By Solange Hando
Set up in 1949 in northern Croatia, the Plitvice Lakes are the oldest national park in the country and the largest, covering close to 300 square kilometres. There, on the edge of the rugged Dinaric Alps, rocks and water have created a unique landscape protected by UNESCO and one of the most impressive karst formations in the world.
Yet just 400 years ago, the whole area was inaccessible, draped in mystery and legends from buried treasures to the kind-hearted Black Queen who gave water to the poor. In the 18th century, it was described in turn as ‘five beautiful lakes in the densest wood’ and ‘the devil’s garden’. But those who come here today know that neither is true: there is no devil in this natural paradise but there are 16 beautiful lakes for all to see.
The twelve upper lakes and four lower lakes are all connected, divided by natural limestone barriers shaped by water, wind and plants and creating myriad waterfalls. The highest is the aptly named ‘Large Waterfall’, swollen by the Plitvica river and tumbling down 78 metres into the final section of the lower lakes. Just a stone’s throw away, the source of the Korana is said to be the most beautiful in karst country, heading through the canyon towards a bucolic village dozing in flower meadows.
Meanwhile, footpaths and single-file boardwalks meander from one magical lake to the next, festooned in waterfalls, canyons and caves, and whatever the crowds, little disturbs the peace but the rumbling of cascades and bird song. There are popular viewpoints and secluded corners, steps here and there and for those who want to take it easy, rides on an electric boat across Lake Kozjak or a panoramic train in the upper levels.
But nothing beats a leisurely stroll where lush scenery and fresh air quieten mind, body and soul. The lakes beckon, more bewitching the closer you are. Azure, silvery grey, deep blue or emerald green, shimmering in the sun or mirroring a darkening sky, they are for ever changing as light and shade filter through the abundant foliage along the banks.
The lower lakes glitter through a rocky canyon, the upper lakes nestle among forested slopes rising to 1,279 metres. Mediterranean and Alpine plants mingle with fir, spruce and beech and in the remote areas of the north-west, trees are up to 700 years old. Over 1,100 plant species have been recorded in the park, including 75 endemic and 55 different orchids. Gentians and lilies add colour in the undergrowth and grassy bells and wild hyacinths grow alongside endangered species such as the carnivorous round leaf sundew. Spring heather, beard grass and mint are also found along the lakes where maple and sumac trees turn all shades of red and gold in autumn.
Wild cats, lynx, deer and wolves all live in the park but the brown bear has become the true symbol of the Plitvice Lakes. Yet visitors on a day trip from the beach are far more likely to spot the butterflies, an Orange Tip, a Painted Lady, a Red Admiral, to name just a few, and at least some of the 105 species of birds, woodpeckers, grebes, larks, finches and others, or perhaps a rare golden eagle hovering in the thermals high above the glistening lakes.