With my trusty old bike now settled in to life in Croatia I wanted to explore the area around the farm in a bit more detail so lying in bed with the kids asleep I planned a route for the next morning. I wanted a climb and so my search was simple; what was the highest peak in the area. The answer was Petrova Gora and as luck would have it, one side of it was paved and it was only around nine miles away from the farm.
As I researched the climb, my intrigue deepened when I read that atop of the climb was a monument (Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija) that was epic in its size and crumbling under the weight of history.
The plan was to meet the rest of the family at the bottom of Petrova Gora for some crepes in the restaurant there so I set-off before them, trundling down the rough farm road to the main road to Vojnic and towards Petrova Gora.
The route out to the climb was uneventful and the traffic gave me plenty of room as they passed. A road cyclist in full lycra is quite a novelty in this part of Croatia so it was hardly surprising that the bustling café’s stopped drinking coffee to judge me as I passed. I did wonder why they were so busy on a weekday mid-morning but then anyone with even a passing knowledge of the coffee culture in Croatia should not be surprised.
It was one of those climbs where you could not see the top because of the trees and the mind therefore starts to play tricks. At times you are convinced that the top is just around the next bend and at times you are fairly confident that in fact the climb will never end. The only sign of life on the climb was a logging truck passing me in the opposite direction and the indistinct chatter of animals in the woods surrounding me.
I pushed on, lost in thoughts of crepes and ice cream at the bottom. Just then, I turned a corner and saw something alien out the corner of my eye. It didn’t fit in with the landscape at all, jutting at oblong angles from the top of the hill. Around another corner and it was gone, obscured once more by the trees, the landscape again making more sense.
As I approached closer and closer to the top, part by part the monument started to reveal itself until finally I was standing square on with it, trying to catch my breath from the climb and trying to make sense of what was in front of me.
What it was and what it is are two different things. It used to be a monument to commemorate the uprising by the people of the area against the fascist Ustasa and the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet-state, during World War Two. It was finally completed in 1981 during the heady days of the socialist Yugoslavia but the contemporary history of Croatia is nothing if not complicated and in its struggle for independence during the 1990’s the monument was neglected, willfully forgotten and raped for parts. As a newly independent Croatia sought its new identity so did it start to question the legitimacy of such monuments. It was not Yugoslavia anymore. It didn’t want reminders of being Yugoslavia. The wisdom of this type of revisionist history is clearly debatable but this blog will never be able to do justice to the complexity of modern Croatian history and of that of the region, linked inextricably as they are.
For me it is endlessly fascinating and if you spend any length of time in Croatia then you are reminded that this is still a young country, still hungover from the war thirty years ago and still wrestling with its past. Being in the grounds of this monument, alone but for the unseen animals around me, it was a sobering experience.
A sobering and an unnerving experience as it was a ghost town around the monument. Such was the ambition of the monument, there was even a café built in its shadow that feels like it had been abandoned in a hurry. The atmosphere was so heavy and eerie that I was half-expecting someone to pop up from behind the bar in the style of the Shining.
The façade of the monument is crumbling to reveal a hollow shell of twisted steel. There must be some houses in the local village ablaze with shiny stainless steel panels. The closer you get to the foot of the monument, up the ramp and once grand passageway you are left in no doubt that it is unloved. Locked-up and left to rot I did not want to take my chances inside the monument although from what I had read online more intrepid explorers had ventured into the bowels of the monument. Cycling shoes are barely competent on flat ground so I didn’t want to take the chance with clambering over fences and fallen lumps of concrete. The fact that I had also read that wild animals had recommissioned the monument as their home was also at the forefront of my mind.
I cycled around the sight for a while absorbing the strange atmosphere. I really cannot do justice to the sense of isolation yet not quite feeling alone. If you are ever in the area then I would recommend a visit but do not try to approach from the other side of Petrova Gora unless you like your roads rough.
I got a call to say that everyone was waiting for me at the restaurant at the bottom of the hill so I sucked up the last bit of this strange place and got ready to descend. Incidentally the phone reception was excellent since the monument now made for a convenient place to erect a mobile phone mast.
The rough road made for a fairly slow and steady descent to the restaurant and my disappointment was confounded when I learned that the restaurant didn’t open for another two hours despite what Google told us. With no delicious crepes to fuel me back to the farm I was fighting the headwinds on fumes.
Back at the farm and looking to fill my stomach I decided to take a walk up the hill to get some plums from the trees and whilst up there I looked over to the north. Just in the distance I could see the monument sticking up awkwardly above all else. From here it seemed so far away, so inconceivable that it only took me 45 minutes to cycle to. I have been here many times over the years but only now with the bike am I able to get a better feel and to explore places that were otherwise out of reach.