Between nature and legend
Legend has it that Plitvice Park used to appear on old maps under the name of ‘Devil’s Garden’ because it was the Devil that sent the torrential rains that formed the lakes that, today, are one of Croatia’s biggest natural attractions. Another legend has it that Mljet, an island in the Adriatic Sea, is the island of Ogygia in Homer’s Odyssey where Ulysses was trapped for seven years in his long journey home after the Trojan War. Poseidon carried him there and Calypso held him captive, offering the hero immortality if he agreed to stay with her forever.
Beyond legends, Plitvice and Mljet are just two fine examples of what the country’s natural parks offer. Here’s our pick of the five most beautiful parks near Zagreb or Dubrovnik, cities you can fly to from 15,000 Avios.
1 Plitvice Lakes National Park
This park is the largest, oldest and most famous national park in Croatia. Located in the Lika region, two hours from Zagreb, it comprises 16 lakes – the upper ones are flat and have crystal-clear water, while the lower cluster is set in a rocky setting and has canyons up to 40m high – that are interconnected by a hundred waterfalls and infinite streams. Visiting them is fascinating. You can take a boat on the larger lakes or stroll above the water on special wooden walkways. It’s also fascinating to hike their trails, and even better if you do so outside summer high season. Despite the lakes’ own fame, they are just a small part of an enormous and dense beech forest, among whose trees bodies of water can be glimpsed like oases.
2 Paklenica National Park
Three hundred kilometres from Zagreb, the Velebit mountain range has been inhabited since prehistory, when groups of hunter-gatherers lived here. Today, we might feel as they did crossing through the canyons of this national park that covers a 100sqkm, or entering the Manita Péc cave. The Velika canyons – the biggest is 14km long with a width ranging from 800m to only 50m at its narrowest point and a height exceeding 700m, and the Mala Paklenica canyon, which is 12km long, a mere 10m at its narrowest and up to 650m high – are the biggest attractions at this park, which was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1978 in order to save it from overexploitation.
3 Parque de Velebit
The youngest (since 1999) of the country’s parks, and located on the other side of Mount Velebit – Croatia’s tallest – this offers a very different landscape to Paklenica’s. Velebit Park is known for its wealth of natural phenomena, for the karst formations and reliefs, and for the countless flora and fauna that call it home despite its relatively small size, but it’s also known for its cultural past, visible in the ruins that dot the area as vestiges of the lives led by the park’s former inhabitants.
4 Mljet Island
Just 40km from Dubrovnik and considered by some travel guides to be one of the most seductive islands in the Adriatic, two-thirds of Mljet’s 100sqkm are covered with vegetation, and half are a national park. The best way to explore it is bike. Its biggest attractions are two saltwater lakes created by sea water entering over two karst depressions. Historically a refuge for Greek sailors sheltering from storms, today it continues to offer refuge to travellers fleeing the hubbub of the cities.
5 Krka National Park
Located in the south-central part of the country 300km from Zagreb and Dubrovnik, the park takes its name from the River Krka, which is also the main feature of its landscape. Krka is a paradise of waterfalls. The Roski Slap waterfall is the most impressive because it is the widest, and the Skradinski waterfall is the most famous because it has an area set up for swimming, the only one where it is permitted. The park covers most of the river course, and there are also some monuments – such as two old monasteries (one Franciscan, the other Orthodox) – along the way.