There was no gradual introduction, no time to assimilate, no gentle readjustment from urban Croatia to natural Croatia. Only two minutes into Plitvice Lakes National Park, and I was already gaping at one of the park’s highlights — one of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls.
My journey here could not have been easier. I boarded a bus at Zagreb’s main station, only a 10-minute walk from my hotel, and enjoyed the two-hour ride south. Along the way, we stopped at seemingly random places, where people would disembark, sometimes at the edge of a field, perhaps to join the elderly folk already toiling away there. Abandoned and wrecked buildings attested to the destruction of Yugoslavia’s breakup in the early 1990s. But things took on a much more peaceful aura when the bus deposited me directly in front of the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Park.
The waterfall that was now enthralling me is one of the reasons why Plitvice is the most popular of Croatia’s eight national parks. Large Waterfall, known locally as Veliki Slap, drops an impressive 254’ seductively close to the park’s entrance. I was standing at eye level with the top of the falls, flanked by rocky outcrops and forested slopes but with an unbeatable view from my vantage point across the canyon separating us. The falls marks the point where the Plitvica River plunges down to the last of 16 interconnected lakes that cascade into one another in Croatia’s largest (73,000+ acres) and oldest (1949) national park. I looked down at the crowds already massing on the trails and boardwalks at the base of the falls. With Veliki Slap so easily accessible, it’s no surprise that visitors congregate here, and that number has been growing steadily since Plitvice was declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1979, now surpassing 1.5 million per year. Just seeing this little section alone is worth the visit, and many of the crowds who arrive by giant tour buses don’t get much past it. But I wanted more.
I hiked down the trail to the bottom of the falls, where their rush over the precipice becomes more audible. Here at the Lower Lakes, I had close-up views of a few of the amazing turquoise pools that make this park so outstanding. Their brilliant color arises from the process of the algae that blooms in the water releasing gases as they grow and decompose; those gases react with the water and create their fantastic color. Depending on the angle of the sunlight and the amount of algae in the water, the lakes changed color as I moved through the park, ranging from gray to green to blue to turquoise. The lakes result from the confluence of small surface rivers and subterranean karst rivers (that flow through a couple of caves that can be visited) that are all interconnected. Grouped into four Lower Lakes, which were formed in permeable limestone substrate and cut into a deep canyon with steep cliffs, and the 12 less visited Upper Lakes, formed on impermeable dolomite rock and larger and with gentler shores than the Lower Lakes, these lakes spread out over nearly five miles, yet they and the rivers make up less than one percent of the entire park’s area; the rest is forest (about three-quarters) and meadows.
The lakes derive their names from a variety of sources, some as simple as their shape or size or geologic feature, but many with tragic origins. One was named for a murder victim, and at least four for drowning victims, plus one more for a herd of 30 goats that drowned when the thin ice layer beneath them cracked during their attempted flight from hungry wolves looking for a meal. Tall tales also prevail: Crave Lake, for instance, claims its moniker based on the legend of the black queen, who was beseeched by the region’s inhabitants who were craving water, so she created not only this lake, but the others as well. Gavan’s Lake may (or may not) have his namesake’s treasure hidden at the bottom of the water, while Monk Lake honors the hermitic man of God who lived in a cave near the lake and was often sought for his advice.
Despite its proximity to the Adriatic Sea, Plitvice bears no Mediterranean similarities. Thanks to the Velebit Mountains that separate Croatia’s coast from the interior, the park has a more mountainous climate, perfect for a day hike. As I made my way deeper into the park, the circuitous trail took me past hundreds of waterfalls, more lakes, tufa, dolomite and limestone formations, lush meadows, and rich forests of beech, fir, and spruce trees (some of which are 700 years old). I crossed wooden bridges and planks that wend their way over the lakes, stitching them together in the most enchanting manner. As I moved farther along, the trail began to mix boardwalks with dirt paths canopied by trees. Crowds started to thin, and I was soon able to hear the more calming sounds of the park — the rustling leaves, and the cascades of waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, from tall bridal-veil falls to short falls that gurgled over natural rock dams of travertine only a couple of feet high.
The impressive fauna in Plitvice is an animal lover’s delight. Brown bear, gray wolf, Eurasian lynx, and European wildcat as well as lizards, turtles, 321 species of butterflies, 161 species of birds, and 21 species of bats all make their home here. Although I didn’t see much of the park’s wildlife, except for the trout and European chub swimming in the crystal-clear waters, I was certainly able to hear some of it — birdsong, and choruses of frogs croaking in the watery reeds.
Much more visible are some of the 1,267 different types of plants in the park, 75 of which are endemic. Orchids alone are represented by 55 different species.
Shortly after arriving on the shore of Kozjak Lake, I boarded one of the ecologically friendly electric boats to cross this glassine body of water, the largest and deepest lake in the park, past the adorable islet, to continue my hike on the other side. As the trails rise and fall (the highest point in the park is just under 3,000’; the lowest is only 1,200’), I was continuously rewarded with different perspectives of the park, from majestic views high above to ground-level vistas of its beauty. The trail around the Upper Lakes here is markedly less traveled by visitors, which afforded me the great opportunity to view the Galovački Buk waterfall, with its multiple chutes of plunging water, as if I were the only person in the park. At the cascades of Milka Trnina (named for a Croatian soprano who donated money from her concerts to preserve the park, upgrade tracks, and build pathways), water rushes over moss-covered rocks from one lake to the next in total serenity.
Such a seemingly idyllic and peaceful location hasn’t avoided human encroachment and atrocities, however. Remnants of an ancient monastery wall can still be seen. Farmers filled in smaller lakes with earth to meet their agricultural needs, and the Ottomans tooled around the vicinity, killing Croatians. The mid-1800s saw the first accommodations and restaurants within the park’s acreage, including one that marred the landscape with canals across the travertine barriers when the developer tried to build a sawmill. The park hit a particularly sad nadir during the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s, when it became the scene of military action, soldiers usurping the hotels as barracks, other buildings being destroyed or burned down, and the placing of landmines (some of which may still exist in more remote areas of the park where you’re quite unlikely to find yourself).
Five hours of hiking later, I had completed the entire loop and was back at the entrance where I arrived. While waiting for the bus to haul me back to Zagreb, and ultimately a phenomenal dinner at Radicchio, I picked up a cheese strudel at a stand just outside the entrance. The wizened woman who served me didn’t speak a word of English, and my Croatian was virtually nonexistent. Nevertheless, she handed me my treat with a warm smile of a few missing teeth, a smile that seemed to suggest she knew I had just happily experienced one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever been to.
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