This Grand Canyon Is a Sight for Soaring Eyes

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

Slowly the climber inched up the wall of stone, his fingers squeezing into narrow cracks, his boots searching for any kind of edge.

He was making the ascent without pitons or a safety rope. If he slipped, he would plunge about 30 feet.

Half a dozen expertly coordinated movements took him to the upper ledge. He swung his knee over it.

We weren't watching from the base of a cliff. We were beside a medieval fortress wall in this town on Yugoslavia's Adriatic coast.

The wall had challenged Turkish and Italian invaders in the Middle Ages. Now, local climbers were using it as a tuneup for the Yugoslav Alps.

During the coming year, in addition to its historic, cultural and scenic attractions, Yugoslavia will promote trips for the more adventuresome traveler. The national Atlas Travel Agency, for example, has packaged a dozen such excursions.

Choices vary from climbing and cliff hiking to mountain biking, scuba diving, Adriatic island cruises in inflatable boats, canoe safaris and white-water rafting through a deep canyon.

Popularly known as the Grand Canyon of Montenegro, it is second in depth only to its Arizona namesake and lies within Tara National Park, about a 1 1/2-hour drive north of Dubrovnik. The park is on the United Nations list of world heritage sites.

Guides call out and wave signals to help paddlers steer inflated rafts over wild rapids. Cliffs soar high above the tumbling waters in massive rock formations, opening unexpectedly to reveal stunning landscapes.

Spray washes over the rafts. Paddlers wear waterproof jackets and pants. A life vest is an additional shield.

The Atlas schedule of daylong raft trips begins in May and continues through mid-September, 1990. Cost is about $50 per person, including a guide, a lunch packet and transportation by motor coach to and from Dubrovnik.

The raft trip can be combined with a stay in the mountain resort of Zablak at rustic Hotel Jezera, where double accommodations are about $60 a night. From there you can visit Moraca Monastery, which has frescoes from the 13th Century. Another option is to hike through Biograd National Park.

Atlas also offers a daylong canoe safari that begins at Kravica Waterfalls, a lacework of streams and currents foaming down a moonscape mountainside. An expert canoeist lectures and demonstrates. Paddlers then climb into two-people canoes to practice.

After the instructor is satisfied, canoeists follow him down the swift white water of the Trebizat River, through a part of Yugoslavia that was the setting for films based on the tales of novelist Karl May, who has been called the Zane Grey of Germany.

There's a midday stop for lunch in the village of Trebizat. The afternoon safari ends at the waiting motor coach for a return to Dubrovnik. Price tag for the day is $40 per person, May through mid-Spetember.

The Una River in eastern Yugoslavia is one of the most beautiful in this part of the world for paddling trips. Waters near the Turkish fortress in the village of Bihac are rated best for beginning canoeists.

Other sections of the Una surge with rapids foamed by waterfalls. The landscape is often like a watercolor painting. The Una can be reached easily by motor coach from Zagreb to the north or from Zadar on the Adriatic. The riverside resort town of Zedra, not far from Bihac, is popular with Europeans.

Off the Dalmatian Coast between Zadar and Dubrovnik, about 1,000 small islands rise from the Adriatic Sea.

Cruising the islands in an inflatable powerboat is an adventurous alternative to the island cruise ships. A leisurely route allows time for scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing and water skiing. Overnights can be at campsites near fishing villages or island resort inns.

On the island of Hvar, guided explorations take walkers along green, wooded trails and crests with spectacular views.

On the islands are historic and architectural treasures that vary from the Museum of the Dominican Monastery and the Deskovic Gallery on Brac to Arneri Palace on Korcula. The island of Kornati in the archipelago off Zadar has a cliff walk along the closest outreach of Yugoslavia to the Italian coast, visible on a clear day.

Inland between Zagreb and Zadar, Plitvice National Park offers 16 shimmering blue and green lakes. Walkways of wooden timbers follow the pounding cascades. After a summer of heavy rains, water rising in torrents around our feet made it necessary to plant each step firmly before attempting the next.

Zagreb has mountain climbs near the city limits. From our hotel room we could map our walk to the Upper Town and the cathedral consecrated in 1217. One bicycle excursion is to the home where Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia's first president, was born.

Through Slovenia, bordering Italy and Austria on the sunny southern side of the Alps, Atlas will map mountain bike tours averaging 25 to 35 miles a day.

Rock climbing techniques demonstrated on the fortress walls of Zadar can be practiced all along the Alps as well as on the Dalmatian Coast, where cliffs rise dramatically above the beaches.

From the Olympian slopes of Sarajevo, the adventurous traveler can drive to Mostar, only 35 miles from the beaches. There, young Yugoslavs, inviting visitors, dive and jump in the 400-year-old tradition from the 30-meter arch of Old Bridge, recreating what poets have described as "the flight of the sea gulls."

In Dubrovnik we've climbed the steep slopes of Mt. Srdj, immediately above the fortress walls, cobbled streets, palaces, galleries, museums, churches, mosque and synagogue of this city.

A white cross at the summit guides the climb. Visitors can also reach the top by cable car, but the best way to go is to climb up and ride down.

For information on all tours by Atlas Travel, write the Yugoslavia National Tourist Office, 630 Fifth Ave., New York 10111, or call (212) 757-2801.

Pan Am and JAT Yugoslav Airlines have rates starting at about $710 round trip between Los Angeles and Zagreb, depending on the time of year. Contact your travel agent or call Pan Am toll-free (800) 221-1111 or JAT Yugoslav Airlines at (213) 388-8600.

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