In Croatia's rugged interior, a stone's throw from the Bosnian border, hides one of Europe's most exotic hikes: Through Plitvice (PLEET-veet-seh) Lakes National Park. There's nothing like this lush valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls and kilometres of pleasant plank walks. Years ago, after a dozen or so visits, I thought I really knew Europe. Then I discovered Plitvice, and realized you can never exhaust Europe of its surprises.
From the entry, I belly up to a viewpoint for a panoramic orientation. Stretching before me is a European Niagara Falls, diced and sprinkled over a heavily forested Grand Canyon. Heading down the steep zigzag path, I leave cars and concrete behind, and enter a wonderland. It's a pristine world of waterfalls, lakes and trees, populated with Croatian families at play. The lazy trout seem to understand that fishing is forbidden -- they're huge, plentiful and oblivious to the many visitors.
The boardwalk trail carries me across the middle of a lake for an up-close view of a row of gurgling waterfalls. Then I walk past Šupljara Cave, the location of a German "Spaghetti Western" filmed here in the 1960s and still beloved by German tourists today.
As I continue along a path leading to more picturesque cascades, I ponder the strange juxtaposition of Plitvice's overwhelming natural beauty with its recent misfortunes. On Easter Sunday in 1991, the first shots of Croatia's war with Yugoslavia were fired in this park. The Serbs occupied Plitvice and the surrounding region until 1995 and most of the Croatians you'll meet here were evacuated and lived near the coastline as refugees.
Today there's not a hint of the recent war and the park is again a popular tourist destination. On a busy day, the park welcomes 10,000 hikers -- mostly Croatians and other Europeans. Americans, meanwhile, are still mostly oblivious to Plitvice's charms.
Silent, pollution-free electric boats shuttle hikers across the park's biggest lake. While waiting for the boat, I chat with the industrious local grandmas who sell strudel and wheels of homemade cheese with the sophistication of a kid at a lemonade stand. Watching these humble yet happy Croatians at work, I feel thankful this corner of Europe is finally enjoying peace, prosperity, freedom and stability.
At the far side of the lake, more boardwalks take me to the most spectacular stretch of the trail -- a wonderland of sleepy trout, Monet greenery and frisky falls. There are a million ways to catch tiny rainbows in the mist as boardwalks wind around and above the bridal fair of lacy waterfalls. As I hike, I watch for the park's fabled wildlife. It claims to host deer, wolves, wildcats, lynx, wild boar, voles, otters and more than 160 species of birds -- but, apart from the throngs of trout, I find only mice. Plitvice is also home to about 50 highly endangered European brown bears but they have the good sense to stay far from the hiking paths.
A geologist would be less disappointed. This fantasy world of natural limestone dams -- constantly built up by deposits of calcium carbonate, even as they're eroded by the flow of water -- is a "perfect storm" of unique geological features you'll rarely find elsewhere on earth.
The park (which costs about $22 to enter and is open daily year-round) is on most Croatia bus-tour itineraries. It's possible to get there by public bus (two hours from Zagreb, departing several times each day), but is easier by car. Because the park is so well-organized for an efficient visit, most visitors find that a few hours to hike the trails is plenty -- arrive in the evening, spend the night, hike after breakfast and move on after lunch. If the park's three hotels feel like they were built for big tour groups during the communist era ... it's because they were. To save money and enjoy a more intimate experience, try one of the many sobe (rooms in a private home, like B&Bs) dotting the countryside around the park.
After a few hours of strolling the Plitvice boardwalks, I have a personal ritual: Dropping by the rustic park restaurant -- with its heavy-timber beams, open wood-fired grill and Croatian chefs wearing tall hats -- and dining on one of those trout that have been grinning at me all day. As I review the photos on my camera, I marvel that Europe has treats of this scenic caliber, and yet, so few North Americans visit.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.