The perfect trip: Croatia
‘It’s a bit like your friends,’ explains park ranger Ante Bionda. ‘Sometimes you lose them, sometimes you gain them. Sometimes an old friend goes away, but you know that they’ll be back.’
An easygoing man with a furious-looking stuffed bear growling outside his office, Ante Bionda has spent most of his adult life working as a ranger in the park. We take a walk and Ante points to waterfalls past and present. Overhead is the king of them all, the appropriately named Veliki Slap – shooting over a cliff edge and slapping noisily on the valley floor below. Meanwhile, tiny streams babble about beneath our feet, running into small ponds where shoals of rainbow trout flit about in the shallows.
These aren’t Plitvice’s only residents: Ante shows me nestholes from which kingfishers emerge to divebomb the ponds, and an anthill at which a black bear recently took a swipe in search of a snack.
‘When you work here for a while, you begin to notice the seasons changing,’ he tells me. ‘And now, it’s school trip season.’
Confronted with an incoming party of teenagers, Ante veers off the path and treads through a small copse. He soon approaches the crest of a waterfall that spills into one of Plitvice’s Upper Lakes, glowing electric blue in the afternoon sunshine. ‘This is where I come to think sometimes.’ he says wistfully. ‘I’ve worked here for 25 years, so maybe I should think about working somewhere else. The problem is, I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world that’s quite so beautiful.’
Where to eat and stay
Located a mile south of the park entrance, Pansion Etno House offers some of the best accommodation in Plitvice, with 10 rooms in a stone and timber mountain lodge. Breakfast and dinner are served in the bucolic dining room downstairs (closed Nov–Mar; rooms from £50, evening mains from £13).
Paklenica National Park: Best for nature
A region of deep canyons and scrubby badlands, Paklenica National Park almost looks like it’s been involved in some geographical mix-up – a chunk of the American West accidentally transplanted to the Balkan Peninsula. In fact, it counts among Croatia’s wildest corners – a remote stretch of the Velebit mountain range home to bears, wolves and wildcats, and a place whose remotest reaches were known only to roving shepherds until roads reached here in the 1950s.
The air turns hotter and the terrain becomes harsher on the walk down Velika Paklenica, the jagged canyon that cuts squarely through the middle of the park.
Sunbeams reach across its sheer limestone walls and the path ahead wobbles in the heat haze. Lizards scamper fitfully about the rocks, and if you glance up, you might be lucky enough to spot a golden eagle wheeling overhead, like some ominous outtake from a Sergio Leone movie.
Paklenica once had a career moonlighting as a lookalike for the Wild West, serving as the location for one of the most successful Western movie series of all time, albeit one little heard of in the English-speaking world. The German Winnetou movies of the 1960s saw steam trains, frontier towns and Indian camps all imported to what was then Communist-era Yugoslavia, with local comrades enlisted as cowboy extras. Fifty years on, coaches full of German tourists periodically turn up at Paklenica dressed in Wild West costumes to relive the shoot-outs of their childhood: estate agents playing outlaws, bank managers turned braves.