Velebit, we are told in the words of an old Croatian folk song, is the haunt of fairies. It is a strangely beautiful place, its wind-scoured heights characterized by areas of bizarrely sculpted and weathered rock, studded with thickets of dwarf mountain pine, and pierced by some of the deepest sinkholes in the world. In winter, it is transformed into a snowbound landscape like something out of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Wild, eerie, fractured and disjointed.
This stark upland, just a stone's throw from the Adriatic, includes two of Croatia's eight national parks. Sjeverni Velebit, in the north, was created in 1999 and is the country's newest national park. Further south is Paklenica, established in 1949. The entire region is also a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, yet its southern slopes remain strewn with landmines from the 1991-1995 war.
Velebit forms part of that long, sinuous and loosely defined range of mountains known as the Dinaric Alps. Stretching from the Slovenian border in the north, these run down through Croatia parallel to the coast, on through Montenegro and into Albania, later to re-emerge as the Pindus Mountains in Greece. The familiar golden bumps of the Croatian archipelago - those dark bronze islands, on a sea at once green and hard as glass, to paraphrase Rebecca West - constitute merely the eroded tops of various outer ridges of this mountain range, now partially submerged beneath the waters of the Adriatic. Many visitors to Croatia pass beneath the ramparts of Velebit as they drive along the alltoo- crowded coast road. But few are the travellers who venture up onto its heights.
Ages of chemical weathering have left their mark both above and beneath the surface, and Velebit displays all those features so distinctive of a karst landscape. This is limestone country, pitted with potholes and caves. These karst features are at their most impressive in the protected areas of Hajducki kukovi and Rozanski kukovi in the north, which form a quite labyrinthine succession of shattered tops and rocky dells.