Zadar, Croatia 🇭🇷
Murray Smith

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia 🇭🇷

Murlayna Travel: Yerp 2016

Sunday, August 14

Before we made it to the famed national park, we had a 2-3 hour drive ahead of us. So we popped our destination into the shitty map app, toggled “Avoid Tolls”, and began following whatever demented path it routed out for us.

The drive wasn’t actually too bad as Croatian roads, by all means, are really great; I don’t think we hit a single pothole and there were practically no cracks in the asphalt. There never seemed to be any construction/road work yet, somehow, everything seemed to remain in this pristine, freshly-painted state. Canada should take note.

Anyway, at one point we were growing weary and needed a break so randomly pulled in at the next stop. As has seemingly become the theme of the trip, this serendipitous driveway just so happened to crest over a hill a take us to a magnificent view of Croatia’s tallest bridge — or at least the one with the highest bungee jump platform attached — and there happened to be someone harnessed in at the top, ready to jump! We quickdrew our cameras but, alas, after some tantalizing squats and lounges, the person cowardly refused to go. I hope they at least got their ~$90CAD refunded…

We got our rest, however, and ended up spending about twenty minutes perusing the nearby cliffs and zig-zag paths overlooking the views of this giant inlet and gorge.

Some more driving later, we arrived at our village on the outskirts of the Plitvice National Park, where we would be staying the night and heading out super early so as to beat the crowds. The inland location and general malaise of leaving the beaches behind had us feeling pessimistic about our upcoming accommodations. Luckily, ‘pessimistic optimism’, as I call it, rarely fails, and especially in this case since, without a doubt, it ended up being the best hotel experience either of us had ever had, by far.

To start, the room was fantastic. It was brand new, extremely modern, with impeccable interior design choices. It had everything we needed, right where you’d expect it, and then some; like a touch-screen built-in stove-top, and a open-concept rainfall shower that I kid you not we took detailed photos of so we can model our own like it some day. There didn’t seem to be any vents or an air conditioner, but somehow the room was just cool enough at all times of the day.

What really made it special, and what we will ultimately remember most about this part of our journey, was our hostess Božica, who we came to adore. Right off the bat, she was tending to something in the house so sent her adorable and eager daughter Antonia down to check us in and show us around the room. Antonia was returning to school in three weeks (entering grade 6) and had been learning English alongside Croatian all along. She served as translator for her mom (who really didn’t need it but turned to her occasionally when we spoke too fast, etc). Within a few minutes, Božica appeared with a tray of shot glasses and two homemade liqueurs; we all laughed together over incredibly stiff drinks (“We have to drive later…” “Ah, is okay, drive slow and I friend with police”), then chatted about our travels thus far and what we had planned still. We were invigorated by the time the two of them went back upstairs, so we set off to find the restaurant she had recommended as the local favorite.

We found it some 15 minutes up the road. Our waiter messed up our order and brought us the wrong dishes, then didn’t reemerge with the correct ones for double the time. Despite this, Laynie enjoyed her grilled chicken and veggie skewers while I tried my hand at lamb from a giant rotisserie spit like we’d seen before. It was tougher and saltier than other meats, but I’m glad I splurged. We got charged twice for “napkins and tablecloth” which I thought was ridiculous so I didn’t tip, leaving the waiter appalled.

We hightailed home to our cozy studio and nuzzled into our comfy bed, readying our bodies and minds for a 05:45 awakening.

In the middle of the night it struck me that maybe we should stay an extra night here since we would likely be exhausted after a day at the park. I booked it on my phone using the provided wifi (which was the fastest/best of the entire trip), not really remembering that we would be leaving so early that our hostess wouldn’t be awake to approve it, therefore making it kind of risky to leave all our stuff in the room. I sent her an email just in case — not that I’d be able to receive it until we returned.

Monday, August 15

We thought we were wise holding off going to the Lakes until after the weekend, but it turned out this Monday was a holiday anyway. Damn. By the time we got parked and purchased tickets (in the freezing cold, I should add; there we were in shorts and flip flops while we could see our breath!), we were walking down to Entrance 2 at around 07:30. Turned out “Entrance”, like so many things in Croatia, is more of a formality since there is no gate or fence or anyone checking tickets… Had we chosen to live more vicariously, we could have simply strolled through the entire park for free.

We took the ferry across the thin stretch of lake dividing the main paths from the public road (though you could also have hiked around if you weren’t in a hurry), and arrived at the first real set of wonders. By the end of the day, we would learn that this specific section of trail hosted the most “wow”-worthy waterfalls for us — and just our luck to have reached it when literally no one else was around, save for another couple doing the same thing. For the first hour we jovially leapfrogged with them, intermittently taking selfies and stopping to drop our jaws at the flowing water. The sun had come out (great both for photos and body-heat), and words simply can’t describe how other-worldly it was to walk around on water like this. Most of the paths, after all, were built just inches above the endlessly splitting, pooling, and cascading streams that all but replaced solid ground in this section since there wasn’t a square inch that wasn’t trickling.

As an aside, one of our main reasons for going to Croatia this summer was because it’s become so popular as a tourist destination that surely it’s original charm won’t last much longer. Although it is certainly very commercialized already, I personally loved how within these parks, there are so many ‘unsafe’ things that haven’t yet been overrun with warnings, rules, ropes, fences, or guards. For instance, the entire network of paths has no railings for much of it, regardless of the hostility of the neighboring terrain, and it would be easy to plummet off some of the larger cliffs to your death (or even just get bumped into the water). Just like how rules in general are treated like warnings here, I hope this spirit of self-monitored responsibility remains for years to come.

We continued hiking out of the wonderful mini-falls area into more traditional lakeside paths (albeit with more stunning colors and occasional waterfalls) that climbed the hill to the top basin, where we’d planned to buy something to eat. It was closed (lol), so we hiked down the other slope back to where we began, and had an early lunch there at 10:30 or so. (Throughout the park there are suggested routes which are signed and one-way, but we preferred to just use the overview map and navigate ourselves; owing to this, we ended up weaving through all the nooks save for one cranny.)

The north loop completed, we took a different ferry down the biggest lake to the other entrance, where a different set of wonders awaited us. By this time it was starting to get busy, so we took the high road over top to catch some stunning views of a new sequence of falls and lakes below, even passing by/through cave and tunnel.

At the end of this wing (since we had been slowly climbing in elevation as we went), the was a magnificent set of stairs — well, stones — that serpented down the back side of the mountain, surrounded by lush vegetation and accompanied by the beleaguered moans of fellow travelers who had chosen to travel in the wrong direction. Because of how nature and man intermingled so poetically here, this also ended up being one of our favorite spots.

Awaiting us at the foot was The Big Falls. After everything we’d seen so far it didn’t end up leaving that grand an impression on us, but maybe the leagues of tourists were putting us off. Actually, the one thing I remember Laynie commenting about was how people are so interesting, motioning to how a queue self-organized among those looking to take photos on top of the most prominent rock there. We also marveled at how things must have changed since the advent of cellphone cameras (i.e. selfies) since before those, all these people would have had to awkwardly ask one another to take their photo and hope it turned out well.

We left the falls and aimed ourselves toward our initial entrance yet again, this time opting to take another route so we didn’t miss anything. Unfortunately, since the main falls are right by the primary entrance, hoards of tourists were piling in non-stop from their buses, crowding the paths so much that we were stuck in a single-file line for maybe 400 meters. I can’t even imagine how much worse it would be to experience these parks in the afternoon when this became the norm. Luckily the path we wanted ended up going through a set of caves — and the steep climb that accompanied them — so the vast majority turned off and left us in relative solitude again. Clearly they didn’t know what they were missing.

Above lay a giant set of caves, probably which used to be an underground waterfall since the opening at the top was only a few meters over from the bottom. The cavern it formed now was big enough to fit a bus through (and a stone staircase), but there were also two horizontal offshoots, one of which was the coolest cave I’ve ever been in. Even though Plitvice is as touristy as Croatia gets, the inside was completely pitch black, unsigned, unsupervised, and creepy as hell! We used our cellphone flashlights to venture as deep as we felt comfortable going, slithering between stalactites and stalagmites, crouching under hazards and climbing onto platforms. By the time we began exiting another set of lights began approaching us, but otherwise we had the place totally to ourselves!

At the end the day we had some Popsicles, took the bus/tram thing back to our exit, then hiked back out to our parked car, now perfectly situated in the cool shade.

When we arrived home Božica was there to serve us tasters of a peach cream cake she had just made (which we are so fast we forgot to photograph). We were both floored by how good it was, and I think she could sense that. She offered us more but we declined, like idiots, because we were about to head to the grocery store to grab supplies for dinner (we finally had a stove, after all, might all well make use of it!) As we were asking for advice/directions, we also inquired about the local laundromat. She countered by offering to wash our stuff for us, and while we couldn’t accept that at first, she insisted so we happily complied.

It was a very short walk to Konzum, where we did the usual laps looking for curious new items. We found a giant bottle of our now-favorite tangerine Schweppes, along with ingredients for a salad, fusilli bolognese, and chicken breasts to grill.

We returned home and prepared our delicious dinner, which we complemented with wine and passionfruit radler, and enjoyed on the private balcony alongside our building. We finished eating just as the sun was setting, when Božica came down with our freshly laundered clothes already meticulously laid out on her foldable drying rack. We shamelessly squeaked that we would love another piece of cake and within minutes she returned with 2 more huge slices each!

She said: “My daughter and husband say of my cooking, it’s okay, but when you love it, it really makes me happy. Thank you.” It completely melted our hearts, as if they weren’t mushy already, and we knew for sure then that we had been incredibly lucky to meet this wonderful, compassionate woman.

We stayed until out on the veranda until it was too cold for Laynie then called it a solid, rewarding day.

Tuesday, August 16

We hugged Božica goodbye the next morning and set our sights back on the coast: we had to return our rental car the next day in the port town of Pula, some 4 hours away.