An unexpected trip to the lakes of Plitvice brings David Szmidt the discovery of a lifetime – the most wondrous natural beauty in Europe
The centre of Zagreb is very Mediterranean. People take a long time over al fresco food and wine, while others wander leisurely past. The whole length of ul. Ivana Tkalčića is full of people enjoying themselves; it is the centre of social life in the city. Locals and tourists mingle as music spills from the bars and waiters dash back and forth with the nimbleness and surety of mountain goats.
Me and my new friends, four girls from the UK and a lone backpacker from Australia, squeezed ourselves around what seemed to be the last unoccupied table in Croatia.
We swapped life stories, while occasionally snaffling a passing waiter to bring us top-ups of Karlovačko beer and bowls of snacks. It turned out that the Aussie was doing what Aussies do – trekking through Europe in a fairly aimless manner and making friends along the way. The girls were university friends on a summer jolly before they went back to study in September. We were all new to the city and were looking for something to do.
After many beers, we decided to take a walk and see what we could find. What we discovered was Ribnjak park, in which stands a concrete building that is home to an unexpectedly busy club. Loud music of all sorts, cheap beer, confusing internal architecture – lots of mirrors – and a patio, curiously. Good stuff. We stayed there until … God knows. My memory is still hazy about the whole evening. I do know, however, that the club was called Purgeraj – and has now been renamed, simply, Rock Club Ribnjak.
Somehow, we all survived the night and, either separately or in shambling groups, managed to find our way back to the hostel, in which I awoke, with a snort and a start, the next morning. We surfaced groggily and bade farewell to our Aussie, who, rather foolishly I thought, was only spending one night in Zagreb.
Over whatever food we could find, we were told by the hostel receptionist that she could organise a minibus to take us to a few places in the area. We hadn’t heard of any of them, but they were sold as: “A small, wooden town, some lakes, and then a place for swimming.” Well, some fresh air would undoubtedly do us good. It sounded like a plan.
We slumped into the minibus, and were driven about an hour away to a place called Rastoke. The historical heart of the Slunj region, it’s a small town built almost entirely of wood located in a beautiful, forested gorge.
The whole town was built of the milling and weaving industry, and sits on a series of islands on the Slunjčica river as it splits and joins the Korana. It has been preserved as a region of historical importance, and it is lovely. We meandered around, peering into buildings, getting vaguely lost on paths that wound around the back of the town and sat on the banks of streams with our feet in the rushing water.
After an hour or so, we clambered back in the minibus and were driven the 30 kilometres or so to Plitvice. I had never heard of this area of lakes and waterfalls, so didn’t really know what to expect. What I got was one of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen; valleys and rock formations housing lakes and streams of the clearest, bluest water I had ever seen in my life.
It looked so cool, so fresh and so inviting, it was all I could do to stop myself plunging head first into the first one I saw. Unfortunately, this would have got me into a lot of trouble, so I restrained myself. The ecosystem of the Plitvice lakes is incredibly fragile, so a dip in the water would set you back 100 euros.
Even now, looking back at the photos I took, I still don’t think any of them do justice to the colours. It was utterly stunning. Fish flitted about beneath the wooden walkways that guided us through the park towards a huge waterfall. It produced a permanent rainbow hanging scores of feet in the air as we were sprinkled gently with falling spray.
After clambering up the rocks on the far side of the park to get to a vantage point that overlooked the whole of Plitvice, and to poke around a small system of caves, we found our way back to a boat that puttered us back to the entrance to the park, and the minibus.
It was heading towards late afternoon, and we were all ready for some food and a nap, so the minibus driver took us to a nearby riverbank that appeared to be a popular swimming spot for locals. There was a spot from which to leap into the water, which was as clear as the rivers that we’d seen running through Rastoke.
We lay down on the river bank and chatted lazily, in between sorties to find barbecued sausages to eat that were being sold a little further down the river, and washing them down with cold cans of Croatian beer.
After a while, one of the girls suggested going for a swim and, not wanting to be a spoilsport, I agreed. I should say now that I’ve never been a particularly good swimmer, and was never a huge fan of water. Oh sure, when I was a kid I had swimming lessons, and grimly thrashed my way around the pool in pursuit of distance badges, but since then I’ve never seen it as any more than a survival skill (and even then, not one I’m planning to ever be in a position to use).
So, as children as young as three hurled themselves playfully into the water and glided around as if they’d been born there, I flopped in and spluttered and flailed gamely around, giving reassuring nods to people who were concerned that I seemed to be having a very controlled fit.
After what I deemed long enough to seem like I enjoyed myself, I dragged my protesting carcass out of the water and onto the shore. Eventually, the girls joined me and we all spent another couple of hours sleepily chatting until the minibus guy came back and drove us back to the hostel. Back in bed, I realised I would never have found any of these things by myself, and again got to thinking what a wonderful thing travel is.