Our week of exploring the Dalmatian coast is up and it’s time for us to head back home. On the way, though, we’ll be visiting another of Croatia’s National Parks – the spectacular Paklenica canyons. Velebit mountain is a huge coastal ridge, part of the Dinaric range bordering the eastern side of the Adriatic coast all the way from the Italian Alps down to Albania.
At the south end of Velebit, two deep canyons have formed as rivers forced their way from the high plateau down to the sea. Velika Paklenica – big or Great Paklenica canyon still has its river for most of the year, while Mala Paklenica (Little Paklenica) has only a seasonal stream. Himself has vivid memories of visiting Mala Paklenica during a thunderstorm when he was only a young lad, and how the noise reverberated off the canyon walls in a very exciting way! Thankfully, the weather doesn’t look at all threatening for us today, although it is very hot for early May.
We decided to try Velika Paklenica on this trip, as you can drive further into the canyon, and therefore we’d see more, we thought. Well, yes. By the time we arrived in late morning, the upper parking lots were already full, so we pretty much had to walk from the entrance anyway! Near the parking area were lots of swallowtail butterflies on the ground.
The canyon is very popular with rock-climbers, and there were groups of sinewy people striding purposefully up the path loaded with backpacks, ropes, boots and other climbing equipment. As they headed off uphill to their chosen parts of the canyon wall, we sat down to have our picnic by the stream.
Across the stream from the road, there’s a quiet path leading uphill, gently at first. The road ends as the canyon gets steeper, and the footpath wends its way further up, criss-crossing the stream. In steeper parts the trail becomes a set of stone steps, and the canyon walls draw closer together. We have to remember sometimes to stop watching our feet on the rough trail and look up to enjoy the views!
Along the lower part of the trail is Tito’s bunker, a relic of the communist era in the late 1940s / early 50s when he fell out with the Soviet Union. It’s not open to the public, but you can’t miss the impressive concrete entrance as you pass by. In the same section is a useful souvenir shop built into the canyon wall and a toilet with showers!
Paklenica park is home to a wide variety of wildlife and plants. We spotted some lovely cyclamen growing alongside the path, in the dappled light under some trees.
And further up, these miniature star-shaped flowers that I’m not familiar with. Very pretty!
The signs by the trail read “Winnetou“, which was very mysterious as it didn’t sound particularly Croatian. Well, indeed not. Subsequent research tells me that he was the Apache hero of a number of 19th century novels written by German author Karl May. And in the 1960s and 70s, Paklenica was where they filmed 8 episodes of the immensely popular German/French western serial based on the books. Interesting! And I see that there’s a Pansion Winnetou at Plitvice National Park! I guess they filmed some episodes there too.
The hot conditions and lack of shade in the early afternoon make it pretty hard going up that trail. The views are glorious, though, and it’s important to stop often to enjoy them!
After a while, we find a nice peaceful spot beside a waterfall, with a suitable rock to sit on, and I get out my sketch book. There’s a nice cool breeze here, and we enjoy the spray from the falls!
The canyon trail reminds me a lot of hiking in Yosemite, but this is a sharp-edged V of a valley, shaped by a river, not the U-shaped smooth granite walls formed by glaciers. Limestone is hard and slow to erode, but it’s porous and the water will dissolve chemicals in the rock, following cracks to create ever bigger channels and large caverns. When the surface caves in, you get sink-holes, or in this case a river running through a deep, very steep-sided canyon. The walls rise over 700 metres (or 2,100ft) above the canyon floor, and close in to 50 metres (150ft) at the narrowest point. Very impressive!
We only walked a very short distance up the canyon, but would love to go back on a less hot day to explore further. The upper trails take you round to Mala Paklenica via a hidden valley, or up to the high country where there are caves with evidence of mesolithic cultures. The early Liburnians built shelters there, and oversaw the important trade routes leading from inland Lika through the mountains to the sea. Nearby Starigrad on the coast was the Roman town of Argyruntum, an important trading centre. (Note: that’s different to Stari Grad on Hvar, which was the Greek municipality of Pharos, don’t get confused!)
On the way back down, we got a timely text from the wonderfully helpful Alan Mandić of Secret Dalmatia, who by chance was on a day trip to Pag, where we’d just left. Did we want to meet up at Pece in Vinjerac? After a quick look at our map, we realized that we could see the town just across the Velebit channel, so it would be great opportunity to meet up and have a coffee and chat.
Well, yes, trust Alan! Konoba Pece of course is not a cafe, but one of best seafood restaurants in the area!! So it was that we sat down to a veritable gastronomic feast, a late lunch for them and an early dinner for us!
And from the terrace we had a stunning view of Velebit and the Paklenica canyons we’d just visited. So glad we added that little side trip, with the low sun and deep shadows on the canyons. Absolutely spectacular!
Some sketches from the day…
The climbers on the rocks:
And a panorama done later from a couple of photos taken on the road above Vinjerac. Velika Paklenica canyon on the left page, Mala Paklenica on the right page.