With so many national parks, islands and beautiful cities, I struggled to narrow down where to spend my last three nights in Croatia. After experiencing so much difficulty with transportation near Plitvice Lakes National Park, it made sense to visit a more populated area with a local bus system to use as a base for back to back day hikes. I researched the big northern nature sites and decided on Učka Nature Park and the coastal town of Lovran. I’d never seen the Adriatic and wanted to get more time on the sea before wrapping up my travels. Early September being past peak season meant three nights in a comfy guesthouse and a bus ticket from Plitvice was within my budget. Also, getting from Lovran to Ljubljana (my next stop) via train is easy and straightforward.
A small vacation town west of Rijeka, Lovran has no grand old city center or major attractions. It’s a place you go to rest by the sea and maybe head into the mountains for the day. This stretch of coast is beautiful and quiet enough to have peace after a day of hard activity. The salty smell of the Adriatic Sea hangs in the air and the sky puts on a nice show of pinks and blues every sunset.
I stayed uphill from the coast with a nice sea view and a 15 minute walk down to the coast where cafes and shops are clustered. After checking in I headed down to the supermarket and picked up my day-hike usual: yogurt, fruit and a local beer to have in the evening afterwards. Although much warmer than the inland, the weather was still rainy. I got pretty sick of sitting indoors for several days during storms in Plitvice and decided to hike whatever the weather happened to be on my first full day. I picked out a basic route up Mt. Vojak with the goal of beginning at the sea shore in Lovran front and climbing the 1,400 m to the top of Croatia’s third highest peak.
Učka park can be reached on foot or bicycle from the city, no map required with regular signage marking the route. A paved road goes all the way to the summit and would be one hell of a bike ride on a nice day. Once at the park, the maze of trails within offer wonderful views of the sea, several islands and Istrian Peninsula. Supposedly in clear weather you can see Venice but I wasn’t so fortunate although I loved the view.
The hike up was brutally steep yet fun and beautiful in some ways. Remnants of old settlements are hidden in the forest and rock formations form obstacles as you go. The mountain range has more vegetation than other coast mountains of Croatia. The forest is thick and there is no view of the sea until over 1,000 m. I loved seeing all the colorful newts crawling under leaf piles or poking out from mossy tree roots; on a rainy cool day the wooded slopes where full of flashes of bright orange and yellow.
At the top fog wrapped around me like a chilly blanket and hid anything more than 3 meters away. I was happy to be at the top anyways and proud of finishing such a tough grade. Sweaty, wet and cold, I bounded almost all the way down – and experienced my first hiking injury. A slip that bruised up my right forearm pretty badly. Turning 30 on this trip, I’ve realized hard physical activity isn’t as easy as it used to be and it really need to make time to recover and rest when needed (like sleeping 9-10 hours most nights).
On day two I decided that since I’d enjoyed the hike so much that I would walk up the same mountain but along a route with a less severe grade and longer distance. The skies were clear with Cres and Krk islands visible from summit lookout point. It may seem silly to visit the same point twice but the hikes were two totally different experiences. One was physically intense and focused on the nature of the forest. Up and down I was completely engaged in what I was doing. The other was slower and more about the destination and view points along the route. Day two was probably the toughest hike I’ve done just because I was so sore and tired from day one and it look look a lot of mental work to remain motivated. The fog had masked some of incline the first time up and the second day I was painfully aware of how steep and long the climb really was.
Aside from hiking, the people seemed nice and language wasn’t an issue. Bus drivers, grocery workers and people working in tourism know some English or German and are willing to communicate with you using multiple languages in one transaction if needed. Croatia uses it’s own currency, the Kuna, and I stuck to budget drawing from the same 600 Kuna (about $93 US at the time) that I withdrew upon arrival in Zagreb. This covered groceries, meals, park entry tickets and small souvenirs for the week while I used my credit card to book accommodation and regional transportation.
I must say wasn’t impressed with the restaurants I visited in Croatia; the food always felt overpriced for the quality, granted I was in the tourist hot spots. The routine of enjoying a local meal for dinner after a long hike wasn’t the usual highlight. The best dish of the trip was black risotto. I ended up having pizza more times than I would have liked but it was easy to find and familiar. On a happy note, several Croatian beers are pretty good! I brought an amber beer back home with me to share with friends.
Thanks for reading!