The hiking trail feels like a path in a mythical garden, a golden carpet of leaves lining the ledge beneath my feet. It overlooks a vast emerald lake shimmering in the late afternoon sun, into which threads of waterfalls descend. Autumn has clothed the trees in kingly hues of red and orange. My friends and I have walked for more than four hours, yet we feel energised by the views. Plitvice can do that to you.
When planning a trip to Croatia with my friends, Plitvice Lakes National Park was at the top of our wishlist. The park is the country’s oldest and largest, spread over nearly 300 square kilometres. Inside, 16 lakes form an interconnected network, separated by natural barriers of tufa, or travertine, a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs. I was surprised to learn that Plitvice was a conflict zone in the early 1990s, and guns once rang out amidst the postcard-worthy landscape.
The Plitvice Lakes Incident (March 28, 1991), which is regarded as the beginning of the Croatian War of Independence, was an armed clash between the Croatian police and the armed forces of the SAO Krajina. In 1991, Yugoslavia was splintered, with Croatians wanting to secede and Serbs opposing secession and wanting to unite with Serbia. The SAO Krajina, a self-declared autonomous province of Serbs within Croatia, sent armed forces to capture Plitvice Lakes and removed the park’s Croatian management. In subsequent clashes, one person from either side was killed and several wounded in gunfire, which put the park under siege for several months.
The park’s violent history is a distant memory on the afternoon when we begin our hike after lunch. There are seven well-marked self-guided trails, ranging from four to 18 kilometres; we pick an eight-kilometre stretch that covers most of the park’s key attractions. The 16 lakes are divided into two clusters—12 Upper Lakes and four Lower Lakes.
Our trail starts off with magnificent bird’s-eye views of the lower lakes—sheets of azure and turquoise against the Velebit mountain range, home to fairies according to Croatian folklore. Milky slap (waterfalls, in Croatian) link the jezero (lakes), cascading over travertine walls. Each lake has a story behind it—for example, the Gavanovac jezero is believed to have the treasure of a local named Gavan hidden within, while the Milanovac jezero is named after another local, Mile, who owned a mill by the lake. A path ahead leads down to the Veliki Slap (Great Waterfall), Plitvice’s highest waterfall, with a stunning 255-foot drop. In winter, the waterfall is nearly frozen, forming a grand ice sculpture; in autumn, the spray is so strong that we are nearly drenched in its wake.
Next, we see the Kozjak jezero (Goat Lake), named after the goats that reportedly drowned in it while escaping hungry wolves; it is the largest and lowest of the Upper Lakes. A leisurely boat ride along it affords us grand views of the autumn foliage—beech, fir, spruce, and Scots pine. George Eliot captured my feeling best when he said that his soul was wedded to autumn, and if he were a bird, he would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns.
The trail slopes uphill, and the Upper Lakes unfold before us in succession. The Gradinsko, named after the gradina (fortified town) that once stood on the hill between this lake and the Kozjak; and the Galovac, deriving its name from a brigand named Gal who was shot down here, are among the larger ones. Wooden boardwalks allow us to walk in the middle of the lakes, and the waterfalls are often close enough to touch. The lakes are crystal clear, allowing us to see all the way to the bottom. Around them I become the typical tourist, blocking the path of other hikers in my excitement at seeing shoals of fish.
Proscansko is the last lake on our trail, and highest among the Upper Lakes, fed by waters from the Crna and Bijela rivers. The water is a deep green colour, reflecting the forests on the slopes surrounding the lake. According to Croatian legend, Proscansko was the first of the Plitvice Lakes created. After a long drought in the valley left its inhabitants thirsting for water, the people prayed to the Black Queen, a benevolent fairy who lived in the Velebit mountain range, for succour. She responded to their prayer, and the valley was deluged by torrential rain that created the lakes. We stand on the ledge carpeted with golden fallen leaves and overlooking Proscansko and take in the Black Queen’s boon to the land. I declare that if my life were a succession of autumn afternoons spent looking over such gorgeous landscapes, I would not be bored, and my friends echo the thought.
Arundhati Hazra works a 9-to-9 job so that she can indulge in her three key vices - traveling, eating and buying lots of books. She'd like to go from aspiring writer to aspirational writer sometime soon.