Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
I had decided to go to the Plitvice Lakes National Park on a whim, when a drunken Australian girl in a Dubrovnik pub told me that it was among the most beautiful places she had seen in all her wide travels.
The tour agent wrote the name of the hotel on my map. In block capitals, HOTEL DONAT.
Thursday morning, about 8:15, I stood outside the doorway of the same hotel. Because I was early, I was not surprised that the only bus in the car park belonged to a Slovenian tour company. I was more worried that I seemed to be the only person waiting for this tour. Surely others were embarking in Borik? Surely all were not waiting until the last minute before they dashed for the bus?
The hotel lobby displayed several excursion advertisements in German. There were definitely trips to the Plitvice Seen on Donnerstag. But the young man behind the counter knew nothing about any tours.
“There was a trip this morning, but it was an Italian group.” He checked the clock behind him. “It is not 8:30 yet, why don’t you wait and see?”
Outside, a woman with a wheelie suitcase was waiting. Surely she was not taking it on a day trip to the lakes? A minute later, a man in a Swiss-registered car stopped and she got in. No-one else was waiting. 8:30 passed, and 8:45. The bus could be late, or broken down. Or perhaps they had forgotten to tell the driver that there was a passenger to pick up in Borik.
At 9 o’clock I returned to the hotel receptionist and asked him to call the agency. The bus driver had been waiting for me at the Hotel Funimation, about 200 metres away but obscured from view by the trees fringing the car park. The bus had just left.
I wanted to cry. The inebriated words of the Australian girl came back to me: incredibly beautiful, of all the places I’ve been in the world, the Plitvice Lakes must be near the top. What was worse, the receptionist seemed unmoved by my misery. My sense of injustice burned brighter on the bus into town, where I had to return to the tour agency. I had travelled all the way to Zadar and stayed an extra day there because the tour wasn’t leaving until Thursday. I had wasted two days of my precious travels because some idiot had told me the wrong hotel.
The old town in Zadar is pedestrianised, and the bus drops passengers on the other side of a stone bridge. I was not in the mood to appreciate the ancient walls rising up along the river, or the sun sparkling on the waters, or the Jadrolinija boats sailing out to sea, or the Native American buskers who provided the soundtrack to the morning. I was still filled with my childish sense of not fair.
And then I saw her. She was about 40 years old, sitting on the bridge with a cap in her hand, one trouser leg rolled up to display her metal leg. She was not the first amputee I had seen in Croatia. The previous evening, at Borik beach, a young family took in the sun; the father’s right leg from the knee down was a prosthetic limb.
Perspective was just what I needed right now. I took a deep, calming breath.
Nonetheless, I read the travel agent the riot act about sending me to the wrong hotel, and got my money back.
Over coffee I reread my guidebook and pondered my options. Option one was to turn back and not go to the lakes. I dismissed this choice quickly. There were no more tours going until early next week; also not an option. So it was the regular bus, then. And I would stay overnight, so I wouldn’t be caught standing by the road while the last bus roared past.
So the following morning I was back at Zadar bus station. I thought the guy with the Spring Break T-shirt and the wispy goatee was American, but we got talking as we boarded the bus and his accent was European, although I couldn’t place exactly where.
“I’m German/Croatian,” he said. “Born in Germany, parents from Croatia. My name is Manuel.”
It was his first time to Plitvice, although he had been to Croatia nearly every year since he was a kid.
“Even during the war?”
“Sure. It wasn’t so bad in Split, where my grandparents live. Although one year we could hear the bombs going off in Knin. That was pretty scary.”
“Plitvice!” The ticket collector called, and we grabbed our backpacks to disembark. Time to hit the trail, and to see if the trip was worth it.
We took a road train to the upper lakes, and followed the wooden-board trail. At first the trees were too close to see much except patterns of shade and light. The forest opened out and the path passed over a shimmering pool of intense green. And then something flew by me.
At first I thought it was a butterfly, but it was a blue-black dragonfly, soon joined by a second. The two flitted from green stalk to green stalk, and then disappeared into the trees. The sound of rushing water intensified as we made out way along the trail, as we passed bubbling rivulets and miniature cascades. Shoals of fish gathered just beneath the surface of the clear water.
“What do think a fish’s life is like?” asked Manuel.
“Pretty easy, I’d say. Just a lot of swimming.”
At the end of the trip, there was a short ferry ride back to base, and just time for coffee and a burek (pastry filled with cheese) before Manuel caught a bus and I returned to my room in the nearby village of Mukinje. It was an early Friday night, but my legs ached and there wasn’t an awful lot to do after dark anyway.
The following morning I was at the bus stop just after 10, for the 10:20 bus. Minutes later, a Belgian couple joined me. We had the usual conversation about our travels; they had recently been to Bosnia-Herzegovina. A bus passed us by; I waved but it didn’t stop.
Judith, the Belgian girl, checked her watch. “It’s not 10:20 yet. The buses are never early. That was probably a tour bus.”
By 11 o’clock, we had waved at several other buses that definitely were carrying tour parties. The Belgian guy, Gill, drew up a SPLIT sign and Judith and I took turns in hitchhiking. Our efforts received nothing more than a few drivers waving at us and one crowd of Croatian lads honking their car horn and yelling.
Many of the cars were full, either with people or beach gear. We were on the main route from Zagreb to the sea, on a sunny Saturday morning in July.
“I’m not very optimistic about this,” said Judith.
“The guidebook says Croatia is not a good country for hitchhiking,” said Gill.
“It also says the buses don’t stop if they’re full,” I added. “And that they’re always busy on the weekend during the summer.”
Guess we should have listened to the guidebook. The 11:30 bus also passed us by.
“This is so frustrating,” said Judith. “What a waste of a day!”
After 12 we were joined by three girls from Brittany. And the 12:30 bus went right past. I now had an urgent need to pee, and asked Judith to call me if a bus arrived.
Finding a private spot in the forest is not as easy as you think. The hollow behind some trees looked sheltered, but was in full view of hikers making their way to the lakes. As I searched for another spot, I noticed the monument hiding among the shadows.
It is disconcerting to come across a war memorial that is barely a decade old, with burned-out candles and faded flowers that were probably placed by the still-young relatives of the victim. This marked the life and death of Josep Jović, killed by the Serbian forces that occupied Plitvice Lakes National Park in 1991. The first victim of many. Does it make it more or less tragic that it started in such a beautiful location? In this place of cascades and dragonflies and shimmering water, the first shots were fired in what was to become the madness of the Yugoslavian wars.
I found another place to relieve myself and rejoined the others at the bus stop. At this stage we were considering alternative options. Stay another night? But the Sunday traffic might be just as bad. Catch a taxi to Zadar? No-one had any idea how much that would cost.
We didn’t hold much hope of the 13:30 bus stopping. The French girls waited inside the bus shelter; I took refuge from the sun beneath a tree; only the Belgians were in view as it came around the corner. Judith waved half-heartedly, and, miraculously, it pulled to a stop. Six backpacks were pulled onto six shoulders and six hopeful travellers approached the bus as the door hissed open.
The ticket collector shook his head. “Shest?” He held up six fingers. “Ne!” He pressed a button and the door slid shut.
Judith put one hand in and forced the door open again. “How many? Three? Two? Dva?” She held up two fingers.
“Ne, ne!” The door started to hiss shut again.
I was closest and, without thinking, I jumped on the bus just before the door clicked shut and we moved off.
The ticket collector gave me a dirty look.
I held up one finger. “One. Sibenik.” The town where I was going. “Molim” Please. No harm in being polite. He sighed and took my backpack from me. There was a seat up front, just above the driver, with the best viewpoint on the bus. He had to clear some papers to let me sit.
I felt a little guilty about leaving the Belgians behind, but what could I do?
At first I thought the music came from a radio inside. A chorus of male voices, starting soft and low, then rising and varying in tone. They were by the bar, but this was not the normal drunken sing-song I was used to. Far more melodious and powerful. Even though I couldn’t understand the words, the emotion was clear.
“Excuse me,” I asked a woman standing by. “Who are they?”
“Klapa. Traditional Croatian singers.”
The singing ended, the audience applauded, and the men filed out into a minibus waiting in the car park. It’s almost worth missing three buses to hear an impromptu concert.
A few moments later our own bus left and I took my regal-view seat. The landscape was bleakly beautiful, just limestone and scrub. It was impossible to believe anyone could scratch a living from such land. I clung to my seat as the bus swerved around the bend. We passed an abandoned village where some joker had sprayed Zimmer Frei on the walls. Who had lived in the village and why had they left? There were stories in these rocks and buildings, too many heartbreaking stories.
I hope Judith and Gill found a bus eventually. For me, for now, the road was staring straight ahead.