Croatia: Zagreb (Oct. 5-7)

We drove from Plitvice to a nearby village called Rastoke, which is known for its mills and waterfalls – many of the homes and stores there are built on top of the water. We were pretty hungry by this time since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we grabbed pizza and lasagna from a restaurant there. We then set out to make the final two-hour stretch to Zagreb.

Getting to Zagreb from Split was pretty easy – signs mark the entire way there. Finding the airbnb apartment we had rented, however, was no easy feat. Once in the city, we had to turn the data on my phone to use the maps. After a series of one-way streets and maybe ten turns, Stuart was driving behind a tram on the road when the road ended and we were driving on gravel.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” I said. I wasn’t paying attention before and had no idea how we ended up on the gravel. I shortly realized we were driving on the train tracks.

“Oh my god. Oh my god what are we doing?”

“Brennan – it’s okay,” Shaunagh said, realizing I was probably not making things any better.

Another tram drove past us, the driver looking shocked at our presence, and we noticed a platform of leering passengers waiting for the tram shortly ahead to our right. Stuart tried to pull up over the median, but our wheel got stuck, which made the situation increasingly tense. None of us said anything. After finally pulling off the high curb, Stuart drove forward on the tracks until we reached the grassy part of the median, where we were finally able to get over and back onto the road and off the tracks.

Most of us burst into laughter the minute we got onto the road.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

We arrived at our airbnb quite late, realizing it was not as close to the city center as we originally thought. We were pretty tired from the long day, so we weren’t up long before going to sleep.

The next morning, the four of us headed into the city center of Zagreb for lunch, eating at a fantastic restaurant called Mundoaka Streetfood. I had a cappuccino while I waited for their sandwich specialty (it was incredible) and ended up having two desserts, a carrot cake muffin and a poppy seed and pear tart, because the food was so good. I would return by myself the next afternoon before my flight to London.

After lunch, we met up with some friends I met in Ios, Australians named Josh and Jess, who had come from Split the day before as well, also stopping at Plitvice. I would later meet up with them in more cities, making them some of the main traveling companions of my trip. One of Shaunagh’s companions had been working in a hostel in Zagreb and met us after lunch as well, taking us around the city center and to Dolac Market, where I got six clementines for less than 50 cents.

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After wandering the city, the entire group went to the grocery store so we could have a rare home cooked meal when we got back to the apartment. I would be making sweet chili stir fry, although they didn’t have a lot of my typical ingredients. We bought chicken, corn, three kinds of peppers, onion and zucchini as well as some cheese, olives, biscuits and wine to snack on.

Back at the apartment, we started sipping wine and I started cooking the vegetables. When they were done, I pulled a large, cone-shaped mixing bowl out of the cupboard, criticizing the pointed design of the bowl that could not stand up straight. Why on earth did they think it was a good idea to design a bowl like this? I had to put the pointed bottom in a mug to keep it upright, and it wasn’t until after I’d put the sauced-up vegetables in the bowl that one of my friends pointed up at the ceiling.

“That bowl looks a lot like those light fixtures…”

(LOL)

Our guests left shortly after dinner (which was great), and my three companions planned their next stop, a trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia. I already had a flight booked to London the next day, and there was nothing I could do to change it. I was pretty jealous that they would have two more nights together, and it confirmed one of the great lessons of solo traveling – plan as little as possible whenever possible.

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Croatia: Plitvice Lakes National Park (Oct. 5)

Mid-sized waterfall at Plitvice Lakes

Mid-sized waterfall at Plitvice Lakes

After Sail Croatia ended, six of our group booked a hostel together for one last night in Split. I met up with two of my Australian friends, Jess and Josh, for coffee and wifi, as I’d gone a week without reliable connection to the real world, and then headed back to the hostel to meet back up with the group.

While we spent most of the day napping and relaxing after the long week, we did go out to eat at a highly recommended restaurant called Fife with cheap seafood. The black cuttlefish risotto (which Shaunagh made fun of my American pronunciation of) and the fried squid rings were highlights of the meal.

Shaunagh and me

Shaunagh and me

We went to bed early that night and the next morning, four of us said goodbye to the others and picked up a car we had hired for the day and night for only €50 between the four of us. Stuart, an Australian who had never driven on the right side of the road (but knew how to drive a stick and had his license on him) would be driving for the day.

After a 30 minute struggle with the Bluetooth, we were finally able to connect my phone to the music and turned up the tunes. Our plan was to drive to Zagreb, making an extended stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Plitvice Lakes National Park and the “Old Mill Village” Rastoke.

The group

The group

Without getting lost (seriously), we drove out of Croatia’s coastal sun and into a grey fog that hanged over the country that sat past the mountains separating the coast from the mainland. The difference in the weather was stark and surprised us after driving through a long tunnel under the mountains. I was not aware of it at the time, but the tunnel marked my goodbye to summer and greeted me with autumn at its end.

Starting out the hike at Plitvice Lakes

Starting out the hike at Plitvice Lakes

Under the melancholy sky, we arrived at the Plitvice lakes around 12:45, donning sweaters, jackets and jeans for the first time in weeks (I’ve since worn my one pair of jeans every day). We bought tickets that were never checked and made our way into the park, not fully prepared for the stunning landscape we would be exploring for the next four hours.

To truly describe the lakes would be impossible; photos and words will never capture the feeling of being there. We were maybe 20 minutes in when we came to the consensus that it was the most beautiful place we had ever been. Waterfalls were everywhere you turned. The lakes range from small to large and are arranged in cascades, making them spill over into one another from dozens of angles. There’s a wooden log trail/bridge spanning throughout the entire park, somehow seamlessly integrated into the park and making the area still feel somewhat untouched (aside from the large amount of visitors). The trail often rests just inches above the water, other times even half an inch under the water. We guessed that the area must maintain a pretty constant water level.

The path

The path

There is one part of small, connected lakes spilling into each other that essentially make one long waterfall, and much of this area was closed off because the trail was partially submerged. Most of Plitvice’s visitors, including us, did not follow the rule and passed under the rope– how could we skip over the most stunning part of the park? The “closed off” area turned out to be a bit of an obstacle course, balancing on the rock-lined side of dirt paths and jumping between logs. We were headed for a site on the map marked “big waterfall,” and it was at first unclear to me whether it was just the series of descending small waterfalls that made the big one.

Big Waterfall

The “Big Waterfall”

It was not. To my right, the small waterfalls let out into a waterfall a bit larger than the others we had seen. It was wide and impressive, and I reveled in the completion of a journey we thought might be hindered by closed trails. We walked a bit farther to get a better look when I glanced to my left and realized I was completely wrong about the “big waterfall.” To my left was a waterfall four times larger than what I thought it was, water rolling down the sharp incline at times and free falling at others. My mouth dropped two inches. I felt so lucky to be there, looking at something so beautiful and strong. There was nowhere else I would rather be.

Shaunagh

Sail Croatia (Sept. 27-Oct. 4)

Overlooking the island of Hvar

Overlooking the island of Hvar

It seems no easy task to write about the definite highlight of my trip – 12 days in Croatia sailing across the coast and to the islands and driving inland to the Plitvice Lakes National Park and to Croatia’s biggest city, Zagreb. It’s rare that I find myself able to get such an in-depth look into a country, but Croatia was definitely the place to do it.

Me and Shaunagh in Hvar

Me and Shaunagh in Hvar

I started my time in Croatia with a weeklong sailing trip through Sail Croatia, which happened to be doing a two-for-one promotion on my trip. I had originally learned about the sailing trips through an Irish girl I had met in Budapest named Shaunagh, and we had loosely planned on going together from then on. When I told her it would be $600 total for both of us, it was pretty much a done deal, and she booked a complicated flight from Morocco to Croatia (I myself had to spend a night in Belgrade, Serbia to make it there from Greece without shelling out $500 for a direct one).

Arriving in Trstenik

Arriving in Trstenik

The first day on the boat really set the pace for the week, with most of the people on the ship getting out the beers as soon as we set sail. There was a really nice deck on the top that we would all lay out on in the mornings when we sailed (or really motored – they weren’t actually sail boats), often having drinks or working on our tans. Yes, I do still have a nice bronze glow going on and it’s probably not going anywhere for a while. Aside from Shaunagh and me, the group was largely Australian, with a few Kiwis (New Zealanders) and South Africans, and two other Americans would join the boat a couple of days late. Although the trips are known for being a lot of 18-21 year olds, our boat had an older range, with most people being in their mid-twenties and up to 30.

Stopping for a swim

Stopping for a swim

It would be hard not to describe Sail Croatia as a booze cruise. Our days were spent lounging around the boat, exploring cities like Dubrovnik or doing excursions like an island buggy tour (really exciting) and white water rafting (reeeeeeeaaally cold, but also exciting). Our nights, however, almost always revolved around having some “bevs,” whether throwing a party on the boat or going to a bar (some of the islands were quieter and didn’t have much of a nightlife, other places were closed due to the season winding down).

Looking over King's Landing!

Peaking out at King’s Landing!

A highlight of the trip, we spent a day wandering through the walled city of Dubrovnik, AKA King’s Landing in Game of Thrones and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I used my student card (even though it’s expired…) to get a cheap ticket to walk on the walls of the city, which I highly recommend. We tried to find Sansa’s garden to no avail, but we saw many places where we were sure different scenes of the show took place. Pretty much the entire afternoon was spent talking about Game of Thrones.

Revelin Club in Dubrovnik

Revelin Club in Dubrovnik

After our afternoon wandering the city, we had a little party on the boat before heading to a couple bars in Dubrovnik – Skybar and Revelin. I have a Yoncé tank that I wear as pajamas and underneath my button-down shirts (I did start this trip at a Beyoncé concert), and at one point in Skybar, “Crazy in Love” came on and I ended up in my tank with a stage and a little crowd… The rest of the night was a blast, although a Kiwi tried to fight me over a hat I was wearing, which I timidly declined.

Flaming Jäger Bomb Dominoes in a bar in Hvar

Flaming Jäger Bomb Dominoes in a bar in Hvar

Another highlight was on an island called Mljet, which has a national park where you can hike, bike and rent kayaks. I rented a kayak for an hour and explored the peaceful saltwater lake on the island before heading out on a long hike with the two American guys on my boat. We hiked for an hour before we realized there were no operating water taxis or ferryboats and that we would have to walk all the way back. Maybe five minutes into walking, a car drove down the narrow bike/pedestrian/car path and on a whim I stuck out my thumb. The driver pulled over, and after some miscommunication (he didn’t speak English), we figured he was telling us we could come in and we did. We motioned for him to let us out before he turned off the path we were taking, still leaving us a 30 minute walk but saving us considerable time and giving me my first experience hitchhiking, if the brief ride counts. A couple friends of mine have actually hitchhiked from London all the way to Croatia.

Beach

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Statue of St. Peter and the view of Makarska

The excursions I mentioned earlier, buggy riding and rafting, were not free but were a good excuse to do something other than lounge around during the day. The buggy driving was really exciting – Shaunagh and I shared one, though I drove, and basically the entire drive was spent accumulating dust in my eyes even though I had sunglasses on. We drove pretty fast around the island, and it was even a bit scary sometimes. The buggies didn’t have power steering, so you had to really pull at the wheel to go anywhere. The rafting was a longer experience, about three hours on the rafts, and the weather had drastically changed to cloudy and cool the day before. Definitely the coldest experience of my trip, but it was really fun and we got completely soaked and had a great guide.

Pirate Party

Pirate Party on the boat

The trip was absolutely made by the people on the boat, who were all really fun and all got along really well, especially Shaunagh. This was the first time for me to meet up with a fellow traveler, and our friendship definitely cemented in our time together on the boat. The best part about traveling with fellow travelers is that we understand going solo and don’t have to be attached at the hip – some days I was keen to get exploring in a city while she wanted to relax on the boat for a bit, and it was perfect that way. But it was nice always having her to come home to.

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Next time: Shaunagh and I rent a car with two other friends after Sail Croatia and drive to Plitvice Lakes and Zagreb.