Every year on the 15th August high in the Velebit mountains the death of the Virgin Mary and her acceptance into Heaven is commemorated. The local Tourist Office in Starigrad tell us about the festival and we are keen to visit, lured by a trip into the hills and the opportunity to watch a local festival.
We are without transport and the location is approximately 20 kilometres away and 900 metres up in the mountains. We try our luck at hitching a lift, an easier option to walking! Almost immediately a car pulls over and a young couple inside agree to give us a ride. We hop in and exchange names. It turns out by chance that Goran and Anna and their Jack Russell Tara are heading to the same festival, they have an invite from the campsite owner they are staying with.
As we get chatting we find out that we share similar interests. Both are keen climbers. Every weekend they travel from Zagreb to Starigrad, a four-hour car journey, to climb at the stunning Paklenica National Park. It turns out that Goran also works in the boat industry designing interiors. In the past he owned his own yacht and has sailed extensively around Dalmatia but now prefers to climb. There are lots to talk about and we quiz them both on places to visit.
As we make our way up the mountains Goran pulls the car over so we can take in the views. The day is perfect, bright sunny and clear. As we look around the town of Starigrad Paklenica stretches out below us and beyond the island of Pag.
The road is tarmac but quickly this turns to a gravel track that goes on for about 11 kilometres. We are travelling in a 4WD, which is the perfect choice for these conditions.
Goran and Anna explain to us that one of the landowners built this track by hand. Looking at the terrain, huge chunks of limestone everywhere, you realise how tough this would have been. Perhaps more surprising to hear is that the same person plans to give the stones a ‘haircut’, apparently in some places the track has become unruly and so some of the rocks need trimming by chisel!
Goran pulls over the car to show us an example of Mirila.
Mirila is a collection of monuments dating from the 17th to 20th century. They mark the sacred place that preserves the memories of the deceased who lived on the mountains. It is said that before the body was buried the funeral procession would stop so the final resting place could be marked. A measure of the body would be taken by placing a headstone at the person’s head and again at their feet. At a later date these stones would be connected by flat stones.
As we walk around we notice groups of Mirala, the resting places of families.
Draw your attention to the headstones and you will see that each one has been engraved. The engravings are unique and the meaning of it only known to the person that created it.
After the body had been measured the funeral procession would continue to the church, where a service would be held followed by a burial at the local cemetery. It is said that a persons resting place was visited more frequently than their grave, as the grave contained only the body whereas Mirala’s contained a person soul.
We visited only one example of the Mirala but further examples can be seen in the Velebit Mountains.
Feast of the Assumption
We continue up the track that eventually opens out to a meadow, which is framed by the mountains. After winding along the track for 40 minutes suddenly you feel like you’ve been transported to an alpine destination, the air is cooler and the land green and verdant which is such a contrast to the coast 900 metres. In the middle of the meadow and surrounded by a stone wall is a small Roman Catholic church. People are starting to gather outside waiting for the service to begin. A few tents are scattered around, possibly they are combining the festivities with a mountain hike.
Aside from the church there are a handful of stone houses, previously occupied by farmers that tended the fertile land. Over time as towns became established along the coast and connecting roads were built the farmers relocated. However, as recently as the late 1960’s the village was inhabited. Goran explains to us that the farmers would load their mules with produce to sell at markets and then make the arduous trip across the mountains to the neighbouring villages. The journey would take a couple of days at least. This would happen twice a month during May and October, before the first snow fell in November making the conditions impassable.
The farmers still own the houses. Today they are occupied by families busily preparing a feast that will be enjoyed with their friends following the procession.
After the service has finished, which is quite a long time as it’s a Roman Catholic service, the procession begins. An icon of the Virgin Mary is carried by bearers. As they pass by people follow on behind.
Joining in with the procession there is a strong sense of community, something we have noticed during our stay in Northern Dalmatia.
As the procession comes to a close people make their way to a well that is believed to be holy. They fill up their water bottles or just splash themselves, we go up and join in by taking a few sips.
Slowly the crowds begin to disburse, some head back to the old farm houses no doubt to enjoy a feast with their friends and family, others mill around chatting while a few make an exodus back down the mountain on foot or in cars. Goran and Anna head off to one of the houses that is owned a campsite owner they are staying with, we say goodbye and thank them for showing us around.
As we walk across the meadow we strike up a conversation with a jolly Croat, who hiked for two days across the mountains to be part of today’s festivities. He invites us to partake in a glass of schnapps, we accept as it would be rude to refuse. As it slips down you can feel it coursing through you, burning your insides. Thankfully he doesn’t offer us a second! Before too long he leaves, this time his method of transport is by car and who can blame him.
As for us we begin our descent down the mountain. This will be a long walk down so we chance our luck again at hitching a lift. A few cars drive past us fully laden with passengers and we begin to wonder if our luck has run out, but soon a car pulls over and the couple inside agree to give us a lift to the bottom. We try to strike up a conversation but they know little English and we know even less Croatian. We take in the views one final time and before long we are at the bottom of the road so we say thank you and make our way into town.
We had a fantastic day out. Along the way we had the pleasure in meeting some lovely people who happily shared with us some of the history relating to this area. We witnessed and to a small extent participated in the festivities.
Should you find yourself near Starigrad Paklenica on the 15th August take some time out and make the trek up the mountain to see for yourself. A car is recommended, unless you are a keen walker!