Sunday 28 June
Up early we were at the number one entrance to the Plitvice Lakes before nine. The lovely Irene at Villa Irene had suggested we get there before the tour bus crowds arrived. By nine we were zigzagging our way down the hill passing groups of Asian tourists wired for sound! It seems to be a thing in Croatia. Each member of a tour group has a box of a particular colour draped around their neck, a cord to one ear. Somewhere near by a guide rabbits on into a mike creating a no doubt colourful and creative story about what they are seeing.
There is a stringy eighty meter waterfall on the other side of the river. This sets the tone for what we are about experience. These lakes with their clear turquoise blue are staggered in altitude, the water flowing and seeping through the trees before dropping down mainly clay cliffs into the lake below. Trout, some quite large, swim near the edges but just out of tickling range. They must not realise that it is illegal.
We strolled from the bottom up the right side of the lakes, at times well up in the open beach forests. There are quite a few signs on the roads and carparks around here warning of bears. It is hard to describe the beauty of this area – hopefully the pictures will do that. After around four hours of walking and admiring this special place we caught the boat back down the lake. A climb up through a steep cave and a side-path to the eighty meter waterfall and our visit was over.
Some 30ks to the east we visited the Barac Caves. Our guide Katerina spoke excellent English with a great sense of humour. After a brief explanation of a couple of caves we couldn’t enter we arrived at the main cave. Helmets issued we waited at the mouth while she raced in to unlock the gates and turn the lights on. The cave goes in some 200m with huge stalactites hanging from the ceiling and some stalagmites protruding from the floor. In some cases these had joined up. In a pit of these 20 million year old caves speleologists had found animal bones from prehistoric lions, bears and hyenas which were much larger than their current descendants. Another pit at the back of the cave had revealed the body of a German WWII soldier. No other human remains have been found. Our guides humour and chatter made our 50 minutes pass quickly.
A trout from the local waters at a nearby restaurant brought a day in this new found paradise to a close.
Monday 29 June
We packed up this morning and left the very comfortable Villa Irene to drive to Rovinj, on the coast of Croatia in the Istria province. On the way we decided to stop and visit Kuterevo Bear Sanctuary. I had been a bit sceptical at first but we decided to visit anyway and I am very glad we did. It was a bit out of the way around some windy roads and stunning country scenery with lots of alpine-style houses all with colourful window boxes filled with flowers. Eventually we arrived in this very small town with lots of colourful painted signs. The sanctuary started in 2002 and rescues orphaned bear cubs. It is staffed entirely by volunteers and runs only on donations. The volunteers each paint a sign when they leave, hence all the colour around.
Because the cubs are so young when orphaned they can never be released into the wild. They currently have 3 young cubs and 4 full-grown male bears that have grown up in the sanctuary. They also have 3 adult bears that have been sent to the sanctuary when zoos have shut down. We met a young kiwi volunteer, Rebecca, a very enthusiastic young woman who has been volunteering at this sanctuary for the last 3 months and is hoping to extend for a further 6 if she can resolve her visa issues. She had previously volunteered at shelters in the UK for birds of prey, wolves and monkeys. She took us to look at some of the bears and explained how things work. I was very impressed with the state of the bears and the tidiness of the enclosures. They try and feed as natural diet as possible and while we were there a group of volunteer scouts were cutting down trees to clear space for an extra enclosure. The bears seemed to be greatly enjoying chewing on the fresh leaves as they were thrown into their area.
There are about a thousand wild brown bears in Croatia, one of the largest populations of bears in Europe and the sanctuary is doing what it can to try and educate people on how to live in harmony with them.
After leaving the sanctuary we headed to a nearby town where Rebecca had recommended a place for lunch! It was certainly interesting. We wound our way up a narrow road to the top of a hill where an old monastery has been turned into a bar/restaurant that obviously gets visited by tour buses given the number of tables. It has stunning views over a valley where we could see people working their farms by hand – cutting hay with scythes and turning it over with pitch forks. It is a bit like going back in time several years. We were the only people in the place and if I had more inclination that way could have even felt a bit like we’d walked into a vampire lair or something – haunted by lost nuns perhaps given all the religious paraphernalia on the walls. We had lunch but it didn’t redeem the place.
We continued the drive to Rovinj around more windy roads with lots of switchbacks – fun for Roger, not so much for me. This included driving up the coast from Sveti Juraj through Rijeka, which provided some great views along the way. Eventually we arrived in Rovinj, a quaint seaside town with more narrow cobblestone streets and spent quite some time navigating our way around trying first to find our hotel and then the rental car place to drop the car off. Roger says I am very good at finding great, hard-to-find, boutique hotels. Villa Tuttorotto certainly fits that description, but was worth the hassle as it is lovely with its seven rooms, balcony with sea view (great for cigar smoking with a glass of bubbly) and fantastic service. We had plenty of time to relax and wander the picturesque, narrow streets before retiring for the night.