Today was a walk in the park, literally! We drove a short way to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest in Croatia at 284.82 square kilometres, for a three-hour stroll.
Judging from the number of tour buses and the crowds from all over the world pouring through the gate, we were the only ones who’ve never heard of this recently proclaimed UNESCO world natural heritage site.
The weather decided to hold, perhaps because we stopped to buy umbrellas before entering the park. We met our VIP guide, Helena, who explained the intricate way Nature created the various lakes and waterfalls in this unique place. I’m afraid I still don’t understand it, but it has something to do with the calcium carbonate in the water and sediment from plants forming hard barriers over the centuries that diverted the water into bright green pools and thousands of waterfalls.
The air is filled with the roar of rushing water, clean enough to drink, and you can’t pass a waterfall without having your face misted with (so they say) wrinkle-reducing spray.
To preserve the park’s natural habitat yet give visitors a feel of being in nature, the Croatians have built miles of wooden walkways through the water and forest, nailed together one narrow plank at a time, They’re really comfortable to walk on.
Three hours was barely enough time to explore all the water features, and we didn’t check out the park’s hiking trails and meadows. To save time we took an electric boat across one lake, a shuttle bus from one station to the next and another shuttle back to the main entrance, otherwise we’d still be there!
You could really spend days here. Helena said most people take a three-hour bus ride from their cruise ship in Istria and end up spending only two hours in the park. Please don’t do this.
After saying goodbye to Helena, we checked into the Hotel Plitvice, one of the old hotels within the park. I kept having flashbacks to our hotel at the Grand Canyon, another national park, with its utilitarian rooms. Even the restaurant was a blast from the past.
We started with a dollop of Russian salad and a few slices of cheese and ham, then a bowl of greasy beef consommé. When did you last even hear the word consommé? The main course was a slab of cooked turkey breast smothered with a thick pale yellow sauce, accompanied by water-logged baby carrots, canned green beans and potato croquettes.
After lunch it was back on the bus for a tour of a cave called Samograd, featuring spectacular stalactites and cathedral ceilings formed by water over millions of years.
The bear refuge left us all uncomfortable, though the nine orphaned bears in their big open enclosures full of trees were having a great time. The volunteer staff of young hippies, don’t know what else to call them, come from all over the world to join the cause, and stay a few weeks or a few years to feed the bears, mend fences and forage for wild food for the animals among other tasks – a young French woman assured us there’s always something to do.
The “owner”, an older Croatian man who’d been a social worker and worked in Germany for awhile before starting the refuge, introduced us to another woman who works in Zagreb but spends every minute she can at the refuge. Another woman, a teacher, spends part of the year in North Carolina and volunteers at a bear refuge there.
Six to 12 of the volunteers live in a tiny house left to them by a family that once owned the land. There’s no heat or running water and they seem to live on air and donations. Some pay their own way to be there.
We left feeling that we hadn’t got the whole story, but we wished the young people well. I suppose we admire them for following their dream of a better society, but worry about what will become of them.
In between all these visits, we’re driving through the most spectacular countryside – hills covered with thick green forests swoop down into wide valleys where sheep graze and gardens grow – onions seem to be a popular crop. There’s an occasional sprinkling of Austrian-style chalets, but I think we’ve seen more sheep than people.
We got back to the hotel around 9 and had another set meal, this time pork schnitzel with the same canned vegetables. Great green salad, though!
Tomorrow’s mountain hike is still up in the air – we’ll have to wait until breakfast to hear our fate.