Plitvice Lakes

Plitvice Lakes was on our must-see list while in Split despite being 150 miles away. We weighed the benefits of renting a car or taking transit, but opted for a day tour with a local company. Despite the “Lakes” in the name, we found the park is mostly about waterfalls. I was glad to be able to get out and hike, and the unusually early spring and bright April day were bonuses.

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Looking down on falls between the lower lakes.

At the park entrance, we boarded a tram running through the woodlands to the Upper Lakes. The beech trees and low mountains reminded me of the eastern U.S., but it quickly became something entirely different.

The unique landscape of Plitvice Lakes is created by the relationship of water and the local geology. The phenomena centers on alkali water leeching out calcium carbonate. Anything underwater, like branches and leaves, slowly gets coated in tufa stone. Where water mixes with air, this calcification happens faster. Edges of waterfalls slowly build themselves higher – as much as half an inch a year. Even mosses clinging amid the streams are encased in travertine stone as the years pass.

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Spring leaves, the largest upper lake, waterfalls.

Water seeps down through a series of 16 lakes, trickling down dozens of cascades with each drop in height. The courses change constantly and run through undergrowth and tree roots.

The farther we walked, the prettier the scenery got. The lakes changed color depending on the sunlight and depth from gray to aquamarine to deep blue. All sorts of flowers were blooming and mosses were draped on many of the falls.

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Some more cascades and branches being slowly coated in rock.

Picturesque wooden walkways connect the lakes and cascades. Flows meander under the boards, even vanishing into the earth in spots. Though it creates new rock, the water also dissolves the limestone under our feet creating sinkholes of all sizes. The waterfalls and lakes are constantly in flux; new areas are submerged while others dry out after having been flooded for years.

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Water disappearing down a sinkhole, wooden walkways, white limestone and water.
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Lakes & trees, Water Everywhere!, a cave at the waterline.

I was surprised to discover that fish live in the lakes. They especially seem to thrive in the largest lake, Kozjak, which also has a ferry across it. The boat ride was one of the few times waterfalls were not visible, but the shoreline was bright green with new leaves and small mountains rising in the background.

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Curious fish, and a waterfall that looks a little impossible from this angle.

Our hike ended with a climb up through a water-created sinkhole. A narrow chasm at the base, it opened into a large skylight roofed with trees. It must have been a 6- or 7-story climb to the top. The remaining rock  was shaped into graceful curving structures and small caves that made it feel like we were inside the roots of a tree.

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Tufa agglomerating along the edge of a falls, trees on the shore, looking up from a sinkhole.

Our hike only totaled about three miles, but it was through a landscape unlike anything we’d experienced before. Plitvice seems like a place right out of a fairy tale. We’d gladly repeat the 14-hour day for a chance to visit again.

 

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Omiš

For a birthday adventure I opted for hiking in the nearby town of Omis. The bus ride south follows a coast-hugging road that cuts through churchyards and the middle of tiny towns with streets barely wide enough for two-way traffic. We got off at a stop after crossing the Cetina River near one of Omis’s marinas. Our trail up the peak began along the river and went up through a pine-forested valley.

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Rocky trail up, castle walls, view down to the sea, Oh! The Places You’ll Go! (mostly Omis).

Even at a pace that let us enjoy the surrounding spring flowers (and avoid bees), the trail was a 45 minute battle against a cascade of sliding rocks. The Starigrad Fortress balances on a mountain above Omis, barely visible from the town itself. We couldn’t see it until we were more than half way up. Built in the 1400s as a defense against raiders, it takes full advantage of the terrain. It wouldn’t look good for any potential invaders.

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Starigrad Fortress above Omis, abandoned house along the trail, fences trapping the raptors.

No one else was on the trail, and even the castle’s caretaker seemed to have the day off. Fortunately, the door was left open and we had the place to ourselves. From the top of the tower, there were expansive views of the surrounding mountains and shorelines. A peregrine falcon played at flying on updrafts. The river hid in the valley; centuries ago pirates hid upstream and attacked passing merchant ships.

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Conquering the castle, Croatian War for Independence Memorial, walking street.

The second half of the loop path took us back into Omis. It wasn’t as steep as the first portion, but still rocky enough to make us take our time. Buildings were cozied right up against the mountain and Jurassic Park-style catch fences were the only barrier between rockfalls and the uppermost homes.

The walking street where we ended our hike was mostly still shuttered for winter. The church on the main square was open. It was much less ornate than many churches in Spain and Portugal, but felt more relaxed inside. The poetic exterior had bunches of purple flowers growing out of the stones.

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Churches in Omis, Fortress Mirabela above town.

The waterfront promenade was also undergoing renovations and the beaches were being refilled with sand and stone and new sidewalks laid. A second castle tower, Mirabela, sits right above the old town, but was closed for the day.

We bussed back and Kevin cooked up a delicious supper of ratatouille. We’ve been sampling Dalmatian wine and had some well-made Zweigelt to go with the meal.

 

 

 

 

Hvar

With a lot of sun in the forecast, we decided Tuesday was a good time to take a ferry out to the islands. We ended up on a catamaran from Split to Hvar, a town on Hvar Island nestled under the watchful walls of a centuries-old castle.

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Catamaran and Hvar harbor.

The tourist season doesn’t start on Hvar for another month or so, and it was incredibly quiet. A handful of restaurants around the main square were doing business, but most other tourist-centric places were shut down. Beachfront bars were still in the process of being assembled and given a new coat of paint for the upcoming season.

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Bell tower to an abandoned monastery, growing wine grapes in the backyard, part of the waterfront promenade.

We stayed a 20 minute walk outside town, and though many of the houses have rental rooms, we felt like the only visitors around. It was glorious: we ran into our host in the grocery store and the owner of a shop we stopped at while on the waterfront.

Most of our time was spent meandering the town and the waterfront. Every view had red-roofed buildings, old facades, the sea, and an archipelago of treed islands. Several side streets have abandoned buildings that are slowly crumbling and being taken over by weeds.

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Harbor and castle, an abandoned house.

We visited the Franciscan Monastery and its collection of amphora and clay dinnerware from a 2nd century Roman shipwreck. The dishes and pots looked just like ones I’ve used. I’d be happy to own some of the jars on display, minus tube worms and barnacles.

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Overgrown staircase, bell tower of the Franciscan monastery.

The other main sight is Spanjola Fortress above the town. I think its the only castle I’ve been where the walls functioned perfectly and it saved the entire town from sacking (by a Turkish naval fleet in 1571). Apart from the expansive views, my favorite part was the prison. Down a narrow and slippery staircase were a half-dozen cells barely big enough for a person. Working as a prison guard must also have seemed like punishment. The floors and ceilings were growing stalagmites and stalactites. It must have been chilly in winter wind and stifling in summer heat. It must have been particularly cruel with the sounds of the waves drifting up in summer.

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Cannon at Spanjola Fortress, ceramics from a 2nd century shipwreck, the sea-facing castle walls.

A small shop full of local flavors sat just behind the main square. Though we only purchased a single bottle of island-grown wine, the owner fed us olives, prosciutto, figs, and local cheeses. I think he was happy to have customers during the slow season, but he told us we needed to come back “when we grow up” so that we can show our kids the island. I think we agree that lines up with our current plans…

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It was hard to leave such great views…

 

 

 

Split, Croatia

New month, new country! We’ve moved on from Barcelona to the smaller, more relaxed Split, Croatia. Rather than being in the center of the crowded Old Town, we rented an apartment with a luxurious view in the suburb of Podstrana.

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Shorebirds and a sunset from one of our decks.

Split is an ancient town, and Roman ruins of an even older city are nearby. The oldest portions of Split are inside the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, the Roman Emperor’s retirement villa. Street-level lanes are narrow and puzzling; many buildings are constructed out of the palace ruins. But underground, the original foundations are largely intact. Entering into the Old Town from the waterfront, we passed through a subterranean gallery of small shops. On either side are entrances to the rest of the basement levels.

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Lots of beige today – Diocletian himself, the plan of his retirement home (now the core of the Old Town), and Roman craftsmanship in the walls and pillars.

For hundreds of years, many of the rooms were full of rubble, but excavations started in the 1950s. Now dozens of rooms and halls are open. Many blocks are from the original construction around the year 300. Even some of the ceilings remain, with circular or angled patterns of stone. Some areas are still inaccessible – the foundations of street-level buildings rest completely on the rubble. Like a lot of other basements, the rooms are cold and damp. An assortment of green mosses seems to be colonizing the brighter areas.

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Original basement ceiling under the Old Town, arches near the church, the Iron Gate, and a subterranean hall.

Coming out the other side of the underground passage, the bell tower and Cathedral of St. Domnius sit on a small square. To the right is one of the old palace gates, the Iron Gate. The ruins merge seamlessly with the current structures; in some places there are even apartments inside the palace’s walls.

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Imposing bell tower and one of many narrow streets.

Claustrophobic streets open up to small squares or courtyards crowded with restaurants. We are here during the off-season, but outdoor tables, especially along the Riva waterfront promenade are still packed. It is clearly an area made for tourists, shopping, and eating.

Split was under Venetian control for portions of its history, and it feels very Venetian to us. The architecture, culture, and abundance of gelato stands remind us of northern Italy.

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Back street shrine, shoring up some buildings, a Venetian-like square facing the waterfront.

We really like the slower pace here – an afternoon of beach walking or watching a sunset is a perfectly acceptable way to spend time. Smaller towns, islands, and national parks also are beckoning us, but it is also nice to have a quiet place to relax after Barcelona.