The scenery in Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National park took my breath away. It was what I imagine the Garden of Eden must have been like, and it was one of the most beautiful sites I saw in Croatia.
There were hundreds of waterfalls and cascades of all different sizes connecting a network of 16 beautiful turquoise lakes. The colour of the water in the lakes was an unreal bright aqua. The lakes were surrounded by lush forest, but it was the spectacular falls that made the place special.
A hiker's paradise
We spent four hours walking around the cool, misty paradise. The trails were a mix of footpaths, wooden stairs and bridges running over, under and beside the waterfalls. On the largest lake, we took a small electric ferry from one shore to the other. It was the only boat on the water -- motorboats, swimming and fishing are all prohibited.
The park was busy with visitors, but not enough so to detract from the awe-inducing aura of the place. It wasn't surprising to learn that the park was one of the first natural areas to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Our hotel for the night was obviously built in the communist era. It was a low profile non-descript concrete structure with an abundance of wood paneling inside, wide curved staircases, threadbare carpet over concrete floors, polyester curtains, sparse décor and a vast dining / function room where the waiters push food and drinks around on institutional trolleys. Nothing fancy here. There were three very similar hotels operating in the park, but there were more before Croatia's War of Independence in the early 1990s.
Remnants of war
We saw a other few run-down, abandoned buildings tucked away in the trees here and there. Our guide Igor told us that the entire park was occupied by military forces for much of the war. He said that many of the buildings were damaged, and that mines were planted in some of the park's waterfalls with a threat to blow the entire place up. Thankfully that never happened, and now gradually the structures are being restored.
There are other reminders of the war throughout Croatia: bullet holes scarring the cathedral doors in Sibenik (another UNESCO site), and the contrast of old terracotta roofs vs the bright new ones that were rebuilt on bombed buildings in Dubrovnik. But what brought the war to life most was Igor's story of how he and his family once stayed in a room at our hotel in Split as refugees for 6 months.
The fighting was essentially right outside their doorstep, so they fled with only what they could carry in suitcases. Igor was a teenager at the time, and his sister a couple of years older. They left his grandparents behind, since they refused to leave. Thankfully his grandmother and grandfather survived, but their house was destroyed. Although the Croatian government eventually provided funds to rebuild, Igor's family did not want to move back afterwards.
Despite its recent troubled history, Croatia is stable and in fact prosperous now, welcoming visitors eagerly. It has charm, beauty and tenacity enough to win over all who visit. Resistance is, in fact, futile.
Traveling to Plitvice Lakes National Park
Getting around Croatia on your own is quite easy - tourism is big business in the country, especially in these post Game of Thrones days. The best way to get to the Plitvice Lakes is by car; it's a two-hour drive from either Sibenik or Zagreb. If you're going in the peak summer season, reserve in advance with any of the major rental companies. There are also multiple buses daily from Zagreb (2.5 hours) and Zadar (just under two hours).
Allow yourself at least three or four hours to walk the trails. Ideally, arrive the day before your hiking day and stay overnight in or near the park. That way you can get up early to beat the crowds and ensure you have enough time to enjoy it. There are a few generic communist-era hotels inside the park, and a number of B&B's in the area.