The initial slopes of the Žumberak – Samoborsko Gorje Nature Park are guarded by the walls of the Old Town of Samobor and Okić, and by the Old Town of Ozalj to the west. To the north, the Park’s boundaries are defined by the border with Slovenia, and to the south, it borders the lowland region of Pokuplje.
The area is marked by an interplay of Dinaric, Alpine and Pannonian characteristics. The Dinaric face of the Park can be seen in its karst formations; its Alpine side is visible in the steep and sharp mountain ridges, and the Pannonian appearance is provided by undulating hilly areas. The highest mountain ridge is located close to the northern boundary of the Park. Due to its relative inaccessibility, human impact has been kept to a minimum, which is why it this particular part of the Park remains closest to its original form.
The central part of the Park is gradually descending towards the south, with interchanging landscapes of hills, fields and valleys with watercourses cut into the terrain, such as the canyons of Kupčina and Slapnica rivers. This is where we come across many compact settlements evenly distributed in space. Over time, the traditional lifestyle and use of space have created a characteristic, recognizable landscape, marked by villages and hamlets intertwined with arable land, meadows, pastures and forests.
Landscape of the eastern side of the Park is different from other areas, with its deeply cut, steep valleys, and many creeks with abundant water. The area of Plešivica is more densely populated, and marked by numerous vineyards. The landscape of the area of Vivodina is characterized by mildly rolling hills, yet more vineyards, and open views. The western part of the Park is the least inhabited part, and it is dominated by forests.
Mosaic landscape with meadows, orchards, fields and traditional villages, harmoniously connected with endless forests, is not merely a visual value, but also biological one. By taking away space from the forest in order to build villages and create pastures and meadows, people of the region have ensured space for various non-forest habitats, which have significantly contributed to the current abundance of plant and animal species.
In this sense, grassland surfaces are particularly important, with up to forty plant species per single square meter. A significant locality is the wet habitat along the Jarak creek, which forms a bog with as many as 74 plant species, including six rare orchid species – and a carnivore plant alpine butterwort (Pinguicula alpina). As many as 38 orchid species have been recorded in the territory of the entire Park. Beech forests dominate the forest vegetation; pubescent oak and hop hornbeam also grow on warmer parts of the slopes. As many as 377 fungus species have been recorded in the Park as well, including the dusky waxy cap (Hygrophorus camarophyllus), a globally endangered species included in the Red List of Fungi of Croatia.
The possibility of coming across a large carnivore in the Park, such as a bear or a wolf, is negligible these days. However, there are numerous small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates that one can encounter. When it comes to a substantial number of invertebrates living in the area, we should mention the rare alpine salamander species (Salamandra atra). There are also 110 bird species recorded in the Park, including birds of prey such as the northern goshawk and birds living along creeks – the white-throated dipper and grey wagtail.
Karst covers as much as 90 percent of the Park surface. Various karst formations can be encountered as a result: dolines, karst valleys and blind valleys. The underground structures in the Park are interesting as well, with approximately 140 speleological phenomena researched so far. According to current knowledge, the deepest cave of Dolača is 155 meters deep and 1,262 meters long. The longest cave is Provala, with 1,862 meters of its canal topographically recorded. Characteristic vertical dynamic of space in the karst terrain is clearly visible in deep erosion valleys with steep sides, mountain peaks and ridges, and valleys of key watercourses in the area of settlements of Bregana, Lipovačka Gradna, Rudarska Gradna, Kupčina and Slapnica.
The valley of the creek of Slapnica is particularly attractive. The creek got its name, stemming from the Croatian word for cascade, precisely due to numerous single and multiple cascades letting the water descend through a narrow and deeply cut valley ten kilometers long. Two cascades in the area are worth mentioning: Vranjački slap is one of them, a cascade covered in tufa – a “live” rock that keeps developing over time. A bit more upstream, there is the cascade of Brisalo – one of the highest cascades in the Nature Park, with the water diving from it into a small clear lake. The highest cascade in the Park is Sopotski slap in Sošice, 40 meters high.
The highest peak of the northwestern part of Croatia is the peak of Sveta Gera (1,178 m) in the hills of Žumberak . A forest glade on top of the mountain used to be a venue of livestock fairs in the past; today, it is a popular destination for mountain climbers and pilgrims. Japetić is the highest peak of the hills of Samobor, with its 879 meters above sea level. On clear days, it provides a view of various peaks of the mountainous part of Croatia, all the way to the Triglav Mountain in the Slovenian Alps. Rock climbers, but also fans of historical buildings, frequently choose the mountainous area of Okić as their destination, with one of the oldest medieval noble cities in Croatia located on the peak of that mountain.
This area has become part of mountain climbing history, as the place where Dragojla Jarnević, a member of the Illyrian Movement, became the first woman to scale the peak of Okić from its southern, steeper side a century and a half ago. The first organized mountain climbing ascent to Oštrc and Plešivica also took place here, back in 1875. Given such a long tradition, it is no wonder that there is a network of around 350 kilometers of mountain climbing trails in the Park. Cyclists have nothing to worry about either, with over 200 kilometers of cycling trails giving them the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of landscapes and attractive tours.
History lovers can examine the findings kept in the Archaeological Park in Budinjak – remains of ancient fortified cities such as Okić, Tuščak, Lipovac and the Old Town of Žumberak, the local history of Uskoks, the rebels against the Ottoman Empire, or preserved examples of traditional village architecture.
Unlike some other protected areas with a clearly defined main attraction in the area, that most visitors are eager to visit – a sightseeing point on top of the mountain, for example, or a cave, or a cascade – the main attraction of this particular Nature Park is its mosaic landscape.
It is only after a full day of “cruising” the Park, that one gets a comprehensive impression of the attractiveness of the area – the mosaic landscape. Dynamic changes of various perspectives, cultural and historical heritage, a unique natural world – these are the things that make this area more than seducing enough to make the visitor eager to return.
The reason: these ponds were created by the locals in times past, primarily as watering places for livestock. The locals wisely decided to fortify the bottoms of natural depressions with clay, so as to retain rainwater.
Species recorded in the area grow in the most diverse habitats: grasslands, forests, wet and swampy habitats, thickets, cleared areas, moors, rocks and dunes. Weeds and ruderal flora are also present. Mountain grasslands are home to beautiful and critically endangered small pasque flower (Pulsatilla pratensis ssp. nigricans) and the endemic species Croatian pink (Dianthus giganteus ssp. croaticus) with amazingly beautiful pink flowers. Almost 40 orchid species grow in the Park as well, including the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera). This orchid, just like all the other orchid species of that genus, attracts its pollinating insect with its lips and scent that mimic the female insect. The forests, on the other hand, are a habitat of several species fairly limited in terms of distribution, such as the endangered and strictly protected Croatian iris (Iris croatica) and Blagay’s daphne (Daphe blagayana). Transitional areas between forests and open habitats are important for species that are sensitive to grazing and stomping and adapted to shadowy conditions, such as several globally vulnerable species of orchids and lilies. The lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia), lady orchid (Orchis purpurea) and martagon lily (Lilium martagon) are some examples of such species. One unique species living in the area is alpine butterwort (Pinguicula alpina), a carnivore plant. It grows on bogs that also represent the habitat to two other critically endangered species: common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) and alpine asphodel (Tofieldia calyculata).
It would take an entire book to mention all the other plants in the area that are interesting in terms of color, or form or manner of adaptation. However, just like everything else in nature, it is incommensurably better to see them in real life, than in any book or photograph. Therefore, we invite you to explore the Park and enjoy the wonders of amazing plants in the area. Make sure to “pick” them only with your camera, however!
In addition to typical continental amphibian and reptile species, higher elevations are home to alpine salamander (Salamandra atra) – a rare and unusual amphibian species that does not require water for reproduction, since its gives birth to live young. The presence of brown trout (Salmo trutta) and threatened stone crayfish (Austropotamobius torrentium) is proof that mountain creeks are free of pollution.
Numerous invertebrates significantly contribute to the biodiversity of the area. A proof of complexity and relations in the ecosystem is the globally vulnerable butterfly species mountain alcon blue (Phengaris alcon rebeli). Its survival closely depends on other species – such as the plant star gentian (Gentiana cruciata) that represents the only food for butterfly larvae, and ants of the genus Myrmica, which butterfly larvae deceive into feeding them.
Dinaric karst is tremendously important for fauna diversity. Over 144 caves and pits provide home to various species of cave beetles, snails, spiders and crustaceans, with as many as 16 endemic species recorded so far. Caves are also home to bats, the most threatened group of mammals in the country.
All grasslands are not the same. For example, steep slopes and rocks represent a foundation for grasslands of Sesleria kalnikensis – one of the few completely natural grassland communities. The biggest diversity of species can be seen in semi-natural grasslands of upright brome and hoary plantain, with up to 40 plant species recorded per square meter. These species include Croatian pink (Dianthus giganteus ssp. croaticus), carnic lily (Lilium carniolicum), Pannonian clover (Trifolium pannonicum) and critically endangered black pasque flower (Pulsatilla pratensis ssp. nigricans). Significant habitats in the Park also include grasslands of matgrass, and, in lowland areas, meadows of tall oat-grass. Such a mosaic of grassland habitats provides living space to an entire range of invertebrates, birds and mammals, offering them food, shelter and place to rear their young.
Due to depopulation in the area and the resulting decrease of livestock breeding, grasslands are threatened by secondary succession – return of the forest. Loss of grasslands would result in a loss of biological and landscape diversity and other ecological values inherent in these habitats. Even though the process itself is natural, there are efforts in place to prevent the overgrowing of vegetation, focusing on the maintenance of grasslands by grazing or mowing, and by the removal of wood species.
In the past, social life of a village was connected with ponds as well. Apart from serving as watering places for livestock, some ponds were also used by children as refreshment during summer heat, or as skating grounds in wintertime; water from these ponds was also used to wash clothes or extinguish fires. Over time, plant and animal species started settling in them, which made the ponds an important aspect of biodiversity. As a consequence, ponds in the Nature Park are home to one half of amphibian species and one quarter of dragonfly species of Croatia. Wild game also uses the ponds as a source of water, and some snake and bird species look for food in them. One amphibian species living in the ponds is yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata), easily mistaken for green toad. When encountering a potential predator, however, yellow-bellied toad sends a warning that it is not edible by showing its bright-yellow belly.
With the disappearance of livestock breeding, ponds have lost their economic function, and the villagers stopped maintaining them in most cases. That eventually resulted in the overgrowth of vegetation and the drying out of ponds, and it is no wonder that their number was cut in half in slightly over half a century. However, frogs, newts, dragonflies and water plants are still here. In order to preserve their habitat, ponds must be cleaned regularly. That is the only way in which biodiversity dependant on water can be retained on karst terrain.
One interesting characteristic of the area are tumuli, mounds of earth raised over ancient graves. They represent a customary form of cemetery architecture from the early Iron Age that can be encountered across a wide European area. A gravesite with 140 tumuli has been discovered below the village of Budinjak, representing one of the biggest findings of this kind in the area of the southeastern Alps.
As he was fastening his shoe back, the girl already walked over quite a distance, and so the boy shouted: “Stop, darling!” The girl stopped immediately, the spot where she stopped became the border between Croatian and Slovenian lands, and the village on the border got its name Stojdraga. According to another legend, there were once two villages on two neighboring hills, divided by a small creek, and hostility between the villages lasted for quite some time. However, a boy and a girl from these two villages once met, and fell madly in love. As the villagers realized that the young couple was meeting next to the creek, they built a wicker fence on both sides, in order to prevent any continuation of that love affair connecting the hostile villages. They even put guards along the fence, who kept a watchful eye on the border. Whoever crossed it would be shot! The young couple, stunned by how their villages behave, continued to meet despite the fence, however. One day, the girl decided to jump over the fence towards her loved one. Worried, the boy shouted: “Stop, darling!” But it was too late. Someone fired a shot, and the girl was killed. Realizing the harm they did, the villagers removed the fences and stopped arguing, and the place where the girl fell on the ground they named Stojdraga.
A tumulus is a mound of earth raised over a grave, and it represented a customary form of cemetery architecture in a considerable part of Europe during the early Iron Age. A gravesite with 140 tumuli has been discovered under the village of Budinjak. Such a large number makes this site one of the biggest finding sites of the type in the area of the southeastern Alps. Archaeological excavations began in 1984, with around one quarter of the graves researched so far. Various items have been found in the graves, including metal weapons and jewelry, as well as a number of ceramic vessels in which food and drinks were placed next to the deceased for their after-death voyage. The diversity of forms and methods used to make ornaments on these items testifies to the wealth of the ancient population of Budinjak, and it also shows the considerable craftsmanship and skills of metallurgists and potters of those times. Given their design, decoration and motives, it is assumed that many of these items originate from distant areas such as the Apennine Peninsula, the Alpine area, the Danube region and the central Balkans. It is obvious that Budinjak was an economically strong settlement back in those times, enabling its inhabitants to maintain contacts with very distant lands.
They invited the border population of Uskoks by offering free land and exemption from any tax, tribute or work duty, but with the obligation to wage war against the neighboring threat. In the first four waves of migrations, 1,000 “houses” settled in the area of Žumberak. One house meant four or five brothers with their families. Since then, the mountainous area of Žumberak is also known as the Mountain of Uskoks – Uskokengebirge. With the retreat of the Ottoman threat, the Military Border was abolished in 1871. This period became known as a transition from “under the sword to under a hat” among the people of Žumberak – in other words, the Uskok community replaced its military life with agricultural life.
The community of Uskoks was characterized by the Greek Catholic religious affiliation, as a mix of Eastern and Western Christianity in terms of liturgical rites. Today, the memory of cultural heritage and history of Uskoks of Žumberak is primarily maintained through the efforts of various associations and individuals working on the preservation and further development of tradition and knowledge. The Ethnographic Collection of the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil in Sošice and the Uskoks’ Museum in Stojdraga include permanent exhibitions preserving the memory of the life of Uskoks of Žumberak over the centuries. The still existing pride of the glorious ancestors and the desire to preserve the Uskok identity can also be seen in the number of people visiting many annual meetings and events organized by the descendants of Uskoks of the areas of Žumberak and Senj.