Continental Croatia teems with wildlife and spectacular scenery, and should definitely be on your bucket list in 2020. From cascading waterfalls to bucolic wetlands, here are some of our favourite escapes.
PlitviceAbout a million visitors a year make it to what is arguably Croatia’s greatest natural attraction, the Plitvice Lakes. And yet there is so much to see that the occasional crowds crossing on the many bridges and walkways hardly matter. And this natural wonder is just off the main highway between Split and Zagreb, all too close to Zadar, a regular destination for scores of tourist buses through the year.
Most of all, though, people flock here for the series of 16 continually changing, cascading, crystal-clear lakes. The dimensions of these lakes have been created from centuries of calcium carbonate deposits, which find home in and on algae, moss and bacteria. This deposit- and-plant combination creates a travertine barrier, a natural dam, which is growing by a couple of centimetres a year.
This process, a singular occurrence and the reason why Plitvice is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, means the bodies of water and the waterfalls linking them are always evolving.
Near the confluence of the Drava and the Danube rivers, a natural maze of interconnected lakes, reeds, woodland and pasture, Kopački rit nature reserve is one of the biggest areas of wetland in Europe. Visitors arriving by panoramic boat, horse or shank’s pony can point their video cameras at nearly 300 varieties of nesting birds, including white-tailed eagles, black storks and green woodpeckers. The lakes also support a large population of carp, pike, catfish and perch – in certain areas of the 23,000-hectare site, angling and hunting are permitted – alongside an abundance of frogs, snails and insects, preyed on by those higher up the food chain, notably herons and cormorants.
A vast area of wetlands, little-known Lonjsko Polje contains a remarkably diverse number of birds, fish, plants and mammals. A century or so ago inland Croatia would have been covered in bucolic villages made up of wooden houses and barns. Nowadays the only area that still preserves traditional architecture in any great quantity is the Lonjsko polje, located 50km south-east of Zagreb just beyond the provincial city of Sisak. A strip of flatland running along the eastern bank of the Sava river, the Lonjsko polje contains a string of villages where rickety timber house still groan under the weight of shingle-clad roofs and flowerpot-filled wooden verandas.
What makes the Lonjsko polje doubly appealing is its status as one of Croatia’s most important wetland environments. The level fields that stretch east behind the villages are prone to sea- sonal flooding, creating a unique watery habitat for a wide range of insects, birds and wild mam- mals. Much of the area now falls under the protection of the Lonjsko Polje Nature Park, which maintains visitors’ centres in Krapje and Čigoć, the two most popular destinations.
The park is the largest protected wetland not just in Croatia but the entire Danube basin. An area of 50,650 hectares, it has 238 bird species, ten types of reptiles, 16 amphibians, 41 fish types, and 550 plant species. The place is so diverse it even contains 38 varieties of dragonfly.
Castles, churches and a new crop of destination spa hotels make Zagorje a delightful destination. Zagorje, a land of rolling green hills on the far side of Medvednica mountain, has always been something of a recreation area for Zagreb folk. Perceptions of what Zagorje offers are slowly changing, with traditional attractions like historic castles and pilgrimage churches jostled aside by a more pronounced accent on lifestyle and leisure. It’s Zagorje’s spa hotels, restaurants and swimming pools that are increasingly pulling in the visitors.When it comes to splashing around, Zagorje always did have a solid reputation, with mineral-spring resorts such as providing sanatorium-style spa treatments as well as recreational swimming pools.