Our aim for today was a day trip from Zadar to the Plitvice National Park and back again. I use the word "aim" deliberately, because I had spent a significant amount of time in the weeks prior to the holiday trying to work out whether such an excursion was indeed possible as a day trip. The Plitvice National Park, which is both the oldest and largest national park in Croatia, lies approximately halfway between Zagreb and Zadar, and so is theoretically possible as a day trip from either city. The entrance to the park is just off what used to be the main road to Zadar, along which all the public buses from the capital used to run. Since the opening of a new motorway a few years ago, however, the number of buses passing through Plitvice has steadily decreased, so that there was only really one suitable bus we could catch in the morning and a bus back at 17.23 in the evening (which, if missed, would result in us being stranded for 12 hours!) On the one hand the journey sounded doable, but our guidebook had cautioned against trying to catch a bus from Plitvice, pointing out that there isn't a bus station (just a bus stop by the side of the road), that the buses only stop if they are flagged down and that they may simply drive past if they are already full. The same advice was repeated in various places on the Internet, but whether it was because people had genuinely been stranded or just because everyone else had read the same guidebook, it was hard to tell. The safer option was undoubtedly to book onto one of the many organised excursions from Zadar, which ferry tourists to and from the park on private coaches before leading them around on guided tours. I had initially been tempted by the security of this, but as we weighed the options up for one last time on Monday night, we decided that it was worth risking the possible inconvenience of being stranded overnight in a national park inhabited by bears to avoid the certain inconvenience of spending a day being herded around by a tour guide in a group of sheeple. I think we made the right choice
It was a relatively early start, with our bus leaving Zadar at 9am. The journey to Plitvice was supposed to take two hours, but our driver wasn't overly concerned with the timetable, setting off ten minutes late and stopping at a service station for a 15-minute rest break, which most tourists on the bus spent confusedly getting on and off and trying to work out whether we had arrived in Plitvice or not. We eventually did arrive in Plitvice at 11.20 and upon alighting from the bus, were immediately accosted by a man offering to sell us bus tickets back to Zadar. Accosting people appears to be a legitimate way of drumming up business in Croatia; when a bus pulls into a major bus station, hordes of women with rooms to let start swarming towards it, and taxi drivers aren't content with sitting neatly in their taxi rank, where anyone who wanted a taxi would be sure to find them, but instead feel the need to mill around saying "Taksi?" in a hopeful manner to anyone who is so much as glances in their direction. I was therefore mildly suspicious at first, but he turned out to be representing a genuine bus company who had - quite enterprisingly - set up a stall on the opposite side of the road selling tickets to Zadar and arranged a bus 20 minutes before the official bus (of a rival company) was timetabled to depart. We paid 100 kuna each for our tickets, which was 10 kuna less than we had paid on the way out, and were able to go off and enjoy the park without worrying about our return transport.
The Plitvice National Park is an interconnected series of lakes whose water is famous for being a remarkable shade of blue.
Hundreds of waterfalls, ranging from tiny cascades of a few feet to the enormous "Veliki Slap" (Big Waterfall) at 78m pour into the lakes. An intricate series of wooden walkways and staircases lead around the sides of the lakes, enabling visitors to get fantastic views of the falls.
The park is divided into two parts - the Upper and Lower Lakes - of which the Lower Lakes are the more famous and contain the picture-postcard views which anyone who has heard of Plitvice will doubtless have seen. They are also the place where the tour operators take their organised excursions and therefore can be extremely busy between 11am and 3pm in high season. We decided to start our day in the Upper Lakes where we hoped that there would be fewer people, then head to the Lower Lakes in the afternoon when the tour buses might have started to go home.
It cost 110 Kuna (about £12) each to get in the park, and I spent an extra 20 kuna on a decent map. There is a system of signposted trails round the park, with the length of routes varying from 2 hours for the shortest to up to 10 hours for the longest. We opted to start with one of the shorter routes in the Upper Lakes (route E) and while we were wandering around attempting to find the correct start point, we caught our first glimpse of the lakes.
Wow. Proof that they don't photoshop the postcard pictures; the water really is that shade of blue!
We failed to find route E, so caught a boat across to the far side of the lake and started walking route F in reverse. Walking a route in reverse seems like quite a good idea actually, as it can be easy to walk past a large group of people coming the opposite way than to overtake them when you're all walking in the same direction! The Upper Lakes were quite peaceful though, as we had hoped, and at times the only other creatures admiring the waterfalls were the ducks.
Our biggest problem was trying not to fall off one of the platforms and into the water; the views were so amazing as we made our way around the series of lakes that it was difficult to pay proper attention to your feet. We passed some beautiful waterfall:
The Upper Lakes were so spectacular that I find it hard to understand that many people who come to Plitvice never visit them at all. We walked around for over three hours in total before catching a boat across the main lake to the place where the trails for the Lower Lakes are supposed to start. Once again we failed to find the trail we had been looking for, but instead began following a track which promised it was leading to a viewpoint. It was a steep slog uphill and I was starting to wonder whether we should turn back and try a different direction... when we found this:
Probably the most amazing viewpoint I've ever seen! That was as close to the edge as I was going, though - there was a sheer drop on the other side. When zoomed in, you can see just how many little waterfalls are falling into the lake.
It was getting close to 4pm at this point and we knew that we needed to start making our way back towards the bus stop. We had strayed slightly off the beaten track and I was starting to despair of us ever finding Veliki Slap, the biggest waterfall in Croatia. Although we were sure we were walking in the correct general direction, with time ticking on we decided to give up and follow a path back down to ground level. But five minutes after we stopped looking for it, we stumbled across the 78-metre waterfall by accident.
Mission accomplished, from there we just had time to make our way along a few of the walkways in the Lower Lakes on our way back to the station for the land train which would drop us off near our bus stop.
The journey back worked like clockwork, which was a relief Our pedometers revealed that we had walked nearly 15 miles and climbed the equivalent of 120 staircases during our travels. It's definitely possible to see a lot at Plitvice on a day trip, but the park is so large that you could easily spend a couple of days exploring. Maybe next time we'll do just that!