Kopački rit is the most valuable zoological reserve in Croatia. It is the largest nursery and spawning area for freshwater fish in the Danube region, and one of the largest alluvial wetlands of Europe. Over 2,300 species have found their home in the Nature Park, and approximately 140 bird species are nesting in it.
This is an area where the mighty Danube decided to share its strength with the lakes, ponds, elevations and flooded areas. Kopački Rit Nature Park is located in Eastern Croatia, in the Baranja region belonging to Osječko-baranjska County.
The name of the Park stems from two Hungarian words: kapocs, which means link, and ret, which means meadow in Hungarian. The role of today’s link between wetland meadows is played by wooden bridges that allow visitors to enter deep into the area of the Park, which is a natural phenomenon of biodiversity.
Kopački rit is never the same. In its perpetual changes, nature is shaping the face of this major European wetland. The appearance of the entire area depends upon the intensity of flooding and the volume of water brought by the Danube.
The land and waters of Kopački rit merge into a majestic and unique natural mosaic, which people decided to manage a long time ago. As early as 1699, the deed of gift by Leopold I, the King of Hungary and Croatia, led to the establishment of the renowned farm of Belje. Prince Eugene of Savoy soon became entrusted with the management of the property, with the Habsburgs in charge of the lease until 1918. The turbulent history of this Eastern-Slavonian area resulted in many changes to the names of managers of the area over the years.
There is a very interesting example of country architecture in the Nature Park – the Tikveš Castle complex. The complex, consisting of the old castle of Tikveš, together with the new castle with annex, a chapel and catering facilities, is located in the forest and the accompanying gardens.
The Tikveš complex provides a historical dimension of tourism to the area of Kopački rit. And here is a short history of the place: after the Treaty of Versailles, the castle complex became property of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Between 1941 and 1944, Prince Albrecht Habsburg was in charge of the complex. Following World War II, the complex became nationalized, and was used solely as a residential hunting center.
The Habsburgs had built the castle in order to enjoy splendid moments of rest from princely hunting. The castle of Tikveš is also known as the castle of President Tito.
All these rulers and statesmen recognized the oak forests of Tikveš as hunting grounds rich in game. The castle certainly contributed a lot to the pleasant and luxurious nature of their stay.
Kopački Rit Nature Park was established in 1976, and it is the oldest proclaimed Nature Park in Croatia.
Located between the Danube in the east and the Drava River in the south, Kopački rit covers the area of 231 square kilometer. The area of the special zoological reserve includes approximately 70 square kilometers. The Nature Park is listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA), and, in 1993, it became a Wetland of International Importance in the framework of the Ramsar Convention. In 2012, UNESCO established the Mura-Drava-Danube Transboundary Biosphere Reserve, with Kopački rit as its extraordinarily valuable part.
The unique appearance of Kopački rit is a result of constant flooding. Due to that phenomenon, water deepens the terrain in some areas, creating ponds. On the other hand, sedimentation of the material carried by the river results in occasional soil elevations, joining the ponds in creating a fascinating mosaic of submerged and exposed layers of the terrain.
There are two major lakes in the Park – Kopačko jezero and Sakadaš. The latter is the deepest point of the Park area, at seven meters of water depth. On average, the area of the Park is flooded 99 days per year.
White willow forest is the predominant vegetation cover of Kopački rit, and higher terrain includes valuable forests of pedunculate oak, the noblest and the most appreciated tree species of the country.
The value and beauty of the flora and fauna of Kopački rit is extraordinary. Entire hectares of white water lily cover the waters of the Park. They feed the visitors with their beauty, and deer with their deep and lush roots in the wintertime.
One outstanding feature of the fauna of Kopački rit are great cormorants, birds the survival of which is founded upon the abundance and quality of fish stock, given the fact that an adult bird eats approximately half a kilo of fish per day. Great cormorants certainly do not face hunger in Kopački rit, and yet they leave more than enough to nature, in the vibrant network of a complex ecosystem.
Kopački rit is precisely that – a mosaic ecosystem with highly valuable and rare features.
On top of that, the Park is richly mosaic in its tourist dimension as well. It is a place for rest and recreation, a source of many attractions, and a globally renowned destination for birdwatching. It is up to you, the visitor, to make your choice. Maybe you would like to go for a tourist boat tour through the wetlands, either as part of a group or individually? Or take the challenge of rowing in a canoe, joined by Park staff with their expert guidance? Perhaps you would like to cycle through the Park? Or maybe just sit on a tourist train, and have a look at the Park from that perspective? Whatever the decision, Kopački rit certainly offers attractive choices...
Kopački Rit Nature Park is truly a place of harmony.
It is a place where even the white-tailed eagle, a globally endangered species, can freely spread its wings spanning almost two and a half meters.
In September, mornings are frequently marked by very thick fog. Watching as the fog rises, the view gradually opening towards the wetlands, is almost a mystical experience. And, as the fog rises, one’s eyes open to the magnificence of wetland nature.
White-tailed eagle is the king of the skies above Kopački rit, also serving as a natural “cleaner” of the habitat due to the fact that the species also feeds on animal carcasses. This area is also home to deer, yet another natural adornment of Kopački rit.
It is important to note that the appearance of Kopački rit keeps changing, and no new day is like the previous one. With every flood, the astounding ecosystem of Kopački rit goes through yet another metamorphosis, and all the forest, wetland, water and grassland communities in the area are so abundant precisely because of that constant change. This is a place like no other, with so many diverse communities finding shelter in its uniqueness: from floodplain forests of white willow to black sedge, reed and Siberian iris, to flowering rush, water violet, waterlily plants, clubmosses and numerous other plant species. Kopački rit also represents a major oasis for wetland birds and other rare and endangered species. There is no other protected floodplain area along the Danube that is so spacious and so unique in its floods – a genuine pearl of nature in the region of Baranja.
Given the abundance of the fish stock, the area attracts a number of birds and other species feeding on fish. Cormorants are the most recognizable birds in the Park, fish being their sole food source, and these birds can be seen almost any time of day. The best-known mammals characterized by the amphibian way of life living in the flooded part of the Park are the otter and the European beaver. European pine marten and beech marten can also frequently be seen. One should certainly not forget the amphibians, with frogs as the most numerous representatives of the group, nor reptiles, with the grass snake as a particularly frequent reptile species in the Park. One particular bivalve taxon – Unio tumidus kopaciensis – deserves particular mention, for it is an important endemic subspecies of Kopački rit. Other endemic species and subspecies have not been recorded yet; however, Kopački rit certainly provides home to many rare and endangered species finding everything that they need for their survival in this valuable ecosystem.
White-tailed eagle most frequently feeds on fish. In the wintertime, eagles hunt wetland birds, in particular sick ones, as well as ducks and geese wounded in the course of hunting. Unlike other birds of prey, white-tailed eagles do not avoid carcasses of other animals in their feeding habits, which means that they also serve as natural “cleaners” of the habitat. Even though white-tailed eagle can be encountered in rather diverse habitats globally, ranging from the rocky shores of the North Atlantic, to tundra, steppes, forest expanses and Mediterranean shores, the species is always choosing major wetland habitats or sea shores that provide sufficient quantity of food, in particular fish and wetland birds. In the period from 2000 to 2015, white-tailed eagle population has doubled in the Nature Park, with around 60 pairs nesting in the area. The population of the species has increased particularly strongly within the Special Zoological Reserve, partly as a result of a ban on hunting activities. Adult pairs are territorial throughout the year; the wintering population is estimated at around 200 animals. White-tailed eagle can be seen in Kopački rit throughout the year. We most frequently see them circling high in the air above their nesting territory, or in the course of feeding on the fishing ponds of Podunavlje or Kopačko jezero. The sight of a white-tailed eagle hunting wetland birds is particularly stunning.
The nests of this species are one phenomenon that deserves particular mention. Due to their size, eagles choose strong and tall trees to build their nests. They are most frequently nesting on tall black poplar, white willow and pedunculate oak trees, at 25 meters to 35 meters above ground. These nests are quite special in their grandiosity – the surface of a nest ranges between four and seven square meters, and its mass is around five hundred (500) kilograms. The height of one particular nest found in the area of Buda in Kopački rit was remarkable ten (10) meters, a result of years of reinforcement of the original nest with new material.
In the area of Europe, the total white-tailed eagle population is estimated at under 4,000 pairs, which gives them the status of a threatened species. The key threats include intensive forestry and disappearance of old trees where they could build their nests; melioration; disturbance caused by human activity in the course of nesting; theft of eggs and nestlings from the nests within illegal trade in birds of prey. Just like all the other birds of prey on top of the food chain, white-tailed eagles are also threatened due to the accumulation of heavy metals and pesticides.
In Croatia, white-tailed eagles are protected by the Nature Protection Act. Any killing or disturbance of these birds or the destruction of their habitats are punishable, with the prescribed penalty of 40,000 HRK.
Primary habitats of this species are steppes and open deciduous forests; today, it lives in various habitats, including lowland and mountain forests and peatland. Kopački rit is one of the best-known habitats of red deer. As a result of favorable conditions, including wet land rich in minerals, enormous quantities of biomass (representing animal and plant food) are created in flood areas, providing abundant and diverse food supply for species such as deer and wild boar. That is why deer population density per 1,000 hectares is three times bigger in this area (at around 100 animals) than in the best European deer habitats (around 25 to 30 animals per same quantity and quality of surface). Research shows that deer in Kopački rit use around 50 plants in grazing, and populations keep migrating looking for new and fresh ponds, where the quality of vegetation is particularly good. Following the floods, which typically do not last long, roe deer returns to recently flooded areas. These migrations result in a decrease of wild game in areas protected against floods, thus enabling the regeneration of forest vegetation.
As the fishermen used to say: “If the cow is thin – the fisherman is fat.” In other words, floods meant that livestock ended up without available pastures, while at the same time providing the fishermen with abundant fish catch. Frequent floods shaped the life of the locals quite markedly. According to old fishermen, these areas typically receive two floods per year on average. The first one, the so-called “green flood” as the locals refer to it, tends to occur in the springtime, as the trees become green. The second flood usually hits in August, when the water reaches the level of reed flowers during the flowering period. Spring floods are considerably bigger.
In the winter of 1838, a major icy flood caused a lot of damage. There is one flood that Kopačevo remembers the most, however: the flood of 1876, when a nearby levee collapsed. So strong was the flood, that water dug out a new depression in the area, 20 to 30 meters deep, at a locality called Sakadaš. Floods of 1926, 1965 and 1972 were also particularly strong, with the waters of the Danube and Drava flowing through Kopačevo. With the construction of levees in 1960s, the best fish spawning grounds along the Danube decreased to 1,800 hectares. Channels, waters and recesses of Kopačevo ran dry. The village ended up dry, and remained on the external side of the levee. And water once represented everything here.
In the 1970s, one fisherman from Kopačevo liked to say: “Kopački rit gave us everything: material for our fishing tools, and for the construction of our houses.” He was right, for this area truly gave everything to the locals. Fishermen liked to brag about how one single net thrown into the water can provide tons of fish.
In 1895, the owner of the farm of Belje, Prince Albrecht Habsburg, sued the inhabitants of Kopačevo for having engaged in fishing in the waters of Kopački rit during one flood, claiming that the floodwater came from his property. “He, who is the owner of water, is also the owner of fish in it, no matter where the water goes,” argued the Prince. He lost the dispute, however, and the locals refer to that area as “litigation land” even today.
As early as 1942, writers described the people of Kopačevo as people who “read books and order fine seeds”. Given the fact that they were no longer able to engage in fishing, vegetable growing remained as the only branch of agriculture providing quality yields. The people of Kopačevo turned into masters of vegetable growing, and they remain masters of it until the present day.
According to Labadi Karoly, author of the book “Water Life of Kopačevo”, it is not sufficient to reach regulations and laws in order to preserve biological and natural balance of an area: “One must also discover the traditions and opinions stemming from that area, as factors that impact upon and frame the mode of thinking and the way of life of the locals century upon century. Only those who know about the struggles and cooperation of the locals with nature, and about the ways in which they ensure their survival, can truly respect the beauty of an area.”
Prince Eugene of Savoy, the great military leader
Eugene of Savoy – Austrian prince, general and statesman – marked the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century with his peculiar life and character. Many would describe him as a strategist, first and foremost; however, Eugene of Savoy was also a mathematician, natural scientist and art collector. Since 1697, Eugene of Savoy was the supreme commander of the Austrian army, and later the President of the Imperial War Council in Vienna. He participated in military actions against the Turks, and got a property in the region of Baranja from Emperor Leopold I on account of his military successes in 1698. The Emperor would provide newly liberated areas as gifts to his military associates, allies and deserving noble men, and it is telling that he gave Eugene of Savoy the biggest property of Baranja, with some twenty settlements, including the current area of Kopački rit.
Towards the beginning of the 18th century, Eugene of Savoy decided to build a castle in the village of Bilje (Bellye in Hungarian) on his property in Baranja. The entire estate was named after that settlement, where administrative headquarters of the estate were located.
The castle built by Eugene of Savoy in early Baroque style is still recognizable by its moats and the internal rectangular courtyard. The appearance of the castle continues to convey the character of Baranja of his time, marked by rich forests, plentiful game, fertile vineyards and arable land.
The temperament of Eugene of Savoy certainly marked the region of Baranja, but also the neighboring city of Osijek, where he completed the construction of the complex of Tvrđa. It is precisely from Osijek that Eugene of Savoy went to his military endeavors across the rivers Sava and Danube, and to his famous military campaign in Sarajevo (in 1697), which he captured, pillaged and burned following the conquest. After leaving Sarajevo devastated, he got back to Osijek, with several dozen thousands of Catholics following him as refugees.
He is remembered for his victories over the Turks at Zenta (1697), Petrovaradin (1716) and Belgrade (1717), which marked the end of Turkish conquests in Europe, and which gave Eugene of Savoy the reputation of the biggest military leader of his time.
The castle complex itself dates back to the end of the 19th century. It was built by members of the Teschen family line and the Habsburg family. In the course of its history, the castle served as a residential and hunting lodge, well known in Europe and the world, reserved solely for noble guests and rulers. Following the Treaty of Versailles, the complex became property of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Following a decree by the Ministry of Finance, it obtained the status of state hunting grounds within the state farm complex of Belje in 1920. After World War II, the complex was nationalized, and used solely as a residential hunting center. Josip Broz, the then-president of the country, frequently hunted here with his foreign guests. Since 1991, the complex is owned by the Republic of Croatia.
Within the complex, the central residential facility is the castle itself, built in the second half of the 19th century in the style of romantic historicism. It stands on an elevated plateau, as a self-standing building. The castle is built of bricks, with Biber tiles on its roof and simple ornaments on its facade in the spirit of historicism. The furniture was in line with the prevailing style of the second half of the 19th century, the so-called Alt Deutsch or New Rococo style, marked by imitation of older styles in the design of furniture and interior decoration.
When it comes to the life of the Teschen family, and the environment and atmosphere in which it lived, the photographs taken by Isabella Teschen tell us a lot. Isabella was a big fan of photography. She recorded the life of her family and visits of high-ranking dignitaries, but also scenes from village life of the locals, as well as idyllic landscapes of Baranja. In addition to exploring photography, Isabelle was also a passionate hunter.
In the mid-20th century, another facility was built next to the central residential building, far removed from the original style of the complex. It is linked with the remainder of the complex by corridors.
Another representative building of the Tikveš complex is the hunting castle. Based on the characteristics of its style, it is a countryside villa quite similar in its pastoral character to the buildings of that type from the period of the late 19th and the early 20th century. Several designs were originally proposed for it, and the finally adopted design stems from 1903, which leads us to conclude that the construction itself dates back to that year or somewhat later. The villa is located on a mildly elevated terrain, with carved wood as a pronounced characteristic of the construcion, including the porch construction on the upper floor, as well as the entrance area and the fence. One interesting detail can be seen carved on the front of the building, above the main entrance: the year 1926, together with a horizontal line marking the water level of a major flood that struck Tikveš and the surrounding area that year.
One other significant building of the Tikveš complex is a small chapel built in the spirit of historicism, located south of the complex, with additional facilities built opposite to it. The chapel was built towards the end of the 19th century, as part of the Habsburg family estate, and it is a modest sacral building with a bell on an arch. It was reconstructed on the occasion of the third apostolic visit by Pope John Paul II to Croatia, and contains the Book of Papal Blessing placed on a pedestal, as a gift provided on the occasion of the Pope’s apostolic blessing and a memory of the reconstruction of the chapel. The site is referred to as the Chapel of Papal Blessing.
In the past, it was possible to reach the Tikveš complex not only by road, but also by railway. Built in 1905, the railway even led to adjacent buildings.
There is a bioecological station southwest of the castle as well, built towards the beginning of the 20th century. It originally served as a housing facility for the staff, and as barracks for soldiers who were guarding the site. Over the years, Kopački rit attracted many renowned scientists and explorers. Scientific research began towards the end of the 19th century, initially focusing on the fauna, and eventually expanding to other parts of the local ecosystem. The bioecological station was restored and refurbished in 2003, and it includes four laboratories today.
Towards the beginning of the 18th century, Eugene of Savoy decided to build a castle in the village of Bilje (Bellye in Hungarian) on his property in Baranja. The entire estate was named after that settlement, where administrative headquarters of the estate were located. The castle built by Eugene of Savoy in early Baroque style is still recognizable by its moats and the internal rectangular courtyard. The appearance of the castle continues to convey the character of Baranja of his time, marked by rich forests, plentiful game, fertile vineyards and arable land.
The temperament of Eugene of Savoy certainly marked the region of Baranja, but also the neighboring city of Osijek, where he completed the construction of the complex of Tvrđa. It is precisely from Osijek that Eugene of Savoy went to his military endeavors across the rivers Sava and Danube, and to his famous military campaign in Sarajevo (in 1697), which he captured, pillaged and burned following the conquest. After leaving Sarajevo devastated, he got back to Osijek, with dozens of thousands of Catholics following him as refugees.
He is remembered for his victories over the Turks at Zenta (1697), Petrovaradin (1716) and Belgrade (1717), which marked the end of Turkish conquests in Europe, and which gave Eugene of Savoy the reputation of the biggest military leader of his time.
A number of dignitaries of that era thus spent time under the roof of the hunting castle of Tikveš; the Emperor himself once visited, and had lunch there in the company of the district prefect and other royal dignitaries. Isabella von Habsburg took interest in photography at the very beginning of history of that medium. She was one of the few women of her era who displayed their work in dedicated photo exhibitions, and she received positive and favorable criticism.
Photographs by Isabella von Habsburg are photo analyses of sorts, recording the way of life in the region of Baranja and its villages. Over 200 photographs (some of which have also been preserved in the Nature Park) provide insight into the life of Baranja at the beginning of the 20th century. The photos cover family life, landscapes, scenes from hunting and fishing, as well as typical village works and customs, embroidery and traditional clothing. The rich photo collection includes photographs of Sophie Chotková and her husband, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – tragic victims of the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Sophie Chotková – her full name being Sophie Maria Josephine Albina – lived in the Bratislava home of Isabella von Habsburg as a companion of the Archduchess Isabella and her daughter Christine. Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, met her there (his full name being Franz Ferdinand Habsburg-Lothringen-d'Este). His love letters, secretly sent to Sophie, turned into a legend about a love that had to be kept secret, and that forced the heir to the throne to renounce in writing any claim to the Austro-Hungarian throne for his children. Thus the story about Sophie – a friend of Isabella’s, and a Cinderella of sorts from a not-so-distant history – remained recorded on photographs taken by Isabella von Habsburg; photographs of their joint stays in Tikveš still testify about the fashionable life that once pulsated in the castle.
In addition to developing photography as a medium, Isabella von Habsburg also contributed to the emancipation of women in art and society. She organized humanitarian visits to wounded soldiers, donations to people in need, as well as workshops for women dedicated to embroidery and other topics, thus giving her contribution to the process of emancipation of women that continues to be relevant until the present day.
Photographs by Isabella von Habsburg are a valuable artistic legacy, and a document about the life of Baranja and the central areas of Europe. They also represent a foundation for future ethnographic studies.