Now That Is What I Call A Rest Stop
Driving a car in Croatia is fantastic. We rent a small compact car at Last Minute Cars in Split. The car comes complete with GPS and a pre-arranged pick up at our hotel in Zagreb.
Now we are driving on a well-maintained toll road listening to Claudia’s Croatia playlist at full blast. Claudia is slumped down in the front seat, trying to sleep off her hangover. Split with its discos and friendly natives is Croatia’s fun-land. Claudia has a “Split”ting headache from too many Long Island Ice Teas from the night before. She moans at me each time I ask her a question that I have to yell at the top of my lungs over the blasting music. I am really having too much fun being the self-righteous mom of a twenty-something. I love road trips. We are on the road to Plitvička Jezera, Croatia’s enchanted fairyland.
To enter the toll road, I push a button to receive a card which I will use to pay when I exit. The road is straight, drilling through the mountains in a series of tunnels rather than winding around the mountains. The gas stations are just to the side of the freeway at frequent intervals. Each gas station includes a store, a squeaky-clean bathroom and a coffee shop with table service on its outdoor patio filled with seating under red umbrellas.
At our first stop, we sip on cappuccinos under a red umbrella watching the cars zip by on the nearby toll road. The amount of people who speak English is also slipping away as we drive farther from the tourist zone. Claudia’s headache is slipping away as she munches on a croissant.
Abandoned Places in Croatia
The first half of the two and a half hour trip from Split to Plitvička Jezera takes us up through rocky, sharp tan and gray mountains dotted with short green shrubs.
At the top of a mountain above a lake, we spot a giant hotel with a terraced parking lot. From a distance, I can see a sign for bathrooms, a store, a restaurant and a hotel. We pull into the parking lot near the edge overlooking the lake far below. When we get out of the car, I suddenly realize that this giant hulk of a structure that dominates the entire hill is completely abandoned and boarded up. I cannot tell if this closure is recent or a condition that has spanned decades.
Later, I read that many buildings in Croatia were abandoned after the war that lasted from 1991 to 1995. There is a Facebook page dedicated to the abandoned places in Croatia called Abandoned Croatia. It’s photographs are eerily beautiful and hauntingly sad.
Once we pass through a never-ending tunnel, the landscape softens to fields of yellow flowers, feathery trees and green hills. As we move closer to Plitvička Jezera, we see more and more abandoned farmhouses and other buildings; their windows covered with wooden slates and their roofs collapsing. For the first time since we arrived in Croatia, I can feel the haunting presence of a community scarred by conflict. The first shots of the war were fired in Plitvička Jezera on Easter Sunday in 1991.
Why are all the restaurants in Croatia name Jelovnik?
About thirty minutes from Plitvička Jezera, we stop for lunch at a restaurant. I ask Claudia to look at the menu for the name of the restaurant so I can jot it down in my journal. She looks at the cover. She is still fuzzing from her hangover headache. “It’s called ‘Jelovnik,'” she says. I burst out laughing. She looks at me with annoyance. “Jelovnik” I explain “means ‘menu’ in Croatian. ” She laughs too. Every menu in every restaurant in Croatia bears the name “Jelovnik.” Our new joke is now “Why are all the restaurants in Croatia named Jelovnik?”
The restaurant is really called Fortuna which means “fortune” in Spanish. They also provide accommodations. They serve us trout locally caught, cheese locally made and their own special version of palačinke, a Croatian crepe, filled with chocolate, bananas and nuts.
The restaurant is empty. The road lightly sprinkled with traffic. At each stop, I hear only Croatian. It is as if we have the whole countryside to ourselves. I guess the tourist in Croatia do not drive. The check arrives. Our feast is only 223 kuna, an equivalent to a little more than $32.
Plitivice Hotel is worth writing home about
We arrive at Plitvice Hotel. It is one of two hotels inside the park. The entrance to the park is a short two minute walk. The hotel offers a breakfast that is included. We discover that another added benefit is that the hotel will stamp your entrance ticket to extend it another day. This stamp saves you about thirty dollars. The terrace at the back of the hotel has a balcony that looks out at the trees near the edge of the park. As you sit on the terrace drinking your coffee, you can hear the low roar of the waterfalls in the distance.
When we arrive at Plitvice Hotel, it is just past five in the evening. We head over to the park for a quick walk before it closes at eight.
Welcome to Rivendell
We take the boat across the lake and walk the E H route; easy to remember, we tell the tour guide, because it is my initials. The evening light slants through the trees tracing diamond sparkles over the smooth water of the lake. As the boat glides silently across the lake, we see large trout swimming in the crystal clear water. The water acts as a mirror, reflecting the clouds and the trees above us while also revealing the fallen trees lying on the lake’s floor below us.
The roar of the waterfalls increase in volume as we move nearer to the opposite shore. When we disembark, the roar is deafening. The roar is all around us. Below our feet, the water pours underneath the wooden walkway leading us up and away from the boat.
We glimpse our first view of the fairy tale waterfalls. The cascades seems to sprout out of the green moss covered hills. The semicircle of lacy falls looks like what I would imagine the Elf kingdom of Rivendell to be. It is an unworldly beauty unlike anything I have ever seen.
The fresh air of the water and the forest proves to be a good remedy for too much sun and fun. We return to enjoy the luxury of a hot bath at the hotel. Tomorrow will be an early day.
The Grand Loop
The waters of Plitvička Jezera are like baklava. There are layers of moss and rock and more moss and rock and more moss and more rock creating a layered look of a green and tan delicacy. The clear-as-glass water that pours over the top is filled with magnesium and calcium. These minerals turn the water into an iridescent prism of blue, gold and green colors.
The morning route we follow is the C route which is the grand tour that circles the entire lake. Plitvice Hotel serves breakfast as early as 7:00 AM. We arrive at the entrance by 8:30 AM, beating the crowd that is about the descent on the park when the hordes of tourist arrive via tour busses.
To begin, we take the tram to the lower lakes. This first part of the loop takes about an hour to complete. Next, we catch the boat from P3 to P2, the longest water crossing in the park. Then we hike the second loop which leads up and around the upper lakes. The guide at the information desk recommends this route as all of the waterfalls face us as we walk up the hill. At the top, we catch the tram back to our starting point. The entire loop takes about four and a half hours to complete. The total distance of the hike is about five and a half miles.
Most Painful Massage Ever
We head back to the hotel for lunch. Just as we finish our hike, rain begins to pour and continues for the rest of the afternoon. I always say, when it rains on vacation, get a spa treatment. We learn that the nearby hotel, Hotel Jezera, has a spa. Hotel Jezera is the other and more pricier hotel on the park grounds. However, I think the Plitvice Hotel is prettier and a better value. Plus, you can book a spa treatment at Hotel Jezera even if you are not a guest. We head over for a fifteen dollar massage.
I look at the spa menu, trying to decide what kind of massage I want. I see “cellulite massage.” I am intrigued. After all, in Croatia, one tends to walk around half naked. I figure every little bit might help. I lay down on my stomach, naked except for a sheet. My masseuse proceeds to knead my thighs and pinch my ass so hard, I bite my lip in order to not whimper in pain. I keep waiting for the painful part to end, but it does not. It lasts for an entire hour where he repeats this kneading pinching techniques on various parts of my body.
Claudia gets a manicure. After the woman finishes filing and buffing her nails, she hands Claudia the nail polish and tells her that Claudia can keep the polish so that she can paint her nails herself. Hmm, it seems that in Croatia, there is a different understanding of what encompasses a manicure.
Claudia and I head back to our hotel, completely refreshed. The freshness and beauty of Plitvička Jezera has worked its magic on us. I am not sure if it is the serene beauty of the falls, the hike, the massage or the bath at the hotel, but I feel completely healed and refreshed from our hedonistic, overindulgence of sun and fun on Croatia’s coast. After two days of serenity, fairyland has restored me. Claudia feels much better too.
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Always clap your hands if you believe in fairies and the magic will never die.
“So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land!”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan: Fairy Tales