Croatia: Two decades on reveals a very different country

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STEPPING off the Zagreb Express from Venice, I heard that a rocket attack has just claimed civilian lives in the Croatian capital’s suburbs. I descended into a netherworld of sandbags, khaki-clad troops and swirling sirens. That was in 1993. Heading back two decades on, I’m on a mission to check out the new wave of active tourism that is reinvigorating the old scarred battlefields of inland continental Croatia.

Croatia, of course, has already come a long way since the brief but brutal Homeland War that ripped through the fledgling nation in the early 1990s. The coastline is no longer a travel secret – Marco Polo’s old stomping ground is alive with a new wave of explorers sailing around its 1,244 islands. Tourists revel in the resorts of the littoral and the Roman and Venetian-tinged historic cities of Dubrovnik, Split and Zadar, tempted by what the tourist office neatly packages as the Mediterranean as it once was.

In 1993 I was writing about the war, but my attempts to get south from the capital of Zagreb had been halted by fighting at Karlovac. Back then, arriving in the Croatian capital I had felt underdressed without a gun. Today I just feel underdressed in the flurry of pavement cafés that dot the graceful Austro-Hungarian core of this city of a million inhabitants whose Vienna-style architectural flourishes have been spruced up in recent years as the country hurtles towards EU membership in 2013.

Venturing south, back to Karlovac, the scars of war are still evident. The threat of conflict may be long gone, but the further I push past the city, the more I come across villages where almost every building sports a new roof, where facades are sprinkled with pockmarks that echo the past, as do the – mercifully rarer these days – fenced-off minefields. On Karlovac’s outskirts is Turanj, where a simple outdoor war museum sits on the old front line. When fighting broke out, the Croats found themselves facing Europe’s third-largest army, and the hastily organised nature of their defence is evident here in their makeshift armoured vehicles, with a converted camouflaged tractor, minibus and former school bus the surreal detritus of war.

I meet an old Yugoslav national army officer who helped his fellow Croats halt the advance of Serb and Yugoslav forces towards Karlovac in the dark days of 1991. Dubravko Halovanic’s eyes drift off and his sentences tail off too when the conversation edges beyond the museum to the actual fighting, but like most people in continental Croatia today he is keen to look to the future. “The war is in the past and tourism is our future. We are a poor region of Croatia now many of our industries are gone, but bringing in tourists is a way we can give our young people jobs and stop them having to leave.”

As the coast has quickly recovered from the war and even seen tourism rise above pre-war levels, the interior has struggled. A new drive is seeing the natural charms of the Lika and Karlovac regions pushed as the ideal setting for a phalanx of active sports. And impressive charms they are.

Rolling hills and thick forests unfurl towards the vertiginous limestone Velebit mountain range, which dwarfs Scotland’s mountains. Aquarium-clear rivers and streams gush all around, with Karlovac itself at the confluence of a mazy quartet of rivers. Wild wolves and bears are testament to a countryside that is both unspoilt and mercifully undeveloped.

Given the local terrain, it is no surprise that rafting is taking off. I head out on the Mreznica river. Stretches of this grade 3-4 river are ideal for beginners as my guided trip holds no technical challenges, but there is also an opportunity to hurl down rapids, drop down waterfalls and descend into a world where swans and herons outnumber people.

On the trout-rich River Gacka, I rent an open canoe and ease off for a more genteel experience. Pushing my way through the reed-shrouded waters, I catch glimpses of little villages and the distant mountains as I slip down through the gears and leave the bustle of the 21st century firmly behind.

Hiking is another way of discovering continental Croatia’s bucolic charms. Recent investment has seen trail guides published and waymarking improved. Many trails are now also open to bikes, and the local minor roads are also ideal for a lazy day on two wheels. On the hiking routes, I discover two of this limestone region’s numerous caves. Grabovaca is big enough to host classical concerts, with superb acoustics, while Barac is a much cosier affair, where my guide Goran turns off the lights to let me experience a rare thing these days – total darkness.

I come face to face with the dynamic new face of local tourism near the scene of some of the worst fighting around Gospic, at the Rizvan Adrenaline Park. Taking one of the quad bikes out, I rumble over hillsides cloaked in a blanket of pines and bump along deserted farm tracks. Then it’s on to tackle a high-rope course, shoot some arrows and join a local group for paintball. We splat paint pellets at each other, a welcome substitute for the real bullets that were whizzing through the air the first time I came here.

I end this trip at Lika’s top tourist attraction and, indeed, one of the country’s top draws. The Plitvice Lakes have been inscribed on Unesco’s world heritage list since 1979 with good reason. In this protected reserve, a necklace of interconnected lakes bubble and gush down waterfalls, through emerald pools and crystal-clear channels, with wooden walkways and trails allowing you to enjoy the rich flora and fauna. Tour boats and bus transfers are on hand in the expansive park in a slick operation that expertly treads the line between tourism and environmental protection.

Plitvice is a fitting place to finish my return to inland Croatia. It is now the region’s shining tourist star, attracting more than two million visitors a year. It is also where the first shots of the Homeland War were fired in 1991. The land beyond the park offers many of the charms of Plitvice without the crowds, and I leave Croatia’s continent behind with memories of gunfire and grenades replaced by whooping rafters and goggle-eyed tourists appreciating one of the most scenic corners of Europe.