It was 2007 and I was sharing a bottle of Grk, the excellent local white wine with Franjo, a friend of a friend, who ran a small motorcycle rental business in Senj, Croatia. I had borrowed an Aprilia Pegaso from the factory, and Franjo was giving me some tips about good roads.
“I want to go and see the Plitvice Lakes,” I told him. “I thought I’d take this road through the national park, and over the mountains?” – “Hmm,” said Franjo, “It is a good idea to see the lakes but I would not take that road. It is not sealed.” – “That’s okay,” I said. “The Pegaso can handle gravel.” – “Well, it is very remote, too.” I pointed out that I come from Australia, where we invented the idea of remoteness. “Still,” Franjo said, “it is not… er, I would still not recommend it.”
I looked at him for a moment.
“They haven’t cleared the landmines, have they?”
Back before the turn of the century, and for a long time thereafter, it was advisable to tread – and roll – softly. Many roads had been mined and it’s always easier to lay mines than to pull them up. The road I was considering was one of the last relatively major roads to be cleared – and the mine disposal squads had not even started on it in 2007.
“I’ll take the main road,” I said.
The ride from Senj on the coast to Plitvice by way of Otočac is about 110km and has a couple of enjoyable mountainous stretches divided by a long transport stage across the high Lika karst plain. The road is reasonably good by Croatian standards, which means only a little bit potholed but quite greasy from oil and diesel. If you’re on a good road anywhere in what was the old Jugoslavia, chances are it was built by the EU – and this one hadn’t been.
The reason I was so keen on reaching Plitvice will become clear once you take a look at the photos. The 16 lakes are pretty by themselves. Add the water cascading into the valley they occupy, and you have quite a beautiful scene. But what’s special about Plitvice is the barriers that divide the lakes from each other, the source of endless large and small waterfalls.
These barriers are formed by the deposition of calcium carbonate, helped along by mosses, algae and water plants as well as microscopic bacteria. Between them, these form biological ‘curtains’ which trap the calcium carbonate, causing it to build the dam-like barriers. The result is travertine, quite a hard rock which is nevertheless fragile. Year after year, new layers are added and the configuration of the lakes and water flows change.
That might sound a bit dry (sorry…) but in fact it all makes for a magical environment. Unlike many national parks in once-socialist or communist countries, Plitvice is carefully and thoughtfully protected and cared for. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Register in 1979. Boardwalks and stairs take you through the valley and you’re kept well away from the more sensitive patches of travertine. All in all, the place is a joy to visit.
Not that all vestiges of the ‘socialist’ past had evaporated by the time I visited in 2007. I parked the Aprilia and wandered over to the kiosk to buy my access ticket, but the young lady behind the counter pointed out that she was off duty. It was past her shift change, and she was waiting for her relief.
“How long will I have to wait?” I asked. She looked surprised. “You do not have to wait. Go ahead.” – “But I have no ticket.” – “It doesn’t matter, go.” This was actually not an uncommon reaction. I asked someone about it later, and she smiled. “The entrance money goes to the State,” she explained, “and who cares how much money the State gets? She would have charged you if she’d been on duty, but this way she had an excuse to be nice to you and nasty to the State at the same time.” – “But the State employs her. What if it runs out of money to pay her?” – “Do you seriously think your few Kuna would make a difference?” – “But…” I gave up. After all, I’d got in free so who was I to complain?
It might be an example of the grim sense of humour of the people of the dry karst that surrounds Plitvice, but most of the lakes seem to have been named after someone who drowned in them. You’re not allowed to swim or even wade in the water these days for fear of damaging their fragile beauty, so chances are that none will end up bearing your name one day…
Footnote: The reason I can report conversations is that I speak German. Despite the fact that the Croats fought against the Germans in WW2, many speak the language now. The power of tourism.