TAKING THE INDIRECT ROUTE
It’s not just about getting to your destination, it’s about the journey, as proved by this 1,200-mile road trip from Slovenia to the Croatian coast.
Stunning scenery and culture aplenty on this 1,200-mile roadtrip from Slovenia to the Croatian coast.
When a friend of mine informed me that two of my friends had opened a bar on the Croatian coast and had proposed we pay them a visit, I accepted straight away. Depending on traffic, the trip would last four to five hours. But we are not fans of the highway, instead preferring roads that give you the feeling of exploration with each passing corner; roads with a story to tell. So a decision was made to go for it, but with a longer route in mind.
With the ignition key inserted my Classic Rover Mini burst into life with soundwaves pounding through the tip of the aftermarket exhaust system, the noise bouncing from the garage walls and making its way into neighbouring houses. “It’s okay,” I said to myself, “they’re probably used to it by now.” But my guess is that they still don’t like it, especially at 6am – so there was no time to spare!
First gear selected and a minimum rev start followed. It was a calm, sunrayfilled Sunday. The roads were empty, and for a while it was just me and my Mini heading to the capital. It takes a little over an hour to get from Jesenice to Ljubljana without a highway. It was a great warm up for the roads that were to come.
In Ljubljana I met up with a friend whose Austin Mini Clubman estate was proudly showing its fresh black paint and eagerly awaiting for us to embark on our journey. But where were we heading? Our destination for the first day was a city called Jajce, about 250 miles away, in Bosnia. Along the way there are many interesting places to visit and many delights to try out, first of which was the regional road taking us to Croatia. It goes through quaint villages, forests, and twists itself around the highway for a while. We miss out on so much while saving time on the dual carriageways.
We crossed the Slovene-Croatian border at Metlika and reached Karlovac, where we took our first break at the Open Air War Museum. Thick armor steel shaped into tanks, personnel carriers, artillery and lightweight aluminum into helicopters and fighter planes. These were the reminders left from Croatia’s war for independence, one of the ’90s Yugoslav wars which tore the former republic apart.
A short drive further brought us to our next point of interest, Rastoke. A 300-year-old milling settlement that was constructed next to gorgeous waterfalls and rapids. A place where nature shows its playful and artistic side. The Korana river connects it to the famous Plitvice lakes and it’s for that reason it’s also known as ˝the small lakes of Plitvice˝.
A few pictures taken, a few cups emptied, and quite a few wheel rotations made, and we ended up overlooking the Bosnian border, but we weren’t going to cross it just yet, as we were heading to a historic gem hidden nearby…
Object 505, better known as airfield Željava, is a military airfield hidden within a mountain. It was built in
secrecy between 1948 and 1968 and is known as Yugoslavia’s most expensive project. Exchanging the main road for a side road, we passed the last few houses and the first indication that we were near was the remains of a Douglas DC-3 Dakota on an abandoned airfield. The road then transformed into one of the runways and took us to the nearest entrance to the underground base, named Klek – then two miles of tunnels, space for 57 MIGs and over 3,000 people, a hospital, educational, service and operational centres, numerous warehouses, pitch darkness and echoes.
In May 1992, at the outbreak of war in Bosnia, the base got heavily damaged with more than 50 tonnes of explosives. The passing time hasn’t helped it but the area is still very interesting to explore. Once back outside and taking a longer look at the runway, it was very tempting to take the Minis on a high-speed run, but we kept in mind that the runway is located on the border itself and crossing at high speed might have just grabbed the unwanted attention of a nearby police patrol vehicle (although something tells me they’re used to it)!
So we returned to the main road, (legally) crossed the border and headed onwards to our destination. A few more cities passed and the E761 opened on to nice countryside, where the road’s kinks got ironed out nicely.
The city of Jajce has always been situated at important intersections on which trading routes, nationalities, cultures and even rivers meet. With its natural beauty and history, it’s a very attractive city to visit. Since it was built, in the 14th century, the ruling hand has changed many times. That is a story that starts unfolding once you enter the city through its defensive walls and progress up hill to the fortress, which is beside the 55-foot tall waterfall that connects the river Pliva to the river Vrbas. The old water mills constructed between the Pliva lakes is one of the biggest visitor magnets in the area.
Once we waved goodbye to this lovely city we set our sights on the Bosnian capital, and after a few hours of driving we reached Sarajevo. It’s a city that’s clearly had its fair share of historic events – reminders of which can be seen as monuments with inscriptions underneath or as bullet holes and shell explosion effects that are still visible. During the ’90s war this became the longest besieged city in history.
After parking up, we entered the city to enjoy a fine mix of architecture and a food-lover’s heaven – a great time was had. We then took a trip to the outskirts to soak in the beautiful landscape.
After leaving the capital, we met the E73, a road I have driven on few times before but one that never ceases to amaze me. It winds its way south through beautiful valleys, carved by a mighty river, and takes you to the Adriatic sea. It has many places on its route that, if not missed, promise an interesting experience; like driving through a dam in Idbar, Yugoslavia’s best-kept secret.
Before reaching Idbar we arrived at the city of Konjic during a downpour. The heavy rain made it harder for us to find a sign with D-0 ARK written on it, which later led us to a narrow road on the city’s outskirts. Just as the clouds cleared above us a military post appeared, where a guarding soldier said we should continue down the road and park next to “the house”, which was situated in the middle of nowhere.
The house is one of three secret entrances to an underground bunker called Facility D-0, otherwise known as ‘the army’s reserve command’ or ‘Tito’s bunker’. It was built during the Cold War period as a sanctuary for Marshal Tito, his wife Jovanka, and 350 others from Yugoslavia’s supreme command, thus enabling their management over the armed forces for up to six months of isolation in the case of a nuclear attack. It has 69,000 ft2 of living area, the lowest point of which is 920 ft below ground and made up of 12 connecting blocks that hold strategic planning rooms, conference rooms, residential areas and offices. The break-up of Yugoslavia unveiled this secret and the D- 0 saw its
“The E73 never ceases to amaze me, winding its way to the Adriatic sea”
first public tour in 2011. Today, the bunker, which is officially still under military control, serves as a meeting point for artists from around the world.
As we drove further towards the south on the E73, we were going further back into Yugoslavia’s history. The town of Jablanica got us to the year 1943, when Yugoslavia was under Axis occupation. Fighting against the occupation were the Yugoslav Partisans, led by Tito. A walk around the local museum revealed the extraordinary tale of the ‘ battle for the wounded’. It’s well worth a visit. For us, a decision to follow history’s footsteps then took us east on to the M6.1.
The road was in fairly good condition, at points in a rough state and in certain areas completely absent where the occasional avalanche hid it from our eyes. Most of the time we had the road to ourselves, which was fun with its sweeping twists and turns. Eventually it brought us into a valley where a big sculpture appeared, visible from afar. The Valley of Heroes is a monument to those who lost their lives in the battle to escape another encirclement. One which marked a turning point towards Partisan control of Yugoslavia. They managed to liberate the country from the Axis grasp just two years after this battle.
After the masterclass in Yugoslav history, we embarked on a brief exploration of the wonderful city of Mostar before crossing the border into Croatia at Metkoviči. An exciting moment as it meant we would soon reach the D8, a coastal tourist road known as the ‘Adriatic highway’. It’s a great experience for both nature lovers and passionate drivers, as every mile delivers breathtaking coastal panorama. It takes you high up the hills where you can admire the views of seemingly endless islands and also down to almost sea level, where you can witness the battle between the waves and the coastal rocks. It goes through calm, picturesque fishing villages as well as bustling seaside cities. It’s a true delight, made even sweeter if you happen to stumble upon a beautiful empty beach where a chance to cool off and rest a bit occurs. We were passing one island after another. And slowly my left arm was getting browner, whilst my right was hiding in the shade and mingling with the gear shifter.
Eventually we reached the city of Šibenik, where the newly-opened Beach Bar Mini is situated. What was supposed to be a four- to five-hour drive, depending on the highway traffic, ended up being a 1,200-mile, week-long road trip. The day ended with a barbecue on the seaside where even Morris, the bar’s puppy mascot, took a break from his job of greeting visitors and enjoyed a dish of grilled meat.
We arrived home some 300-miles later the evening of the next day, moving the gear lever into reverse and maneuvering the car slowly into the garage. Those soundwaves were once again exiting through the tip of the exhaust system and bouncing around the garage walls into neighbouring houses. “They’re probably used to it by now,” I said to myself, but I guess they still don’t like it, especially at 10pm…
“Every mile of the highway delivers breathtaking coastal panorama”
The Classic Minis in search of hidden gems in Željava. Jajce, the road trippers’ first port of call.
Minis and the remains of a Douglas DC-3 plane. Driving through a dam in Idbar. Facility D-0, an amazing underground bunker.
Breathtaking scenery on the D8 coastal road. The labyrinthine Tito’s bunker. The final destination: the Beach Bar Mini. History-rich town of Jablanica. The Sutjeska Monument.