I first began visiting Croatia decades ago when it was part of the former Yugoslavia and I was still living in England, the country of my birth. My initial visit was a trip by ferry from Italy, across the Adriatic to Pula, the largest city in the Istrian county. Described by Lonely Planet as “workaday”, Pula then seemed to me almost exotic, such was my limited experience of overseas travel.
Since then I have travelled to better known destinations in Croatia such as Dubrovnik and Split, but my visits came to an abrupt halt in 1991 with the outbreak of the Balkan wars that followed Croatia’s (and Slovenia’s) declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in June of that year. In the years that followed, Yugoslavia was broken up into its constituent republics, tourism plummeted and, tragically, some of the most popular tourist destinations were seriously damaged by direct shelling, such as occurred in Dubrovnik.
(Remains of Kupari Grand Hotel, Dubrovnik, years after the wars ended.)
(Moskar Restaurant, Dubrovnik, today.)
Today, opinion is divided about how the six now independent states have managed the recovery of their tourism industries. While some parts of the region are criticised for promoting “war tourism” – a focus on war memorials, museums, memorabilia and war-themed tours – Croatia is accused of the opposite by distancing itself from the war and attempting to reinvent its history to align it more closely with that of Western Europe. Whatever the truth, Croatia has pulled off a remarkable recovery of its tourism industry that surpasses that of most of its neighbours.
Many travellers are familiar with Croatia’s stunning coastline and walled cities, but they may not have ventured inland to where Mount Dinara is located, close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. I love these more remote, wilderness areas and I was pleased to see that Mount Dinara was recently declared a nature park, the 12th park of its kind in the country and the second largest after Velebit.
The nature park encompasses Croatia's section of Mount Dinara (above) as well as Mt Troglav and Mt Kamešnica – part of the Dinaric Alps or Dinarides – the Cetina River's upper course and the Hrvatačko, Paško and Vrličko karst fields. It extends over two counties - Split-Dalmatia and Šibenik-Knin -- with an area of almost 63,000 hectares (156,000 acres).
Mount Dinara harbours many endemic and endangered species and is a habitat to more than a thousand plant varieties. The vast untouched forests and grasslands of the area are home to lynx, bears and wolves.
With the proclamation of Mount Dinara Nature Park, 39 percent of Croatia's land area is now protected. There are 11 areas of the EU’s Natura 2000 ecological network in the Park area – two conservation areas important for birds and nine conservation areas important for species and habitat types.
The Croatian Government believes the protection of this area will have positive effects on nature conservation, but also on the population and the economy of the wider region. The revitalisation of extensive livestock is expected, as well as other traditional activities and new opportunities for sustainable use of space.
Climbing the mountain
Mount Dinara is a one-and-a-half hour drive from Split (above) through picturesque countryside. The town of Knin is the largest settlement at the foot of Dinara and is also the main starting point for the climb towards the summit, which you should only attempt if you are reasonably fit. The only road ascending high towards the bosom of the mountain starts at Guge, a suburban area of Knin. The road is winding, dusty and steep at some points. The road from the Suvo field continues, but can only be taken by off-road vehicles and hikers.
To reach the summit of Dinara, climbers can go to the mountain lodge Brezovac and then climb for a further two-and-a-half hours to get to the top. Badanj (above) is the peak between Suvo polje and Brezovac and it offers a splendid view of Knin and its surroundings.
The ascent can also be started from the village of Glavaš, close to Kijevo, but it takes about five hours. Those who reach the top will have conquered Croatia’s highest peak at 1,831 metres (6,007 feet).
Two more parks – the protected Cape Kamenjak Nature Park and Brijuni Islands National Park – can be reached from the city of my first visit, Pula. When in Pula you should not miss (you literally cannot miss) the magnificent, historic Roman amphitheatre pictured above, which is now used as a venue for numerous local events including film festivals and concerts.
Maybe it’s because it was my first destination in this country, but I’m still a fan of Pula despite the “workaday” misnomer so here are some more images of it:
Pula enjoys spectacular sunsets, has some gorgeous beaches dotted with pine trees, and offers plenty of tempting restaurants. The Irish writer, James Joyce, once lived there.