All of a sudden, as you follow a bend in the road, the sea appears as a sparkling stretch of silver glinting in the sun and dotted with rocky islands the colour of ochre – it is a truly breathtaking sight. With its clear waters, this sea exudes a sense of the eternal: you would hardly be surprised to see the oars of a passing trireme rising and falling in time as it transports its cargo of amphorae filled with ambrosia towards the port of Epidaurus.
The sea is first and foremost a channel of communication and exchange. It has brought dozens of influences to bear on the country: Greek, Roman, Eastern, Byzantine, Venitian and Turkish, some the consequence of trading partnerships, others of conquering armies. These influences are clear in the monuments, the winegrowing and olive cultivation, the tiny ports with brightly coloured façades and half-closed blinds, and in the villages carved out of the white rock.
The exceptionnally clear waters of the Adriatic
Travellers who take the road that runs along the coastline from Cavtat to Zadar, and beyond to the Kvarner Gulf and Rijeka, will find that the sea is a constant source of both delight and torment. There is the magnificent landscape, illuminated by waters in which you can discern every possible shade of blue, from turquoise to dark blue, not to mention the greens; waters whose ripples form the slightest hint of foam, and then there is the temptation to dive in and enjoy interminable swims in the incredibly clear waters. However, the Croatian Adriatic is not easily tamed! The price you pay for the spectacular beauty of this coastline, where the smallest island is in fact the summit of an ancient mountain, is a lack of beaches and, when you do find one, it will most probably be pebbly. Armed with a decent pair of sandals, you will have to make do with the rocks (which are more or less smooth), the artificial cement beaches, or a “lungomare”, a promenade that runs along the water. But little matter. Even if the beaches are found wanting, the waters can’t be bettered.
A delicate coastline
Steep and spectacular due to the proximity of the mountains, the Adriatic coastline is characterised by its 1 185 islands and islets. It’s a rare spot on the coastal road that offers an unobstructed view of the horizon. All along the Dalmatian coast the islands stretch out in size in a reflection of the mountainous landscape: their long and narrow form, along which there runs a ridge, reproduces the form of the mountain ranges from which they derive, while the rest of the mountain is submerged by the sea. The islands are separated from the mainland by narrow canals.
Moutains with a foot in the water
In Dalmatia it is difficult to dissociate the coast from the mountains, which tend to drop straight into the sea, as is the case along the Velebit range, where the grey and infertile slopes run down to an incredibly beautiful yet inhospitable shore. Here there is no coastal plain; the villages seem to cling precariously to the rare indentations the coast offers. Further south the mountains stand a kilometre or two back from the coastline but their slopes are just as steep and impassable, making an impressive backdrop to the towns and ports.
Dubrovnik, Makarska and Trogir make the most of their rocky environment. The slightest widening of the strip of coastline is taken advantage of and planted with fruit trees or vegetables, as has been done around Zadar and Ploče. The estuaries (Cetina, Krka) are tucked into deep canyons and the shore itself is carved up and rocky. You can drive for over 100km along the Velebit coast without finding easy access to the sea, even though it lies just below the road.
An Italian touch
Despite the mountainous backdrop, the flora of the Kvarner Gulf is distinctly more exuberant: between Opatija and Labin, in the shelter of the Učka mountain range, palm, cypress, and pine trees, oleander and bougainvillea create a stretch of riviera to rival the Côte d’Azur. The narrow and mountainous triangular peninsula of Istria boasts a landscape that is quintessentially Mediterranean. The soil is a deep red, and vines and olive trees grow all over the peninsula, lovingly cultivated between the low stone walls that intersect the scrubland and oak forests. On the mountain peaks, perched villages lend an Italian feel to the landscape. Less uneven than in other spots, the western shore, which is lined with a coastal plain, is spectacular in places. For example, there is the astonishing Lim Fjord (between Poreč and Rovinj) with its ports crowding the peninsulas.
The Dinaric barrier
Set back from the coast, the mountain range of the Dinaric Alps reaches across the country for close to 650km, stretching from Italy in the northwest to Albania in the south. The peak inside Croatia’s borders is the Dinara Mountain (1 831m), which straddles the border with Bosnia, close to the town of Knin, but the most rugged section of the range is to be found in Dalmatia (the Velebit mountains).
It is the parallel lines of ridges that lend the Croatian mountains their unusual aspect. Seen from above, they resemble a long and wrinkled ribbon, an infertile barrier that is virtually impassable at certain points. More than just a climatic barrier, separating the Mediterranean coast from the continental inland, it can also be considered a cultural barrier between Latin and Slavic territories.
A series of peaks reaching over 1 700m gathers on the Croatian section of the range, of which Sveto Brdo is the highest peak at 1 751m. Despite the proximity of the coast and the fact that the coastal side of the range is exposed to the sun, the mountains enjoy a highland climate and are covered in snow in winter. It is possible to ski in the Velebit mountains, for example, at the little resort of Baške Oštarije, less than 20km from the sea! It can get extremely cold up there, especially when the bora (or bura), an icy northerly wind, is blowing. Summers, on the other hand, are dry and warm. It’s the karstic nature of the mountain range that gives it its grey-beige colour and rugged aspect.
Between the Sava and the Drava
The inland regions of Croatia form part of the Pannonian Basin, a large low-pressure area of plains and low hills flanked by the Dinaric Alps to the south and the Carpathian Mountains to the north. The Croatian part of the basin is circumscribed by the Danube (to the east). It also borders Serbia, by the Drava to the north, which separates Croatia from Hungary, and the Sava (to the south), which marks the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The basin is made up of several regions of plains – Slavonia, for example, which centres on the city of Osijek, and the Zagreb plain – but it also features areas with a more rugged landscape. The climate is continental, with cold and snowy winters and warm, dry summers.
Flat Slavonian country
Although verdant in springtime, the plains of Slavonia can be a little bleak. Stretching from the Drava valley to the area around Zagreb, the Slavonian plains, like the Great Hungarian Plain, are given over exclusively to maize crops and are dotted with small roadside villages. Only the cornlofts lend any variation to the monotony.
Part of the plain is liable to flooding (due to the presence of large rivers in such an unremittingly flat landscape) and populated with birds, some of which are migratory. It’s a fisherman’s paradise here: you can fish for carp, pike, perch and Wels catfish. The Kopački rit nature park, for example, north of Osijek, has just such an area, which can be visited by boat when the Danube invades it. Another one around the Sava valley area, near Sisak, is the Lonjsko polje, whose wooden houses are besieged by storks.
To the north of Zagreb and to the south of the road that runs between Varaždin and Osijek, the landscape is more rugged, abutting the Alps in Slovenia. Here is the Hrvatsko Zagorje (or “Croatian upland”), whose every sun-exposed slope is planted with vines, and whose summits dotted with the elegant onion domes of village churches lend a distinctive character to the area. In the centre of the region, the Papuk mountain range culminates at just 953m yet it does have a certain charm with its pointed peaks, deep valleys, conifer forests and villages that cling to even the steepest of slopes.
A protected environment
One of Croatia’s principal attractions is its wealth of protected nature reserves, which can be found in each of the country’s diverse terrains. More than a third of Croatia is covered in forest, principally on the hills of the Pannonian Basin and the low mainland slopes of the Dinaric Alps. The most beautiful areas have been granted national park or nature park status.
Of the eight national parks, three protect coastal areas. The Kornati archipelago covers a labyrinth of 140 islands. Renamed after the cliffs, the islands are particularly prized by sailing fans and Robinson Crusoe types looking for a little island of their own.
Close to Dubrovnik is the island of Mljet (100km²), the western side of which, a third of the island’s total surface area, has been declared a national park. In the park there are two saltwater lakes linked by a channel to the sea. Their water level varies according to rainfall, and the larger of the lakes has a small island upon which there stands a Benedictine monastery and a church, both originally built in the 12C.
The Brijuni islands off the Istrian peninsula constitute the third coastal national park. The two main islands are surrounded by twelve islets. The protected Mediterranean flora and the zoo on the islands make them one of the best-loved holiday destinations in Croatia. Numerous heads of state have visited the area since the beginning of the 20C.
Mountains and forests
Three other parks covering mountainous areas constitute a real paradise for hikers. Since 1978 the North Velebit has been part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves. It’s the most interesting section of the Velebit mountain range, which has a peak of 1 757m and includes the special reserves of Rožanski and Hajdučki kukovi as well as one of the deepest caves in the world, the Luka cave. The botanical garden, located close to the Zavižan weather station at an altitude of 1 480m, attracts both botanists and tourists.
Further south, Paklenica National Park stretches out over 36km². It is best known for its two vertiginous canyons and the Anića Kuk face, 712m high and scaled by mountain climbers of all abilities. Botanists also have plenty to keep them busy since the site is home to around 1 150 different plant species, Including Europe’s largest orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, now rarely seen in France. It takes around twelve years for the seed to produce a plant capable of flowering!
Close to the border with Slovenia, in the most wooded area of the region, Risnjak national park is home to forests, both deciduous (beech, elm, maple) and coniferous (fir, spruce), which stretch as far as the eye can see.
Rivers and waterfalls
Lastly, two national parks preserve exceptional hydrographical phenomena. Plitvice National Park, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the best known of Croatia’s natural treasures. With its 16 lakes linked by 92 waterfalls, it appeals both to hikers and to the less athletically inclined as a train and boats offer the possibility of exploring in comfort.
Then there is Krka, located between Šibenik and Knin, which boasts the most beautiful karstic river in Croatia, to be found at the end of a canyon dug into the limestone plateau. The Krka waterfalls, especially at Skradinski Buk, are particularly impressive. The Visova islet with its Franciscan monastery is another highlight of a visit to the park.
Other large areas have been classified as nature parks. Among the high-altitude sites are the Biokovo mountain range, which lies close to the coast just south of Split, and, much further north, the Učka mountain range, which overlooks Opatija seaside resort. A little closer to earth are the Samobor hills, the Žumberak Massif and Medvednica Mountain, all surrounding Zagreb. On the Slavonian plain, the nature park of the Papuk mountain range looms over Našice.
Several nature parks are renowned for their bird wildlife: the marshland of Kopački Rit and Lonjsko Polje, as well as Vransko Jezero, the largest lake in Croatia, near Zadar, where numerous migratory birds stop off. Offshore, on the island of Dugi Otok, the Telašcića Nature Park with its impressive cliffs is an extension of the Kornati island archipelago.