Thursday, November 29, 2007

A postcard called Plitvice

Painted in the quiet of Croatia’s mountains lies the Plitvice National Park (pronounced Plit-vi-tchka). The park is a string of sixteen blue-green lakes drawn across the Mala Kapela and Pljesevica mountain ranges; and between them is a trail of spectacular scenery - gushing brooks and flowering meadows; caves and wooden bridges above crystal clear waters.

The entrance to the park itself is enchanting –a cluster of chocolate brown log cabins where you can choose your route and purchase an entry ticket to the facility. A park bus then drops you off to the trailhead, and from there onwards the park is a maze of walkways and trails draped in brilliant landscapes. The park offers a number of different routes based on time. The smaller trails take you through all the must-see points within two hours; a great option if one is short on time. However, if you aren’t in a hurry, I recommend the four-six hour trek. On paper it looks back-breaking, and like me if you’d rather curl into a couch, book in hand, a little panic is bound to set in.

Once you step into the park, however, fears of collapsing mid-way simply ebb away. And awe sets in as you snake in and out of cascading waterfalls, past flitting rainbows, over jaded lakes and into rusty mountain caves. The trail is drawn out to ensure a leisurely trek. The steep climbs are woven together with long easy wooden bridges. Wooden benches sit along the path in case you need a break, or simply want to take in the scenery. Not once do you feel exhausted; not till the next morning, when your legs feel as heavy as a dozen tree trunks, do you realise it.

The brilliance of the park lies in its changing features, especially between the Upper and Lower Lake regions. The Upper Lakes lie on a dolomite valley. Surrounded by dense forests, this part makes for a particularly interesting hike. Giant trees form long spells of archways, and the walkways glide past thundering waterfalls and wild flower beds. If you are lucky, you might even cross paths with an endangered European brown bear, though chances are, it’ll be the chatter of a thousand birds that’ll guide you around all day. You never really get used to the prettiness around, which is a good thing; the sights keep your mind off the altitude, the steep fall and any other such silly distracting thought.

Silent electric boats ferry tourists across the big lake, taking you to the other side. The Lower Lakes, in comparison, paint a very different picture. These lakes lie on a limestone bed and are surrounded by small bursts of shrubs and bushes. The lakes here are shallower; you can see the lake floor, the undergrowth and the lively trout through the sparkling clear water; it’s almost criminal that you aren’t allowed a swim. There are a number of smaller cascades here; some are named after local patrons; it gives the park a personal touch, and also involves the community in preserving this natural wonder.

The park is of great significance in local politics and history. It was here that the first shots, triggering the Croatian War of Independence, were fired on Easter Sunday in March 1991. As the conflict between Croatian forces and Serb separatists escalated, the park suffered great damage. Locals had to be evacuated – most spent the war years as refugees; the hotels and other facilities within the park were reduced to barracks, and a large area was infected with landmines. When the war ended in August 1995, UNESCO immediately added Plitvice to its List of World Heritage in Danger, working with local officials to restore the park to its original magnificence.

Today, other than a memorial to a fallen officer, the first casualty of the war, you can’t see any war scars around the Lakes. Recovery has been swift mainly due to two reasons – fantastic management by park officials; and because of the local geography. The Lakes lie in a Karstic basin, and are blessed with the prevalence of a re-generating limestone called travertine. Travertine grows quickly, constantly creating and recreating the pools, barriers, and cascades; preserving the beauty of the region for an eternity. The park today features high up on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The magic of Lakes can be seen in their ever changing colours; swirling between the dozen shades of blue and green. A friend tells me that there was a time, before the wars, when the Lakes were a popular wedding destination. Every year, couples from all over the country would exchange vows in tiny boats, under the big waterfall. Today stringent environmental laws make such practices impossible. He also tells me about the many caves found here. In the 1960s, many popular German and Italian westerns were filmed here. It’s common to see bus loads of German tourists pointing excitedly at what must be movie landmarks; sort of a German Switzerland, I guess.

And last but not the least is the big feast waiting for you at the park restaurant. Situated on the edge of the big lake, here you’ll find a spread of picnic tables and local delicacies; the aroma of fresh food and coffee mingling with the mint green of leaves. And after a day of adventure, a hearty meal, and a stop at the souvenir shop, as you make your way back, you can’t help but turn around for just one more photograph; after all, the park is but one giant postcard.

A version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on 22/11/07