Učka mountain smuggling trails
February 19, 2022 – In the 1930s, villages in northeastern Istria made their living selling contraband on Učka Mountain from a free zone on the coast. The fascinating story of smuggling for survival is just part of the local history presented in the Vlaški puti eco-museum in Šušnjevica
At the foot of the Učka mountain in Istria is the village of Šušnjevica. It’s not a destination to make headlines or get a mention on a must-see list. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to visit if you like to get off the beaten path.
Šušnjevica is full of things to discover, including a history of smuggling, stories of survival and a dying language. The many facets of this incredible little place are presented in an interpretation center called Vlaški puti (Wallachian ways), introducing visitors to the social history and cultural heritage of the region.
Clandestine activities always seem to get the most attention, so it makes sense to start there: the unassuming village is located in the area where illicit trade flourished in the early 20th century.
For a bit of historical context, the Italian-ruled province of Kvarner at the time encompassed the wider Rijeka region, including part of Slovenian territory to the north, and all the settlements bordering the Opatija Riviera to the south.
In 1930, the coastal part of the province was declared a free zone by the Italian government (free zone). The economic crisis also left its mark in these regions, the development of tourism was blocked, so the decision to abolish customs was intended to shake things up a bit and give Rijeka and Opatija an edge over other popular destinations. from the northern Adriatic.
Naturally, consumer goods suddenly became much cheaper in the free zone than in the rest of the province, and the local population was nothing if not resourceful. Living conditions were difficult at the time, especially in rural areas, and any opportunity to earn a living was considered more than welcome.
Thus, residents of Šušnjevica and other villages in the region began to smuggle, smuggling cheap goods out of the free zone. They sold their products and poultry in the seaside towns and, in turn, bought mainly sugar, coffee, textiles and oil. Illegal goods were transported on foot up the Učka Mountain and resold for a profit in the rest of the region.
It was a dangerous undertaking, both to climb the rugged mountain slopes and to avoid the ruthless customs officers who watched the area. It should be mentioned that contraband goods were not smuggled out of greed for profit, but only to ensure survival in times of scarcity.
If you’re up for a hiking adventure, now you can retrace the footsteps of the smugglers of the past. Three hiking trails have been developed on the territory of Ucka Nature Park to introduce visitors to the turbulent history of smuggling in the region. A mobile application has been launched, containing detailed information on hiking routes, as well as a list of accommodation providers and restaurants in the area. It is available for download on GooglePlay and AppStore – search Kontraband theme trails.
All three are demanding routes and vary from 6 to 10 kilometers in length, but are well worth the effort – the trails are scenic, offer wonderful views and you will be able to see a few historical sites along the way. Among them is the abandoned village Petrebišća, an important place when it comes to Slavic mythology. Another stop commemorates a young smuggler who died tragically at the age of 12 when he was struck by lightning on Učka mountain; after his death, each smuggler passing by put a stone on the memorial site, which over time turned into a huge pile of stones, the so-called gromaca.
The shortest trail (KB1) starts in Šušnjevica, and those who choose to take this route should really take the opportunity to learn more about this fascinating place at the Vlaški Puti Ecomuseum.
Interpretation center director Viviana Brkarić is more than familiar with the subject, having had family members who engaged in smuggling. Viviana talks about her grandmother, born in 1901; times were tough, she had to support her family and was known to travel to and from the free zone 3-4 times a week. She sometimes got caught smuggling goods out of Učka, which would land her in jail, but she didn’t mind because it meant “she would rest for a while.”
The prison guards soon realized that she knew how to sew and asked her to sew clothes and mend bedding. According to Viviana, Grandma didn’t care because they treated her like a guest and gave her better food than an average prisoner. Apparently the guards were very happy to see it was her every time she was apprehended, and were known to say “here she is, now she will fix whatever needs fixing”. (Agroklub/Blanka Kufner)
Today, Šušnjevica is home to around 70 people, most of whom are of Istro-Romanian origin and are among the last living speakers of Vlashki (vlaški), one of the two existing varieties of the Istro-Romanian language. The other variety is called Zheyanski (žejanski) and is spoken in the Žejane region on the northern slope of the Učka mountain.
Once spoken in a much larger part of northeastern Istria, Istro-Romanian is now listed as “critically endangered” in UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages and is listed on the protected intangible cultural heritage of Croatia. In the mid-20th century, the language was said to be spoken by up to 1,500 people, but the number dwindled as harsh living conditions caused people to move to larger urban areas of the country or emigrate to the States. United States and Australia.
Interestingly, nowadays there are more native speakers of Istro-Romanian living in New York than in Croatia. It is estimated that there is a community of around 300 people who keep the language alive in the diaspora, while the latest count from 2019 puts the number of Vlashki speakers in Croatia at around 70.
The language is no longer transmitted from generation to generation, and therefore the youngest who actively speak Vlashki are around 50 years old.
Preserving this priceless heritage for future generations is one of the objectives of the ecomuseum. The Interpretation Center is designed to introduce visitors to local history and traditions, while the Media Library contains materials in the Vlashki and Zheyanski languages, as well as digitized publications on the language and other topics of regional significance .
Website: Ecomuseum Vlaški puti
Working hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.