Date: 27th April 2014
When most people think of Croatia, they probably imagine a rugged mediterranean coastline, drenched in sun. They wouldn’t be wrong of course, but our visit to Croatia took in a different landscape entirely. Plitvice National Park; a hidden gem of Europe, with an almost fairytale landscape of lakes, waterfalls and dense forest…
The flight from Dublin to Zadar takes barely three hours and within another hour Anne Marie and I are driving down the motorway in a zippy new rental car. Excited to be on our first ‘summer holiday’, we are a little disheartened at the weather forecast for the weekend; Rain with a chance of heavy downpours. Why did we bother leaving Ireland? As we are to discover, the rain is rather fitting for the location.
Our drive inland from Zadar is a quiet one – it seems that no one uses the motorway in Croatia. Perhaps this is due to the tolls or simply because everyone is at work, which certainly seems to be the case. Leaving the motorway we detour through a few small towns and villages, which to our surprise appear completely deserted. Maybe the locals spotted our hire car from a distance and are eyeing us through their curtains, but it’s rather eerie to drive through a whole town and only see a little old lady, wrapped in her shawl, selling jam at the roadside.
As we approach Plitvice National Park the landscape grows ever more rural and the skies dark and heavy. Passing an army base I can’t resist stopping for a quick snap of some old tanks, remnants from the war of the early 90s. I honestly never noticed the four foot sign that reads ‘No Photos’.
Our accommodation for the weekend is a beautiful wooden guest house in Prijeboj on the outskirts of the National Park. The decor is brand new, the rooms cosy and the owners are very accommodating, despite our lack of Croatian lingo. We spend the evening scouting out the National Park, purchase our tickets and make a plan for the following two days.
Rising early we feast on a continental breakfast before heading to Plitvice Lakes. Despite the forecast we have a bright start to the day so make the most of it by getting on the trail quickly. A flotilla of small boats is on hand to take visitors to various points on the lakes, which are criss-crossed by a network of trails and sections of wooden boardwalk.
The boardwalk, although slippy at times is the perfect way to explore the hundreds of waterfalls which thunder throughout the park. I’ve seen plenty of waterfalls on my travels, but the sheer number of cascades as you walk through the park is pretty astonishing. It really is a little waterworld, with a fairy tale quality to the landscape, the likes of which I have never seen before.
We do well to see most of the trails around the lakes by early afternoon which is just as well as the heavens open, driving everyone to cover. Being outwith the summer season visitor numbers are thankfully small, meaning we can explore wherever we wanted unimpeded. Visitors swell over the summer months and with over 1.2 million visiting annually that means for crowded walkways.
After a while plodding through the mud and rain we accept defeat and retreat to the park restaurant for a warm feed and an ice cold Karlovacko.
Having most of the lakes already explored, day two is a more casual affair and we decide to venture deeper into the National Park. A more extensive network of trails takes you away from the lakes, through dense woodland higher up the valley. On the trail we pass red brick and wooden houses, which have a half finished look about them. An elderly man is so hard at work with his scythe, cutting his lawn that he doesn’t notice us gawping at him. We conclude his lawnmower must be broken.
Half way into our hike, we’re deep in the trees and fog hangs in the air, giving the forest a mysterious quality. I catch a glimpse of an owl peering at us from high in the canopy, before disappearing into the mist. There are bears in these here woods. And wolf, lynx, deer and wild boar to name a few. The thought of it is freaking Anne Marie out and she insists that I walk in front, but not too far ahead. I personally love that feeling; that there is something out there, potentially watching us, and we’re not necessarily the highest on the food chain. Not that I’m tempting fate, I just think there’s something refreshingly primal about being out in ‘true’ wilderness.
Just as things are getting wild, the rain starts, but thankfully we’re not too far from the end of our route. Within an hour we’re back in our guest house for a cup of coffee and a warm shower.
Bosnia? For Dinner? What would our mothers think? We laugh as we drive towards the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is only a fifteen minute drive from our accommodation. We are heading there after a recommendation by our hosts; apparently the next town over the border has a few nice restaurants, although the drive there has us wondering. We pass a few shells of buildings and others riddled with bullet holes, reminding us that the war wasn’t too long ago.
Being outside the European Union we must cross a border checkpoint to gain entry to Bosnia so it’s a good thing we brought our passports on the drive. The Bosnian side of the border seems a lot more populated and the villages are busy with people, doing whatever they do on a Sunday evening. It seems like for a few at least that means enjoying a drink or two.
The town of Bihać is small enough; we drive through it before realising then turning back. There is a small University, a Casino and some shops and restaurants, which don’t strike us as being open. Even if they were, it doesn’t look like we’ll be having Dinner in Bosnia after all. Still it was worth the drive to see a little glimpse of another country. We drive back to Croatia and find a lovely restaurant just north of the national park and order the biggest pizza we’ve ever seen. Plus chips.
Our last day in Croatia involves a lot of driving. We are heading to the coast and driving north towards Pula from which we’ll fly. As we join the empty expanse of the motorway and approach the Mediterranean the clouds part to reveal the glorious sunshine we’ve been dreaming of. To our delight the road winds high along the coast, offering stunning views of the sea, offshore islands and glimpses of perfect, terracotta roofed villages hugging the cliffs below. This is an entirely different Croatia to what lies inland, with a purely Mediterranean feel.
We don’t have much time, but a quick pit stop down by the coast is a must. Within minutes we find a tiny cafe offering fresh coffee and delicious ice cream. Tables and chairs spill out onto the street where the locals soak up the sun, alive with chatter. It’s all too brief, but there is one last thing I must do before heading to the airport; we pull over by the sea and I jump into the cool Med. It’s a fitting end to our wet and watery weekend.