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The secrets hidden under Velebit

'Lord of the Rings' doesn’t have the only underground town – there is also one hidden under Velebit! All fans of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ know what Moria is, an ancient city of long-bearded dwarves from Middle Earth, located in the Misty Mountains, full of halls, tunnels, hidden chambers and mines. Yet probably only a few know that on the southern slopes of Velebit, under Vaganski Vrh (1,757m) and Sveto Brdo (1,753m), there is ‘The Underground Secrets of Paklenica’, inside which there is also much to discover!

Situated over an area of 95 km², the Paklenica National Park was given its status in 1949, due to its exceptional beauty, unique natural phenomena, amazing geomorphological forms and the largest and best-preserved forest complex of the Dalmatia region. The indigenous forests of black pines – the name “Paklenica” itself most likely derives from the sap of the black pine, the so-called “paklina”, which was used in folk medicine, for the healing of wounds, or as a torch and also to coat wooden boats – will draw every nature lover into its mystic labyrinth and they be led by winding trails, whilst canyons carved into the slopes of Velebit and torrent streams will invite them for exploration and adventure, an encounter with attractive landscapes, untouched nature and a world of diverse floral and fauna.

Besides the natural phenomena, one of the reasons to visit Paklenica is also ‘The Underground Secrets of Paklenica’. Namely, below Velebit, known also as “the bunkers”, there is a system of underground tunnels which is at depth of up to 80 metres, built from 1950 to 1953 by one former state (Yugoslavia) in case of attack from another former state (the USSR). This relic of the Cold War past, which guarded from possibly real and possibly imaginary threats, is now being used as a new interpretive-educational centre, titled ‘The Underground Secrets of Paklenica’, situated in the never used military storage facility. Inserted into the rock, the underground complex consists of a series of corridors - tunnels, which lead to large and small rooms, now designated for the interpretation of the natural and cultural phenomena of Velebit, the holding of educational and other programmes, as well as having maintenance facilities and services.

The mentioned centre will be a fulfilling experience for those who set off from these regions; with an imaginative, innovative, attractive and above all fun exhibition, visitors will be brought closer to incredible Velebit, to its natural and cultural heritage, celebrating Velika Paklenica as the most significant climbing centre in Croatia and this part of Europe, with the wish to highlight and popularise the importance of the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, its sacrifices, bravery and volunteer work.

The Paklenica National Park is visited mostly by alpinists and hikers; ‘The Underground Secrets of Paklenica’ with its features and services is aimed at them, as well as families with children, school groups, museum lovers and many others, by using and transferring the knowledge and experience of biology, ecology, geology, speleology, botany, ethnology, folklore research, history and so on. Multidisciplinarity and interactivity are interwoven, and thereby, into the very consideration and design of the centre and what it offers visitors. And it offers them so much!

Unifying three levels of identity – the Velebit mountains, climbing and climbers and the bunkers – ‘The Underground Secrets of Paklenica’ articulately speaks about the diversity, particularity and specificity of Velebit, inspiring with its visual identity, the rocks and climbing, as well as a with its bunker feeling of secrecy under the ground, walking through the mysterious tunnels. Guests are invited to be “guardians” and “protectors” of the priceless, mutual wealth of Velebit, through the ‘Experience and Love Velebit’ permanent museum exhibition, which consists of the ‘Velebit Mountain’ and ‘Man and Velebit’ halls, the permanent exhibition in the ‘Little Centre of Climbing’ plus the ‘Croatian Mountain Rescuers’ permanent exhibition. After visiting the exhibitions, visitors can choose souvenirs of their trip to the centre in the gift shop, as well as take a break in the café bar, also nearby is the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service infirmary.

When we enter the centre, we will find ourselves in a narrow 16-metre long corridor, where a dynamic interactive light-audio installation will invite us on a playful exploration, following us like a shadow and changing colours as the visitors change, with the sound of the wind, thunder, birds etc.

In the ‘From the Sea to the Mountains’ corridor we will find ourselves in the ancient ocean of Tethys, via the ancestors of some of today’s ocean creatures discovering how the living world once existed in the primordial sea, situated in the area of today’s Velebit. So, in the underground of highland peaks we will learn about the ancient seabed!

In the ‘Velebit Mountain’ hall we are invited to explore this mountain by sight, touch and sound through six themed sections – ‘Origin of the Mountain’, ‘Shaping of the Mountain’, ‘Velebit’s Underground World’, ‘Climate and Wind of Velebit’, ‘Biodiversity of Velebit’, ‘Velebit as part of the Dinaric Alps’ – presented with various interpretive exhibits. What to highlight? Maybe in ‘Velebit’s Underground World’ we will stop in a cave, with the unavoidable darkness, coldness, dripping water and learn about its wildlife; when we enter the cave we will take a UV lamp, which we enable us to discover the extra hidden features on the walls. At the ‘Flight about Velebit’ exhibit we will experience the adventure of flight above the peaks of Velebit: visitors will find themselves in the role of a bird, an skilled flyer, a white-tailed eagle, that they can control on an interactive screen by stretching out their arms, just like a bird’s wings and with left-right movements determine the flight direction, and so experiencing Velebit from the air. The ‘Biodiversity’ exhibit will draw us to the local multi-voiced fauna and the flora, rocks and screes, grasslands and meadows, rivers and forests. We will be completely engrossed in the role of the researcher who passes through Velebit, studying and soaking it up.

‘The Arrival of Man on the Mountain’ corridor leads us to the subject of the second exhibition hall, ‘Man and Velebit’. In this passage we will also find out that in the remote past, due to the melting of ice, the sea level rose by 120 metres, and so the people moved to higher land – the mountain. ‘Man and Velebit’ illustrates the extent of human existence on the mountain and nature, doing it through seven exhibited sections: ‘The Arrival of Man on the Mountain’, ‘Vaganski Cave’, ‘The Roman Town of Argyruntum', 'The Life of People on Velebit', 'Velebit Music Auditorium', 'Library of Velebit’s Explorers’ and ‘Mirila – Stone Monuments’. The atmosphere of this hall is warmer, more intimate, telling us about the important part of the customs of the inhabitants of Velebit linked to the burial of deceased souls (‘Mirila’ exhibit), it offers us ‘The Story of Velebit’s Inhabitants', with numerous touchable exhibits - replicas of archaeological finds from prehistory and Antiquity, everyday objects from the beginning of the 20th century, musical instruments and many more. In this hall there is also a separate room, where short documentary films about themes from life on Velebit will be shown.

There then follows one more corridor, under the name of ‘The Bunker’, in which this hidden area is presented, the conditions of its construction, the supposed use and secrecy around which is was created (because the people who were involved in the building this facility were bound to a military secret, so they do not want to give up anymore information about the construction of bunkers).

From 'The Bunker’ we are free to step into ‘The Little Centre of Climbing’, a meeting place for the climbing community, of celebrating its outstanding individuals, as well as the promotion of the activity of climbing through the interpretation and presentation of this discipline with exhibitions and educational films. Here brave visitors will also get the chance to learn about climbing in a fun and interactive way, with the ‘Little Climbing Dictionary’, ‘Short History of Climbing’, ‘School of Knot Tying’, as well as a climbing wall, enjoying the enticing views of the climbing peaks! And for the youngest, there is the ‘Wall for Climbing’, where with very big hand holds the first tries at climbing are easy for child visitors.

After visiting the gift shop, we will get to know Dragutin Brahm, a hiker and alpinist, as well as a table tennis player, skier, house painter, musician, composer and lyricist (author of the song ‘Moj Zagreb tak imam te rad’ – ‘My Zagreb, I love you so’), who in 1938 was the first to attempt to climb the Anića kuk rock face, during which he was fatally wounded. This tragic event was at the same time the first attempt of climbing in Paklenica, which raised awareness of the need for the establishment of a mountain rescue service, and the following part of the exhibition is rightly dedicated to them – the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service (CMRS/HGSS). At the end of the exhibition, at the ‘Rucksack’ exhibit, visitors can learn how to be prepared for climbing, with a map of Velebit on which we can locate the key sites, trails, points of interest, peaks and so on.

The interpretation of the whole centre has been conceived in this way, and the first part of the exhibition has recently been opened to the public, which includes ‘The Little Centre of Climbing’ with a rock face for climbing and screens about climbing and knots, the story of Dragutin Brahm about whom visitors can get to know through the digitalised collection of his diary entries, poems, photographs, as well as listen to his composition of the song ‘Moj Zagreb tak imam te rad’ – ‘My Zagreb, I love you so’. And at the end, the Mountain Rescue Service is presented, where its members speak to visitors about their experiences in the service, how to become a rescuer about volunteering and their families and so on. The centre is also equipped with a gift shop and café bar, as well as other maintenance rooms.

Behind the 'Underground Secrets of Paklenica’ centre there stands a creative partnership of Muses, led by Dragana Lucija Ratković Aydemir, and the co-authors of the project Vladimir Končar (Studio Revolucija), Vedran Kasap (Clinica Studio), Marko Šesnić and Goran Turković (Studio Šesnić & Turković), and Igor Pauška. Muses accepted this task as part of the EU NATURA 2000 Project of Integration, according to the contract concluded with the Ministry of Environmental and Nature Protection.

Therefore, for fans of Tolkien, all kinds of underground and nature trips, as well as for all those for whom Velebit is still an undiscovered jewel, the ‘Underground Secrets of Paklenica’ from now on can be a signpost towards the south of Croatia! Regardless of whether they just want to have a drink in a bunker atmosphere or crave some local ‘Middle Earth’, from where one aspires towards the heights and where one can escape the city hustle and bustle, if only for a day.

Do you love your homeland? Are you proud of your town? Do you want what you feel to transform into story about identity and share it with others? Send us your thoughts, your questions and suggestions and we will help you so that with our combined forces we form a unique fragment for a mosaic of the heritage of Croatia!

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