Calling it an eventful few weeks would be something of an understatement. As Europe has baked in what will surely become a regular searing summer heatwave, I’ve rarely caught my breath passing twixt pillar and post. Between bleeding for my US visa application (quite literally for a medical), blessedly relocating from a toxic environment (a story for another time) and preparing for a potential new travel prospect (the details of which must remain secret for now) it’s been a non-stop, tumultuous, chaotic, merry-go-round on acid. This weekend, however, just before the shit really hits the fan, we managed to find time to tick off a bucket-list item – road-tripping anti-fascist Croatian monuments.
As Alex was working hard with new-school preparations during her summer holidays, it was up to yours truly to step up and bring home the bacon. I’ve rarely stopped mashing the keys for my wonderful clients, but it was decided a wee weekend away would be a nice break before my better half departs for home. As we’re both big fans of urban exploration and abandoned places, we thought it a good idea to hire a car and visit three (in)famous Croatian monuments, scattered in remote locations throughout the country. First up was the shiny and surreal, 12-story Petrova Gora.
Designed and built by Vojin Bakić – a Croatian sculptor of Serbian descent, this dream-like structure was completed in 1981. Its full title is a bit of a mouthful – the Monument to the Uprising of the People of Kordun and Banija – and so it is simply known by the name of the hill on which it stands.
Translated as “Peter’s mountain,” the etymology comes from Croatian King Petar Snačić who died in battle against the Hungarians in 1097. It is rumoured that Petar is buried somewhere on his hill – but nobody can pinpoint the location of his grave. Today, this anti-fascist Croatian monument dominates the hill’s significant vantage point. It took over a decade to complete but will take considerably longer to be demolished – in spite of the local’s best efforts.
Built to commemorate an uprising by the people of Kordun and Banija against the Nazis, it is constructed of a metal-framed skeleton, poured concrete and stainless steel paneling which is supposed to cover every inch of its exterior. Unfortunately, as the monument lacks legal ownership and documentation, industrious Croatians have been stripping the site for cheap (aka free) building materials for years. It hasn’t so much as fallen into disrepair as it’s being actively disrepaired.
I’d first heard about this site a number of years ago via my bible Atlas Obscura. Everywhere I venture, I ensure to scour this outstanding travel resource for anything remotely weird and wonderful in the region. Petrova Gora piqued my interest, but I thought it nothing more than an unusually designed mold of concrete and steel crumbling away on a hilltop. I had no idea that you could actually get inside and it was one the best Croatian monuments for urban exploration.
Upon approach, we noticed that a padlocked door was ajar, guarded by two burly Croatians. While I was out of earshot, Alex was informed we could not go in as they were shooting a movie. It was a statement soon retracted when the speaker noticed me lying on the floor to get a good angle for a photograph. Believing me to be a professional, he offered us ten minutes maximum inside – and under no circumstances were we to go into the basement. It was far too dangerous – apparently.
Well, this was most fortuitous! As the structure usually stands under lock and key, arriving at such an opportune moment is not to be looked in the mouth. We didn’t need telling twice and darted inside, astonished to discover just how labyrinthine the inner workings are. There were several floors to explore (the exact number escapes me) and as we only had but a short time to experience the interior, we wasted no time standing on ceremony.
Swirly concrete staircases, walls, and banisters had not yet succumbed to great swatches of graffiti, and underfoot the marble-esque flooring was largely intact. The eerie, exposed elevator shafts were dark voids into an abyss, which put my heart in my mouth every time Margot padded over to inspect them. Considering this was built in the 1970s, the overall feeling was being onboard a futuristic spacecraft. Albeit one that just happened to be missing large pieces of its hull.
There is an air of trepidation whenever exploring the innards of abandoned structures, and I ventured alone to the top in spite my fear of heights, gingerly picking my way up an iron spiral staircase into the unknown. Floors or ceilings giving way are usually my main concern, but I needn’t have worried, as this Croatian monument is as solid as a rock. At least, for the time being.
The roof has been commandeered by TV and telecoms companies, which doesn’t sit well with many locals who believe it an afront to their national history and heritage. If that is the case, then surely investment needs to be made to restore this striking creation to its former glory? I had no idea it was going to be as memorable and as exciting as when I visited the Bulgarian Communist Party HQ on Mount Buzludzha back in 2015.
A shout from below reminded us that our time was limited and I hurried down to join Alex and reluctantly exit this fascinating, dilapidated building. While returning to our vehicle, half of our animated discussion revolved around speculating how and what it was all used for. To date, this is easily up there with the very best abandoned locations I’ve visited. Time waits for no-one, however, and our next port of call on the Croatian monuments tour was located deep in Brezovica Forest, some 83 kilometres northeast.
If you’d like more Petrova Gora photographs dear readers, please see the gallery below this post.
Monument to the Detachment
Located close to the town of Sisak in a hidden wooded clearing you’ll discover the Monument to the Detachment. Also competed in 1981, it was designed by Croatian sculptor Želimir Janeš, himself one of Sisak’s famous sons. While not as exciting or adventurous as Petrova Gora, the history of this striking monolith is no less intriguing.
In the spring of 1941, the Axis powers invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Croatia were re-organised into a single Nazi puppet state. Naturally, the young men of the Yugoslav Communist Party had something to say about that, and they held clandestine meetings under an imposing elm tree in Brezovica Forest. They formed the 1st Sisak Partisan Detachment, reputedly the first-ever resistance force to harass the occupying Nazi invader.
Shortly after the war ended, a memorial plaque was unveiled under the elm tree. When the elm died in the 1970s, plans were drawn up to erect something more substantial as a fitting tribute to the partisans and to the tree under which they gathered. The result is a 65-foot monolith designed to resemble an elm. A popular family spot throughout communism’s hey-day, it eventually fell into neglect and disrepair with the onset of the Balkan conflict and the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia.
But we’d saved the strangest of our Croatian monuments for last.
The Monument to the Revolution of the People of Moslavina to give it its full moniker was designed by Macedonian sculptor Dušan Džamonja and Serbian painter Vladimir Veličković. Built in 1967, it is a memorial to commemorate the local community uprising against the Ustashe – a particularly nasty band of Croatian fascist, ultra national terrorists. The monument was commissioned by Tito himself, intended to represent the “wings of victory” overcoming defeat.
Nearby, a lake was created by damming the Kamenjače River in order to create a more pleasant view from the monument and entice more tourists to the area. Much like the Monument to the Detachment, this was very successful only up until Yugoslavia disintegrated, and while the site is relatively well preserved, it is rarely visited today.
I discovered quite by accident that there is a word to describe these Croatian monuments – and indeed all similar monuments scattered throughout the Balkans. They are called Spomeniks – and there are around 70 of them. Each has its own unique history, a method behind the madness of their design and a stirring, captivating and tragic beauty in their fall from grace. If you would like to know more, I recommend the outstanding Spomenik Database for in-depth information, stories, former photographs, and further reading.
But while visiting these Croatian monuments makes for enjoyable days out like this one, it should be remembered that they are nonetheless built to commemorate events during a darker period in human history. And yet, it is a period that appears to be on the rise once more, with the alarming spread of fascism in the west. Perhaps it isn’t the last time a bizarrely beautiful Spomenik will grace the European landscape when the call to arms comes again.