The islands and islets of Kornati are scattered like in a play of sorts between the stone and the sea.
In good weather, it is a silent play of blue and gray. When the winds start blowing, the archipelago starts speaking in the sound of waves... However, the Kornati Islands are a well-known shelter for sailors whenever the sea shows its rage and strength, too strong to even care about man as a temporary guest.
The archipelago includes eighty nine islands, islets and rocks, with the total Park surface of 216.78 square kilometers. Even such dry pieces of data can bring to awareness the amazingly indented nature of the archipelago, creating landscapes nowhere else seen. The view from above is astounding, and the same goes for sightseeing points on the islands. The sea view is no different, as you watch the archipelago while your vessel passes through the sea labyrinth below the cliffs.
There are two groups of islands in the National Park – the Kornat and the Piškera island chains, with the largest island of Kornat giving its name to the archipelago. The biggest width of the archipelago within the boundaries of the Park is 6 kilometers...
Life on the Kornati Islands has always meant struggle for survival. In that persistence for survival, man has changed the appearance of islands. Barren vegetation on rocky pastures was used to feed the sheep. However, the current barren appearance of the islands, covered only here and there by an occasional green spot of vegetation, isn’t all that old. Thousands of years of use of these areas eventually resulted in a deforested, rocky landscape of the islands.
The islands of Kornati are private property in their entirety, and ninety percent of the owners live on the nearby island of Murter. Towards the end of the 19th century, these Dalmatian farmers bought off the islands from the estate-owners, and enclosed their property by dry stone walls.
Dry stone walls are monuments to amazing human hard work, skill and patience. They frequently extend from coast to coast – built in order to prevent sheep from wandering into someone else’s property. There are approximately 260 kilometers of dry stone walls on the island of Kornat alone, and in the entire territory of the National Park, their total length is impressive 330 kilometers.
Looking at these artifacts from the air is truly astounding, but coming to a dry stone wall in person is at least as rewarding – giving you the opportunity to touch by hand this testimony of traditional construction that was created solely by human hand. One can only feel deep respect for the coexistence of man and these rocks, marked by hard work. The reason why dry stone walls were built in the past were sheep. The domestic population is involved in sheep breeding today as well, perhaps not as intensively as in the past, but sheep are still freely grazing on the islands, and they are constituent part of a chain preserving biodiversity. The staff at the Park are there to help the domestic population when sheep require transportation from one island to another.
It is by no means a rare occurrence to see dry stone walls, these monuments to immense hard work, skill and patience of putting one stone upon another, to extend from coast to coast, so as to ensure that sheep remain in the property belonging to their owner. People would occasionally come to the islands, and then go back home. There are approximately 300 houses on the Kornati Islands.
When one refers to the National Park Kornati, one tends to think of the islands. However, the waters of the archipelago represent a major value as well... The terrestrial part of the Park is an extreme form of karst and limestone terrain. That is why all the karst phenomena can be encountered here: ranging from karrens and solution pans to dolines and caves.
The landscapes are perhaps at their most impressive on the part of the archipelago facing the open sea, where cliffs rise high above the sea surface. The highest cliffs are located on the islands of Klobučar (80 meters), Mana (65 meters), Rašip Veliki (64 meters), Obručan (50 meters) and Piškera (45 meters). The submerged part of the cliff sometimes exceeds ninety meters. The visitors are bound to be at least as strongly visually impressed by the open, horizontal stone layers of some islands, such as those on the island of Malo Šilo, leaving the impression of neatly placed stone steps leading all the way to the top of the island.
There are numerous micro localities on the Kornati – in line with the landscape and the number of islands. The locality Vela ploča or Magazinova škrila is just one such example, located below Metlina, the highest peak of the Kornati (237 meters). It is a smooth limestone surface inclined above the sea, suddenly plunging tens of meters deep, into the home of the vivid Kornati sea life. The locality of Magazinova škrila is, in fact, an open and bare limestone surface, the former upper layers of which eventually “slid down” to the base of the structure.
Along the cliffs plunging into the sea, one can find an abundance of corals. The sea is extraordinarily clean and translucent, with light penetrating deep, and creating a specific habitat for fish and various species of astounding corals. Local waters are very well conserved, and they constitute a true treasure of biodiversity. Their attractiveness is more than well known, especially among divers, who could tell you many stories about all the colors one can find in depths below the Kornati cliffs.
Above the blue of the sea, there is almost nothing but the barren rock. Even though many visitors have been tempted to describe the area as “lunar landscape”, over 650 plant species have, in fact, been recorded in this area. The vegetation is restoring itself slowly and spontaneously. It is certain that the islands will remain devoid of forest cover that used to adorn them for quite some time. However, that is one of the reasons why the area is so interesting, for it reveals so many wonders usually hidden in the relief, such as layered rocks.
However, barren rocks certainly do not imply barren cultural landscape. Life in this area used to pulsate around the Tarca field on the island of Kornat in particular. As it usually happens, life looks for green pastures... The Tureta or Toreta fortification was built in the sixth century. For a certain period of time, the island itself was carrying that name... One other Kornati island is worth particular mention – Piškera. Back in 1824, there were 13 houses registered on it, together with storage houses for salt, fish, barrels and various fishing tools. Until the fall of the Venetian Republic, the owners of the settlement and the fishing trade on Kornati were the fishermen from the settlement of Sali on the nearby island of Dugi otok. The Venetian tax collectors were placed quite nearby, in a small citadel on the island of Panitula. Nowadays, there are only five houses on the island of Piškera, but also a small church from the year 1560 (14.8 x 8 meters).
It was built only for fishermen, and it is the only such church on the Adriatic.
The rocks are a pleasant home to rare bird species, mammals are a rarity of sorts, and the only carnivore living on Kornati is the beech marten (Martes foina).
Yachtsmen perceive the Kornati Islands as a genuine treat, providing challenges and a safe shelter at the same time. The sea around the islands is regularly dotted by sails. One must know about the wind and sailing skills, of course, and pay due attention to the weather forecast, because the closeness of the rocks and short distances between the islands, coupled with the winds, can result in unpleasant surprises in those areas that are exposed to open sea, without immediate shelter.
Beauty always invites description, and description can rarely match that beauty. When the power of realistic description fades, there are always legends. According to one legend, for example, God made Kornati out of white rocks that were left unused after the creation of the world. He threw them into the sea, took a look, and concluded that there is nothing he should repair.
Most visitors are thrilled by Kornati, primarily due to the views they provide. Curious visitors can read a lot more from the stone. If they decide to chat a little with the locals, they can also hear interesting stories from the islands relatively distant from the mainland, in the middle of the sea rich in fish, and frequented by pirates in the past. Kornati are always a safe shelter in rough weather...
The Kornati Islands are attractive in their harshness, and in the barren nature of their rocks. They are a testimony to the tremendous wealth of nature, and poverty of the Dalmatian population in times past.
The story of Kornati is a quiet story; it is a story carved in rock, for those who know how to listen, and how to examine the endurance of life in scarcity.
Submarine world is rich in life that is much easier to see. Plenty of fish and corals can be found under the sea surface, including 147 bottlenose dolphins recorded in the wider area of waters around the archipelago.
The bulk of degraded surfaces is covered by two communities: feather grass and sage with kneeholm and bunch grass (Stipo-salvietum officinalis brachypodietosum ramosi), and fescue and hairgrass with bunch grass (Festuco koelerietum splendentis brachypodietosum ramosi).
Research on the flora of the Kornati National Park has been ongoing for approximately two hundred years; however, the plant world is still not researched in full. Vascular flora (ferns and spermatophytes), as the most researched group, currently includes over 650 known plant taxa.
The islands of Kornati are described by many as a Mars-like landscape. However, the seeming lifelessness of the area is only an illusion. Plants from the family of orchids also grow here, as one of the most attractive plant groups. Nine species have been recorded so far, and it is reasonable to assume that this number would grow further with additional research in the future.
Cave fauna in speleological localities represents a special category, with genuine fauna rarities that can be found in the habitat. The finding of endemic amphipod species Niphargus pectencoronatae and Niphargus hebereri has been confirmed.
In conclusion, it can be said that the islands of Kornati represent a challenging research subject, especially when it comes to the fauna. Research is dependent on vessel transport; distance from the mainland is an aggravating factor, the accessibility is low, and island configuration is very demanding.
On the open sea side of the external group of islands, in the undersea base of the cliffs that the local population refers to as “crowns”, a very important habitat can be found – coraligenic habitat built by red algae fixing the sea limestone to their bodies. This habitat is inhabited by species thriving in low-light conditions – red and brown algae, sponges, corals, moss animals...
In total, approximately 850 animal species have been recorded in the territory of the Kornati National Park so far. That includes 61 coral species, 177 mollusc species, 127 polychaetes, 61 decapod crustacean species, 64 echinoderm species, 185 fish species, 353 algae species and 3 species of underwater flower plants.
Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) can frequently be seen in local waters, as the only dolphin species permanently living in the Adriatic. In total, 147 dolphins have been recorded in the wider area of the Park so far, and they can typically be seen in the southeastern part of the Park.
Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) can frequently be encountered in the territory of the Park as well. It is the only permanently present sea turtle species in the Adriatic. This strictly protected species can find abundant food in the conserved submarine world of Kornati.
Dry stone walls 300 kilometers long in total represent yet another stunning attraction of the area. The locals were building these walls with amazing patience and skill in order to enclose their pastures.
The first centuries of our era attracted a number of inhabitants to the area of Kornati. Traces of Roman colonization are visible in the remains of estates (villae rusticae) in the passage of Proversa, and a fish pool on the island of Svršata. Due to rising sea level, a number of traces of Classical antiquity (piers in Piškera and Šipnate, port facilities in Vela Proversa, saltworks in Šipnate) mostly ended up submerged under the sea. Findings from those times include the remains of a shipwreck at the sea rock of Kaselica (near the island of Žut), and a number of antique ceramic fragments, pointing to considerable presence of ships in ancient times. In the times of Late Antiquity (5th century), a relatively small community settled in the cove of Tarac. They built a one-nave building the original purpose of which was secular, and the remains of which can still be seen next to the current Church of St. Mary (Our Lady of Tarac). At least four to five construction periods can be discerned from the remains, pointing to subsequent additions to the construction, which was changing over time not only in its dimensions, but also in its purpose. In the period of intensive christening of the population during the 5th and 6th century, the construction was given a sacral purpose (turning into an early Christian basilica). Even though this assumption hasn’t yet been confirmed, it is believed that a Benedictine monastery was once present on the locality of Tarac. The most striking building on the island of Kornat – the fort of Tureta – was built in the 6th century. According to previous findings, it was believed that the fort had played the role of a military base; today, however, following more in-depth research, it is believed that the building was in fact a monastery tower, serving not only as a reconnaissance and alarm-sounding facility, but also as safe storage of food and shelter for monks and inhabitants.
It is assumed that this sacral complex ended up abandoned and destroyed at some point in the Early or High Middle Ages, with the small Church of Our Lady of Tarac built on its remains, probably around the 14th century. The Church is still a venue where Holy Mass is held for pilgrims every first Sunday in July.
The most fascinating modern-history locality is the fishing settlement in Piškera (Jadra), built in the first half of the 16th century. Back in those times, constructing a fishing settlement on a distant island meant better and more efficient control of bluefish catch and taxation by the Venetian state authorities; in addition, however, that also ensured better-quality conservation of the catch during the summer. Back in those times, Piškera was an extraordinarily important fishing ground for European pilchard in the Adriatic. It is believed that the temporary and occasional settlement of Piškera consisted of up to 15 houses and warehouses mostly belonging to the nobility of Zadar and local fishermen from the settlement of Sali on the island of Dugi otok, as well as a church dedicated to the birth of Mary. On the neighboring island of Panitula, a Venetian citadel was built, covering both accommodation needs (on the lower floor) and defense purposes (the upper floor). Today, the remains of the fishing settlement consist of ruins of housing and farm facilities and a dilapidated Venetian citadel, while the Church of St. Mary is well preserved.
During the Middle Ages, the islands of Kornati belonged to the commune of Zadar, which was leasing them to the nobility and traders of Zadar in public auctions, and the sole purpose of the islands was sheep farming back in those times. Changes occurred in the 15th century, with Venice in charge of the commune of Zadar, when ownership of the land was transferred to private individuals in exchange for other property. These individuals, the nobility of Zadar and traders, kept their livestock on the islands of Kornat and Žut in association with shepherds who mostly came from the island of Dugi otok (settlements of Žman and Sali), while subletting the peripheral islands to the inhabitants of Murter and Betina. Towards the end of the 15th century, the first vineyards were also planted.
In mid-17th century, due to existential insecurity and frequent incursions of pirates, the owners of Kornati decided to mitigate their business risks by giving the livestock breeders the opportunity to invest in livestock and arable land plots in exchange for a fee. Such conditions were suitable for the inhabitants of Murter and Betina who became lessees, for they themselves were engaging in piracy, and were thus able to easily recuperate any damage.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the nobility of Zadar, previous owners of the islands, sold the islands to their current owners – the inhabitants of Murter, Betina and Zaglav. What used to be almost exclusively a pasture landscape soon witnessed its biggest transformation, in terms of a substantial increase of arable land due to intensive clearing. A complex mosaic of dry stone walls was built in those times, representing one of the most intriguing cultural attractions in the territory of the Park today, with the total dry stone wall length of approximately 330 kilometers.