Thirty days of vacation sounds like — and is — a lot of time off, and to prevent everyone from requesting the same thirty days we need to plan our vacation for the year by January 31. It’s no surprise that planning this far out means the weather doesn’t cooperate with intention, so fittingly despite my wishes to go visit that wily alpine lake on a long weekend in late September, the forecast just days before the approaching time off didn’t look so positive. I was stuck between expensive airplane tickets to somewhere in Europe or sitting still and using the long weekend for rest. I probably should have chosen the second. As it turns out, I wanted rather neither, and ended up driving ten hours to Croatia and its deep turquoise lakes instead.
My road trip consumed all of my Friday, with my arrival well after dark and some restaurants already starting to shut down; apparently I was not the only one using the roads that weekend. My first day inside Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park started shortly before 8 AM on Saturday. The skies were clear, belying the near-freezing temperatures on the ground below.
My first hint that any shots within the park would be challenging was the mist coming off the water — it was almost impossible to get a clean shot of anything with all the moisture in the way. The boardwalk, slick with early morning frost, was a harbinger of (photographic) headaches to come.
The national park is widely accessible via mechanized transport but also offers walking trails that encircle the park. I chose the longest one, route K, which starts at the northern entrance (entrance 1) and continues in a counterclockwise loop for 18 km. As I left the Great Waterfall, Veliki Slap, I noticed a tourist group coming up behind me. It soon became obvious that the boardwalks made getting shots of waterfalls straightforward, but the jostling and bouncing from hundreds of feet would make taking certain shots dreadful.
Gradually, the sun warmed the day, and not long thereafter the true hordes arrived at the park. My start point was at the lower lakes, which tend to draw big crowds for its views. I was fortunate to be on the backside of the park and didn’t see many people during most of the morning. Most of the initial loop of Trail K was in forest, with brilliant blue skies only visible above the canopy.
It was colder in the park than it had been in Germany, and leaves were already beginning to fall. A park ranger had warned that recent rains would make certain parts of the trail impassable, but I found otherwise — the ground was soggy in only two spots and never slippery or impassable.
As I emerged from the protection of the trees, I began to see more waterfalls and more turquoise-blue lakes.
As I ate lunch, with over half the trail behind me I began to see just how many people had arrived. Due to the bouncing from footfalls on the boardwalks, it became almost impossible to shoot long shutter-speed exposures for blurred water, so I snapped some shots casually the rest of the afternoon and decided I’d get an earlier start the next morning and head straight for the upper lakes.
I arrived at the park a tick after 7:00 AM, with almost no one on the trails and the sky not quite blue. Right next to entrance 1 of the park is a fairly broad viewing platform, and I set up my tripod to do a long exposure of the Great Waterfall and the lower lakes. So much for beelining for the upper lakes!
The early-morning mist from the day before was back, and the temperatures were still frigid. I wanted to keep moving but kept shooting, taking advantage of a lack of traffic and soft early light.
The boardwalk linking to Veliki Slap was fairly empty, so I took advantage of a lull in traffic to get a shot with no one on it. From this perspective, the park is incredibly convenient — trails are paved or boarded so people can take pictures of or observe a waterfall, and otherwise off-limits to visitors. The “guided openness” here reminded me a little of China’s Jiuzhaigou, which also had colorful pools and lakes and multiple waterfalls (whose names I also no longer remember), all surrounded by specific paths.
I headed toward the boats to photograph the upper lakes that I didn’t spend so much time at the day prior, leaving the overlooks of the lower lakes an hour or so later than I had anticipated. Here again, the boardwalks were fairly empty, but right on cue, around 10 AM the tour buses pulled up and their passengers began their two-hour marches through the park.
Most blogs recommend visiting the park in only one day, usually as a day trip from Zagreb (or Split). For photographers, it can be difficult to find a unique image in a single day, simply because everyone shares the same boardwalks and most of the day there are people everywhere. To try to avoid the crowds means an early start or a late departure in order to bookend the times the tour buses are in the park, which in practice renders visiting the park a two day affair. I’m glad I had the extra time — it allowed me to go back and revisit some falls the following day with a tripod, giving me the opportunity to focus on getting shots I wanted. But oh, the patience involved!
One waterfall in particular is where I spent a good amount of time, not because it was so incredibly interesting (I had seen it the day before already, after all), but because every tour group would shake the boardwalk violently enough that I gave up shooting while waiting for the boardwalk to stop trembling before the next rumblings started. I don’t usually post multiple photos of the same thing (er, Matterhorn the obvious exception!), but I’ll make an exception for this.
Not so far away was another challenging waterfall to shoot, this time not just because of traffic on the boardwalk but also because the waterfalls face north, which mean I was shooting into the southern sun. I actually managed to get a few shots as others paused while they were shooting, which shortened my time there in comparison to the first one. I scampered off to my next falls as soon as I finished, trying to beat the rest of the crowds streaming in hot on my tail. This is, however, not to suggest that the experience overall was not justified. The park is absolutely worthy of a visit, and with enough time it is possible to get the right photos. I think being on a four-hour time schedule, however, would be immensely frustrating.
While the park can be challenging for the photographer, for families, the park is surprisingly manageable. There is plenty for kids to see, and boat and bus rides are available to reduce the walking needed from attraction to attraction. There’s not a lot of elevation change, and at key points there are food vendors and bathrooms. With the abundance of maintained trails, going off-trail is also a low risk.
In hindsight, it would have been a great help if I had documented the names of all the falls. The information is almost certainly available somewhere, but in trying to get a shot of the falls, I almost always forgot to look for the name of what it was I was taking a picture of. The park isn’t huge — certainly not by American National Park standards — but there are a lot of waterfalls, and trying to describe them beyond “that waterfall” is a bit difficult. There’s no single point that shows all the waterfalls in the park, though an overlook that’s accessible from outside the park is one possibility to see the upper lakes flowing down into the lower basin. Unfortunately, bushes get in the way of a clear view and autumn lighting (southern sun) isn’t the best.
The water flow when I visited was not particularly high — I’d be interested in returning in the spring, where rains and snow melt would certainly add volume to the falls. Nevertheless, visiting in low season was a definite perk; I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be to get waterfall shots when the park is at capacity. I finished up my shooting, had dinner, and repacked for my last full day of the trip.
I chose Zagreb as an en route destination back to Germany. I’m a bit ashamed to admit I didn’t have the highest familiarity for the city’s history or what to do there and therefore didn’t know where my expectations should be. I was slightly uneasy about visiting it alone, and spending just 8 hours there didn’t really make me think I’d get to appreciate or understand it anyhow. As it turns out, Zagreb is positively delightful. My hotel was about ten minutes from the Ban Jelačić Square and Dolac Market, and on the way there I saw some free commentary posted on a wall. Seemed like good advice.
The market was wrapping up as I arrived, but there was still a lot of activity.
I asked if the market was open year-round and what would happen if it rained. There are umbrellas, but otherwise a shrug from the merchant suggested the presence of rain didn’t seem to be like a good reason to not hold a market. I happened to have terrific weather during my trip, which did seem like a good reason to hold a market.
At a nearby stand, I saw some unfamiliar citrus that looked appealing, so wanting to sample it I asked for two. The merchant thought I meant two kilograms, and wasn’t so pleased with me when he understood the quantity I was really looking for. I thought they would be sweeter, so having just two proved not to be a bad idea. For him, either; I ended up paying more than what the two pieces would have cost by weight.
Nearby the main square is also the tallest building in Croatia, its cathedral. It’s been a while since I had been inside of one (the last one was La Sagrada Familia), and I had forgotten just how daunting the construction of these must have been in their time. Even with today’s technology, it’s hard to think of a structure so grand and so elaborate.
The attention to detail was immaculate, though I’m not sure which period the archway dates to given the damage to the cathedral in the 1880 Zagreb earthquake.
Outside, others also thought the cathedral was impressive, and accordingly used a smartphone to best compose their selfie.
After lunch at Meet Mia, I wandered around town, eventually — unintentionally — coming across the Strossmayer Promenade, which offers some great views over the city. To get some additional altitude over the city, the Lotrščak Tower about midway along the promenade gives a panoramic perspective.
After circling the tower’s viewing deck, I descended back to the street and walked a block or so to St. Mark’s Church. Along the way I saw an alleyway that seemed neat — as I was taking the shot, a child rollerbladed into the picture.
St. Mark’s Church didn’t have an obvious composition, so I was fortunate to get a bit of foreground when three tourists showed up and started jumping in front of it, using a camera on the ground to capture their activity. Maybe not the most appropriate pose in front of a place of worship, but I do give them kudos for keeping up the act for a while. Having done it myself on Mt. Rainer, it’s rather exhausting to keep hopping!
I walked around the square for a few minutes, listening briefly to a tour guide describe the history of the church in German and meeting a Thai flight attendant for Emirates. She was also visiting for just the one day in between her flights. When I left to look for dinner options, the guys were still jumping.
I eventually ended up back at the Dolac Market, which apparently empties completely when it closes: not just the vendors leave, but the tables, umbrellas, everything goes.
For dinner, I wanted to check out Trilogija (it’s delightful, by the way — certainly worth its reputation and checking out), which I had read about on NYTimes’ 36 Hours… feature on Zagreb. I asked for a reservation, but apparently Croatians eat dinner quite late, so my request for a table at 6 PM was met with a chuckle and “no reservation needed” explanation. To pass the time, I walked around the city some more. Some architecture reminded me of Paris:
When the receptionist at the hotel was describing the various points of interest in the city (of which I made it to fewer than half), she had mentioned a “green horseshoe” — several city parks linked in the shape of a “U.” I had wanted to walk through them all, but I ran out of time and ended up in just one. The evening light just before sunset was a brilliant golden glow.
As I made my way back toward Trilogija, the sun continued to set and soon the golden rays became pink. The theme of my entire visit to Zagreb seemed to be a shortage of time, so although I considered briefly returning to the Lotrščak Tower for sunset, I headed back to the restaurant for dinner instead, my stomach thanking me for the thoughtfulness.
With my original plan taking me to Switzerland, I had banked on the weekend being busy, but I don’t think I realized how full it would remain when my destination changed to Croatia. I had long days in the national park, and spending a day on my feet in Zagreb wasn’t much in the way of rest, either. Still, I was pleasantly surprised at both places — Plitvice Lakes had been on my short list since 2011, but the long drive with an American vacation policy discouraged me from making the trek. The two days there were worth the wait. In my mind Zagreb had been a layover airport en route to Dubrovnik (which I still would like to visit), but now that I’ve been there I could see visiting it again. The people are pleasant and friendly, and there isn’t that grating sense of snootiness that comes with certain “worldlier” European cities. The pervasive question that arises whenever I travel seems to be not whether a visit was worth it or whether I enjoyed my time, but rather whether thirty days of vacation a year is sufficient to cover all the places that are.
It looks like it’s going to be tight.