About a million visitors a year make it to what is arguably Croatia’s greatest natural attraction, the Plitvice Lakes. And yet there is so much to see that the occasional crowds crossing on the many bridges and walkways hardly matter. And this natural wonder is just off the main highway between Split and Zagreb, all too close to Zadar, a regular destination for scores of tourist buses through the year.
Set in the Lika region, known for its war-time hardships and fantastic lamb, Plitvice is home to 1,146 species of plants, 140 types of birds and 50 mammals. Lynx, wild cats, brown bears and deer number among the mammals, as well as skunks, martens, weasels and wolves.
Most of all, though, people flock here for the series of 16 continually changing, cascading, crystal-clear lakes. The dimensions of these lakes have been created from centuries of calcium carbonate deposits, which find home in and on algae, moss and bacteria. This deposit-and-plant combination creates a travertine barrier, a natural dam, which is growing by a couple of centimetres a year. This process, a singular occurrence and the reason why Plitvice is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, means the bodies of water and the waterfalls linking them are always evolving.
Atop these morphing conditions, boardwalks – tasteful enough to appear natural – follow the contours of and criss-cross over the fantastically turquoise water. These walkways, set amid the surrounding beech, spruce and fir forests, give you a fish-eye view of the lakes and falls.
Regular trams travel the length of the most visited part of the park, a two-sq km fraction of its near 300 sq km, from the 12 upper lakes to the four lower ones, and the Veliki slap, or big waterfall. If you start early, you can easily see the area in a day. There are also electric-powered boats to transport visitors across the larger lakes above. Although the water looks divine, its greenish-blue colours changing according to the sunlight, swimming is strictly forbidden.
Plitvice has been a tourist attraction since the 19th century, with its first hotel set up in 1896. By then a conservation committee had been established, forerunner of the national park authorities of today. Tito had the area nationalised after the war. Plitvice made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979.
Almost incredibly, it was only a decade later that this area of outstanding natural beauty became the site of the first killing of the Yugoslav war, in 1991; the park did not come into Croatian control until 1995. For locals, Plitvice has added significance.
A handful of tourist-friendly eateries dot the park. The best known is Licka Kuca (Entrance 1, 053 751 024), open from April to October, a sprawling terrace offering the regional speciality of Licka juha sausage stew. Three hotels stand near Entrance 2, including the three-star Jezero (Velika poljana, 053 751 015), with doubles going for around 100 euros. Cheaper still is the nearby Plitvice (same phone number), renovated not long after the war.