Our next destination after Zagreb was Plitvice Lakes, which was set aside as Southeast Europe’s first national park in 1949. The small villages surrounding the park are filled with signs that say “SOBE” or “ZIMMER,” the Croatian and German words for “room.”
We used Booking.com to book a night in House Ivan, a small guest house near one of the park’s entrances. We had an upstairs room with a separate bathroom in the hallway, which is typical for the area. Our host showed us around the the back of the main house to a tiny brick building which housed the kitchen, where we were surprised to meet a young chef, dressed in professional chef’s attire, including the tall white hat, who would be cooking our dinner.
Croatians in general are very tall, and they eat big meals. Each region has its food specialties, and in the Plitvice Lakes area it’s meat, put in a covered pot and cooked over a wood fire. We were both thinking that we could order one and share, but we knew that wouldn’t be right. The meals were fixed price, this was a tiny establishment, and we needed to support it by ordering two dinners. Mark had a meat combo, and I ordered the “hamburger stuffed with cheese.” Would you like soup, we were asked? Cream of mushroom? Ok. Two huge platters of food arrived, each with french fries and vegetables, plus a basket of wonderful home baked bread, and a carafe of wine. I could only eat half of my hamburger, which was shaped in a half-circle like a turnover and stuffed with gooey cheese. We hate to waste food, so we made two sandwiches with the rest of the burger and the bread, and I wrapped them up to eat on our hike the next day. Then, the host came back and asked us about dessert. When we protested, he looked so disappointed that we relented and ordered the pancakes – which were delicious crepes, filled with chocolate and dusted with sugar. I’m pretty sure that the filling was Nutella, which we see everywhere we go. I keep telling Mark to buy stock in Nutella.
Mark has taken up cigar smoking, since you can get Cuban cigars in the UAE and Europe, so he enjoyed a cigar outside at the picnic table after dinner. It was so lovely and peaceful, sitting in the cool twilight air. We were wondering how to keep the sandwiches, since we didn’t have a refrigerator in our room. I figured that the car would get cold enough overnight to keep them fresh. Mark didn’t believe me, but it worked perfectly. You could never do that in Abu Dhabi!
Plitvice Lakes, which has been inhabited for thousands of years, has been a popular tourist attraction since the late 19th century. A group of preservationists founded a conservation committee in 1893, and it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
It is also, I was surprised to learn, where the Croatian Homeland War began. A Croatian police officer named Josip Jovic was the first person killed by the rebel Serbs. He was shot in the park on March 31, 1991. The Croatian Army retook the park in 1995, and the damage to park property and hotels, which were used as barracks, has been repaired. You would never imagine, seeing it now, that this was a war scene 20 years ago.
We had to choose one section of the park for our one-day visit, so we chose the northern side, where we would see Velki Slap, the Big Waterfall. The park is a series of 16 lakes, linked together by cascades and waterfalls that are constantly changing because of the nature of the limestone karst and tufa deposits, which cause streams and falls to dry up, change direction, and spring up in new places.
If we had more time we could have taken several days to see some of the upper lakes, and hike the 30 kilometers of educational and recreational trails in the forest, which covers 3/4 of the park. The trails have interpretive signage to educate visitors about the forest ecosystem. Perhaps we could have seen some of the 55 different species of orchids.
We took a boat, which was included with our park admission ticket, to the tip of the most northern lake Jezero Kozjak where, if you wish, you can stop for a snack or a beer. From there you take a path that leads through the lush forest and onto an extensive boardwalk trail across the cascades up to Velki Slap.
How we would have loved to have just a fraction of this boardwalk trail on The Nature Conservancy’s River Fork Ranch project I worked on in Carson Valley, Nevada! You had to watch your step, though. The boardwalk was uneven, and there were places where the rushing water was encroaching on it. I wonder how often they have to relocate it?
Both Mark and I had cameras. Mark’s goal was to capture the water in different ways using different shutter speeds. I was just trying to capture the best scenes, best shapes, best light, best moods, best colors. As the day went on, the weather began to change and clouds were moving in. The light changed. We shot a lot of pictures, but everyone else along the trail was constantly stopping to take photos, too. The digital camera is the world’s greatest invention at the moment, in my opinion.
There were busloads of people who had come on tour packages and were staying in the big hotels. They came in waves, walking in groups with tour guides who were holding umbrellas. There were generally two types of tourist, if I may generalize. Asians were heavily represented, and also Caucasian people of retirement age. Like us, I guess, only maybe a little older.
There were some young people on the trail too, including this Paris Hilton look-alike and her boyfriend, who Mark managed to photograph as we passed by.
This place, Plitvice Lakes, really is, I believe, one of the wonders of the natural world. The rushing water, the placid fish, the turquoise blue lakes, emerald green woods, the wildflowers in bloom … they all did my desert-parched heart good.
The hike is told in photos. We went up above the big falls to the small lookout point where you get the “money shot” of the beautiful lakes. The tour groups are probably too big to get up there. We have so many photos, but at each turn we saw something new, and we never got tired of the views. It was like we just couldn’t get enough, and each photo is precious to me. So you may see some photos that look the same, but some of the scenes deserve a second or third look. Or fourth, or fifth, or …
To see a very good article about Plitvice Lakes on Wiki Travel, click this link.
As we neared the parking lot, it clouded up and began to rain. What perfect timing! We bought beers and ate our sandwiches, which tasted delicious, like meat loaf. I went to admire the strudels and cheeses, and woke up the vendor to buy a chunk of tangy cheese for a snack to go with a bottle of Croatian red wine later.
I resisted the strudel, which is my favorite, for the time being. It was only our second day.
Then we were on the road again. We were headed for Split, which is thought to be the home town of Mark’s grandfather, who we believe was named Marko Tomic. This would be the beginning of Mark’s investigation of his Croatian heritage.