When summer comes the Croatian coast will fill up with tourists. They’ll sunbathe under the most glorious weather beaming down on the beaches, sip sparkling wine and bite into exotic cheese. But a select few will put their golden tans on hold and sneak out for something more dramatic – The Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Plitvice (pronounced Plit-vi-tchka) is a string of sixteen blue-green lakes strung out across the Mala Kapela and Pljesevica Mountain ranges, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On offer are a number of hikes, depending on how much time you have. I have the whole day to spend, and so the lady at the ticket counter suggests I take the second longest route – one that promises to keep me on my feet for 4 to 6 hours. She explains that while the smaller routes will take me through the must-see points of the park, this one will be an experience. I agree, and proceed to pay for my ticket though secretly I’m worried I’ll collapse in the middle of it all. She then points to a long wooden bridge leaping over the highway. "That will take you to the bus, which will drop you at the trailhead. Have a good trip."
Through the five odd minute bus ride, I sit clutching my route map. Tracing the long hike with my finger, I wonder if this was a good idea. But as the bus halts, all my silly worries evaporate. I gasp (loudly) at the sight in front of me: a symphony of walkways and trails; sparkling lakes surrounded by giant trees and rainbow crusted waterfalls; a carpet of leaves spread out over wood bridges; rusted mountain caves hiding treasures. As I step onto the trail, I’m already in a trance.
Every few meters the park transforms itself, throwing up a new picture. Except for the constantly changing color of the water – swirling between the dozen shades of blue and green – it’s hard to believe that the two regions of Plitvice – the Upper Lakes and the Lower Lake – are part of the same park. The Upper Lakes lie on a dolomite valley, surrounded by thick forest cover. I walk under a natural archway formed by never-ending trees, on chocolate brown walkways that curl around a thundering waterfall. On the other side, undeterred by all this water plunging down, sits a calm, bright meadow; the sheer drama of the sight is enough to last you a lifetime. A sign, both on my route map and on the trail, alerts me of the possible presence of the (endangered) European Brown Bear. I fervently pray that one stops me in my path, I even linger about the caves, caves that in the sixties doubled up as film sets for German westerns, but it’s a no show. Instead, incessant chatter of a million birds follows me around. The winding trail eventually leads me to the banks of the big lake. On the water I notice dots of boats floating along. The lake is huge (and deep), navigated by these silent, electric boats. I hop onto one. As we make our way to the other side, the wind whips up, tossing my already unruly hair.
Being in the midst of all this serenity makes it even harder to believe that the Park was once a war zone. During the early nineties it was here that Croatian troops battled Serb forces; on the Easter Sunday of 1991, the first shots were fired here, first casualties claimed in the long war that would follow. Locals fled the region, hotels and other facilities were damaged and converted to barracks, and a large area was infested with mines. For any other place this would have spelt doom, thankfully though, the Lakes lie on a Karstic basin; rich in a re-generating limestone called travertine – the same stone used to create the famous Trevi fountains of Rome. Travertine grows quickly, constantly creating and recreating pools and cascades; preserving the region for eternity.
Getting off the barge, I immediately catch the aroma of fresh food and coffee among the green of the leaves. I follow the trail to a waterside picnic spread – wooden tables and benches scattered across a mint lawn. Chefs whip up local delicacies: homemade sausages, smoked ham and cheese, served with strong coffee and apple strudel. After ravaging through the meal, the second half of the trek waits – as different, and as brilliant as the first.
The Lower Lakes are formed on limestone beds. They are smaller in size and shallow; showing off all the treasures of the lake floor. Small bursts of shrubs and bushes replace the long limbed trees, around the water bodies. Along the bends a cave opens up without notice or a small cascade pours out (some are named after local patrons – a nice touch that encourages the community to involve itself in the preservation of the region.). All along the Lower Lakes, a snakelike walkway slithers around the landscape. At many points, I am literally over the lakes, crossing above them: breath-taking is a word that gets used and abused here, but also fits extremely well. As I make my way around the last few meters of my hike, a friend tells me of a time, before the wars, when the lakes were a popular wedding destinations. Once a year happy couples would stand in tiny boats under the big waterfall and exchange wedding vows – such beautiful memories, a perfect postcard.