Day 2: The Hinterlands (Kalovac to Plitvice)

Using our language shared language of gestures and smiles, Anna kindly offered me coffee and biscuits in the morning, followed by a coffee liqueur. Booze plays a central role in Croatian hospitality; at most restaurants and hotels, and even in some hostels, you’ll be greeted with a drink, usually some form of rakia (fruit brandy). I hadn’t yet learned how to pronounce “Živjeli!” (cheers!), but I knew better than to refuse her proffer.

Actually I still can’t pronounce Živjeli. It’s kind of like “shi-va-LEE”. The Hvartski diacriticals are daunting to an English speaker. (Who puts a diacritical on a Z)?

Breakfast is not a major meal in Croatia; the ubiquitous caffe-bars often serve no food, and in many of the smaller towns, these are the only public establishments. My usual bike touring plan of riding until I found a nice cafe for second breakfast or Elevensies didn’t wind up working so well; I felt under-norished for much of the trip, especially riding through the less-touristy inland areas.

Yesterday’s unpleasant traffic inspired me to revise my route plan for the day. The RB-02 route I’d discovered continued to the west of Karlovac, and I usually prefer a longer, hillier ride to a shorter, more trafficky one. The climbing started with a 15% grade immediately after crossing the river, but the road was reasonably pleasant, quiet and residential. After cresting the hill, the riding was beautiful; quiet, narrow farm roads, feeling a bit like Sonoma County. I saw deer, a roadkill porcupine, and a really cool looking lizard.

Karlovac to Plitvice

The route passed by an interesting abandoned castle overlooking the Dobri River valley, then descended and crossed a rustic stone bridge, where I got to learn something new about Croatian way-finding.

Karlovac to Plitvice

I had to head south from the RB-02 route here, and there were a couple of options listed as defined routes. What I didn’t know, and don’t think I could see from the maps I had access to, is that the routes sometimes did not make a distinction between paved and dirt roads, and more importantly, did not make a distinction between rideable dirt roads and unrideable farm tracks and paths. I actually like riding on dirt roads, even if they’re a little tricky, but I wasn’t really set up for difficult riding on lumpy pathways with steep climbs and mud pits. This led to a bunch of tiring riding requiring pushing or backtracking.

Karlovac to Plitvice

Here, I started up the dirt path before turning around and going back to take the river road (which was fine). Later, I followed a set of dirt pathways through a remote forest, probably service roads for the power lines passing through the woods. I didn’t see a human or a building for well over an hour of riding. It was hard work but a welcome contrast to yesterday’s traffic.

Karlovac to Plitvice

I returned to pavement in a farm village, where I had a worrying encounter with a pair of farm dogs. Fortunately, I was able to make friends with the alpha dog after positioning my bike between us. The farm roads were quite nice, and the secondary road I eventually wound up on was still good riding.

Karlovac to Plitvice

The area I was riding through was quite economically depressed. Abandoned buildings without roofs had “NA PRODAJU” (FOR SALE) painted on their faces. Plaški, an ethnic Serbian town, has a decaying, abandoned factory, and decrepit buildings with broken windows on the main street. The money flowing from the cruise ships into Croatia is not reaching this area. 

Karlovac to Plitvice
Karlovac to Plitvice

One of the great pleasures of bike touring the experience of transition: from forest to plain, from city to country, from mountain to valley. Because you are riding the terrain, and your senses are all engaged, you feel differences is temperature, moisture, color, sound and smell. On the way to Saborsko, I saw the road begin to climb, the foliage begin to change, and the clouds begin to descend. No longer riding through farmland, I was climbing towards a pass. Despite the unexpected extra effort required so far on today’s ride, I still felt good, and enjoyed the gradual ascent towards the ridge.

Karlovac to Plitvice

As is often the case, the topographic transition also marked a political transition. Outside of Saborsko I saw a house riddled with bullet holes. I was not aware of the detailed history of the place, but I later read about the Sabosrko Massacre. During the 1991 war, a small Croatian force held this town in the upper valley, surrounded by places controlled by the Serbian military. A tank-led Serbian force took over the town, and approximately 30 Croats who remained behind were rounded up, slaughtered, and buried in mass graves. The incident eventually led to convictions of the Serbian commanders by the international war crimes tribunal. The surviving buildings (many were burned or destroyed) display war damage.

Karlovac to Plitvice

The climb was not very steep, but long, and I started to feel my caloric debt. I ate the last of my Clif Shots but needed more. There were no restaurants in town but there was a small market, and I selected a bag of Croatian cookies in preference to Oreos. They were pretty dry but the calories helped get me over the last ridge.

Karlovac to Plitvice

The fog had descended, and dusk was falling, which made the ride into Plitvice National Park quite otherworldly, rolling along the ridge through the misty forest with no one else around. I could see the impressive gorge of Plitvice, and got some views of the incredible blue waters of the lakes.

Karlovac to Plitvice

After cresting the pass, I felt great rolling down the smooth, winding roads, until RideWithGPS told me to take a left turn where no left turn existed. I stopped, and backtracked (Rule of bike touring: Never make navigation errors in the downhill direction), finding that the proposed route took me directly down a steep, rocky staircase that dropped at least 100 meters to a wooden footpath across the lake. RideWithGPS had put me on the wrong side of the gorge, apparently believing that the staircase was a bike path.

Karlovac to Plitvice

I thought about carrying bike down the stairs, but it would have been really awkward, and it was clearly not supposed to be done. So I consulted various mapping sources and found a thing that looked like a road going down to a thing that looked like a bridge. The ride down the hill through the gathering gloom was beautiful, and the ride across the foot bridge (almost certainly illegal) was a real treat, made possible by the fact that everyone else had already left for dinner.

Karlovac to Plitvice

The bridge brought me to the side of the park where my hostel was located, though it was still strange trying to navigate in the dark. It turned out that I was riding on tram roads, and the tram road system is completely separate from the rest of the road system. At one point the tram garage materialized out of the mist in front of me, and that was the end of the pavement; I had to hoof it overland with the bike to get to the real park roads. Eventually I found the place, and after some confusion about the location of the office (I walked into someone’s cabin), found my room, pedaled down to the pizzeria and had some awesome fettuccine and a beer, and got back for some good sleep.

Daily musing: Refuge and refugees

As I was traveling through the hinterlands, I thought about how the concept of sanctuary and refuge is deeply human. When you’re out in the wilderness, you seek a refuge where there is shelter, warmth, food and safety: Rivendell, if you will. Finding such a refuge is a visceral experience.

In English, we use the term “refugee” to describe those fleeing danger in Syria and elsewhere; other Romance languages have similar words. The term connects with the common, visceral experience of seeking refuge. Refugees are those who are wandering in the hinterlands, looking for a place of safety and comfort, as all humans do.

In German, the term is “Flüchtling”, which more or less translates to “fleeing person.” The connotation is quite different, and I wonder if the response to refugees is different in German-speaking countries because of that. Both Germany and Austria elected far-right parties while I was in Europe, partially in response to the refugee crisis.

Ride data: 128km, 2150m climbing

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