If you have ever dreamt of hiking across a land of cascading waterfalls, streams and lakes, the greenery of the forest encompassing you, with the sound and sight of water running all around you and filling your ears all day, then it has to be of Plitvice National Park in Croatia. Now a major UNESCO World Heritage Site, Plitvice stands tall among the best natural parks of the world. Situated in the heart of Croatia it is also close to the borders to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Plitvice National Park or Plitvicke Jezerra as it is locally known, is one of the oldest parks of South East Europe. It lies at a distance of 144 kms from Zagreb, a cool smooth drive of about 1 and half hours from this bustling capital of Croatia. Other than the thirty odd kilometres of cityscape to and from Zagreb, the bulk of the drive is scenic from Lake Bled in Slovenia where we were coming from, and we had to cross the immigration and border posts between these two countries.
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We travelled in the mid of September of 2015, and it was the time when the refugee crisis had gripped Europe. We were already driving around Slovenia for about a week or so, and our next point of visit was Plitvice National Park. Passing as we were through the immigration checkpost of Croatia, we could see a long line of refugees facing the other direction into Slovenia, in their trawler vans seen to be having a discussion with the local Policia and customs officers. Now though Croatia is not in the Eurozone or a member of Schengen countries, it welcomes tourists and travellers holding a Schengen Visa. NON EU or Non US citizens need to have a multi-entry visa in case you have plans to travel out of Croatia, back into a Schengen country. Check more at the official website for Croatia.
Our hearts crooned away as we luxuriated at the splendour of 296 square kilometres of Alpine topography, with undulating hills and terrains forming the backdrop to picturesque nature around us,en route the national park . The interconnected lakes of the park stand at a height of 450 to 1280 meters above sea level and the weather is in general slightly warm with humidity being little above the norm during day time. Sixteen lakes, connected with swollen streams, waterfalls and canals, dense forests of beach and firs, the Plitvicke Jezerra is a rare sight and needs a full day to absorb the beauty.
The three and half hour drive from Lake Bled in Slovenia was through vast meadows, valleys and mountains, the road a smooth clean grey tarmac . There were six of us, two families, slightly cramped with our luggage in a seven-seater car that we had rented at Ljubljana. We had taken a couple of breaks at the highway gas stations, for some snacks and refreshment. Once we met with a bit of ran, and we tasted Croatian Gulash, one local food that you must try at Croatia. Both the Euro and Croatian Kuna can be used at retail outlets. The plan was to reach our lodge by the evening and tackle the park the next day.
About 6 kilometers before we reached our home-stay which was pre-booked , we also made a small detour to catch asight of the village of Rastoke. Rastoke is also called mini-Plitvice and offers a peaceful setting to a leisurely day. The village has been built adjacent to the Korona waterfall. The village council has decided to charge visitors who wants to get a view of the village from within, a temptation we resisted. Rastoke looked scenic, well planned, streams and boats tied to wooden jetties and domestic moors, neat gardened pathways leading deep into the forests , soft music played at some eateries and restaurants visible from the outside. The village also offers hikes to nearby caves set amidst dense pine forests.
We had booked ourselves for two nights at Apartment Marija, near Rakoviča which was about 8 kms from Plitvice National Park. The cost for the the upper floor apartment with beds for 5 , a living room, kitchenette, balcony and washroom came to about 40 Euros for 2 nights. It is a wonderful two storeyed wooden house managed by a Serbian-Croatian couple Markus and Gordana. Set amidst lush green forests next to the highway which leads to this homestay, the guests are allotted the first floor while the owners live on the lower. There was a garage, a store room, an additional guest room and an external dining spot built towards the back of the plot.
There were flowers and vines everywhere around this homestay, with a beautifully manicured lawn having edges of brightly coloured flowers with dense foliage leading to the forest growing at rear boundary of the premises. The couple have three lovely children, Marija was the eldest one of about 14 years of age, and the youngest was around 5. Marcus treated us with a welcome drink of home made Blueberry and Pear brandy, and said we were welcome to have it to our heart’s content. I had never tasted something so appropriately strong and as I gulped it down, my throat started to sing some very warm notes. Incidentally, that very day we had our daughter, Titir stepping into her teens and it was time for this impromptu Birthday party.
We spent the evening chit chatting with the family trying to find more about their life in general. We found that life had been tough for them since Yugoslavia was ripped apart in the early nineties, and ethnic wars and political strife followed, becoming a bane for the entire population. Economy was still down, job availability hit rock bottom, and most of the local folks either worked at the Plitvice Lakes or were dependent on tourism and local agriculture. Some of them grew crops and fruits. The local school where Marija and her brother studies, is about seven kilometres from the house, and they cycle to school. English is being taught to the younger generation as an additional language, but Croatian an Serbian were the main languages in use. One of the couple works most days, the other was a seasonal worker with the National Park. They were also very interested to know about Dubai, and it didn’t fail to surprise them when they learnt that a Dubai hotel once built an Aquarium for sporting a whale!!
Night approached as the horizon became dark, the crickets started to sing, with the sound of the hissing tyres of cars whizzing through the highway, intermittently breaking an otherwise impenetrable silence of the forests. A little while earlier, we had heard a couple of gun shots coming from the direction of the forest and Markus told us that it was probably poachers trying to kill a deer before the official hunting season started. He showed and explained to us the indigenous process of how he brews his own drink. The apartment and the adjoining fences were full with flowers and fruits, and they said we were welcome to enjoy. We made small use of the kitchenette, cooked out some Indian dal and rice with omelettes, and had a couple of drinks, gazing out from the balcony into a moonlit night sky. Night was chilly in the middle of September and warm quilts beckoned us soon. The next day our plan was to reach the park as early as possible.
After a full night’s rest at the beautiful Marija Apartments , a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausages, breads and juice, we were ready to check out the lakes. The sun was shining brightly, Markus and his family were not present and we were informed to drop the keys in the letter box when we drive out. The sunny day brightened our spirits and we took with us a bit of snacks, and chocolates for the day.
We started the next day around 10.30 and reached the park in a cool 15 minute drive. There were buses and cars all moving towards the lakes and finding it was not an issue. We knew it would be a long day and were mentally ready for the same.
Below are some FACTS to help you PLAN your visit.
We reached Plitvice ( Pltvicke Jezerra) Natonal Park, Croatia driving from Lake Bled in Slovenia, a distance of more than 260 kms. It takes close to four hours, and you need to cross immigration check posts into Croatia. The check posts are hassle free for the right person with the right document, and there are a total of two tolls in this route. The total Toll charges came to about 11 Euros per vehicle. The prominent Croatian cities close by are Zagreb at 140 Kms and Split at 230 Kms. Dubrovnik is at 445 Kms.
HOW TO REACH
You can catch direct flights from major European cities to the Croatian airports of Zagreb Zadar and Dubrovnik. National flights operate from Bol,Dubrovnik, Pula, Split, Zadar and Zagreb. Taxis and rent-a-car services are available, Buses run frequently and regularly between all large cities and regions of the country.
TICKETS AND ACCOMODATION :
The ticket prices from 1 july to 31 August is 180 / 80 for Adults and Children in Croatian Kuna.
Slower months are 110 / 55 . Winter Months are 55 / 35 Kuna for adult / child.
1 Euro is about 8 Croatian Kruna – Sept 2015
You can stay right close to the gates of the National Park. There are a few hotels scattered around. Hotel Jezero is one. It also has its own Foreign Exchange counter. Otherwise , you can stay at the many homestays that are available around the villages surrounding the Plitvice. We stayed at Rakovica, which was around 8 kms from the Entrance at Gate 1.
There are Two Entrances to the Plitvice National Park Lakes :
Entrance 1 – Rastovača ; Entrance 2 – Hladovina:
Both operate from 07:00 to 20:00 hours. Besides each of these two gates, there is ample car parking : Car parking is paid and is around 8 Euros a car a day. For Organised groups (a minimum of 15 persons) guidance is available in in Croatian, English, Italian, German, French and Spanish.