After my stay in Zagreb, I took a 3-hour bus ride to Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, where I experienced both the incredible beauty and frustration of traveling in the off-season.
Due to the winter schedule, the buses were limited to only three departures that day, the first being at 5:00am. The prospect of catching that particular ride was a little daunting, so I waited for the 11:00 departure. In he research I had done beforehand, I learned that many people who visit the park do so on day trips via tour groups or rental car, so everything is either pre-arranged or done at their leisure. I had booked a room in a little B&B, and planned on being able to spend a couple days exploring the lakes and forests of the park. Had I planned better or known that timing was going to be such a delicate matter, I might have done things differently.
As it was, I arrived at the bus stop near Plitvice around 2:00 in the afternoon. I had been in touch with the owner of the B&B, who told me to come to the stop before the park, where he would be waiting to pick me up. It was a quiet stop in the countryside, with lots of signs for the many different guesthouses I could see dotting the hilly landscape. There was also a grocery store, a massive restaurant, and a tourism office – all conveniently closed and shuttered for the low season. There wasn’t another soul in sight, and as the bus pulled away, I found myself very much alone, weighed down by my bags and the uncomfortable feeling of being completely clueless.
I waited a long while on a small bench, thinking my host was simply running late or that the bus had arrived early. I had no way of communicating with anyone. Semis, buses, and cars whizzed by. I got anxious. I collected my things and looked over a large directory posted nearby, with a listing of all the guesthouses and their location on a map. I found mine and began walking, crossing deserted roads, walking along fields, muttering about all the ways I might have avoided this. It was a good half hour before I reached the B&B. (My host, I would later discover, had actually passed me on the road as I was just starting out from the bus stop. He had seen me but hadn’t said anything because he expected two people. “You’re here alone? And you walked here ALONE??”)
Unfortunately, by the time I’d finally reached my destination, there wasn’t much daylight left, and my host said it wouldn’t be worthwhile to go to the park until tomorrow. So instead, he drove me to a grocery store where I bought some things to cook for dinner, and I spent the evening in my little apartment, watching Netflix and reading. It was good to relax, the apartment was very nice, and my host was wonderful, but I did mourn the loss of time I might have spent in the park. We arranged to be there when the gates opened the next morning. I would store my things in a locker and catch a bus to Zadar when I’d finished.
As I should have guessed, there was only one bus departing towards my next destination that day. The park opened at 8:00, and the bus I needed departed from the park station at 2:00 (Croatia Time, which means anywhere from 1:15-2:45), which left me with a good chunk of time, but not nearly enough to explore and photograph as much as I wanted. Still, I tried to keep my chin up, and the park really turned out to be a fantastic experience, for, as limiting and frustrating as the off-season had been so far, now I was seeing how it could be equally freeing and relaxing.
There was no one else in sight at the entrance to the park. As I walked, I found that the surrounding nature was mine alone to enjoy. I could spend as much time as I wanted at the beautiful vistas, I could sit, linger, go off the paths, walk at whatever pace I wanted, and not wait for people to pass or endure the insufferable torture of capturing them in my photos. As the day went on, the park filled up a bit more, but for the most part there was no one in sight.
And it was a wonderful time. I can only imagine how beautiful the lakes and waterfalls are in the spring and summer, with the surrounding foliage in full bloom. The winter had dealt the area quite a bit of snow, and the lakes had retained a lot of the melted water, so some of the paths were closed, and many of them required agile leaping to avoid stepping in muddy puddles. But it was a great adventure, relaxing and invigorating all at once.
Due to time constraints (and closed paths), I was only able to explore half of the park, which included the lower lakes and the Veliki Slap (Big Waterfall). The early morning sun was bright and cast a lot of shade, so photos were sometimes challenging to capture. And things got pretty wet when I made it to the waterfall!
And so it was around 1:00 when I made my way to the little bus stop outside the park to catch my ride to Zadar, a cute and quiet little seaside town. I hope to return to the Lakes soon, maybe during the spring, and maybe with a rental car. I’ll be back soon with some photos from my short stay in Zadar, but in the meantime, all my love!