PLACE NO 12 PLITVICE NATIONAL PARK, CROATIA
That blue: it's the blue of dreams. It creates flecks of white as the sun refracts; it creates shadows as it laps against the land. Furrows and ripples intertwine, and silver slips of light like stars on a clear arctic night, flash and flicker. It's supernaturally clear surface will distort your depth perception: centimetres will turn into metres and metres will turn into miles.
This is Plitvice National Park, UNESCO protected, Eden like, with a beauty so bewitching it is like an outer-body experience. Nestled in between a few Croatian regions and near to the Bosnian border, it is a sacred monument to nature.
You weren't allowed to swim in the waters and I could understand why. The chemicals, the suncream, the crush, the ruin - but my God. It was like my body was screaming for water.
As you peer downwards, into its glassy pools, you find twinkling chub, roach and trout sprats, suspended at different levels in the lake like garlands of jewelled tinsel strung across the lagoon. I watched with excitement as a thick black snake, like polished obsidian, curved and weaved its way through the aquatic fry before creeping into the bullrushes along the shoreline.
Like a gymnast on a balance beam, my converses pattered down onto the polished boardwalks that crisscrossed and circumnavigated the entire park. Their slats looked as if they had been salt scrubbed and worried smooth by a stormy sea. There were no edges, no handrails, nor any limits. Paths merely tapered into oblivion and left you pitched over clear waters. And it was busy.
Sometimes I hit clear a run, and could almost sprint through that forested wonderland. At others, I was weaving and ducking like Bruce Willis in an action flick, against a ticking clock - hurtling past busybodies and babies. I was perching on the edge of stability - temping fate's long thin twitching fingers with my presence. At any moment I felt I could just fall in - I'm surprised I didn't see any mishaps.
There has been much speculation over the centuries concerning how these lakes were formed. The most credible, however, is that they are the work of black magic, or more precisely, that of The Black Queen. Fantastic above all the other fairies in the dark forest, she was said to be, quite contrary to our instincts, a kind-hearted soul. Clothed in sable and soot coloured armaments, gauntlets of steel and a cloak that when shook would bring midnight across the land.
One day, she looked down on the suffering peasants of the village. They whimpered under the gold, unblinking light of Ra; watched as their fields crisped and cracked and their crops withered and paled. Drought bedevilled the land, and the only water that fell were tears, and even they were minute and salty. Until one miserable Wednesday, when the last trickle of water spluttered its way along the Black River, before finally surrendering to the sun. The people despaired.
So she took her cloak and shook it across the land. It signalled the start, and the weather changed suddenly. The wind scattered empty water buckets with a clanging knock between their houses, stray chicken feathers and dried hay, billowed into a noxious cloud. Then upon the horizon, lined-up like the horsemen, came four enormous thunderheads. These monstrosities reached up into the heavens and plucked out Ra's solitary, staring eye. They grumbled and groaned as they reached the valley, cracking like huge oak galleons creaking through a gale. The ground quivered as these juggernauts pushed through the forest. Sparks of lightning zapped and burnt - whilst fires and earthquakes hammered themselves into being across the land.
Until, with an enormous howl, the storm broke open.
First came the ice: balls the size of eggs. They slammed into the parched earth, wedging themselves into enormous soil cracks. Then came the rain. It tumbled down like spears thrown across a battlefield, blackening the sky like arrows at a siege - and still, the thunder boomed.
The village sat at the top of the hill; its people exposed and frightened and hiding inside their little homes, under their blankets, under their tables. Praying that what they had asked for wasn't worse than what they already had.
And still, the tempest blew all around them, blasting out in a wicked chorus like screams escaping from the inferno. But she was not going to solve this measure by halves. She was going to solve this problem forever. For her home would be no desert.
It rained for a week solid and the villagers did not leave their homes; as much as it was becoming quite uncomfortable. They slept, for the most part, drank cold water from buckets held out the door, or else just lay on their furs and listened to the furore. Until they woke one morning and it had stopped.
Emerging into the cool light of early morning, before the sun had risen, the villagers stared at the land around them, newly filled and carved into sixteen interlocking lakes. They lived off freshly barbecued fish for the first few months, planted their fields anew, and fattened their best breeding stock on the first green shoots of grass. Life was bountiful and they all worshipped Her as the millennia ticked on. Plitvice was born.
Rather enticingly, the inhabitants of the region decided that the majority of the lakes would be named after those that were said to have drowned in them, and not one is named in honour of the Black Queen. Perhaps she is plotting her revenge; perhaps she feels that her obligations are finally at an end; or perhaps, with a little sadness in her voice, she declares that all she ever wanted was for them to be happy.
The crystalline qualities of the water are supposedly derived from the calcium-rich rock which dissolves in the water and absorbs impurities making it clear. At least that is what the UNESCO website informed me; whilst there, in the flesh, it just seemed like magic. The bottom is apparently calcified, reflecting light, which when coupled with depth, helps to make it that blue, and its unique plant life (including mosses and phytoplankton) add that alluring green tinge to the lake.
Talking of phytoplankton, I read an interesting article from BBC news recently, on the importance of watercolour - not from an artist's perspective, but from a scientific one. In 2015, the Sentinel 3 satellite was launched into space to monitor the colour of the ocean and rising sea levels. The thinking is - the more green, the more phytoplankton. This could be a good thing because it means that more carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere and absorbed into the ocean and because it represents more food on the first rung of the ocean's food chain. Data was collected before this satellite was up, but it is during Sentinel 3's reign that it recorded exponential levels of rising sea water. It is also the same satellite that recorded Europe withering into a sandy wasteland, from the vibrant green it once was, during the summer heatwave this year (2018). Would the Black Queen return to save us when needed?