Falls 1

The contrasting faces of Croatia can come as rather a shock.

On first entering Croatia I had been struck by its natural beauty, an impression which only strengthened as I travelled down its length for soon the glory of its natural parks was added to the spectacular coastline.

Plitvice Park is probably the most renowned of these for here the river system descends dramatically step by step via a series of waterfalls which tumble and splash into sixteen cool-green lakes.

Falls 4

The phenomenon is scientifically fascinating. The erosion of rock over thousands of years in turn creates travertine stone when sediment mixes with the specific mosses and algae present in the two rivers, steams and springs which feed the lakes. This ‘new’ stone forms barriers at the lake edges and hence cascades. It is perennially biodynamic, rock still being eroded and re-created today (though slowly!), and is a lovely example of ecological balance.


This incredible natural feature has been made cunningly accessible by pathways, boardwalks and ferry boats so that one can explore it at almost any level of ability. And many people do – coachloads of tourists, many wearing inappropriate footwear, arrive in a constant stream, as well as the better prepared walkers. For serious hikers the waterfalls are surrounded by over 22,000 hectares of virgin forest where they can roam free of other people with a chance of seeing bears, wolves, wild cats and deer if fortunate.


Despite the multitude, once I got walking I found the paths were not too busy and could feel the joy of being in nature. I was once told by a psychologist friend that the easiest antidote to stress was to put yourself near water be it the sea, a river, lake or fountain. I have always found this wise advice and walking beside the Plitvice waters the outside world was literally washed away.



Even the insect swarms are beautiful in Plitvice.

It is a harsh irony that this place of natural peace and balance was the site of man’s brutality when the very first fatality of the 1990’s war took place here as Serbian forces took over the park and killed Croatian police officer Josip Jovic.

There are other nature parks in Croatia, the Krka National Park similarly allows visitors to explore a stunning waterfall system on boardwalks, and Paklenica park has cliffs, gorges and caves for climbers to explore.

Now compare this experience with arrival in some of the coastal towns which are tourist hotspots, like Split. Suddenly the mood changes in a frenzy for parking, tacky souvenir shops, and a bombardment of cafés and restaurants with someone at each door trying to entice you in. In Split there was the addition of actors dressed up as Roman soldiers and the crowds being addressed by the Emperor Diocletian himself welcoming them to his ancient city accompanied by loud drums.   I told myself to put a mental screen up before this and look behind it to the wonder that is the white-stone town that is Diocletian’s Palace.

Dio palace 1

Diocletian’s Palace, Split

Diocletian lived from 245 to 313 AD and built this spectacular palace, fortress and town for his retirement, evidently sparing no expense, importing the white stone, marble and Egyptian statues. Much has been perfectly preserved and, remarkably, is still lived in – though I personally saw more tourism than evidence of local residence.

Despite the eye-pleasing white walls, paving slabs and columns, the roman temples and alleyways, the glitz eventually got to me and I had to split Split.

The same befell me in adorable little Trogir, another white labyrinth winding away from the main square, housing the Cathedral of St Lovro with its wonderful carved portal, down to a harbour promenade. After a while my brain, or was it my soul, cried for me to take tourism evasive action and return to where I was staying in Marina with its quiet beach, wide sea view, and old harbour.  The tourist traps of Dubrovnik took this uncomfortable experience to quite another level entirely – but Dubrovnik is for another post.

Trogir from belltower 1

The 15th Century Trogir Town Hall

Trogir harbour

Trogir harbour front

Then there are other towns, which are also on the tourist trail, that have nevertheless kept their identity and dignity – and therefore much charm. Sibenik was one. Here I found a different atmosphere entirely for Sibenik’s calm medieval streets contained ‘real’ shops for residents and no tawdriness.

Rainwashed square

The ethereal beauty of a rain-washed Sibenik square

Furthermore, Sibenik held treasures. St James Cathedral is described as a ‘masterpiece’ and has World Heritage Site status. This relatively small cathedral is built entirely of stone without brick or wooden supports, and has 71 faces of real 15th century citizens carved on its façade – evidently more flattering if one’s donation to construction was generous, or vice versa.

Faces 2

But the gem is in the baptistery where the main cathedral mason, local resident Juraj Dalmatinac, created a work of art which takes your breath away. Above the font supported by three angels the baptistery dome is a delicate and intricate lacework of sculpted stone – curlicues, scrolls, St James shells, prophets, a choir of angels and, in the middle of all this beauty, God peeping down from heaven at every newborn being baptised.  Exquisite.

Now can you see why Croatia is a land of many contrasts?

Whole ceiling

The Baptistery ceiling

God & angel


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  1. Joannie says:

    What a lovely trip! Personally I liked the view of the waterfalls seen through the trees and over a lake. So much contrast between nature and historic buildings – it must have been awesome.

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