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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Kjlučica Fortress, Croatia

In Croatia we managed to hike to the impressive remains of a castle built in the 1200s and abandoned since a siege in 1648 with no restoration, no signs either to or at the site, and nothing to interpret the walls and towers but our own imagination. It was set at the end of a knife-edge ridge jutting out into a massive limestone canyon. An extraordinary evening.

Karola inside the castle

View to the Krka river
Ključica is the largest and best preserved medieval fortress in Krka National Park. It was erected by the Croatian Nelipić family in the 13th century, much fought over, conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1546, who remained until 1648, and then abandoned for ever.

Karola is sitting in the main keep, originally a three-storey building with rooms for high-status people.

There are a lot of well-developed conventional tourism sites in northern Dalmatia, and they are beautiful, highly organised and scrupulously clean - the control of litter here is amongst the best I have ever seen - but adventure tourism is in an odd state.  A bit of internet research revealed amazing canyons, hikes, and even some via ferrata routes, but they are not well-advertised locally and I suspect mainly used by commercial tour groups. In one place, following some hints on the internet, we saw no signage on the highway or other roads, drove through what seemed to be a farmer’s yard, followed some indistinct wheel tracks across a barren limestone plain and arrived  at a set of beautiful, new aluminium signs explaining the entry and access points to a canyon and the way to a via ferrata along the canyon wall (I wanted to do it with two prusik cords as an improvised via ferrata set, but Karola would not let me).

Although Ključica fortress is marked on tourist maps, no roads to it are shown and no instructions were available. With the help of a mountain bike trip report I worked out that one of the dirt roads from the village of Ključ gets very close. We again drove through a farm where the old men and dogs were not at all clear we should be there, then down a track between two stone walls so narrow that the proximity alert on our hire car screamed continuously from one end to the other. The road widened and began to descend to the Čikola river when suddenly we saw the castle out on a ridge to our left.

I shouldered the pack and we headed off down a small track past an olive grove. We had waited until late afternoon to start walking, but it was still 35C at 5.30 and the sun was beating down like a hammer. The river has completely dried up by this time of year, but this far down the gorge there is a green strip at the bottom. On the hills, however, it was just limestone scree and thorn bushes. We followed what were probably goat tracks along the scree slope.

Thirty minutes and a litre of water later we were below the castle and started scrambling up the ridge. This is the easiest approach and the castle has a flanking wall thrown out here to force attackers down the ridge to where they have to approach from directly below the main walls. The other option is to approach along the knife-edge ridge, which runs slap bang into the gatehouse tower with sheer cliffs on either side. As we climbed up we saw some new timber work built onto the gatehouse tower and thought ‘Aha, so it has been set up for tourism'. How wrong we were.

From below - note flanking wall running down the slope

Getting close - that looks like restoration work!
Thirty minutes later we passed through a hole in the curtain wall and climbed through another into the outer bailey. The view that awaited us on the other side was extraordinary - a sheer drop of 100m and a panoramic view of Čikola canyon and the surrounding cliffs. It was breathtaking.

Behind her it is straight down
The sense of excitement was increased by the fact that the interior of the castle was completely unrestored - you just scrambled over piles of loose masonry to get from one part to another.

Karola climbing out of the bailey - the walled enclosure outside the keep.

Stone projectile inside the castle. Catapult ammo?

Additional rooms on north side of the main keep
The ‘restoration work’ we had seen must have been contracted to the Croatian branch of Dodgy Brothers. A timber walkway has been built right around the gatehouse tower, but built to the standard of dad and dave's back deck and already falling apart. On this side it is hanging over a 100m drop held in place by galvanised chain and galvanised screws driven into the stone. I was not going near it!

To get onto the dodgy brothers deck you  walk under this crumbling mass of rubble wall fill, which they have propped up with a 4x4 timber for added security (or perhaps the wall pressure on the 4x4 helps holds the deck on the cliff?).

The state of the work here is all the more puzzling because tourist infrastructure in Croatia is generally first-rate. Anyway, we enjoyed the excitement - but it would have been even better without the dodgy brothers' additions.
Dodgy brothers access ramp
View to the Čikola valley
Keep interior with late afternoon sun
Outer Bailey and Čikola valley
Flanking wall with view to Krka river
Evening was coming and we decided to head straight down the the bottom of the gully, as we could see a bit of a footpad on the other side.

Cairn - no wonder this way is a bit easier
Karola handles the heat better than I do - but those sandals were as issue on the scree slope!

It was still 30C, so we were glad to be in the shade of the opposite hill. The castle, however, was still catching the evening light and looking very impressive. No doubt this historic site will be properly restored soon, so we felt privileged to have had this 'wild' experience of it.

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