Croatia is not just a coastline! But that's what most Europeans think! They flock to the islands and coastal towns, and who can blame them? But nestled deep in the Croatian countryside, near the Bosnian border, is Croatia's first national park, and one of Europe's greatest natural wonders!
Plitvice National Park (pleet-veet-say) was created in 1949 to protect an area of outstanding natural beauty, which, much later, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What is it that makes Plitvice so outstanding! In a word............waterfalls, lots of them! Here's one, just to get you started!
Although we went inland specifically to see the waterfalls, we actually found ourselves faced with two very different experiences. Plitvice sits smack in the middle of the poorest part of Croatia and provides jobs and opportunities in an area where the only other economic activity seems to be selling cheese at roadside stands. It's also an area that saw heavy fighting during what is called "the homeland war". In fact the first shot was fired there, on Easter Sunday 1991, the first casualty being a park policeman. Croats are Catholic, while Serbs are Orthodox, and as we drove through pitifully poor villages it was shocking to see the bombed out churches and derelict houses that used to belong to Serbs.
In 20 years of peace the Croats' Serb neighbours have not returned, which is hardly surprising. Their homes stand empty, alongside the repaired and lived-in, as a sickening reminder of the violence that took place here.
Meanwhile, for 5 years while the Serbs held the Plitvice area, the popular tourist trap was allowed to grow wild. Croats fled to the coast as refugees and there certainly weren't any foreign tourists clamoring to come to Croatia at the time. Now the park and its residents are enjoying renewed prosperity, almost every house in the surrounding area has a "rooms for rent" sign, and a million tourists a year come to marvel at the 16 variously coloured lakes with countless cascades roaring between them. Most seem to come in tour groups, on huge buses; the traffic mayhem when we got there at 4pm on Sunday almost persuaded us to drive on by! Here's our guest house, where we had a tiny but comfortable, warm, apartment for 2 nights. That's our car, a Skoda from the Czech Republic.
At Plitvice our weather luck ran out! We had no blue sky, (until the morning we were driving away!) no sun, but thankfully no rain either! Here's what we saw as we spent over six hours walking around, beside, over and even through the stunning waterfalls and lakes of Plitvice.
The lakes are, apparently, many different shades of blue and green, but you'll have to check google images for that experience! Without the sun you don't get the colours. However, the water is astonishingly clear and we could see fallen trees, fish and so on. There is no mud in these lakes and streams, just rock. There is running water literally everywhere!
The area is much larger than we expected, and it took us all day to explore. The astonishing landscape is constantly changing, and is made up of calcium carbonate (the same mineral that's in hard water) from the limestone rock, released by fast moving and falling water and building up, as travertine, into dams that create pools and lakes.
Seeing it all was hard work! Of course some refreshment was required! Like apple strudel! AND the most welcome and frothy cup of hot chocolate ever!
Unfortunately, while we were basking in the sun in Istria, inland Croatia was having heavy rain that flooded whole villages and washed houses away! Plitvice was not immune to this and some areas were blocked off, while others were just a bit more watery than usual!
It's astonishing the length to which they have gone to make the waterfalls and lakes accessible by boardwalk. As you can see from the photos, some of the paths go very close to waterfalls, even over the top of them or climbing right up them! There were seldom any handrails, and the boards were uneven, with frequent shallow steps that were hard to make out, but they were, surprisingly, not slippery for the most part. It took some concentration to walk on them and by the end of the day we we felt like we never wanted to see another boardwalk!
The whole place could use some upgrading! The signs were falling apart or partially obscured by moss, they didn't all match what was on the map, which was post-card sized on the back of the ticket ........unless you were prepared to pay extra for a large map, which was different again, adding to the confusion! We got quite lost at the end of the day, joining a group from Taiwan which was equally lost!
However, it was a remarkable experience, well worth the drive into the hinterland, waterfalls will never be the same to anyone who's ever been to Plitvice!