Trip to Croatia, June 2007

Day 0 Sunday 3rd June - Zagreb

Neil and I had arrived in Zagreb on Saturday 9th to recover from the early start and to do a little sightseeing. We were joined by Annette our branch organiser on Sunday afternoon and so we were now complete, a very select group indeed. We were all given a welcome bag by the organisers of our trip which included a small bottle of schnapps, a souvenir of Zagreb and a magnificent, well-presented 100 page trip guide prepared by Karmen Fio, a student of Jasenka, which we hardly had time to open before we were given a short guided tour of the city by Petar Boromisa. We were greeted by Professor Jasenka Sremac, the leader of the trip and her husband Renato  in a café where we were treated to a very well-presented display on CD-ROM of the proposed trip showing our route through Croatia. It was all too much to take in at once.

Day 1 Monday 2nd June – Zagreb to Starigrad

Rastoke
Rastoke

Our driver arrived with the minibus and before long all luggage had been stowed away and we were on the road towards Plitvice National Park to the south, travelling first through Karlovac, where there are still some signs of the war, damaged buildings from the shells. Generally though, at least in the areas we visited during the week, the impression is of a modern country moving forward, proud of its natural beauty and with all good intentions to protect the environment. Our first stop of the day was in Slunj, a small 12th century fortress town above the Slunjcica and Korana rivers where we had a first chance to see the many waterfalls that cascade over the high cliffs. Below, in the valley, we could see the group of historical buildings and watermills that constitute Rastoke, built on small islands amidst travertine terraces forming pools in the river, and surrounded by rapids. The buildings are linked by a wooden causeway that criss-crosses the pools and several of the mills now act as restaurants and snack bars. The fat trout in the pools looked inviting, but we only had time for a quick coffee and then we had to head for our transport and continue our journey to Plitvice.

Big Waterfall
Big Waterfall

Plitvice National Park is included on the UNESCO list of the world’s cultural and natural inheritance. This karstic area contains 16 lakes, divided into two groups, upper and lower. A downhill walk brought us to the first of the lower lakes, its blue water sparkling in the sun. The blue colouring stems from cyanobacteria, which are also part-responsible for the cold-water travertine barriers separating the lakes. Through time, the barriers collapse and form in different places, mostly where the valley narrows, so since the park’s existence, the number of lakes has continually changed, sometimes more, sometimes less and in some places flooded barriers can be seen. There are wooden walkways surrounding each lake and everything of interest is very accessible. At each bend a new vista opens up with water running from the high cliffs forming myriads of waterfalls framed in lush vegetation, especially wild rhubarb, and fish congregate at the pool edges, obviously used to the many tourists and the possibility of a few crumbs falling into the water. One of the most imposing sites is that of the big waterfall (see picture). After walking around the lower lakes, we finally arrived at the largest, where the dense forest opened into a clearing at the water’s edge and the smell of barbecued meat wafted over from the restaurants. This was when we realised that sandwiches were not an option on this trip as the restaurants were all reasonably priced and the food was always good. After lunch we took an eco-friendly boat across to the other side where the tour of the upper lakes began. This part of the park is more hilly, but nevertheless quite manageable. The upper lakes lie in Triassic dolomites, the lower on Upper Cretaceous rudist limestones. Our tour, including break, took ca. 4 hours.

Snake in pool
Snake in pool

From Plitvice we drove for another 1 ½ hours through limestone terrain and if any of you know the Winnetou films from the novels of Karl May, this was where they were filmed. Tired, hungry but very happy with the day, we arrived early evening in Starigrad at the Hotel Croatia, with terrace directly by the sea.

Day 2 Tuesday 5th June – Paklenica

Paklenica
Paklenica

We were joined in the morning by Professor Tihomir Marjanac who was to be our guide and mentor for the day. After departure from our hotel we visited the Paklenica National Park, an anticline in the Velebit mountains, a range stretching from north to south a few km from the coast.. As we left the car park it was explained that all around us was rubbish, Jelar Breccia deposited during the Tertiary and formed from calcareous fragments from the Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic and Permian. It was very poorly sorted with large boulders 3-4 m in size which we saw in the stream bed, down to grains a few mm in size - a real mixture and still a mystery as to the origin.  Some of the competing theories were described to us but the jury is still out. The gorge is a favourite place for rock climbers of all abilities and we passed many families with young children being taught to climb. We climbed the gorge as far as the Cretaceous exposures with the path becoming more and more difficult and steeper as we climbed and could see the Jurassic outcrops above. Even higher up out of our view a Permian/Tertiary boundary is exposed and Karmen, one of Jasenka’s students described to us how she is researching the ‘evidence of absence’ of conodonts after the extinction. This involves bringing large lumps of rock weighing 10-15 kilos down the mountain by man/woman power and then using ponies. We also saw the boarded-up entrances of World War II bunkers tunnelled into the breccia, which had remained secret for many years.

Jablanac
Jablanac

After an excellent lunch in the tavern at the bottom of the hill we continued our journey north to Jablenac where we took the ferry to the island Rab. As well as admiring the beautiful coastal scenery en route on our left and noting some of Croatia’s 1185(!) offshore islands we also recognised the abrupt change between the gentle slopes of the Jelar Breccia and the scarps of the Jurassic limestone above to our right.  Before boarding the ferry, Tihomir pointed out some outcrops of Quaternary deposits, matched by some on the opposite side of the harbour. These beds are the remains of sediments which once filled the whole valley but their origin is still a mystery. They appear to have come from the position of the current Velebit channel which now lies under the sea, but the tectonic movements which could destroy a mountain range and open up a sea channel in its place are hard to imagine.

The town of Rab has a history dating back to the Romans and boasts several old and very fine churches. We had time for a short tour of the town, climbing as many of the church towers as we wanted (0 or 1) to admire the views and also walked around the harbour before returning to our hotel for dinner

Day 3 Wednesday 6th June – Rab Island

Sandstones
Sandstones

Our first visit of the day was to the Lopar Peninsular, to a bay normally frequented by nudists, but it was cool and windy and the place deserted.  A few kilometres away we could see the treeless island formerly used as a prison for men. Here, Tihomir first showed us stromatolites in the making, soft, stratified deposits in various shades of grey. The weathered sandstone anticline, which continues across the bay on the prison island, contained many trace fossils.
 

Trace fossil
Trace fossil

After climbing over the headland, we visited a further bay with different rock structures, notably gutter -casts formed by storm surges. (The geology of the peninsular is complex and can best be read in the extensive field notes prepared by our hosts, which can be requested on loan). This second bay was full of fossil forams – Nummelites – which could be found everywhere. The whole area is ideal for those interested in sequence stratigraphy. Also, many examples of sedimentary depositional features e.g. cross-bedding, herringbone structures etc. can be seen.

As the wind was too strong for further beach excursions, we again climbed to the top of the cliffs and made our way through the macchia to a field camp, where students were involved in various research projects and afterwards on to a restaurant by the sea, for barbecued lamb, which Tihomir had ordered the previous day.  In the afternoon a further site was visited to see more examples of the Lopar deposits, before returning to our guest house in Rab.

Day 4 Thursday 7th June- Rab to Opatija

Zavranica
Zavranica

After an early start we caught the ferry to return to the mainland. After disembarking we walked round a very well constructed coastal path to a fjord-shaped bay about 1km long called Zavranica. We passed a place where a carbonate-saturated spring emerged from the cliff to form travertine making beautifully shaped ‘cave’ pearls of about 7-12 mm on the floor of the pool. We saw the remains of the German ship sunk in World War II which is now a popular attraction for divers. We walked around the bay admiring the curves of the fjord which allowed a new vista to open at every turn. There were many sea urchins which is a good indication of clean water. Long may it remain so.

On the road to Senj we noticed the evidence of many submarine springs by the circular patches of whirlpools on the surface. These springs bring cooler water to the sea and so provide for some interesting ecosystems.
There has been a settlement at Senj for 3000 years, having had many conquerors including Romans, Hungary, Venice and Austria. Prosperity increased until the middle of the 19th century but time has passed Senj by because the town leaders were persuaded by owners of coaching companies not to allow the extension of the railway to Senj in the 1870s. There were large emigrations and now the town is attempting to improve its amenities as a tourist attraction to admire its many very fine buildings.
                 
 We visited the Nehaj fortress outside the town. This is a very impressive fortification commissioned by the Austrians in 1558 using material from about 50 churches and monasteries outside the city walls.
After admiring the views from the top of the castle we were joined for lunch in the fortress by Professor Ladislav Palinkas and his students Sibilia Borojević-Šoštarić and Sabine. A small step at the edge of the eating area caused Eileen to trip over, hitting her chest and rolling over to hit the back of her head. She (I) ignored the exhortations to do it all over again ‘for the camera’. After an inspection for broken bones and concussion (a thick skull?) and a rejuvenating cup of tea she was passed fit to continue by ‘nurse’ Annette.

We then had a short drive up the Josephina road which goes all the way to Vienna to see our first evidence for magmatism in Senjska Draga. Our first stop was for an inspection of a cemetery wall built of different volcanic stones, mostly andesites  We had another stop further for an inspection of glacial deposits in which green chloritised andesite containing pink plagioclase or black pyroxene as phenocrysts were found. The sample bags were filling up fast.

Back on the coastal road we climbed up from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous and wondered at the bay of Baker. We noted the awful blight caused by the oil refinery and the narrow easily defended entrance. Eventually we arrived at Opatija, an opulent resort made popular by European royalty and notables. We stayed in the resplendent Hotel Opatjia at a very reasonable rate obtained for us by our trip leader. After dinner there was a short recce of the town to admire its many splendid 19th century hotels and villas.

Day 5 Friday 8th June – Istrian archaeology and dinosaur trails

Therapod
Therapod

Leaving Opatija and its high-class tourism, we travelled towards Labin, a medieval town lying on a hill 320 m high, with views towards Rabac and the sea some 3 km away. After a coffee break (coffee breaks were plentiful and we all enjoyed sitting in some picturesque locality, soaking up the sun and chatting), the old town was explored before heading downhill again and along the coast to Pula, the largest city and port in Istria, where a friend of Jasenka was waiting to give a guided tour of the Roman amphitheatre, dating from the 1st century AD: a magnificent monument with a museum containing many Roman artefacts. Limestones prevailed, with many rudists to be seen in the surrounding walls and steps. Lunch on this day, was taken in a restaurant in a very modern shopping centre.

Aleksandar Mezga, the expert on dinosaur footprints, had joined us in Opatija and we were to visit two sites he has been investigating. The first of these was Kirmenjak Quarry. After the heavy rain from the night before, plus the non-stop cavalcade of lorries back and forth, the quarry entrance was turned into a quagmire and it was the first and only place where hiking boots were necessary. Whilst quarrying stone, a large area with strange imprints had been discovered and the quarry manager, a geologist, requested a visit from scientists to determine what had been found. The large horizontal surface shows almost 1 000 footprints, mainly from Sauropods, with parallel tracks indicating that the animals may have been travelling in groups and as the imprints are quite shallow, it was deduced that movement was slow. The tracks continue under a rock face, so there are probably more to be found. We arrived back at the minibus and luckily discovered a well where we could wash the worst of the mud from our boots. Even so, by the time I returned to Switzerland, the rest of the mud had dried to something akin to concrete that could only be removed by brute force and has left traces as a permanent souvenir of the quarry visit.

Porec was the next port of call, a bustling tourist centre with a beautiful old town to explore. The little shops in the narrow roads looked inviting with very little of the usual cheap souvenir shops popular with some tourist classes, but with much home-made ice cream on sale, indicating the Italian influence and proximity of the border. Here we visited the Euphrasius’ Basilica with its ancient mosaics and fine stone carvings.

Our last visit of the day was again to see dinosaur prints, this time at the heart of a nudist colony, the ‘Solaris’ auto camp. At the gate we had to gain permission to enter which is not difficult if you explain that you are a geologist and this is one area that you are researching, but discretion is requested. Here we found Therapod prints with claw marks, some as isolated specimens, others forming trackways. There are also a few Sauropod prints.

After an interesting day we finally reached our destination, a village in the district of Kastelir-Labinci, where we were to stay the night in two tourist apartments. After supper I decided on an early night so poor Karmen, with whom I was sharing a room, had to suffer with my snoring when she finally got to bed.

Day 6 Saturday 9th June – return to Zagreb

Hanging curtains
Hanging curtains

After an excellent breakfast of ham and eggs ordered from the very hospitable owner of the restaurant where we have dined the evening before, we set off to visit the Baredine Cave. We descended 60 m below the surface to admire the many shapes produced by the steady drip of water to form stalagmites and stalactites, mostly coloured a beautiful red by the presence of ferric oxide. There were many striking examples of ‘curtain’ stalactites, called ‘streaky bacon’ in the local jargon because of the red stripes of the ferric oxides. Our guide also shone his torch behind some unpromising spherical shaped structures to reveal skulls, grinning Halloween lanterns and other fascinating shapes. At the bottom we met one of the cave’s inhabitants, a small pink salamander which is completely blind and hardly moves. We also examined the exhibition of old farming equipment that they have including an olive press and noted the newly planted orchards of olive trees in an attempt to increase exports of olive oil for this impoverished region.

Flysch deposits
Flysch deposits

Many geological structures are the basis for legends of giants or the devil. Croatia is no exception and along the River Mirna there are limestone outcrops on which towns have been built by giants who hurled rocks to one another from their hilly viewpoints. We stopped for a look at the disused St Stephen’s rudist limestone quarry in one of the outcrops and learnt of the owner’s ingenuity in building a railway to carry equipment up and rocks down but somebody had to climb the hill first! We learnt that rudist limestone is an excellent stone for building because of its compact and resistant nature as well as its beautiful white colour. At another stop we examined flysch deposits which are alternate tubidite deposits of soft marl and carbonate-siliciclastic sand, assured that there were many examples of classic fining upwards Bouma sequences. We had lunch by a fast flowing stream where a water mill could be seen with its well-preserved water wheel and mill race.  

After a leisurely lunch near Kotli we travelled on to Hum, the ‘smallest city in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records. The numbers of inhabitants range from 17 to 23 depending on which guide or web site you consult. The churchyard with its beautifully tended family vaults contained a far higher number of past inhabitants. We happened to visit on their annual feast day and gladly handed over our fee to a welcoming committee of cheerful young men. A tour around the small town revealed more churches than houses

For our last stop we met up again with Ladislav Palinkaš and his students Sabine and Sibila. We were taken to two outcrops of barite deposits near Mrzle village which are situated at the Permian-Triassic boundary. We were assured that we were standing on what had been the edge of Pangaea facing shallow salty water similar to sabkhas today. Sabine and Sibila quickly shot up the hill with the ease of practice and after a few taps of their hammers presented with beautiful samples of stromatolites, barite and pyrite. After the extinction the stromatolites were able to flourish undisturbed by grazing sea organisms.  We all came away with several bags full of unique specimens. After a delicious meal in an excellent restaurant frequented by Ladislav and his team we made our farewells and returned to Zagreb. After more goodbyes with our very grateful thanks for such a well organised trip we retired to bed before our journeys home.

We are full of praise for the organisation of our trip. We felt that it was a great privilege to be shown the sites by the actual people engage in the research. With the local knowledge we were also able stay in good accommodation at very reasonable prices and ate the local cooking in some excellent restaurants. Nothing was too much trouble for Jasenka. She was continually on her mobile checking that museums were open and that hotels and restaurants were expecting us. We are extremely grateful to everybody who helped to make our trip so enjoyable and interesting.  Everybody was also very keen to show us their tourist sites and countryside with great pride. We hope that Croatia soon wins back the tourists who are now rather hesitant to visit. It deserves to be more widely recognised.

A geo-park is in preparation on Rab and we hope to bring more news on this in a future newsletter.

Eileen A Lawley (Days 0, 2, 4 and 6)
Annette Kimmich (Days 1, 3 and 5)

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