Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the oldest parks in Southern Europe. Situated near the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is a large preserve in a mountainous region, dotted with crystal-clear lakes connected by streams and waterfalls.
The park was the site of the first conflict in the Croatian War of Independence, the Plitvice Lakes Incident. At the time, the region was home to a large number of ethnic Serbs. In March of 1991, Serb rebels, backed by Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav People’s Army, took over the park in a violent conflict that left two people dead. The rebels declared the park a part of an autonomous Serbian region and occupied it for the duration of the war.
There are a number of lodges and hotels in the park, and during the conflict, these were used as barracks by the Serb forces. A number of buildings were burned down and areas of the park were mined. The park was re-taken by Croatian forces in 1995, but not before a large number of Croats were ethnically cleansed from the region. When the war came to an end, the park was de-mined as part of an effort to restore what UNESCO had declared a World Heritage Site in Danger. Today, a visitor would never suspect the park’s violent history. It is a serene and beautiful place.
Pete and I took a bus to Plitvice from Split and as we approached the park, the surrounding countryside went from soggy to snowy. We got confused about where to get off of our bus and ended up disembarking too soon and wandering around the park, pulling our suitcases behind us through the snow.
After wandering around aimlessly, trying to follow confounding signs, we eventually found a hotel.
As someone who has seen The Shining approximately 386 times, it was a little eerie staying at a large, nearly empty hotel boasting ’70s decor. We were visiting Plitvice at the very end of the tourist season, and there were perhaps three other groups of people there with us. There were no other guests staying in our wing of the hotel.
When we ate at the restaurant, there were two staff members, Pete and I, and rows upon rows of empty seating.
It creeped us out a bit, but it was nice to have the park nearly to ourselves. In summer, Plitvice is so packed with tourists that the boardwalks are pedestrian traffic jams.
We spent two days hiking around the cascades and waterfalls and trying to keep warm. Our first day, it was quite overcast and we didn’t bump into any other tourists. The second day was cold but sunny and beautiful.
That second day, we encountered a group of elderly Japanese tourists stopping by the park on a bus tour. It was sunny, but it was still quite cold, so Pete and I were wearing nearly all of our clothes. Long-johns, rain pants (to cut the wind), toques, mittens: the works. Some of these tourists weren’t even wearing hats. They must be made of tougher stuff than us. They put these two Canadians to shame.
After two days of hiking and exploring, and getting lost, thanks to vague Croatian signage, we were ready to move on to Zagreb.
Plitvice is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen, and I hope to go back one day. If you ever have the chance to visit, please go. You’ll be glad you did.