If anyplace on earth is a natural paradise, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia is that place. Of all Croatia's eight National Parks, Plitvice is the oldest and most visited. It's easy to see why. Bears and wolves lurk in its primeval forest; schools of silvery fish dart through its pristine rivers; its beech trees are a cacophony of chattering birds. The crown jewels are the 16 translucent lakes connected to each other by a breathtaking series of cascades. Dazzling as the Plitvice national park appeared on a recent visit, I couldn't help recalling that this exceptional site was a war zone during the breakup of former Yugoslavia.
Located near Croatia's then- disputed border with Bosnia-Hercegovina, the park's troubles began in 1991 when the Yugoslav army seized the park and turned it into an army barracks. The Croatian army forced them out in 1995 but, a year later, the effects of war were everywhere. The area surrounding the park was a nightmarish landscape of bombed out houses and abandoned farms. The park's three hotels were shot to pieces and part of the lake system was closed while specialists removed mines from the falls and forests.
Shaking off the aura of gloom, I set out to tour the park that UNESCO had named a world heritage site. Even with only half the park open, I was soon entranced.
Miles of wooden walkways wound over, under and alongside the falls. From merry two-foot bubblers to long walls laced with foam, the falling water was everywhere. I resolved to return one day when the park had been rebuilt.
It happened that my grand return to Plitvice occurred this year at the end of a long, hard winter in central Croatia. Although I had visions of tranquil lakes shimmering under a blue sky the weather turned out to be cold, foggy and damp. But damp is good in Plitvice. Between the melting winter snow and days of rain, much of the park was a roaring mass of water. Water pounded into swollen lakes, flooded out the walkways and splashed through the trees. It was splendid.
Even better was the lack of other visitors. In the intervening nine years, Plitvice Lakes National Park has become Croatia's busiest tourist attraction welcoming some 750,000 tourists a year. Nearly all come in July and August. "Please tell people to come in spring and autumn, if they can" my guide begged me. The newly renovated hotels are now completely booked up in the summer and the walkways are elbow to elbow with camera clickers.
Although missing the summer greenery, I quickly grew to appreciate the bare trees that allowed an unobstructed view of the lakes and falls. It was clear that the lake system is divided into four lower and twelve upper lakes. Just past the main entrance, the Korana River drops a torrent of water 258 feet into a frothing pool that begins the lower lakes. Lying at the bottom of a canyon, the narrow lower lakes are bordered by steep limestone walls and climb like a giant staircase to the upper lakes. Wider and surrounded by dense forest, the upper lakes lie on a bed of dolomite. At the very top, the White and Black rivers are the spigots that water the park. The high mineral content of the lakes explains their extraordinary colors, which range from day-glow green to deep azure.
Examining the crystalline water of the top lake, I noticed that the leaves and branches settled on the bottom were acquiring a metallic coating. It was the travertine process in action. The water absorbs minerals from the dolomite underlying the upper lakes and coats the plant life, turning it to porous travertine stone. The new travertine sprouts moss and plants that again petrify and the process repeats itself. All the barriers separating the upper lakes are composed of travertine constantly growing and changing shape.
If you go to Plitvice, you don't need to stay long enough to turn to travertine but the park merits more time than it usually gets. Lying about 85 miles north of Zadar and south of Zagreb, many people rush through the park on their way to or from the coast. It's possible to see a lot of waterfalls in three or four hours but you'll need a number of days to fully explore the trails. The three-star Hotel Jezero is the best of the park's three hotels but there are plenty of small pensions and private rooms in the villages around the park.
Jeanne Oliver has written all three editions of Lonely Planet's Croatia guidebook. To find out more about traveling to Croatia and to book your trip, visit Jeanne's website, http://www.croatiatraveller.com