September 24, 2012
After 41 days of traveling through the Eastern European countries of Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia we have reached our final nation – Croatia. Here, we chose to spend a week in three different places within this small but diverse country. Croatia is the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia but packs in the sights, with eight national parks, over 1,000 islands and 1,104 miles (1,777 kilometers) of mainland Adriatic Sea coastline. Expected to become a full European Union member in 2013, Croatia hosts more than 10 million tourists a year.
Our first stop was the capital city of Zagreb, which we reached by train from Serbia. Our train from Belgrade moved ever so slowly as we made our way to the border with Croatia. We knew right away that we were in Croatia because, as soon as we crossed the border, the train speed rose significantly. While in Zagreb, we spent time exploring the Gornji Grad (Upper Town) where many historical buildings and the cathedral are located. We found the city to be a pleasure to walk around and, with a population of only about 700,000, a very manageable place to see.
Plitvice Lakes is Croatia’s oldest and largest national park. It consists of a series of 16 lakes and numerous waterfalls. The color of the water varies and is famous for its turquoise color, depending on the time of day and amount of sunlight received. It was an easy 2 1/2 hour bus trip from Zagreb through beautiful village countryside to arrive at our hotel, located right at the park’s entrance.
We entered the park as soon as it opened the next morning to beat the crowds, as it receives over one million visitors a year. There are up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) of hiking trails through the lakes and waterfalls, as well as tram and electric boat transportation to key points in the park. We wanted to hike as much as possible, so we took the tram to the top of the upper lakes to begin our hike down. There were only a handful of other people on the trail, so we enjoyed our hike along and even over some of the 12 lakes that comprise the upper lakes section of the park. As we hiked, the lakes became more beautiful and the waterfalls more spectacular. The sun came out and the turquoise color of the water was amazing.
To reach the four lower lakes, we used one of the park’s electric boats to make the 20 minute journey across Lake Kozjak, the lowest of the upper lakes. Another series of trails winds down a canyon of the lower lakes, interspersed with more cascading waterfalls. Towards the end of the canyon is the aptly named Large Waterfall. It is 256 feet (78 meters) high and even though Croatia has received less than normal amounts of rainfall this summer, it was still beautiful to see.
After spending all morning hiking from the top of the upper lakes to the bottom of the lower lakes, we were hungry. We retraced our steps back to Lake Kozjak and had lunch while sitting on large picnic benches overlooking the lake and enjoying delicious barbecue chicken and cheese strudel. The next morning we went back to the park and walked through some of our favorite sections while it was early and before the crowds came. Plitvice Lakes was truly a unique and magical place and one of our favorite sights in all of Europe.
Another 2 1/2 hour bus ride later that day took us from green forest to dry coastal hills as we arrived in the city of Zadar, the fifth-largest in Croatia. While not as well-known as the cities of Split and Dubrovnik to the south, Zadar has its share of historical heritage. It was an important Roman city and had a population of up to 10,000 people by the 4th century. The city was ruled by the Republic of Venice and the Austrian Empire. It was part of Italy from 1920 to 1947.
Walking through the old city, which is located on a peninsula, we saw Roman ruins and several churches, constructed from the 9th to 14th centuries. A more modern architectural object is the sea organ that plays music by way of sea waves and tubes located underneath a set of large marble steps. It was fun to sit and listen to the changes in harmonics as boats passed near the organ.
From Zadar we will take an overnight ferry to the Italian city of Ancona and then board a train to Rome. After a few days there and in the Dolomites we will leave Europe and start our African adventure.