Central Europe 2008: From The Czech Republic to Poland to Austria to Croatia to Slovenia to Italy
Day Eighteen – Hells Bells, On The Boardwalk In Park Place, Plitvice Perfect And The Nightcap From Hell
For once, it was not Tom who jarred Tracy from her deep slumber. Instead, it was the never-ending sound of bells from a nearby church that jarred her from her blissful repose. By the time she had finished counting (why she was counting, I don’t know), she had tallied 144 rings. Being my loving companion, she, of course, then woke me up to tell me all about how she was awakened from a deep sleep. I could relate.
Well, no harm done since we were all planning on getting an early start so we could spend a full afternoon at Nacionalni Park Plitvička jezera.
We had a quick breakfast at Apartmani Trogir, said good-bye to our hospitable host Luka and started out for Plitvice. The Apartmani Trogir was another winner for us, and its location next to the car repair shop, once thought to be a detriment, turned out to be our saving grace. It was inexpensive, clean, quiet (well, except for some late night Croatian soccer fans honking their horns), provided a nice breakfast, and I would recommend it, especially for those who like a good deal.
Once again, the sun was shining brightly and the skies were blue. The drive to Plitvice wound through the hills near Trogir, but we soon found ourselves on a new stretch of highway that we were told would cut off a lot of time on our drive. After more than an hour, we drove our car through a tunnel (a very long tunnel) that had been carved out of the mountain. We did not have to utilize one of the many “Exit-Escape” routes that are interspersed throughout the tunnel. It was quite a remarkable display of technology and one of the neatest tunnels I have ever been inside (I’ve always been a sucker for tunnels since the first time I saw “The Great Escape” as a kid).
Once we reached daylight again, the topography was quite different than when we first entered the tunnel. It was greener, lush and much more reminiscent of the Austrian countryside than what we had previously seen in Croatia. From the highway exit to Plitvice, it took us just under an hour on a two-lane road through a forest setting to reach our hotel at the park, The Hotel Plitvice. The drive from Trogir had taken exactly two hours and 45 minutes.
At first glance, the Hotel Plitvice resembled a boxy, Communist-era hotel and did not appear to have been updated since the Sixties. I thought the Brady Bunch might appear at any moment as we rambled up the stairs, although I’m not sure if any of them were actual Communists (maybe Marcia, Marcia, Marcia). We were pleasantly surprised when we reached our respective rooms. Both rooms had spectacular views of one of the lakes with just a snippet of a glance at a cascading waterfall. This view (photo above) gave us only a glimpse of the natural beauty that we were about to see.
Although the hotel had shut down its breakfast service, they offered us the opportunity to eat and, what the heck; you can never have enough hard rolls and jam. Plus, we knew the remainder of the day would be a good workout, so we could afford a few more calories and carbs. The dining room was definitely national park Sixties era, but the views and service provided by the hotel staff more than compensated.
After breakfast, we rambled (there’s lots of rambling in national parks, as you can well imagine) on a paved path about five minutes from the hotel to the actual entrance to the park, where we bought our tickets and waited for the shuttle to transport us to the Donja Jezera (Lower Lakes). I had read in Rick Steves’ book that it was best to start at the Lower Lakes, and although, as I have stated, I don’t follow his restaurant and hotel advice often, his tips on visiting tourist sites have, for the most part, been right on the
mark. He didn’t fail us this time, either.
In about ten minutes we saw the signs for Velicki Slap (not a Croatian wrestler, but meaning Big Waterfall), and we took the ten to fifteen minute detour to take pictures and experience the thunderous, cascading water. The Velicki Slap is the tallest waterfall in Croatia.
The numerous lakes are lined with wooden boardwalks with a twofold purpose: one to keep you on the path and away from any unexploded land mines (the first person killed in the war was a forest ranger at Plitvice) and also to preserve the delicate ecological balance of the park.
The Plitvice boardwalk system really is something to behold and something they would never allow in the litigious United States, since there were no rails to keep uncoordinated tourists from falling in.
Water in the turquoise lakes was so clear that the school of fish glistening in the afternoon sun were smiling (probably because they knew that they would not be dinner for any of the tourists). At each and every turn, a new, incomparable vista awaited us with another series of waterfalls tumbling down into the gorgeous lakes. The more we walked, the more people we saw, but thankfully most were going the other way having started at the Upper Lakes, so thank you Mr. Steves for your recommendation.
I don’t have a clue how long it would normally take to navigate the Lower Lakes, because every minute or so one of us stopped to take another in a seemingly never-ending series of photographs. After going through the countless pictures we snapped, Kim and I agreed that even our best photographs could not capture the astonishing beauty that is Plitvice National Park.
When our walk through the Lower Lakes ended, we arrived at a lake that had picnic tables and a place to get some refreshments, including barbecue items that smelled tantalizing. We grabbed some water, and soon found ourselves transported by boat about twenty minutes across Jezero Kozjak (so beautiful that I didn’t even make a Telly Savalas joke) to the Gornja Jazera (Upper Lakes) region of the park.
The tranquility and serenity here is indescribable, and even though we were only half way through our journey at this amazing park, we all commented that Plitvice might be the most fantastic national park we had ever visited.
You can go through a litany of possible adjectives, and I believe by the end of our hike every superlative known to mankind had been uttered not only by us, but also by everyone we encountered on the trails of this wondrous park.
Our hike continued past where most tourists call it a day, and we were rewarded with even greater solitude and even grander views from above. Finally, the lakes and waterfalls became less and less prevalent, but by this time we were in “breathtaking scenery overload” mode.
At the end of the trail there was a sign explaining how the park was formed. Centuries ago there was a forested valley with a river running through it (actually, looking at a recent picture of Robert Redford, he might have been there). Over time, limestone was formed which broke off and caused the river to dam up and form the beautiful lakes and waterfalls that compose Plitivice. The unspoiled, white limestone lakes, submerged trees and schools of fish (not only are they happy fish, but educated, too) only add to the exceptional beauty.
We caught the bus back to where our day’s journey began. It tooks us a little more than four hours to wend our way through Plitvice. Back at the hotel, still enthralled with our day, we took a shower and decided to head down to the hotel bar. Better than that, they had a nice outdoor patio that made a perfect spot for some relaxing cocktails.
We spent the late afternoon chatting with other guests on the beauty of this national park. Looking out onto the National Park, the four of us once again counted our lucky blessings for being so fortunate to experience a day like today.
There were other spots we could travel to for dinner in the park, but we decided to dine at our hotel, and that turned out to be a very good choice. The food at the Hotel Plitvice was quite delicious. Kim and Tracy had the Veal “Stake” (obviously a favorite with Count Dracula) with a lemon cream sauce, salad, potato balls and sautéed mushrooms.
Mary, who had begun sprouting gills after all her seafood dishes, decided to go for the pork chop stuffed with sausage (the heart attack special, we called it), and she also had the requisite potato balls.
My motto on this trip was “You can never have too much Gorgonzola,” so I had the beef with Gorgonzola sauce, along with sautéed mushrooms and a salad.
By the time we had finished our meal, the girls were pooped and went back to the rooms, but Kim and I had a quest. Unbeknownst to me, Kim’s only quest was to watch me have a drink. The entire trip, I had wanted to try a drink called Slivovitz.
I had stolen the following quote from somewhere online and had it in my notes: “Real Slivovitz contains between 50 and 70% alcohol and can make even hardened drinkers cough and splutter. It will also burst into flames if you wave a lit match over the glass. Good Slivovitz should be served in a snifter like any other fine brandy, while low-grade Slivovitz should be swilled like any other cheap intoxicant.” Yeah baby, bring it on!
Kim finally decided to join me in a shot of Slivovitz, so he asked the bartender if he liked the stuff. “Oh no, no; not at all. I wouldn’t drink it,” the bartender answered. Ok, that was not an overwhelming endorsement, but it did not deter us from the task at hand.
The following is what happened to the best of my hazy recollection.
Although it was served in a snifter, I decided to go the “swilled like any other cheap intoxicant” route and chug it down, which I did. In an instant my face turned bright red, I began sweating and the hair on my body stood on end and saluted as if an honor guard was passing in front of me. If anyone had been smoking in my general vicinity, the hotel would have exploded into flames. Now I know how The Incredible Hulk felt during his body transformations.
I also believe I gasped, but right at that moment I was somewhere in limbo between a seizure and a coma. I do have the hazy recollection of Kim and the bartender doubling over in laughter at my alcoholic plight. The good news was that I had not burst into a fireball and that I still retained most of my internal organs.
When I regained my eyesight and 25% of the rest of my faculties, Kim and I walked, slowly, back to our rooms. Tracy was heavily involved in her reading, but took the time to ask, “How did the slivovitz experiment go?” She then looked up from her book, saw my slivovitz-induced, flushed face, and in her best Rosanne Rosanna Danna imitation said, “Never mind.”
After brushing my teeth for the next couple of hours (slight exaggeration) and staying away from any flammable materials that might be in the room, we slipped into a tranquil sleep in peaceful Plitvice.
Next: Day Nineteen – Good Day Not To Be A Pig, Lovely Ljubljana, Bush Whacked, Great B&B, Down By The Lazy River And Dining Al Fresco