Imagine a river playing hopscotch down a staircase and voila! You have Krka Falls.
It’s pronounced “KER-ka.” And that’s just how they spell it; Croatia isn’t as attached to vowels as America is. But they are incredible attached to this set of cascades just north of the idyllic town of Sibenik (think of it as Dubrovnik before the tourists came); I found that Krka is to Croatia what Niagara is to the US and Canada.
Happily, the science behind Krka also explains why it should be on your to-do list. Geological whatsits and tectonic doodads result in almost all of Croatia that touches the Adriatic, and several miles inland from it, being made of a mix limestone, gypsum, and dolomite. Collectively, this trio is called karst. It is highly soluble in water, and that part is important.
As the Krka River flows through this landscape, it slowly dissolves any karst it touches. So much so that the water becomes something of a hypersaturated solution of sorts, and at a certain point has so much dissolved stone that it has to chemically “disgorge” it, limestone in particular. The Krka Falls are one of the dumping grounds. But no junkyard looked like this.
Millenia of mineral deposits created a series of terraces, turning what had probably been a straightforward system of ancient rapids into the collection of balconies and stairwells made entirely of travertine. If that sounds familiar, it’s the same stuff stalactites and stalagmites are made of; Krka Falls is a lot like a cave without a roof, and ironically, the stone looks as fluid as the water. The process is on-going: the river flows on to this day, and so much travertine has been laid down over the years that it dammed itself in some places so is finding new courses. Riverlets and streams stray off in dozens of directions; it looks like the Krka had a seizure and went every direction at once. And if it’s in the water, travertine will collect on it; I found deadfall, the roots of living trees, and even moss completely entombed.
All that water creates one hell of a visual punch. I could not get over the sheer greenness of the landscape, the trees, the reeds, the lichen. More over, at Krka I heard every sound and song water can make, from murmurs and rills to gushes and roars. Put it all together and I was like I was in the garden of the gods, untouched and undiscovered. Everything was alive and full and lush. I almost forgot that this neck of Croatia gets 300 days of sunshine a year and is so dry in spots it rates as a desert. Not surprisingly, to make sure the green stays green, the local 109 km (around 67 miles) of Krka riverfront is protected as a national park.
Now, as I found out, technically speaking, seven different sets of cataracts qualify as “Krka Falls,” so you have to be specific about which one you want to see. I lucked out: without knowing any better, I wound up at Skrandinski Buk, considered the fairest of them all and the one that springs to mind when a Croatian thinks of Krka. Beauty, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, but certainly Skradinski Buk is the biggest, longest, and most dramatic of the Krka travertine falls, with 17 combined cascades. Even better, you can swim here (at the base of the falls only — the rest of Skrandinski Buk is nothing but whitewater). Oh, and HANDS. OFF. THE. TAVERTINE.
Now the downside. First off, this is not Yellowstone; you have to buy a ticket. More, Krka Falls/Skrandinski Buk hardly counts as “undiscovered.” In fact, it’s been very much discovered for a long, long time: if you want to see the Croatian take on hydropower going back a couple centuries, just check out all the old mills and power stations — some of which are still in use while others live on as “working” museums — that dot the riverbank. All of that means is that Skrandinski Buk has a visitor limit that it regularly reaches in the summer months, so get your tickets well in advance (or see another of the falls). Of course, you could be like me and go the off-season route.
And when I went in May, you could hardly call it crowded (you couldn’t call it empty, either, just sayin’). That’s still too cool to go swimming, but from a photographer’s standpoint, it’s the perfect time to go. The waters were rushing, the flowers blooming, the trees in all their leafy green splendor — and I never had to worry about somebody getting in the frame. I think I took at Krka some of the best travel photography I ever have, and it wasn’t just because the landscape made it easy.
Spring is the unsung season of the Croatia. You have the sun and the comfy temps — ok, maybe not for swimming in an ice-cold river — but you don’t have the crowds, and come summer, this is one crowed country. It pays to go when most people don’t. You don’t have to worry about visitor limits.
And you get shots like these.