Part 2 of 2
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My original intention was to spend my three-day trip to Croatia solely in the capital Zagreb but after a bit of research, I realised that I could expand my visit to also include Sljeme, a popular ski area on the slopes of Mt Medvednica just 15km from Zagreb, and Medvedgrad, a recently reconstructed medieval fortified town that is located on the slopes of the same mountain. In fact, I spent my first morning in Zagreb visiting these two fantastic places and found the time to visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most unique places to visit in Croatia, the following day.
To be able to fit in all of the above, together with seeing as much of Zagreb as I could, I decided to hire a car. This was a wise decision as it gave me the freedom to set my own times and to enable me to move at my own (fast) pace! Of course, I could have used public transport or gone on a number of tours but the former would have been too time-consuming while the latter would have been more expensive than hiring a car!
Just like Bulgaria and Slovenia, Croatia has some pretty impressive winter destinations that should not be missed. Even though Croatia is best known as a summer destination, the country is a fantastic place to be in the winter as well. In fact, the Sljeme peak on Mt Medvednica is perhaps the most well-known ski resort in the country and is home to the famous FIS World Cup Snow Queen Trophy men’s and women’s slalom races that take place in early January every year.
In my case, I was not interested in doing any skiing but just wanted to admire the views, even though the low clouds in the valleys below did dampen my spirits a little bit! And, even if I did want to do some skiing or snowboarding, there was hardly any snow even though I was there at the end of December! However, I still enjoyed driving up the mountain as the views are amazing.
After spending around one hour walking around and taking in as much as I could of the distant snow-covered mountains, I drove to the nearby castle of Medvedgrad. It’s a medieval fort built in the 13th century and recently reconstructed, and is a special attraction on Mt Medvednica. I actually had to book my visit beforehand and join a group of people for a tour (in Croatian!) around the castle. However, the guide did translate for me so all was fine.
After the tour we were left to our own devices and I enjoyed walking around the castle and taking in the beautiful natural scenery surrounding it. Medvedgdrad is a small fortress so it doesn’t take long to explore. And from its viewing platform, it offers breathtaking views of Zagreb, although visibility was not great that day unfortunately.
The following day was to be my best day as I had planned to head to Plitvice Lakes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This national park is well known for its beautiful crystal blue lakes, waterfalls, and cascades. I had initially thought of skipping Plitvice Lakes because I was staying in Zagreb for only a few nights. So, I was torn between spending those days in Zagreb or cutting it short and leaving one day for the hike. Obviously, I chose the latter and boy was I was not disappointed!
Having your car, however, gives you the freedom to make a quick detour to Rastoke in Slunj as it’s on the way to Plitcive Lakes anyway. If you decide to visit Plitvice Lakes by booking a tour from Zagreb, make sure the tour makes a brief stop at Rastoke enroute to the lakes. It’s definitely worth it as you will discover the fairytale village of Rastoke and see its 17th-century watermills. I’d first learned of the village from a photo I found online but it really wasn’t until I parked my car that I realised the scale of Rastoke’s waterfalls.
It can be hard living in the shadow of a more popular, more impressive sibling. I’m sure that’s how the village of Rastoke must feel towards the famous Plitvice Lakes in central Croatia. The two may sound completely unrelated despite being a short drive from one another, but they do indeed have something in common – waterfalls. The waterfalls of the Plitvice Lakes are an iconic spectacle that visitors to Croatia can’t wait to see. And yet Rastoke, a village with cascading waterfalls flowing through it, barely registers as a blip on the tourism radar.
Found on the edge of the town of Slunj, a gateway of sorts to Plitvice, Rastoke is the town’s historical core. The village itself plays a big part in the beauty of Rastoke. Certainly the view wouldn’t be the same without the traditional wooden houses that line the streams or rest out on the little islands. Yes, there are some spots that are only reachable by quaint little bridges. You can even stay in some that offer guest accommodation, while others are restaurants with little decks out over the water.
Walking through the village, you’re going to find plenty of great spots for photos. For the best views of Rastoke and its waterfalls though, I think you actually need to leave the village. At the northern end of the village, there’s a small bridge that takes you across to the far side of the Korana River. Just a little downstream from there you’ll find a fantastic viewpoint on top of the hill there that lets you see all of Rastoke’s most impressive waterfalls.
After snapping what felt like a million photos of the waterfalls at the pretty village of Rastoke, I drove off to my ultimate destination and the pinnacle of my short stay in Croatia. The pretty photos I’d seen pop up in my Instagram feed showed bright turquoise water cascading in thousands of little streams over seemingly perfect waterfalls. Surely, no place exists that is actually that pretty – it must have been some sort of Photoshop trickery. I was skeptical, but I decided to include it so that I could make that judgement myself.
As Croatia’s number one tourist attraction, the national park receives over a million visitors every year. I’d heard rumours that it teems with hoards of tourists in the summer, with so many people crowding the walking paths that you feel as though you might get bumped into the water while attempting to overtake someone. My visit, however, was not like that at all. Of course, there were other visitors hiking and walking around too but the park was not overcrowded at all. And I have to say, its reputable beauty lived up to expectation.
Plitvice Lakes National Park has become so insanely popular in recent years that, in an effort to ease congestion and efficiently manage the park, the government has introduced a ticketing system. All visitors are required to buy an entrance ticket, and it’s not cheap! If you’re visiting in peak season (June to September), you’ll have to pay a whopping 300 Kuna (around €40) per person.
Visiting in the winter, as I was doing, is a much more cost effective way to visit the park. The fees are heavily discounted during the off season (November to March) and cost a much more reasonable 80 Kuna (around €10). The colours may not have been quite as vibrant as they would be in the summer, but the lack of crowds made up for it 1000 times over. What’s good about it is that the entrance ticket is your small contribution to the lasting protection and management of the Plitvice Lakes National Park and includes transport with the electric boat and panorama train.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is split into two sections – the Lower Lakes on the north end, and the Upper Lakes on the south end. In the winter months, it’s only the Lower Lakes that are open to visitors. I didn’t find this to be disappointing at all – the Lower Lakes are still quite large and very pretty with plenty of walking trails.
Ferries operate year-round on the Lower Lakes. They depart approximately every 20-30 mins and there are park areas at either end with a coffee shop, picnic tables and public toilets. If you’re driving to Plitvice Lakes in the winter, Entrance 1 is apparently the only one open. This is actually a great place to park as the walk down to the lakes provides some neat views.
That said, this National Park has 16 crystal lakes which are naturally crafted through a series of terrains and about 90 beautiful waterfalls connecting them. So no wonder over one million people are visiting this natural wonder each year as it has some of the world’s unique views you’ll ever see in your entire life. Seriously. In fact, I couldn’t decide which one of the falls was the best.
Make sure you wear comfortable and water-resistant hiking shoes as there were some parts of the boardwalk where water splashed through the wooden slats, and a few areas where the path was slightly muddy. I was very glad to be wearing my winter trekking shoes for this hike!
Plitvice Lakes can easily be done as a day trip from Zagreb but if you have the time, I’d urge you to stay overnight somewhere near the park. This park is part of the great natural attractions that you should visit if you have the chance to be around.
If I were to describe Plitvice Lakes in one word, it would be: intoxicating. This spectacular National Park doesn’t just have one or two waterfalls. It has SO many that you can’t even keep track. You walk around admiring the lakes for hours; the spectacular emerald-green and sapphire blue colours that make one waterfall prettier than the other. It feels like a never-ending parade of beautiful moments and awe-inspiring sights. That, my dear friends and readers, is Plitvice Lakes.