and drink, a stunning landscape, exciting outdoor activities, two hours from London, there is absolutely no excuse not to go to this fantastic country.

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