Wonders of Dalmatian karst

Dalmatian landscape is made up of mostly limestone. Karst, as it is a scientific name for it, is by a definition a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.

So there are A LOT of caves in Croatia! Many known for millenia and explored but still hundreds all over the country that have not been discovered.

We had a great opportunity last month to visit two very special caves in Dalmatian hinterland. One, Velika Ćulumova pećina, is near Kijevo and Vrlika and is well known for its massive bat colony.

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Dinara mountain in the distance
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Velika Ćulumova pećina is clearly marked

This cave is easy to visit – with permits! – as it does not have drops and serious differences in heights. The initial descent is some 7 meters difference from the entrance and then it is fairly flat all 360 meters of its length. But it is also very decorated and considered to be one of the most beautiful caves in this part of the country.

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The colony of bats inside is several thousand strong and the sound of them squeaking above your head may not be the most pleasant sound you ever heard. We tried not to disturb them and I even turned off my strong helmet light. I have a custom helmet light that makes all of modern helmet lights shamefully weak so I turned it off in the big hall with bats. Bats are not blind, contrary to general opinion. We also kept as quiet as possible.

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All over the cave, mud like leyer of bat dung is found. The guano does not smell nice and there is a LOT of it! Some places even knee deep so we all had boots on. It is that black matter on the ground.

We continued exploring and finally reached the last hall. Evidence of human devastation is very present as many of the ornaments have been broken and taken away… There are even graffiti from 1930s in the last hall. Sad.

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I do think the entrance should be closed by some sort of iron gates like on other protected caves in order to preserve the cave and its bats. Not everyone is responsible and loves nature…

Next stop was a very special treat!

There are caves and pits that have been used as places of worship, shelters and even storage facilities but very few as wells. One of them – and it is simply a marvel of traditional architecture – is cave near Kistanje in Bukovica region of Dalmatia.

One can reach it by taking a main trail though the fields near the village of Bezbradice.

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This traditional dirt road is work of perfection with all these flat rocks making up a massive wall leading to the actual well and deeper in the fields.

It was about 34 Celsius (93 F) and there was no place to hide from the hot sun. But then we reached the well. It is basically a combination of a man made structure and a cave that, long time ago, someone thought to be an excellent source of fresh water for most of the year.

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In order to get to the water, locals build a structure with several steps all the way down to the actual well. The water can get awfully high as seen from the marks it left on much higher level of the well.

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The water is so still that I thought there was nothing there till we threw a small rock. We did not have any vessel to get water from below as it was quite lower than the last step but I will return.

According to local legends, the water from this cave is part of a large, underground river Marica. This water has healing powers and healed fertility issues with one local girl long time ago. Just legends or…? In any case, this is one of most wonderful spots I have seen in a while! It looks almost as entrance to the underworld. Maybe it is…

Wonderful world of Dalmatian karst does not stop to surprise!

 

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Maskovica Han in Vrana – The curious history of the latest heritage hotel in Croatia

Ever since I was a kid, the unfinished remains of Maškovića Han were one of the most fascinating monuments I have seen. The original idea of Yusuf Mašković was to build a final retreat for his retirement days in the region he originated from. The retreat was to include the area for his own personal use but also (free of charge) rooms for travelers passing through the region.

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Vrana (and Zemunik) – Coroneli, 1687

Story of Jusuf Mašković is a strange one. At the time of his birth, Vrana was already under the Turkish rule (since 1538). It has about 500 houses, two mosques, school for Muslim children…

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Vrana – Kupferstich Mortier, 1704

Yusuf was born (cc 1604) in a Christian family (Maškov it is believed to be the family last name) but, according to the Venetian records of the time, it was a very poor family. The legend says that a local old lady from Nadin gave him leather slippers (opanci) seeing him barefoot. It is assumed that it was then that he decided to convert to Islam and he started the service for local Beširagić bey of Nadin. The later events took him to Sarajevo and then all the way to Istanbul where he rose to the position of the gardener of the palace.

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Palace Seven Towers Istanbul – Mallet, 1718

Now things started changing – while being a gardener, Yusuf became friends with brother of the Sultan Murat IV. Sultan was getting rid of all possible usurpers of the throne but spared his brother by locking him in the area of saray. In the year of 1640, Murat died and Ibrahim becomes a new Sultan not forgetting his old friend so Jusuf Mašković gets to a much higher – this time military – position. Next step was – only 4 years later – to become a chief admiral of Turkish fleet.

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Turkish galley of the 17th century

At that time, in 1644, Maltese corsairs seized a ship carrying high-status pilgrims to Mecca. Since the pirates had docked in Crete, Kapudan Yusuf Pasha encouraged Ibrahim to invade the island. This began a long war with Venice that lasted 24 years—Crete would not completely fall under Ottoman domination until 1669. In spite of the decline of La Serenissima, Venetian ships won victories throughout the Aegean, capturing Tenedos (1646) and blockading the Dardanelles. Kapudan Yusuf enjoyed temporary success in conquering Canea, starting a jealous rivalry with the Grand Vizier that led to his execution (January 1646) and the Grand Vizier’s deposition (December 1645).

In our, local stories, Yusuf disobeyed an order from the Sultan and acted chivalrously sparing some Christians and was executed for that. That seems unlikely as he was not executed right after the events. Also, When Yusuf Pasha returned to Constantinople in 1645, he married Fatma Sultan, the three-year-old daughter of Sultan Ibrahim I. He was also given the Ibrahim Pasha Palace as a residence. However, one year later in 1646, he was executed by the Sultan at the persuasion of Grand Vizier.

And the construction on his han in Vrana stopped ever since…

Until 2009 when EU agreed to give 75% of the 2,9 mil Euros for the completion of the han.

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Han before the restaurantion

It took 6 years before it was completed and only now, in 2017, the local authorities have enough funds to put the entire building into the use as a heritage hotel/events venue/museum and also an information center for this part of the county.

Maškovića han was restored with help of Turkish historians as it was important to complete it as close to the original idea from 1644 as possible! And the results are impressive!

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This area was to be for family only. Now, these are also rooms for travelers

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The aerial view

There is also a museum with collection from the entire Pakoštane region.

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And the originally planned mosque became a very unique restaurant that will serve a mix of Dalmatian classics and oriental dishes.

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Still in the works…

The entire property should open by summer of 2017.

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Inside on of the rooms. Furniture is coming soon.

Yusuf was a very special person. Raising from rags to riches but never forgetting his original home. Legend goes that he even sent 500 gold coins to the lady who gave him the leather shoes in Nadin! He never got to return but the local authorities managed to complete his dream 370 years later. It is never too late, I guess. The westernmost example of Turkish civil architecture shines as a wonderful example of preservation and care for our heritage.


Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibrahim_of_the_Ottoman_Empire
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silahdar_Yusuf_Pasha
http://www.zadarskilist.hr/clanci/13052008/pakostanac-na-celu-turske-flote

Hilltop Fortress of Orlić and true abandoned Croatia

Every year, before the holidays, my last post is on one of the forgotten and, for most people, completely lost hilltop fortresses. Not only that winter is the best period for exploring but it is also a time when most of us think of our past year, accomplishments, failures, desires and wishes. It feels natural to visit places where people no longer live. Places that sit abandoned for millenia.

One of those places is Orlić hilltop fortress (or Gradina how it is called locally). These sites are generally atributed to local Liburnian or, commonly known, Illyrian tribes that inhabited these regions before the Roman arrival but also mixed with all later settlers.

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Gradina Orlić is located just off the old road from Krupa village to Ervenik. Strange thing is that it was not mentioned in any of the numerous books and scripts I had a chance to read. That was a reason more to go to the actual place and see what it is all about.

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The road is mostly in a good shape until one reaches the path that goes to the foothill of the Orlić Hill. That path is for serious off-road vehicles and for those who don’t mind their cars getting scratched as it is a demanding and slow rocky goat path…

The landscape is rugged but fascinating. The very edge of Dalmatia offers a mixture rocky hillside and desert looking plane filled with small patches of woods and interesting stone walls so characteristic for the region.

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One can see the remains of a large family estate in the foothill called Macure.

The unusual stone walls usually just mark the fertile lands so the plants would not get eaten by goats. Now these shapes are just filled by oak trees and bushes… The hinterland of Zadar and Šibenik, as well as Split, are filled with these unusual shapes even reminding of ancient symbols or some mysterious civilization. With the way our progress and migration to the cities these will become mysterious and unknown “signs” quite soon.

The hilltop fortress is in a lovely position overlooking this impressive valley and having all control of the hillside in the back – towards modern day Knin.

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Orlić fortress on satelite image

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The climb is not difficult but it is somewhat demanding due to really rocky terrain. One can easily break a foot or leg in this landscape!

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The winter colors are mostly yellow and brown mixed with gray. It is a dramatic change from the lush greens of our spring and summer…

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The fallen oak

There is nothing much to see once on the top. The fortress – probably just a refuge, not even a settlement – is now just a pile of rocks.

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Both stone walls seen from below

But the place is perfect for listening to the winds of Velebit and enjoying great views. The place is perfect to enjoy solitude.

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Great view of hilltop fortress of Trebačnik in the distance
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Velebit in the distance

I try never to go back the same way so I continued towards Ervenik. Traces of past war visible at every step…

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True abandoned Croatia.

This part of the country will probably never be inhabited again. Just like former settlers abandoned Orlić fortress, past villagers left their stone villages after centuries living there just to look for better life somewhere else.

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I usually have at least one more person coming along as it is better to travel in these remote areas with someone who can call for help in case of a need. This time, no one was able to join me so I decided to go on my own. Sometimes, the urge is hard to resist.

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One of my goals is to travel every old road in the region. The journey continues!