Splendors of Croatia and the Dalmatian Coast Aug 15—26, 2007

Posted by Barry Lyon


Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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August 16 marked the first day of our much-anticipated Dalmatian Coast tour/cruise. About half the group had already arrived in Zagreb, Croatia at least one day before yesterday's official start day, while the rest of us showed up at different times after having flown all night.

Our group didn't convene until dinner last night, so I had the entire afternoon to get out and explore Zagreb. Since I had never been anywhere even close to here before, I really didn't know what to expect from this city that is tucked away down here in the southeast corner of Europe. Any doubts I might have had were quickly put to rest as I discovered that Zagreb is a thriving, modern European city, full of beautiful parks and outdoor shops, restaurants, and promenades. Some people have mentioned to me that Zagreb bears some obvious resemblances to what one would see in Austria, particularly Vienna. Considering the political and geographic ties that Croatia has to Austria and the former Habsburg Empire, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. There are museums and galleries all over the "Lower" city, and the architecture is very beautiful (again, think Austria). Even though we have a city tour coming up today, I would recommend to anybody who comes here that they should give themselves a couple of extra days for exploring on their own. While the city is big, it is not massive, and I think could be covered well in a comparatively short amount of time.

From what I understand, Zagreb is a city that originally began as two separate settlements, one on a hill and one below the hill. Through the centuries the two settlements grew together. I think we will spend much of the day exploring the "Upper" city, which is fine because that is where the Cathedral of Zagreb is located; it is said to be one of the finest cathedrals in all of the Balkan countries. I am looking forward to seeing it. Late this afternoon we will transfer to Plitvice Lakes National Park.

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Aug 23, 2007

For the majority of this day and the next, our plan is to explore the lakes and forests of Plitvice Lakes National Park. Contrary to the preconceptions held by some of us, southeastern Europe is full of beautiful mountain scenery and higher elevation forests. When looking at the world map, Europe appears to lie across the Atlantic nearly directly east of the United States. In reality though, Europe lies at higher latitude, so much so, in fact, that the southeastern part of the continent holds the types of habitat and scenery that remind one of North America's Rocky Mountains.

Following breakfast, we began our exploration of Plitvice Lakes by simply stepping out of our hotel and birding the surrounding forests. Comprised mostly of beech and Norway spruce, we found this area to be one of considerable beauty. Great, Marsh, and Coal tits; a Middle Spotted Woodpecker; Common Chaffinches; and European Robins were among the first birds we found en route to the trailhead that would take us around the lakes.

Plitvice Lakes is not any one particular lake; rather, it is the name of the park that protects a chain of lakes formed by several rivers flowing over a giant staircase of uplifted limestone. Separating the lakes are gorgeous waterfalls of varying size and height. The word that is applied to the type of rock formations found at Plitvice is "travertine," which I take to understand means a process in which a chemical reaction occurs between organic matter and existing rock that, over time, creates a unique type of geologic formation. So Plitvice is famous for its travertine formations.

Our plan for the morning was a trip through the "upper" set of lakes along a pretty amazing elevated boardwalk that seemed to go on for over a mile. I believe what struck all of us was the incredible beauty of the area. The lakes glowed cobalt blue and moss green under partly cloudy skies, but upon closer view, revealed crystal-clear water teeming with native brown trout. Meanwhile, with the lakes on one side of the trail, we peered into a thick darkened forest on the other. Among the people there, we soon recognized languages from many other parts of Europe. Summer is the tourist season in Europe, too.

Our attention was focused mainly on the lakes, but our route ultimately proved good for birding, and we ended up locating several other typical, but exciting European birds. We found Eurasian Nuthatch, Short-toed Treecreeper, Eurasian Blackbird, and Blackcap. Near the lodge we came across a family of Song Thrushes. Perhaps best though, was the Hawfinch we found feeding quietly under the boughs of a spruce tree. Hawfinch is always high on the wish lists of birders who come to Europe, and the scope views we had were very satisfying.

In the afternoon we ate lunch at an eastern European smokehouse that featured an assortment of freshly roasted meats. Though a little on the heavy side, it was certainly a cultural experience. Everything was cooked over an open flame, and one had the sense that it has been done this way since the Middle Ages.

After walking out of the restaurant, Victor promptly spotted a Pied Flycatcher at the forest's edge, which, of course, caused the rest of us to come running, and piqued the curiosity of the other tourists in the area. Before leaving the area we took a look at a spectacular towering waterfall that cascaded over 200 feet down the face of a nearby mountain!

All morning long we had traveled with a local birder named Robert, who also happened to be an officer in the Croatian army. He told me that he had served in the army since the early 1980s and participated in the war with Serbia. It was interesting to hear him talk about his experiences. He said that if I had told him that he would spend his career as an army officer, he would have told me I was crazy. He was a very good birder and very friendly, and gave us lots of tips for birding in Croatia. In the afternoon he took us to a beautiful destination on the edge of the national park a long way from the lodge.

After a morning spent within the confines of the mountain forests, we were all happy to be out wandering past orchards and fields searching for new birds. Our efforts were rewarded immediately, as Icterine Warbler, Mistle Thrush, and Collared Flycatcher were all spotted within minutes of one another in a plum orchard near the national park boundary. Croatia is in many ways a land of contrasts. It is a far more beautiful country than any of us could have guessed, yet signs warning of unexploded ordnance brought back the hard reality of a war fought here less than a decade ago. Of course, our group was not threatened or endangered in the least, but this paradox put an interesting perspective on our time on the Croatian mainland.

Aug 22, 2007

I suspect that for most of us the country of Croatia is a geographical oddity. Probably best known from the nightly news as an object of Serbian aggression during the terrible Balkan War of the 1990s, it is a country that many would be hard-pressed to find on a world map. Our group of 28 had gathered the night before in the famous Esplanade Hotel in Zagreb where we eagerly looked forward to removing the mystery surrounding this southeastern European country.

This trip is supposed to be about combining birding with history and culture. Well, for a first day in the field, we sure weren't disappointed. This was the first time in Zagreb, Croatia's capital city, for all of us. So what better way to kick off our trip than a walking tour of the city? We were greeted at the hotel this morning by Maja, a young local guide, who quickly proved to be an excellent asset to our time here. From the moment we arrived in the heart of the "upper" city, we found ourselves moving in and out of cathedrals, up and down corridor-like staircases, and winding between medieval buildings on narrow cobblestone roads.

Whatever doubts or uncertainties we might have held were long gone after the first hour. To our considerable amazement, we found Zagreb to be a beautiful, clean, and VERY modern European city-a lot like Vienna, some would comment. I have not been to Vienna, but somehow I doubt this comparison to be far from the truth. Aside from its beautiful architecture, in a very short distance one can move from a spacious promenade with outdoor bars and restaurants to well-preserved medieval homes and cathedrals, stepping back in time 200, 300, or even 400 years.

We saw so much in a relatively short amount of time. The Cathedral of Zagreb is considered one of the most extravagantly designed buildings in all of southeastern Europe, and our visit there was certainly one of the highlights of the morning. St. Mark's Cathedral, and its meticulously designed multicolored tile roof, was also very impressive. But simply wandering around this fresh European city was enough for many. Our walking tour took us to several historic plazas and squares, where people gathered to talk and shop, or simply drink coffee. Moving through the "lower" city we were struck by the beautiful architectural achievements that characterized government buildings, theaters and playhouses, and Zagreb's fine collection of high quality museums. As a further testimony to the level of sophistication and quality of life in Zagreb, a beautiful chain of parks forms a horseshoe in the lower city, enabling one to never be far from nature.

Our lunch setting offered a classic European experience. Simply stepping off the sidewalk, we found ourselves amid arbors and hanging gardens, in a semi-secluded restaurant where the cuisine was distinctly eastern European, and, of course, quite tasty.

Following lunch we started our journey to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Thanks to Peter Roberts, we deviated to a wetland known as Crna Milaka, where the birding was as good in the afternoon as the history and culture were in the afternoon. Though our time here was short, we enjoyed one new bird after another, with each of our enthusiastic leaders shouting out bird names in rapid-fire succession. Of all that we saw here, the birds that stood out the most were a soaring White-tailed Eagle, a group of Ferruginous Ducks, Whiskered Terns, Gray and Purple herons, White Wagtails, a stonechat, and a Black Kite.

After leaving Crna Milaka, another local guide, Hrvoje (Harry), offered interpretation about roadside sights, as well as general information about Croatia, all the way until we reached the national park lodge. Upon arrival, Nicole Casper, a very capable young woman from Travel Dynamics, facilitated our late afternoon check-in, much to the happiness of our tired, but satisfied group.

In all, our first impression of Croatia has been VERY favorable. We are happy to be here and look forward to a day exploring the national park.