Michelle Heffernan Reports
Outside of bohemian Zagreb City and dazzling Dubrovnik, Croatia carries unique and spectacular scenery in her inland forests, mountains and parks. Michelle Heffernan took a trip from Zagreb to the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park, taking a break from the bars and bustle to return to an Eden of natural beauty.
Just travelling to Plitvice lakes was an experience in itself. Leaving behind the grand architecture and lively streets of Zagreb, we soon found ourselves almost travelling back in time into a pastoral Croatia untouched by industry and modernity. Accessing the Plitvice National Parks from Zagreb is straightforward, taking about 2 hours via the A1 motorway through Karlovac; however we detoured slightly to take the scenic route, passing through the backroads of Lika-Senj county into a countryside of agriculture, horticulture and all over rustic charm.
Staring out the bus window I could see numerous locals tilling land outside low wooden houses with red roofs. We took a brief pit stop at Rastoke Flour mills, which apparently still produce “the best bread in Croatia”, and I felt like a modern day Cinderella, transported back to a time of simple living off the land.Of course, the best was yet to come, as the UNESCO World Heritage site- Plitvice Lakes-proved just as breathtaking as was described.
Entering the Park territory I suddenly realised the scale of this tourist attraction-this is no local park, or playground, but a protected area closer in size to the Maldives than the People’s Park!
Indeed the Plitvice Lakes National Park takes in up to 15,000 visitors per day into its 72000 acre parklands, and has rightly been named one of the top ten national parks in the world.Our guide through a small section of the park was Ivica, a local Croat, who curiously carried a red umbrella (I soon realised this wasn’t for rain protection but to keep us Irish sheep together!)
We followed Ivica through the gates toward wooden railings and I was instantly in awe. Ahead of us were breathtaking waterfalls, cascading down mountains and cliff edges, into multiple lakes below.
The water was a luminous turquoise blue, and we each immediately wished to dive in. Ivica explained there are in fact 16 lakes on the surface here in the Parks, with many more below ground forming caves and caverns. The lakes are renowned for their unique spectrum of colours, ranging from azure blue to green or greys depending on the minerals and organisms in each pool.
Soon we were filing on wooden planked paths along the water edge, stopping continuously to observe the variety of aquatic life.
Through a combination of preservation efforts and poor industrial development, this whole part of Croatia has remained wonderfully unspoilt, giving rise to a unique oasis of flora and fauna.
There have been over 100 plant species alone found in this park,75 of which are endemic-i.e. you will only find them in this part of the world. I can see fresh water trout and frogs galore, but thankfully we see no bears! Ivica had warned us the Eurasian brown bear, now extinct in most of Western Europe, has a strong population in the mountains of the Balkans. Fortunately we are spending too little time exploring the Parks to amount to a bear rendez-vous!
We finish out our tour of this little piece of paradise with a placid boat ride around the lakes, and I must confess it’s with a little reluctance I climb back aboard the bus to the city. I wished there was more time to venture further into the vast parklands, but unfortunately it would take days to travel fully around the parks.
Nevertheless, I am grateful to have had a respite in nature during an otherwise hectic city break, and make a mental note to return to Plitvice, to Lika-Senj county, for another trip back to a time of untouched splendour. Croatia, watch this space!
Croatia Airlines are currently operating direct flights from Dublin to Zagreb. See www.croatiaairlines.com. Buses run all year round from Zagreb to Plitvice averaging 80kuna one way (approx €11). For further information on visiting Zagreb and Plitvice see www.infozagreb.hr