”Whenever I walk the street with your name, I think of Panta Rei. Eventually, someone will throw a rock at your monument, because everything changes and everything flows…”
These are the lyrics of a famous song ”Requiem” by Serbian musician Balašević. He tells about changes in ex-Yu society once it collapsed and people switched to new values. And it is true – many monuments from our past have been neglected or destroyed in an attempt to write ”the new history”. But something changed in recent years: Yugoslav monuments, socialist architecture, brutalist buildings, or Spomeniks (Serbo-Croatian word for the monument) have made a comeback. More and more people want to see these out-of-the-world, UFO-like pieces of art created by vanguard artists of their time. Hidden in nature, forgotten by the state and often devastated, these grandiose storytellers still resist the time with a defiant attitude.
One of the most famous Yugoslav monuments is sleeping in the forest on the top of Peter’s mountain in Croatia. Today we’re going on a virtual tour (talking about the safe distancing), in search of forgotten and abandoned Croatian legacy.
Geography of Croatia and intro to Kordun region
When you look at the map of Croatia, you’ll see the thin continental part that cuts Croatia in half. This is where the so-called Kordun region lays. It is a transitional area from the lowlands of the eastern half of territory towards the mountain part.
Not many people live here: the smallest areas have 30 residents, and the center of the region – the city of Slunj – has only around 4 000 people. The main reason is that this is a rural area with karst soil. Even historically it hasn’t been the number one choice for people to live in. In former times, this region belonged to the Habsburg Military Frontier towards the Ottoman Empire, so its origins are military. You can tell that even by the name: Kordun comes from a French expression cordon militaire = military belt. People who came to live here were mostly serving the army.
Most of the people today are working in agriculture or a local sawmill. Because of its economical underdevelopment and destructive consequences of the Homeland War, this area was recognized by Croatian laws as an ”area of special state concern”.
Maybe the most famous natural sight of the Kordun region is Peter’s mountain (in Croatian: Petrova gora). The mountain was named after the last Croatian king Petar Snačić (often misspelled Svačić) who – the legend says – died here fighting the Hungarian army in a struggle for succession.
How to get to the monument
We start our trip from a mountain hut called Muljava. This is where you will see a wooden statue of King Peter. It’s a great (and honestly, the only) place here where you can have lunch or coffee. Luckily, you won’t need anything else: the food is delicious, you can enjoy horseback riding, archery, hiking, biking…
It’s suitable for kids, too – just next to the mountain hut starts the so-called ”Roman path” – an educational path through the woods and by the stream that has educational boards with information on planet Earth. Besides that, there is a path called ”The King’s path” that is adjusted to fit the needs of people with disabilities (path is adjusted for those in a wheelchair, and next to each educational board you can find a translation in Braille letters for the blind).
The path is surrounded by the dense forests of beech, sessile oak, and chestnut. Wandering around you’ll see a large number of edible mushrooms that grow throughout the year. If you wander long enough and you’re lucky, you might run into a deer, wild boar, badger, marten, weasel, fox, squirrel, rabbit, maybe even a wolf. Look up and you might see hawk, owl, crow, or a pheasant. For a moment, the woods reminded us more of a jungle than the typical continental forest – so it’s no wonder people back in the days called it ”gvozd” (old Croatian word for rainforest).
But, let’s be honest: it would be a shame to visit Peter’s mountain without seeing its main attraction – the Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija. A concrete socialist miracle standing alone in the woods on the top of the mountain.
If you wish to get to the monument by hiking, it will take you about an hour to reach it (3.5 kilometers / 2.1 miles). If you don’t feel like hiking, the good news is – you can reach the top with the car.
Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija
The monument is one of the great and famous socialist symbols of former Yugoslavia, and unfortunately, with its present state – a symbol of what came later.
Kordun (and neighboring Banija) used to be places with the predominant Serbian population, but then came the Homeland war against Serbia in the 1990s and most of the Serbs left or were exiled. Today, it’s 73% Croatian and around 24% Serbian.
But, let’s rewind to the time when it was all about ”brotherhood and unity”.
It’s 1941 and WWII grabbed the Balkans. Croatia aligned with Nazi Germany and their local puppet government (Ustaša) started the persecution of Jews, Serbs, Roma, communists, antifascists… The resistance movement was founded in the shape of an antifascist partisan army led by Marshal Tito who will later become the president of Yugoslavia.
Because this middle/mountain part of Croatia was largely populated with Serbs, it was under the Ustaša radar. Serbs and Croatians joined forces and fought Nazi collaborators. Some of the most important partisan institutions and political sessions took place in this region, which is why the monument was built here to commemorate people and events.
The author of the monument was a famous Croatian artist Vojin Bakić. He himself lost four brothers in concentration camps, so it makes sense a lot of his work was dedicated to the victims of fascism.
The monument was open in 1982. Inside were the museum, cinema, conference hall, and a tomb for dozens of partisans and civilians (don’t get confused, the number of victims is much higher but their graveyards are scattered around the woods – we are talking about 8 000 killed here during the WWII). The local factory in the nearby city of Karlovac donated the material for construction – slabs of stainless steel that covered the monument.
For a great discussion about the ”monument tourism”, check this article by The Calvert Journal. Speaking of the factory that donated materials to the monuments, this article also explains a wider context of how monuments ”were really embedded with communities, and were not imposed upon them”.
”You would be surprised to see that the financing many times came as a combination of republican (Yugoslavia was heavily decentralized into its six constituent Republics) and regional funds, and also self-managed funding”.
Researchers from Croatia and Serbia explained for Lonely Planet’s article how the local community was ”included in the very process of creating and construction of monuments, as a method to develop a sense of belonging and inheritance”.
Every year, state representatives, veterans, and common people would gather here to pay tribute to the fallen partisans, and it was common for young people from all around Yugoslavia to come here for joint actions of tree planting. These types of massive gatherings where young people work together were called ”Youth work actions”. Young people would voluntary work on building public and industrial infrastructure, organized in so-called ”youth work brigades”.
Even today you can see railways, parts of cities, and highways built by our parents. They were very popular after WWII when people needed to rebuild the country torn apart by the war. I guess the goal was to install the sense for the community in young people, but listening to their stories today, we are starting to think it was more about free holidays and meeting girls for them.
Tito died in 1980 (two years before the monument was open) and the disintegration of Yugoslavia had already begun. It escalated in the Homeland war and break up of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s. The monument followed the fate of its country.
In 1991 it was abandoned and in 1995 the museum was devastated. Stainless steel plates that were covering the monument were stolen and the thieves were never found (actually, they were never been looked for anyway). Exponents from the museum were either stolen or found broken and scattered around in the woods.
Today it’s closed but every now and then you can run into an open front door. When we arrived, some workers were carrying rods outside and they let us in for half an hour. The sign in front of the monument tells you it’s not recommended to stick around and that you’re here on your own responsibility, but it’s safe. The elevators in the monument are, of course, broken, but to reach the top you are climbing perfectly solid stairs, only avoiding glass of broken bottles.
Once you get to the rooftop of the monument, you will have the magnificent view that stretches even to Slovenia on one side and Bosnia and Herzegovina on the other side.
To get back you can use the same path you came with, or continue hiking on a circular path – the length is the same, so I’d recommend continuing further. On your way, you will see two more peaks and a board celebrating Croatian-Turkish friendship. Conveniently, after the Ottoman wars in the 16th century right here in this area.
Upon your return to the mountain hut, you can find a former partisan hospital in the woods, with the actual equipment they used and the graveyard around it. The hospital (sounds very institutional but it’s mostly wooden barracks) operated during the most difficult time: around 5 000 patients were treated inside, and 1 000 died there as well.
There is a famous folk song dedicated to fallen partisans called ”Na Kordunu grob do groba” (On Kordun – grave after grave; PS this is not my video, I am just sharing the version I liked). The song tells a story about a weeping mother looking for her son among graves. Son is telling her not to cry because her tears are heavier for him than the ground that covers him. He is sending her back home: ”Return to your home and don’t come to my grave. Tell our people that I’ve fallen for the freedom, tell them to fight for the liberation”.
One more reason to visit: Peter’s mountain is a Dark Sky Park
In 2019 this area was recognized as the Dark Sky Park (by the International Dark-Sky Association) among 15 others in Europe. Dark Sky Park means ”an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment”.
This is why astronomers from Zagreb and all around Croatia come here for research and magnificent photos on so-called ”star parties”.
Light pollution is excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial (usually outdoor) light. Too much light pollution has consequences: it washes out starlight in the night sky, interferes with astronomical research, disrupts ecosystems, has adverse health effects (sleeping disorders, mental health), and wastes energy.
If you find yourself in Croatia in mid of August, it will be the best time to witness a bright meteor shower called Tears of St. Lawrence. If you’d like to participate in an organized event, check with Croatian Astronomical Society – every year there are few, and Peter’s mountain is always on the list (the spot just under the monument). Or you can ask your guide 😊
If you want to explore more of ex-Yu monuments (in our language, we call it: spomenik), I would recommend this great page: Spomenik database.
What do you think? Have you already seen some of the famous Yugoslav monuments?
If there something you’d like to add/know more about, feel free to comment below or contact me.