You’ve probably all heard the saying “bloom where you’re planted”. And so, I’ve recently been glued to Pag Island for a little while, learning how to thrive among the island’s unique stony landscape which also gave me the opportunity to look a bit deeper into different expressions of what makes this place special.
Unlike other “typical” Adriatic islands, Pag welcomes you with a predominantly dry, barren, and rocky limestone karst landscape. There are no rivers or streams here. No waterfalls either. Vegetation is scarce, and with somewhat monotonous relief, it’s often compared to lunar or mars scenery.
The lack of greenery is quite an evident defining element that stands out, but the plants that do find their way to the surface, are pretty unique. From an ancient olive grove to a downy oak forest and aromatic herbs that are a part of the island’s local produce – they each tell a particular story of their own existence.
This post is all about the unique vegetation and landscape of Pag Island. You are welcome to join me on the journey through its scarce relief.
Understanding Pag’s Geographical Position
The Island Pag’s geographical position is what explains so much of what happens, grows, thrives, and blossoms on the island. Although the vegetation is lacking in surface area and is not widely spread, it’s as diverse as it gets. First, there is an obvious difference between eastern and western parts of the island.
The terrain on the northeastern side of the island is mostly limestone karst and bare rocks, looking almost moonlike. The area is separated from Velebit Mountain Range with Velebitski Kanal (Velebit Channel). This largest Croatian range is where a very rough and forceful north bura (bora) wind blows from. It is created by the mixing of cold continental and warm Mediterranean climate.
The harsh wind often comes in merciless gusts that scatter the sea spray together with salt dust across the island’s facing landscape. This prevents vegetation in the area from flourishing, especially if in the upcoming hot days no rain falls onto the soil. As a result, there is practically no flora found on this austere part of the island. The vegetation covered in salt often looks like a winter frost that turns the island into a white wonderland.
The southwestern part of the island is geographically much lower and there is slightly more heterogenous and abundant vegetation found there. The natural rocky elevation points break bura wind which allows more greenery to thrive. Some pretty fascinating and diverse forms, plant species, as well as habitat types, can be spotted here: broadleaf and conifer forest, juniper and ash trees, stone pine, downy oak, wildflowers, woody shrubs, and grasses.
The central part of the island is also somewhat distinctive, covered with sediment deposits. It’s also abundant in underground natural springs that originate from the nearby Velebit.
Further on I want to take you through various and most unique vegetation and landscape that can be found on Pag Island. It all profoundly responds to the natural elements of the area and the island’s specific geographic position.
Dubrava – Hanzine Reserve
Dubrava – Hanzine Reserve is a unique isle of lushness found on Pag Island. Being the only forest vegetation reserve here, it represents quite an important part of local flora. This downy oak [Quercus Pubescens] sanctuary is located just outside of the town of Pag and covers around 429 hectares of land. On one side, it borders on the abrupt coastal cliffs with some of the most beautiful sandy beaches hiding their own natural springs. On the other side, it is sheltered by craggy limestone slopes, including the island’s highest point, Sv. Vid.
The protected reserve is special. After all, this is the island’s only patch of deciduous forest vegetation surviving local conditions. The calming, very peaceful, and unique downy oak forest is such a wonderful contrast to the neighboring landscape. Because and in spite of the harsh climate circumstances (gales of strong bora winds and a great amount of salt) forest vegetation adjusted to such conditions by developing its own unique genetic material and immunity. What a resistance! It seems life always finds a way.
The forested Dubrava – Hanzine Reserve is important not only for the island’s unique vegetation, but also for the numerous mammals (especially hedgehog, rabbit, fox, jackal, mouse, weasel, and marten), lizards, and snakes. They’ve all found home here and are part of this special ecosystem, often staying hidden from visitors. However, the birdsong definitely won’t pass you without notice. This forest is infused with it.
Among the plants, you might come across are Burning Bush [Euonymus Alatus], Butcher’s Broom [Ruscus Aculeatus], Bloody Geranium [Geranium Sanguineum], Elm Leaf Blackberry [Rubus Ulmifolius], Blackthorn [Prunus Spinosa], Bastard Balm [Melittis Melissophyllum], Bladder Senna [Colutea Arborescens], and Crown Vetch Emerald [Securigera Varia].
The wooded area of the Dubrava – Hanzine Reserve has also been known as “the forest of the God Perun”, receiving the title after the ancient Slavic God Perun. In Slavic mythology (as well as many other cultures) the oak is considered a holy tree. It is believed that whoever is overthrown by a healthy oak will be overcome by misfortune.
The oak forest really does feel like a green oasis located above the tall coastal cliffs, overlooking some of the most beautifully bare rocky landscape and salty turquoise waters. I always feel extremely lucky whenever standing under these hundreds of oak trees. They offer such a peaceful environment. Also, they can be your retreat during the hot summer months when all the beaches in the area get crowded, and a wonderful autumn playground when the leaves blush in the most beautiful golden colors. It’s a must-visit place on the island.
Pag Island’s salt pans [saline] are another wonderful example of nature at work. They have been documented back to the 9th century, but have most likely been around much longer. They are located just outside the town of Pag, covering an area of around 3 square kilometres. Pag’s clay pools and salt pans are the largest ones in Croatia and play a big part in the life of the island.
Until recent years the sea salt’s been produced by following a thousand years old traditional cultivation method of drying out the sea water in closed evaporation ponds. These days, however, the evaporation, extraction, and crystallization processes are quickened and completed in the nearby Solana Pag.
Just like the neighboring landscape today, this inlet area was in the far past covered with saline tolerant grass species, expansive coastal taxa, mudflats, and marshes. The island’s strong but favorable bora wind, the extremely clean sea water, impermeable clay grounds, and a high number of sunny days form perfect climatic conditions for salt production. All these elements keep the habitat quite pristine. The salt produced here is very pure and has a very high mineral content which puts it among the best quality salts in Europe.
Unfortunately, there is no option to walk among these evaporation ponds like I’ve been used to in Sečovlje. Nevertheless, your inquisitive nature will reward your efforts. You can find a way to enjoy unique white fields from different vantage points if you put your mind to it. Possibly that may mean making your way through tall grass and scrub or briefly crossing private land. One thing I probably like the most is getting to a slightly elevated point half an hour before sunrise or close to the sunset to catch that golden light when the sun is beautifully reflected on the surface of the salt water.
Veliko i Malo Blato and Kolansko Blato
Veliko i Malo Blato near Povljana, as well as Kolansko Blato near Kolan, are all ornithological reserves. These are protected marsh areas that act as natural sanctuaries and shelters to around 143 bird species documented around here. Some of them have been nesting in these areas, while others stop here for wintering or during their migrating time.
Veliko Blato Reserve is the largest of the three. It expands across 2x21km of land. In terms of the swamp vegetation varieties, these marsh areas are surrounded by reeds [Phragmites Communis], rushes [Juncus Acutus, Juncus Conglomeratus, Juncus Maritimus], and sedges [Carex]. Meadows that are bordering on the reserve get flooded, especially during extended periods of rainfall. Karst terrain with rocky pastures is another characteristic of the surrounding landscape filled with Common Sage [Salvia Officinalis], Spiny Spurge [Euphorbia Spinosa], Curry Plant [Helichrysum Italicum], and Bjelušina [Inula Verbascifolia].
If you are into sightseeing, bird photography, or bird watching, then this preserved place is a must for you to visit. At Veliko Blato there’s a watchtower located quite close to the entry point with a valuable information board about Shorebirds [Charadriiformes], their moving, feeding, breeding, and hibernation periods. Some of them are quite rare and endangered in Europe.
Marsh bird species that can be spotted here are Montagu’s Harrier [Circus Pygargus], Calandra Lark [Melanocorypha Calandra], Gadwall [Mareca Strepera], Eurasian Coot [Fulica Atra], Glossy Ibis [Plegadis falcinellus], Little Grebe [Tachybaptus Ruficollis], Grey Heron [Ardea Cinerea], Ferruginous duck [Aythya Nyroca], and others.
I found evening moments to be an ideal time to explore all these three rich swampy territories. Birds start to gather and there is a great chance of spotting them as the wetland comes to shine under the late day’s light.
→ Also check: Beautiful Ruins of Pag Island
Ancient Olive Gardens
Wild olive groves in Lun are one of those special places on the island. More than 80,000 olive trees [Olea Oleaster] that occupy a sizeable surface of 24 hectares age on average around 1200 years, with the oldest one dating back 1600 years. In addition, approximately 1500 wild olive trees of the Oblica genus that are found here reach anywhere from 5 to 8 meters in height. It’s amazing to see how these trees adapted to often tough natural conditions with harsh droughts. They are in fact thriving on such rocky terrain that this most northern part of Pag Island is covered with.
The olive growing tradition is well preserved on the island, and Lun olive oil has been known for its clean and soft taste. Timeless giants, firmly rooted in this ancient soil, have been sheltered within dry stone walls, standing up to all nature’s challenges. It seems this is a recipe for that authentic taste of greatness.
The drive to the furthest tip of the island combined with a walk through these pristine olive groves of Lun is a must when visiting Pag. You can literally get lost while exploring the lengthy macadam paths that spread out in every direction and all the way to the Adriatic Sea. There’s this grandiose feeling lingering around the beautiful olive branches suggesting they’re going to be around for another thousand years to come.
Pag’s “Secret Gardens”
What is perhaps the most wonderful feature of Pag, lies hidden within the stony landscape that is flavoured with wind-swept salt. I call this barren part of the island a “secret garden”. A walk or a hike among the pointy rocks quickly reveals real gems this land holds: flowering fauna, aromatic herbs, and trees that are almost there, all peeking through the stones. The surviving kind of vegetation. The warriors. Some of them fight the circumstances with their thorns, but I also found some of them to be the softest ones I’ve ever come across. Each of them defying the conditions in its unique way, it seems.
Pag’s aromatic sage has quickly become my favourite plant in the area. It’s special, it’s unique, it has the most wonderfully intense aroma, and is also infused with numerous healing powers (ie. sage-blossom honey). White karst hills become abundantly decorated with its colored flowers during the spring.
Sage and all other aromatic plants, grasses, and wild herbs get showered with highly concentrated salt spray. They all present a food source for the sheep that (semi)freely roam around here. This specific diet gives Pag’s renowned specialties, lamb and cheese (Paški sir), a distinct flavor. Such local produce needs to be a part of your dining experience when visiting the island.
Other plants and trees that are a highlight of this scarce but surviving foliage are predominately thin grasses, lavender [Lavandula], woody shrubs, beautiful stone pine [Pinus Pinea], wildflower, immortelle [Helichrysum Italicum], rosemary [Salvia Rosmarinus], and juniper. Pag’s stony pastures are truly one of a kind.
Although the stony whiteness that Pag island’s landscape is covered with quickly grows under your skin, it also makes you seek that patch of greenery, lushness, and a touch of color. As mentioned before, there are no river streams or creeks found here. It’s safe to say that the island is defined and ruled by an immortal veil of white salt.
While bura’s cleansing and tough love together with the salt air often turn the locals’ every day upside down and strip the landscape of its vegetation, they also make Pag one of the most unique and exposed Adriatic islands. The distinctive micro-climate, the rocky desert relief, the sparse but pristine and unspoiled flora, the high number of annual sunny days – these elements all make this place special and different.
When you visit or make a stop on Pag Island, I encourage you to look deeper and aim to see further from the beautiful turquoise beaches the island is blessed with. Because just like with every living and evolving entity out there – what is essential is invisible to the eye.
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