Gigantic sea waves hit Papuk, breaking and bouncing off. From the waves splashing with foam released by the force of water pounding the Papuk soil, gigantic sharks, whales and gracious dolphins jump out every now and then. In the safe shelter of land, hunters erect their camps and wait for their prey: mammoths and buffalos.
That is what Papuk must have looked like, back in the days when it was still an island in the Pannonian Sea, over ten million years ago.
Nature preserved the evidence of those times. Millions of years later, numerous fossil remains tell the story about the ancient marine history of this Slavonian region in the continental part of Croatia.
What used to be islands in the Pannonian Sea are mountains today – and there is no mountain in Slavonia more beautiful than Papuk. In the lowlands of that region, peaks ranging up to one thousand meters above sea level seem like true giants.
Papuk is the first and the only geopark in Croatia. It contains rock formations that are remarkably interesting from a geological standpoint. Some rocks are over 400 million years old, and they belong to the oldest rocks in Croatia. The mountain is built of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks; it is believed that parts of the Tisia tectonic plate located at Papuk constitute the most valuable geological phenomenon in the Pannonian basin. The first Croatian geological monument of nature, called Rupnica, is located on the mountain.
Rupnica is a phenomenon that was formed by a volcano. It is a natural mosaic of rocks resembling enormous steps made of piled stone pillars, and a unique phenomenon in global terms. The geological importance of the Rupnica locality lies in its unique morphology of volcanic rocks, with their square, pentagonal, hexagonal and other regular forms of prismatic pillars created by the geological process of columnar jointing.
Educational trail is available for tours through the area. Among many sites on offer, it is worth taking a look at the Trešnjevica quarry, only several kilometers away from Rupnica. The sight leaves the visitor breathless, with an open view into the inside of Papuk revealing the heart of the mountain.
Papuk is characterized by endless forest cover, predominantly beech forests. Almost the entire Central European fauna is represented on the mountain. Dense forests of Papuk are a habitat and shelter for red deer, roe deer, wild boar, fox and marten.
The forest soil is covered by dry limestone grasslands. The flora is rich and specific, including rare species such as the fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera), three-toothed orchid (Orchis tridentata) and Pannonian clover (Trifolium pannonicum).
The area Turjak – Mališćak – Pliš – Lapjak includes isolated habitats of continental karst with individual open grassland habitats. Specific, rare and endangered herbaceous flora grows in the area, such as the greater pasque flower (Pulsatilla grandis), gentle snake's head (Fritilaria orientalis), round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare), and leopards bane (Doronicum orientale). A botanically highly valuable area of Turjak is the habitat of the smallest lizard in Croatia – the snake-eyed skink (Ablepharus kitaibelii). The habitat of the area of Turjak, Mališćak, Pliš and Lapjak enjoys a special microclimate, similar to the climate of littoral areas. It enables the growth of Pannonian forests of pubescent oak, as isolated habitats of continental karst not typical for the eastern part of Croatia. It is yet another legacy of the Pannonian Sea, and a reason why species have a special character here.
There are very few wet grasslands, as opposed to dry grasslands. However, even the existing negligible surface of wet grasslands provides habitat to one of the endangered plant species in Croatia: marsh gentian (Gentiana pneumonanthe). Alcon blue (Phengaris alcon alcon), a critically endangered and strictly protected butterfly, can also be found in the area.
The life of that butterfly is amazingly complex, and it attracts many researchers due to the fact that it can be found only in wet habitats that include marsh gentian, the plant crucial for the butterfly’s feeding. Ants of the genus Myrmica are also present in these grasslands. Butterflies lay eggs on the plant that feeds them, and the ants, attracted by a special fluid secreted by the caterpillar, take it to their anthill. Once there, the ants treat the caterpillar as one of their own larvae, feeding and cleaning it. Caterpillar remains in the anthill for up to eight months, and then a butterfly flies out of it.
Today, the wet grassland ecosystem is threatened to a large degree, due to the disappearance of traditional agricultural activities based on mowing and grazing.
Papuk waters are intriguing and dynamic. Mountain creeks are home to specific fish species, amphibians, reptiles and aquatic invertebrates. Clear and cold creek water is habitat of the southern barbel (Barbus balcanicus) and the autochthonous brown trout (Salmo trutta), which also spawns in this area.
The endangered population of the European crayfish (Astacus astacus), turtles and several frog species also live here. Otters (Lutra lutra) sometimes visit the creeks of Papuk as well. White-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus) is an unusual bird diving and walking on the bottom of the creek, looking for aquatic insects. The gray wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) also found its habitat here, in the vicinity of mountain creeks.
It would be wrong to leave the Papuk Nature Park without visiting the park forest of Jankovac. This area used to be a park forest and a protected natural reserve even before Papuk was proclaimed a Nature Park. The park forest got its name after Josip Janković, a member of the noble Slavonian family of Janković. This harmonious part of nature consists of a valley, forest on the surrounding slopes, creeks and artificial lakes made by Josip Janković. At the end of the valley, one comes across the 35-meter high Skakavac cascade.
Above the source of the creek, there is a cave that Josip Janković prepared for his burial site. His wish was respected, and he was buried there in 1861.
In the eighteenth century, glassworks operated here as well, the fertile beech forests enabling its work. One of the raw materials for glass was ash obtained by the combustion of beech, combined with quartz and lime.
Papuk is a mountain paradise of Slavonia. Dense Pannnonian beech forests make the air constantly fresh here, guarding the area against the heat of the Slavonian plains. It is a wonderful place for researchers and connoisseurs – challenging and hidden. Its geological story can be examined only by those skilled in geology. For them, this is an area of endless curiosity and untold stories about geological history and history in general. Archeologists have plenty of reasons to come to Papuk too.
Papuk Nature Park is a world-renowned site of Hallstatt culture. In the early Iron Age (750-300 B.C.), there were many settlements on the southern slopes of Papuk, as witnessed by a number of findings of Hallstatt culture. Urns were discovered in the graves of rich headmen – black ceramic vessels, typically painted by a layer of graphite, and decorated by animal horns. They speak of the wealth and power of the ancient leaders of Papuk. Discovered parts of warrior gear point to links with Ancient Greece, a developed culture and economy.
The freshness of Papuk forests hides the remains of seven ancient cities. Most of the fortresses stem from the 13th century, the period of incursions of the Ottoman army.
Ruins of a huge ancient city Ružica grad are particularly attractive. Even today, it remains unknown who the builder was, and who managed to bring heavy stone blocks to the altitude of 374 meters.
Ružica grad is the biggest fortress in the northern part of Croatia, with the surface of eight thousand square meters. Since the way how it was built remains unknown, and the unknown eventually turns into a secret, and secrets reveal themselves in legends – one legend was also created about Ružica grad. According to it, this place used to be a meeting point of fairies, where magic potions were made.
However, one nobleman decided to build a city right on that spot. Fairies, horrified at this threat to their meeting place, used their magic in order to ruin the nobleman’s construction plans. Whatever was built they destroyed by magic. What the builders would build during the day, fairies would bring down overnight. Angered by this, the nobleman decided to erect a net around the construction site. The hair of the most beautiful fairy – Ružica – got entangled in the net, and she was caught. As a warning to all the fairies, the nobleman built Ružica into the foundations of his city. However, the fairy curse did not end there. Just as the trumpets announced the completion of construction, a stone slid down and killed the nobleman – ending his lineage. Ružica’s name, on the other hand, still lives in the name of the old fort.
And so Ružica grad still stands on a steep rock, surrounded by the freshness of the Papuk forest. It is the crown of Papuk. A witness of untold times.
Papuk Nature Park offers the pleasure of discovering both the mountains and the cascades of Slavonia. A simple wish to travel is all you need to come here, because the area is gentle, and does not require special equipment or skills. Even in its surprises, Slavonia is, first and foremost, a good host.
When it comes to interesting flora localities, we should point out the grasslands in the peak area of Papuk and on the locality of Radovanički pašnjaci, as well as pubescent oak and manna ash forests in the area of Pliš – Mališćak – Turjak – Lapjak and on the locality of Petrov vrh on Krndija. Due to the extremely alkaline nature of the soil in these localities, one comes across a very high number of protected, endangered and rare plant species. Rare and endangered plant species in the area include the greater pasque flower, gentle snake’s head and garland flower. When it comes to extremely acidic habitats, one should mention the locality of Svinjarevac in the western part of Papuk, marked by an abundance of clubmosses. This habitat is unique in Croatia, as one of the few finding sites of groundcedar (Diphasiastrum complanatum) and five-ranked bog-moss (Sphagnum quinquefarium). The biggest number of endangered and protected plant species grow in grasslands and other non-forest habitats, covering less than one percent of the Park surface. The total number of plant species is 1,223, which represents one quarter of the flora of Croatia. This number includes 102 endangered plant species (from the Red List of Endangered Plant Species) and 197 protected plant species (pursuant to the Nature Protection Act).
This interesting geological mosaic is further enhanced by valuable fossil findings, in particular those from the period of the so-called Pannonian Sea. In the peak area of the mountain of Papuk, we come across limestone and dolomite layers from the Mesozoic times, that represent a small karst relic in this part of continental Croatia. In this area, one comes across all the relevant morphological karst phenomena, such as abysses, caves, sinkholes, etc. The most important geological locality of the Nature Park is Rupnica. It is a unique phenomenon in Croatia due to the morphology of volcanic rocks created by columnar jointing. The value of this locality was recognized and protected way back in 1948, when the area was proclaimed the first geological nature monument in Croatia. It is precisely due to such an extraordinary geological heritage and a network of 69 geological localities discovered in the area of Papuk Nature Park, that this protected natural area became the first geopark in Croatia in 2007. It is part of the European and global geopark network of UNESCO.
When it comes to aquatic plants, several species specific for Europe are worth mentioning in particular: the endangered mare’s tail (Hippurus vulgaris), thread-leaved water-crowfoot (Ranunculus trichophyllus) and yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus). Cold and clear creek waters are habitat of the autochthonous brown trout (Salmo trutta), southern barbel (Barbus balcanicus), endangered European crayfish population (Astacus astacus), as well as turtles and several frog species. Endemic snail species Graziana papukensis was discovered at the water source locality of Jankovac, living in tufa rocks in water sources and creeks of the area.
The extraordinary abundance of water can be experienced in the Park Forest of Jankovac, with the 35-meter high Skakavac cascade as a particularly dominant feature, unique in its beauty in the entire region of Slavonia.
During the Early Iron Age (750-300 B.C.), many settlements in the valley of Požega and the surrounding hills were linked with Kaptol as the center. This world-renowned finding site of Hallstatt culture is remarkable for its findings of graves of rich headmen under the tumuli, reflecting the ancient custom of placing the ashes of the deceased in urns. Black ceramic vessels, frequently covered by a fine layer of graphite and adorned with animal horns, are a testimony to the wealth and power of the headmen of Kaptol. Parts of warrior gear point to links with Ancient Greece and a high level of culture and economic development of the area.
The importance of Papuk, in particular during the times of the impending Ottoman threat, can be seen in a considerable number of medieval fortifications, most of which date back to the 13th century. These “old towns”, seven or eight of which exist on Papuk, are not merely historical monuments, but also an inseparable part of the landscape. Not far from the city of Orahovica, one comes across Ružica – the most beautiful and best-preserved “old town” that represents a valuable example of Gothic and Renaissance art in this part of Croatia.