North of Osijek, the main road to Hungary forges through the pastel-coloured villages and corn-rich fields of the Baranja, a fertile extension of the Slavonian plain which fills the triangle formed by the Drava to the west, the Danube to the east and the low hills of southern Hungary to the north. Despite having spent the years from 1991 to 1998 first under Serbian occupation, then UN control, Baranja is getting back to normal life with remarkable speed. The tourist potential of its wine-growing areas, natural wetlands and rustic settlements is yet to be fully exploited, making it ripe for discovery. The main attraction of the region is the Kopački rit Nature Park, although it possesses enough in the way of picturesque villages and wine cellars to justify a more extensive trip. Featuring largely flat terrain and well-signed cycling routes, the region is perfect for touring by bike, though sights are of a disparate nature and to explore further afield you really need a car.
Kopacki rit Nature Park
Kopacki rit Nature Park
Stretching east of Bilje, the Kopački rit Nature Park (Park prirode Kopački rit) covers an area of marsh and partly sunken forest just north of the point where the fast-flowing River Drava pours into the Danube, forcing the slower Danube waters to back up and flood the plain. The resulting wetland is inundated from spring through to early autumn, when fish come here to spawn and wading birds congregate to feed off them. At this time you’ll also see cormorants, grey herons and, if you’re lucky, black storks, which nest in the oak forests north of Bilje. Autumn sees the area fill up with migrating ducks and geese, while the surrounding woodland provides a year-round home for deer and wild boar. Some of the fields and country lanes surrounding the park are yet to be cleared of mines – anyone walking or driving through the area should stick to the roads, and remain on the lookout for local “mine” signs.
The main route into the park is along the dyke-top road that heads north from the visitor centre and runs past commercial fish ponds before eventually arriving at the magisterial sunken forest of Lake Sakadaš, where wading birds stalk their prey among a tangle of white willows. North of here, tracks continue through Tikveš, an area of oak forest where you stand a good chance of spotting wild pigs and deer. Josip Broz Tito used the fine villa of Dvorac Tikveš as a hunting lodge; it was neglected during the Serb occupation (when most of the furnishings disappeared), but you can still see the balcony where Tito and guests waited, rifle in hand, while servants drove forest beasts out onto the lawn in front of them. Some of the outbuildings are being transformed into an international ecology centre, and the villa itself is earmarked for luxury hotel development.