Look up almost any travel article about Croatia and the photos will dazzle you with this country’s natural beauty. Its clear blue-green lakes and waterfalls and its 1000 islands strung along the coast of the Adriatic Sea make it a prime tourist destination. Croatia declared independence as a nation in 1991, after decades of dictatorship, foreign occupation, and Nazi and Communist influence, but a bloody civil war involving Croats, Serbs, Bosnians and the Yugoslav Liberation Army delayed real peace until 1995. Since then, the Republic of Croatia has invested in reconstruction, joined the European Union, the World Trade Organization, NATO, and the United Nations, and has become one of the top 20 travel destinations in the world.
Croatia still has some border issues with surrounding nations, and requires passport checks at its borders because it is not yet part of the Schengen Area ( a coalition of European states that have abolished passport and border control for the purpose of functioning as a single jurisdiction for international travel with a common visa policy). We had to have our passports checked both entering and leaving Croatia. Entering the country from Hungary, we passed near the capital of Zagreb and noticed a marked difference in habitat as we drove inland toward Plitvice Lakes National Park. About 44% of Croatia is forest, and the trees thickened as we made our way up the winding roads leading to the park.
Clear water streams trickled along by the roadside, and the rocky slopes of the karst landscape became more obvious as we neared the park. Plitvice Lakes National Park is the Disney World of Croatia, hosting 1.2 million visitors each year, so getting there early in the morning to hike the famed boardwalk trail down the lakes is key to enjoying the place. We started out early at the Upper Lakes, and walked an hour before a thunderstorm blew over us, adding to the magic of the place. By the time we arrived at the ferry dock taking us to the lower lake section, the sun was out again and the waters shimmering in their green-blue hue. The lower lake section has more dramatic waterfalls and is therefore also more crowded, but the views are breath-taking throughout the park.
From there we traveled toward the crystal-clear Adriatic Sea, where the deep green forests gave way to the karst plateaus of limestone along the coastal mountain ranges. We landed in Rovinj in the Istrian peninsula, where we hopped on a ferry to our little island paradise, Katarina Island. Rovinj itself is a beautiful little town, full of charm and great seafood restaurants, as well as the Church of St. Euphemia with its famed bell tower. But the star of the show for me here was the sea itself. Sitting on the rocks basking in the afternoon sun, taking a dip in the clear, salty water, watching the sunset and imagining that I could see Italy somewhere across those blue waters made this visit to the coast a real pleasure.
There’s much more to Croatia’s natural beauty, and someday I hope to return to experience more of it.