Croatia, Europe

Text: Uwe Krauss • Photography: Uwe Krauss, Michiel van Dam

History began right here, in a simple narrow house in the village of Kumrovec, with doors so low I have to duck every time my 6'2" frame enters a room. I'm at the birthplace of half of Eastern Europe's former ruler, Josip Broz, better known as Tito. He held together with ambition and skill, the powers of socialism, until it finally collapsed in an absurd war, where neighbors were against neighbors and brothers against brothers. His country was called Yugoslavia — but it's gone now.

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Remnants of a Futile War

Today several successors, all of them parts of the former Balkan empire, have opened their doors to western visitors, offering a new and exciting playground for motorcyclists. And Croatia, the epicenter of the former Yugoslavia and our starting point, is one of the most diverse and beautiful countries in all of Eastern Europe. Together with another nine members, I am a guest on a guided tour organized by the local company Blue Bike Tours. My rental, which is a brand new KTM 990 Supermoto T (the T stands for traveler), promises to combine the fun of the Supermoto and the comfort of touring amenities like panniers and a small fairing. For eight days, I'll be on the road covering 1,400 miles.

The road meanders through a landscape cultivated up to the last detail, with small farms catching the eye wherever we look. A few slopes are dotted with vineyards, and on top of every third hill, there seems to be a little chapel or a church tower. This is Catholic country. We head northeast towards Varazdin, which, according to our guidebook, is one of the most beautiful cities in Croatia. But suddenly near the border of Slovenia the road is closed, with no explanation or signs suggesting a detour. The map is no help either, but a friendly truck driver happens along, and with a smile on his face, leads us back to the highway. Maybe it's because tourists are still a rare experience in this part of the country, but the people seem to be extra friendly when they discover we are foreigners on motorcycles.

Along with its cordial inhabitants, Croatia has an abundance of attractions to delight sightseers and travelers exploring the countryside. And as we lope along, we're treated to a view of Veliki Tabor, a castle that sits impressively on a mountaintop more than 1,000 feet above sea level. Once owned by Oton Ivekovic, a prominent Croatian painter, this lovely display of architecture is now a museum and tourist spot. A little later the road dips into a thick beech forest before reaching a small lake with the fairytale-like palace, Trakoscan, nestled on a hill behind it. With a display of such overwhelming beauty, we must visit. Between five-foot walls in a luxurious setting, the Draskovic clan once lived here in great wealth. They even had their own private army.

But even an army would have been useless against the machinery we see just outside the town of Karlovac. A few tanks and a crashed warplane between shot up houses are left here as a reminder of the futile war that ended just 15 years ago. Beside this solemn scene is quite a bizarre but optimistic sight: new homes have been erected, surely built with the hope that something similar will never happen again.

Nature and Man: An Uncommon Harmony

About 30 miles down the road, we get to see the creations of man and the forces of nature come together in uncommon harmony to form a small paradise. A tributary of the Korana River splits into several arms and a splendor of waterfalls just before its end, dropping into the canyon of the bigger river. Between the falls, people have set up small ponds and watermills. To our great pleasure, one of the mills has been converted into a restaurant that can only be reached via a wooden bridge. Sitting underneath a chestnut tree, with the waterfall rushing beside me as I eat fresh trout from the river is a heavenly moment. I want to savor it, so despite a rather full stomach, I order dessert as an excuse to stay a while longer.

But the next destination is calling, and to our surprise, the waters from Rastoke were only a taste of what would follow up the mountain range in the Plitvice Lakes National Park. From the road we are treated to a great view of the turquoise terraces that are connected by waterfalls. Limestone and different minerals are responsible for their unique color and shape. This view is so alluring that we can't resist stopping to explore the sights. Obviously the National Park Administration is aware of the profound effect of this natural wonder, and confidently charges a $ 25 entrance fee that includes a short boat ride across a lake, bringing us to the start of several trails. We opt for the most spectacular one, with a wooden boardwalk that leads us between, over, and underneath the abundant waterfalls. The experience is picturesque and absolutely exciting at the same time, and the late hour of the day (after 6 p.m.) ensures that we have the whole place to ourselves. A guidebook from 1909 describes this location as the most beautiful area in the Austro-Hungarian kingdom. Adapted to the new political geography, it still might be right.

In Mountain Villages, the Devastation of the Past Marks the Present

Beyond the park, many abandoned and destroyed homes dot the landscape as we make our way to Lovinac. As we enter the village, we spot a local church made of stone, but something seems strange about it. It's the bells, we realize, which are sitting in front of the door, instead of hanging in the tower. A closer investigation reveals that half of the bells have been melted away - the bronze material couldn't withstand the fires that came with the war. Lejana, a local resident, shares her memories with us: "This area was a place of the most fierce skirmishes. In the surrounding villages Croats and Serbs lived peacefully, side-by-side for many years. For no other obvious reason than the war, hatred grew and people started fighting against each other. Of course with marriages in between the two ethnic groups, family members shot at one another. Finally, no house had a roof anymore." She tells us with a sincere expression on her face, "Of 4,000 inhabitants, only 1,000 are left. The rest have fled or are dead." "Could both Serbs and Croats live together again?" I ask her. "Not at the moment. Nobody can forget. Maybe in the next generation," she answers with little persuasiveness.

On secondary roads we head further south towards the city of Split. As always, on such winding roads seemingly made just for motorcycles, the journey takes longer than expected. And although the scenery is great, dusk is slowly setting in and I'm getting rather anxious for the Croatian coast to finally appear. But there is no blue water to be seen, only one corner after the other.

The Adriatic Highway: A Coastal Road Like no Other

As a reward for the long approach, the crucial moment is spectacular. Suddenly the rocks open on both sides revealing a magnificent view down to the coast where the sun disappears into the ocean. On a narrow strip of land, the city of Split is lit by backlight. The suburban sprawl of 12-story concrete blocks looks almost surreal, yet close up they are rather homely. First impressions, though, are often deceiving. We check into a hotel, and then explore the historic center, perhaps better described as a living museum. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built his retirement home here 1,700 years ago. The palace has the form of a Roman military fortress and is the size of more than five football fields. Up to 10,000 people once lived here, and some still do. Most of the structure is well preserved, and we venture through for hours to absorb the splendor of its stone gates, narrow alleys, and underground corridors.

Having extensively explored the mountainous region of the country, the seaside is our playground for the next few days. Croatia's coastline extends for nearly 4,000 miles, and the Jadranska Magistrala, or the Adriatic Highway, is touted as the most beautiful coastal road of the Mediterranean. "Such a superlative is prone to disappoint," I cautiously remind myself. And sure enough, I get confirmation by the thick traffic and drizzling rain of the first few miles. But there is no low without a high. After a cappuccino-break in the world heritage town of Trogir, sky and road begin to clear. Not believing our luck, we drive through the endless staccato of corners on the Magistrala, intoxicated by the beauty that surrounds us. The sun dries the asphalt rapidly, which makes it difficult to decide what to focus on first - the expansive vistas over the ocean or the proper tilting of the bike.

Our destination for the day is the city of Zadar. Irina, the local guide for our tour, takes us through the old part of town. But even more interesting than the history and the old Roman buildings is the story she tells about her childhood days: "During the war, the Serbs advanced to the border of the town and beseted it for two years. But they never got inside," she recalls with a certain pride. "For us kids, it was an overall adventure. When there were artillery attacks, we went into the cellar. Many neighbors didn't have one, so about 30 people would gather into ours, making it quite cozy. And of course, often there was no school during this time." With Irina's story in my thoughts, I stroll the alleyways of this now peaceful town, imagining how it might have been to grow up during a war.

The Bora, Island Ferries, and Postcard Settings

The next day our surroundings change completely. Outside the bustling city, we see shepherds in black robes along the countryside. As we cross a huge bridge on our way to the island of Pag, I notice the landscape gets dryer and dryer. A while later, we are riding through white rocks bare of any vegetation, surrounded by deep blue water on both sides. This unusual setting in the middle of Europe is a result of the Bora, a strong cold wind that rushes down the Velebit Mountains on the mainland, less than a mile away, and blows here with full force. Any beginnings of vegetation get blown away, and sometimes even the bridges must close. We ferry back to the mainland and ride for 60 miles before taking another ferry to Krk Island, the largest island in the Adriatic Sea. From here, we ferry to the Cres Island, which spoils us with beautiful views from a mountain road. The postcard-like setting of the town Mali Losinj will be our home for the night. Around a U-shaped harbor, colorful houses dot the hills, and from time to time, sailboats and ferries arrive and leave for the surrounding islands.

A road along a steep coastline leads us to the town of Opatija, where Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I frequented during the winter months. Located at the foot of Ucka Mountain, Opatija is recognized for its lovely setting, pleasant seaside climate, and playful architecture, which remind me a bit of Vienna. Fortunately the war never advanced this far, although thousands of refugees sought shelter in several 4- and 5-star hotels for many months, which led to a complete renovation of all places. This fact explains the tidy appearance of the town.

The view over the Gulf of Kvarner is an almost romantic end to a journey through a country that was once off-limits to foreigners. Croatia surprised me, as it could very well be one of the most beautiful destinations in Europe, especially for motorcyclists. But this journey was only an appetizer - there are still many places and islands yet to be explored.