Croatia with the Leica X Vario: Velika Paklenica Gorge and Valley

Posted on by Kevin Armstrong

During the winter of 2015/16, I made several visits to explore and photograph the Paklenica National Park in Croatia, from where I was staying at Plitvice Lakes. The park encompasses an area of 95km2 on the southern slopes of the Velebit mountains, near the coastal town of Starigrad. It is about one hour’s drive from the coastal town of Zadar and two from Split, further south, both of which are served during the summer by budget airlines from the UK. 

The Velika (large) Paklenica valley from the west side looking south towards the coast.

The park’s terrain is mountainous, with a major trail running from the main entrance near Starigrad, north-east up the Velika Paklenica river gorge before turning north along the valley to the feet of the high mountains. From this primary trail, secondary trails climb up the steep valley sides to east and west, passing isolated farm buildings on the plateaus above. I used these trails to make some circular walks out from and back to the car park. 

I have written three articles to describe the journeys I made and have used photos taken over the months. This one describes and illustrates my travels in the principal gorge and valley. A second describes my exploration of the east side of the valley and a third, the west side. I found the mountainous park, with its varying weather conditions due to its coastal location, to be a fascinating and very photogenic place.

My rucksack was filled with the things I needed for walking in the mountains, and I used the X Vario carried around my neck. The APS-C sensor cameras proved more than adequate, and I was glad not have heavy full-frame equipment which, without wanting to be overly dramatic, could have increased my risk of mishap due to fatigue. Forty years ago it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. As an aside, John Shingleton in a recent post about his X1, referred to Oscar Barnack developing the first Leica with the intention that it could be carried in the mountains.

Leaving the coastal road in Starigrad the way to the park swung through the village of Marasovići and ran through the trees alongside the river to the main entrance. I purchased a day ticket and map and then drove further up the lower reaches of the gorge to park in the main car park.

Click on all images to enlarge

Getting my walking boots on and saddling up with the rucksack, I left the car and followed the steep path up the gorge, crossing and re-crossing the river and its waterfalls. The left wall of the gorge houses a tunnel complex built for Josip Broz Tito. At the time of my visit, it was under renovation as a tourist attraction. The gorge is also the location of many rock climbing routes, including those on the famous Anića kuk rock face. Wanting to capture the water rushing down the gorge, I had to scramble down from the trail and set up my tripod on the rocks as best I could. 

At the top of the gorge, a bench and nearby water pipe, fed from the river, provided a welcome resting place and somewhere to refill the water bottles. Turning into the valley, the trail passed through a tunnel of branches alongside a small meadow and, occasionally, I met packhorses taking supplies to the farmhouses higher up the valley or returning with their handlers. The river passing through the meadow gives them a chance to drink, and it’s advisable to avoid getting between a thirsty horse and the river!

The gently rising well-made trail up the valley was a straightforward undertaking with views of the Velebit mountains presenting themselves as I went higher. However, on days when the mist closed in the mood in the valley became oppressive, and the rocks exerted an elemental and threatening presence.

After a two or two-and-a-half hour walk up the valley, I was often able to buy coffee or tea at the hut operated by the Paklenica Mountaineering Association based in Zadar. It offers accommodation and serves as a base for more adventurous forays into the higher mountains. Above the hut are two groups of buildings which provide the same but which have been owned by local families for generations; over lunch one owner told me he had been born there. I gave a mental thank you to the pack horses for bringing up the beer!

The walk back in daylight was long but not difficult, and the setting sun illuminated the rock faces beautifully. However, after dark, the steep trail down the gorge was pitch black, and a slow descent with a good torch was essential. I quickly understood why most people had left the park by nightfall.

I was always glad to get back to the car safely, to take off my boots and shed my pack. Then it was off to a restaurant in Starigrad for a large dinner. If I reached the coast before dark, the setting sun over the mussel pots near Seline, along the road from Starigrad, provided a final farewell and a reminder that this was a place to which I should return.