Only life can bring together stone, water and forest in this manner. The area is more beautiful than any description, more vivid than any photograph, and more surprising than any video – it is only by visiting the Plitvice Lakes, that one can fully experience this beauty which found its way into the World Heritage List. The Lakes belong to the most impressive, most conserved and most special places in the world.
The area of Plitvice Lakes became part of the UNESCO World Heritage List very early on, and it is the oldest National Park in Croatia.
Sixteen named larger lakes and many smaller ones are connected by cascades. The altitude difference between the first lake of Prošćansko and the last lake of Novakovića brod is 134 meters. Rivers Crna and Bijela bring most of the incoming water to the lakes, merging into the Matica River prior to entering Prošćansko Lake. The lake system is divided into the upper and lower lakes; the upper lakes lie on dolomite layers, while the lower lakes are cut into a limestone canyon. That is how people once divided and named the lakes. The upper part of the lake system consists of twelve lakes, including two largest lakes of the system, Kozjak and Prošćansko. The lower part of Plitvice Lakes represents a smaller portion of the total lake surface, with four lakes in that part of the system.
How did this beauty come about? What secret of nature should we thank for this geological and hydrological phenomenon unique in the world?
According to science, bacteria, algae and mosses have been crucial for the creation of cascades. Favorable climate conditions, coupled with localities marked by intensive water aeration, create favorable conditions for life of these organisms. When the incoming water contains a sufficient quantity of dissolved calcium carbonate, which is not a rare occurrence in karst areas, this calcium carbonate ends up retained and attached to the surface of already existing tufa barriers and vegetation in the lakes, with the help of bacteria, algae and mosses.
This process results in tufa. Over time, calcium carbonate settles on the bottom and on plants in the form of small crystals, with layers of barriers slowly growing on the river bed, creating lakes in the upstream part of the course. Plitvice Lakes are the result of this specific physical, chemical and biodynamic process. The process itself is continuous, and the lakes are constantly changing. There are barriers submerged in the lakes, and those that will eventually grow and rise above the water surface. Tufa is actively growing by one to three centimeters per year.
In other words, the present appearance of Plitvice Lakes is merely a moment of their future history.
Plitvice Lakes and cascades are very young. Some of the current cascades are no older than four thousand years, and it is believed that the lake system obtained its current form 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Climate has played a major role in the creation of this system – tufa barriers were active and growing in interglacial periods of geological history of the Earth. Tufa older than 300,000 years has been found in Plitvice Lakes as well, pointing to the long-term nature of the process, and the major role that temperature plays in it.
Warm periods are favorable for more intensive sedimentation of calcium carbonate and the creation of tufa. In cold periods, tufa is being destroyed. It is soft and porous, which is why ice results in the breaking and disintegration of tufa.
One particular cascade on the Lakes is different from all the other cascades. It is 78 meters high – the highest waterfall of Croatia – and its origin and appearance are also special. It is the only cascade that does not originate in a lake, and does not end in a lake. The incoming water comes from the creek of Plitvice, falling with all its force down a vertical limestone rock. Most of the other Plitvice cascades fall gradually and in branches of connected cascades, such as the Sastavci cascades under the last lake in the system, Novakovića brod. Water at the bottom of these cascades, together with water coming from the cascade of Veliki slap, gives birth to the Korana River, which continues its flow over several further cascades, passing through its limestone rock canyon.
Plitvice Lakes are located in the eastern part of the region of Lika, between the mountains of Mala Kapela and Plješivica. They are covered by forest, and, due to a relatively low altitude, fully immersed in the mountain landscape.
When one thinks of the Plitvice Lakes National Park, the first thing that comes to mind are the lakes – as the most attractive phenomenon of the Park. However, the total protected surface is much larger than the lakes themselves, expanding to almost three hundred square kilometers. In order to preserve the lake phenomenon, it was important to preserve its environment and the basin area as well.
Waters in the karst – both groundwater and surface waters – are interconnected. Forests act as a major “regulator” of Plitvice waters. In wet periods, they retain water, and in dry periods, they distribute “conserved” water, thus supplying local nature and life with that essential element.
Forests in the area of Plitvice Lakes are very well preserved, with as many as eleven forest communities. The locality of Čorkova uvala is the best-preserved forest complex in the Park. It is a pristine virgin fir and beech forest covering eighty hectares of land up to 1,028 meters above sea level. Trees rise over fifty meters high, and finding oneself under these giants is a truly special experience.
Undoubtedly, the best-known inhabitant of the forests is the brown bear (Ursus arctos). Research on migrations of this species has been ongoing for quite a while, so today we know that bears regularly leave the boundaries of the Park. Brown bear is a protected species, just like the wolf. The forests of Plitvice are a priceless sanctuary to carnivores. Otter is yet another rare species that lives in the area of Plitvice Lakes. The European crayfish (Astacus astacus) can also be found in the waters of Plitvice, as well as the brown trout (Salmo trutta fario). The flora is also protected, including numerous orchid species – as many as sixty of them, including the lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus). Given the fact that the lakes are located in a karst environment, the area includes karst phenomena such as dolines and sinkholes, as well as pits and caves – like the caves of Crna pećina and Vile jezerkinje, located in the limestone part of Plitvice Lakes and in the canyon of the Korana River.
The local population within the boundaries of the Park lives in characteristic, scattered Dinaric villages, in harmony with the protection granted to the area. The traditional heritage of the locals is reflected in water mills in the Park, and in occasional water-powered sawmills.
Most visitors will choose the summer for their visit to Plitvice Lakes – a time when the area bursts with the power of water, marked by the might of the diving cascades. The faces of Plitvice are unforgettable regardless of the season, however. There is no single best time of year to visit the Plitvice Lakes National Park, because the changing faces of nature never lose their beauty. Come autumn, the entire palette of that season is reflected in the lakes, in all of its hues, providing an unforgettable experience to those who visit the Park in that season. Winter is fascinating too. The power of cascades is frozen in ice, and icy lake meadows with water still alive underneath create an impressive landscape sprinkled by icicles.
A few hundred years ago, on the first maps of the 17th century, the entire area of Plitvice was referred to as the “Devil’s Garden”. There are no indications that it was an old folk name for Plitvice; however, as the area used to be a turbulent frontier with the Ottoman Empire back in those times, one can assume that the origin of the name is based on that specific historical fact. The first word of that old name has been swallowed by history. What remains is the Garden – one full of cascades and lakes. It is a magnificent show of water, on display to visitors who can observe it up close as they walk along the well-built paths that do not disturb the life of the lakes and the creation of tufa, that sensitive builder leaving amazing natural constructions behind it. Whichever path you take through Plitvice Lakes, do remember that you have the honor of passing through the most impressive karst phenomenon in the world. You are a welcome guest of one of the world’s most valuable protected areas.
The number of endemic species in the Park (approx. 2.3 percent) is relatively low; however, it is by no means negligible (e.g. Italian squill – Chouardia litardierei; Croatian pink – Dianthus giganteus; etc.).
It is particularly worth noting a substantial share of endangered taxa (12 percent), listed in the Red Book prepared according to the IUCN criteria. The Park is the only finding site of a globally critically endangered species Siberian rayflower (Ligularia sibirica) in Croatia, but also more widely, at the level of southeastern areas of Europe. Highly diverse orchid species grow in the Park as well (with over 60 taxa). Due to the beauty and outstanding nature of their flowers in the overall plant world, they were frequently picked to the point of extinction in the past, which is why they are so rare and endangered in current times. Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium calceolus), one of the most endangered and most beautiful European orchid species, is represented in the Park in higher numbers than anywhere else in Croatia and beyond, when it comes to known populations.
Carnivore plants roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), common butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) and lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor) are particularly interesting and unique in the plant world due to their method of feeding. As a result of the conservation of specific habitats where such plants can be encountered (bogs), these interesting, endangered and rare plants represent an additional important feature of the attractive plant world in the Park.
Butterflies are a significant group of insects in the area, with 321 species recorded so far (76 butterfly species and 245 moth species). A particularly interesting insect group are caddisflies with 80 recorded species, including an endemic species Drusus croaticus. Vertebrates are quite diverse too. Lakes and their tributaries have typical characteristics of trout waters at higher elevations. In recent times, brown trout (Salmo trutta) is being pushed back by allochthonous populations of dace, common rudd and pike.
Amphibians and reptiles are represented with around twelve species each. In addition to typical forest, meadow and wetland species characteristic for Central Europe, one can also encounter species characteristic for the Alps and the western Dinarides (Italian crested newt – Triturus carnifex; alpine salamander – Salamandra atra; horned viper – Vipera ammodytes).
The Park also has an abundant ornithofauna (over 163 bird species). Forest birds are particularly prominent (eight woodpecker species and nine owl species). One particularly interesting and rare bird species, dependant on clean watercourses, is the white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus), frequently found along the watercourses. Grasslands of the Park are also important for many species, in particular for the nesting of a rare and globally endangered bird species, the corn crake (Crex crex).
Over 58 mammal species have been recorded, bats being particularly significant in terms of numbers and unique characteristics (21 species). The presence of large carnivores, such as bear (Ursus arctos), wolf (Canis lupus) and lynx (Lynx lynx), as well as otter (Lutra lutra) and other protected and globally threatened species, leaves no visitor indifferent to all the natural wonders of the area.
Beech (Fagus silvatica) is the most represented species in the forests of Plitvice, with silver fir (Abies alba) the second tree species in terms of frequency. Diverse forest communities have developed in the area of the Park, as well as diverse habitat types, seven of which can be found on the list of the Habitats Directive, which constitutes a significant number.
The most valuable forest habitat is the virgin forest of Čorkova uvala, consisting of Dinaric beech and fir (Omphalodo–fagetum, Tregubov, 1957, Mrinček et.al., 1993). It is a natural forest that developed without direct human interference, with a completely stable and lasting forest ecosystem.
Forests of the Park provide habitat to rare and endangered plant, animal and fungus species, many of which can be found in Annex I to the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive.
When analyzing the forests in the Park in zonal terms, one comes across the zone of beech forests and the zone of beech and fir forests, representing permanent vegetation forms, i.e. climatic zonal vegetation. Within these zones, depending on the relief, geological foundation, soil depth and soil moisture, a range of azonal vegetation types have developed as well (forests of willow, black alder, hop hornbeam, Scots pine, Norway spruce, etc.).
Forests play an important role in the protection of soil against erosion; they impact upon climatic and hydrological status, and represent crucial factors in the production of oxygen and carbon storage as well.
Given their level of conservation, these almost virgin ecosystems play an essential role in nature protection, and in the conservation of diversity of plant and animal life.
Houses were built on lower slopes of the hills, with plains, plateaus and valleys used as arable fields and gardens. Settlements started appearing in the canyon of the Korana River as well; however, they were never built along the lake shores. The essential construction materials in the building of traditional houses in the area of Plitvice were stone, wood and tufa. Roofs of old wooden houses typically consisted of fir planks or šimla; straw was used less often.
Fir planks produced in the area of Plitvice, in particular in Čorkova uvala, were well-known far and wide. Wooden houses were frequently built directly on the ground; retaining walls were used quite regularly as well, however, due to the challenges inherent in the uneven terrain.
Basements or cellars were used to house livestock and to preserve winter food stores. In some older houses, livestock would be placed in the main room with the fireplace, separated from the members of the household only by a wooden fence, the so-called ljesa (also lisa or lesa).
The fireplace represented the central focal point of every house in the area of Plitvice. Families would get together around it, socializing with their friends and neighbors, talking, getting warm, preparing the food. Given the fact that old houses of Plitvice had no ceiling (attic floor), the smoke from the fireplace served to cure meat hanging under the roof, and the roof construction included the so-called badža, an opening for smoke extraction.
Towards the beginning of the 20th century, facilities for livestock and storage of yields started being built on house lots. Separate facilities for food preparation were built as well, and open fireplaces were moved to them. Water mills were also built in settlements along river courses, as well as water-powered sawmills and stamper mills for cloth.
Bread as the fundamental food staple was mostly made of corn. Traditionally, people would bake bread by covering it in hot ashes and live coals on an open fireplace. Later on, baking lids were used (the so-called peka, or pekva in the local dialect), which potters would make out of clay; metal baking lids eventually entered into use as well. In addition to bread, polenta was made quite frequently as well, using cereals (oats, barley and millet), and butter as flavoring. Today, polenta typically designates a meal made of corn flour.
Pastures and abundant water in the area of Plitvice Lakes were more favorable for livestock breeding than land cultivation.
Given the fact that there were sufficient quantities of milk available as a result, milk was used to prepare food in quite diverse ways. Sour milk (so-called kiselina) was a regular staple, as well as cheese, butter, basa (soft cheese made of the skin on the milk) and cream.
Ruminant’s stomach was used to produce cheese, while butter was made in a special wooden vessel – the so-called stap. Dairy products were used mostly during the summer period, together with fresh and cooked vegetables and cured meat (smoked ham, bacon and sausages). One of the main treats, prepared for special occasions, was baked lamb. When it comes to cakes, masnica was a popular treat (salty or sweet, oily dough filled with onions, cheese, smoked ham, bacon, nettle and Swiss chard, or sweet cheese with raisins); potato pie, spinach pie, form cake and doughnuts were also popular.
In the wintertime, cured meat was used, although it was never abundant, together with boiled potatoes, sauerkraut, beans, turnip and kohlrabi. Pickled vegetables and sauerkraut were also used as salad, with seasoned polenta as a typical meal. Given the fact that forests were an indispensible resource in the lives of inhabitants of this area, they also used them as a source of food. The population was also hunting for game (dormouse was considered a treat) and collecting forest fruit. Mushrooms were picked in the forest too: true morels, oyster mushrooms and field mushrooms.
Surprisingly enough, having in mind the vicinity of the lakes, the inhabitants would rarely engage in fishing. When occasionally doing so, they would typically fish for trout in the creeks of Plitvica, Sartuk and Jasenica.
The suffering people were looking for salvation in the hidden depths of cold caves, praying to gods and begging for rain.
One day, a voice spoke from the heavens and said: “Gather early in the morning on the Well of Life, where you once quenched your thirst and found your life force. Say whatever lies in your heart on that place. Speak with dignity, and let your words express both what is your heart, and what is the truth. If you do so, I will be with you.”
The elders knew that it was the voice of the Black Queen, who would always appear before the people in calamity, and when the evil strikes the helpless.
They were thinking about the evil that came upon them, but also about their pettiness in the times of abundance – how they became estranged amongst each other, how their hearts hardened in the face of misfortune, and how distance grew among those who should be close to one another.
With fear and anxiety, they awaited the next morning.
As soon as the first roosters started crowing at dawn, they all went to the Well of Life.
They sat around the dry well, and the tribal headman said: “The Black Queen will listen to you. She will know whether you are telling the truth, or whether you want to deceive her. Do not even attempt to see her, for beauty and love cannot be seen. Rather, discover her in yourselves, so that you may recognize her.”
And so, people started talking about all the things buried in their souls. All, with the exception of one man: the richest and the most selfish man in the tribe. He was evil and vain, and completely deaf for the suffering of his fellow man. He was the only one who did not repent, but started instead to accuse the others.
When the headman overheard him, he got very angry and banished him from the tribe forever. As soon as that happened, a rainbow appeared above the Well, and people heard that well-known voice again. They threw themselves on the parched, punished ground, in joy, fear and hope.
And the Black Queen said:
“This is your land, and this is your homeland – the only one you have. Even so dry and so hard, so ugly and so barren as it may seem to you now, it is still the most beautiful and the richest land you will ever have as yours. Therefore, love this land! I am your daughter, and I am no miracle from heaven. I am your love and your hope. I have heard your words and I have seen into your hearts. Chase away what is evil away from your tribe. Those of you who have spoken have told the truth. That truth is my truth too. Return to your homes, and the rain will fall on your fields and your forests again. This will be your most beautiful land again; so beautiful, that others will come to admire it from afar. My tears will create water for you: those from my right eye will become the source of the Black River, and those from my left eye will become the source of the White River..."
At that moment, the rainbow disappeared, and two clouds emerged on the horizon: one black, and one white. The first drops of rain kissed the parched soil.
Everyone stood with their hands stretched towards the sky, bedazzled, listening to the birth of the source of the Black River.
Since then, the water flows endlessly, day and night, gently flowing through sixteen beautiful lakes.
... And people talked about that encounter for a long, long time. They also started adding and inventing all sorts of stories about the Black Queen and her golden hair, and all the fairies that accompanied her...
However, only the wise knew that the Black Queen can only be recognized by the grace of the soul.