Croatia (2013)

The Plitvice lakes

English has the very appropriate expression last, but certainly not least: almost at the very end of our vacation, we visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park.

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Today, Plitvice National Park is on the agenda, so once again we rise early. We had three options to travel to the park: by car, by bus or with an organised tour. A car would give us the most freedom in terms of when to go and for how long, but it would take some effort finding a rental company and renting one. We would also have to find our own way to the National Park and it would be the most expensive option. The organised tour was quickly dismisssed, since they tended to have a strict schedule with little free time for exploring the park on our own. The bus therefor offered a good middle ground, with the disadvantage that they did not run very often and that it was amazingly unclear how long it would take to get there; various sources indicated travel times from two hours to three and a half.

Some checking and asking around confirmed that the bus would indeed be the most convenient option, but we would have to take one at 8.30h. And as that departed from the Zadar bus station, we had a taxi pick us up at 8.00 to get there on time. Which worked perfectly well, for half an hour later we were on the bus to Plitvice. Upon buying the tickets, we heard that the definitive time to the park would be two hours, which gives us a total of six and a half hours to walk through the park. Sounds good!

The journey goes by quickly, especially when you sleep through half of it, just like most passengers and like us. Fortunately I do wake up in time to admire the view: once through a tunnel beneath the mountains along the Adriatic coast, we are suddenly in a beautiful rolling landscape with amazing views beneath low-hanging clouds. Occasionally I poke Vonne and whisper “view!”, leading to her partly opening her eyes, mumbling something about it being nice and going back to sleep.

Eventually the bus pulls up to entrance 1 of the Plitvice National Park, and the driver announces that everyone wanting to go to entrance 2 needs to remain seated. We exchange looks and both wonder what entrance we actually want to go to. We take the gamble that entrance 1 will do just fine (and we have sat long enough) and get off the bus. Two tickets further we enter the park and then see that entrance 1 is actually the one further out from Zadar and a somewhat larger distance from the area with the boats and nice looking walking trails.

In the park

Entrance 1 offers several walking trails of varying distances throughout the park too, however, so it does not matter too much. A sign helpfully indicates roughly how long each trail takes. The ones that go around the lakes should take 4–6 hours, so we decide to follow those. Soon we find ourselves atop a cliff with a grand view of one of the lakes and a waterfall, from where the path winds down the hillside. From there, just like in Krka, wooden walkways lead straight through the area, along lakes filled with fish, along cliffs large and small, small ponds, rapids and through the forest.

It is not difficult to see why the Plitvice Lakes are one of the most popular and most beautiful destinations in Croatia. Various rivers, both overground and subterranean join together here and through a series of waterfalls and sixteen connected lakes, stream down into the lower-lying river Korana. Plants and bacteria in the water together form travertine rock formations on the bottom of the valley. As this is a very delicate process, it is not allowed to swim anywhere in the park. That is unfortunate, as the lakes with their aquamarine hue are very appealing; when you see how busy the walkways can get however, it is a good thing that the beauty of the park is kept intact in this way.

One of the many lakes in Plitvice.

It is also noticeably cool in the park. It might be since you are walking in a valley between the colder rocks, since the trees create a large amount of shade or since the waterfalls spread a mist of cold water throughout, but even on a sunny day it does not feel all that warm. Which is quite pleasant, actually, if you spend the day walking. In the morning however, wearing a vest or jacket over your T-shirt might not be be an unnecessary luxury.

The entrance ticket includes a single boat and a single train fare. There are two points in the park where you can take a boat ride across a lake, and several points where a hybrid between an all-terrain vehicle, a train and a tank drives up and down the hill to carry passengers around. Most walking routes include either, or both, of these transports along the course. As does ours: we soon arrive at the first stop where we have to take a boat across a lake. We fear a bit of a wait when a sign announces one crossing each half an hour and the waiting line is easily more than enough to fill a single boat. The next two boats are only ten minutes apart, however, and we can board quickly. A pleasant ride across a beautiful lake later, we can continue on foot and be amazed by Plitvice’s waterfalls, fish, frogs and stunning scenery.

I am not sure what passes for entertainment here in Croatia, but encountering a bear in the woods is not what I would include.

Of course, when I talked about the Krka park, I used the word “paradise”, which begs the question what that makes the Plitvice Lakes. Well, this park is a lot larger and grander with more vistas, larger waterfalls and if that is even possible, clearer water with even more fish. But it is also a good bit more crowded and in all its grandeur loses a bit of the serenity and simple loveliness that Krka has. If you ever have the chance to visit Plitvice: do it. It is amazing and completely worth it. But if you do, try and visit the Krka park as well; it may seem very similar at first sight, but it has quite a different feel to it and makes for a different experience.

Once we arrive at the highest point along Route C, we can take the train-bus-tank down to a stop near entrance 2, from where we can walk back to entrance 1. Since we have made good progress and there is plenty of time, however, we decide not to take the short route to entrance 1, but follow part of a different trail along one of the lakes to "our" entrance. It turns out to be an idyllic path right along the very edge of the lake, which not many people seem to take, for we hardly encounter anyone else. It is very quiet.

So quiet in fact, that we start thinking about one of the signs that indicated other, longer routes through the rest of the park, further removed from the lakes. Those routes were, according to the sign, both educative and entertaining, as you might encounter the animals of the park, such as lynxes, wolves and bears. Now I am not sure what passes for entertainment in Croatia, but encountering a bear in the woods is not one of the things I would include.

As we continue on our trail along the deserted footpath along the lake, we wonder whether those bears have the good sense of staying in the other side of the park and when we suddenly hear a branch crack in the woods not far from us, we also start wondering how well bears can swim if we had to escape into the lake. Fortunately, however, we only see gorgeous scenery and no actual bears, and a beautiful walk finally brings us back to the park entrance we started at. We still have some time to grab an apfelstrudel at a restaurant, before our mobile sleeping unit (the bus) takes us back to Zadar.

One last dinner in the center of Zadar: tomorrow, we shall return to Split!

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