Plitviče Lakes National Park, Croatia

Photo: U NP Plitvička jezera

Plitviče Lakes National Park is one of the most beautiful spots in Europe. Really, all of Europe. It’s the largest and oldest national park in Croatia. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well. So it’s not surprising that the Central Croatian park is the second most visited site in the entire Balkan country. There are always crowds on the trails and lines for the boats. At least most of the year. Right now, during the winter, you’ll have the park practically to yourself.

The national park covers karst mountains near the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sixteen interconnected lakes run down the dolomite and limestone mountains. They’re separated by natural travertine (limestone deposit) dams. Their water is jewel-toned from afar and completely clear up close. Their waterfalls are constantly reforming as old ones dry up. They’re surrounded by dense forests. They’re also home to Eurasian brown bears, Eurasian lynx, brown trout, and blue butterflies. No wonder so many people want to visit.

The Plitviče Lakes were named a national park when they were part of Yugoslavia in 1949. The area was well-known long before that, though. After being settled for thousands of years, the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans battled for the lakes at the end of the 15th century. The Croats, the Serbs, and even the French—under Napoléon Bonaparte—then found their way to Central Croatia. The first hotel was built in 1890. Modern roads were constructed after World War II. So the park became a major tourist destination. Its popularity briefly dimmed, during the Croatian War of Independence, in the 1990s. It’s been a hiker’s paradise ever since the socialist state was dissolved.

Photo: Plitvice Holiday Resort

Right now, the park is covered with snow. Beech and fir trees are encrusted with ice. Many waterfalls have frozen in place. The water in the lakes is still and crusty around the edges. Boat rides have been suspended until spring. Trails are slick and slushy. The temperature is itching to hit 40 degrees. The sun makes all of the snow sparkle. While only one entrance remains open. To some, Plitviče Lakes National Park isn’t worth it right now. To others, it’s simply magical.

If the lakes sound like an enchanting winter wonderland, you should plan to spend a few days in the Dinaric Alps. Most people, even when the weather is ideal, make the national park a day trip. It’s an easy one since it’s only two hours from both Zagreb and Zadar. But by staying in the area, you get to beat the crowds during the summer and take advantage of other outdoor activities—fishing and rafting, skiing and sledding—all year.

The Plitvice Holiday Resort is the perfect base. The low-key resort, which surrounds a small lake, offers a variety of accommodations: camping spots, tents, treehouses, and lake houses. The restaurant serves traditional dishes, including polenta, paprika sausage, and roasted suckling pig. It has a coffee bar in which to warm up, too. But, most importantly, the resort is right down the road from the national park’s entrance. Go now, before the snow melts.

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