By Eilene Lyon
Your first question must be, “Where on earth is Northern Velebit National Park?” The answer is “Croatia!”
This park lies in the north region of the greater Velebit Nature Park. Another national park is located in the southern end. Northern Velebit is Croatia’s newest national park, established in 1981. It isn’t even in our Lonely Planet guide.
We made an obligatory visit to the country’s best known (and consequently most crowded – I mean jam-packed) park, Plitviĉka. The lakes and waterfalls are extraordinary. You can find much better pictures online than anything I took, so please don’t look for them here!
Velebit was the polar opposite experience. After leaving Plitvice Lakes (as they are known in English), we drove to the North Dalmatia coast and spent the night in Senj. The cold northeast bura winds blew constantly as we walked around the old town with its sturdy fortress peering down. Foam flying from atop the whitecaps on the Adriatic looked like drifting snow.
The next morning we drove south toward Sveti Juraj where we turned to climb up into the limestone crags that form Croatia’s western coastline. The Putterer enjoyed the steep, winding road, and we had perfectly clear weather, enhancing the view of the sea and islands nearby.
There were only a couple other cars at the park entrance. No tour buses here! We paid a fee to enter on foot. It’s possible to drive up to where the trails end for a little bit more.
Off we went on the Staza zviri (“Trail of Beasts”) through peaceful woods just beginning to don fall colors. I think the name refers to signs along the trails describing the wildlife. We saw one about bears and another about wolves. Apparently there is a single wolf pack in the nature park. Sadly, we saw no bears or wolves that day.
As we climbed the moderate trail, we passed through subalpine beech groves peppered with large, white boulders sporting mossy cloaks and creases. It seemed like a fairy land. We saw no other people until we reached the very end of the trail where the road appears and a second, longer trail emerges.
There is a weather research station at the end of the road. I commented to The Putterer that maybe we’d be able to get a decent cup of coffee. Our hotel in Senj had been the most abysmal yet, in that regard, and we were caffeine deficient. He scoffed, but I was right. The man living at the station made us each a delicious fresh-brewed Turkish coffee. Oh, heaven!
While we savored our beverages, we struck up a conversation with a Croatian from Zagreb (the capital), who also has a home on the island Krk, visible from our high perch. His English (like many Croatian’s) was excellent. I was amused that he was most curious to know what we thought of Croatians – did they drink and smoke too much?
I said The Putterer smokes cigars. Response: “Oh that’s just sport.” And I confessed to being a regular consumer of alcoholic drinks (as he quaffed a shot of schnapps).
We saw only a tiny portion in the north end of the park. It is also known for a more extensive trail that crosses nearly the entire north-south ridge, without any big climbs. Called the Premužić after its designer and builder, it dates from the 1930s and covers 57 km. It’s considered a national treasure.
Though there are many other interesting sights in and around the park, we needed to continue our way back toward Split, where we would be flying out the next day. We hiked back to the car and wound our way down the mountain, passing this donkey cart on the way.
From an earlier tour, we learned that just a four or five decades ago, much of the country still relied on these for regular transportation. But tourism is a significant segment of the country’s economy and things have changed.