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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Benkovac Wine Tasting

Earlier this spring we had a pleasure to show our hospitality to several quite interesting guests from USA. Mr. Frank Dietrich of Blue Danube Wines, joined by his staff, wine writer Marcy Gordon and Zdravko and Marion Podolski of GoHvar blog all joined us at a very special little tasting in Benkovac.

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The tasting was held at a 15th century Benkovac castle – an impressive historic monument that was nicely restored and now houses a local museum. It is often used as a great presentation venue for various events.

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When the guests arrived, the food was also served. Just small bites but very tasty and quite authentic: escargot done the traditional way for the region…

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and prisnac.

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Lady in typical Bukovica outfit.

But the stars of the day were, of course, local wines! All the major wine makers showed up: Škaulj, Figurica, Masvin…

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Mr. Šime Škaulj from Nadin at his stand

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Figurica from Smilčić

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Almost all wines were organic and had the eco label which was a bit surprising but I am glad that the wine makers of the region are taking the right path after the war and neglected vineyards. Most of the wines were local maraština (white), merlot, plavac but also Masvin served their own Crljenak which was surprisingly good.

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One of more interesting wines was Asseria by small Bačić winery as it was a blend of several wines and also local maraska cherry brandy.

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The event was a great success and the best proof how a very unique settings can serve as a fabulous place for small and intimate events. The organisation was at a high level and all wines served proved that the quality is (finally) coming back to the region of Ravni Kotari. The region was once a major exporter of wines but, in the past 60-70 years has lost all the quality in favor of mass production… Badel, a major Croatian company for wine and liquor, made the tide turn with their Korlat vineyards and now is being followed by small local winemakers all over the region.

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The Benkovac tourist board with Bankovac Museum did a wonderful job in organizing everything!

So, what to say but “Živjeli!”

Explore more of Croatian food and wine with our Culinary Croatia.

Following the Roman Roads

The spring is finally back! Great time to enjoy outdoors and to do some final exploring before we get too busy. Focus is crucial in our line of business so there will not be so many trips purely for pleasure this summer…
First Sunday of April brought beautiful, sunny weather and we decided to head in to the hills. This time following ancient Roman road leading from the coast all the way to the interior.

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Restored milestones

The basic route was to follow the modern road (that closely follows the Roman and pre-Roman communications) from Pakostane on the coast via ruins of Asseria  to modern day Medviđa (Liburnian/RomanSidrona?) and Krupa river spring into the heart of southern part of Velebit massif.
Tourist board of Benkovac did a great job putting the milestones by the road!!!

Our first stop was Kaštel Žegarski. Ancient tower guarding a fertile valley of Žegar. I have never visited although must have passed it several dozen times.

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Tower of Žegar

It is a typical tower from the 1500s like numerous other in the region. It is quite well preserved with even some wooden elements still supporting the former windows. Hidden in the woods, one has to look closely when entering the village to spot it between the houses on the right.

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Spring is here

We continued over the hill to Krupa river spring. It is quite lively by the river these days with people picking wild asparagus, shepherds with goats and sheep…

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Goats at pasture
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Dung beetle at work

We did not spend too much time there as we are familiar with the place. Krupa is probably Croatia’s most beautiful river but the spring is hardly impressive.

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Krupa river spring from the road above

Soon after the spring, the magic starts and few kilometers later, it enters the most beautiful canyon.

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But, our goal was Lika. Following the ancient road that most certainly passed through this region. It followed the ancient communications and gradina hilltop fortresses lined along the route. The last one is Smokovac near Krupa spring. It is easy to find it – starts right near the main water bottling plant and heads straight to the mountains.

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Landscape did not change in several millenia

The landscape is quite barren, rocky and inhospitable. Bura is harsh in this region and there is lots of snow in the winter. The road gets ruined by the water flowing but there seems to be someone taking care of it as it is in a fairly good shape. Nothing a proper SUV cannot cross anyways. Not for regular cars!

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We thought we were alone and there will be no one on the road…

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But then we saw a WV Caddy approaching! We just passed him but noticed that the driver was surprised as we were. Obviously, we were on a good road so we continued further up the mountain where the landscape got more serious, mountain-like  and the the condition of the road worsened.

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Duboki dol

We were at the crossroads at one moment and had no clue where to go. Duboki Dol fields were to our right and one section – better looking – leading towards it but another section did not look that bad either. Had to even walk part of the road to make an educated guess at one point…

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Mountain is stunning!

Luckily, the WV Caddy returned (followed by two SUVs, probably hunters) and we asked for the directions. What are the odds to actually have someone to ask for the directions! The guy was most helpful so we followed him for part of the road. It was the road to our left and from then on, it was “left, left, right, right” to get to the main road in Lika – if anyone wants to drive this.

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Offroading at its finest

The mountain offers stunning views but we stopped only for picnic lunch as we wanted to see few more places that day.

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In bloom

Soon we were across: at the Lika side of the trail. The road did not offer too many evidences of ancient traffic actually going this way but this is the easiest way to cross the mountain and there are plenty of wells and water holes along the route so it must have been busy back in the day. Archaeologists did some exploring in this area but plenty of work yet to be done as no guard posts have been located or possible settlements/gradina hilltop fortresses.

The landscape in Lika was typical for Velebit.

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Getting to Lika

It was a great experience and the kids enjoyed running through the fields, echoes of the mountain, fresh air … Next time I plan to spend a whole day in the mountain and maybe do some bird watching as I hear some birds I never heard before. There must be some owls as well since Velebit is known for large ones.

Talking about big birds…

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Gray Heron in a puddle by the road

Our next stop was supposed to be an ancient road near Knin but could not locate it so we continued to Mokro Polje.

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Entering Mokro Polje

It is a fairly large village located in a beautiful valley by Zrmanja river. It was predominantly Serbian (cc 1800 inhabitants back in 1991) and it is almost abandoned now with only about a dozen elderly living in few houses.

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Classic Dalmatian architecture

Some are restoring their old houses and doing quite a good job although that AC unit could have been hidden from the front facade…

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The village was probably inhabited by the Roman veterans after the Rome finalized the conquest of the region. Nearby Burnum military camp was de-militarized in 69 AD as Roman peace was finally brought upon the local tribes of Delmates and Liburnaes. The Morko Polje field is quite big and offers a great place to live.

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Unusual detail

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And beautiful Zrmanja river runs through.

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There is life everywhere. Except in the houses…

While picking asparagus, we met one lady who was just going to get fresh water from the river and she told us bout people leaving and how only few elderly ladies remain. Their little hamlet is further away from the main road and it is very picturesque with tall oak trees still standing.

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The old lady told us that someone was here looking for tall trees to cut them down but they did not let these beautiful giants to be cut down. Some people simply don’t have a heart 😦

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Cut down trees…

It was sad to see this lady (83) being the youngest in her village. But that is the destiny of many more villages in the country…

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It was time to move on: with freshly picked 2 kilos of wild asparagus. We took another ancient road towards Ervenik. Views of Zrmanja were beautiful from almost every stop along the canyon.roman056

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Ruins of Keglevica tower by the river of Zrmanja

So life thrived along these roads for centuries during the Roman times and then, after the barbaric invasion, probably the entire region was inhabited for longer than that. The life came back with some Morlach settlers escaping the Turkish rule back in late 1500s but will end soon. And then? When will be the next time people move to Morko Polje to live? Never?

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First swallows have returned

Everything will be left for birds and animals.Maybe it is better that way.