Croatia — the mountain not climbed

Vid Arbanas, Lokve, with herbal brandy

Vid Arbanas, Lokve, with herbal brandy

Hotel Bristol Opatija

Hotel Bristol Opatija

Lokvarka Cave Croatia

Lokvarka Cave Croatia

I’d been mentally preparing for this day for a month. Yes, you will climb Croatia’s highest mountain, where lunch awaited, and perhaps even make the “hard” climb to the top.

After we left Zagreb, Mia learned that 10 cm of snow had fallen on the mountain three days before. This morning it was pouring rain outside our hotel in the Plitvice Lakes National Park. We ate breakfast in silence, wondering what the verdict would be as Mia consulted the experts.

She met us in the lobby with the bad news. Not only had it snowed again on Mt. Risnjak, but there was more snow in the forecast in the national park surrounding the mountain with a chance of freezing rain. The road we were planning to take was also snowed in (and driver Marko had only summer tires on the van) and apparently all the park rangers had been pulled from the peak. As a final blow, even if we did get up to the top, it was so cloudy we wouldn’t see anything of the world-famous view.

We were all disappointed, but a few of us were secretly relieved not to be slip-sliding up a snowy mountain in summer clothes.

The New Yorkers, however, did their best to salvage the expedition, insisting there MUST be a way to make it happen. Mia held firm, but she did get on the phone to every tourist board representative in the area to determine if there was another mountain we could climb instead. Turned out there was snow everywhere and it was NOT SAFE.

So ended my  mountaineering career.

Our carefully planned schedule was now in tatters, but the show must go on!

After several phone calls and several hours of driving, which most of us slept through, we emerged from a mountain tunnel to find ourselves in a winter wonderland. Not only were the mountains white, but the residents of Lokve had awakened to snow on the ground, which was quickly melting.

A local guide named Andrea met us at the entrance of the Lokvarka cave, where water was pouring in from the roof. More fantastic rock formations awaited as we walked a metal stairway 75 metres down into the earth in dim light.

We emerged an hour later to sunshine. The NYers immediately asked if we could now go and hike up a mountain. Poor Mia – which part of NO don’t you understand?

On to the Kotac Nature House, where a dashing showman named Vid Arbanas produces herb-based brandies, a specialty of the region. He led us through a tasting, beginning with the San Hubert, a grape brandy infused with 57 medicinal herbs and seven wild fruits – from strawberries and blueberries to apples and pears. He and his wife forage the ingredients from the wilderness surrounding their home.

By the fourth brandy a few of us were nodding off. Since it was already 2 p.m, we headed for the nearest restaurant, which just happened to be beside a man-made lake.

The elite NYC athlete immediately lobbied for a hike around the lake to replace the hike up the mountain. We could actually see Mt. Risnjak in the distance, its majestic peak covered in snow.

The restaurant was dark and forbidding inside, but the menu had photos and it was translated into English (and German and Italian, and it will soon need to include Japanese and Chinese to accommodate the new wave of Asian tourists), so it was easy to order.

Jayne and I ordered the mushroom soup, which arrived in a bowl big enough to feed all seven of us. Mia ordered venison stew with gnocchi, the most delicious stew I’ve EVER tasted, and James ordered the region’s specialty – frog’s legs – served atop a pile of French fries. They were actually the smallest frog’s legs any of us had seen, and tasted just like sweet, tender chicken.

By now we were thoroughly sick of rain and cold, and gladly headed south to Istria. It was 10 degrees warmer when we arrived at Opatija on the coast, an elegant resort town of grand Austro-Hungarian style hotels and villas built up the slope of a hill overlooking the sea and punctuated by gardens and palm trees. The Hotel Bristol, where we stayed, was one of the loveliest.

Restaurants and caffes lined the seaside promenade, the lungomare, which stretches for 12 kilometres. I walked along the path for awhile, then headed to the road above the town. I spent the next hour looking for narrow stairways that would take me down to the next level rather than into someone’s driveway or tiny backyard.

I caught the last few minutes of Sunday mass at the surprisingly modern cathedral. By the time I reached sea level and the Bristol, across from the beautiful Angiolini Gardens, it was 7:30 and time to meet Washington Jayne for dinner.

I had great hopes for a four-star dinner, but all elegance vanished in the hotel’s sterile, near-empty dining room. The dinner buffet was equally disappointing, though you can always count on the salads! I was hoping the rest of the group had found a pizzeria or seafood restaurant by the water to dine in but no luck – in they came with tales of the fishing village they’d walked to, which I’m sorry I missed. Back to my room to pack and prepare for tomorrow’s adventure, the Great Bike Hike.

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