Croatia is a great summer destination for anyone visiting the EU. It is a country of breathtaking beauty, with secluded beaches and sky-coloured lakes, ancient walled towns and delicious seafood. The Dinaric Alps hug much of the island-dotted coastline giving it a dramatic look and making the roads here some of the most scenic drives on the shores of the Mediterranean.
We visited Croatia in the summer of 2011. Our main objective: the amazingly blue Plitvice lakes.
The first place we visited was the charming Slunj. 100 km south of the capital Zagreb, this little town is famous for its waterfalls and well preserved watermills. Most of the houses and restaurants are built literally on top of the waterfalls, giving it an almost Rivendell-ish look (you Tolkien fans know what I am talking about). For us, this became an over-night stopping point between Zagreb and the Plitvice lakes, about 25 km away from the lakes.
The mills, falls, caves and clear water pools are located in the town area called Rastoke. You should enjoy a relaxing walk as you explore the small grottoes, pass under waterfalls or simply lie in the grass with a good book. There is also an option to go for a swim in the river Korane, in a special designated place with a lawn, diving board and bar for you to enjoy some cool drinks. If you have a few hours for a stop in Slunj, I recommend you also try the local grilled trout at one of the restaurants in Rastoke. We did and it remains to this day the best we ever tasted.
To get to Slunj and then to Plitvice, you will not be driving on main highways, but don’t worry, the roads are in good condition and they take you through many picturesque places.
Arriving at the Plitvička Jezera National Park we soon discovered the wild beauty of this land formed and ruled by water. Sinuous green forests border a string of 16 azure lakes and 92 rumbling waterfalls, all easy to get to by following wooden pathways that snake around the edges of cliffs or across the clear blue waters. There are birds, butterflies and fishes waiting to be photographed and fragrant flowers that delight the senses.
The park is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and represents Croatia’s main attraction. This is why it can become quite crowded, especially during the summer months. The best way to enjoy some piece and quiet and avoid getting stuck in a crowd is to follow a slightly different path than the general tour taken by most groups of visitors. During our visit, we did not go on any guided tour, just made our own way through the park, making sure not to miss any of the major waterfalls or lakes and taking enough time for some stunning photos.
Here is what you must do to avoid the crowds when visiting
Try to arrive early in the morning ; the park usually opens at 7:30 am and at noon it is already very crowded. If you did not rent a car, but still want to visit, you can take a bus from the city of Zagreb (about 2 hours).
Begin exploring from the second entrance (Ulaz 2) and not from the first entrance. There is plenty of parking space to leave your car here. Get a map from the ticket office and follow the route marked with G (you will notice that the route resembles the shape of an 8), but in a slightly different way than the other tourists, by following this post. Come prepared with comfortable trekking shoes since the walk takes between 4 to 6 hours and there are places where you need to go uphill (not too steep though). Also make sure to bring enough drinking water with you and some protection from the sun, like glasses and a cap.
So, once you enter the park go to the first Pontoon (P1), take the boat to P2 and there switch to the boat that takes you to P3. This way you will start your day by visiting the lower lakes first. They are the most spectacular ones and also the largest waterfalls can be found here. Make your way through the forest or over winding wooden decks and end up in the northernmost part of the park, near a tourist train stop. Get on this train and travel through the park until you reach the stop that is in the southernmost part of the park (you should travel for 3 stations). This is your stop and you are now in the area of the upper lakes. To visit the lakes you will constantly be descending instead of going uphill like the rest of the tourists and you will thank me for this. Enjoy your walk and finish the tour in the middle of the 8, at P2. From here you can easily get to P1 and then back to the parking area. You will notice plenty of people waiting to cross at the boats, but they will all want to go the opposite way, and the boat you will be in, will not be crowded.
If you want to spend more time in the park, know that rowboats can be hired from the shores of Lake Kozjak near Entrance 2 and that swimming is not permitted in any of the lakes. You can find restaurants close to the park entrances, so enjoy a good meal at the end of your visit.
On a bright sunny day, this place feels almost surreal. I was really impressed by the colour of the water and by its clarity. There are some areas where the path took us very close to the falls, which made for some incredible views and photo opportunities. The forest was a vibrant green, offering us its refreshing shade, as we continued down the walkways, expecting to spot the elves of Middle Earth.
Read more about our road trip in Croatia by following the posts in the ‘Croatia’ category.