The mountains of Učka and Ćićarija are different in terms of relief, but they form an integral mountain chain, separated by the mountain pass of Poklon. Rising along the coast of the northern Adriatic, Učka brings together the peninsula of Istria and the mainland of Croatia. A separation line between diverse landscapes, a mountain with the origin of its name still shrouded in mystery, it is a loved and appreciated destination.
The highest peak of the mountain and the Istrian peninsula is Vojak (1,401 meters). On its top, the mountain is marked by exposed grasslands growing on steep slopes. A stone tower was built on the very peak back in 1911, its year of construction still visible on the doorstep.
The tower is a sightseeing point providing a majestic panorama of Istria, the bay of the city of Rijeka, the northern part of the Adriatic and its islands, the Gorski kotar region, and mountains of Velebit and Ćićarija. When bora wind clears the air, one can also see Venice, the bay of Trieste, the Julian Alps, and the Dolomites in Italy.
While Učka has a pronounced mountain ridge, the Ćićarija Mountain’s relief resembles a mountain plateau. The key mountain pass of the region is called Poklon, or Bow – a result of religious folk traditions of the area. When the faithful of Istria would go to a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Trsat, they would bow to the Church of Our Lady in the city of Rijeka, seen from the highest point of the pass located at 922 meters above sea level.
The two mountains, Učka and Ćićarija, circle the Istrian peninsula like an arc, clearly and imposingly separating that region from the mainland. What makes Učka and the Nature Park special are geological, biological and relief characteristics.
Although the area of the Učka Nature Park is small, its biodiversity is considerable. This is the only area in the world where you can take a photo of the stenoendemic plant Campanula tommasiniana – for it grows only on the mountain of Učka. If you are patient when looking towards the sky, you can be rewarded by seeing the flight of griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) or golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).
As a result of its position, Učka Nature Park includes an interesting mix of continental and Mediterranean species.
The flora of the Park includes approximately 1,300 species. That is a considerable number, compared with the Park surface. Research of the flora has a long tradition in this area, since botanists were the first scientists who visited Učka. Mostly foreign scientists were researching the mountain; in 1838, a major enthusiast for the world of plants, the King of Saxony Frederick Augustus II, visited the Učka Mountain. He was accompanied by the botanist Tommasini and Josip Jelačić, who later became the viceroy of Croatia. Croatian botanists, Ljudevit Rossi (1853-1932) and Dragutin Hirc (1853-1921), also gave valuable scientific contributions.
In the last century, considerable research was dedicated to the rich flora of the protected area. However, one can only conclude that the space for research is still open for new discoveries, because the area itself continues to represent a major source of new knowledge about the plant world. Forests cover seventy percent of the Park’s surface. Beech forests are predominantly littoral, with pronounced Mediterranean characteristics in areas closest to the sea. Subalpine beech forest grows only around the highest peak of Učka. When it comes to less represented forest communities, we should mention the sweet chestnut marron, its fruit being a very popular and tasty local treat.
This chestnut impressed some experienced travelers from previous centuries as well. Natural historian Johann Weikhard von Valvasor was one of them. He noted that there are many vineyards on the slopes of Učka, and that “the grapes are full of good wine.” He also commented on the locals: “... many of them eat other fruits too, such as marrons, and these are big and very thick chestnuts that they also export to distant lands, since entire forests of these chestnuts are growing here.”
Both plant and animal life are not fully researched. Preserved beech forests and wide grasslands are home to many animals, and the presence of large carnivores such as bear, wolf and lynx has also been recorded. The area of the Park is also a habitat of the Eurasian eagle-owl, the biggest owl species of Europe.
There are 167 species of birds. Endangered birds of prey are nesting on inaccessible rocks of the Park. They include the golden eagle (Aquilla chrysaetos) and peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus).
Life on Učka, thousands of years old, has formed a landscape that clearly points to a beautiful and useful coexistence. Livestock breeders used to clear dense mountain forests, in order to obtain grazing areas for their herds. The pastures Gospin Dol and Sapaćica were created in such a manner, as recognizable localities of the mountain in present times. Shepherds did not tend to domestic animals only for meat, but also for milk, and the semi-nomadic lifestyle that characterized them in the past has survived among sheep and goat breeders until the present day.
The formation of landscapes of Učka and Ćićarija was completed In the period from the Middle Ages until the modern era. Potato and corn came from the American continent, as plants that would play a major role in mountain agriculture and nutrition of the locals. Villages used to have up to 600 inhabitants, who were very active economically. Agricultural activities of the mountain population produced cheese and various forest fruits, to meet needs of the regions at the foot of the mountain and on the coast.
The memory of that way of life lives on in the landscapes of terraced gardens, karst valleys, pastures and traditional architectural heritage, from the shepherd’s huts onwards. The settlements of Lovranska Draga and Mala Učka in the area of the Park are particularly interesting in terms of the originality of their ambiance.
The interest for Učka is growing – mountain climbers already know it pretty well, but more and more “ordinary” visitors are discovering the mountain too.
Učka is truly a bow to the visitor, just like the Croatian name of the mountain pass separating Učka from Ćićarija suggests. According to some, the name of the mountain itself actually stems from the word used for wolf. Names of various localities on the mountain stem from the pre-Christian Slavic heritage, on the other hand. For example, the peak of Perun got its name after the Slavic deity Perun. According to the Slavic mythology, Perun is a thunderer, the god of thunder and lightning, and a supreme deity in the pantheon of Slavic gods.
The Učka Mountain – as the peak of Perun undoubtedly testifies – has been enjoying the respect of man for quite some time. According to the Slavic mythology, the world is portrayed as a holy tree, with Perun, the ruler of the world, sitting on its topmost branch and observing the world. The view from Vojak, the topmost peak of the mountain, promises such a special moment. One can only feel gratitude for that experience while descending from the mountain.
Učka Nature Park has quite a peculiar plant world due to its geographical position and climate, resulting in an abundance of continental and Mediterranean species. In the immediate vicinity of a mountain cowslip (Primula auricula), one can thus find a sub-Mediterranean species, such as the gentle snake’s head (Fritillaria orientalis).
Grasslands of Učka and Ćićarija have resulted from thousands of years of forest clearing due to human activity, and they represent a significant treasure trove of plant and animal biodiversity. Grasslands include a range of rare, threatened and protected plant species, such as the great yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea), star gentian (Gentiana cruciata), orange lily (Lilium bulbiferum), narrow-leaved narcissus (Narcissus radiiflorus), but also a multitude of Orchidaceae such as the Adriatic lizard Orchid (Himantoglossum adriaticum), bee orchid (Ophrys apifera), fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera), burnt orchid (Orchis ustulata) and early-purple orchid (Orchis mascula). In order to preserve these species, it is necessary to maintain grassland habitats.
One of the locally most threatened species is the mountain arnica (Arnica montana), losing its habitat and gradually disappearing from grasslands due to the overgrowing of other vegetation on rare mountain grasslands on acidic soils. A similar fate has struck an interesting subspecies of the Siberian iris – Iris sibirica ssp. erirhiza – growing in extraordinarily rare wet grasslands of Ćićarija.
Preserved beech, pubescent oak and sweet chestnut forests of Učka Nature Park are also home to a number of threatened and protected plant species, such as spurge laurel (Daphne laureola) and February daphne (Daphne mezereum), dogtooth violet (Erythronium dens-canis) and martagon lily (Lilium martagon).
Interesting phenomena in the plant world of the Park are plant communities living on steep rocks of the peak ridge, consisting of several endemic species, such as Campanula tommassiniana and Justinian’s bellflower (C. justiniana), and a rare species Arabis scopoliana.
The peak zone of Učka is a strict protection zone due to important habitats and their valuable fauna. Isolated population of endemic and relic species Horvath’s rock lizard (Iberolacerta horvathi) lives on rocks in the area, and beech forests are home to alpine salamander (Salamandra atra), whose isolated population recorded on Učka is one of the few such populations in Croatia. And, as a bird lover looks into the air, patience will be rewarded by an impressive silhouette of griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) flying above the Park, looking for food.
Several other endangered bird species are nesting on the cliffs of the peak ridge of Učka, but also on other rocky habitats such as Vela Draga, the rocks of Krvava stijena and the area of Sisol, including peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) and eagle owl (Bubo bubo) as the biggest owl species of Europe; there are also as many as three pairs of golden eagle (Aquila chryaetos) living in the area. Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) can also be seen on rocks in the Park, impressive in its capacity to move through the inaccessible terrain.
The spacious slopes of Učka include dense stands of well-conserved littoral beech forests that are home to tawny owl (Stryx aluco) and the attractive species Ural owl (Stryx uralensis), and also to several woodpecker species, with black woodpecker (Dryocopos martius) as the most intriguing representative of that group.
Ancient forests of the Park are also inhabited by many insect species feeding on dead wood, such as rosalia longicorn (Rosalia alpina) and stag beetle (Lucanus cervus). In the past, a significant portion of forest areas was covered in grasslands, and small remaining grassland surfaces include a remarkably diverse bird fauna (e.g. ortolan bunting – Emberiza hortulana), but also many invertebrate species. When it comes to the latter, butterflies stand out in particular when it comes to the diversity of species.
Some of the more interesting butterfly species are the marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia), olive bee hawk (Hemaris croatica), Cleopatra butterfly (Gonepteryx cleopatra), mountain alcon blue (Phengaris alcon "rebeli"), Arran brown (Erebia ligea) and the clouded Apollo (Parnassius mnemosyne).
The porous subterranean karst of the mountain is home to several species characteristic for Učka. For example, a cavern in the Učka Tunnel is the only place in the Park where the subterranean beetle species Croatodirus bozicevici was discovered; crustacean species Thaumatoniscellus speluncae was discovered for the first time in the locality of Jama near the creek of Banina.
The subterranean world is also a hiding place of bats, a peculiar group of mammals that spend most of their life upside down. Among bat species living in the area, there are two species protected at the European level: Bechstein's bat (Myotis bechsteinii) and the intriguing species lesser horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros).
Waters of that ocean were inhabited by numerous organisms protected by hard shells. With the sedimentation of their remains over a period spanning millions of years, the layers of sediments that resulted from that process gradually turned into a firm rock – limestone.
That is why it is easy to find various fossil remains in the limestone Učka is made of, including rudist bivalves over ten centimeters long and Nummulites, the biggest single-cell animals that have ever lived on the Earth. Such finds have also been discovered in the building blocks of the Pyramid of Cheops.
The collision of the African plate with the European plate, that began towards the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago and is still ongoing, eventually resulted in shrinking of the ancient ocean, coupled with strong movements of the Earth’s crust.
The originally horizontal layers that sedimented on the bottom of the ocean began wrinkling, breaking and rising from the sea, thus creating major mountain chains such as the Alps and the Dinarides, with Učka a constituent part of that process. Gradual wearing of these layers resulted in undersea avalanches that brought fine sediment into the deeper parts of the sea, resulting in layered rocks we refer to as flysch.
Such prevailing limestone-flysch structure of Učka resulted in the current relief of the mountain, still shaped by waters, ice, wind, sun and various organisms. In areas without flysch, waters quickly disappear into the underground, dissolving the already cracked surface of limestone rocks, but also the subterranean layers. That is the reason why Učka is marked by relatively modest surface water flows, but also by an abundance of speleological phenomena.
In addition to numerous caves and pits, one cavern is particularly interesting. It was discovered during the construction of the tunnel passing through Učka in 1977. Beetle species Croatodirus bozicevici was discovered on the site, as the species living only in the subterranean world below the mountain of Učka according to current findings. Underground watercourse found in the cavern represents a source of potable water to most of the area of Liburnia.
The destructive effect of water on limestone rocks has also resulted in the creation of Vela draga, a protected geomorphological nature monument located in the Park. It is marked by impressive limestone pillars in a canyon bordered by steep stone cliffs. It is a space with a long tradition of mountain climbing, and it was once home to golden eagles. These steep cliffs, with cascades occasionally appearing on them, point to the fact that the relief of the mountain is still relatively young and in the process of permanent change, its future shape remaining to be seen.
The linguistic heritage is also special, including the Istro-Romanian language, brought by the Istro-Romanians into this area towards the end of the Middle Ages. With only around 300 remaining speakers, this language is listed in the Red Book of Endangered Languages.
Cave localities are valuable archaeological finding sites. They include important traces of human presence since the end of the Paleolithic period and the most recent ice age 12,000 years ago.
There are around twenty such localities in the area of the Park and around it, with one cave complex particularly interesting, located near the locality of Pupićina peć in the lower part of Vela draga.
During the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, the prevailing forms of settlements were hill forts, built on elevations typically located in important geostrategic positions, above key routes and at lookout points, and near water sources.
There are around fifteen such localities in the area of the Park and in its immediate vicinity. With the Roman conquest in the 2nd century B.C. the area became part of the culture of Classical antiquity.
The Roman state built several roads over the massifs of Učka and Ćićarija, coupled with the infrastructure for their monitoring and maintenance.
In the Middle Ages, various forces and states aiming to prevail in this area were focused on consolidating their military positions and power by building fortifications and citadels. The fortification of Kožljak is one such prominent example in the Park, built by Frankish vassals around the 11th century.
The modern period in the area was predominantly marked by the Austro-Hungarian rule. Tangible heritage stemming from that period includes several cultural and sacral sites, as well as examples of public architecture connected with roads, waters, forests and initial stages in the development of tourism.
The bulk of architectural heritage of the area, not tied to any particular period, is rural architecture. All settlements in the Park are rural in character, and particularly original examples of such heritage include Lovranska Draga, Mala Učka and Vela Učka, Brest pod Učkom and Brgudac. When it comes to smaller, abandoned hamlets, we should certainly mention Trebišća, Petrebišća and Podmaj.
One of the key forms of traditional rural architecture on Učka and Ćićarija is pozemuljka, a bungalow-type house with tornica, an external add-on resembling an apse that served as a fireplace. The seasonal character of life of the locals, who would migrate to higher elevations with their livestock over the summer months, also left its mark on traditional architecture.
Dvori, modest facilities with a rectangular layout made of dry stone walls, can be found throughout the Park. They served as shelter for sheep and as temporary residence for people when they were far away from their houses.
The origin of dry stone wall construction technique in karst areas is closely connected with the abundance of stone. Archaeological findings enable us to observe its development since prehistoric times, when man started cultivating the land and enclosing it with stone fences. Such initial use of stone was later expanded by building dry stone wall shelters for people and the protection of livestock.
Human activity has shaped the landscape of Učka and Ćićarija, and the main construction material – stone – was provided by the karst on which the population lived. The dry construction technique did not require any binding material, but it did require major skill entailed in the construction dry stone walls, which is why this construction method is protected as an intangible cultural good.
Livestock breeding is a constituent part of the tradition of sustainable nature management thousands of years old. It has resulted in a mosaic landscape of forests and grasslands. Within the Park, one can still come across herds of Istrian pramenka sheep, a protected autochthonous breed.
The most important product of livestock breeding is sheep cheese. The recipe and method of cheese production in the area date back to the Roman times, and they are still used in family tradition of the locals who produce the cheese today.
Traditional agriculture had to adjust to a relatively harsh mountain climate and scarce arable land. Many specific local varieties have developed as a result, for example cabbage Brassica oleracea and grapevine zvonejska jarbola. Centuries-old plantations of sweet chestnut marron still grow on the southeastern slopes of the mountain, and the chestnut fruit is one of the symbols of the area of Lovran.
In addition to traditional knowledge and skills, the area of Učka is rich in oral tradition. In diverse stories of that tradition, fantasy beings such as krsnik, štrigon and forest genies also play an important role. One of the surviving legends tells about how the fairies of Učka built the Roman Arena in Pula overnight.
The hill of Perun, named after the supreme old Slavic deity, testifies that this area was very significant for the first Slavic inhabitants of the region of Kvarner.
The original music heritage, that includes original instruments (such as cindra – a tamburitza-type instrument with two strings), melodies and singing techniques, is still preserved by individuals and folklore groups. Istro-Romanian language, brought to this area by the Istro-Romanians towards the end of the Middle Ages, has only around 300 remaining speakers in Croatia, and it is listed in the Red Book of Endangered Languages.
This splendor of tangible and intangible cultural heritage in the region can still be seen in the Učka’s Fair, organized every year by the Public Institution managing the Učka Nature Park. Visitors thus have the opportunity to get acquainted with the heritage by tasting traditional food, enjoying the presentations of old crafts and customs, and listening traditional music.