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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European Green Lizard

The general opinion is that Europe has no exotic fauna nor exciting wildlife but that is only partially true. Wherever a true lover of nature looks, he or she can find exciting animals. In Mediterranean countries, besides sea life,  the coastal landscape hides several interesting animals and one of the most beautiful ones is definitely European green lizard (Lacerta viridis). There are three very similar species living in Croatia and all three are protected: Lacerta bilineata (Daudin, 1802), Lacerta trilineata (Bedriaga), 1886) and Lacerta viridis (Laurenti,1768)

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The local name is zelembać. This beautiful lizard is easily recognized and cannot be mistaken for a different lizard in this area as it looks almost fluorescent!  It is easy to differentiate Balkan green lizard and European green lizard – European green lizard has blue throats while the Balkan one has yellow. Biggest differences are noticeable when the animals are young as all the various colors and stripes are visible at that stage of their lives.

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Young Balkan green lizard

Zelembać is a large lizard that can grow up to 16 cm (cc 6,3 ”) but the tail can be twice as long! It is usually seen enjoying sunshine on rocks or lawns, or hiding in the bushes. Or running across the road. It is not a very shy lizard but it does usually stay hidden and will not allow one to approach it too close. Natural predators are birds of pray but also cats. Zelembać is very useful in the fields feeding on snails, bugs, small lizards but also mice.

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The females nest about 6 – 20 eggs in really humid and hot places and the lizards mature at the age of two. There can be up to 200 lizards living on one hectare!
The males are easily differentiated from females for the vivid blue color of their throats but they are also bigger and with bigger heads.

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Although not critically endangered, all three species are protected – the fine is 400 Euros for killing one. There is no real reason for doing so as this is a very useful animal in all habitats.

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!