We didn’t have any particular reason for visiting Croatia’s capital, other than for the fact that it had good transportation connections to Slovenia. We arrived with no expectations, and did our regular first-day-in-a-new-place hike around to see what was going on in Zagreb.
Alicia ate corn.
After hiking around most of the day, Alicia felt like crashing early. I ended up making some new friends for the night – A few Kiwis, an Austrian brother and sister biking through Croatia, two guys named Mike from London and Jersey, and a couple of Turks who were busking their way around Europe. We all hung out in the lobby until the receptionist’s shift ended and she took us out to a couple of her favorite haunts. The first being a pretty great beer garden where we sat for a while and sipped on Velebitsko dark lager.
The second stop took us down a couple alleys and into a fully painted courtyard, packed with people, and music blasting out of small door painted up like the entrance to a circus side show. Medika – named after the huge former medical factory that once occupied its abandoned buildings - is a venue, culture center, artist collective, and Zagreb’s first legalized squat. A couple of locals explained that usually if the place is that busy it is because a live band is playing, but that night a DJ was spinning a new take on traditional Croatian folk music that everyone is really into.
So we decided to stay an extra night. Maybe because we still needed to figure out how to get to Ljubljana, maybe because I got home at 5 am.
So our second day we went for another walk, got some train tickets for the next morning, and back to an empty Medika for a few photos in the daytime.
“All the servants of love are welcome!”
Plitviče had been on our mental list for a long time. If you spend any time on photo websites or have an uncle that sends you email forwards (Hi Uncle Ron!), you’ve probably seen Plitviče on one of those “most beautiful places on the planet” lists. So after we were done with Croatia’s coast, we headed inland for the lakes. Water back home in Iowa is… mostly brown. So when we come to places like Lake Egirdir and the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea, that crystal clear water has been straight up magical.
We hiked for six hours over raised wooden pathways, between travertines buried under lush foliage, and up the rock-strewn valley walls.
The water levels were low and the waterfalls were subdued due to a major regional drought, but it was still shockingly gorgeous.
This picture right here? The one that looks like ferns on the forest floor? That’s a big ol’ log submerged in at least six feet of water. Those plants are all under water, too.
It rained a little.
Just a couple hundred fish, hanging out. Doing fish stuff.
This is a real color.
Not an aquarium. Real life. What??
In the Serbo-Croatian and Slovene languages, the word for waterfall is slap. That is a fact you will now remember forever. You’re welcome.
We went to bed exhausted that night, and woke up to thick fog that was followed by torrential rain. So glad we visited Plitviče the day before! We used the waterproof covers on our backpacks for only the second time ever and trudged down to the main road to catch a bus to the capital. Next up: Zagreb!
As far as we knew, Zadar was an omelet with ground beef, home fries and American cheese that you could order at Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City.
As it happens, Zadar is also the name of yet another beautiful city on Croatia’s coast.
(A quick Google search reveals that the omelet was not named after the city.)
Zadar is most famous for its sea organ, a series of pipes imbedded in the waterfront promenade that make low, mysterious sighs and tones that fluctuate with the waves and wind. There’s nothing to see but a series of small holes in the stone, and its continual song can be both mesmerizing and unsettling as it up hums up from below.
And then there’s Sun Salutation, a representation of our star and planets that collects solar power during the day and lights up and pulses at sundown.
We sat and listened to the sea organ and watched kids cannonball off the edge of the promenade (click for the video). When dusk came, families hopped and danced and chased the changing colors on the giant LED sun. Public art that is perfectly integrated with nature and recreation, and is sustainable and accessible to all is a beautiful thing. Good job, Zadar.
We decided to take the ferry from Split to Brač Island.
Tony attempted to pass the time by drawing in a sketchbook. This attracted the attention of some 10-year-old boys who hovered over him and then clapped every so often.
Once on the island, a bus hauled us to the other side, and we caught glimpses of lime and olive groves, goat herds and white stone quarries. Some of that stone has made its way across the globe and was used to build a certain residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.
We also got glimpses of things and places on the island that we wanted to avoid.
The Adriatic is colder than the eastern Mediterranean. A lot colder.
But, that didn’t stop us walking through the pine trees to discover hidden coves, or from snorkeling and swimming through schools of silver fish and finding chartreuse coral and black spiky urchins.
One afternoon, we came across a pair of young Slovakian hitchhikers who were sleeping under the pines. They kindly shared with us a few pulls off of a powerful bottle of homemade sherry. We found them again on our last day and left our snorkels and masks with them. They were so happy, it felt like Christmas.
The best stories rarely come with pictures.
So here are some sunsets.
As much as we were amazed by Dubrovnik, we had to get out of there as quickly as possible. It was just too much. Too many people crammed into a small area starts to feel like a box. A shiny, lovely box from which you can jump off into a perfect blue sea… but still a box. So we took the next bus up the Dalmatian coast.
The Roman Emperor Diocletian built his palace on the sea about 1700 years ago. Apparently at the time it was so beautiful that Diocletian actually voluntarily retired. He preferred to enjoy his gardens as a civilian so much that he rejected a later invitation to return to Rome to rule. Over time and the flux of empires, the palace was abandoned and then repurposed into a city. The city’s name has changed along the way, but today it goes by Split.
As you might expect a palace-turned-city to be, Split’s courtyards and alleys are just as picturesque and romantic and as you can imagine.
We loved the breakfast at this cafe so much, we went back several times.
It was easy to linger.
The view was worth the few extra kunas. Or, in this case, tunas. (Check out the two kuna piece on the left.)
Split’s Riva promenade was bumping every night, just like in Dubrovnik, but since it was outside the city walls, we didn’t get the same hemmed-in feeling.
Still, we were feeling the need to press on… maybe find an island somewhere?
Croatia at last! This was one of the countries we had on the “for sure” list. Although our timing was perfect for beach weather, it also coincided with sweltering heat, cruise ship hordes, high prices and limited availability.
Still, Dubrovnik — at least the section of old town that we visited — was easily one of the more stunning cities we’ve visited so far. Towering walls, white stone streets polished smooth, dramatic fountains and steps, narrow winding alleys… it all feels a little unreal.