Belaviči, near Duga Resa
Our next campsite (Camp Slapič) was in an idyllic location in rural Croatia, not too far from the Slovenian border. Situated in the tiny village of Belaviči, near Duga Resa, on the banks of the Mrežnica River, it felt like we had stepped back in time. One of the things that I love about staying on campsites on this trip is that we often get to see the more rural parts of the countries we visit rather than just the cities. Walking around these quiet villages and towns really gives you an insight into another side of the country and its people.
Out for a run early one morning, I watched farmers already out working in the fields and a man sitting on his doorstep shelling corn. I passed an old lady standing in the middle of the road who stopped me and started asking me something. I tried to explain that I didn’t speak Croatian, but she carried on regardless, pointing down the road as she spoke. I have no idea what she was saying, but on my way back she smiled and waved to me. I loved hearing the bells of the local church chiming throughout the day and the beautiful birdsong everywhere and it felt as though the simple way of life here hadn’t changed much over the years.
Many of the houses were unfinished, just brick or breeze blocks without any smooth render covering them, and this seemed to be the norm. The homes were obviously being lived in though and I got the impression they had probably been like this for years too. Alongside many of them stood ancient wooden barns and huge wood stores.
This quiet little town was very simple, with just the campsite, a small restaurant near the bridge, a small railway station and one tiny shop, stuffed to bursting with produce. During the week it was quiet, but at the weekends the riverbank and the restaurant were packed with Croatian families relaxing in the sunshine and having a swim or paddle in the river.
THE activity to do in this area is rafting or canoeing on one of the many rivers and we took advantage of the fact that we could hire canoes direct from the campsite to get out onto the water ourselves. As we untied our boats from the riverbank and glided quietly downstream, we heard a cacophony of frogs and saw endless fish darting in and out of the underwater caves. In places, the surface of the clear water was covered with smooth, flat lily pads, anchored from way below on long, slender stalks. And everywhere there seemed to be damselflies, their iridescent blue and green flashing all around us. The river was so peaceful: every so often we would pass someone taking a dip or sitting quietly on the riverbank fishing or just enjoying the calm and the nature.
It was hard work in the canoes as the current was quite strong and we had to paddle through narrow channels where the water was deeper to stop ourselves from running aground. In places the river cascaded over small rapids and here we got out and dragged the canoes up the to the top, just to enjoy the thrill of going back down them again. It was great fun!
Often we would wander up to the bridge in the late afternoon just to watch for wildlife – a heron catching fish in the rapids, damselflies darting around, fish swimming upstream against the flow of water. Andy even saw a few water snakes, one of which was eating another!
The weather has been getting steadily hotter and when it does it seriously curtails our ability to do things and to explore. We had hoped to do some walking in this beautiful area, but it was simply too hot and there was not enough shade around to make this an appealing pursuit. I went out very early a couple of times to go for a run when the air was still cool, but very soon we were retreating to the shade of our pitch and finding quieter, less active things to do.
As we researched what there was to do in the area, we discovered something that surprised us: only a few kilometres from the campsite was the town of Karlovac, which had been devastated during the Croatian Homeland War a mere 20 or so years ago. It didn’t seem possible that such a peaceful, rural idyll could’ve been the scene of such violence in such recent times.
Karlovac and Turanj
Karlovac is a medium-sized Croatian town in the heart of the country, about 55km south west of Zagreb. It stands at the confluence of four rivers: the Korana, Kupa, Mrežnica and Dobra. In the 16th century the area was part of the Austrian Habsburg empire, governed from Vienna, but Ottoman invaders from the south were constantly trying to push north and gain territory from them and so in 1579 they decided to establish a military zone on their southern borders and built a fortress there in the shape of a six pointed star. It was named after Charles II of Austria (Karl in German) and the town became known as Karlovac (Karlstad in German or Charlestown in English). At the same time, they built an advanced guard tower just south of the city to protect its southern borders. This area was named Turanj after the towers (turan) that were built to guard the bridges over the Korana and Mrežnica rivers.
Ever since this time, and right through the communist era when Croatia was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, there have been military barracks at Turanj and the area once again became important during Croatia’s fight for independence in the early 1990s, helping to stop enemy forces from seizing the city of Karlovac.
Croatian Homeland War
Unlike its neighbour, Slovenia, Croatia’s route to independence from Yugoslavia was not straightforward. It declared its independence in 1991 at the same time as Slovenia, but it was to take a further four years of violence before it finally got its wish. I have read up about what happened during these years and I don’t profess to fully understand the complicated reasons for the actions of those involved, but it seems to have been less straightforward here because there were many Serbs living within the borders of the Croatian part of Yugoslavia who were against independence and who claimed these lands as part of a greater Serbia. What is clear is that in the fight for control of these areas, an estimated 20,000 people were killed and thousands more were made homeless. In the end, Croatia kept its borders and gained its independence, but in the process awful genocidal crimes were committed, the economy of the region was destroyed and, over 20 years on, the country still bears the scars.
Turanj Military Complex and Museum of the Homeland War
In Turanj, just off the main Zagreb to Plitvice highway, stands the Turanj Military Complex and the Museum of the Homeland War. It is run by the Karlovac City Museum and is still very much a work in progress. The ruined old army barracks, nicknamed ‘Hotel California’ during the war, are being converted into a proper museum space. From the outside it looks as though a glass shell had been built around it, retaining the ruins inside and incorporating these into the fabric of the museum itself. At the side of this development is the current open air museum, which is really nothing more than a collection of military vehicles and some information about the war. It is nevertheless a thought-provoking place.
On our drive from Duga Resa to Karlovac, we had driven along a road where many of the houses were peppered with bullet holes. What must it be like, we thought, for the people here to live with such a stark visual reminder of the war and those who were killed. Some of the houses had either been rebuilt or had been re-rendered on the outside to remove any trace of the damage caused by the bullets or shrapnel, but others very visibly still bore the scars.
The museum displays armoured personnel carriers, tanks, a howitzer, numerous cannon, antiaircraft guns and a MiG 21 fighter plane. One of the more unusual exhibits was an armoured tractor complete with heavy machine gun. It made me realise how poorly prepared and equipped they must’ve been to have to resort to makeshift vehicles like this one.
Signage around the museum sets out the chronology of the Croatian War of Independence (Homeland War), both in the context of Croatia as a whole and specifically of Karlovac itself. The attacks on the city began in the summer of 1991 and during October of that year, it was systematically shelled and huge parts of it demolished, along with surrounding villages that were plundered and burned to the ground, leaving many dead and wounded civilians. Radio Karlovac broadcast school classes for local students and shelters were set up to house people displaced by the fighting. A large number of refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina poured into the city during the war: in August of 1994 there were 17,477 displaced persons and refugees in Karlovac county. During the four years of the war, the city was also witness to numerous negotiations trying to establish a truce and agreements over exchanging war prisoners.
The city was liberated on 7th August 1995, but the war left behind huge devastation, damaged or destroyed infrastructure and hundreds of dead and wounded. Over 26,000 pieces of anti-armour and antipersonnel land mines were identified in the Karlovac County area and they think that there are a significant number of mines and minefields still to be identified.
The Karlovac City Museum says that it plans to “transform the old barracks into a unique museum dedicated to the military history of Karlovac, giving visitors the opportunity to learn about the city’s rich and turbulent history.” They believe that for the citizens of Karlovac, Turanj is “a symbol of victory and return, of new life returning in war torn areas.” I remember the war in Croatia being on the news every night and the reports of terrible, inhuman crimes committed against innocent civilians and it was deeply shockingly to see and understand just how devastating it was for the people that lived here.
I leave you with one other interesting fact about Turanj: Michael Jackson apparently filmed the war scenes in the video for his ‘Earth Song’ there in 1995, shortly after the end of the war.