Plitvice Lakes is the living embodiment of a water spirit, crystal waters tinged with chartreuse and aquamarine, the forest deadfall a ghostly mineral white texturing the haunting depths of the valley lakes as they rush, one to the next, down a series of moss crusted falls. The clouds had descended into the valley settling on the water casting an otherworldly haze. This is where we spent our first Halloween abroad, in the frosty mists and pale blue waters of Plitvice.
We hit Plitvice at the edge of off season, the ceaseless tourist hordes briefly held at bay by the rains and fog. It was an 8 hour bus ride from Pula to the park, first winding through Istria, past the coastal Rijeka to Karlovac then down to Plitvička Jezera near the Bosnian border. The bus drops us off on the dark roadside in the rain. And we walk to the hotel, Hotel Plitvice. A quirky 60’s jetset kind of interior. A small room but it’s comfortable. And we scrape off the toil of travel in our room before dinner. We’ve purchased the “full board” with our room for 20 euros each. Which we bought on a whim really as we didn’t know if there were any other options for food at this late in the season (if Brijuni had taught anything).
Staying full board in Croatia
We were still wrapping our heads around this full/halfboard concept. Breakfast comes with your room, halfboard provides dinner, fullboard adds lunch (or so we learned). Apparently no one pays for the fullboard, it’s unnecessary. No one in the hotel seems to even register what fullboard means and we have to walk through a stuttered explanation for each lunch. We seem to always get a surprised “fullboard?” when it registers but mostly it’s confusion. They seem ill prepared for such a thing. For lunch we’re provided with a full dinner prix fixe that includes an appetizer, a salad, a full entree, and a desert, drinks not included. This turns out to be waaaay too much food, it’s basically two dinners a few hours apart. You live, you learn.
The board meals are much cheaper so you get a hilarious selection of what I imagine 50’s housewife cookbooks featured. Slices of lunchmeat and a piped creamcheese swirl with a tomato/parsley garnish and a bowl of canned peaches. It’s charming in a way but paired with the whiteglove service it kind of makes you feel ghetto. But everyone is nice about it. And it really did save us a ton of money.
Out into the park, finally!
The first two days it’s a constant cold rain and the fog is so thick you can barely see 20 feet away from you. The park is broken up into an upper falls and lower falls section with trail sections connected by a series of ferries and buses. Trails are mostly elevated wooden walkways so that the water can flow underneath. It kinda has an ewok village feel. The first day we tackle the upper falls which are much closer up and the fog is charming. The second day the lower falls trail features scenic cliffside vistas which are hilariously white and absent. The first hour is clouds clouds clouds until we drop down into the valley for a closer look, but even then the main attractions are mostly obscured. My photo yield is way below par but we have a great time hiking the trails and exploring the unbelievable landscape. The ferries stop running for a bit due to fog but after a leisurely coffee they’re up again and we putter back into the white nothingness to the gate near our hotel.
Day 3, the fog relents!
Day 3 was supposed to be sunny but I haven’t seen the sun yet. But the fog subsided quite a bit and the non-vistas opened up to beautiful views of the falls from the cliffs. I rewalked the southern loop to see the vistas and when I got to the big falls I broke the rules and ascended this zigzagging staircase into the rocky mountains above. This eventually turned into a walk along the cliffs that was almost entirely deserted. I caught some knee tingling views and made it back for the last ferry to our gate. Katy got up early and did a 10 mile hike around the entire park. But I’m not quite there yet.
Throughout our stay in Plitvice I felt inured to a bad feeling. The days were spooky with fog and that was all fun but at night, I tossed restless plagued with vivid bizarre dreams. I would wake from an elaborate plot and spend an hour musing the messages I had heard. It was the heat I thought, the bed, but Katy said that she too was restless with vivid bad dreams. My dreams were of two sorts, either dreams about being powerless like the ones that plagued me as a child, dreams about water rising up and devouring whole towns, sinking to the depths of the icy waters of the lakes, and the second were dreams of genocide, of Native Americans being slaughtered. I would wake with odd facts repeating in my head like the number of murders an hour during a slaughter until hundreds of thousands were dead in a racist hate orgy. Not dreams about Plitvice per say, but there was a seed buried in there that kept manifesting into imagery that I could relate to. A deep deep sadness I could not shake.
On the bus ride out we passed through hauntingly beautiful hilly farmlands just turning to fall colors, hillsides that reminded me of my home in WV, and these quaint farms with orchards and fields. And I noted that so many were empty and abandoned, houses half demolished, beautiful churches abandoned and the graveyards around them grown wild, vast spaces that were clearly well cared for but now sat empty and taken by growth and decay.
And I wondered how many were actually taken by time and how many were destroyed, their owners rounded up and gunned down in mass graves nearby. The elderly who could not flee executed because of their religion. The families shelled in the night while they slept. The entire area between Karlovac and Plitvice had been where many of the atrocities had occurred in the Croatian/Serbian war. Genocides on both sides as the ancient nationalist lines that had blurred and mixed under Tito’s rein, gave way to the horrific purge and redrawing of boundaries under Slobodan Milošević. Now 28 years later, land mines still lurk under the beautiful moss and leaves surrounding Plitvice. The tank tracks have been washed away but the echoes of horror still lurk in the night mists. At least I could hear them. Somewhere deep down.
The first casualty of the Croatian war died on the same tourist packed grounds of Plitvice where we slept. Even as tourists then slept, unaware of the events to unfold. A Serbian militia group took the park by force, only to be retaken be Croatian police the following days, the first death of the war was Josip Jović, a Croatian police officer in the raid at the park. Afterwards Slobodan ordered the Yugoslav army to intervene. In the years to follow, the surrounding towns experienced first ethnic cleansing of the Croat by Serbian forces with uncounted crimes against humanity, followed by the Croats retaking of the area and subsequent retaliatory atrocities against the Serbians by the Croat forces. I was hoping I could find a clear good guy to root for in this convoluted war. A cookie cutter bad guy like Milošević would be easy enough to hate. But like so many things in this world, it’s complicated. All I know for sure is that a lot of innocent people who had fuck all to do with the war and who cohabited peacefully with their neighbors regardless of their religion got swept up into a political shitbomb that destroyed their way of life and took their lives in brutal meaningless ways. But in a theme I see repeated to me so many times during these travels this is but one of many layers of time, layers of joy and pain that will repeat like layers of sediment one on top of the other, if history has anything to teach us, until there is no history left. The beauty of Plitvice endures. And I’m glad I got to see it for myself.