Military tourism in Croatia – city of Ploce and Zeljava airbase

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Almost 30 years ago Croatia was fighting its war for independence. I was a 5 – year old child when the war started but I vividly recall some of the war period events. I still remember living in a shelters for a few days when the air raids begun. Everybody living in the building were rushing down to its belly any time a distinct sound of siren was heard announcing that war planes took of somewhere and headed for our city. I recall playing with other children in shelter while all the worries were in the heads of adults. Even horrifying, it was a time of unity and sharing.

But this post won’t be about the war, that time is behind us now even though some of the military structures still exist in my hometown today remembering us about the military history of small city in Dalmatia. Some of them date back to WW2 era. Can they be revived in times of peace? Could small Dalmatian city of Ploče become a must visit place for military enthusiasts from around the globe? Let’s see…

A bit of basic history for introduction. Ploče was a large naval base before the war and first naval battle was fought right here. Many boats and soldiers were stationed in Ploče. Before the war we were all living in Yugoslavia and all military structures were belonging to Yugoslav People’s Army. When the war broke out Croatia formed its own military force but most bases were still under the Yugoslav People’s Army. Naval base in Ploče included. In the first months of war all military structures were taken by Croatian army and a lot of ammunition was spread across Croatia which helped a lot in winning the war. As the war was over and time went by lot of army personnel left Ploče.

What remains today, almost 30 years after the war, are some abandoned military structures that definitely have a remarkable history connected to them. Most of these structures were built before the war, some of them dating back to WW2. Today, most of these objects are not used in any way and wait in line for their not so bright future. It’s not that I’m saying that we need new war to use them, but can abandoned military objects find their purpose in times of peace?

I believe they can. I am astonished by some of these structures as well, especially underground ones. And there are many more persons in this world who call themselves military enthusiasts and roam from country to country in search for objects like these. And which country in Europe today have more of these objects (that are open to public) than Croatia. And that’s how military tourism in Croatia is born. Or better said how could it be born because there are some things to do before opening sites like these to public.

A bit about the Ploče and its location. It’s a young city in southern Croatia, just in the center between Split and Dubrovnik – two of the most famous Croatian cities, at least among the tourists. Military is still active in Ploče, but on a lot smaller scale than before the war. Lot of the military structures used before and during the war are now abandoned. Here and there some lonesome explorer will find them but even then he / she won’t know what they are looking at. Here we come to the first step. It’s necessary to find and catalogue these objects. Add a story and role each of these objects had and you already have a product. I believe this should be the first step that needs to be taken. And it’s a pretty cheap one since you don’t need a lot of investment.

From my humble knowledge I know some of the bunkers around Ploče were built by Italians during the WW2. Some were built during the presidency of Josip Broz Tito. I believe some of the most monumental object were built under his command with my top favorite being Željava airbase – underground airport. How cool is that, to have whole airport (except runways) dug into the mountain. I visited Željava few times and it’s sad to see it in a present state, completely devastated. It could be rebuilt but to do so would require a huge amount of money. Željava airbase is situated near Croatian most famous national park – Plitvice lakes, and could easily become a new tourist attraction. Back in Yugoslavia it was a base of Yugoslav air force who then mined it when it was obvious that Croatian army will conquer it. Nowadays it’s not advised to go inside, especially if you are a tourist because it’s easy to get lost and there could be wild animals (bears) hiding inside. Hungry wild animals. Also, there is a radiation hazard inside coming from destroyed smoke detectors that were using radioactive elements to work.

Sadly, city of Ploče doesn’t have underground airbase but have some distinct military history too. So far there are only small underground tunnels I was able to find. These tunnels (from pictures below) always have 2 entrances and are usually U-shaped with extra rooms inside. Not much is known about this particular tunnel but it seems that it had some sleeping quarters as well. At the beginning of the tunnel there was a room with diesel generator which supplied whole object with electricity. All of these underground objects had generators like these, some smaller, some pretty large as one in Željava airbase. On the top of the hill these tunnels were carved into there is a bunker. It seems that some 20 or more persons were using this tunnel and bunker. There is a vertical shaft connecting the tunnel with a bunker.

Hills around Ploče area are full of bunkers dating mostly to WW2 and built by Italians. These bunkers are not easy to get to nowadays and trails leading to them should be cleaned first. Now we come to second thing that is necessary to make in order for military structures to become a tourist attraction. Trails leading to them should be cleared and sole objects need to be cleaned to some extent. Next, every object should get it’s table with most important facts about it.

There are some larger naval tunnels near the city of Ploče as well. These tunnels were used for hiding and supplying larger ships and submarines during the air raids. Tunnels are accessible both from a land and sea and certainly have history of their own. Total of 3 underground structures like this one can be found near the Ploče with a lot more on a nearby islands. Having mentioned the islands it’s good to know that island of Vis is absolute winner when it comes to military tourism. Vast underground tunnel network can be found underneath whole island and some agencies offer guided tours through them. There is a story that a person once got lost in these tunnels and never seen again. It might be a made up story just to scare unwanted visitors but from a stories heard it’s really easy to get lost inside of Vis island. If you are visiting Vis island, make sure to check these military structures.

Višnjica is a small hill near the Ploče. It offers a nice short hike and its peak is a home to a military structure dating back to WW2. It was built by Italian army and it’s purpose was to guard Neretva bay from any intruders (read: Allied forces). Even though the hill is just 200 meters high it has a great view all around. Some concrete plateaus can be found around which, I believe, were used for AA guns. The building has seen a better days but it could be rebuilt, at least to some extent. If not rebuilt, then a table with most important information could be added.

 

To end the story I believe military structures around the city of Ploče (and rest of Croatia) could be used as a tourist attraction. With new times comes a new tourist profile. Sea and sun is slowly getting replaced by other contents and more and more people are looking for new way of spending their time than at the beach. I was already writing about the adventure potentials of city of Ploče so why not go in this direction too. If these military objects are not revived in any way they will eventually degrade and represent potential danger. It would be illogical to expect for these objects to be rebuilt, but most of them are in a satisfactory condition, all that should be done is to clear the trails to get to them and put info tables with most important information. That shouldn’t cost so much but it would definitely bring some new touristic content to city of Ploče.

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