(Note: no photo gallery for this page)

We went for breakfast at the same time as the day before, but were disappointed to find the dining room empty and very little food left. We suspected that a voracious tour group had cleaned the place out and departed, and the hotel hadn’t provided any more. We made as good a breakfast as we could on the leavings.

Ticket and reservation receipts, Opatija to Karlovac
When we’d packed and checked out, our taxi picked us up. It took us to Opatija, where we planned to take a bus to Karlovac, a city on the route from Rijeka to Zagreb. We’d found when planning the trip that some buses ran from the west coast of Istria all the way to Zagreb, passing through Lovran and Opatija, as well as Rijeka, on the way. We had hoped to be able to board one of these buses right in Lovran, but the terse lady who had sold us our tickets in Rijeka told us that wasn’t possible; the buses stopped only at Opatija, where the company had an office, so our bus ride had to begin there. We could have taken a local bus from Lovran to Rijeka, but starting the trip by taxi instead was a convenient indulgence. For our money we saved ourselves an uphill climb to the bus stop in Lovran (“only 100 meters,” but non-trivial with all our luggage) as well as the possibility of a bumpy, crowded ride like the one we’d had on Monday (though of course it was now late morning, and buses were unlikely to be quites so jammed with passengers), and then a further hike to Rijeka’s intercity bus station.

Why go to Karlovac? you may be wondering. The map below may make the reason a bit clearer. Croatia, like many other places (including Slovenia) has lots of transportation links radiating from the capital, and it’s often necessary to go back to the hub of the wheel to get from one point on the rim to another. The Plitvice Lakes National Park (Nacionalni Park Plitvička Jezera) is on the main route between Zagreb and the Dalmatian coast, south of where we were. Buses heading in that direction followed the same route as those bound for Rijeka, until they got to Karlovac, where the routes divided. So we didn’t have to go all the way to the capital to find a bus heading for Plitvice; we could get off at Karlovac and take the next one that came along.

Our route from Lovran to Plitvice
The lady in the Rijeka ticket office had told us about another route that our research hadn’t discovered: from Rijeka down the coast to Senj, then inland through Otočac to Plitvice. It looked somewhat shorter on the map, but the roads it took looked smaller than the ones we planned to travel, and there were two more serious disadvantages: that bus started in Rijeka (so we’d have to get there from Lovran on our own), and it went only once a day, at a pretty early hour. I don’t remember exactly how early it was, but I do remember that when we heard the time we ruled this alternative out at once, and kept to our original plan. The map shows the three stages of our journey in different colors: by taxi from Lovran to Opatija (red), by Croatia Bus from Opatija to Karlovac (blue), and by the bus we caught in Karlovac from there to Plitvice (green). The ticket we bought at the Karlovac station identifies the bus line as Autopoduzeče Imotski (‘Imotski Autobusiness’), the untranslated word being the name of a town in Dalmatia.

A Croatia Bus is hard to miss (visually, at least)
The taxi dropped us in front of the bus station, where we waited, with slightly increasing anxiety as the minutes ticked past, for the bus to appear from the west. Croatia Bus, a big Zagreb company, advertises itself vividly on the sides of its bright blue buses; we had already seen several, so we knew what we were looking for. Due at 11:20 according to our reservations, it was either 10 or 20 minutes late depending on which of two conflicting schedules we consulted, but a helpful woman in the information office at the station reassured us that nothing unusual was afoot, and in a little more than due time, the bus rolled up.

Lovran to Karolovac baggage check (1 of 4)
A uniformed man got out of the bus and stowed our bags in the side compartment. He wasn’t the bus driver — in Britain he’d be identified as the conductor, but maybe his title in Croatian is something different. He had little English, but managed to make it clear that we should give him some money. We were puzzled by this, having shown him that our tickets were paid for, but eventually we worked it out that luggage cost extra. The charge was only 7 kune — less than $1.50 — per bag, so once the confusion was cleared up we were quite willing to hand it over. We found that all the bus companies we dealt with in Croatia impose a separate charge for luggage, collected when you board the bus.

This bus, bound for Zagreb, wasn’t crowded, even after making a stop in Rijeka, and the trip was scenic. We climbed the mountains behind the city on a new or at least modernized highway numbered both E65 and A6. The terrain outside was rocky, with nothing more than scrub growth on it, and on four occasions the highway carried us under the mountains through tunnels, the first and longest of these extending a little over a mile. At the city of Vibovsko, the bus left the highway and followed a smaller, two-lane road, Route 3, through villages and hilly but green terrain, often so close to the border with Slovenia that most of the hills we could see from our window were in that country. The border in that area is a rivernamed the Kupa on our Croatian map; Slovenes call it the Kolpa. We couldn’t see the river from the bus, however — only the hills on the other side.

The ride wasn’t terribly long, just about 2½ hours, and it was quite comfortable. We didn’t meet anyone, because — as on a Greyhound bus at home — every passenger sinks into a soft seat from which, apart from your travel companion, only three things are visible: the view from your window, the person sitting directly across the aisle, and the back of the seat in front of you. Unlike a railway compartment, this arrangement does little to encourage contact among strangers.

Consulting the guidebook at the bus station cafe
We arrived in Karlovac on schedule at 2:05, and went straight to the ticket office to buy tickets for Plitvice. In past years, all buses bound southeast for Dalmatia instead of southwest for Rijeka took the same road, which runs through Plitvice, but new roads have been built, and it’s now possible to get down to the Dalmatian coast driving on limited-access highways almost all the way — a route that unfortunately goes nowhere hear the national park. Some buses take the new route, others the old, and because so many buses come through from Zagreb, one never has to wait long for one that’s going through Plitvice. We could, in fact, have gotten on such a bus at 2:15, only ten minutes after we arrived, but another was due to leave an hour later, so we decided wait for that bus and eat lunch in the meantime. There was nothing luxurious about the cafe at the bus station, but a decent ham and cheese sendvić (a Croatian word I trust I don’t have to translate) and French fries for each of us cost a total of somewhere around $5.50.

Baggage check and bus ticket from Karlovac
Karlovac had been founded by the 15th-century Habsburgs as a military outpost to defend against Ottoman armies. It was part of the same arrangement that established the Krajina, the military frontier district where Serbs were recruited as combatant settlers. There had been fighting around Karlovac in the 1990s, but it remained in Croatian hands. The route we followed to Plitivice ran right into the Krajina, however, and much of the territory we passed through had been declared part of the “Republic of the Serb Krajina” and lost to Croatia until the Croatian army took it back in 1995. Until fairly recently, according to the guidebooks, buildings blasted and ruined by war were a fairly common sight, but apart from a pockmarked wall here or there, we didn’t see any sign of the violence in 2008.

Hotel Plitvice entrance
This ride was even shorter than the previous one; we arrived at ulaz dvo (‘entrance 2’), the nearest to the park’s three hotels, at about 4:30, where we were the only passengers alighting. We couldn’t see the hotels, but we rolled our bags along a paved walk until they came in sight. Our goal was the Hotel Plitvice, between the Hotel Jezero and the Hotel Bellvue in both location and price. We had chosen it based on the Rick Steves guidebook’s advice that it was “a better bargain the Jezero,” which was listed with three dollar signs in front of it, while the Plitvice had two. The line between these ratings must have been drawn with extraordinary fineness, however, because the listed prices differed by no more than two or three Euros. But we were satisfied with what we got, a “superior room” that included a sitting area, for €103 (about $165) per night. The guidebooks agreed that the three hotels provided decent accommodations, though at a comparatively high price; nevertheless, they were the only possible choice for travelers without cars. The guidebooks mentioned a few local B&B lodgings, but they were all some distance away.

From the top of our stairway
We found the woman at the reception desk terse and unsmiling (“like most Croats behind desks that we met,” Dorothea noted) but polite and efficient. The Plitvice lacked an elevator, so we had to carry our bags up a wide and wandering stairway to our room, which we found comfortable enough. It was decorated, like the whole hotel, in the style of the early 1960s (representing, as Dorothea also noted, both “the best and the worst of the architecture and decor of that period” — an observation that her picture, taken from the top of the stairway, illustrates pretty well). The Jezero, according to the guidebooks, had somewhat more modern decor, but the Rick Steves book added that it had “all the comfort — and charm — of a Holiday Inn.” This prospect didn’t attract us.

Stairway from the hotel lobby
On the way down to the Plitvice’s dining room, one floor below the main lobby, the stairs passed an alcove, off a wide landing, that held a bar and a grand piano — the bar was unstaffed and unstocked, and no one was ever there, but the 1962 atmosphere was so strong that I felt as though Frank Sinatra and the whole Rat Pack must be hanging out somewhere nearby. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Sammy Davis Jr. laughing it up the next time we passed. But the archaic decor reminded us of our youth, and we found the Plitvice more amusing than dowdy. We never took a picture of the deserted piano bar, but it’s just to the left of this landing. (The picture, looking from a sort of lobby in front of the restaurant entrance, was taken by another tourist who put it on the Web, and since it came out better than ours, I shamelessly stole it.)

Tickets to Plitvička Jezera National Park
We put our bags in the room and went outside to find the information and ticket booth for the park, where for the equivalent of $5.00 apiece we bought tickets that would cover our full stay. This was to be for three nights and the two days in between, but the same ticket would have been good for a visit of any length. Each ticket displayed a tiny map of the park, but we picked up a much larger and more legible one at the same booth.

Sitting (and storage) area
After getting the tickets we went back to our room to rest until dinner time. The room, thanks to its superiority, no doubt, was on the lake side of the hotel, but we couldn’t see the lakes from our window. They were a little too far away, deep in their valley; besides, the hotel was only two stories high, and the trees in between were tall. But the green view was pleasant enough, and the room was spacious, even though the sitting area looks more like storage space in Dorothea’s picture, taken as we were moving in.

Hotel dining room (note period chandeliers)
We went down to the Plitvice’s dining room for dinner at about 7:30, having been warned (accurately) by guidebooks and travel sites not to expect too much. Our waitress was not only terse, but a bit grumpy. We had soup to start; mine was made with lamb, lemon, cream, and veggies, Dorothea’s was French onion. Then I had a stuffed pork chop (the stuffing flavored with ajvar, the favorite condiment of the Balkans, combining red bell peppers with eggplant, garlic, and chili pepper. This was fine, but the accompaniment was corn that might have come from the frozen-food department of any American grocery, and what appeared to be the local version of Tater Tots. Dorothea’s grilled pork chops, served for some reason on a skewer, were unseasoned, thin, and tough, and her “gratineed” potatoes were devoid of cheese, though they had some parsley and bits of ham. Our salads were cabbage with a couple of slices of tomato and cucumber. On the plus side, the bottle of Slavonian wine (from eastern Croatia) that we shared was good — flowery but dry. For dessert, I ordered a “coupe” — ice cream and fruit with whipped cream — and Dorothea had a slice of chocolate torte, in which she was unable to detect much chocolate flavor. We’ve certainly had less successful meals in American restaurants, but they didn’t cost over $100 for two. However, as I said, we had been warned, and were able to write this down as part of what it costs to see one of the most beautiful land- and waterscapes in the world.

The view through our intrepidly open window
We showered and went to bed early so that we could get up at 6:30 the next morning, in order to take the Rick Steves guidebook’s advice to get into the park at 8:00am ahead of the tour buses. In spite of the warmth, which was seasonable, the hotel hadn’t turned its air conditioning on (an action apparently governed by the calendar rather than the temperature), so we left a window open despite some anxiety about mosquitoes. As it happened, the few bugs that ventured in that night belonged to different species. (Later in our stay we did get one mosquito, but it didn’t succeed in doing us any damage.) Our bed, as in other hotels, was covered with a sheet, a bedspread, and a duvet, the last of which was much too heavy for either of us. But Dorothea was content to use the bedspread as a blanket, and she got the maid to bring us an extra sheet that I could use. (This was our usual arrangement throughout the trip.)