CROSSING CROATIA ON FOOT - ANOTHER LOOK
Leaving Italy, we thought that would start for us the first real confrontation with the language barrier. It is true, in Portugal we learned quickly thanks to Spanish, in Spain we were delighted to practice our third language, France does not count, in Italy, where we stayed 3 months, we had the time to get good basics in this new Latin language and we thought that in Slovenia, we would seriously row but eventually everyone spoke English! So it's in Croatia that troubles really started.
We are crossing on purpose hyper-rural areas and we should not be surprised to meet fewer and fewer people speaking a foreign language. Nevertheless, the change from one country to another has been brutal and, a priori, it is not going to get better as we will head South.
In Croatia, we walked about 500 km, crossed three of the eight national parks of the country: Risnjak, Velebit and Paklenica. We would have loved to see the Plitvice Lakes too but we were told it was "closed". It was then that we realized that the definition of a national park in Croatia was a little different from what we are used to in the rest of Europe. No regrets, many other wonders awaited us. We sometimes followed the paths of Via Dinarica and Via Adriatica and also, as you can imagine, our instinct.
Winter is here
Our crossing of Croatia has also marked for us the beginning of winter. Obviously the cold, the snow and the very short days did not really make our life easier. We walked shorter time, slower, we almost always finished the day with wet feet, set up the camp and cooking took longer and we had to take extra precautions like hanging our food in the trees because of bears and wolves.
The first time we saw bear tracks, we were honestly not overconfident. It was already December and all the people with whom we had approached the subject told us that the real danger could come from the mothers with their cubs but at that time, the bears were wintering and the only ones we could possibly see were young adults who do not know when to retire to their den.
One day, at the end of the day, we experienced a terrible hailstorm. The next day, at least 10 centimeters of hailstones covered the ground. In the late morning, we saw our first bear tracks. No doubt about the animal or the freshness of the traces. If we saw them so clearly in this hail carpet, it was because they were less than 12 hours old. Indeed, there were tracks of average size, probably a young adult. But further, it was not the same story. Very small traces, followed by other gigantic ones. Basically the idea we had of traces of the yeti... We then applied what we knew of the conduct to be held: do not take them by surprise and therefore, make noise!
First Croatian "guest"
Fortunately, that day we were not alone. We had with us our 14th "guest" and a crack ally. At the exit of a village, it followed us and we did not manage to turn it back. It stayed 3 days with us, 3 days we wondered what to do, how to find its family if it had one and what to decide if it had not any. In truth, even Marie who is afraid of dogs, we both attached a lot to it and it was a heartbreaking to give it back to its masters that we finally found (the magic of social networks!).
With Crna (we called it that way, it means "black" in Croatian, we learned later that it was called Rocky...) we went through a sublime place. Bijele Stijene ("the white rocks") is a set of pointed and vertical formations that protrude in many places and sometimes exceed 50 meters in height. The karstic rocky peaks are separated by faults which, when covered with snow like that day, prove very dangerous. In fact after a while, the dog could not move forward and we could not carry it anymore, so we had to change our route and shorten our stay among these wonders.
The mythical Velebit, as a family
These very special formations, we found them a little further, in the Velebit mountains. This is where we welcomed our next two guests. Antoine, a friend of Nil, joined us in Senj with our winter equipment. From there, we spent 6 days in autonomy in the Northern Velebit and ended the week celebrating New Year's Eve in the adorable little cabin of Ždrilo.
Shortly after, it was Jean-Baptiste, Marie's brother, who joined us for the second part of these mountains. In the Southern Velebit, we had a little less luck with the weather. More advanced in the winter, there was a lot of snow and we rubbed shoulders with the "bura", this cold and dry wind created by the presence of mountains directly on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Jean-Baptiste was still with us when we climbed on the highest point of Croatia, the Sinjal. A very nice introduction to the Dinaric Alps.
Spending time with our loved ones felt so good. A year on the road, far from our families and friends, in conditions sometimes as difficult as the winter in the Balkans... It's tiring! Also, to be perfectly honest, the welcome of Croats has not always been very warm. Soon enough, we realized that the topic of migrants was on everyone's lips. Frequently, we were asked if we were migrants. Once, some people even called the police in order to get us checked...
We found three explanations for this tension. First, Croatia, which is now a member of the European Union, is a candidate to enter the Schengen area. To give itself every chance, it strives to show that its border is safe and that it has control over it. Since Hungary has built an anti-migrant wall along its border with Serbia, Croatia has become the main entry into the EU. So there is objectively probably more passage in Croatia in recent years. Finally, discussing with Croats, it was quite clear that there had to be a lot of media hype on the subject.
We tried to explain to them that both of us are old enough to remember that in the 1990s, there were many refugees in France. At that time they were called Yugoslavs, they were Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians, Kosovars or Croats...
Obviously, everything is never all white or all black and we made some nice encounters in Croatia. Also, many people did not speak English, but rather German (we don't) and it did not help us to communicate.
Only once did we slept at the inhabitant, even if in truth he did not let us enter his home exactly speaking. It was on the island of Krk where we spent 4 days waiting for Antoine and our winter gear, we slept in a caravan in the garden.
Since the beginning of the trip, we have enjoyed talking frankly about our experience with the people of the countries we are going through. In Spain, we explained that people were sometimes quite reserved, not to say stoic, that the Swiss had been difficult to approach, and so on. In any case we have always felt free to talk about our experience and the people concerned have always received our remarks with understanding and self-mockery.
We must admit that Croatia is the first country where each of our remarks was made without much hindsight. Whether we say that there are few hiking trails outside the mountainous areas, that the culture of hiking is not widespread, that we had a lot of work collecting the trash, or that we often found "closed" doors in the villages, we have often collected flocks of green wood in return. To love one's country is one thing, but admitting one's weaknesses is the best way to progress!
We are at the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, a few kilometers away, we could not ignore the traces of the war. We can not wait to get deeper into the Balkan peninsula, to try to understand a little better these mixed histories and still present in all minds and on the walls of houses.
Once again, we have the feeling of having discovered another country than the one we had pictures in mind before leaving. From Croatia, we imagined the coast and postcard archipelagos, much less its countryside its mountains. Once again, the freedom offered by the journey on foot fills us with hapiness!
Marie & Nil