Croatia's Picturesque Plitvice Lakes National Park
One of Croatia's most spectacular destinations is Plitvice (PLEET-veet-seh) Lakes National Park, an inland forest laced with waterfalls and studded with turquoise lakes. A two-hour drive south of the capital city of Zagreb, Plitvice is among Europe's best back-to-nature experiences. Imagine Niagara Falls diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon. This lush valley has 16 terraced lakes strung together by waterfalls and miles of pleasant plank walks. Over time, the water has simultaneously carved out and, with the help of mineral deposits, built up this fluid landscape. Countless cascades and strangely clear and colorful water make this park a misty natural wonderland.
Plitvice became Croatia's first national park in 1949. On Easter Sunday in 1991, the first shots of Croatia's war with Yugoslavia were fired right here. In fact, the war's first casualty was a park policeman, Josip Jovic. The Serbs occupied Plitvice until 1995, and many of the Croatians you'll meet here were evacuated and lived near the coastline as refugees. Today the war is a fading memory and the park is again a popular tourist destination, with nearly a million visitors
Put on your best walking shoes: Plitvice's system of trails and boardwalks makes it possible for visitors to get up close to the park's beauty. In some places, the paths literally lead right up the middle of a waterfall. Strolling the boardwalks, you'll get great views of the travertine formations that make up Plitvice's many waterfalls. You can climb through the slippery Supljara Cave, an unassuming cavern with a cinematic claim to fame. In the 1960s, several German and Italian spaghetti westerns were filmed at Plitvice and in other parts of Croatia (which, to European eyes, has terrain similar to the American West). The most famous, Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure in Silver Lake) was filmed here at Plitvice, and the treasure was hidden in this cave. The movie is still a favorite in Germany — complete with Deutsch-speaking "Native Americans" — and the park is a stop on the popular theme tours that bring German tourists to movie locations in Croatia.
A 20-minute boat ride along the park's biggest lake, Lake Kozjak, connects Lower and Upper Lakes. Save time for this trip, as the lower half of the Upper Lakes is the most striking area in the park. After a full day of wandering through the mist, duck into the Licka Kuca restaurant, across the pedestrian overpass from Entrance 1, for some tasty grilled trout. While most of the park's restaurants are good but dull, this place, with a huge, open-air wood-fired grill, has a wonderfully dark, smoky atmosphere that feels as rustic and idyllic as the park itself.