Croatia is a land filled with lovely, green hills and friendly people. Billing itself as “the new Riviera”, Croatia has a beautiful coastline on the eastern edge of the Adriatic, and several national parks inland with scenery well worth viewing. What’s more, all of this can be enjoyed at a relatively low cost in the current economy.
Separated from northern Italy by the tiny country of Slovenia, Croatia has a few Roman and Venetian relics, though not to the degree as many other European countries due to the war-related turmoil it has experienced through much of its history. Fortunately, its natural beauty more than makes up for that—after all, you’ll see plenty of castles and cathedrals in any other European city you visit. Most of its historical architecture is along the coast, with the interior being very modern in appearance. In particular Zagreb, the capital, is comparable to the average American city. One of the highlights of the city is the Mirogoj Cemetery—no, seriously.
Croatia has a history of struggle, and has passed through the hands of several countries and powers throughout the past 500+ years. Under the Communist regime it was incorporated into Yugoslavia for most of the 20th Century, and only regained its independence in 1991. Some of the grim office and apartment blocks in the larger cities reflect that latter period. Visitors can still see the results of recent conflicts between the Serbs and Croats in burnt out towns along the eastern border.
One of the most beautiful natural areas in Croatia is Gorski Kotar, the “Mountain District”. Bordering Slovenia to the north, Gorski Kotar is about a 45 minute drive from Adriatic coast and an hour’s drive east from Zagreb. Sitting on a large plateau between Kvarner Bay and the Karlovac region, the approach to Gorski Kotar from the Adriatic coast is a steep climb, followed by a gentle descent through rolling hills and valleys until it merges with the Karlovac plain. More than half of the region is covered with forests, and is often called “the lungs of Croatia.”
The mountain peaks provide splendid scenic views of white, rocky tops contrasting with deep green pine forests just below. The highest peak is Bjelolasica, nearly 5,000 ft. high, and the observation post at the top of Risnjak, at a slightly lower elevation, offers one of the most stunning views in Croatia. Gorski Kotar has a number of national parks and areas full of lakes and beautiful mountain streams that are great for camping, fly-fishing, rafting, kayaking and canoeing. These natural havens are interspersed with small, picturesque villages and several larger, lovely towns.
And if you really want to get “inside” Croatia, check out the caves in Gorski Kotar. The Lokvarka caves, nearly 4,000 ft. long, includes a beautiful underground lake, and Vrelo Cave, about 1,000 ft. long, has a clear stream running through it. Both caves feature numerous interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations. So spelunk away!
However, the oldest, largest, most famous, and arguably the most beautiful national park in Croatia is Plitvicka Jezera National Park. This park made UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979 in recognition of its “outstanding natural beauty and undisturbed production of travertine (tufa) through chemical and biological action”. That may not sound very exciting to anyone but a geologist, but once seen, it becomes evident to all. The park features 16 lakes gracefully descending down the mountain range, each lower lake being fed by an ever-changing array of waterfalls and spillways that truly dazzle the beholder. With various trees and fronds framing water ranging in color from shades of blue to gray to turquoise, all surrounded by the peaks of the hills, the entire region is an artist’s delight. However, visitors are only allowed to hike and ride the boat or tram provided within, so it’s not an area for true outdoor activities. Please read the accompanying article on Pitvicka Jezera for more details of how the park rivals Yosemite National Park in California for beauty and serenity.
For the nature lover and travelers who are looking for something a little different from typical Western European destinations, Croatia offers a bounty of natural beauty, while still providing modern amenities.