Adriatic Rock

Article by Sarah Harrison
Monday 3rd August 2009

It had taken me years to get here, to a place I’d always had in my mind as somewhere I’d love. After a long drive south east across the Alps, we pulled in at a small village on a narrow lane along the bottom of a green valley. There were high walls of orange and yellow limestone rising from the hills to the north. I'd arrived at Osp, the legendary centrepiece of rock climbing in Slovenia. 

The crags at Osp seen from the village in the evening light

The climbing area collectively known as ‘Osp’ generally refers to the three crags in the vicinity: Osp itself, Mišja Peč just half a mile up the road, and Crni Kal which is just a mile away as the crow flies, although an ever-changing distance by road. The village of Osp has a quiet atmosphere that makes it seem remote and unaffected by bustle of Trieste just a couple of miles away, or any of the other nearby industrial areas along the coast. The valley of Osp gives the impression of being unchanged despite an immense viaduct spanning the valley at its east end (part of a new motorway linking Koper, Slovenia’s main port, with the capital city Llubljana). The motorway continues up behind Osp and Mišja Peč. The sheer size of the viaduct almost makes it seem part of another world, and very little traffic noise is heard at either crag. Črni Kal is more affected, but it may be that as the volume of traffic increases (the last section of the motorway has only recently opened) noise will affect the whole valley. While the guards at the local border crossing can still be taciturn, the crossing at the bigger Rabuiese is a mere formality now that Slovenia has joined the EU. Osp’s splendid isolation may not last forever.

Mišja Peč: a climber warming up on one of the few easier routes on the right hand side of the great amphitheatre

The climbing in the Osp region has featured in articles several times over the years, and so the following is only intended as a brief overview. Osp is characterized by razor-sharp slabs and technical vertical and slightly overhanging walls. There are also long, hard multi-pitch routes, some of which require trad gear. Mišja Pec is exclusively a fest of steep, powerful climbing. Don’t be fooled by the scattering of routes in the 6's; this place takes no prisoners!

One point about the climbing at Mišja Pec which isn’t apparent from the guidebook is that while the spread of routes rapidly accelerates upwards from around 6a, there are few routes under 7a that are steep. Therefore the progression in to the 7's can be daunting if you aren’t already suitably fit. If it mattered to you then you’d probably already know, but this is one of few crags where you can refer to 9a's in the plural! Finally, although Črni Kal appears extensive in the guide book, with an abundance of ‘easier’ routes, this doesn’t quite match up to the reality of many mediocre lines and vegetated or loose routes. Each to their own, but Osp, and particularly Mišja Peč, are far superior in terms of the quality of the climbing. The comparison is not simple though, as the difficulty of the routes takes a leap at the two latter crags. As with many foreign sports crags, a 70m rope is almost essential here. We liked the area so much that we sat out some truly atrocious weather (spurred on by the protestations of everyone around us that the weather was ‘never like this at this time of year’), and stayed longer than we could have predicted…

Mišja Peč: Slovenia's sport super-crag

The view across the Strunjan salt flats on the Slovenian coast near Osp

It is quite usual for visiting climbers to travel down the spectacular Dalmatian coast to Paklenica, a beautiful national park as well as a climbing destination. The style of climbing there is reputed to be less ‘sport’ and more ‘adventure’; if planning to incorporate a visit to Paklenica, a small amount of trad gear may be welcome. Unlike the Osp area, the climbing season in Paklenica starts in the spring, and it is reputed to be cold and windy in the winter. There are also more crags in Slovenia itself, most notably Koteènik further east, again not suitable for climbing in the winter months.

The author on one of the numerous classic multipitch routes at Paklenica

Our ventures down the Istrian peninsula into Croatia met with a similar conclusion: the climbing couldn’t compare with that at Osp and Mišja Peč, or even Črni Kal. We visited four of the fourteen areas listed in the guide book. Vranjska Draga is a valley of free-standing limestone towers and numerous vertical faces. This area probably sees more visits from tourists than from climbers. The novelty of climbing on the towers is the main attraction, as there is no single wall that offers a choice of routes with consistently interesting climbing. The north-facing wall on the far side of the valley looks as if there should be many more climbs than those listed. Whether this is because of poor rock or lack of interest isn’t made clear in the guide.

On the Istrian coast, Dvigrad and Limski Kanal are the two major cliffs. Dvigrad appears to be in the back end of nowhere (not a bad thing at all). It looks a little like a limestone version of a grit outcrop, with solid bulges of rock broken by vertical cracks that separate one wall from the next, and with occasional horizontal breaks. With a view to a peaceful green valley and castle ruins below, Dvigrad really is quite beautiful. However the routes are mainly ridiculously short and bouldery, and are unlikely to be what you’ve travelled across Europe for. That is, unless you think that the sick-looking Malvazija is the answer to your dreams of climbing an 8b+. Finally, the many small crags that overlook Limski Kanal… Again, we found the area pretty, but the climbing lacking. Of the areas that we visited, Vranjska Draga was the most worthwhile.

Lost amid the pillars of Vranjska Draga

From what we saw, there may be potential for good climbing in the Croatian areas of the Istrian peninsula. Many of the areas listed in the guidebook are described as being underdeveloped or just ‘suitable for development’, and perhaps they will in the future be exciting crags. At present, they can in no way compete with the climbing on offer in the Osp valley, and the guidebook is misleading in that it describes them with the same superlatives. However, don’t let this put you off exploring the Istrian peninsula! The coast in particular is very beautiful. Croatia is poor compared to its affluent neighbour, Slovenia, and this was immediately apparent on crossing the border. This part of Croatia sees far fewer visitors than the Dalmation coast but it is interesting, and within easy driving distance if you are staying in Osp.

Travel Tips For Slovenia and Croatia

Getting There: If flying, the nearest airports to the region are Trieste and Llubljana. Trieste airport is less than one hour driving time from Osp (although this time requires knowing where you are going and using the local border crossing which closes at 7p.m.). Llubljana is about 2 hours drive from Osp.

Accommodation: The obvious place to stay is the campsite in Osp itself, which is used mainly by visiting climbers, and is cheap by British standards (though not by Slovenian standards) at 7 Euros currently. Staying on the campsite makes for a very relaxing stay; both Osp and Mišja Peč are within easy walking distance. As an alternative to the campsite, there are quite a few holiday apartments available along the coast. There is also accommodation available in Osp itself. It’s quite common for a room to be let without cooking facilities, but those with a kitchen can be found too. Prices out of tourist season (i.e.. after the end of September) start at about 12 Euros pppn, or approximately twice the cost of the campsite. This option is definitely worth considering if you are visiting in the winter months, when the campsite is usually deserted and the evenings are long and cold! 

Local Amenties: Day-to-day shopping can be done from the bread van and the mobile shop which call in the village every few days. Local wine is also easily bought from many places in the village. Euros were accepted nearly everywhere that we visited in Slovenia, and many shops preferred to take credit cards than Slovenian currency.

Season: Summer climbing is possible in the shade, but the best conditions start in early autumn and last until late spring. We arrived at the start of October, considered by the locals to be the start of the 'real' climbing season in Osp. You can climb right through the winter, but the weather can be variable, and enjoyable camping is a matter of personal taste by mid-November! We found a good apartment in Isola, and enjoyed the short drive along the coast in the mornings. At times, there was snow on the ground just a few more miles inland, but Osp itself shared weather conditions with the coast and despite the occasional bitterly cold day, we had many more beautiful bright days with warm sun right up to the end of November.
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