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Destination: Croatia

Volker Kleespies climbing hard on a large, free-standing tower at the far west end of Cliffbase. [Photo] Christian Beckwith

It’s late September in a certain landlocked US mountain town, and we’re contemplating a climbing trip to Europe. Several important factors come to mind: a turquoise sea, good coffee, an offbeat location, some culture, delicious food, and a country where the dollar isn’t drowned by the Euro and the classic routes aren’t clogged with climbers. Bikini weather would be an added bonus.

Close to sunset at Cliffbase. The tower features several excellent quality sport climbs. [Photo] Christian Beckwith

Croatia, especially the Dalmatian coast, has been on the travel hotlist for the last couple years, its bountiful islands having emerged unscathed from the wreckage of former Yugoslavia. Friendly, clean and–most importantly–rich in limestone cliffs, my new husband and I yearned for the possibilities: deep water soloing, hillsides covered by grape vines and olive groves, clear seas with fantastic swimming. All the grilled calamari and local wine we could consume. Perfect.

The author, bouldering through a tunnel in the cliff. [Photo] Christian Beckwith

After arriving in the buzzing coastal town of Split, we took a ferry to Hvar, one of the largest islands of the Dalmatian group. Most Americans come here to sail in the Adriatic Sea, which gives access to charming stone villages dotting the coastline. Access also is possible by car along narrow roads that wind in and out of rocky tunnels.

The water tends to become choppier as the day progresses. [Photo] Giovannina Anthony

We exchanged a few emails with the Croatian Mountaineering Association before leaving home, and the good people there connected us with Ivo Tudor, a young engineering student who took up rock climbing two years ago. When we arrived, we met with Ivo: tall and lanky, with sinewy limbs and an absence of body fat. He showed us lovely sport climbing spots on Hvar, and best of all, he included us in a family dinner in the village of Milna, a tiny enclave on the sea’s edge. Over glasses of wine from the family’s vineyards, fresh pressed olive oil, and a bit of prosec–the sweet dessert wine of the region–Ivo informed us that he had a friend with a boat who could bring us to some deep water soloing only twenty minutes away.

The same email effort that led to Ivo also hooked us up with Miroslav Stec, a Slovakian climber who, five years ago, established an intimate and idyllic climbing oasis on Hvar’s southern coast, near the stone village of Svetla Nedjelja. It turned out to be the same deep water soloing area that Ivo was psyched about, but since we had a car with tons of packs, gear, and luggage, we decided to make the drive rather than travel by boat.

Walking east from the village docks brought us to Cliffbase after fifteen minutes. Over the past five years Miroslav had developed the climbing area that now boasts more than seventy sport climbs, grades 5a to 8a [5.8 to 5.13b], lining the limestone cliffs just above the Adriatic.

Miroslav Stec not only owns and operates Cliffbase, he also set the majority of the routes in the area. [Photo] Christian Beckwith

But we found the unbolted cliffs east of Cliffbase, deep turquoise water lapping at their edges, the most spectacular. The rock is pale, intricate and smooth–quite different from the sharp and polished limestone I’ve experienced in other parts of Europe.

I have never been good at bouldering–nor cliff jumping. So, at first, I stayed low, dropped into the water, and swam to another spot on the cliff where I could hoist myself out and continue. Remarkably the sticky rubber of my climbing shoes stayed that way despite many unplanned falls into the sea.

Ivo Tudor watches another climber fall into the water. Tudor is an engineering student on the mainland, but grew up on the island. [Photo] Giovannina Anthony

Down low at the water’s edge I found the walls steep and the holds sharp and crimpy, but moving upward there were huge jugs of myriad shapes and forms on which I pursued numerous lines across the cliffbands. Peeling off up high was far scarier, but eventually I found the excitement of a long fall to the water completely worth the fear.

When air and water temperatures dropped in the late afternoon, I was ready to dry myself off with a few south-facing sport climbs. My husband, however, found dusk the perfect time to deep water solo, despite the inevitably rough afternoon chop. I enjoyed deep water soloing over glassy water in the morning: perfect conditions to fall, provided you could get out of bed–which my husband could not!

The sport climbing is a moderate climber’s paradise, offering well-bolted routes that feature interesting hanging pillars, and–best of all–belaying
and climbing in swim gear. Since I could not entice my husband away from deep water soloing, I talked a young American backpacker into learning how to belay so I could check out these cliffs, many with quite long routes where an 80-meter rope came in handy. I got hot after a few routes, even in late September, but a quick dip in the Adriatic was the perfect remedy before returning to my harness and wet climbing shoes.

Late afternoon sees choppier water beneath Volker Kleespies, deep water soloing near Cliffbase. [Photo] Giovannina Anthony

At Cliffbase a trio of friendly Germans–Volker, Klaus and Netanya–befriended us and were hitting it hard on Miroslav’s bolted routes. Over coffee, the local Croatian beer, and a setting sun, we’d review the day’s climbing and make lazy dinner plans for pizza or fish at the village’s lone restaurant. Enthusiastic and charmed by Cliffbase, they were certain to visit next year.

Unknown climber on the left, Ivo Tudor in his underwear in the middle and another unknown climber on the right, all soloing on the cliffs east of Cliffbase. [Photo] Giovannina Anthony

This spot is on private property but available to the climbing public through Miroslav’s generous spirit. Miroslav started climbing at age 16 in Presov, in the formerly communist Czechoslovkia. He completed a university degree in physics in 1989 and worked in theoretical physics for a year until his country divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. After a two-year stint in New York, he returned to his country and started a successful run as a restaurateur, ending up with five restaurants/pizzerias in Slovakia. In 2002 he became an internet service provider to the 100,000 people of Presov. For several years, he had been vacationing in Croatia and found that there was no developed climbing on Hvar Island. Visiting Svetla Nedjelja, he saw the cliffs, could not believe no one was climbing them, and was hooked. In one day, he let go of sixty employees, bought the property–and the small ruined house at the top of the cliff–started putting up routes, and changed his life.

We found Miroslav a fascinating character and an amiable host. On our last night we dined with him and asked him about his drive to create Cliffbase. His story is modern, familiar and refreshing to anyone caught in the grind of everyday working existence.

The high intensity work life was making Miroslav crazy. As he told us, workaholics ourselves, while roasting some olives from his trees on an open fire, it was either “the madhouse or Cliffbase.” He sees the climbing spot as an opportunity to make a lifestyle change and to develop a hangout for himself and his friends, but clearly it has become much more than that.

Unknown climber at Cliffbase during sunset. [Photo] Christian Beckwith

Miroslav’s story got us thinking: if you find paradise, do you tell other people about it? How does one share an oasis without ruining it? A major German climbing magazine featured Cliffbase four years ago as a cover story, and since then Miroslav has been dealing with a much larger influx of climbers to the area. Given its geography, Cliffbase does not accommodate the large numbers. Miroslav is pretty matter-of-fact about his area becoming more crowded: “It’s saner than the life I had before. It’s what I love now.”

Given this increase in the number of climbers to the area, Miroslav feels strongly that these visitors benefit the local village, primarily by pursuing local accommodation, more than they overcrowd Cliffbase. In addition to a 22 kuna (about 4 US dollars) entry fee to the climbing site, he prefers visitors to find accommodation through him in the local village, which ranges from simple rooms to fully furnished apartments. The rates are inexpensive, especially compared to the rest of Europe.

The western expanse of the deep water soloing cliff. [Photo] Christian Beckwith

Polish climber slacklining over a small harbor at Cliffbase. [Photo] Giovannina Anthony

On our last day, while I cleaned our apartment (hanging over the sea, $40 US per night) and packed, my husband took a boat ride with Miroslav along the coast of this place he loves. (How did I get stuck with packing?) As a parting gift, Miroslav gave us some olive oil from his trees packed into two liter plastic Coke bottles. The oil, a deep green, cloudy and unfiltered, tasted fantastically earthy. My husband took a photo of Miroslav gazing over his coffee cup on that final day that was a perfect snapshot of our new friend who had made us feel so at home.

The mellow groove of life on the Adriatic took us a few days to get into, and, as the cliche goes, as soon as we did, it was time to leave. My husband and I always have held fast to a rule: never to visit the same place twice. But after Croatia, we both forsee ourselves breaking our pact.

One taste of the olive oil from those Coke bottles and we’re back on Hvar, perched on limestone cliffs, watching the sun glow in the troughs of the dark Adriatic.

Cliffbase at sunset. [Photo] Christian Beckwith