I’d been to Croatia once before, spending a few days in the northwest of the country back in 2006. While the old colosseum in Pula was impressive and the stone outcrops masquerading as beaches were nice enough, there was nothing there that really blew my mind.
No, that feeling would have to wait another six years. Walking for several hours up and down hills during a blistering Croatian summer would not usually be my idea of a good time, but when it came to the Plitvice Lakes National Park, I didn’t even care.
Because that place is just so damn beautiful.
A little over two hours from the capital, Zagreb, Plitvice feels like a world away. While far from undiscovered, the area consists of little more than a few clusters of guesthouses and restaurants on the edge of the UNESCO-listed national park.
Taking the (ahem) scenic detour to one of the entrances, we were lucky enough to meet a friendly family walking the other way. They had decided not to use the second of their passes and offered it to us, saving the 110 kuna (18 dollar) fee in the process.
There are several suggested ways to explore the interconnected lakes of the park depending on how much time, fitness and motivation you have, and we opted for the 5-7 hour route. Would that be overly ambitious, I wondered?
Although we were very tired and mildly sunburned by the time we finished, I think it wasn’t. Anything less just wouldn’t have been enough.
Starting with a slow shuttle ride to the Lower Lakes, the crush of people traipsing along the wooden walkways threatened to overwhelm. I prefer my nature quiet and reflective, not filled with shouting families and shoving groups of amateur photographers.
So we stopped.
Letting the hordes continue on, we sat on a bench beside a breathtakingly clear lake for a while. For those few brief moments, there was nobody else around. Birds chirped and fluttered nearby. The merest hint of a breeze bent reeds and rustled tree leaves. Mottled shadows scattered over the path, tempering the sun’s fierce heat.
After weeks of exploring large cities, a deep sense of calm washed over me.
This was why we had come.
Past tumbling waterfalls and still lakes we wandered, for the most part managing to avoid the worst of the crowds. I can only imagine what the solitude of the Plitvice Lakes must be like in winter, or even outside the height of summer.
Colour seemed somehow magnified in this place. The luminous green of the forest reflected perfectly in the deep green of the lakes. White water seemed to glow as it tumbled from the cliffs, disappearing in a haze on the surface of the water.
The route around the Upper Lakes was shorter and steeper than the previous three hours, with fewer, more dramatic waterfalls. The highlight was Veliki slap (Big Waterfall), where a torrent emerges from the forest to tumble 70 metres over the cliffs and into the pools below.
A steep rocky trail led up to a viewpoint, where the impressive streams of water falling from the rocks were matched only by the impressive streams of sweat falling from my forehead. The day wasn’t getting any cooler…
Finally we neared the end of the trail, a series of dusty switchbacks taking us up out of the gorge and back along the ridgeline. I couldn’t help but stop every minute or two to admire the scene laid out below me, a picture postcard amongst so many others that day.
Slowly plodding back towards our guesthouse, exhaustion rapidly setting in, I felt surprisingly happy. Even with aching feet and a thirst that only several cold beers could quench, I understood why these lakes were one of Croatia’s premier attractions.
Despite the July crowd, the Plitvice Lakes were simply a beautiful, relaxing, wonderful part of the world.
If you happen to find yourself in Croatia, just go there. It’s as simple as that.
This trip through Central and Eastern Europe is made possible by the good folks at Eurail.com.