Photo by Alan Čaplar / Via Dinarica

Where the Mountains Meet the Adriatic Sea

Croatia’s spectacular and endless Adriatic coastline is understandably the country’s biggest tourism draw, but if you are looking for an altogether different experience, where the mountains meet the sea, a rather fascinating little region in the north of the country will take you into a natural world of pristine forests, outstanding caves, picturesque mountains, whose flora and fauna introduce you to another world. Superbly located on the highway connecting the continental and coastal Croatia, Gorski kotar lies just 30km from the Adriatic, but is a world away, a real throwback in time to untouched nature. A diverse range of activities, specific indigenous foods and local traditions, everything centres around amazing nature – Gorski kotar is a region like no other in Croatia.

Nature at its Best

One of Croatia’s eight national parks, Risnjak (named after the lynx) is located here with a plethora of unspoiled forests, meadows, streams, rivers, caves, and mountain peaks with unique flora and fauna. This includes the source of the mighty River Kupa, whose upper stream is known as the ‘magical butterfly valley’. But Risnjak is not the only protected area; the park-forest of Golubinjak and its coniferous forest and numerous caves and rocks earned its protected status in 1961, while Zeleni vir and Vražji prolaz in Skrad were declared a special geomorphological reserve in 1962. What a fantastic foursome!

There is much to entice cave lovers, including the 300m-long Vrelo cave, which is not only rich in cave formations, but also one of the most accessible in Europe, with no access problems for children or disabled visitors, while the Lokvarka cave, 1200m long, is one of the longest caves in Croatia. Its artificial lake of the same name adds to the stunning setting of the conifer forests around it.

Activity at its Peak

With such an array of natural goodness to explore, it is little wonder Gorski kotar is a haven of activity. Hikers, walkers and especially cyclists will be more than pleased! With over 400km of marked cycle routes, cyclists can set their own challenges; why not connect the mountains and the Adriatic in one breath-taking adrenaline ride? The winter season brings its own sporting challenges, and while people come to enjoy that fresh mountain air, many do so by sledding or visiting one of several ski resorts. While there are thousands of possible activities, one thing is for sure; you can’t get bored in Gorski kotar.

Culture at its Highlight

While nature is king, there is plenty of heritage and tradition to explore, including castles, museums, churches, sacral heritage, ethno houses, mills and sculpture workshops. Not to be missed is the Zrinski Castle in Brod na Kupi, which dates back to 1651, and today houses a museum of hunting, forestry and fishing, while the Rački Ethno house, Palčava Šiša, Delač House and the Lič Ethno collection all serve to illuminate the region’s rich past. Of the 12 churches in the Brod Moravice area, the Orthodox monastery in Gomirje is one of the religion’s most western-located, and has always been a spiritual centre of religious life of the Orthodox population.

Cuisine at its Finest

With such a vibrant collection of plant life, the availability of an outstanding selection of flavoured rakijas – from juniper to pine – is perhaps no surprise, just one example of the rich gourmet offer. The specificity of Gorski kotar can be seen in the culinary offer that focuses on local availability such as a rich array of mushrooms, and even dormice, which are an uncommon specialty of the region. From May to November, an ongoing festival, ‘Plodovi Gorja’ celebrates and promotes the indigenous food and traditions of the region. Meat lovers in particular will indulge in local meat specialties, including bear, wild boar and deer, often served as game stew with gnocchi and forest fruit condiments. And while the fresh catch of the Adriatic may be all the rage in coastal restaurants, here the pristine rivers and lakes provide an array of fresh water fish, with trout being the most common.

Yes, this is also Croatia. A world of natural forests, mountains and lakes, a world away from the tourist hotspots, where one can convene with nature, relax or exercise, experiencing traditions and cuisines unique to a region that few tourists visit. But one which is among the most accessible in all of Croatia.