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 seasonal flooding, creating a unique watery habitat for a wide range of insects, birds and wild mammals. 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. Lonjsko Polje is a key feeding station for many migrating birds, with black and white storks, white-tailed eagles and spoonbills, among the many regular visitors. It’s the white stork that it most often associated with the park in the public mind.
Hundreds of the creatures descend on Čigoć every year, and almost every house in the village boasts a stork’s nest. The birds usually arrive soon after Easter and stay until late August, hatching their young and scouring Lonjsko Polje for tasty bugs, mice and frogs with which to feed them. Čigoć is one of ten European Stork Villages designated by the Euronatur foundation, a status that ensures an annual descent of thousands of camera-wielding trippers. The storks themselves are by now fairly immune to all the attention.
Signed nature trails lead east from Čigoć towards the seasonally flooded fields, although what you might see there depends on how wet a spring/summer/autumn the region has just experienced. With the river Sava winding its way past the Lonjsko Polje villages, however, you are never likely to be short of water-based activities, with boat trips frequently advertised in Čigoć and Krapje. There are also several well-marked cycling routes and hiking trails throughout the park.
The southern Lonjsko Polje village of Krapje is the best place to see the traditional wooden houses. Built near the riverbanks and at the edge of the plains, they have outdoor staircases where residents would tie their wooden boats to guarantee transportation when the floodwaters surrounded the homes.
But perhaps the real beauty of the Lonjsko Polje is just watching life happen around you: birds catching fish; fish mating in the shallows; work horses roaming free; indigenous pigs rooting around for food; ducks chattering with the sun high and the wind steadily rustling in the bushes and trees.
It’s difficult to get to Lonjsko polje by public transport and you’re best off arriving with your own transport. Head for the city of Sisak, south of Zagreb, and follow the signs.
The Lonjsko Polje Nature Park operates visitors’ centres at Krapje (Krapje 16, 044 672 080, open April-Nov 8am-4pm daily) and Čigoć (Čigoć 26, 044 715 115, open 8am-4pm daily).