Bling, Sparkle and Shine – Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

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“Shine on you crazy diamond” – Croatia in a nutshell.

The local currency Kuna might not be competing in the big league right now but the wealth of this country cannot be measured in dirty, meagre measures such as money. It comes in the form of unspoilt natural treasures.

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To say that the water in the lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes (Plitvicka-Jezera) are crystal clear is an understatement of mammoth proportions. Every description sounds like a cliché since words cannot describe the ever-changing colour of the water, the fish below the surface, the sparkle of the myriad cascades that turn the limestone and growth into travertine, a porous, soft rock which forms this phenomenon of nature. Our guide Helena describes the meticulous care taken to sustain this Unesco World Heritage wonder forever.

“It might sound cruel but the animals in the park need to survive on their own so please don’t feed them. Our hope is that every person that comes here will leave with renewed zeal to protect nature in whatever small way possible.”

I am moved to tears at the splendours of Mother Nature and how insignificant I am in the midst of it.

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The people of Otočac are proud of their river, the Gacka (Gacka River) and rightly so since it’s the cleanest one in Croatia. Drinkable water is to be found in 80% of the rivers, a fact that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. We fill our water bottles at the spring and mills of the Brajković-Orešković family and drink deeply of the life-giving liquid. A rare privilege indeed!

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The impish, sparkling sense of humour of the three employees at the Grabovača National Park (http://pp-grabovaca.hr/index.php?lang=enset the tone for the scramble up the hill to the Samograd Cave, the only one in the park open to visitors.

“Are we there yet?” trying to catch our breath.

“It’s just round the corner, 10 more minutes.”

We stop believing them after a while….

The Samograd Cave stops us dead in our tracks. Don’t know what we were expecting but certainly not the majestic, ghoulish cavern 20 metres in height. The stalagmite lumps of glimmering white crystals and the little indents that have no name in English since they’re uniquely Croatian containing ‘pearls’, grow at 1mm every year. The size suggests that each one is a lot older than my late grandmother!

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Croatia kicks ass when it comes to conservation, respect for nature and keeping it clean. “Shine on you crazy diamond!”

A Rustic Moonscape – Island of Pag, Croatia

Sheep roam free, there are rocks everywhere, olive trees struggle against the strangulation of stone while vines are nurtured with hands-on care. This is the island of Pag. Island of Pag

Bruno Modrusan’s smile is heart-warming. He’s our guide and speaks with a deep-seated love about the Olive Garden of Lun where the trunks emulate the lace made on the same island and the trees are victorious in their battle against the rocks surrounding them. Some have been fighting the fight for over 1000 years, standing tall and producing an even greater harvest than before. Wrap your head around this one: those little kernels are eaten by sheep, are coated with the enzymes inside the stomach and spat out and sprout forth, a creation of nature that is immortal. It never dies and brings forth its first crop in the seventh year and keeps on yielding unremittingly for the rest of its life. A miracle in and of itself and just imagine, we get to eat the fruit and drink the oil with relish. The people of Pag know this and know how privileged they are to have this on their doorstep. Lun

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The teeny weeny, pretty-as-a-picture little town of Lun on the coast clings fast to the craggy hill behind it and hopes that the bura, the bone-chilling wind from the north, will be merciful and allow it to survive yet another year. It doesn’t even try to compete with its busier and bigger neighbour Novalja where the tourists flock in the summer and the money-changers see dollar signs before their eyes. It too is stunning where it nestles in a windless bay. Nikola, our waiter at Restaurant Galia (http://www.konoba-galia.com/index.php/en/) right on the shorefront, beams with pride when he shows us the freshest of sea bass which the kitchen is about to prepare for us. The octopus salad is tender and delicate with a drizzling of that golden liquid from the olive tree. The sheep’s cheese is creamy and elegant in flavour and I’m told that it has won awards as the best sheep’s milk cheese in the world. I’m not a bit surprised. The fish arrives and the firmness of its flesh and slightly smoky flavour from the flame grill it was cooked on, leaves us speechless. Novalja

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Time has seen the demise of a thriving wine industry on this island and sadly, few players have survived. A strong tradition of four generations of wine production is the backbone of Boškinac winery (http://www.boskinac.com/homepage.en.html). They have stuck to their roots and have a healthy output of Gegić, a white wine varietal of Pag. The floral, fruity notes on the nose are repeated on the palate and it turns into a pleasant, sluggable round-the-pool beverage but could go very well indeed with fish. The olive oil from the same producer is lemony with just the right amount of pepper and that slight bitterness at the back of the throat planting it firmly in the big league. The boutique hotel on the same premises is right up there in the higher echelons of such establishments.

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Pag is a place for partying, Pag is a place for gourmets, Pag is definitely a place for the well heeled amongst us, Pag is a place for history, and as always, Pag is where you’ll meet open-hearted, genuine Croatians with that gleam of playfulness in their eyes.

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It’s Raining Men – Croatia

So you’re single or married, you’re free or not, you might be looking and if you’re not, in Croatia at least, you’d be missing out on a whole lot of fun. Rugged, rustic, a little bit of style, eccentric and funny and always gentlemen, or as far as I know.

Take our crew for instance – Hrvoje (said with a guttural, Finnish ‘h’, rrrrr, vvvv, ooooo, yeah), stern, caring, dry of driest sense of humour; Bruno – impish with an irreverent twist; Damijen, the romantic, the guitarist whose constantly on the phone to his girlfriend; Zlatko the silent, with hidden talents of brilliant English vocabulary;  Each and every one of them a gentle man and gentleman who’ll carry your suitcase, help you out of the bus, do all those niceties that too many men under the age of 30 have either given up on or never learnt. Samobor

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Flaunting the rules, is tall, definitely dark, Davor Gobac of Psihomodo Pop who really doesn’t give a shit whether you like his music or not and all he knows is that he’s “in love with Gobac”.

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His English might be somewhat lacking but his hospitality knows no bounds on his charter boat that takes us out on the Makarska Riviera. It’s Davor Beroš, owner of Alto Krvavica charter company and tour guide Jure Brkan. Bring on the salty seadog look with hair flowing and deep-voiced baritones to plunge you into mirth and folly. Makarska Riviera

“The only truth is nature and love!” comes from the mouth of Steve, Stipe in Croatian, born and bred in Australia and back in his home country since the age of 10. ADHD might be an appropriate description of his character but I think it’s his sheer enthusiasm and positivism that get you excited about the ruins of Nečvengrad of  the Nepelicki family  where you can see the tower of  the Šubić family across Krka River canyon. He’s a guide and a park ranger at the Krka National Park where the waterfalls cascade like bridal gowns in amongst the green that surrounds them. His reference to castles and waterfalls as ‘she’ is enough to melt your heart. “They’re just so beautiful,” he exclaims. Krka National Park

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At Johnny’s Place in Šibenik you might bump into Nino, guitarist extraordinaire, whose laid back easiniess comes with a smile that you can almost drink. Dive into the deep with Emil Lemac, owner of Mediteraneo Diving Center, a handsome brute with a way of getting his arm around you and offering you a sip of rakije from an angle you didn’t expect. His right hand man is Orgjen Tošić (Ogi to the uninitiated) with his blue eyes, slender body, a passion for island life and patience with beginner divers like me. Johnny’s Place

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And then there is Ante from the Knin tourist office whose our guide at the fabulous Fortress of Knin. He stands tall amongst the ruins and has the vigour to match his love for this place and its people. Or gorgeous Damijen at Sinj whose sense of humour extended beyond the realm of holiness expounding on the importance of the Assumption and the reverence with which the Virgin is worshipped without losing touch with the sacred. Knin

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To mention only a few………. They’re not pushy, they’re not overly bold, just relaxed enough in their own skin to prick your interest and perchance light your fire? Ladies, let me introduce you to Croatian men.