2013 – Croatia’s Long, Hard Winter by Douglas Cavanaugh

As with many European countries and most other places in the northern hemisphere, Croatia is a pretty uneventful place during the late winter months. Yet the urge to write keeps calling me, so I’ll write an article about a topic that is often discussed this time of year – the winter weather. Please continue on, it may be more interesting than you think.

The year 2013 got off to a rough start in Croatia weather-wise. Those of you who read my Christmas article may recall my mention of the record snowfall that blasted Gorski Kotar in mid-December. As it turned out, these kinds of snowstorms have plagued the region over the last three months. My city, Rijeka, was not exempt from the abundance of snow either. It caused havoc on the roads as many unprepared, ill-equipped, and inexperienced drivers attempted to venture out and brave the elements.

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Due to its location on the Adriatic coast, Rijeka is often spared the worst of winter’s wrath. However, the city’s surrounding suburbs, many of which are just a few kilometers uphill from the city center, often get blanketed with snow while less than a minute’s drive downhill, the same storm is only able to pour rain on the city dwellers. It is the slight difference in altitude that causes the biggest problem. The city’s inhabitants, well aware that snow falls very infrequently near sea level, often risk driving without having proper tires on their cars which is understandable until they are caught off guard and nature has its way with them. It often happens that the locals may be shopping or visiting the nearby hilltop suburbs when a snowstorm hits. If they head for home too late, their cars easily become stuck and leave them stranded at the roadside. It isn’t uncommon during one of these storms to see dozens of cars left abandoned along the narrow, winding roads. Fortunately, most snow that falls on Rijeka usually lasts for only a day or two before the temperature rises and the direction of the wind changes course. When warmer air blows in from the south, it usually brings rain which quickly melts the lingering snow and washes it away.

An altogether different climate exists in nearby Gorski Kotar, the mountainous region a mere twenty minute drive outside of Rijeka. This mountain range is similar to the dull ridges of the Appalachian Mountain chain found in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, compared to the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the western states of North America. This is not to detract anything from Gorski Kotar’s splendor, as it is a gorgeous region that is full of wildlife, beauty and fresh air. However, the crests simply don’t measure up with those found in the Alps of northern Slovenia, Colorado, or British Columbia. But when it comes to snowfall, its climate can match the best of them, and this year has been no exception.

As mentioned in previous articles, my wife’s family comes from a village named Ravna Gora near the highest point in elevation in Gorski Kotar. We spend a lot of our free time there as it is a short drive because of a modern, four-lane highway that links the capital city, Zagreb, and Rijeka, Croatia’s third largest city. Gorski Kotar receives two to three meters (six to ten feet) or more of annual snowfall, so a dedicated snow removal team works long hours keeping this thoroughfare clear of snow and ice.

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Over the last several years, various family members in Ravna Gora have proudly boasted of the heavy snowfall Ravna Gora receives each year. However, each winter when I’ve visited, the accumulation was never that much or had mostly melted by the time I arrived. And each year, I have mischievously teased them that they didn’t know what a lot of snow was, and that they should visit the U.S. Midwest some winter to see what a real blizzard looked like. But oddly enough, as the winters passed, and to everyone’s amazement, including my own, the heavy snows did not fall in Gorksi Kotar for a multi-year stretch, convincing many locals that global warming was a reality. I didn’t know what to think about that, but any questions I had of the regions snowfall potential were answered this past February.

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To date, I’ve heard reports that almost five meters (fifteen feet) of snow has fallen in Ravna Gora between December 9th, 2012 and March 2nd, 2013. February 2013 was a notably brutal month with one particularly intense snowstorm that lasted three consecutive days and nights. At one point, ten centimeters (four inches) of snow accumulated in an hour, and before long, the local homeowners who were trying to keep their driveways open could not keep pace with the pummeling and were soon overwhelmed. Many gave up and remained shut-in for days.

And those who did have the stamina to dig their way out soon ran out of space to throw the excess snow. Most houses in the village had snow piled to the roofs.

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During breaks in the snowstorm, crews with trucks would manage to come through occasionally to plow the streets before another front would pass through and the whole process would begin again. The village’s oldest resident, a razor sharp, ninety-year-old widow we know, could not recall a winter with as much snow as this winter. Thankfully, there has been a welcome respite over the last week and better weather is forecasted in the coming weeks. Yet the possibility of additional accumulation lasts into the month of May each year, so I expect the total accumulation to rise before summer begins.

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There was a six-day thaw last week so my family traveled to Gorski Kotar to visit the relatives over the weekend. Because of the unpredictable weather, we filled our car with clothes and supplies, put the tire chains in the trunk, and then headed uphill. What we found was much better than we expected. The village’s main road was open, and a lot of the rooftop snow had melted away. The major difficulties were finding a place to park our car and maintaining our balance on the frozen pathways leading to the houses.

Despite those minor inconveniences, the sun was shining and the temperature was above freezing, so we did what everyone else was doing and enjoyed the moment. The relatives brought out the sleds and inner tubes, and we all trudged over to the nearest hill for some fun in the snow.

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After several trips downhill, and while my first lesson in cross-country skiing was in process, the sun disappeared behind the surrounding mountaintops and the temperature nose-dived instantly.

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Slika 4 Cross-country skiing at dusk

We all made a break for home. Minutes later, we were safe and warm, sipping hot tea and enjoying the heat produced by the wood-burning stove.

All in all, it was a wonderful day. Just the same, we were in no hurry to repeat the experience and planned to wait until the weather breaks for our next visit. Other attractive options that are nearby will be competing for our free time, and the weather issue in Gorski Kotar is always a constant concern this time of year. Besides, just twenty minutes from Rijeka is the province of Istria where spring should be arriving any day now. Soon, I plan to visit Istria and this might be the subject of my next article.

Douglas Cavanaugh is the author of Into Hell’s Fire (www.into-hells-fire.com), an international spy novel set in Bosnia and Croatia in 1992.  He has lived in Croatia for seventeen years.

5.0 out of 5 stars Intense storyline, May 15, 2013
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In addition to a good story the book contains a pretty good synopsis of the history surrounding the Balkan war. I read this while touring Croatia. This helped with my understanding of how this tragedy could have happened. Most of the book deals with Sarajevo in Bosnia.