“Who is she,” I asked, pointing to a portrait block fixed into the uneven divider on one side of the waterfall.
“Milka Trnina. She was a famous Croatian soprano, and she contributed generously to the preservation and protection of this lake. She died during the Second World War in 1941. She sang in Italian and German and earned a name in Europe and the U.S. Unfortunately, her career was curtailed prematurely because of a paralytic attack on her face. These waterfalls are named after her. The sound of the waterfalls reminds us of the force in her voice.”
This was the conversation I had with my local companion at the Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. We were at the barrier between the Milanovac and Gavanovac lakes. A two-hour drive southwest of the capital Zagreb, the Plitvice Lakes National Park is Croatia’s largest national park covering almost 30,000 hectares. Croatia is a country in Central Europe, sharing a coastline along the Adriatic Sea and a maritime border with Italy. Part of erstwhile Yugoslavia, it is a country of about 55,000 square kilometres and a population of about 40 million.
The Plitvice park has 16 lakes arranged in cascades, resulting from the confluence of several small rivers. They are all interconnected and separated by natural dams of travertine, which are deposited by the action of moss, algae and bacteria. The lakes are divided into an upper and lower cluster and are known for their distinctive colours, ranging from azure, green, grey or blue. The colours change depending on the nature of minerals or organisms in the water and the reflection of sunlight.
Pride of the nation
“A visitor has three options — two-hour walking route covering six lakes, a six-hour route covering 12 lakes or an eight-hour walk and cart ride to cover all the lakes, visit all fun places at the end of the journey and also have some good local Croatian seafood and drinks. Since you have limited time, we should take the shortest route, and you can enjoy nature for two hours,” she suggested.
“That should be fine,” I said. We resumed our walk. It was a day in November, early European winter, with intermittent drizzle, and we were with umbrellas.
“Today is a bad day. Usually, the weather is dry and sunny during this time of the year. On a sunny day, one can see the reflection of the sun’s rays on the clear water of the lakes. When we go up, you will notice the range of colours the lakes represent,” she was apologetically explaining.
The lakes, nestled in the forest, are a wonder of the world, layered, like a series of climbing steps, created by water flowing over the limestone and chalk, over thousands of years with deposited travertine barriers building natural dams, caves and waterfalls.
“The lakes are home to a variety of marine species, including fishes, and the forests are home to bears, wolves and a range of bird species,” she said.
“The water is tempting for swimming,” I mused.
“Nooo. Swimming is prohibited. If one intends to do, one has to have a deep pocket to pay the fine.”
“Did you grow up around this area?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “My father had built a house about two kilometres from here. He worked in this park. But he passed away at 50. Things became worse after that. We had war in the 1990s, and I had to be a teenage refugee in Germany for three years before I came back to Zagreb and lived there as a refugee for another three years before returning to our old place. Things changed. Now I am settled near the park with my family.”
“What do your children do?” I asked. I have been curious about how the younger generation of a nation looks at the world.
“My daughter is an adult now. She speaks both German and Italian. After passing out of High School, she has been studying and working in Germany, and the other two are in school. Youngsters prefer to learn English, German and Italian and plan to work in the UK, Germany or Italy. They migrate looking for better life and opportunity.” She wanted me to understand the outlook of generation Z.
“You don’t want to relocate?” I wondered.
“No.” She said. “I love travelling. I visit Italy and other places in Europe during summer. But I feel at peace here near the lakes. I went through a lot – refugee camps, instability in the Balkans and dislocation. My mother lives with us. She has seen WWII. She tells us the story of war and conflict. We cherish peace. We have read about Gandhi.” Her voice conveyed her sentiments.
“When did you read about Gandhiji?” I asked.
“In school.” She replied.
After the lakes, we had a traditional Croatian lunch. As I bid goodbye to Plitvice, I wished her to stay happy and safe. “Plan to visit India some day,” I suggested.
“I will,” she replied.
(The author is the Indian Ambassador to Croatia)