Being on Velebit is the same as trying to jump over one’s own shadow. Namely, it is impossible to conquer the mountain. It exceeds anything that man could possibly achieve by physical strength and capability. Even those who have scaled the top peaks of Velebit will tell you that they are only just beginning to learn about the mountain. For many, Velebit is the place of encounter with oneself, and a genuine experience of freedom and harmony with nature. The mountain is not merely a path made of stone – it is a path of the soul.
Even though Velebit is astonishing in its biodiversity, when you ask people about the mountain, the first words you’ll hear them say will likely be about the experience of the mountain. It is beyond dispute that one part of that experience has to do with the beauty of unity and interaction of the plant and animal world, mountain peaks, the underground, cultural and historical heritage.
Velebit Nature Park is the most significant endemic focal point of the flora and terrestrial fauna in Croatia. There are 1,854 plant taxa recorded on Velebit, 79 of them endemic. That is precisely why this area is frequently referred to as a “center of endemism”. Habitats of these species include rocks and talus cones on the western slopes of Velebit, as well as the caves and the area around the rivers Krupa and Zrmanja, and mountain grasslands and pastures.
The best-known endemic species is certainly the Velebit degenia (Degenia velebitica). However, equally beautiful are the Croatian sibbirhaea (Sibiraea altaiensis ssp. Croatica), the Velebit bellflower (Campanula velebitica), the window bellflower (Campanula fenestrellata), Kitajbel's primrose (Primula kitaibeliana), and the Velebit dianthus (Dinthus velebiticus).
Forest habitats are predominant. Meadows and pastures are particularly important, as they safeguard biodiversity. Beech forests with large red dead nettle (Lamio orvalae – Fagetum) are the most widespread, and they are located in areas below the altitude threshold of 900 meters.
At altitudes exceeding 800 meters above sea level, one finds Dinaric beech and fir forests (Omphalodo Fagetum). Exceeding the 1000 meter altitude mark is the coastal beech forest with autumn moor grass (Seslerio autumnalis-Fagetum), growing on rocky plateaus. From that altitude, and all the way to the peaks at 1650 meters, there are subalpine forests of beech and hollyfern (Polystycho lonchitis-fagetum). These areas are covered in snow, with strong winds pounding the trees with considerable force.
Velebit is home to large carnivores: brown bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx), and it is also a habitat of otters (Lutra lutra).
The Ornithological Institute of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts has singled out this area for the purposes of inclusion into the European Natura 2000 network, with as many as 18 bird species satisfying the strict criteria. The area includes nesting grounds of the ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana), capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), the Eurasian pygmy owl (Glaucidium passerinum), boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) and the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopus leucotos).
Velebit Nature Park has its special underground story as well. It is truly exciting to replace daylight with cave complexes, usual landscapes with those hidden in the underground. The locality of Cerovačke Caves represents the largest cave complex in Croatia. It consists of three caves – the lower, middle and upper cave – with 5.5 kilometers of caves researched so far.
There is a simple rule that must be observed in caves – “look, but do not touch.” Priceless and irreparable damage would occur by negligence, if one were to touch the dripstone built by nature and patient dripping of water over a period spanning thousands of years.
It is astonishing to enter the ancient home of the cave bear (Ursus spelaeus). One feels as if entering an archaeological time machine of sorts; one moment, you are observing the peaks of Velebit, and in the very next moment, you travel back in time by thirty thousand years!
The cave bear was a true giant, reaching three meters in height when standing on rear feet, frequently at over one ton in weight. This bear species lived during the Ice Age, when the surface of Velebit looked quite different: the peaks were covered in ice, and the sea level was lower by roughly one hundred meters. What is covered by sea today used to be land; the islands were once mountain peaks, and wild cattle and horses were grazing the channels of Velebit covered in grass.
One cave hall actually got its name after the cave bear – Medvjeđa dvorana.
The lower cave of the Cerovac complex, that the locals refer to as the cave of Turkaljeva, is located approximately fifteen meters below the railway line. The length of all the channels researched within it exceeds 4,000 meters, and the tourist trail is about 700 meters long. After roughly 800 meters, the cave divides into two branches, one of which heads northwest. The key site of cave bear remains – Medvjeđa dvorana, or the Bear Hall – is located in that part of the cave complex. Another branch heads southwest, and represents the main channel that carried the water arriving from the field of Gračac back when the cave was an abyss carrying water, with an active hydrological and geological role.
The middle cave is located between the upper and the lower cave of the Cerovac cave complex. It is 92 meters deep, with the total channel length of 390 meters. It forms a very diverse speleological network.
The upper cave of the Cerovac complex is located approximately thirty meters above the railway line. The locals refer to it as Kesića Cave. So far, 1,290 meters have been researched, and the tourist trail is 700 meters long. A number of bone remains of the cave bear species (Ursus spelaeus) have been found here as well, together with other traces of bear presence in the darkness of the cave, such as the so-called bear “grinding”.
Cave halls are startlingly beautiful. One hall is referred to as the Paleolithic Hunter Hall, with anthropologically valuable remains of human bones and fragments from the Paleolithic period found in it.
Stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, curtains, flowstones, cascades and cave pearls are fascinating ornaments of the underworld, leaving no one indifferent. Long after you leave the cave, the strong impression remains, caused by the stunning underground world of the Velebit Nature Park.
One sea jewel of the Park is the cove of Zavratnica. It always manages to find its place on various lists of the most beautiful coves of the Adriatic.
It feels as if a small part of the coastline of the northern seas ended up in Croatia. The shape of Zavratnica reminds of a fjord, even though there have never been any glaciers here. Instead, torrents once rushed down the slopes of Velebit, and one canyon ended up submerged following the post-glacial rise of the sea water level. That is how the karst phenomenon of Zavratnica came about.
The length of the cove is approximately 800 meters. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, a path with a sightseeing point was built above the cove, together with the walking path along the coastline. Roughly around that time, Zavratnica became a hidden resort of the Viennese and Prague elite.
Many renowned people discovered the cove over the years. Well-known artists and scientists visited this area, and many who did so fell in love with Velebit. They include the Croatian writer
Vjenceslav Novak, who wrote many pages of the Croatian literature precisely in this cove. The blue of the sea, the grey of the Velebit rocks, sparse vegetation and thick shades of trees scattered here and there in the cove make Zavratnica and its colors immensely attractive.
Inexplicable beauty made this place the stuff of legends too. According to one legend, a horrible earthquake once struck the area, and three ancient Roman cities ended up submerged under the sea in one single night: Ortopla, Cissa and Lopsica. And Zavratnica was created out of these submerged cities.
Velebit Nature Park is a place where you can simultaneously head high into the clouds, and deep into the breathtaking underworld.
Velebit degenia is the best-known endemic species of the mountain’s remarkably diverse plant world, which also includes Velebit bellflower and Croatian sibbirhaea. The mountain of Velebit is also home to wolf, bear, lynx, chamois, golden eagle and many other animal species.
Special natural values of the Nature Park are reflected in the fact that there are as many as two National Parks in the area of Velebit: Paklenica National Park and Northern Velebit National Park. On top of that, Velebit Nature Park includes a special forest vegetation reserve (Štirovača), a geomorphological nature monument (Cerovačke špilje), a significant landscape (cove of Zavratnica), a paleontological nature monument (Velnačka glavica), and a number of important relief and landscape units.
What is the MAB programme?
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched the Man and the Biosphere Programme back in 1970, as an intergovernmental scientific programme that aims to establish a balance between conserving biodiversity on the one hand and fulfilling the development needs of the local community on the other.
In 1974, a global network of areas representing the key ecosystems of the world started being developed within the Programme. These areas are aimed at protecting the genetic diversity as a prerequisite of biodiversity, and their ecosystems are researched and monitored, coupled with educational activities. The Network consists of Biosphere Reserves as internationally recognized areas within the UNESCO MAB Programme, promoting solutions aimed at achieving harmony between the protection of biodiversity and its sustainable use. Three fundamental functions of Biosphere Reserves are:
According to the existing data, there are 1,854 plant taxa on Velebit, 79 of them endemic. Such a large number of endemic taxa is the reason why Velebit is frequently referred to as a “center of endemism” in the region.
Habitats of special importance for endemic taxa include rocks and talus cones (on the western slopes of Velebit), caves, rivers (Krupa and Zrmanja), and mountain grasslands and pastures.
Endemic species of Velebit include the Velebit degenia (Degenia velebitica), Croatian sibbirhaea (Sibiraea altaiensis ssp. Croatica), Velebit bellflower (Campanula velebitica), window bellflower (Campanula fenestrellata), Kitajbel’s primrose (Primula kitaibeliana), and the Velebit dianthus (Dinthus velebiticus).
Velebit is also characterized by the intriguing flora growing in rocky habitats, such as the golden root (Rhodiola rosea), Croatian barberry (Berberis croatica), twoflower violet (Viola biflora), round-leaved saxifrage (Saxifraga rotundifolia), mountain avens (Dryas octopetala), edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum), and many other species.
In general terms, the prevailing habitats on Velebit are forests; mountain meadows and pastures scattered in them play a very important role in the conservation of overall biodiversity.
The most widespread forest communities in the mountain vegetation belt are beech forests with large red dead nettle (Lamio orvalae-Fagetum), encountered in areas below the altitude of 900 meters. Above the threshold of 800 meters, one finds Dinaric beech and fir forests (Omphalodo- Fagetum). Coastal beech forest with autumn moor grass (Seslerio autumnalis-Fagetum) grows on rocky plateaus exceeding the 1000 meter altitude mark. In the altitude zone between 1,100 and 1,650 meters, marked by abundant snow, brief vegetation periods and strong winds, one comes across subalpine forests of beech and hollyfern (Polystycho lonchitis-fagetum), with characteristically bent trees due to the pressure exerted by the long retention of snow.
The landscape of peak areas is marked by barren karst formations mixed with forest valleys and dry grassland areas.
Wolf and lynx are endangered species listed in the IUCN Red List, and they are protected by law. Wolf, bear and lynx can be encountered in the entire Velebit Nature Park area, but also beyond the boundaries of the Park. Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) was introduced to Velebit thirty years ago. When it comes to herbivores, the most numerous species include roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), rabbit (Lepus europaeus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa); other species include red deer (Cervus elaphus), mouflon (Ovis Aries musimon) and fallow deer (Dama dama).
When it comes to small terrestrial vertebrates and bats, the following species live on Velebit according to the available data:
As part of the DInaric karst area, Velebit is extraordinarily important for species living in subterranean habitats, including 23 taxa endemic in Croatia, some of which are endemic at the level of Velebit.
In preparing the proposal for the Natura 2000 network, the Ornithological Institute of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts noted the importance of the ornithological area of Velebit, with the populations of 18 bird species satisfying the classification criteria for Natura 2000.
Research on the fauna of Velebit is far from over; new animal species continue to be discovered and described every year, in particular when it comes to subterranean fauna.
Velebit represents the main boundary between the Mediterranean and the continental climate; as a result, weather conditions on the mountain are quite unsettled and unstable, with frequent extremes. Mean annual air temperature on the main meteorological station of Zavižan (1,594 meters above sea level) is 3.5°C, growing by 0.7°C per 100 meters as one descends towards the sea level on the littoral side, and by 0.5°C per 100 meters on the continental side of the region of Lika. As a result, mean annual temperature in the coastal area is 14.8°C, and in Lika 8.5°C.
Microclimate in individual localities, conditioned by morphological and relief specifics of the terrain, plays an important role in the distribution of the flora and vegetation. Doline microclimate is very interesting due to temperature inversion – the upper edges of a doline tend to be warmer than its bottom. That is why abundant and diverse inverse vegetation abounds in karst depressions of the peak areas of Velebit.
The entire mountain space of Velebit is exposed to strong, frequently gale-force winds. The littoral slopes of Velebit and the coastal area of Podgorje are frequently exposed to strong gusts of bora (the northeastern wind blowing from Velebit towards the Adriatic), which frequently reaches gale force, in particular in mountain pass areas in wintertime.
The complexity of precipitation is one particular characteristic of the Nature Park area. Mean annual precipitation in the peak area of Velebit exceeds 3,000 mm, and the exposed area of southern Velebit receives the highest volume of precipitation (1,200-3,000 mm). The quantity of precipitation decreases from the southeast to the northwest. The border areas of Lika receive more precipitation (1,884 mm) than the littoral slopes of Velebit (1,188 mm ). Almost two thirds of precipitation are recorded in the winter half of the year. Local deviations are possible as well, caused by relief and altitude.
Due to the mixing of air masses with different temperatures along the mountain ridge representing the border between the littoral and the continental side, the peak area of Velebit is characterized by a relatively high number of foggy days (187 days per year).
In the area of Velebit, there are very many days with snow cover exceeding 30 centimeters. On the coastal slope of Velebit, the number of such days is almost negligible; however, the peak side of Northern Velebit has approximately 70 such days per year, rising to oven 100 days per year in the peak area of the southern part of Velebit. On the slope of Velebit facing the region of Lika, snow cover can last up to 20 to 40 days.
Dry stone walls were created by clearing the areas not suitable for cultivation, skillfully assembling stones one on top of the other without adding any binding material. Dry stone wall construction represents not only a valuable cultural and historical treasure, but also a habitat of various plant and animal species.
Most of the shepherd’s huts of Velebit were built from stone, their rectangular forms made of dry stone walls. Such huts in high altitudes consisted of one room without windows, with a fireplace in the middle and a support pillar for the roof construction. Shelters for livestock were built next to these huts.
Traditional architecture of Velebit is also reflected in the construction of sacral sites. Namely, most churches and chapels on Velebit were built similarly to shepherd’s huts, as constructions with a single internal space. Sacral sites reflect the importance of livestock breeding for the local population, which can be seen in many wows, some still maintained on the remains of church altars for traditional reasons.
The centuries of settlement and active life on Velebit have resulted in various facilities and monuments that represent the cultural heritage of the area today: the historical roads of Velebit (Karolinska Road, Theresiana, Majstorska Road, Josephina), mirila, “Written Stone”, as well as a number of prehistoric and antique localities, hill forts, burial grounds, hydroarchaeological findings, old towns and fortifications, water mills, stone cisterns and watering places for livestock.
Aiming to develop the economy, trade and transport, the Habsburg Monarchy built several important roads across Velebit in the 18th and 19th century. The constructors of roads were true experts, so most of these roads are still in use, with only an occasional reconstruction in the meantime.
Back when they were built, the roads of Velebit constituted a major step forward in terms of road quality, due to the fact that their surface was made of stone, with large stone edges, massive reinforcement walls, good road drainage and accompanying facilities, and road width was between four and six meters. The stone road surface was necessary in order to preserve the road against the destructive forces of precipitation waters and strong winds, as it would otherwise soon fall into disrepair.
Due to their good conservation and historical value, some of these roads have been proclaimed cultural goods of the Republic of Croatia.
It is one of the most important mountain passes built across Velebit with the aim of facilitating trade between the coastal areas and the mainland.
Theresiana was built in 1786, in order to better link the then military center of Gospić with the free port town of Karlobag, replacing the existing Karolinska Road and its challenging sharp bends and steep sections. The order to build a new, more modern road was issued by the then Austrian Emperor, Joseph II. The road was named after his mother, Maria Theresa.
The construction of the road was entrusted to the frontier officer Filip Vukasović, who later became a renowned builder of the Louisiana Road between the cities of Karlovac and Rijeka.
In 2007, Theresiana became part of the list of cultural goods of the Republic of Croatia.
In order to acquaint as many visitors as possible with the cultural value of Theresiana, the Public Institution in charge of the Velebit Nature Park built an educational trail on one section of the road. The trail is intended solely for walking, and it is particularly interesting due to the diversity of the area it passes through. Although only three kilometers long, the trail provides insight into both faces of Velebit in their full splendor.
This mountain trail, 57 kilometers long, connects the peak areas of northern and central Velebit, from the area of Zavižan to Baške Oštarije. It is named after its designer, Ante Premužić, a renowned constructor of paths and trails on Velebit.
The construction of the trail made it possible to approach the most inaccessible and beautiful parts of Velebit, known only to very few inhabitants prior to the trail. It took merely three years (from 1930 to 1933) to construct the trail, and the works were performed by many inhabitants of the villages on both sides of Velebit.
Since there are no steep climbs, even people unaccustomed to mountain climbing can pass the trail. They can rest in several mountain lodges located near the trail.
Due to its quality of construction and the way it blends into the natural environment, this trail is considered to be a masterpiece of construction. That is precisely why it became part of the list of cultural goods of the Republic of Croatia in 2009.
Another historical road of Velebit included in the list of cultural goods of the Republic of Croatia (in 2007) is the so-called Majstorska Road.
The construction of this road across Velebit built on the route Sveti Rok – Mali Alan – Obrovac began in 1825, with the aim of shortening the travel time to Dalmatia. It is the road where the renowned builder of mountain roads, frontier officer Josip Kajetan Knežić, began his independent career.
The construction of this 41-kilometer long road was completed in 1832, when the opening ceremony was held, and the road was named Majstorska cesta, or Master’s Road. Namely, the manner in which J.K. Knežić designed the route along the steep slopes of Velebit, with numerous hairpin bends between the canyons and the peaks, represented a masterful achievement in road construction. The maximum inclination of the road was 5.5%, which is within limits of even the current regulations on road construction. Since its beginnings, this new road of Velebit was used not only for trade, but also for postal transport between Vienna and Zadar.
The road passes next to a significant geomorphological locality of Tulove grede – a pronounced group of vertical limestone blocks, peaks and towers.
Extremely difficult conditions in which the road was built, including the need to drill through hard rock using modest technical means and machines that were available to builders in those days, resulted in a legend of the construction of Majstorska Road. According to it, workers would frequently approach officer Knežić to complain that it is simply impossible to push one’s way through the mountain. – How about if I promised you one kilo of gold in return for one kilo of stone? Would you be able to build the road then? – officer Knežić once asked the workers. – Well... we suppose we could – the workers replied. And so the road was built.
At least that is what the legend says. The fact of the matter, however, is that officer Knežić had to endure heavy criticism from the Viennese court, because the costs of construction were deemed excessive.
Despite major distances that needed to be crossed, which entailed the hard work of carrying the deceased, it was not permitted to put the body to the ground in order to get some rest. Instead, the villagers would take shifts in the duty of carrying the dead, in order to cover the required distance in accordance with the custom.
In this procession from the household of the deceased to the graveyard, it was permitted to stop for rest, and lay the deceased on the ground only once – on a place that would become mirilo. It was there that the deceased would be “measured”: two stone plates would be used to record the position of the head and the feet. Mirilo would be built only after the burial.
For the people of Velebit, the monuments of mirila were an important aspect of their culture. They represented an expression of a cult of the dead, and they were in fact more important than the gravesite where the deceased is actually buried. Following the burial, the deceased would no longer be visited, nor would anyone come to the graveyard until someone else’s passing. This custom partly originates from the frequently considerable distances between mountain settlements and local cemeteries; on top of that, however, it was believed that a grave contains only the body, and not the soul, for the soul “stays on mirilo”.
Being such important symbols of the memory of the deceased, people frequently visited mirila and took care of their maintenance.
This custom lasted until the 1950s, and then it disappeared.
In December 2007, the Croatian Ministry of Culture reached a Decision granting the funeral customs connected with mirila the status of intangible cultural goods.
Near the settlement of Starigrad-Paklenica, there are two educational trails leading through eight conserved sites containing mirila. The first trail is one kilometer away from the center of Starigrad-Paklenica, and the second trail is located at the village of Ljubotić (drivers should leave the state road at the settlement of Tribanj Kruščica).
The following text was inscribed on the stone: “EX CONVENTIONE FINIS INTER ORTHOPLINOS ET PARENTINOS ADITUS AD AQUAM VIVAM ORTHOPLINIS D PASSUS LATUS.”
In other words: “Pursuant to the border agreement between the Ortoplini and the Parentini, the Ortoplini are granted access to live water five hundred steps wide.”
And so Kude once came to the river, and gazing across it, he saw a beautiful girl with long black hair watching over her sheep. That was a place where the river passed through a series of cascades, returning back to its calm flow down below. That was also the place where Kude built his mill. As he waited for his wheat to grind, he thought about beautiful Mande on the other side of the river.
As time went by, Kude started crossing the river Krupa more and more frequently, jumping from one stone of the cascade to the next, as Mande waited him to come to her to the other side, impressed and terrified. Mande was afraid of the cascades and did not dare cross the Krupa. She admired Kude’s fearlessness.
Kude asked for Mande’s hand. Her father accepted the idea of marriage, but they had to wait for a couple of more years, for Mande was very young, and not yet ready for marriage. Kude wowed to build a bridge while waiting for Mande to become his wife, so that his beloved one and the wedding procession could safely cross the river.
And so, an amazing work of human hands was made: a bridge with twelve arches built from tufa blocks and as many stone pillars, connecting the two banks of the Krupa River.
Enamored Kude eventually brought her beautiful Mande to Golubić, and they lived happily ever after. The bridge still stands, as a testimony to unconditional love and human perseverance.