Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Plitvice Falls, Croatia

A three-hour drive from the nearest big Italian city through amazing coastal mountain roads and isolated farms and wilderness, Plitvicka falls is worth the travel, even in the middle of winter. Formed by 16 lakes dammed by plant materials naturally deposited by the water's current, the lakes and the waterfalls were inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It's a beautiful and magical landscape to walk through, but it wasn't always like that: it was the place where the Croatia war for independence started and ended. This place must hold a spell over people, willing to fight and start a war over something that is for all intents and purposes pools of water spilling over each other. But to be there is to really appreciate the power of such a place to entrance.

My visit to the park was somewhat of an unintended sidetrip gone right. New Year's Eve was (mistakenly) celebrated in Zagreb, Croatia's capital. Having nothing to do the next day, the decision was made to drive to the park, a mere two and a half hours away. (The windy mountainous roads made it more like four hours.) Arriving to the park, we realized that it remained popular with the locals, who took advantage of the lack of patrols by entering through the unguarded sides for free. The situation may be different in the summer, when the park's popularity (visitors reaching almost a million) surely forces the park administration to put in more guards to ensure everyone pays the exorbitant $25 fee.

The park must be very beautiful in the spring and summer. Based on the pictures one can see online, the landscape is more verdant and more fantastic. The water's blue, vegetation's green, the rocks' brown, and the mist rising from the water blend to make what surely seems to be a hallucination.

But winter itself is not bad. Other than not being too crowded, the place becomes a winter wonderland of frozen waterfalls, snowy bridges, branches covered in ice, and the intermittent snow. Instead of a hallucination, one is surrounded by the eery silence and harsh reality of a landscape in hibernation. Of course, it didn't help that the trails were completely iced over, and walking past especially the taller falls and holding onto the measly wooden branch handrails was in itself a gamble.

On the other end of the park however is a New Year's Day party thrown by the park for the brave souls who decided to come. Free music, free food, and woodcutting competitions--the festive atmosphere completely makes up for the party that Zagreb promised but did not deliver. Some people however quite obviously were having too much fun...

(It is illegal to swim in the lakes, by the way. But these two drunk guys just got dirty looks and a stern finger wagging, nothing more. )

The ticket at that day were actually discounted because the ferries were purportedly not running. But after we made it past the party towards the docks, we were surprised that the boat was running, after all. Although it didn't go to the very opposite of the park like it usually does, we were nevertheless able to see the park from the water, as it is supposed to be enjoyed.

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