After two weeks on the coast, we headed inland to Plitvice National Park for our last bit of sightseeing in Croatia. The park, which extends over almost 300 square kilometers, encompasses sixteen lakes that form a vast natural staircase, cascading one into another in a myriad waterfalls. What’s more, algae in the lakes make their waters unbelievably limpid at the same time that minerals tint the surface various shades of blue and green.
A UNESCO World Heritage site for three and a half decades, Plitvice receives well over a million tourists every year. The area also has a more ominous claim to fame, however. Lying close to what is now the border between Croatia and Bosnia, Plitvice was the site of the first armed confrontation in the 1991 Croatian War of Independence that resulted in casualties. For much of the ensuing four-year conflict, the park fell under control of Serbian forces, who established a Serbian exclave and with the backing of the Yugoslav National Army engaged in a campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of Croats.
Now that the park has been cleared of mines and its infrastructure rebuilt, Plitvice imbues visitors with an otherworldly feeling of serenity. It is difficult to imagine how an area of so much beauty and natural wonder could have been the site of savage, internecine warfare in our lifetime.
There are more than 20 kilometers of trails running through the park, and though one could spend days hiking around the various lakes, most visitors tend to do a similar loop. Plitvice’s largest lake — the placid Lake Kozjak — divides the park into an upper circuit of eleven lakes and a lower circuit of four. The latter includes the park’s largest waterfall, while the former features some of the more stunning landscapes.
To protect the vegetation and travertine deposits that make Plitvice’s waters so uniquely translucent and colorful, and to help visitors navigate the lakes, park authorities have constructed a series of serpentine boardwalks. The park receives so many visitors that there were actual choke points when we had to stop and wait in a line before inching along to get to the more popular viewpoints. Swimming is prohibited, but with so many amateur photographers crowding on the boardwalks and tripping over themselves to photograph Plitvice’s waterfalls, it’s a small wonder that more visitors do not end up in the water.
Because the elevation drop from one lake to the next is relatively small, Plitvice does not quite match the magnificence of Iguazu, the only other place we’ve been with a comparable amount of cascading water. What it lacks in size and effect, however, it makes up for with its beauty.
A couple of days before we visited Plitvice, D was idly browsing Facebook when he saw that a group of his friends, some of whom he had not seen in quite some time, were in Ljubljana — where we headed after Croatia. A handful of messages sufficed to discover that we were essentially doing the same trip in reverse. They started in Slovenia and were traveling to Croatia. Given the vast expanse of the national park and the amount of daily visitors it hosts, Plitvice was not an ideal rendezvous point, but it was the only place where our travels intersected, and somehow we managed to find each other.
Plitvice also quite literally marked the end of our travels with S’s family. At the end of our hike, we hugged, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. They returned to Trogir while another driver picked us up and drove us to Ljubljana.