To most international travelers, Croatia is best known for its beautiful coastline on the Adriatic, with gems such as Dubrovnik, Korčula, Hvar, Rab and many others. There are many other areas of this small but wonderful country to explore, however, and one that I find fascinating is the Velebit mountain range.
Velebit stretches 145 km in length, from the Vratnik pass above Senj to the Zrmanja river, along and above the Adriatic coast. That is one of its primary attractions – a rugged mountain directly above the sparkling sea, featuring spectacular views of the sea and the Adriatic islands but also a climate that can be dramatically varied in a very small space – hiking on a chilly, cloudy day might easily end with a glass of wine and fish on a grill in a charming seaside village.
I don’t hike as much as I’d like to but when I do I really enjoy it. It took quite a bit of coordination, thanks largely to the horribly unstable May weather in Croatia, but Tihomir (our guide and leader), Tomislav, Ante and I packed our things into my car on Friday (May 28th) afternoon, after work, and took off for Karlobag on the coast, directly under the Velebit range. Interestingly enough, hotels nearer our planned trail in Gospić and Baške Oštarije were – fully booked. Go figure – apparently not all tourists are obsessed with the “sun and sea” formula. Mountain tourism FTW!
The next morning turned out to be sunnier than we expected – a good sign although you never know what you can expect in the mountains above. Packing up our stuff, we headed for our starting point – Stupačinovo near the small village of Baške Oštarije. Baške Oštarije, at an altitude of 900+ m above sea level, are at the mountain pass in Velebit leading from the town of Gospić to the Adriatic coast. Anyway – in Stupačinovo we left the car behind and headed for the trail, backpacks full of sandwiches and bottled water. Ante had checked a day or two before – the only mountain cabin (“planinarski dom”) on our trail was undergoing routine cleanup and we couldn’t count on any food or drinks there – we had to take everything we needed with us. Amazingly enough, none of us remembered to bring along the traditional flask of brandy to warm us up on our way, so we were completely alcohol-free. Please don’t tell anyone about this embarassment…
So here we were at the start of the trail
Tihomir was our guide. Like the rest of the team, he had never been to this part of the mountain, but he had done his homework – and thoroughly. From web sites, blogs, forums and books he had laid out our hiking tour, and he was (of course) equipped with a precise hikers map to guide us through the wilderness. To our left was the road by which we would (hopefully!) be coming back at the end of the day, and our first steps were along a nice, civilized path
Well… this nice, civilized path didn’t last very long. “We need to go up this way” Tihomir said after a few minutes. “Here?!” we asked. “Of course – what did you expect?”
So off we went, away from the beaten track and up into the mountain, on our way to our first main destination – the Velebit summit of Kiza.
As we went up into the Velebit range, the situation started looking less and less like “Adriatic holiday” and more and more like Tolkiens “Misty Mountains”.
Tomo and Tihomir decided a look into the deep vally below would be good for contemplating our next moves…
A few minutes later, we were close to Kiza when what we had feared most started happening: rain. It turned out the forecast was right, however – it fell only lightly and only for 10-15 minutes. Only Ante went to the extreme measure of pulling out his umbrella, the rest of us made do with light jackets and caps.
A few more steps and there we were – Kiza. The peak itself is solid rock and fairly slippery after the brief rain. Tihomir was up first, and Tomo and I followed after some deliberation, not being very eager to go “slip sliding away”. Still, we couldn’t resist and clambered up the few remaining meters. At the top we found a lone fellow admiring the view. Turned out he was – Swiss! “Too much snow for climbing back home.” he said. Well all you hikers and mountain climbers – if Swiss people are coming to Velebit for hiking that should be the best invitation for the rest of you!
On our way down from Kiza, we got to the pass of Alaginac and from there it was all the way down into the forest valley of Crni Dabar. “Dabar” usually means “beaver” in Croatian, but Tihomir explained to us that in the local dialect Dabar actually means something like “forest”. Down, down into the valley we went, with some wonderful views of Velebit green in the late spring.
The path through Crni Dabar forest was clearly not a well-trodden one. At some points we had to push our way through the dense bushes, but on we went. This is to me one of the things I like best about hiking in Velebit – in just one day you can experience many different surroundings and situations – from the rocky, barren tops, to lush fields where shepherds still take their sheep out to pasture, to bushes and forests like the one we were going through right now. In some ways this is a reflection of Croatia itself – a small country with many, many different things to see and experience. No just mountains and islands, mind you, but also delicious meals and great wine as well!
But it’s time we returned to our travels. After some time in the valley, our path started going uphill again. Along the way Tomo started getting really hungry and wanted to eat a mushroom right off a tree bark but we implored him to change his mind and focus on the sandwiches in his backpack instead:
From Crni Dabar it was all the way uphill to Ravni Dabar. There is a mountain home there (actually I don’t know the exact English expression for “planinarski dom” since I’ve never hiked in the States!). These houses, common throughout the Croatian hills and mountains, offer varying degrees of comfort and hospitality. This one, “PD Ravni Dabar”, can sleep up to 50 people in ascetic hiking surroundings and usually offers food and drinks. Ante – our man in charge of accomodation logistics – had checked on this a few days before and found out that volunteers would be cleaning and tidying up the place that day, so we couldn’t count on anything except a bench to sit on. It had been 5 hours by now since our start from Stupačinovo and we were quite exhausted. Those benches wouldn’t have been more welcome even if they were leather sofas!
Well you can imagine our delight when the volunteers cleaning up the place were able to offer us a few beers! “Velebitsko” beer is quite highly regarded amongst Croatian beer lovers and not easily found in bars. Well – this was probably the most appropriate place in the world to enjoy it.
From Ravni Dabar it was up, up, up again. Pretty soon our hospitable cabin was just a red speck in the valley below. We were headed for the final stretch, and for this we would be walking down the final part of Premuzic trail. The Premuzic trail is a remarkable feat of mountain construction and engineering, laid out and initiated by Ante Premuzic in the 30’s, and built by local stone craftsmen in a sort of New Deal public works project. For anyone interested in hiking through Velebit, making at least part of the 57-kilometer trail is a must. The guys and I had been on the northern part of the trail on an earlier trip with a larger group of friends and colleagues. We would now cover a small final portion, and completing it remains a project we are all very much looking forward to. For some glimpses of the trail and views from that earlier trip, look no further:
So it was – hello Mr Premuzic! Ante couldn’t suppress his excitement that the main architect of this wonderful achievement was his namesake… Once onto the trail, we had a light walk back into Stupačinovo. There, from the valley, we could see Kiza wrapped in clouds… Many hours earlier we had been up on that peak and who knows – we might come back again one day. Our trusty Volvo was waiting just where we had left it – the whole trip might have made a nice backdrop for one of those Volvo commercials, although this particular vehicle gets a lot more kilometers in Zagreb than in the wilderness.
Back in Zagreb, we were tired as hell for the next few days. Nine hours on the trail all in all, with one hour of rest in Ravni Dabar. This had been the longest hike any of us had undertaken but it was well worth it. Velebit is truly magical. The weather hadn’t been beautiful sunshine but we weren’t complaining at all – we had had very little rain and the day had seen a comfortable combination of clouds and sunshine, actually very pleasant for our hiking expedition.
Worn and tired but happy – we had made it. The trip had been a success and a joy, and we had found and climbed Kiza – much to Tihomir’s satisfaction but making the whole team very happy as well. By the way, as a fitting tribute to my longest hike yet – this is by far the longest blog post I’ve written so far!
No doubt in my mind – we’ll be going back to Velebit again. The sooner the better!
For a few more pics from the hike, stroll on over to the picture gallery.