What was the end of summer along a barren and rocky coast, was mid-autumn further inland in the mountains. Once we were finally past all the surrounding mountain ranges, the winds dropped and the landscape changed dramatically. We had gone from 16+ degrees to 4 as it became evening and the rain clouds expelled their loads. The sky was grey, and periodically the road took us through misty clouds that dropped the temperature even further. The land was now covered in trees proudly bearing their autumn colours. Every shade of brown, red and yellow decorated the slopes. We travelled for what seemed an age along smaller twisting roads until we finally entered the Plitvice National Park. The park has a reputation for being one of the high points of visiting Croatia. It’s located not too far off the beaten track if you’re travelling from the South-West of Croatia up towards Zagreb in the North. The large forest area contains a system of multi-coloured lakes at different levels on the mountainside.
Once we’d finally reached our destination the search for accommodation began. B&B style lodging with families in the area is common. Yet again, it was quiet this time of year and in the impending darkness many of the buildings looked imposing rather than welcoming. We drove along a side road to take a look at the options. Before we’d even started up the road a youth came running from one of the houses, waving his arms for attention. “I’m not staying in someone’s HOUSE!”, Brodie insisted – then gunned the engine and raced up the hill before any more of the locals could emerge and accost us. There was definitely a feeling that the sound of an engine on the road would only attract a large crowd of unwanted ‘helpers’ competing with each other to the point of potentially causing a mini-riot As we came back around to the main road we pulled into a parking space by a much larger, brighter property just along the road that consisted of more than one building. A Croatian man stood outside, regarding us dourly. He stood his ground, resisting the urge to race over. This was a bit more promising. At least we weren’t feeling outnumbered yet.
We enquired after accommodation and our new Croatian friend proudly showed off his available rooms. Pension Miric was a large house with a big dining area and a welcome roaring fire to greet us as we entered. The rooms above were warm and cosy – a relief after the temperatures outside. After agreeing an extremely reasonable price, we hauled in our luggage and settled into our comfortable room. Only the need for food drove us back out again that night to explore the area and see what the options were. As it turned out, the options were almost non-existent. 16km up the road we eventually reached a village where everything wasn’t shut… but found that those places that were open weren’t offering much. Just at the point of giving up, we came upon a cafe/bistro that was lit up and had a few people inside enjoying some actual food, rather than beer. We were provided with simple, tasty food and returned to our lodgings where we promptly signed up for breakfast in the morning in preference to repeating the search for food again.
Completely inappropriately dressed for the now chilly weather, we bought our tickets and joined all the other tourists visiting the park, wisely dressed in their waterproof jackets and hiking gear. Plitvice Lakes are a unique natural sight and this time of year was perfect for a visit. The sun wasn’t beating down as we climbed along trails, there were fewer tourist buses converging on the park, and the autumn foliage on the trees provided a beautiful backdrop. We took the 4-6 hour trail around the upper and lower lakes which covered most of what there was to see. Our tickets provided us with a bus to the upper lakes, a boat across the lower lakes, and another bus back to our starting point when we were done. We started out on a misty morning with chilly dew still in the air. As we descended back down towards the lower lakes the air gradually warmed until it was a bright sunny day towards the end.
The lakes are beautiful shades of blue and turquoise. Waterfall after waterfall rushes down the mountain sides. There are numerous tracks to follow, some of them becoming wooden boardwalks that wind across and around lakes. At some points you walk over rivers of gushing water that you later encounter further below as they shoot over the edge of a shelf and fall to a lake below. The waters are crystal clear, showing tadpoles and fish flitting about below the surface, or reflecting the autumn colours from the trees surrounding them. The ‘big waterfall’, or aptly named ‘Veliki Splat’ was quite tame compared to other waterfalls we’ve seen in our travels, but located in some really scenic surroundings. The park was quite busy to get through. For some stretches you could manage to walk along in peace. In others there were streams of people flowing against you, or hampering you as you waited for a piece of track wide enough to get around them. It must be impossible to see a lot of the sights during the summer months as the tracks fill with more busloads of tourists. As it was, there were some highly risky stretches where the oncoming tourists refused to walk in single file and you had to edge around them. This while water gushed past, an inch from your foot. “When I get pushed in, I’m taking as many of these people with me as I possibly can”, I kept muttering as I precariously balanced and just about avoided tumbling into a lake or river.
A few hours later, we wearily disembarked from the last bus and trudged back up to where the car was waiting. It was almost dinner time and we had signed up for a traditional meal at our lodgings. Due to the thick Croatian accent when our host described the options, I had opted for salmon rather than what sounded like ‘elk’ meat. Apparently it was salmon or ‘other meat’ as I later discovered. While salmon wouldn’t normally have been my first preference, our host had been delighted that we were going for his preferred option. He even smiled once. We suspect he then spent the day wrestling salmon out of the river and onto his frying pan. All the other guests had also chosen the fresh fish. We were served platters heaped with vegetables and very large fish that would have stared balefully up at us if they’d still had their eyes. After finally removing heads and bones (Brodie’s job), we were left with a heap of very fresh salmon. The meal was topped off with a dish of Croatian pastries which were interesting to sample, but probably more filling than the rest of the meal had been. We rolled ourselves to bed to sleep off all the food. It was a high quality meal that would have cost a fortune back home and a good finale to our time in the Croatian mountains.