Editor’s note: I’ve been to Croatia twice, but never managed to visit Plitvice Lakes, although like Sam, I find it hauntingly beautiful from photos. For more of Sam Spector’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.

Have you ever seen a picture and it inspired you to travel somewhere new? Back in 2011, I did a three week backpacking trip through the Balkans, and the entire trip was inspired by one picture. When I turn on my computer, there is always a picture of some beautiful place somewhere in the world. Well, when I was living in Jerusalem in my first year of rabbinical school, that happened, and I could not believe that this place existed. There were lush green hills, with the bluest series of waterfalls cascading into a lake below, with another set of waterfalls beneath the lake, dropping into an even lower lake, and more tiers after that. I clicked the upper screen to see where this was, if it was even a real place or if it had been created as a fantasy of some graphic designer trying to dream up the most beautiful spot in the world. The place was called “Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia,” and this one stunning picture launched what would be a journey though nine countries and many long bus rides.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Despite not being too terribly close to any of the major cities of Croatia, Plitvice Lakes is unique in that it is considered to be one of the most beautiful, unspoiled natural places in the world, and yet the lakes have been inhabited by people for thousands of years. To get to the lakes, I started in the city of Split on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. While Split is a major tourist destination, it did not seem to have quite as many sites to see as Dubrovnik to the south, but it is also important to note that unlike Dubrovnik, which is mainly centered around tourism, Split is home to 300,000 individuals and is a bustling city. Split is worth spending a couple of days visiting in its own right; with a beautiful, palm tree-lined promenade along the Adriatic Sea, it is one of the best places in Europe to stroll with a delicious cup of gelato. In the various shops, there is an opportunity for a special souvenir from the area, jewelry made from the bright red Adriatic coral (I will say though, it is worth investigating before purchasing to make sure that no coral reefs were killed to make the jewelry). Split’s primary place in history is that it was a major city during the third century of the Roman Empire and was home to the Roman emperor Diocletian. Diocletian’s palace (where he was also buried) is the main attraction in the town; today, there are still four gates and walls to the palace, and the archaeological remains of the basement that you can pay to see, which has been turned into a museum. In this city, Diocletian built several Roman temples, some of which still stand to this day. While Diocletian was known for many reforms in the empire, he is remembered for his severe persecution of Christians in his attempt to eradicate it from his empire. Ironically, one of the Roman temples that he built was converted into the oldest cathedral structure in the world shortly after his death, when the empire officially adopted Christianity. Several other structures would be turned into churches and cathedrals by the Knights of St. John. Split is also known for its great restaurants and nightlife and should be a must on any Croatian itinerary.

To get to Plitvice Lakes from Split, there are public buses that run the route. Make sure you are paying attention and do not oversleep your stop and ask the driver to let you know when you get to Plitvice Lakes, as it is not obvious. After two and a half hours, I found myself dropped off on the side of a rural highway and began walking a couple kilometers towards the direction that the driver had told me the lakes were; the sun was setting and there would not be time to see the lakes that day, which was fine, because it is best to visit in the early morning to beat all the tour busses making day trips (Plitvice Lakes now sees about 1.5 million visitors annually). Near the lakes are a bunch of cottages that are lived in by locals in a valley surrounded by forest. A few elderly ladies came up to me to try to rent me a room in their cottages for the evening, and after a little bit of bargaining, I agreed and had my place to sleep.

From the bus along the Dalmatian coast

Bright and early the next morning, I walked to Plitvice Lakes National Park; today, it is a hefty approximately 40 Euros to enter, but I believe well worth it. These lakes have been a national park since 1949 and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, not only for the breathtaking nature, but also because the chemicals and biology within the lakes produce a unique limestone called travertine that forms natural dams, bridges, and launching points for waterfalls. There is also a bit of difficult recent history, as it was here that the Serbian and Croatian armies battled on March 31, 1991, which marked the formal start of the four-year-long, bloody Croatian War of Independence. The park is home to sixteen lakes and dozens of waterfalls, many of which are tiered, and is heavily forested. In the greater park, not only are there many birds, but there are also brown bears and wolves. Wooden boardwalks go around the edges of the lakes and the waterfalls that tourists can walk on to do a self-guided tour of the park. The waterfalls are not the incredibly powerful type that one would see at Niagara Falls, but rather are beautiful trickles down limestone surrounded by green moss. When I visited, the lakes were bright blue and had some of the clearest water that one can find on the planet, allowing you to watch and enjoy the large, beautiful schools of fish that swim fearlessly around with colorful pebbles beneath them. Sadly, due to over-tourism and nearby illegal construction, the water is no longer drinkable for people and UNESCO has threatened that if increased preservation measures are not taken, the site’s world heritage status is in jeopardy. Some of the boardwalks also lead to natural limestone caves that you can walk through.

A boardwalk winds past a waterfall
What water!

While visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park, tourists can rent rowboats and go around the largest lake, Kozjak, appreciating the views of the green surroundings and waterfalls from the middle of the lake as opposed to being restricted to the boardwalks. On Kozjak Lake, there are electric boats that also take tourists on tours. At the end of the boat ride, you will be dropped off at a location that has an open train that will take visitors around the park and lakes and back to the exit.

Kozjak Lake

Following my day-long visit to the park, I hopped another bus up to the capital and largest city of Croatia, with a population of about 800,000, about two hours away. I only spent a couple hours in Zagreb as I had to catch my train up to Slovenia; however, it is a beautiful, walkable, and very green city with many parks. If you go there, make sure that you check out the park in front of the National Museum, and also go to the Cathedral and St. Mark’s Square and Church. The latter dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, but it is the roof that captures everyone’s attention, with its beautiful tiling that shows the coat of arms of the former Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia, as well as that of the city of Zagreb.

Croatia is a place that has quickly jumped to become one of Europe’s hottest tourist spots over the past decade. Yet, while cruise ship tourists and others often just go to the coastal cities made even more famous by Game of Thrones like Hvar, Zadar, Split, and most famously, Dubrovnik, Croatia’s most precious gem is actually inland at a destination incomparable to anywhere else in the world, Plitvice National Park.

More falls between pools

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