The Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia covers an area of nearly 300 square kilometres and is renowned internationally for its beautiful lakes and waterfalls. This is the second in a series of articles describing my explorations, this time summer and autumn visits to the upper lakes area.
As the name suggests, the park’s main attraction is the range of sixteen lakes descending through its central area. Over millennia, the limestone deposited from the water flowing out of the surrounding hills formed barriers behind which the lakes were held. It is said that the barriers continue to rise at the rate of ten millimetres a year.
Click any image in this article to enlarge – and to enable a slideshow of all pictures
Geographically, the lakes flow from south to north — firstly twelve upper lakes in a wide valley and then four lower lakes in a narrow gorge. In 1949, the Plitvice lakes were listed by the Croatian government as a national park and, in 1979, the park was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I first visited the park briefly in the summer of 2015 and returned that autumn and in early 2016, spending many days walking and photographing. In summer, the boardwalks beside the lakes were crowded but few ventured into the park beyond the lakes. In winter the park was largely deserted.
These articles are arranged geographically, with the initial travelogues covering my explorations around the lakes and the later ones describing my visits to other areas of the park. The first, published in May this year, described my search for the lakes’ sources. This time I cover my visits in the summer and autumn of 2015 to the upper lakes. Most of the photographs were taken with a Leica X Vario with its fixed 28-70mm zoom; I have indicated those taken with a Leica X1 with its fixed 35mm lens.
A quiet summer afternoon
Disembarking from the shuttle bus into the warm late afternoon air, we gathered our wits and consulted the map. We had arrived at the top of the upper lakes.
That morning we had left Split on the coast and driven over the spectacular Velebit Mountains to a lunch stop at a local restaurant in Udbina, sharing it with logging and roadwork crews.
Finding and checking in to our hotel, we decided there was enough time at 4pm to take the shuttle bus to the top of the upper lakes and walk back down on the boardwalks. We planned to catch a ferry back across Lake Kozjak before the service stopped around 8pm. And the next day we would explore the lower lakes before returning to the coast.
Being late in the afternoon, the tourist buses had long returned to Zagreb or on towards the coast. The few people who had accompanied us on the bus quietly wandered off to the café or into the woods around. We were standing on a broad limestone barrier called the Swan, over which the waters from Prošćansko lake flowed into the lakes Ciginovac, Okrugljak and Batinovac.
We followed the boardwalks as they wove around the lakes and past waterfalls, enjoying the tranquillity of the park and the late-afternoon reflections. In the warm summer weather, the water flow was reduced and, with the leaves on the trees, the valley felt enclosed. But when I returned later in the year, with more water and less foliage, the waterfalls were more visible and spectacular. Summertime and the park was at its most gentle.
After relaxing and taking our time to photograph the lakes and waterfalls, we realised that we might miss the last ferry of the evening. The next half hour was spent hurrying down the boardwalks towards the lake in the increasingly fading light. Arriving at the dockside, we were relieved to find we had a few minutes to spare before the ferry came to take us across.
I returned a few months later, flying from London into Zagreb. After a frustrating three-hour wait for my rental car (“it’s being washed”), I had lunch and went back to the desk: “It’s having winter tyres fitted”. I had coffee in the terminal and finally set off for Plitvice Lakes. I was concerned about driving to the hotel in the dark as this would be my first time into the hills from Zagreb. However, after a two-hour drive up through the hills, I was relieved to arrive just before sunset.
The next morning was bright and sunny and, on leaving the hotel, I was struck by the change in the park since the summer. Most of the leaves had fallen and the air was crisp and clear. Crossing Kozjak Lake on the ferry, I made my way up the boardwalks rising over the limestone barrier and rushing waters to Burgeti Lake.
My journal entry for that day reads, ‘the morning light shone through the water. I noticed the autumn leaves and the crystal clear water. Also, without the leaves on the trees, I was more aware of the rocks and the general layout of the place’. The waters were a beautiful aquamarine; I was told that they changed colour depending on the amount of water flowing through the lakes.
Treasures at my feet
The beech trees around the lakes had shed most of their leaves and my notes at the time mentioned that many of the beech leaves were still moist and elastic with nice colour and definition to their ribs. There was a sense of the seasons passing and the expectation that in a few weeks the weather would cool further and the leaves dry and curl.
As well as walking on the paths and boardwalks around the lakes, I ventured higher into the woods on trails that made their way up the northern side of the valley. I met very few people on the trails the whole time I was in the park so was able to appreciate the woods more or less alone.
The trails were marked with small roundels nailed to the trees and the park’s literature gave a very clear warning to stay on the trails. I learnt that this was because the karst limestone hills have many fissures at ground level, leading to caves deep in the rocks beneath. If uncovered, they could usually be seen but snow would hide them and falling into one would probably mark the end of one’s time on earth. And if the hotel room had been paid for in advance it would be a real heartbreaker!
Putting such thoughts aside, I made my way up through the beech woods. The morning sun shining through the trees warmed my face and, reflecting off the ground, brought the stones, leaves and bark around me to life. Intrigued, I stopped, slipped off my backpack and settled onto the woodland floor. Gently fingering the leaves, I felt the smoothness of their blades and firmness of their ribs. But here there were no layers of leaves rotting down into deep rich soil. The rock, never far below the surface, made its hard presence felt and the leaves above the thin soil exuded a soft woodland smell. I played with compositions, taking pleasure in the forms, colours and textures, reawakening memories and pleasures of childhood.
Back on the boardwalk I saw what I took to be a bird’s feather, although I was bemused by how it had landed there. On closer examination it turned out to be a leaf, beautifully arranged by nature without any assistance from me and I took pleasure in recording it.
On a technical note the metadata shows that some of the photos above, as referenced in the captions, were taken with the Leica X1. I found the way contrast was displayed on the screen helped when focusing manually, a useful quirk of the X1 even with its relatively low-resolution screen. The camera produces pleasantly contrasted black and white JPGs but whether or not the two are related I cannot say. What I would stress is that the detail captured by the X1 merits enlarging these photos, and those later in the article of leaves in the water, to full size on a screen.
The Great Prštavci
Following the paths beside the waters of Gradinsko Lake, I came to the Galovac barrier at the northern end of Galovac Lake with The Great Prštavci waterfall, the highest on the upper lakes. In the autumn and winter, I was able to view and photograph the waterfalls from a distance which would have been impossible through the leaves in summer.
Coming closer, I was impressed by the way the roaring water caught the sunlight. The boardwalk was at the base of the waterfall and walking through the spray meant it was definitely time to cover the camera.
Return to the Swan Barrier
The walk up the northern side of the lakes continued until I overlooked Prošćansko Lake at the Swan Barrier, with the waters flowing into Ciginovac and Okrugljak lakes. Descending carefully on the steep gravel path, again grateful that I was wearing my mountain boots and feeling my ankles pressing against their thick leather tongues, I crossed the boardwalk over the water flowing from Ciginovac Lake into Okrugljak.
I enjoyed playing around with the X Vario’s shutter speeds (easily done with the top-mounted dials) to capture the rushing waters as I wanted. I avoided very long exposures, turning water into milk, and wanted texture to give a sense of the water’s energy and power. To my taste (literally) milk goes well with biscuits (…cookies) — ‘milk and biscuits’ – but ‘milk and rocks’, never.
The image above was taken at 1/8s, f/16 at ISO 100. I sometimes used a 3-stop ND filter when the sun was very bright. I occasionally used a circular polarising filter to see beyond the surface glare into the water beneath.
The polarising filter proved useful when, further on, I found quiet patches of water with the woodland’s leaves settled in their watery grave. The water was so clear that I found it hard to capture a sense of separation between the leaves below and the surface above. So I gently dropped leaves onto the surface. I recommend viewing the photos full size and as large as possible to see the lovely textures of the leaves.
Following the boardwalk across the end of Prošćansko Lake, I headed to the café but found it closed for renovation. Thankfully the shuttle bus was still operating so I took it down the valley and went for lunch elsewhere.
Days later, winter arrived in Plitvice Lakes, with the first snow falling in the third week of November. The upper lakes changed their appearance again, the park closed to visitors and the shuttle buses and ferries stopped until spring. The next article in the series will describe my explorations in that coldest and wettest season.