Natural & Cultural Wonders of Croatia & Slovenia
CROATIACroatia’s eight national parks range from the alpine trails of Northern Velebit National Park to the postcard perfect Kornati Islands. In 2016, Slovenia was named the first Certified Green destination in the world.
In Croatia, ancient monasteries sit beside rivers that carve deep into the North Dalmatian Karst Plateau surrounding them. The white limestone that is eroded into the river bottoms causes these waterways to glow in stunning turquoise green and sapphire blue.
Mainland Croatia’s wilderness is flush with waterfalls, rivers, and alpine lakes. Plitvice Lakes National Park alone has 90 waterfalls along the different legs of the Mreznica River.
Croatia has eight marine protected areas, the most well-known being the Kornati Islands. The Blue Ocean Institute, headquartered on the island of Lošinj, has been instrumental in protecting marine species in the Adriatic Sea with well-researched studies on both the environment and the species who live here. Their work has successfully influenced environmental policy, and they continue to be a powerful advocate for positive change in the region.
George Bernard Shaw captured the beauty of the scenery here with his famous quote about the Kornati archipelago and national park: “On the last day of creation, God desired to crown his work, and thus created the Kornati Islands out of tears, stars and breath.”
Over 100 islands that are serrated with inlets and caves dot a startlingly blue sea, the land swept clean of vegetation and standing out in bleached color over steep rock cliffs that have seen seafarers pass by for centuries.
Exploring this seascape is done in the company of dolphins, who are thriving with the help of the work of conservation organizations. The protected waters of Kornati National Park also play an important part in the lives of the Adriatic Sea’s loggerhead turtle population. Young turtles mature here until they reach 20 years old and are strong enough to brave the currents of the open ocean.
The fortress of Tureta is one of the few reminders of ancient human populations in the archipelago. Located on the largest island, Kornat, the ancient stone structure is from the 8th century, a time when the first king of Croatia, Tomislav, forged an alliance with the Byzantine who kept watch over the sea traffic along the northern coast.
Further north, Cres Island has its own story to tell. According to the locals, olive oil made here found its way to Rome and the table of Caesar himself. Part of the Kvarner archipelago, it is the second-largest island in the Adriatic, behind neighboring Krk, but equally wealthy in natural highlights. One of the least developed islands in the chain, forests and hidden coves make it a must-see spot for nature lovers.
The town of Beli on the eastern side of Cres is one of the oldest on the island. An ancient 1st-century Roman outpost was stationed where Beli currently sits looking out over the sea, and today the village of 40 people is also home to a griffon vulture rescue center. Visitors to the island can visit the center and then try to spot the rehabilitated vultures soaring above the sheltered beaches below.
In central Istria, Motovun is a medieval hamlet turned present-day Mediterranean haven. Set on an inland hill, the sleepy town is known for its white truffles, annual film festival and access to the surrounding 700-acres of protected forest.
Local legend has it that Motovun was once home to a gentle giant, Veli Jose, who they kept around to tend to the heavy lifting and as protection against wolves and bears. The townspeople mistreated the giant, who rallied against the oppression by shaking the bell tower of the town’s church, St. Stephens.
The story became a symbol of the movement for Croatian independence, written down by Croatian poet Vladimir Nazor. A hero of the republic, Nazor was Croatia’s first post-WWII head of state.
Groznjan is an arts and music town with plenty of cobblestone streets, colorful buildings and beautiful scenery thrown in for good measure. Roughly 20 art galleries and studios have roots here, scattered amid the cafes and churches of the old town. Music camps and an annual jazz festival round out the neighborhood, putting the town of just under 800 people on the map for lovers of the arts who visit the region.
The Northern Velebit National Park is Croatia’s newest addition to its protected lands. The trails through the Dinaric Alps make up a leg of the Via Dinarica, a panoramic route that spans its way through eight neighboring countries.
The beech forests of the park are designated UNESCO heritage sites for their beauty, diversity of species and range. The wooded areas spread across Mediterranean, Continental and Alpine climate zones. The UNESCO protection exceeds the boundaries of the park as an extra layer of caution.
Karst landscapes, alpine outlooks and coastal panoramas of the islands of Pag, Rab, Goli, Prvic and Krk bring the Croatian wilderness vividly into the spotlight while hiking. As does the bora, an infamously strong eastern wind that can reach speeds of over 100 mph.
SLOVENIASlovenia is a relative newcomer to the international nature travel circuit, and it is taking protection of its natural treasures seriously. A remarkable 53.6% of the country is protected by law, a higher percentage than any nation on Earth except Venezuela.
Despite this high percentage of protected land, Triglav National Park is the only designated national park in Slovenia. It was first proposed during the Habsburg monarchy but, at the time, there was no legal mechanism for land conservation, as pastureland was given priority. It achieved the status of a conservation park in 1921 but did not have permanent protection until 1961. Today’s borders and the full national park status were established in 1981.
Glacier lakes, waterfalls, high mountain peaks and hiking trails in Triglav offer a sense of tranquility that is a far cry from the war zone that Ernest Hemingway found when volunteering in this area as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I.
Croatia and Slovenia are rich with surprising natural and cultural wonders that attract visitors looking to avoid Europe’s better known–and more crowded–destinations. Enjoy your time exploring these two countries that are diligently working to preserve the beauty and culture of the Balkan Peninsula.