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Discover Croatia in winter, from primary forests to mountains

UNDERSTANDING THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA

We crossed Croatia as part of a longer journey: a walk across Europe via 16 countries. Between 2018 and 2020, we walked 10,000 km from Portugal to Turkey for two years. This is the Two Steps to the Other project. Discover the whole project here.

The first time we saw bear tracks, we were really worried...

When we left Italy, we thought that we would begin the first real confrontation with the language barrier.

It's true, in Portugal we learned quickly thanks to Spanish, in Spain we were delighted to practice our third language, in France we didn't speak it, in Italy, where we stayed 3 months, we had the time to acquire good bases in this new Latin language and we thought that in Slovenia, we were going to seriously struggle but finally, everybody spoke English! It is thus in Croatia that the troubles really started. 


Key information about our cross-country tour of Croatia

  • Country: Croatia
  • Type of route : Straight line 
  • Difficulty : Difficult 
  • Language: Croatian, very little English
  • Period: Winter - December/January/February
  • Duration: 38 days
  • Distance : 560 km
  • Starting point: Kranjci, Slovenian border
  • Arrival point: Općina Sinj, Bosnian border
  • Elevation gain : 14224 m
  • Negative altitude difference : 14202 m


Hiking and adventure in Croatia

Long distance trail: Via Dinarica and Premužić Trail

During our crossing of Croatia, we regularly followed the paths of the Via Dinarica. This route connects five countries. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania. In total, more than 1,260 kilometers and 52,000 meters of positive elevation gain.

These long distance European trails are the backbone of our itinerary. If we never follow them scrupulously because we like to keep our freedom, they generally wind among the most beautiful sites of the countries they cross.

By promoting them, we also like to think that we are doing our part to promote hiking and to help people discover new territories.

In the Velebit Mountains, we follow the Premužić Trail, a path imagined and laid out by this forestry engineer in the 1930s.

The route crosses the initially most inaccessible parts of Velebit. From up close, you can understand the colossal amount of work that went into this project, even though it is perfectly integrated into the landscape. It is a work of art.

State of the trails and walking culture in Croatia

These two long-distance trails might lead one to believe that the walking culture is widespread in Croatia. This is not the case. But we had the feeling that it was slowly changing.

In Croatia, we walked about 560 km, crossing three of the eight national parks of the country: Risnjak, Velebit and Paklenica. We would have loved to cross the Plitvice Lakes National Park as well, but we were told that it was "closed". That's when we understood that the definition of a national park in Croatia was a bit different from the one we are used to in the rest of Europe. No regrets, many other wonders were waiting for us. 

Our crossing of Croatia also marked the beginning of winter for us. Obviously the cold, the snow and the very short days did not really make our life easier. We walk shorter, slower, we almost systematically end the day with wet feet, setting up camp and cooking takes more time and we have to take extra precautions like hanging our food in the trees because of bears and wolves. 

Our experience of bivouac in Croatia

Officially, wild camping is forbidden in Croatia. In fact, as always, we were out of season and took the liberty to set up our tent just about anywhere. Anyway, there was nobody outside.

The ban on bivouacs has two main purposes here: to protect the tourism economy and to protect against fires.

When we were there, everything was closed (hotels, restaurants...), so we didn't steal anyone's money and everything was covered with snow, so there was not much risk of fire.


Territories and nature in Croatia

Bijele Stijene

A dark green coniferous forest contrasting with sharp white limestone towers is Bijele Stijene, a subgroup of mountains in Gorski Kotar, a region in western Croatia.

Literally "the white rocks", this set of karstic formations exceeds in places 50 meters high. The summits are separated by faults which become very dangerous when they are covered with snow.

The bura

This cold and dry wind is dreaded in Croatia. It arrives from Russia and is intensified by the presence of mountains directly on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. Its average speed is 80 km/h with gusts up to 250 km/h.

If everyone in Croatia fears the days of Bura, they are also somewhat hoped for because it is known that after its passage, it is nice and clear.

Paklenica Canyons

Paklenica is one of the eight national parks in Croatia and one of the three we passed through. Very well known by climbers, these karst cliffs have made the park famous.

There are two main canyons, the "big" and the "small", both are beautiful and are crossed by a hiking trail that is anything but monotonous.

The mythical Velebit

To cross the Velebit mountain range, we were accompanied successively by two guests.

We spent 6 days in autonomy in the Northern Velebit and ended the week by celebrating the New Year in the lovely little hut Zdrilo.

In the southern Velebit, we were a little less lucky with the weather. Further into the winter, there was a lot of snow and we were very close to the "bura".

Wildlife

We were already in December and all the people we talked to about the bears told us that the real danger came from the mothers with their cubs, but that at that time the bears were wintering and the only ones we could possibly see were the young adults who didn't yet know when to retire to their den. 

One day, at the end of the day, we were hit by a terrible hail storm.

The next day, at least 10 centimeters of hail covered the ground. In the late morning, we saw our first bear tracks.

No doubt about the animal nor about the freshness of the tracks. If we could see them so clearly in this carpet of hail, it means that they were less than 12 hours old.

Indeed, they were medium-sized tracks, probably a young adult. But further on, it was not the same story. Very small tracks, followed by other gigantic ones.

The idea that we had of the traces of the yeti in roughly... We then applied what we knew of the behavior to hold: not to take them by surprise and thus, to make noise!

Environment

Big shock for us who arrived from Slovenia, the ecological conscience in Croatia still has a beautiful margin of progress. A little everywhere in the country, we found wastes on the paths and quite a lot of wild dumps in the open air.


Meeting with the Croatians

To be perfectly honest, the Croatian welcome was not always very warm.

Quite quickly, it became clear that the subject of migrants was on everyone's lips.

Regularly, we were asked if we were in, once, people even called the police to control us... 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 is therefore trying to show that its border is secure and that it has control over it.

Second, since Hungary built an anti-migrant wall along its border with Serbia, Croatia has become the main entrance to the EU.

So objectively, there is probably more passage in Croatia since a few years. Finally, while discussing with Croatians, we felt quite clearly that there must be an important media hype on the subject. 

Of course, everything is never black and white and we had some nice encounters in Croatia. Also, a lot of people didn't speak English, but rather German (not us) and it didn't help us to communicate. 

Only once we slept at the inhabitant's place, even if he didn't let us go to his place. 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.

Generally speaking, since the beginning of the trip, we like to talk frankly about our experience with the inhabitants of the countries we cross. In Spain, we explained to you that people were sometimes quite reserved, not to say stoic, that the Swiss had been difficult to approach, etc. In any case, we always felt free to talk about our experience and the people concerned always received our remarks with understanding and self-deprecation. 

We must confess that Croatia is the first country where each of our remarks was taken without much hindsight. Whether we say that there are few hiking trails outside the mountainous areas, that the culture of hiking is not very widespread or that we often found doors that were refused to open to us in the villages, we often collected volleys of green wood in return. Loving your country is one thing, but admitting your weaknesses is the best way to progress!

Our most memorable meeting

No kidding, our most memorable encounter in Croatia is a dog...

At the exit of a village, he had followed us and we had not succeeded in making him turn back. He stayed 3 days with us, 3 days during which we wondered what to do, how to find his family if he had one and what to decide if he didn't.

In truth, even Marie who is afraid of dogs, we both got very attached to him and it was a heartbreaker to give him back to his owners whom we finally found (the magic of social networks!).


Culture in Croatia

At the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, we could not ignore the traces of the war by coming across old rusty tanks in the mountain as well as tons of ammunition more or less big. We are looking forward to go deeper into the Balkan Peninsula, to try to understand a little bit better these mixed stories still present in all minds and on the walls of the houses.

Would we walk another 500 km here?

No, not really. The season probably didn't help but the cold reception and the distrust of the Croatians made us tired. We can't wait to cross the border.

Once again, we have the feeling to have discovered another country than the one we had images in mind before leaving. Of Croatia, we imagined the coast and the archipelagos of postcard, much less its countryside and its mountains. Once again, the freedom that the journey on foot offers us fills us up!


Anecdotes from our hike in Croatia

Dirty fact

Forest and mountain trails littered with trash.

Wild fact

Funny feeling to walk between the tracks of bears and wolves.

Food fact

If you ask for the restaurant's specialty, you will inevitably be served a platter full of meat cooked in oil, French fries and a raw onion.


Preparation and organization for hiking in Croatia

When to go? 

Even if the encounters were rare and that life is more difficult in winter for hikers, we loved the mountains of Velebit under the snow. In summer, it must be really hot. The most affordable months must be May, June and September.

Where to sleep?

Officially, wild camping is prohibited in Croatia. From what we understand, they are mostly watched on the coast, on the islands, in the national parks and all of this, during the tourist season in summer.

What equipment? 

For this crossing of Croatia in winter, we left with winter clothes, hiking and bivouac equipment and the minimum of safety equipment in mountain.

Find here the detailed list of our material, item by item.

Is bivouacking allowed in Croatia?

Officially, wild camping is prohibited in Croatia. From what we understand, they are mostly watched on the coast, on the islands, in the national parks and all of this, during the tourist season in summer.

We had no problem camping anywhere in Croatia.

Are there any protected areas

The route of our hike in Croatia passes through several protected areas:

  • Risnjak National Park
  • Bijele i Samarske Stijene Nature Reserve
  • North Velebit National Park
  • Velebit Nature Reserve
  • Paklenica National Park

Are dogs allowed?

Croatia is a very dog friendly. Dogs are accepted everywhere.

Marie aka "Blue"
September 7, 2022
The author in a few words:
Elle c’est Marie. Sous ses airs sages se cache une force et une résilience hallucinante. Elle adore découvrir et se faire surprendre par la vie quitte à être complètement à l'arrache, mais en vrai, c’est aussi une malade de l’organisation. Sur le sentier, elle en laisse plus d’un derrière et ses talents de grimpeuse lui permettent d'être à l’aise sur les chemins les plus techniques. Marie bossait dans les ressources humaines. Son sens de l’autre et son écoute nous rassurent dans les pires situations ! Marie est la cofondatrice de Further Stories.

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