Beautiful at any time of the year, the Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia is internationally renowned for its beautiful lakes and waterfalls.
As the name suggests, the park’s main attraction is the sixteen lakes which flow from south to north–firstly the twelve Upper Lakes in a wide valley and then the four Lower Lakes in a narrow gorge.
Over millennia the limestone deposited from the water flowing from the surrounding hills formed barriers behind which the lakes were held. It is said that the barriers continue to rise about 1 cm a year. In 1949 the lakes were listed by the Croatian government as a national park and, in 1979, the park was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This is the fourth article in the series. The first described my searches for the sources of the lakes’ water, the second my visits to the upper lakes in the summer and autumn of 2015 and the third my visits to the upper lakes in the winter of 2015 and spring of 2016. This describes my visits to Kozjak Lake and the lower lakes in the summer and autumn of 2015 and the winter of 2016.
As before, 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 and occasionally a Leica D Lux 4 by Georgia Armstrong. The amount of detail captured by the lenses is extraordinary and I recommend viewing the pictures in as large a size as possible.
A member of the staff at my hotel told me Kozjak Lake was so named because a flock of goats had drowned in it; he added that most of the lakes in Plitvice were named after one mishap or another which was certainly entertaining, if not particularly encouraging. Wikipedia tells me that ‘Kozjak is a common South Slavic toponym derived from koza (“goat”)’.
The lake, almost a square kilometre in area and 47 metres deep, is considered one of the upper lakes as it sits above the gorge holding the lower lakes but I have included it with the lower lakes for convenience. Also, they tend to be visited together as tour companies like their clients to see only the lower lakes and Kozjak Lake—presumably so they can tick the park off the list before rushing on to their next stop. The park’s management operates ferries along the lake with a dock at the southern end, a landing stage below the Upper Lakes and a restaurant at the northern end.
On our first visit in the summer of 2015, the light rain turned heavy as we approached the restaurant from the gorge below. During lunch, the heavens opened so we waited, along with a hundred or so others, for the rain to ease but, eventually, the downpour ended and we made our way to the ferry.
Out on the lake the wind picked up and drove the rain through the ferry’s open sides, forcing us to huddle down into our jackets. Only the cormorants on Stefanija’s Island would have appreciated the wind although, as we passed them, I imagine the rain had dampened their spirits as much as it did ours.
Returning to the lakes that autumn, I found the restaurant a convenient place to have lunch on a cold damp day, the blazing log fire a perfect accompaniment to a burger, strudel and a hot coffee or two. A spare hour or so could be spent happily in the warm, reading, drinking and making small talk with the staff.
On November 21, I made my way to the restaurant for lunch as light rain turned first to sleet and then, as I ate, to heavy snow. Leaving to return to the hotel on the path beside the lake, I glimpsed a woman’s bright yellow umbrella. I caught up with her at the long wooden footbridge across the end of the lake. I’d often thought of employing the curving handle of the footbridge as a strong compositional element and,finally, a suitable subject had arrived to complete the photo.
Could I could take her photo on the bridge? “Yes, and can you take one for me?” she replied as she handed over her phone. I think she was Korean since many visit the park; I was told a Korean soap opera was filmed in Croatia and they like to see the places featured in the programmes. As she walked across the bridge I waved my hand about to get her to stand at the nearer ‘thirds’ spot looking out over the lake.
By then the snow was falling hard and covering the umbrella, so I raised both arms in a shaking motion to get her to throw off the snow. I might have hopped up and down to emphasise the point. She understood, and I took a photo with the X1 and another with her phone before the snow won the battle. She was very happy with the result so I suppose it was a fair exchange! With smiles and polite nods we parted company and I made my way back to the hotel with the path quickly being covered by the falling snow.
Taking the path a couple of days later as dusk was falling, this time I was hastened on my way by the loud cracks from the woods above. Branches were breaking under the weight of accumulated snow and, occasionally, a loud crash would signal the collapse of a particularly heavy limb. Some were unnervingly close and it was with relief that I reached the hotel just as the darkness finally closed in.
Milanovac and Gavanovac Lakes
The water from Kozjak Lake flows into Milanovac Lake in a series of channels and waterfalls over the barrier. In summer the waterfalls are partially hidden by trees and leaves and I preferred the views in winter when the cliffs of the gorge were more visible, the rocks woods and water came to the fore and the elemental nature of the park revealed itself.
Most visitors walk up or down the boardwalk beside the lakes but cliff top trails follow both sides of the gorge. On promontories above the lakes, fenced viewpoints have been built but it’s possible to walk to the cliff edges from the trails. It’s very easy to go too close to the edge trying to capture that elusive view up the gorge; a newspaper article from 2016 highlighted the problem of people falling, some to their death, while trying to take a selfie.
Hugging the cliff face, the boardwalks provide a close look at the lake’s crystal-clear waters. In winter the park authorities take the opportunity to carry out repair and replacement works before the next summer’s rush.
Leaving Milanovac Lake, the waters continue their journey north over the Milke Trnine waterfalls, named after the famous late 19th century soprano opera singer, into Gavanovac Lake. The barrier between the lakes slopes gently, with the water falling in low cascades between the trees, and it is very pleasant to spend time on the spur of the boardwalk as it juts out over the water.
The Great Cascade
The waters of Gavanovac Lake continue northwards into Kaluderovac Lake over a large sloping barrier forming the Great Cascade. The classic tourist brochure view is seen from the cliffs above.
The boardwalk at the base of the cascades becomes very crowded in the summer when thousands of people visit, mostly dropped by their tour buses at the northern entrance to make their way up the gorge. Trying to capture the scene when the boardwalk was bouncing under the weight of the visitors was an exercise in frustration and needed patience and careful timing. I found myself issuing expletives as the tripod was shaken yet again!
The shuttle buses from the hotels on the eastern side of the gorge stop well before the northern entrance and visitors walk there on a trail through the woods above the lakes.
Following it, our eyes were caught by a series of steps descending into the ground and, intrigued, we went to explore. Making our way down the steep slippery steps, we entered the Šupljara cave where we were rewarded with a superb view over the lakes below. The stairs continued down to the Great Cascade but we retraced our route back to the top of the cliff before continuing to the northern entrance.
The last lake before the waters flow over the high Sastavci barrier and continue northwards as the Korana River is Kaluderovac Lake. The boardwalk crosses the gorge at the Great Cascade and hugs the western side of the lake. At about half way, a step or two across marshy ground, a small cave in the cliff side serves as an unofficial toilet.
One afternoon I was walking back up the lakes and saw three men standing in the cave having an earnest conversation while, on the top of the cliff above, ropes and trestles had been rigged. To support something; but what?
At the hotel, large black trucks sat in the car park with their drivers smoking and chatting while their cargo was unloaded. My curiosity increased but was soon satisfied when, on the reception counter, I saw a shooting schedule for episodes of the TV show Emerald City.
My eyebrows rose when I saw that an important scene, so and so meets the big wizard, was set in the cave. Humm, should I say something? Had they not seen the used sheets of paper at the back? I decided not to. That’s why they have dry cleaning budgets isn’t it?
At the northern end, the boardwalk crosses the lake to continue up the side of the gorge to the northern entrance while a short section goes down to the base of the 78-metre high Plitvica Brook waterfall, known also as the Veliki Slap (Great Fall).
The winter fog was thick one afternoon and as I crossed the end of the lake I saw a sunken boat in the reeds, appearing as though from a fantasy tale. It would have been the perfect setting for a fair-haired warrior to rise from the watery depths, offering me their priceless jewel-encrusted sword to bring me glory, honour and wealth. They didn’t.
Sastavci and Veliki Slap
The Sastavci barrier and Veliki Slap (Great Fall) are best seen from the terrace at the northern entrance. A boardwalk goes down to the base of Veliki Slap where the visitor can experience the power of its waters after falling 78 metres, albeit while getting a soaking, but unfortunately the path beneath the Sastavci barrier was closed when I was there.
Films of The Two Cellos on YouTube show the cellists playing beneath the barrier but I assume they had special permission to perform there.
The park is beautiful in every season of the year but for me its essence best appears in winter when, devoid of foliage and with the lakes and waterfalls full, the way the water has shaped and continues to shape the rocks is easily seen. The next article in the series will describe my explorations in other areas of the park because, although the main attraction is in the lakes and waterfalls, the park has much to offer and rewards the respectful visitor with glimpses of its secrets.