Recently, a friend and I embarked on a five day adventure into one of Croatia’s largest and wildest mountain ranges stretching parallel to the Adriatic sea: Velebit, part of the Dinaric Alps. An old Croatian folk song calls Velebit the “haunt of fairies.” One writer describes it as “a strangely beautiful place, its wind-scoured heights characterized by areas of bizarrely sculpted and weathered rock, studded with thickets of dwarf mountain pine, and pierced by some of the deepest sinkholes in the world” (Rudolph Abraham).
The whole trek is nine days long; but in five days we drank in a healthy dose of Velebit. It wasn’t just the stunning scenery we enjoyed, but also Croatia’s “hiking culture,” which we encountered in the huts and along the trail.
“You are hiking alone?” the man asked disbelievingly, and then proceeded to ask his hiking troupe if they could adopt us for the next few days, although we assured him we were fine. This proved to be a common question for two women hiking alone for five days, and the query was often immediately followed by gifts of rakija(Balkan spirits) and many varieties of snacks and foods.
“Take the bananas, take them!” another man urged although we were finishing our trip and they were just starting out.
“This is the most hospitable culture ever,” my American friend observed after we were fed fire-roasted slabs of pork over fresh bread deep in the mountains.
And of course the food was just the beginning. On our third night, we encountered the same group of men out for three days who, as they told me after I jokingly asked where the women were, “just needed some guy time.” Our feast over the open fire ended with boisterous songs around the campfire. At their special request, I found myself belting one of the few Country Western songs I know (complete with a wanna-be Southern twang). Croatia is one of the few countries that truly appreciate my attempted Southern accent.
One day, we stumbled out of the mountains onto the sweltering hot, never-ending plain of Veliko Rujno only to encounter hundreds of people celebrating the holiday of Velika Gospa (Feast of the Assumption). Locals pilgrimage to this location where there is a small church for a special Mass and a big picnic afterwards. Throwing our too-heavy backpacks on the ground, I poured the refreshing water from the well by the church over my head and watched the festivities.
We were warned repeatedly about bears and wolves—but no one who warned us (I questioned everyone) had every personally seen a bear or wolf in the wilderness. However, we were chased by an intimidating (their horns did not look friendly) group of female cows who followed us, braying repeatedly, over a narrow trail on the side of a hill.
Set amidst the wild peace of Velebit is a sad reminder of Croatia’s recent past: one day our trail led us through areas still strewn with landmines and old military bunkers from the 1990s war. Although the map and the occasional warning sign kept us abreast of their general areas, I was giddily conscious of keeping on the right trail.
Our last night we decided to sleep out of the hut and under the stars; and it was this night that we were visited by the Bura, a powerful, gale force wind that blows over the mountains and onto the Adriatic. Following its persuasive bluster, the next day we hiked out and were swimming in the Adriatic sea by mid-afternoon.