I pulled into Zagreb excited to be in a new country but still wiped and with a slight cold. My night of fun in Budapest was having lasting consequences and I vowed I would take as many days off as I had to to get healthy again. Luckily the hostel in Zagreb was quiet and I spent my first evening chatting with a few of the other guests there, one of them being a guy from Philly doing a very similar adventure as mine and on a gap year like myself. We talked about our similar experiences of being a younger-than-average traveler doing the backpacking thing but also how awesome it was to be taking this time to have experiences and see places we would have never gotten to otherwise.
The next day I toured around Zagreb, a small city with no lack of charm but with little to set it apart from other eastern-European cities, a motif I am ashamed to say I was getting a little tired of. I got back early in the afternoon and got set up to cook a dinner of every backpackers staple in Europe, spaghetti. Most people simply just go with a box of the cheapest noodle they can find and a jar of sauce but I am always of the mind that why buy the sauce when you can make it? It always costs me a few extra Euros Crowns, Leus, Zlotys or Kunas but I never regret it, especially because half the enjoyment of the whole meal is the act of cooking it. That night I found onions, garlic, leeks and sausage to add to my tomato base and happily sat down with a huge steaming bowl of delicious food. I think I get a little better at it every time.
I awoke bright and early the next day to catch a bus to Plitvice, home of the Plitvice Lakes National Park, a destination I had been set on making it to ever since I started thinking about this whole adventure. The bus ride there was stunning. We wound around and in between small mountains flecked with snow and it seemed as if every five minutes a new, beautiful vista presented itself through the bus windows that was even more breathtaking than the last. Little did I know that this was to be the most bland bus ride I would go on in Croatia. I made it to Plitvice in the early afternoon and though I wanted to get into the park as soon as possible, I first needed to find a bed for the night. The park attendant directed me to the small village a half k behind me but warned me it was very quiet this time of year. I set off, hopeful I could find something and began knocking on door of houses that had signs proclaiming "Sobe" which I am pretty sure means room in Croatian. The first few houses produced no results at all and the third offered me a place to stay but for 200 kuna (about 34 US). Outside of my price range but if there was nothing else I would have to bite the bullet on it. The fourth house wasn't accepting guests but the lady at the door suggested I try Ana's, the last house at the end of the road. I thanked her and headed down, finally finding the little B&B with a smiling lady gardening out front. This was Ana and after a broken conversation she told me a room at her place for a night was still 200 kuna... but included both dinner and breakfast with the price. I grinned and told her I'd take it. After she showed me around I slung off my backpack and headed back to the park, intent on using the rest of the daylight I had to explore the lakes.
It really is going into a different place when you enter the park. More than once I had to rub my eyes to make sure I was actually seeing what I was seeing. The Plitvice Lakes are all relatively small bodies of water than cascade down one from another, through hundreds of tiny waterfalls that have been created due to the dissolving of limestone and dolomite rock in the area. These small rivulets connect the lakes that at the time I was there, almost glowed they were such a bright shade of green, though green is shamelessly simple and inaccurate way to describe the color. Not only that, but the color would meld and shift as you gawked at the lakes, sunlight creating a azure tint to the waters while shadow intensified the martian-esque tone of the lakes. Camera at the ready constantly I moved my way down to the walkway that allowed me to cross over to the other bank and get closer to the most intimidating and deafening feature of the park, the Veliki Slap or Large Waterfall. Since I was there just as spring was starting and the snow was melting the waterfall was going full bore and you could barely stand near it without being doused by the spray coming off it. One main flow down the center merges with others in its free-fall and slams down with a power that only nature possesses. It is a truly awesome sight to see. Unfortunately, I discovered after tearing myself away from the waterfall that much of the park was still closed due to snow and after exploring every inch of the park that was open I went back to my room at Ana's, relishing the peace and quiet of having privacy and my own space for the first time in a month.
That night I was not only served dinner, but a three course slice of heaven that was almost as incredible as the lakes. It began with an apertif of slivovitz, a plum brandy that is hugely popular not only in Croatia, but all over Eastern Europe under different names. The one that Ana served me was made by her husband and from what she could tell me it is the norm throughout the country for families to make their own, rather than buy it in the store. Slivovitz tastes nothing of plums but rather tastes similar to bourbon, except having a slightly lighter and fruitier taste, although the potency is the same if not stronger. Following the drink I was started with a noodle soup, hot and warming to both the body and soul. This was followed by spaghetti and grilled chicken breast and the meal concluded with chocolate pudding. With both my stomach and mind happy and filled with food and experiences, I slept soundly and long that night.
I woke up finally rid of the sickness that had been stuck on me for the past week and showed up at Ana's kitchen bright-eyed and hopeful of another great meal. I wasn't disappointed. Home-made jams to match freshly baked bread, hard boiled eggs and a number of cereals to try along with great coffee and tea. Not only that but Ana had set out sliced meats for me to make sandwiches with so I would have food for my bus ride later that day. The kindness was incredible and I struggled to express my gratitude to her as I packed up my things following breakfast. I said goodbye and promised that someday I would do my best to come back and hopefully bring my family back to this magical place. The bus I caught later that day was taking me to Split, a town on the coast that I hoped to be a jumping off point for an exploration of the islands off the coast of Croatia. Like I said before, I thought I had seen some beautiful places on my way to Plitvice but the ride that day was even more breath-taking as we climbed higher up mountains and down lower into fields that were just beginning to show the first shades of spring green. The light faded as I rode and it was dark by the time I finally got off in Split. Stepping off the bus I inhaled deeply. And then took another breath, wondering why the air felt very, very different here. It was not just being on the coast, something had drastically changed. Slightly puzzled and excited I grabbed my bag and started off attempting to find the hostel I was booked at for the next two nights. With my head down looking at my directions I didn't notice them until I almost ran into one. Palm trees. Somehow, during the bus ride I had gone through some type of portal that had taken me out of the damp and chilly climate of Eastern Europe and teleported me into the lush and green world of the Mediterranean. It was all I could do not to laugh with joy. I got lost trying to find the hostel but hardly cared I was so giddy over my new surroundings. I did finally find my digs for the next couple of days and introduced myself to the few other people at the hostel with me, a gang of three Romanians and two girls from California. I also had made a connection with a girl on couchsurfing in Split who, though she couldn't host me was game to grab dinner. I met up with her and two other couchsurfers and ate awesome pizza that didn't hurt the budget too bad, drank a cheap beer and marveled at where I had made it to in the world.
Needing to see more of the greenery that surrounded me the next day I wandered up into the park on the western side of the town. I couldn't get over the fact that everything was just so alive and it boosted my own liveliness and energy. Up and up I went till I finally crested the hill and was able to look out over the whole town to my left, the red clay roofs glowing in the afternoon light, and gaze upon the dark blue waters of the Adriatic on my right. I snapped pictures and soaked up the experience for my memory before heading down to the hostel and seeing what the plan was for the evening, it was Saturday night after all. Unfortunately (or fortunately) Split had yet to really get the swarms of tourists and travelers that flock there in the summer and while Erin, Lynn (the girls from California) and I tried to find somewhere to go we never found anything interesting and the night ended with me not unhappily munching on a kebab from a place down the street.
Sunday proved to be a rainy day and I took the opportunity to look into my next move down the coast. My plan for island hopping was quickly shot down as I found out that nearly all the ferries running between the islands didn't start operating until June. So, I re-evaluated my plan and decided to take the bus down to Dubrovnik that afternoon, a town known as "the pearl of the Adriatic", famous for the fact that the old town is completely surrounded by a thirteenth century, meter thick wall. How could I not see something like that? Fortunately getting to Dubrovnik was a much easier proposition and my host at the hostel told me there was buses that left every hour for the town. With time to burn and food needed for the trip I ventured into the local market and came out with not only a kilo of mixed nuts, raisins, and craisins, but also oranges and bananas and ingredients for what has proved to be my favorite and affordable sandwich on this whole trip, the P.L.T. with cheese, the P standing for pancetta; amazing, delicious, affordable pancetta.
Sandwiches packed and bag ready I grabbed a seat on the bus. After making our way out of split and onto the open road we made a turn and I found myself again in a entirely new place. I thought I had seen amazing views and huge vistas on my other two rides. This was in a completely different class. Our bus was hurtling along the side of a mountain, a small one compared to the sheer rock faces of the magnificent peaks I saw up ahead, not two feet from the edge of a two hundred foot drop that ended in the Adriatic that extended for as far as the eye could see. Scattered among the blue water green islands peacefully sat enjoying the afternoon sun. I don't think I closed my mouth for the first half hour. Every now and again we would slide around a corner of a mountain and enter into a picturesque Mediterranean village, the white faces and red roofs accenting the natural colors of the area and making my head spin from the beauty. It was a trip I will never forget and one I hope to make again sometime in my life.
I got into Dubrovnik at dark and wandered my way into town till I came across what was without a doubt the old city wall. It is seriously like walking into a castle, drawbridge included, by far the coolest entrance into a town you will ever see. The wall rises up above and at night the lights illuminating it only add to the almost surreal feeling you get going in, like your walking into a movie set and that this can't possibly all be for real. Yet here I was, walking the main street of a town that in large part is identical to how it looked more than half a millenia ago, stunned by this places existence and my prior ignorance of such a unique part of the world. No cars can get inside the old city and most of the roads are barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, only adding to the feeling that you have gone back in time as well as making it very hard to find a small place such as a hostel. I felt silly I had yet again gotten to a destination only to discover I had no idea how to complete the last half kilometer of the trip when I was hailed by three people. "Who would I know here?" I wondered as I walked towards the three people. I was happy to discover it was the Romanians from the hostel in Split and I gratefully asked if they knew where the Villa Angelina was located. They erupted into laughter and before I could wonder what it was I said that was so funny they explained that they were all staying there as well and just to follow them. Relieved and happy to be among some people I at least had a minor connection to I followed them up the hill that the old city rests on (lots and lots of stairs) and into the Villa Angelina, a small and homey hostel run by one of the most gracious and helpful hosts I've met on my journey, Dario. He had room for me that night but warned me that they might be totally booked tomorrow, a problem I decided not to worry about till the morning as I ate my final PLT and headed up to my room.
With a goal in mind (finding a bed for that night) I got up early and did some quick research on hostels in the area. There weren't too many to choose from but I got the information on three and struck out. Unfortunately the three I had found were all a ways out of the old city and it took me all afternoon to track down the three I had picked out. The man running the first one was very surprised to see someone looking for a room at this time of year but was certainly not upset by the fact and showed me the rooms he had available, all of them as it turned out. They were nice enough but after my time in Plitvice and the quietness of the hostel in Split I had my fingers crossed I could find my way to a place with some other backpackers in the same boat as myself and make some new friends I could explore this awesome city with. I only realized after checking out the second place (looked abandoned) and the third (locked up tight) that I was a rare sight to be in this part of the world at this time. Deciding I was pretty committed on staying at the first hostel as it was the only one even open I went back to Angelina's to grab my stuff. Dario met me at the door with a smile on his face, "I have a bed for you!" he told me to my surprise and delight, "same price as before." Life can be pretty awesome sometimes.
The next day I finally had the time to see and explore the amazing city. Dario insisted I start by touring around the city walls and I was grateful he did. While Dubrovnik is spectacular from the ground, it is absolutely uhh (I'm running out of descriptive adjectives to explain beauty and awesomeness) out of this world (haven't used that one yet right?) from above. You can look down into the narrow cobble-stoned streets, or up and survey the wall that surrounds the town, or out, into the massive ocean. Popping up above the normal sized buildings the towers of the monastery and Rector's palace, bedecked with sculptures of past leaders and priests of the city. Lookout towers along the walkway remind you of the battles and sieges that once took place along these very same walls while the cable-car lines up to the top of the hill behind the city remind you that as easy as it is to believe, you aren't actually in the 14th century. I took my sweet time circling around the city and seriously thought about starting over and doing the whole thing again when I reached the stairs I had taken up. But I had dinner to make (spaghetti with pancetta) and a soccer game to watch later (Barcelona vs. AC Milan). Both were great, though the soccer game was definitely more exciting than my dinner.
I caught a bus the next afternoon after visiting the Rector's Palace and doing my best to see any part of the city I had yet missed back to Split where I am right now, sitting in the same hostel as before and about to make more PLTs for my ferry ride in a couple hours. I'll spend the night traversing the Adriatic and wake up in the morning in Ancona, Italy. From there I'll catch a train to Rome and if all goes according to plan meet my friends from Budapest Matthew and Carla at the train station. Without even asking Matthew invited me to stay with them a couple weeks ago and I couldn't ask for better people to spend more time with as I barely got to know either of them when we last saw each other. Should be a great time.