A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Plitvice lakes in Croatia are a spectacle to behold, as 16 strong waterfalls cascade into each other to form a phenomenon recreated in only a few other sites on this earth. Melissa Moubarak heads over in early spring to catch the bloom and avoid the crowds.
The first thing you notice at Plitvice Lakes is the sound. In the vast silence, the sound of water is pervasive, amplified. Drip, drop, the droplets go, onto a wooden boardwalk; setting the beat, short and sharp. Gurgle, gurgle, the rivulets echo a child’s lilting laughter. Gush, rush the streams flow, calming yet assertive, like a safe, paternal voice. Green the rocks have become. Cloaked in moss by the water current which cuts a snaking path in the mountain. The sound of thunder approaches, deafening, riveting. It fills the air until you cannot hear yourself think. This is the Veliki Slap, or Large Waterfall. At a height of 78m, it is the highest in the reserve and sets the tone for the cascades below it.
Water cannot remain inert; it is a life force to be reckoned with. And the force is strong with this one. In constant motion, it runs from one lake to the next in torrents of multi-layered waterfalls. Splashing everything in its path, it supports an ecosystem of lush forest sprawling across 300sqkm. The waterfalls are a sight to behold, all 16 of them. They shine under the sun in a spectrum of colors. Depending on the organisms that live in each lake, some reflect a deep azure, dark and rich. Others look ethereal in light cerulean. Pale pools of turquoise bring to mind pastel scenes of Monet paintings, crosshatched by leaves and twigs. What makes this scene so rare and unique is the natural formation of limestone dams, which are responsible for creating the subsequent plateaus where water collects at different heights. From a geological point of view, this is like hitting the jackpot.
Discovering Plitvice is also a hiker’s paradise. The terrain offers much variety, from climbs, to easy walks, to adventurous cliffhangers. While waterfalls are the main attraction, other spectacles also top the bill, including the verdant forests, and a rich wildlife starring deer, wolves, wildcats, lynx, boars, and even bears. I didn’t venture upon any during my trek, but was serenaded throughout by throngs of colorful birds, part of Plitvice’s 160 species.
The reserve can be hiked in about 5 hours, so a day pass tends to be enough for most visitors. Silent electric boats shorten your trip to about 3 hours by transporting you through the lakes. We glide on Gavan Lake from one waterfront to another small island. Legend has it; a man named Gavan hid his treasure in this lake. Tough chance finding it though, swimming is strictly prohibited in any of the lakes. So instead, we enjoyed what other treasures the water offered up to us, trout, chubs, minnows, and crayfish swam underneath. When we were not looking down, we were staring upwards at the mountains of forests framing the lake. Beech, fir and spruce trees spear the skies standing tall as they had for hundreds of years. Close knit in a defense line, they tinge the air with that distinctive wooden sap smell that we try – and fail – to recreate in little car fresheners.
After a day of hiking, we take a small electric train back to the main entrance of the reserve. A hearty lunch is necessary. Three hotels at the entrance serve up local and international dishes to reward ravenous, intrepid explorers. For those looking for a more intimate experience, private rooms, or sobe offer a bed and breakfast atmosphere and are scattered in the countryside around the Plitvice Lakes. Radstoke village, about 20km away, is famed for its grilled fish – trout, in fact. After lunch, our taxi takes the two-hour trip back to Zagreb across the highway flanked by forests in full bloom. The sound of water, still ringing in our ears.
Emirates Airlines flies to Zagreb via Munich starting AED 3,000.
Buses operate frequently from Zagreb to Plitvice, trip duration is of almost 2 hours.
Please be a responsible traveller. Follow instructions on signs at the reserve, do not litter, destroy the environment or harm the wildlife.