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!

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Old Road to Tulove Grede and over Velebit Mountain

This past spring we finally managed to take the famous old road Majstorska cesta leading from Dalmatia to Lika and passing beautiful Tulove grede rock formation.

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This is where the adventure begins

Tulove grede are one of the most scenic parts of Velebit mountain and, if you ever took the highway from the coast inland, it is the formation just above the Sv Rock Tunnel. But, to get there, one has to take the old road and that is possible just from outside Obrovac town.

The road is wide and, for some part, asphalted but the true adventure starts once you leave the paved road. The macadam part of the road is in very good shape and can be easily traveled with normal cars.

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Highway just before the Sv Rok tunnel. Tulove grede formation in the distance

This 41 km long road has been constructed in two phases between 1825 and 1832 to shorten the traveling time between the center of the Monarchy (Wiena) and, then regional capital of Dalmatia, Zadar. This very demanding task was trusted to Josip Kajetan Knežić of Petrinja who was a major in Austrian army and a self taught engineer. Knežić was a fascinating character and left a lasting mark on Croatian architecture and ingeneering with numerous roads, architectural monuments and irrigation works through the region.

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I have one bridge to visit and then will write more about him but if you have ever traveled the road from Senj inwards, you have witnessed another Knežić masterpiece and you definitely remember the chapel of Sv Mihovil in Majorija.

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Back on the road, we had a lovely ascent from the start of macadam and the beautiful views of Zadar hinterland and islands opened!

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Canyon of Zrmanja and Novigradsko more bay

The road is simply great and kept in great condition. It is also proclaimed a National heritage so someone will be taking care of it (I hope).

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Probably one of the most favorite stops on this road is the church of Sv. Franjo or (St Frances).

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The church is now locked and not sure who has the keys as I would really like to get inside some day. Just across the street are the remains of several buildings that served for guards and maintenance back while the road was still in use. Near the church are two monuments and one is dedicated to Francesco Farcasso who died here in 1851 battling 22 bandits. The newer one is from 1862 and dedicated to Ivan Zagorac who froze to death.

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The entire area is quite lovely and makes a great stop.

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But these are not the only monuments on this road…

This was also a very important communication during the Homeland war in the 90s. Many traces of past combats and still visible and parts of the area were under land mines till 2014. The saddest monument is to one of true heroes of our war.

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Velebit was one of the harshest and worst battlefields of our war in the 90s and tombstones of many heroes keep reminding us of their sacrifices.

And few minutes later, we reached the foothill of Tulove grede where there is plenty of space to park cars and start the ascent.

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The ascent is easy and the trails are nicely marked. This is a very popular destination for all nature lovers and, especially during weekends, there will be at least a dozen of people.

There are two trails leading to the peak of Tulove Grede. Both are fine and both take you around the HUGE hole in the ground that is, apparently, a cave that collapsed long ago.

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Apparently, there is a small water spring at the very bottom of the hole but one needs some 10 meters of rope to reach it.

Our friends took the route above the hole.

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Once we were at the peak, because of the kids, we did not go all the way to the top of the rocks but that is another cc 20 minutes along the marked trail and some climbing is required. The rock formation near the peak are fascinating!

 

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Bunker form the past war

And after a short break, we went downhill for a picnic lunch and to continue our adventure all the way to Lika.

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This area is known among birdwatchers as home to Alpine cough (Kavka in Croatian; Pyrrhocorax graculus) colony and we saw them flying above us.

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They are easily recognized for red legs and longish yellow beak.

On the road to Lika, we saw few motorcycles as well but no cyclists which was surprising as this is one of their favorite routes.

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The climb is easy for all generations.

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And then it was time to follow the road all the way to beautiful Lika region. As soon as we crossed the “border”, the scenery changed and we drove mostly through the forest.

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Once in Lika, you can either turn back to take the same road again or take the highway. Under the watching eye of a Common buzzard we left home.

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Majstorska cesta is one of great adventures in Croatia no matter how you want to cross it. It would even be fun walking it and camping overnight somewhere in the wilderness.

So many great adventures!

The Highest Peak of Croatia – Sinjal

Even though Croatia is quite mountainous, we don’t have any peaks over 2000 meters. Our highest peak is Sinjal (1831 meters/6004 ft) in the Dinara mountain range and I had a desire to climb it for quite a while. Actually, everyone in the country should attempt it at least  once!

Dinara is one of the most beautiful mountains in the country and this particular view is one of my favorite ones of the entire Dalmatian hinterland!

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The view of Dinara from Peruča lake (Spring, 2015) – This is NOT Dinara where the highest peak is but the southern section of the mountain

This hike was planned for a long time. First we wanted to do it this past May but had no time. With forecast looking favorable for the beginning of October, we made quick plans for this Saturday, filled up the tanks and made small shopping for food. The climb is demanding and there would be no time for proper meal.

Before departing, I did a lot of research but the information available online is not really sufficient. Especially not for those willing to drive. That is why I will put quite a few photos and give as many details as I can.

First, Kinin is the starting point.

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Knin in the morning mist

We decided to meet near Krčić waterfall. That is one of the most impressive waterfalls in Croatia. Usually.

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A very dry season

This time of year, there was no water coming from Krčić stream just above the waterfall. This was our meeting point. Right by the very start of Krka river.

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Krka
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The fleet

One can reach Krčić just by turning first left (or at the bridge) when driving from Knin to Sinj. Since were going the oposite direction, we returned and followed signs to Strmica and Bosnian border. Only few kilometers on that road, there is a sign to a village Guge. Take right before restaurant Ivan and follow the sign to Dinara (sharp left).

The road to Dinara is a dirt road from the start. While it can be done by a regular car, this is not recommended at all. You need a proper off road vehicle to do this trip. Or one can walk.

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Guardian dogs

The road is wide and in fairly good shape. Almost no traffic and no life but we did see a couple of shepherd dogs.In any case, follow the signs to Planinarski dom. Not too many of them but enough. I also used Google maps to stay on the right road. After a fairly boring, short ride, the views of the mountains became stunning. We came out of woods to Markov grob view point. This is also a good spot to leave a car and walk all the way to Sinjal.

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We saw some other people making a stop and taking photos and we also met a guy who is counting wolves! Of course, he does not see them but looks for wolf dung and other signs.

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Counting wolves

We did see, just before reaching Markov grob a jackal crossing the road! So I was glad I could report it to someone who can actually mark it down where it matters. It was actually an interesting combination of a dark jackal and a hawk crossing the road. I am sure that would mean something in more romantic times where “signs from the skies” were important but we just continued.

We got to talk to this guy (he is from Sinj) and learned that wolves in Croatia are truly endangered and that there are only about 200-300 animals left! There were also some newspaper articles on populating the region with large Siberian wolf but we learned that it is all nonsense.

The road continues right from this point and we drove to another sign and then up the hill. We also saw some hiking markers to help out. Soon, we reached a very scenic Badanj peak overlooking a lovely valley. The weather did not look good any more…

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Badanj
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Weird engineering

…and this was the last bad part of the road till Brezovac mountaineers’ lodge located at the edge of a very picturesque and spacious valley.

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This was an ancient home of numerous families of shepherds. There is a great video of last ones of them: https://youtu.be/7ymcKpsk3cw  The times have changed.

Brezovac lodge is a solid place with great grill area ( of course). This is, for many, the place to park the car and continue on foot to Sinjal as the path through the forest is quite scenic.

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Brezovac

Since we had kids and most of us are in no shape to walk for three hours from the lodge to the summit, we followed another group driving to a closer place. The trail is nicely marked through the woods and there is no way one can get lost.

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This road is for serious off road vehicles only! And then we parked in a lovely valley.

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Peaks in the mist

The weather was great and sunny but there were clouds at the very peak and we could not really tell where the peak was. Again, the trail is very well marked and it is nearly impossible to get lost.

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One part of the group left us while waiting for our friends who decided to park at the lodge. We started the hike with kids as the trail is easy at the beginning.

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In the fresh, mountain air we got hungry fairly soon and it was already 11 AM. The right time for marenda (or brunch).

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What’s a hike without a beer?
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What’s a hike without home made apple pie?

And it was time to continue as we were still quite far from the peak. Some of us did not feel like going much further so part of the group stayed in the meadow below waiting for us who decided to reach the peak.

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Waaay to ambitious for a 5 year old :)))

We continued following the trail that now got steeper.

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..and got us into the woods.dinara031

This was an easy part…

After the woods, the trails gets much steeper and more difficult. I had to stop several times and thought about giving up on half a dozen occasions.

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Getting serious

But, when one travels in a group, it is easier to continue. Stopping to catch a breath and to enjoy the views also helped.

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Soon, we were in the most difficult part of the climb. That is the part that is very rocky and one needs to be careful. That is right below the final part that leads straight to the summit.

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Sinjal!

The monument at the peak has probably been destroyed by lightning and I was so looking forward to see that sign saying that this is the highest peak of Croatia. But there is only an official sign.

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…and we did get the stamp from the box!

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Quite proud of my son as there are not too many 12 year olds that have been here!

The peak was a busy place as there was another small group of hikers just below the peak and we got offered the gemišt :)))

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Too bad for the views but this was all we saw from the very peak.

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And then it was time to go back. It took us over  2 hours to  get to the peak from the parking but going back was much faster and with fewer resting stops.

Descent is not as demanding but still not a joke. And I wanted to enjoy the nature and take some shots of the region.

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Badanj in the distance

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I could not think of an easier way to get here but some guys thought of a HARDER way to get to Sinjal!

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Their objective is to climb to the peak (with their bikes on their backs) and then drive down to Glavaš. Glavaš is another point where people start their hikes to Sinjal.

We got to the valley soon and decided to drive back as the days are already shorter and wanted to enjoy more time at the foothill of Badanj.

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Badanj has some fascinating stone “towers” and shapes.

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While there were not too many animals, I did see one spectacular caterpillar!

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Spurge hawk-moth caterpillar (Hyles euphorbiae L.) or Mlječikin Ljiljak in Croatian

Leaving Dinara behind us, we stopped at trout farm to get some fish farmed at the very start of Krka river. It does not get any better than this!

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Going back, through the night and quiet villages of Bukovica, we felt (again) blessed by the fact that we live in such a special and uniquely beautiful little country. I do take my kids everywhere with me so they learn to appreciate all the riches we have and to stay connected to nature. Together with about a dozen others who climbed that peak on the same day with us, we are a minority. It is easier to sit on a sunny riva and have an opinion on the economy, tourism, politics, sports…