If you are reading this column and are living outside of Croatia then I would advise you to find a way of visiting this year, you have never see anything like this before and you will never see anything like this again in your lifetime again. Unprecedented times is the understatement of the century. I know that I use this line from Charles Dickens often but it really is “the best of times, the worst of times.”
With Dubrovnik almost completely devoid of any tourists whatsoever my wife and I decided take the time to explore, we headed north without a plan, without any accommodation booked and without a destination, as the Americans would say, “we went on a road trip.” It was one of those times when you just follow your nose and when you find somewhere you like you stop.
As we left Dubrovnik and drove up the coastline the first car we saw with foreign number plates was as we were passing Split on the motorway. We pushed on, until deciding to stop at Plitvice literally when we saw a sign on the motorway for the national park. It is a long, long time since I’ve been to the 16 chained lakes so why not. And clearly since the last time I have been there a whole host of new apartments, villas, camping, glamping and everything else in between has opened up. Like mushrooms after the rain they have sprung up to presumably deal with the demand. This year that demand has dried up. From the turning off the motorway to the lakes we saw two more foreign plated cars, and they were both Slovenians.
So carpe diem, we pulled into the national park. “We are seeing one of the best national parks in this part of Europe, pretty much on our own, and we got in at heavily reduced prices,” I said to my wife as we sailed out across the first lake. What seemed like a full team of staff were on duty and they had time to talk and give advice, it almost seemed like we were breaking their boredom by speaking to them. There were almost as many members of staff as visitors.
“For years they have been struggling with crowds and thinking of ways to reduce the number of guests and then along comes Covid-19 and overnight their problems are solved, well probably too solved,” I commented to my wife as we sat in front of Veliki Prštavac waterfall not having to barge through selfie-taking Koreans.
We easily found accommodation in the national park, again a heavy discount, and were greeted like long-lost family members. “We are so happy to see you, and were so surprised that you booked our chalet,” they said as the rakija of all flavours flowed. And this is the flip side of the coin. On the selfish side my wife and I had a fantastic road trip, and went from Gospic to Slunj, from hidden caves to wide open plains. And because there were no crowds at all we pretty much visited all the highlights in two days.
Not only that but we had the best seats at the restaurants, the best service ever and everyone was falling over themselves to give us a discount. However, on the other side of the coin, “We have rented three cars in the last six days,” said a rent-a-car with over 120 cars in his parking. “You are the only guests for lunch,” said a waiter, one of four waiters, at a leading restaurant in Lika, a restaurant that normally has booking weeks in advance. And “Normally we would guide around 5 to 6 thousand guests a week through these caves, but we actually counted yesterday and we are now welcoming a few hundred a week and they are all Croatians,” said the pleasant guide at the Barać Caves. And then I asked “Are you self-funding or do you have help from the state?” – “Our wages are paid for from tickets sales, so yes this year will be challenging,” he answered with a wry smile. That is the flip side of the coin.
However, if there is any way for you to get to Croatia this summer I would heartedly recommend it. Of course I don’t want you to have to spend two-weeks in quarantine when you get home, but if you can come and return normally then once again I’ll say that you will never, ever see Croatia like this again.