(photo copyright Romulic and Stojcic)
I have admired You from afar for many a year from Jelsa on Hvar, watched Your body turn pink and purple in the setting sun, admired Your snow-capped head through the palm trees of the sunshine island.
But I had never gotten close to You.
And so it was an honour to spend my first morning on the Makarska Riviera in Your company for a few hours, getting to know You up close, wondering at Your majestic presence dominating the spectacular region that is Dalmatia.
Somehow I have never spent a night in the Makarska Riviera in my 13 years here, and so I was delighted to accept an invitation to stay in Brela for three nights at Hotel Berulia, a delightfully located hotel on the edge of both Brela and Baska Voda. The first excursion of my stay was a guided tour of Biokovo, and it was fascinating for this island boy to see how organised tours in bigger resorts work. Starting at both ends of the central part of the riviera, two buses collected guests from various hotels, before meeting in the middle, then separating the German and English-speaking ones into two different buses.
And so the ascent began. First viewing stop. Dalmatia as I had never seen it.
Danijela, the excellent guide from Tip Extreme, was the perfect guide for the job. Experienced and knowledgeable in the tour, she combined knowledge with humour, bringing the mountain to life, with tales of folklore, nature and insights into life there over the ages. An enthusiatic introduction with the first view, which was accompanied by a sage rakija for the men, cherry brandy for the ladies. An emphasis on the natural goodness of the mountain.
The views were of course spectacular, but we were only halfway up the mountain, whose peak was the second highest in Croatia at 1762m. The towns of the Makarska Riviera came into view and were expertly explained, as were several great jokes about the people of Brac, the closest island in the background, and stone provider for Diocletian’s Palace and The White House.
But while the views may have been amazing, so too were the insights into life here and how people survived. With such porous limestone, retaining water so high up to enable human habitation was difficult, but common natural water collectors worked into the rock such as this one enabled survival.
And the sea life fossils on display dated back 165 million years, far older than the 50 million-year mountain itself.
It was scarcely credible that communities could exist in such harsh conditions, but there was plenty of evidence of previous habitation, and this was one of several abandoned villages we came across. More encouragingly, there seems to be an increase in these homes being renovated and being used as weekend homes, for Biokovo – just minutes from the busy Makarska coast – is a haven of natural bliss away from the crowds.
And yet here, in the middle of nowhere, and high, high above the sea, improbably vegetable patches were being cultivated. Biokovo potatoes are apparently very sweet and yield a harvest only once a year. There was another opportunity to sample the natural goodness, as we stopped for a coffee and cake break, trying the Dalmatian delicacy of rafioli, while various souvenirs from the mountain, including rakijas and sage honey were put on display for purchase. Trade was brisk.
And onwards, and forever upwards. I have a fear of heights, and this road certainly was a great way to conquer my fear. The expert driver manoeuvred the bus with great skill, often jumping out to help less confident drivers of smaller vehicles coming in the opposite direction. The road was constructed in five years in the 19th century – it is certainly one of the most spectacular in Croatia. The rope on the side in the picture above had nothing to do with standard safety. There is a communications tower at the top of the mountain, and Biokovo is often covered in snow. The rope was to help staff going to and from work to navigate safely through the snow. Now THAT was dedication in commuting to work…
And finally the peak of Dalmatia. Although it is only the second highest mountain in Croatia, the top of this 97m communications tower – constructed in 1964 – is the highest point in Croatia. Any thoughts of trying to scale it disappeared when I took in the magnificent view – my fear of heights was returning.
A little hazy over the Adriatic, but on a clear day one can see the national parks of Italy.
Or look the other way for a birds eye view of the new motorway and Bosnia and Hercegovina beyond. There was time to visit the church of Sv. Jure for those who wanted, but by feeling of vertigo meant that I would give it a miss this time.
Others, however, were a lot more daring, and we saw many cyclists, some of whom made it to the top. There is an annual bike race from the coast to the peak, with last year’s winner breaking the record in just over 90 minutes.
And other, less strenuous forms of transport.
The park is a pristine haven of natural Dalmatia, with picturesque information points, such as this one.
Delightfully decorated in authentic style inside.
And with plenty of detailed information about the secrets of the mountain on its walls.
Works are ongoing to improve facilities and the tourist offer – here a pen was being constructed to provide a home for indigenous Biokovo cattle. There are a lot of indigenous plants and insect life – more than 200 different species, 65 of which are indigenous to Biokovo, have been discovered in the many caves on the mountain. And it is still possible, with the right expert guide, to continue an important tradition of decades ago in the region – to enter the ice caves and hack away at lumps of ice, which were seen at the time as a symbol of wealth.
And a further treat while descending the mountain, the beautiful horses of Biokovo grazing by the side of the road.
Nature, history, geology, views, tradition, wildlife – it is all there on Biokovo. And as I took in the morning’s sightseeing over a cold one back at Berulia at lunch, I realised how my stereotypes of the Makarska Riviera were all wrong. Far from being just one long beach strip, it is ideally located to explore Dalmatia as perhaps no other. Finished with the beach? Day trips to Split, Dubrovnik, Mostar and Medjugorje are of course very popular, but so too are fish picnics to Brac and Hvar, or wine tasting in Imotski, or river trips, ziplining or white-water rafting from Omis up the Cetina. In fact the choices are endless, with so many activities catered to all types of tourist. The Makarska Riviera is an ideal base for the multi-purpose holiday.
But above it all is Mighty Biokovo, a fabulous and unmissable experience just minutes from the beach. Check out the official national park video below.
My trip was organised by the ever-efficient Natalija from BlueSun Berulia.