Mountain biking in Croatia: marshes and nature parks in Slavonia

We can’t travel yet, but if we can do that again soon, Slavonia might be a happy destination. The green, hilly region in eastern Croatia can be well explored on foot and by bike.

1. Resilient Vukovar
The music in the bright pink coloured passenger boat is a tad too loud, just before the departure of a 45-minute cruise from Vukovar over the Danube. It sounds like military marching music, bombastic. A special welcome to this brand new electric boat with room for sixty passengers. When the Magenta 1 Vukovar Waterbus – as the boat is called – goes sailing, the smiley captain happily turns down the volume considerably. To the delight of guide Gorana Kušic: her voice does not reach that far. Kušic – also working as a curator at the Vukovar Municipal Museum – was born and partly raised in Vukovar. “During the war in the 1990s I lived in Germany for a few years, but I’m glad I’m back,” she says.

The Danube, as the Danube is called in Croatia, lies peacefully. On the right is the border with Serbia, on the left vukovar. Just after The Second World War, this city became one of the most developed cities in the former Yugoslavia, producing textiles as an economic pillar. In this prosperous city with beautiful, monumental buildings, Croats, Serbs and other populations lived side by side without any problems. The boat sails past the huge borovo factory complex, where shoes from Bata and Adidas, among others, are produced. By the end of the 1980s, the factory had 20,000 employees, now there are only 3,000.

Everything changed in 1991, the year the Croatian War of Independence began. Twelve Croatian police officers were murdered near this factory complex on 2 May 1991. It marked the beginning of a gruesome period, with the Battle of Vukovar at its lowest point. It began on 24 August with the encirclement of the city by the Yugoslav People’s Army, supported by military forces from Serbia. The city was defended by less well-armed soldiers of the Croatian National Guard. No one could get in or out of town. There were 2,000 civilian casualties. Kušic was lucky, she says. “A few days before the encirclement, I fled to Germany with my family.

When the boat turns at Borovo to return to Vukovar, Kušic points to the water tower. Until 1991, residents of Vukovar came here to have a picnic. In the upper part there was a restaurant. During the Battle of Vukovar, the structure was hit daily by mortars, but the water tower remained standing. And yet the badly battered tower – despite many holes – stands proudly standing. Vukovar Nocturne, so is called a collection of tangible war memories in and around the city, including the Ovcara Memorial Hall, the Ovcara mass grave, a cemetery with war victims and The Homeland War Memorial Centre.

In 2020 Vukovar will be a spacious city, with lots of greenery and new construction. A number of old buildings are still there, such as The Grand Hotel, the Franciscan monastery, the Saint Philip and Jacob Church and the old gymnasium. A small part of the Baroque centre has also been preserved. Restaurants and cafes are plenty of them. Because of its rich past, the city – with about 30,000 inhabitants – has above average museums, which mainly tell the history before the war.

2. Tough climb in Papuk
There my rented mountain bike stands shining against the porch of Eco Point Jankovac, the bike rental company in The Papuk Nature Park, which opened last year. This hilly park in the otherwise predominantly flat Slavonia is located between Zagreb and Vukovar. It is a matte black bike of the brand Trek, not a cheap one, with battery. Is it necessary, electric support? “Why be difficult when it’s easy,” says the landlord, smiling. “We also have them without a battery, you know.” Please, I’m not averse to a little challenge. For 8 euros you can pedal for three hours, helmet and a ticket of the area are included. “The routes are well signposted,” the landlord tells me.

The first 600 meters go down nicely. But whoever drops has to climb, too. And sure enough, beyond the bridge is a warning sign with a big exclamation point above the word serpentina: hair-playing bends! A subsequent sign indicates that the rate of increase is 10 percent. After a few minutes of climbing, the sweat gushes from the forehead. The woman from the bike rental already knew.

After the tough climb of at least fifteen minutes there are twelve silver poles, they symbolize the twelve Croats that were shot dead in 1991, after which the Battle of Vukovar began. At the monument are candles and a wreath.

The asphalt overflows into unpaved and less steep paths along flower fields, streams and waterfalls. And through forest with impressive oaks, beech escarpments and pines. The ticket remains in the pocket, the route is indeed well marked.

Papuk Nature Park is one of the most popular recreation sites in Slavonia and a Unesco geopark: throughout the mountains you can see remnants of geological history. The many mountain bike trails are easy to connect and hikers also get their money’s worth here. In a lake near the largest waterfall in the park you can canoe.

3. Snakes in Kopacki Ride
And again there is a dark coloured snake on the asphalted road on top of the kilometre-long dike. Today I am in the marshy nature park Kopacki Rit, a stone’s throw from Osijek and about a 45-minute drive from Vukovar. It’s snake number eighteen, after twenty minutes of cycling. Half of them are dead, knocked down by cars. But this one moves, painfully slowly. Dark red blood drips out of his mouth, he hisses when I get closer.

Kopacki Rit, with an area of 238 hectares, is one of the largest natural marshes in Europe and is nominated for unesco’s natural heritage list. This is where the Rivers Drava and Danube meet. Because both regularly flood, the water level of the marshland changes time and time again. A valhalla for any animal that loves water.

The mountain bike – rented at the recently opened education centre – is a great way to explore the area. The roads are right, the signage is clear and the vistas are beautiful. An attempt to get off the beaten track by choosing an unpaved path right next to a farm turns out to be no smart move: a barking dog comes running towards me. The friendly-looking farmer calls the animal and makes it clear with sign language that cycling elsewhere makes little sense. He’s right, the dirt path runs after a mile of death.

It suffocates in this park of birds, about 300 species live there. Like the rare bald eagle and the black stork. Deer and wild boar don’t show up today.

After almost two hours of pedalling through the marshland and along pastures and arable lands, I’m back at the bike rental. A good base for boat excursions to shallow foothills of the swamp. Also here begins the White Water-Lily Boardwalk, a hiking trail of a few kilometers. For 6.50 euros you can go on an excursion with a guide. Canoeing with a guide is also possible.

When I tell the employee about the snakes along the way, she chuckles. They’re just ring snakes. They cross the dike to hibernate in a dry place on the other side.

Out & home

Transport
Slavonia is about 1600 kilometres from Utrecht. The best option is – normally – fly on Zagreb and then rent a car. Return tickets are available from 130 euros, including via Croatia Airlines. Trains to Zagreb are also possible, the ride takes about 22 hours, with three or four transfers. Returns from 100 euros.

Stay at
Comfortable sleeping in former stables can be done at Ivica i Marica on the edge of the tiny town of Karanac, not far from Kopacki Rit. From 50 euros per night.

Heritage Hotel Kurija Jankovi in Luka,č is highly recommended for more grandeur. Double room from 56 euros per night.

Cycling
Renting a bike is not expensive, for about 8 euros you have a good mountain bike, including helmet and ticket of the area. If you are not well trained, you can opt for an extra pair of euros for an electric mountain bike. Routes can be found on the websites of the national parks. There are also addresses of bicycle rental companies.

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