Travel

Hidden Dalmatia: Wild Rides on the Cetina River

By 2 September 2020
Zipline across the Cetina river
Zipline across the Cetina river © Zipline Croatia

September 2, 2020 – Filled with thrills, history, incredible nature and scenery, the Cetina river is the largest in Croatia to flow into the Adriatic.

There are many ways of looking at the sea. A holidaymaker's perspective would be between their feet, lay on a beach towel, perhaps shaded by scented pines. In the distance, an island that maybe they might visit. Although not before the theatre of their Mediterranean restaurant lunch.

Locals hold a different view. For them, the sea is a constant companion. In his poem, 'More' (Sea), pre-eminent 20th-century Croatian poet Josip Pupačić talks with the sea. And the sea talks back to him. For Pupačić, the sea is part of the land, and the land is part of his life. Their conversation is whispered - "good morning" - but not due to nearness. Pupačić is not on the beach. He is in the mountains above the coastal town of Omiš. His home village, Slime, is some 20 kilometres inland. Connecting the sea to the land, and his village to Omiš is the Cetina river.

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"Good morning". Daybreak over Omiš, where the Cetina river meets the sea, as seen from the restaurant balcony of Hotel Villa Dvor. The hotel's restaurant is the best place to take coffee in town, the view is spectacular © Marc Rowlands

Not so famous as international travellers like the Danube, Sava and Drava, the Cetina river is nevertheless a giant. It is the largest river in Croatia to drain into the Adriatic. It surges downwards from a height of almost 400 metres over the course of more than 100 kilometres. Along its length lie evidence of lives, like Josip Pupačić's, connected to the land and the sea for centuries. Not that you would ever see this through your feet on the beach.

But, those visiting Omiš, Split and the Makarska riviera have the opportunity to see. The Cetina river has never been more accessible. From canyoning, rock climbing and hiking to kayaking, white water rafting and the most exhilarating zip-line in Croatia, a whole range of thrilling activities now open up this wild river, its history and its stunning, natural surroundings. A unique experience for those taking a holiday on the Dalmatian coast, the Cetina river offers a glimpse into both the hinterland and the past, a taste of sweet, freshwater to wash off all the salt.

Several springs occur at the river's start, high in the hills of the hinterland near a village called Cetina. Located not quite halfway between Drniš and the nearby Bosnian border, there is nevertheless one spectacularly coloured lake attributed as the main source. It is several hundred metres deep and is within eyesight of two defensive medieval fortresses, Glavaš and Prozor.

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The source of the Cetina river © Cabrio2

The river soon widens into an artificial lake, the first of several points along its course where man has harnessed its awesome power (the river is a large source of hydroelectric power). It then runs near the first major town on its path, Sinj, before passing the ruins of the 700-year-old Čačvina fortress on its way to the town of Trilj, where it meets the river Ruda. This is not the only tributary to flow into the Cetina river. Dalmatian folklore numbers the springs and streams at 360 (Tako ti trista i šezdeset vrila šta se u Cetinu sliva). But actually, many more flow underground from Bosnia. Three pretty bridges assist Trilj residents in living on the waters. Below the town sit the excavated and well-preserved remains of Roman garrison Tilurium.

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The Cetina river canyon, south of Trilj © Trilj Tourist Board

Before long, the river enters a deep canyon, its start marked by the remains of the fortified town Nutjak, which clings to the cliffside. Running for at least 30 kilometres, this beautifully bordered stretch of river is the first to offer the thrills of white water rafting. The experience here is made visually daunting by the high cliffs which loom above you. Between the exciting sections of sharp, uneven descent, the river here can also run smoothly, its course slowed by dams. At one time it ran so fast as to be able to power traditional mills placed along the banks.

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The remains of Nutjak, next to the Cetina river, south of Trilj © Trilj Tourist Board

The south east-running canyon finally ends just after Blato Na Cetini, although the high cliffs remain as the river edges south, through Dio Kanjona Rijeke Cetine, before it drops down violently via the Gubavica Falls near Zadvarje. At Slime, it takes a sharp turn westwards for the 20 kilometre home stretch to Omiš. This is the most popular section of the river for white water rafting.

It's just over 15 kilometres between Slime, where you set off, and Radman's Mills, the proletarian picnic eatery, where you disembark. The journey takes around three hours. You need your sunscreen. Several companies run rafts here, although the more established options, such as Kentona Rafting, are usually the safest and the best.

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The rafting course between Slime and Radman's Mills is at time thrilling, at others, incredibly tranquil © Marc Rowlands

Following simple and clear safety instructions, rafts are boarded. It's reassuring to see your guide and navigator wearing the same helmet and life jacket as you. Not every company on the river insists on such. TCN's guide is young Marin from Omiš. This is his regular summer job. Although he's made this raft journey hundreds of times, he retains an infectious enthusiasm. By the time he's finished nautical university in Zadar, the boats he will steer will be considerably bigger.

Unlike the section south of Trilj, this is not a canyon. This is a valley. The topography changes throughout. Narrow, foaming stretches hurry you between intimidating rocks. Then, calm. The river widens. You have to dig your oars in to keep pace.

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You pass many waterfalls while rafting on the Cetina. Local folklore says 360 springs feed the river © Marc Rowlands

A hundred shades of green, brown and yellow surround, from mosses, water reeds and grasses, to low lying trees that make you thankful for your headgear. The cliffs are often at a distance, affording a wide and spectacular panorama. At other times, huge shards of karst like stalagmites suddenly rise from nowhere, dominating the immediate view.

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Rafting on the Cetina river © Marc Rowlands

Insects such as dragonfly skirt the water surface, moving incredibly fast. Other residents are not so hurried - turtles laze in the sun on branches by the waterside. Even from a considerable distance, Marin spots them easily. He guides the boat nearer, waiting patiently until everyone sees.

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A turtle by the Cetina river © Kentona Rafting

Other than the voices of companions, the hand of man is imperceptible. No telegraph poles can be seen overhead nor electricity cables, not once the sound of a distant car. You can almost hear the force of the crystal clear water, as fish speed up underneath to avoid the encroaching raft. Ducks atop the water nonchalantly follow suit.

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Rafters pause for a swim in the cool waters of the Cetina © Marc Rowlands

It seems like half the 360 springs feeding the river occur here. Waterfalls burst from the rock face overhead - sometimes linear, forceful and gushing, at others, so widely dispersed as to send a fine film of mist across your face as you pass underneath. There are many opportunities to stop. And no compulsion to quickly reach the end. Marin knows the best places to pause. He sits smiling by the beached raft as everyone takes a swim in a wide, idyllic pool. The water is refreshingly cool - not that much colder than the midsummer sea. Further on, he points out the high rocks from which thrillseekers can jump.

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Thrillseekers jump from high rocks into the Cetina river © Kentona Rafting

One small section of the river is too perilous for inexperienced rafters. We are left by a path and walk less than five minutes to meet Marin on the other side. This section contains a cave, once a popular stop-off point, but now considered too dangerous - upon entering, the drop in temperature is considerable. This rafting is open to anyone above the age of six. Despite sunburn and the beginnings of blisters where the oar has rubbed, the end comes all too soon. You'd gladly repeat the journey tomorrow.

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Though filled with thrills, even younger children can enjoy rafting on the Cetina river when taken by experienced guides © Kentona Rafting

The last eight kilometres of the Cetina river are taken calmly, by small passenger boat. There are no rapids here, just a smooth expanse of green-blue water with several hundred metres of wild vegetation separating it from the cliffs on either side.

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Children take the wheel of the passenger boat on the lower section of the Cetina river © Marc Rowlands

The water here is calm and there's lots of space to manoeuvre the boat, so children take the wheel. They pass groups of birds, resting on the water, and a kayak. Taken at your own pace, this canoe is the best way to explore the reed-edged banks.

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A couple explore the riverbanks by kayak © Marc Rowlands

About halfway to the town, the peacefulness is interrupted by screams. Not frightened but excited, they are coming from people crossing overhead on a zipline. The wire is so high - 150 metres - you can barely see it from the water. Only when people pass directly above can you follow the line.

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Flying through treetops beside the Cetina river © Zipline Croatia

This is Croatia's most spectacular zipline. The backdrop is everything. From high on the rock, you race down over the foliage, treetops just a metre or so from dangling legs. And then the land falls away. Isolated in the sky, seconds become minutes. The Cetina river looks monstrous from here, dominant, immovable, timeless.

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© Zipline Croatia

The activity holds a series of eight ziplines. It's a course. If you take the first, you have to do them all to reach the end. There's no chickening out. The total length of cables is over 2000 metres, the longest of which is 700 metres. Not every zipline on the run is as high as 150 metres and not all pass over the water - those which don't whizz precariously through tall treetops. The view from each is breathtaking. To cross the entire polygon of cables with a group of ten, plus two guides takes two and a half hours. After completion, a short journey by road takes the smiling adventurers back to Omiš. There, on the popular city beach, lazing tourists ponder the waves through their feet, unaware of the history and the thrills on the epic Cetina river behind them.

You can book a place with Kentona Rafting here and here

The eight zipline course above the Cetina river can be booked here

On these links you can read the other features in our Hidden Dalmatia series:

Drniš - Drniški Pršut and Meštrović Roots

Soparnik - 100% Authentic Croatian Food

The Fantastic Food of the Cetina River

Baško Polje - Forgotten Paradise of Yugoslavia Holidays

Incredible and Mysterious 10 Rajcica Wells near Klis

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T
he lower course of the Cetina river © Marc Rowlands

 

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