Exploring The Marvels Of Croatia’s Modric Cave

Twist your head to the right, your body to the left and wiggle through the crack, urged the guide leading us through Modric Cave in Croatia. Pretending I was a pretzel worked. After dragging my lagging left leg through a fissure between caverns, I re-lit my carbide miner’s lamp and stood stunned by the beauty of crystals sparkling on the curvaceous stalactites. My husband, who was a spelunker in his earlier days, couldn’t stop grinning and told me that he’d never seen a cave so pristine.

We were partially through a two-hour excursion into the cave, which is located less than 20 miles from the ancient city of Zadar and about a three-hour drive north of Dubrovnik. The adventure had started with a 10-minute walk over rocky ground to the entrance, within view of a calm, azure Adriatic Sea. Our guide, Marijan, unlocked the iron gate barring the entrance to the cave, so that our group of five could enter. Looking at the opening, the size of a book-return slot at a library, we eyed each other wondering how we could slip through it. Grab the rock wall, slide your feet through the crack while resting your back on the grate, wiggle through, then twist around and drop to the ground, Marijan directed. Following his directions (mentally thanking the helmet on my head when it smacked the grate), I wound up in a space barely big enough to hold the group.

During the time we spent exploring Modric Cave, we gingerly climbed over rocks or contorted our bodies to wiggle through small cracks in walls to marvel at the formations in the larger caverns. Our lamps revealed nature’s beauty created over millions of years. The cave is still “living” – growing with drops of water depositing tiny bits of calcium carbonate on the formations – and we were admonished not to touch them. Colored stalactites hung from the ceiling, with drops of water at the bottom you knew would one day add a millimeter to the glistening column. Stalagmites had dew-laden tops from the ground water seeping through the ceiling high above. Entering cavern after cavern in this 829-meter-long cave, we were awed as Marijan pointed out flows, columns and speleo shapes ranging from cuttlefish and jellyfish to a formation that looked like a turtle.

Quick flashes of light from cameras showed the three Germans we were spelunking with posing by fat pillars. Marijan, lean and weathered from years of leading people through caves and on treks in nearby Paklenica National Park, took our camera and photographed us. Then we sat down, turned off our lights and held our breath, savoring the absolute darkness and silence.

When we had re-emerged into bright sunlight, Marijan re-locked the iron gate covering the entrance and said that no more than 1,000 visitors are allowed in with a guide annually. In reality less than 300 people will visit this year, he added.

For us, this immersion into an underworld of pristine beauty was the highlight of our trip. Croatia may be a “hot” destination, but it still holds many unexplored marvels like Modric for the intrepid traveler.


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Advance arrangements are needed to visit Modric Cave. Go to www.zara-adventure.hr for details. Modric Cave is listed as a technically undemanding excursion, but do expect to walk over very rough surfaces and to twist your body into some seriously contorted positions. This is not a cave NFL linebackers can enter, nor anyone with claustrophobia or a fear of the dark. Marijan, who says he is the only guide allowed to take small groups into Modric Cave, supplies overalls and helmets. Light hiking shoes, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a camera are all you’ll need to bring. The adventure costs 22 Euro per person. Experienced cavers can also arrange to visit caves that require rappelling and more advanced caving skills.

[Photo Credits: Lois Friedland]

Coffee Cupping In Colombia

“A hint of chocolate, a whisper of citrus,” he tells the barista. He’s a foodie, so unlike me, he actually smells these aromas. This isn’t a wine tasting – I’m at a coffee cupping in a coffee lab in Bogota, Colombia. Coffee cupping is a ritual taken very seriously by food and wine geeks, and an intriguing challenge for caffeine addicts like me.

We’re standing around a table in the pristine lab that’s tucked behind a glass wall in E&D Cafés. Locals seated at tables in the coffee bar on the far side of the glass drink espresso and stare at us, while cafe owner Jamie Duque introduces us to the ritual.

Ten empty cups sit on the table before me near a metal bowl, our spittoon. We start by taking a sip from each of the first four cups, which have been filled with different types of water. After each sip, we spit into the metal bowl before moving on to the next one. Deciding which cups hold the sweet, salty, bitter and acidic tastes helps activate our palates.

I step back to take a picture and bump into the metal counter that stretches the length of the room. On it, there’s an industrial-size coffee grinder and containers with clear water that Jean’s assistant is using to fill our coffee cups. A colorful coffee taster’s flavor wheel hangs on the wall. At one end of the room a massive coffee-bean roaster sits against a brick wall and there’s a lingering smoky scent, perhaps from the last coffee that was roasted.

Apparently there are more than 30 different aromas a truly sensitive palate can taste while drinking coffee, according to Duque. Coffee from the central region of Colombia, for example, tends to be sweet because sugar cane also is grown in the same location. Coffee from Sumatra, however, has a more earthy taste, because the beans dry on the soil, Duque says.
After this discussion, we move to three more cups that have been filled with samples of the inexpensive brands of coffee one buys off a supermarket shelf. Duque pours water into them and says, “Break the crust gently by moving the spoon back and forth to release the aroma. Then, sniff hard.”

I follow his instructions but have to swallow a giggle listening to my friends sniff like they are in the fourth day of a cold. Here’s when the suggestions start flowing. “Chocolate,” “bitter,” “sweet,” different people reply. I keep quiet, recognizing that subtle coffee tastes are not my forté. To me, it’s “just right,” “too strong,” or “too weak.”The remaining cups are filled with carefully measured amounts of three different types of ground coffee beans that were picked in different growing areas in Colombia. (To create good coffee, the amounts used are very important, according to Duque.) After going through the sniff routine, we move on to the “slurp” movement we were taught when tasting the first three cups. We gently skim off the crust that’s formed on the top of the coffee in our cups and toss it into the spittoon. Then, as Duque had explained, we proceed to “slurp” a bit of the brew and move it around our mouths to sense the coffee’s essence. For the next few minutes, it sounds as if we are in a Japanese noodle shop, slurping noisily to show our appreciation for the taste.

Finally, the specific coffees we are tasting, and the region each comes from, are revealed. After amiable arguments about which brew has the best taste, we’re each allowed to choose our favorite and take 100 grams of beans back home to the States.

As we’ve been tasting, Duque has been scribbling facts about Colombian coffee on the glass wall with a black pen. Duque has a friendly face, with a smile that invites friendship but disappears when he starts giving you facts about the coffee industry in Colombia. At times, listening to him is like learning from a college professor teaching a popular class. He explains that there are 800,000 coffee farms in this country and about two million people make their living directly or indirectly from coffee. The coffee is grown mostly in small farms on land that’s between 1,100 and 2,000 meters above sea level. The types of soil differ greatly, ensuring different coffee profiles.

Duque knows these facts because he’s a driving force in Colombia’s coffee industry. An agricultural engineer by training, his youthful looks – despite slightly thinning black hair – belie that fact that he has spent 20 years working with coffee growers and producers. His focus: to help coffee growers reach social, technical and environmental sustainability, in part through the implementation of certification programs to ensure quality coffee. In the lab he designed at E&D Cafés (which stands for Education and Development of Coffees), he works with coffee producers and retains an overview of the coffee chain, from the growers to the baristas making cappuccinos for the line of locals in the coffee bar.

If you’re visiting Bogota, you can arrange to partake in a coffee cupping in the lab at E&D Cafés. It takes about one- to one-and-a-half hours, and it costs approximately $25 a person, although the price for bigger groups is flexible.

Drink, slurp, spit! The essence of a coffee cupping. Back home, after brewing the coffee I purchased at E&D Cafés, it’s strictly “drink, drink, drink” – and savor the memory of a special day.