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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The Sleepy Silba

Many wonderful islands are still “hidden” from the masses of sailing guests enjoying the central Dalmatian archipelago all the way to Dubrovnik. And that is absolutely fine. It is not like these islands don’t get anyone, but that is far from the crowded shores of Hvar, busy bays of Brac or the lines in front of Blue Cave of Biševo.

One of such, less visited pearls is definitely Silba. Beautiful island paradise North West of Zadar and just a short sailing distance from the southern shores of Lošinj.

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(image from TZ Silba web site)

Silba is an island where one can only think of peace and tranquility when mentioned. There are no cars on the island and there are only 290 inhabitants year round. Summer is, of course, more lively but that is a very short period.

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The main pier and ferry harbor

History of the island and its only settlement is quite simple as it was always owned by some of the local noble families from Zadar or Losinj with “independence” bought only in the 1852. The rise of captains and ship owners from Silba started all the way in the 1600s but Napoleon burned down the entire fleet in the early 1800s. The second rise of Silba merchant marine was in the mid 1800s with an impressive fleet of 98 sailing ships. Orebić and Lošinj are more famous as their fleets were larger but the same fate got them all as they did not see the advantages of steamers…

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Silba harbor in the 1970s

Another terrible disaster was the arrival of Phylloxera and the death of all of Silba’s vineyards. The vineyards were never replanted which is a pity as Silba was home to one very special type of vine that would ripe earlier than any other grape variety on the coast: as early as July.

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Typical view of Silba from turn of the century

Today, Silba is best known as an oasis of peace. I had a rare chance to visit this May and enjoyed immensely walking the silent streets, enjoying the genuine tranquility and calmness. Almost a meditation.

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Silba is also known for its best known monument – toreta.

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It was built by a local captain Marinić who built it so his loved one can watch for his ship when returning. In those days, one would sail for years so the young lady could not wait and married another man. When he returned, he realized the sad truth but he also saw a young daughter of his former love and waited for her to grow up and merry her. They lived a happy life and had nine children!

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Before forestation

Silba is also a popular stop for fishermen fishing in this part of the Adriatic for many centuries now.

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With tourism getting to all islands and parts of the coastline, Silba seems to be escaping the faith of southern islands and enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere even in the peak season.

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But spring is the best time to visit. Very different from anything one can see south of Šibenik, Silba should stay a secret!

Megaliths and Secrets of Stolac

It is always a pleasure to go across the border to Hercegovina- a region full of amazing places and sites. Especially when friends organize it and we have Mr. Ante Vujnović as a guide. Ante is a director of Radimlja archaeological park near Stolac and the best person to show us around. He is very dedicated to preserving historical heritage of the region. Hercegovina, although being part of Bosnia and Hercegovina, culturally and historically cannot be separated from Dalmatia despite the borders set by Austrians in the 19th century.

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Austrian monarchy map from 1848

Stolac, due to its troubled past – both recent and distant – offers a variety of unique sites to explore and visit. From the very unique necropolis of Radimlja to the fascinating walls of Daorson and the Stolac fortress.

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Stolac on 1904 postcard

Our first stop and the meeting point is usually Radimlja necropolis. Numerous pages have been written on the stečci monuments and this particular site and you can read more on Radimlja and other historic sites of Stolac region on the official UNESCO web site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5282/UNESCO

This past year, stećak monuments have been listed with UNESCO as the World Heritage and that includes all the monuments in the region of Balkans – over 70 000 known monuments!

Bosnia and Hercegovina today holds the most of these unique monuments with Radimlja and Boljuni near Stolac being the most decorated ones.

The necropolis did not change much although the Austrian built road going to Stolac split Radimlja in two parts and destroying about 15 – 20 monuments. The landscape has changed significantly and, today, there are several modern buildings and warehouses a bit too close to the necropolis…

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The monuments have been cleaned some years ago loosing that historic patina seen on old photos. Of course, it will form again with time.

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Monuments have various decorations but Radimlja has the greatest number of human figures. Hunting, dancing, fighting… life as it was back in the days when they were carved. Most of the monuments have been carved between 1200s and early 1500s when the Turkish conquest completely changed the life in this part of the world. There is a controversy as some people consider these monuments to be much older but there is no evidence for that and, especially the ones at Radimlja, have been well documented and connected to the local, medieval noble family.

The next stop for our small group was the mysterious Daorson. Actually, quite a bit is known of this place but there is a lot to be discovered as only limited archaeology research was done in a single campaign almost 50 years ago.

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This impressive hill fort was built on a prehistoric fortified settlement which was dated to the early 17/16th century BC and existed to the end of the late Bronze Age: 9/8th century BC. The final destruction of Daorson is dated to mid or second half of the 1st century AD and we know this from the details of the Roman wars against the Delmati tribe that lived here at that time.

Today, Daorson is still very impressive with its unique megalithic walls surrounding what is believed to be the religious center/refuge.

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Besides Ante as a local authority, we had some proper archaeologists with us so we learned a LOT! And learned a lot about the hard-to-see defense structures in front of these massive walls, numerous graves and bases of ancient houses…

Basically, this is what the plan of Daorson looks like:

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By Nova Akropola

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Remains of the Daorson “Pyramid/Temple”

Daorson was built from the rocks from the nearby quarry and we took a short walk north to see what it looks like today.

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One can learn more on Daorson and it’s Hellenistic traditions from this paper (in Croatian): http://hrcak.srce.hr/file/118555

I also found a small piece of pottery just lying on the side looking completely unimportant:

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But, with us, we had Mr. Miro Katić  (of Trogir conservation department) who has a PhD on Hellenistic pottery and immediately attributed this small piece to Pharos colony – a Greek colony from Hvar Island that existed at the same time as Daorson and, obviously, had a strong connections with this area. Connections were numerous and Daorson was a very prosperous community at its heyday.

Next stop: Boljuni
The necropolis in Boljuni numbers 274 stećak tombstones, 92 of which are decorated and 9 of which have epitaphs, making it one of the most interesting necropolis in the area.

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This group of monuments is quite well preserved and with several unique decorations. One of the monuments even depicts some strange monsters/dragons:

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But most have simpler decorations and ornaments.

Boljuni is a very fascinating place well worth visiting when in the area!

And then it was time to finally visit Stolac. This very historic town is known for the impressive fortress on the hill over Bregava river shown below on numerous historic images.

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 Fortress is a bit of a climb but well worth it as the views are stunning and the fortress itself is impressive example of medieval fortifications in this part of the country. The earliest reference to Vidoški fort – as it is called – is in a charter dated 1444, followed by a series of charters up to 1454, as the possession of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača. Stolac became part of the Ottoman sultanate following the Ottoman conquest in 1465. And that changed everything as the introduction of a new religion divided people and that division continues till modern days…

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Inside the fortress, there is still quite a bot of work but, generally, it is in good shape and the effort to preserve is quite visible. This is also a location where Stolačka Tarča is taking place – a medieval fair with emphasis on education and traditions of the region. This event takes place in May.

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Image of Stolačka Tarča

Best description of Stolac today would be: “a sleepy town by Bregava”. It looks very lovely from the Vidoški grad fortress:

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But the walk through the town reveals all the tragedy of the recent war in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Many houses have not been restored and many more, due to emigration from the area, are collapsing. Today, the peace is just on the surface as both Croats and Bosniaks are trying to patch the wounds from the war of the 90s. The scars are still quite deep. Visiting the Podgradska mosque, we were approached by an elderly Bosniak telling us few things about the mosque and the local Muslim traditions.

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Podgradska mosque, 1732

Stolac is a lovely place. Layers upon layers of fascinating history and stunning nature. It should definitely be included when visiting the region as it offers quite a bit for travelers looking for unique and off the beaten path experiences. No matter if it is just a stop en route to inner Bosnia or even en route to Dubrovnik, this is a great stop.

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And we will return. Many more historic places to see and explore deep in beautiful Hercegovina!