Sports and Outdoor activities in Croatia
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Croatia is an increasingly versatile destination for adventure tourism, with plentiful outdoor activities on offer, from hiking in the hills of the interior to scuba diving in the Adriatic. Sailing is best organized before you arrive (see Sailing and yachting packages). Croatian team and individual sports occupy an important position in society, not least because of the significant role they have played in enhancing national prestige abroad – one outstanding example being former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanišević.
Football (nogomet) is the most popular spectator sport and an important badge of national identity. The Croatian national team is one of the most successful in Central-Eastern Europe, consistently qualifying for international tournaments since their first appearance at the European Championships of 1996. Finishing third in the 1998 World Cup was Croatia’s best-ever result.
While the exploits of the national team remain a national obsession, the domestic league is hampered by a lack of real competition. The big teams Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split have more or less monopolized domestic honours since 1991, but rarely make a significant impression in Europe – Hajduk made the quarter finals of the UEFA Champions’ League in 1995; Dinamo qualified for the group stages in 1998, 1999, 2011 and 2012. Matches between the big two can attract large crowds, but otherwise Croatian league attendances are poor, with most fans following their favourite European teams on TV instead.
After football, the most popular sport is basketball (košarka), with teams like Split, Zadar and Cibona Zagreb enjoying large followings and a Europe-wide reputation. Like football, it’s a sport in which Croatia exports its best players, with performers like Tony Kukoč, Dino Rađa and the late Dražen Petrović finding big-time success in the NBL. Ice hockey is a major spectator sport in Zagreb, with local team Medveščak playing in the international KHL league, and handball (rukomet), volleyball (odbojka) and water polo (vaterpolo) all get a good deal of newspaper and television coverage. One sport which is definitely not televised – although you’ll see a lot of it in Dalmatia and Istria – is a form of bowls known as bočanje (derived from the Italian boccie), which is played in villages on a sandy outdoor rectangle by local men on summer evenings.
Hiking was first popularized in Croatia in the late nineteenth century, when the exploration of the great Croatian outdoors was considered a patriotic duty as well as a form of exercise. It’s still a popular weekend activity, especially in spring and early summer, before the searing Mediterranean heat sends people scurrying for the beaches.
Easy rambling territory in inland Croatia is provided by wooded Mount Medvednica close to Zagreb and crisscrossed by well-used trails. On the Adriatic coast, Učka, immediately above Opatija and Lovran, is one of the most easily accessible mountains, and can be safely bagged by the moderately fit hiker. Farther south, the more challenging Velebit range stretches for some 100km along the eastern shore of the Kvarner Gulf; its main hiking areas are around the Zavižan summit, near Senj, and the Paklenica National Park at Velebit’s southern end. In Dalmatia, the principal peaks are Kozjak and Mosor (immediately west and east of Split respectively) and, most challenging of all the Adriatic mountains, Biokovo, above the Makarska Riviera.
Ranges such as the Velebit seem to invite extended expeditions, but unfortunately hut-to-hut walking in Croatia is still in its infancy, and no local travel agencies organize it. Mountain refuges (planinarski dom) run by local hiking associations do exist, but they’re usually only open at the weekend, making anything longer than a 36-hour trek unfeasible.
Detailed hiking maps are published by the Croatian Hiking Association, Kozarčeva 22, Zagreb (Hrvatski planinarski savez; Mon 8am–6pm, Tues–Fri 8am–3pm; t 01 482 3624), although they’re only sporadically available in bookshops and you’ll have to visit the association in person to inspect the full range. Tourist offices sometimes sell hiking maps of their own area (for instance the tourist information centre in Zagreb sells maps of Mount Medvednica), but don’t bank on it.
Several parts of Croatia are ideally suited to cycling holidays, with inland Istria, the Dalmatian islands, the Lonjsko polje and the Baranja region of eastern Slavonia topping the list. Cycle routes are increasingly well marked and several local tourist organizations have published cycling maps. Renting a bike is easy in the bigger Adriatic resorts, but can be tricky elsewhere. A number of local bed and breakfasts have begun stocking up on bikes that their guests can use. An initiative called Bike & Bed publishes a series of brochures detailing regional cycling itineraries, along with details of bike-friendly B&Bs that can be found along the way.
Bikes can be transported in designated luggage vans on certain inter-city trains, notably those operating on the Zagreb–Split, Zagreb–Rijeka, Zagreb–Osijek and Zagreb–Varaždin routes. There’s a flat fee of 30Kn for each bike. If cycling in a group of more than four people you should contact the station of departure five days in advance to book your space.
Bikes can in theory be stowed in the luggage compartments of inter-city buses for a small fee, but many drivers are bad-tempered about this – and the amount of luggage stowed by your fellow passengers often ensures that there isn’t enough room anyway. Your best bet is to confirm regulations governing carriage of bikes when buying your ticket, and arrive in good time at the bus departure point so you can be among the first to stow your gear.
On the coast, tourist agencies organize rafting trips down the River Cetina, southeast of Split, and the River Zrmanja, just east of Zadar; you’ll find contact details in the relevant sections of the Guide. The rafting season usually runs from May to September, although trips on the Zrmanja may be suspended in July owing to low water levels. Prices vary according to the duration of the trip – expect to pay 230–260Kn per person for a day’s excursion.
Thanks to the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic and the diversity of the local marine life, Croatia has become one of the most popular scuba-diving venues in the Mediterranean over the last few years. There are a growing number of diving centres along the Adriatic coast offering lessons, guided expeditions and equipment rental. Most resorts will have somewhere offering one-day introductory courses for 250–350Kn, as well as a range of other courses for all abilities. If you already hold a diving certificate, you need to pay a registration fee (100Kn), available from registered diving centres or from the local harbour master’s office (lučka kapetanija), before being allowed to dive in Croatia.
Two of the most rewarding areas for diving, with clear waters and rich marine life, are the Kornati islands in mid-Dalmatia and the island of Mljet near Dubrovnik. Both have National Park status and diving here can only be arranged through officially sanctioned operators – see the relevant sections of the Guide for details. For general information, contact the Croatian Diving Federation at Dalmatinska 12, 10 000 Zagreb (t 01 484 8765).
There are really only two places to go in Croatia for serious windsurfers. The best is Kučište-Viganj area just west of Orebić, which stands on the southern side of the narrow channel dividing the Pelješac peninsula from the island of Korčula, a natural funnel for the right kind of winds. Second best is Bol on the island of Brač, which occupies a similar position on the channel dividing Brač and Kvar. Bol is a fully developed package resort with all the accommodation and nightlife opportunities one would expect; Kučište and Viganj on the other hand are relatively unspoilt villages with a string of beachside campsites. Whichever you choose, you’ll find plenty of people renting out gear (boards 200–250Kn/day) and offering courses (about 600Kn for 8hr tuition).
Sea kayaking is a popular way of exploring the coast around Dubrovnik, the Elaphite Islands and Hvar. It’s extremely easy to organize, with several Dubrovnik and Hvar-based travel agents arranging half- or full-day tours. Kayakers are led in a small flotilla by the tour leader, and apart from the few short minutes required to learn how to use a paddle, no training or previous experience is required.
Croatia has two main skiing areas: Sljeme on Mount Medvednica, just outside Zagreb, and Platak, just inland from Rijeka. Although both are fun venues for occasional skiing if you’re already visiting Croatia, neither is worth planning a holiday around. Altitudes (1035m and 1363m respectively) are too low to guarantee long periods of adequate snow cover, and most Croats treat skiing trips as spur-of-the-moment events if the weather is right. You can rent gear at either place.