We drove through the bucolic happiness of a Slovenian spring to the only place I have ever wanted to go in Croatia: Plitvice’s Falling Lakes. Some 15 years ago or more, Max and I watched a documentary when we were still in Australia about the natural wonders of Plitvice and I have wanted to go there ever since. All I knew of it was what I had seen on the documentary–that it had amazing animal life (wild cats!), and that the lakes were formed through some unique combination of water, algae, chemical reactions, and minerals, and that cascades were in abundance. I had not read Rick Steves’ comments about it, I hadn’t any real idea of where it was in relation to the rest of the country or any of its history. I had booked a room in a guesthouse online, and then mapped our route on the road map.
It was only when we got nearer to the Park itself that we started to notice a distinct change in the landscape and the structures around us. The land was scrubbly, not as fertile, and the houses and farms seemed quite poor and rundown. It was only when we started seeing the buildings with bullet holes that we realized: this was where fighting during the Balkan conflict took place. Evidence of such recent fighting was all around us, and it looked like people, at least in this part of the country, had not yet recovered. So we went into the park a bit subdued.
We arrived at our guesthouse/farmhouse in Pojanak, on the northern edge of the Park, in the late afternoon. Very quiet, lots of sheep in the farmyard, and smoke from the farmers burning off field rubble. After eating what we had brought along with us, we took a little walk up the road. And there it was! The first of the cascades that we would see in Plitvice! And that green, green water! While I have now read about and listened to several accounts explaining the unique set of chemical reactions that cause this phenomenon, I am still amazed and blithely vague about how it happens.
In the morning we headed out first to the Big Falls–the one that we could see from the road near our guesthouse. Rather than take the sweet little ferry that went across the lake to the other Entrance, we just walked down to the edge of the first cascade. Since one pathway was flooded, we got as close as we could:
We were stoked!
We then drove around to Entrance Two, finding some beautiful vistas along the way, where no one but the owner of a guesthouse nearby was walking. When we got to the parking lot for the Entrance, we found a few cars and some very bored staff–a very different picture than the place would be in August! The walk down to the ferry dock that takes one over to the walkways of the small islands is quite a hike down–but oh, what a thrill!
It is impossible to describe the sheer number of layers of cascades falling into still ponds and pristine lakes, trickling and then gushing through algae and moss and tree roots to descend to another level of waterways. While we have seen falls like this in the Cascades, nothing can compare to the quantity of overwhelming vistas and the volume of water on so many trails and over such an enormous expanse (the Park is about 300 square kilometers with 16 terraced lakes!). We were tremendously impressed at the way in which the Park was laid out, with wooden-planked paths leading visitors as close to the water as possible without getting too wet or falling in. Here’s as good a video as I could get of the sheer power and gorgeousness of the scene:
We were especially thankful that we were here at low season–these walkways would be impossibly crowded if there were tour-bus crowds to contend with. And sure enough, the young man at the ticket booth when we were leaving told us that August is a nightmare, with cranky, swelteringly hot people taking out their crankiness on him. In April, we had the added bonus of fields of wildflowers on our walks to and from the many, many falls.
It was only after we had gone on the little ferry over to the small islands and come back to eat in the Park’s relatively nice restaurant that we read Rick Steves’ comments about Plitvice and learned two things: first, that we were not the only ones to notice the incredibly tame trout in the water, and that despite all the reports about the fantastic wildlife in the Park, one rarely sees any of the animals if one stays only in the areas where the tourists come. And finally, and most poignantly, Steves reports that the Park is where the first shots of the Balkan conflict occurred, as Serbs and Croats fought over who was in charge of this national treasure. At one point, troops threatened to blow up the Park–a catastrophe even more terrifying than ISIS having destroyed Palmyra’s treasures. That such a place of pristine natural beauty should have been in the crosshairs of ancient ethnic disputes is nearly unfathomable. Thank goodness at some point a bit of reason prevailed, and this incredible wonder endures. Let us hope that with what seems to be impeccable management, these Lakes can survive the onslaught of global tourism, too.