Story of the Park

A green mountain is watching over a city with almost a million inhabitants. The presence of man on the mountain of Medvednica goes back 45 thousand years, back to the time when the Neanderthals lived in the cave of Veternica. Today, the mountain is home to 18 bat species. As the name of the mountain says, with the Croatian word for bear in its root, bears once used to live on the mountain in large numbers. A thousand-year old yew tree might hide a witch heart mushroom somewhere in its shadow. Indeed, witches used to meet here once upon a time, and when they would touch the ground, a red mushroom would grow on that spot. A fitting reminder of tales from times past.

The mountain of Medvednica successfully survives despite the pressures of urban environment with one million inhabitants in its immediate surroundings. Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia right underneath the mountain, enjoys the luxury of having a protected area on its doorstep – Medvednica Nature Park.

Throughout history, there have been many reasons why people would come to the mountain. In the past, farmers of the nearby Zagorje region would carry the fruits of their labor to the fruit and vegetable market of Zagreb. Today, on the other hand, Medvednica is a place for leisure and rest, and a green source of strength for all those who visit the mountain, particularly city folk.

In the “beech climate” that dominates on the mountain, it is possible to truly experience all the differences inherent in various seasons. Winters are frosty or covered in snow. Spring seasons are green and fresh. Late spring brings lush, ripe vegetation with it. Potent colors come next, with the forest bouquet of the autumn. Color changes that the mountain provides are truly impressive.

There are 91 strictly protected plant species in the Park, including yew (Taxus baccata), facing extinction in its original habitats in Europe. On Medvednica, however, not only is it possible to see individual yew trees, but even an entire forest of yew and linden. One particular yew tree on the location of Krumpirište is truly special and impressive, over thousand years old.

There is a belief that yew tree is endowed with major powers, and this belief is reflected in modern fantasy literature too. The magic wand of the evil magician Voldemort from the Harry Potter series is made from yew, for example.

The vegetation cover of Medvednica includes mostly preserved and highly diverse forest communities, growing on varied relief with diverse geological layers and types of soil.

The base of Medvednica is covered by sessile oak and hornbeam forest, which envelops the mountain. Forests of sweet chestnut and beech are there as well. Above the altitude of 800 meters, one reaches Pannonian beech and fir forests. Cold and wet mountain valleys are home to sycamore maple and ash forests. The southern slopes of the mountain are covered in pubescent oak and manna ash forests, as well as sessile oak forests with black pea.

The diversity of forests on Medvednica is incredible. It resulted in as many as eight special forest vegetation reserves declared in 1963, with the aim of properly managing the natural balance.

The animal world used to be a lot more diverse in the past, and it once included even bears, as the name of the mountain testifies. However, there have been no bears on Medvednica for centuries. Urban development has resulted in the disappearance of many other animal species too: lynx, wolf, deer, grouse and otter. Many of these animals have given their names to surrounding villages, which speak of their presence in the past: Medvedski breg (bear), Vučja jama (wolf), Vukov dol (wolf), Risovo polje (lynx).

The mountain that can be seen from virtually every window in the city facing north is a habitat to small animals, rodents, but also hoofed animals such as roe deer or wild boar. Smaller carnivores live on Medvednica too, such as wildcats, foxes, martens and weasels. They are the true night hunters of Medvednica.

Bats are undoubtedly special tenants of Medvednica. There are 24 bat species living in the Park, and seven of those are listed as Natura 2000 species, one of which is designated as nationally important. They have found their home in caves, abandoned mines, quarries, tree hollows and attics. In one night, a bat can eat up to six hundred mosquitoes. The benefits brought by these animals very much overturn the myths that sometimes result in the killing of bats, because of the fear that people feel towards them.

The mountain cave of Veternica is history turned into stone. Life was first present here 45 thousand years ago, when it was used as shelter by the Neanderthals, and bats live in it today.

Geologists simply love Medvednica. Mountain rocks have partly arisen from the bottom of the seas that evaporated a long time ago. Geologically speaking, the mountain of Medvednica is an old lady that has changed many faces over the years. Fossils of sea organisms have even been found in the rocks of the mountain.

The main body of the mountain is made of metamorphic rocks with particularly prominent green shale. That stone has turned into a symbol of sorts of Medvednica, and it adorns the facades of many buildings on the mountain, including the hotel Tomislavov dom.

The mountain is full of surprises. Many will be surprised by the presence of karst fields. It is true that karst phenomena are hidden by dense vegetation; however, those who know the mountain also know that there are pits, sinkholes, karst valleys and dolines scattered on it. The biggest karst field is called Ponikve. It resembles a large sponge from which the creeks of Medvednica spring and into which they disappear. It is precisely the waters from the area of Ponikve diving into the underground through cracks present in rocks that eventually formed the cave of Veternica, one of the longest caves in Croatia with over 7,000 meters of discovered channels.

There are many mountain creeks on Medvednica. Steep upper courses descend towards the base of the mountain, accompanied by the beauty of the sound of fresh water. The fauna that can be found in creeks includes endemic species; fish species are rather rare, with the exception of certain riparian species. Several species of extraordinarily small and protected plankton shrimps live in creeks: the Zagreb niphargid shrimp and shrimp living in the creeks of Dolje and Bliznec.

Medvednica is a mountain that has always represented a division between urban and rural life in geographical terms, and it retains that role today. However, it has also always constituted a path through which city and village life connect and merge. There are few panoramas that can compare to the one from Medvedgrad, an old town above Zagreb built on a hill 593 meters above sea level in the 13th century, providing a spectacular view of the capital city from above the mountain forest.  

Many visitors coming here are reminded that it is sometimes good to reverse the usual perspective – instead of looking at the mountain of Medvednica and its peak of Sljeme from a window of one’s flat in the city, it is worth taking every opportunity to come here, and enjoy the sights of the city of Zagreb watching them from the mountain.

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Natural heritage

Due to the biodiversity of its forests, the mountain of Medvednica includes as many as eight special forest vegetation reserves where forest management is reduced only to maintenance of the natural balance. Medvednica is recognizable for its rich mammal world, with bats as a particularly interesting group, for there are 24 bat species living in the Park, seven of them listed as Natura 2000 species.
The mountain is geologically very interesting, in particular because of green shale that became a trademark of well-known architectural gems on Medvednica, such as the hotel Tomislavov dom and the chapel of Our Lady of Sljeme.

Plant world

The plant world of Medvednica is rich, diverse and quite intriguing. Flora, the Roman goddess of spring and flowers, includes 1,205 species and subspecies on the mountain of Medvednica. To a large extent, the diversity of the plant world of Medvednica is a result of climate changes that have taken place during the history of the Earth. Medvednica is a transitional area and a meeting point of various geographical and plant regions. A valuable mosaic of grasslands, vineyards, orchards and arable land existing on the mountain is a result of human activity, coupled with various field crops that further enhance biodiversity with their species.

Conserved natural forests represent the bulk of the vegetation cover of Medvednica. Due to diverse relief and various geological layers and types of soil, as many as twelve forest communities can be found here, with pronounced zonation, i.e. the distribution of types depending on altitude and sun exposure.

This diversity of forests on Medvednica resulted in as many as eight special forest vegetation reserves declared in 1963. Forest management is reduced to maintenance of the natural balance.

There are 91 strictly protected plant species in the Park, including yew (Taxus baccata), carnic lily (Lilium carniolicum), martagon lily (Lilium martagon), holly (Ilex aquifolium) and many orchid species.

In addition to strictly protected plants, many spring plants also grow in the area, including snowdrop, saffron crocus, dogtooth violet, hellebore and anemones. The strictly protected species snowdrop windflower (Anemone sylvestris) is critically endangered, and faces a direct threat of extinction throughout Europe.

The mountain of Medvednica is also home to three individual trees protected as nature monuments on the basis of the Nature Protection Act: the linden tree (Tilia platyphyllos Scop.) in Donja Stubica, named after Matija Gubec, the leader of a peasants’ revolt in medieval times;  an old yew tree (Taxus baccata L.) on the locality of Šupljak; and an old yew tree near the locality of Horvatove stube.

“It seems as if plants are scattered across the earth in such splendor, just like stars across the sky, in order to invite man to examine nature attracted by the joy and curiosity that they provide.” J.J. Rousseau. 

Animal world

The name of the mountain, stemming from the Croatian word for bear, reminds us of the fact that these magnificent animals once roamed the forests of Medvednica. Wolf, lynx and deer have also disappeared. However, Medvednica managed to resist the pressures of a big city in its immediate vicinity. It still retains the conditions that enable life of an extraordinarily rich and interesting animal world, provoking the interest of biologists since the second half of the 19th century.

Various mammal species live in the forests of Medvednica, ranging from small rodents such as mice, rabbits, dormouses and voles, to large hoofed animals such as roe deer and wild boar. Several carnivores are also present in the Park: wildcats, foxes, martens and weasels. Bats are a particularly interesting group of mammals, with as many as 24 bat species living in the Park. Seven of those are listed as Natura 2000 species, and one of them is designated as a species of national importance.

Birds of prey are kings of the Medvednica skies, including the common buzzard (Buteo buteo) and northern goshawk (Accipitper gentilis). Numerous songbirds bring the forest to life in springtime with their diverse songs, including the common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), robin (Erithacus rubecula) and several tit species.

Frogs also point to their presence with their vivid croaking. They live in wetter habitats of the Park, along the creeks, fish ponds and puddles of water, such as the yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata), a Natura 2000 species. Some of the more frequent amphibians include the black-yellow colored fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) and alpine newt Mesotriton alpestris).

Reptiles on Medvednica include horned viper (Vipera ammodytes), our best-known venomous snake species, and other snakes such as the Aesculapian snake, smooth snake and grass snake.

Meadows, glades and forest edges of Medvednica are also home to wonderful butterfly species, such as the Old World swallowtail (Papilio machaon), scarce swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) and purple emperor (Apatura iris). Butterfly species include some of the most beautiful ambassadors of the Natura 2000 network and several species of national importance.

No less beautiful than butterflies are some beetle species, such as the Rosalia longicorn (Rosalia alpina) and Morimus funereus, superbly adapted to beech forests.  Stag beetle (Lucanus cervus) and the species Osmoderma barnabita, on the other hand, are particularly adapted to oak forests. These insects are also part of the Natura 2000 list of species.

Water world

Medvednica abounds with water sources and creeks of a pronounced mountain character: their upper courses are steep, and lower parts less inclined. The water sources of Medvednica are relatively modest in terms of capacity, but quite numerous, which makes it possible to use them for water supply for smaller settlements. Most of them are located at altitudes exceeding 750 meters above sea level. Typical stream bank vegetation grows along the creeks, and the creek fauna includes a range of endangered and endemic species, as well as several Natura 2000 species.

Fish species are relatively rare, but nevertheless include various species, such as the southern barbel (Barbus balcanicus), schneider (Alburnoides bipunctatus), chub (Squalius cephalus) and brown trout (Salmo trutta var. fario).

Favorite food of trout species, as well as white-throated dippers, are larvae of caddisflies, which have adjusted to life in fast mountain creeks in a unique manner: in order to avoid being washed away by the powerful stream of water, the larvae use silk to glue small sand and gravel particles and twig parts around them as protection. Using this protection as added weight, they then hide under the rocks in the creek lurking for their prey.

Protected stone crayfish (Austropotamobius torrentium) also lives in creeks. The population of the species was quite large as recently as thirty years ago; it has decreased considerably in recent times, however. Given the poor tolerance of this species to environmental changes, it is perceived as a good indicator of water quality. Stone crayfish represents an important link in the food chain of stream ecosystems.

Miniature amphipods such as Niphargus elegans zagrebensis and Niphargus tauri medvednicae living in creeks Dolje and Bliznec are also protected species.

Several crustacean species belonging to subterranean fauna and thermal spring fauna have been recorded only in the territory of Medvednica.

All creeks of Medvednica are threatened due to construction activities in their immediate vicinity, aggressive hydrological and technical measures changing their appearance, wastewater pollution and illegal waste disposal. Creeks in karst terrain are particularly threatened, due to the fact that all surface pollution leeches into the underground, thus polluting the groundwater. Experts continue to invest their knowledge and enthusiasm in nature conservation.

Geology

The rocks of Medvednica were partly created by sedimentation on the bottom of ancient seas, as can be seen in the fossils of diverse marine organisms found in rocks in various parts of the mountain. These seas were retreating and rising in the course of geological history; their depth and salt content oscillated too. As a result, the mountain of Medvednica was sometimes submerged, and sometimes stood as an island surrounded by the sea or smaller lakes and wetlands.

The rocks of Medvednica reached their current position through geological processes resulting in their consecutive rising and lowering, with the Earth’s crust folding and breaking. The mountain was born approximately twelve million years ago, when its central part rose in between deep faults.

Due to tumultuous and diverse geological history, we come across all three key types of rocks on Medvednica: igneous (formed by the cooling of lava), sedimentary (formed by the deposition of parts of other rocks or plant and animal remains) and metamorphic rocks (arising from the transformation of both types of original rocks, due to high pressure and temperature).

The central part of the mountain is built of metamorphic rocks. Green shale is particularly prominent, as a symbol of sorts of Medvednica. It adorns the facades of many buildings on the mountain, including the hotel Tomislavov dom and the Chapel of Our Lady of Sljeme.

Another well-known stone type of Medvednica is Lithothamnium limestone, creating a unique karst zone together with Triassic dolomites in the western part of the mountain. Even though karst phenomena are partly hidden by more recent Holocene sediments and vegetation, there are many karst forms in the area, such as caves, pits, sinkholes, karst valleys and dolines. The karst field of Ponikve resembles a large sponge from which the creeks of Medvednica spring and into which they disappear. Waters from the area of Ponikve diving into the underground through rock cracks resulted in the formation of the cave of Veternica. With its 7,128 meters of discovered channels, it is one of the six longest caves in Croatia. Karst forms on Medvednica can also be seen in the area of Horvatove stube and parts of the area of Lipa and Rog.

People have been using the stone of Medvednica since the Roman times. There used to be twelve quarries operating on the mountain, and only one remains active today: the quarry of Ivanec, where dolomite is extracted.  Lithothamnium limestone was used in the construction of the Zagreb Cathedral, parts of arcades on the cemetery of Mirogoj, and facades of many houses in Zagreb.Nowadays , abandoned quarries are visited by scientists and nature lovers, due to a number of fossils and minerals that can be found there.

Cultural and historical heritage

Life has been present on Medvednica for centuries, leaving many interesting traces such as the improvised small huts of vuglenari – charcoal makers who developed a special skill of turning wood into top-quality charcoal. Wood was also used to make toys for children – small copies of baby carriages, furniture, cradles and houses.

This incredible handicraft has also been recognized by UNESCO, which protected the art of traditional manufacturing of children’s wooden toys by including it in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Life on Medvednica

The patriarchal way of life in the villages and hamlets around the mountain was proceeding slowly until the 19th century, when the city of Zagreb started spreading to southern slopes of the mountain. Despite all these changes, the inhabitants continued using the abundant resources of Medvednica on a daily basis.

Until recently, people built houses of the stone and wood from the mountain; they heated their houses by using coals from ancient mines or charcoal from traditional charcoal kilns, used salt from Slani potok, mined in the local mountain mines, ground wheat and corn in water mills along the creeks of Medvednica, built furniture, toys and many useful items made of wood collected in the local forests, ate fruits, mushrooms or young plant shoots collected in the forest, used the herbs of Medvednica as remedies, and enjoyed the meat of game caught in the mountain.

Until the first half of the 20th century, scattered around the beech forests of Medvednica, one could come across improvised small huts of charcoal makers, the so-called vuglenari. These huts were built next to big vuglenice, conical constructions made of wood, leaves and earth, used to turn carefully laid wood into top-quality charcoal. Construction required a lot of skill, ranging from picking the right place and wood, all the way to ensuring the smooth flow of the production process. Wood was also used as material for toys, miniature copies of trolleys, tables, chairs, baskets, cradles for puppets and houses in vivid colors. UNESCO recognized the wizardry of their production as well, by protecting the art of traditional manufacturing of children’s wooden toys as part of the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. When they weren’t playing, the locals would tell various legends and tales about the mountain. In this world of tales, water mills were perceived as special, magical places where mysterious beings spend their time in waters and darkness, like the water man with curly beard coming to the mill for flour. He was very strong, easily capable of dragging a person to his water empire. Water foam under the mill wheel was considered to be particularly magical, washing away most of the fairy curses and all the witch spells. Witches, or coprnice as the locals referred to them, interpreted the nature of Mother Earth as talented priestesses. With the passage of time, subjected to increasing persecution and humiliation, many started hiding, frequently using black magic and witchcraft to survive. As they lived in the shadow for centuries, they turned into beings of darkness, instilling fear in people who started accusing them for all the evil things that were happening to them. Allegedly, they were meeting in the forests of Medvednica, where they would run wild and wreak havoc, even picking young girls from local villages to corrupt them on the mountain.

Castles, villages and a mine

The turbulent 13th century in the area was marked by vicious attacks of hordes of horsemen from the east. That was when the forts of Medvedgrad, Susedgrad and Zelingrad were built on Medvednica, in the central, western and far eastern part of the mountain respectively. Later on, these fortifications also served as defense against the Turks. The most imposing fortification is Medvedgrad, built in 1254 after a disastrous incursion of the Tatars, who attacked the area and completely destroyed and burned the city of Zagreb. Even though superbly defended and ready to fight, Medvedgrad itself was never attacked. As a matter of fact, the masters of Medvedgrad would frequently fill up their treasury and warehouses by pillaging the surrounding villages; sometimes they would even attack the town of Zagreb. The counts of Celje were the most notorious inhabitants of Medvedgrad.

In the mid-15th century, their terror was so strong that many inhabitants of Gradec abandoned their homes. Terrifying tales about the countess Barbara Celjska – the notorious Black Queen – still survive in villages under the mountain peak. Intent on saving her treasure in the face of a Turkish attack, she allegedly offered herself and Medvedgrad to the Devil. Although she later regretted her words, and tried to break the fateful contract, she died in 1451, killed by the plague, the Black Death of medieval times. However, the curse was so strong that she found no peace even in her death. Instead, she turned into Snake Queen, with her servant snakes still guarding her enormous treasure. According to legend, the treasure is still buried somewhere around Medvedgrad; however, many expeditions and robbing raids attempted by various adventurers never resulted in a discovery. Medvedgrad was abandoned in 1590, following a horrible earthquake that struck the fortification, after which the last rulers from the family of Gregorian moved to a castle in Šestine.

Villages around the castles and their inhabitants were under the military protection of estate owners and nobility; in return for protection, the villagers worked in fields and vineyards, felled trees in the forest, and worked in quarries and mines. Work in the best-known mine of Zrinski was extremely hard, with thirty or so miners doing daily shifts lasting ten to twelve hours, manually extracting valuable ore that contained silver, and using only hammers, wedges, picks and shovels in the process. As early as the mid-17th century, the family of Zrinski put a stop to production in the mine, leaving the mysterious underground of Medvednica to moisture, darkness and subterranean beings. In 2004, Medvednica Nature Park opened the mine to visitors. It belongs to protected cultural goods of the Republic of Croatia.

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