Acres of greenery for as far as the eye can travel, scores of diminutive white flowers that belong in an ethereal wonderland, the blurry outline of mountains in a distance and a languorous sunset that goes from pale yellow to tangerine, and finally nightfall, that comes slowly and then all at once.
My reality was finally dreamier than anything my imagination could have cooked up … except for the incessant rumbling of my stomach. I was in the village of Mukinje, Croatia, known for its proximity to Plitvice Lakes National Park (official website), nestled in the gorgeous mountainous Lika region—and as I had just discovered, this sleepy hamlet’s closest supermarket was 4kms away from my home stay, and public transport within the town is sparse. So if you’re going to be visiting Plitvice, make sure to hire a car (rentals here) to make your life easier — it’s an easy drive from Zagreb, Split or Zadar, the park’s lot has plenty of parking, you can reach as early as you please to avoid the crowds and you make sure you’re on a full stomach post a day (or two) of exploring (unlike us, the silly kids who had to rely on the kindness of strangers for rides, and milk and cereal for dinner).
Being well connected, day-trips are possible but we spent two nights and took the evening bus (bus tickets here) from Zagreb, and our hosts not only received us at the bus stop, they drove us to the park in the am. The things you hear about small towns filled with the warmest hearts? Totally true. And with a bag full of as many snacks as we could save, water, a rain jacket (it did in fact pour for a brief period during a sunny day in August), we got our early start at Plitvice. Read on to follow our day out.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the single most visited sites in Croatia and as of 1979 is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—with great reason. Sixteen lakes, inter-connected by a series of waterfalls, set across 300sqkm of lush woodland come together to create a landscape that no camera can really do justice to.
With two entrances and a range of trails you can follow (about eight routes, named as trails A, B, C, E, F, H K– between 3 to 18km) and well-marked routes, meandering through the park is as easy as can be, as long as you catch the boats and trains on time. We began at Entrance 1, caught the first train out, and followed Trail C – that took us through a train and boat ride, across an 8km route that covered some of the upper and lower level lakes and the famed Veliki Slap waterfall.
What followed was a kaleidoscope of colours—azure, turquoise and sea green waters that you can gaze into the depths of, buttery-white clouds, trees and bushes resplendent in greens—soft lime, muted sage, dazzling emerald and the occasional deep jade—a happy palette courtesy summer. And of course, the crowning glory of the park, its layout of lakes, unimaginably still, with a delicate breeze creating minuscule waves—and waterfalls—some soft and rippling, others loud and gushing, drowning out the chaos of the crowds. The water is crystal clear because being high mountain runoff, the water calcifies everything it touches and there’s no mud or algae, leaving it pristine (but alas, swimming is forbidden).
Visiting in the heart of summer means you’ll be queuing a lot—for tickets, for the train and bus, for food, walking on trails frequented by camera-bearing crowds, and waiting patiently for your turn at a photo spot. Since we began at about 7am, we were able to finish our trail by 4pm, which is when we saw hordes of late-comers crowding the park, and thanked our lucky stars for the small pockets of tranquil time we got in the park. (There are fast food restaurants within, but preferably pack a picnic)
Home in the hamlet
Our trek wasn’t quite over yet—after a meal at one of the few restaurants nearby, and a quick (over-enthusiastic) stop at the supermarket, we walked a few more kms back to our home stay— Guest house Attico Viva. There are three hotels right by the park, and a couple of camps but the wide selection of utterly adorable (and budget-friendly) private accommodation (rooms, apartments in guesthouses/homes) were our choice for a more personalised experience.
And with a breakfast spread of the ‘best eggs we’ve ever eaten’, the warmest home owner, and a beautiful little sit-out to enjoy the sunset post our day at Plitvice Lakes National Park, Attico Viva was a perfect, secluded little spot to rest our weary bones on our second and last night. As we sat and enjoyed the silence in the air, the languorous mountain sunset turning from pale yellow to deep orange, and finally a velvety blue, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the chance to see one of the most naturally beautiful spots I’ve ever visited in my life—and the country’s oldest and largest national park. The summer colours, the summer breeze and the tenuous (eternal) chill of the mountain region made it a perfect party in the park. But my visions of seeing it bathed in Autumn colours and the soft coat of snow in the Winter remain vivid. A girl can dream right? Especially since sometimes they’re far greater than reality.
Location: Croatia, Europe
Getting there: Connecting flights to the capital city of Zagreb, buses and trains connect directly to Plitvice from Zagreb or Split (book prior) but renting a car is more convenient/recommended
Best time to visit: April-May, September-October (open 365 days a year)
Winter: 8am-4pm (Oct-March approx.)
Spring: 8am-7pm ( End of March onwards approx.)
Summer: 7am – 8pm (June-August approx.)
Autumn: 7am – 7pm (August end onwards approx.)
Entrance fee: Different packages based on number of days/season that cover train/bus rides. Guided tours are also available. (Starting at 130 kuna up to 400 kuna)