My Favorite City: Berlin (Oct. 30-Nov. 5)

Graffiti on the East Side Gallery

Graffiti on the East Side Gallery

Berlin just might be my favorite city in Europe.

Its great nightlife (which I still have only had tastes of), hip markets and stylish food joints make it a very livable city, and its minimal fashion and modern urbanity give it a contemporary charm unlike most older European cities. The people pride themselves on a liberal, easygoing attitude that clashes with a tumultuous history, making you wonder how one city can come so far in such a short amount of time. Berlin is a Western city at its finest.

#glamourcat

#glamourcat

After a long train ride from Brussels and a night in, I woke up on Halloween day in Berlin and met up with one of my travel companions from my time in Greece, Mirjam, who is from Berlin. She and a friend met me at pretty much the only costume store in Berlin, where we waited in line for maybe 30 minutes during the Halloween rush. I had a limited budget and limited clothes (I’ve been living out of a 13 kilo bag for four months), but I happened to have a pair of leopard print pajama pants (affectionately known as my hot pants) and a leopard print blanket (only because my mom gave it to me before I left). Obviously I would be a leopard, so I bought a €2 face mask and was ready for the night. Later I would mention the availability of leopard print in my bag to a German girl, whose response was: “and you’re not even gay! … are you?”

I eventually headed back to the hostel for a short break, meeting my Australian friend Josh who was going to be traveling with me for the following 11 days. He also knew Mirjam and her boyfriend Felix from our time together in Ios. Felix and Mirjam invited us for dinner at their house, so we went over an hour before the party for a home cooked meal. When the party started, I somehow ended up being the designated makeup artist and turning Josh and Mirjam into zombies… you can decide for yourself whether I was any good (the answer is no, not really).

Would you hire me as your makeup artist? (Note: Mirjam added her own line details)

Would you hire me as your makeup artist? (Note: Mirjam added her own line details)

At one point in the party, which was pretty much all Germans except for a few people from Felix’s roommate’s lacrosse and running teams, I started talking to a guy who I assumed was German. When I asked him where he was from, though, he said, “Arkansas.”

I assumed he was messing with me at first until he mentioned that he was from Fayetteville, which there’s no way he would have known about if he was from anywhere else. After talking for a few minutes, I learned that he had moved to Berlin to teach English through a company called Berlitz that didn’t require him to know any German. He seriously may have changed my life because I’ve thought about living in Berlin for a long time.

The next day, Josh and I got out of the hostel pretty late and headed to Winterfeldt Markt, a neighborhood food market in Winterfeldtplatz. We got a lot of small dishes, which means we ended up eating a ton – brats from the Bauer Lindner stall, a smoked fish sandwich, zucchini fritters, spring rolls, fresh squeezed juice, tiramisu and cappuccinos.

I had almost forgotten that I should show Josh the touristy things since I had already seen them when I visited in 2012, so after the market, we walked to the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate and the Neue Wache. After a longer-than-expected walk back to the hostel, we met up with Felix and Mirjam for dinner at a modern Asian restaurant called Toca Rouge, which had a really cool vibe but somewhat underwhelming food. We were all pretty tired, so we said goodbye and Josh and I walked back to the hostel.

We were debating whether to go out since it was Saturday and Berlin but we were also tired, so we thought we’d go grab some drinks at the Wombat’s Bar in the rooftop of our hostel and decide after. We ended up meeting some cool people (along with some very, very loud American guys) and taking some Jäger bombs and eventually we realized that we were keen on going out.

Jesse and me at Roses

Jesse and me at Roses

One of my friends living in Berlin suggested a club called Ritter Butzke, so Josh and I, along with our new friend Jesse, made our way to the area of town it was in, running away from the American guys knowing that they would potentially cause us not to get in the club (they were yelling and running around in the metro and Berlin clubs are known for stringent door policies). Not ironically, they wouldn’t let Josh in because he said he was 19 and didn’t have ID. Jesse and I went in anyway – Josh understood.

After about 45 minutes in the club, Jesse and I decided to go to a gay bar called Roses, which must be where the expression “stroke the furry wall” came from because the entire place was lined with pink fur. There was a really interesting and diverse clientele and the two of us hung out there until probably 5:30 in the morning. Berlin clubs don’t get going until late, so we hadn’t left the hostel until maybe 1:30 anyway.

Homemade robot at Mauerpark - it could spit out water!

Homemade robot at Mauerpark – it could spit out water!

Josh and I slept in again on Sunday morning and went to a really good Korean restaurant by our hostel called YamYam. I think it was Josh’s first experience with Korean food – I got the bibimbap and he got the bulgogi, which I preferred. After lunch, we left for the Mauerpark Flea Market, which was basically recommended by everyone and did not disappoint. I bought a photography print and a screen-printed canvas bag for myself and some cartoon prints for my friends and me, although I could have bought way more. There was a ton of really cool stuff for sale there, along with talented street performers and artists keeping us entertained in and around the market.

Josh and I left Mauerpark to meet up with an English girl, Chloe, who I had met briefly in Berlin in 2012. If you read my post about Copenhagen, I had met up with our friend Sissel there whom I met at the same time. We met her at a nice bar/café in Mitte called Zur Rose and caught up for a couple of hours over coffee. Chloe recommended a nice German restaurant called Schwarzwaldstuben for Josh and me. We sat at the bar and both ordered schnitzel and cold potato and cucumber salad – yummmmmm.

Chloe and me after two years!

Chloe and me after two years!

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Belgium (Oct. 26-30)

Brussels Grand Place at night.

Brussels Grand Place at night

I took an early MegaBus from Paris to Brussels, getting to Hostel Grand Place around midday and relaxing for a bit after lugging my stuff up the stairs (the elevator was under maintenance, of course). It was the first time I’d stayed in a hostel since Croatia and my first time staying without someone I knew around since Belgrade (Sept. 25). It’s always exciting to go somewhere by yourself, but I had really enjoyed traveling with fellow backpackers and new friends.

Taking a tip from the hostel receptionist, I headed to a restaurant called Chez Leon for moules frites (mussels and fries), a traditional Belgian specialty that I often enjoy in the states. The tip was actually not great, and the mussels weren’t anything to write home about. Unfortunately I would not get the chance to have more during my time in Belgium. I went to bed early on my first night, but not without watching a few episodes of “Mad Men” in my bed.

I woke up semi-early on my first full day in Brussels to catch a walking tour, which I think was my tenth of the trip. It was relatively interesting, although the guide suggested a place for “the best frites in Brussels” in a “really cool square” that happened to be a 20 minute walk out of downtown. First off, the place was closed between 2 and 6, and second off, the square was dead and likely is only happening at night. A large group of people from the tour left the square annoyed, myself with a girl I met on the street who knew a guy I interned with last summer. I’ve been meaning to contact the tour guide (who had only started a week before) to tell him to stop suggesting that place post-tour since I’m sure the same thing happens to dozens of his tourists. Maybe someone has already done it – I’ll just go with that.

The girl I met and I headed to a restaurant the guide suggested, which was also closed, and finally back to a frites place near my hostel by the Grand Place. We went to the grocery store afterward to find chocolate, since “Belgians actually buy most of their chocolate at grocery stores,” but we couldn’t find anything we wouldn’t see at any European grocery store. We decided to cave in and go to a nice chocolate shop, Neuhaus, and pick up some truffles. Her card wouldn’t work, so she went back to her hostel to contact her bank and we parted ways for good.

I headed back to the hostel to try and meet some new friends – I was keen on going to some bars that night, namely the famous Delirium with its world record number of beers. Three American girls walked in who I’d seen at reception earlier in the day, so I struck up a conversation and told them I was alone and was seeking company. They wanted to rest a bit but were planning on going to the bars later. I told them I would be hanging out in the lobby until then so I would catch them on their way out.

One of the girls came down maybe an hour or so later to me conversing with another American who had been teaching in Madrid. The three of us headed out for some cheap, mediocre Chinese food before picking up one of the other girls from the hostel. We headed to The Big Game for €1 beers before heading to another called Celtica for even more happy hour drinks. We met the third of the girls there – she wanted to nap a bit longer than the others.

We were really enjoying our beers – I mean Belgium is known for that – and were getting more and more friendly with each other. Eventually I befriended a British couple at the bar and invited them to head to Delirium with the group. We tasted our way through some more Belgian beers and finally it was time for me to go home. I got all of their contact information, but I would only see the British couple the next day.

New friends at Delirium

New friends at Delirium

I woke up the next day earlier than my body would have liked to head for the European Parliament. My flatmate Connie’s mom is an MP from Portugal and had her assistant take me on a tour around the offices. Unfortunately, the MPs were all on a week where they go back to their home countries to do work, so there wasn’t a lot going on. Nevertheless it was cool seeing the modern office buildings and chatting about the European economy and Russian aggression (and the potential effects on each other, especially with winter coming).

I walked back from Parliament to my hostel to take a long, well-needed nap. I briefly left the hostel to eat some frites and these boiled snails from an established streetfood stand called Jef & Fils, and then promptly went back to the hostel and probably watched some “Mad Men” before realizing I should do some more tourist things and headed to the Atomium. The Atomium basically Brussels’s Eiffel Tour and is a giant model of a unit cell of an iron crystal made when the 1958 World Fair was held in Brussels. It was pretty impressive, maybe even more so than Eiffel, and I made the long journey back to my hostel after admiring its towering atoms.

The Atomium

The Atomium

Back in the hostel, I met a DC-native named Gaby, who I invited to go to Bruges with me the next day. We talked a bit – I found out she worked at a popular student bar that I was familiar with – and then I headed to meet up with my British friends for more drinks at Celtica. We had a long chat with a Swedish guy living in Brussels and then called it a night probably around 1 am.

Canal in Bruges

Canal in Bruges

The next day, Gaby and I headed to Bruges, eating a traditional beef stew and frites (I literally ate frites at every meal, many times the only thing I ate for my meal) for lunch and then wandering around the town. We bought chocolates at a famous storefront called The Chocolate Line (you have to go there if you are ever in Bruges), though I made the mistake of letting the salesman, a teenager younger than me (the rest looked like old pros but were busy helping others), choose my chocolates. The fruity ones were not up my alley (very tart), but the marzipan-filled chocolates were some of the best chocolates I’ve had.

Gaby and I grabbed a drink at a backpackers bar in the town before getting the train back to Brussels, where we ate a dinner of *surprise* frites and went down early since we both had trains to catch in the morning.

Chez Georges: Greatest Bar in the World?

Chez Georges - the underground wine bar

Chez Georges – the underground wine bar

We met Lily outside an unassuming café/restaurant in the Saint-Germain area (the sixth) of Paris, the rest of the group not knowing the charms of the wine bar hiding below. I led them down the stairs into a stone arched cellar, cramped with people and lined on the walls with tables and chairs. At one of the room was a small counter where you could order wine by the bottle – I ordered the first one, their house white at €21.

Chez Georges has a charm unlike any other bar I’ve been to, and I can say with all honesty that it is my favorite place to grab a drink in the world. The music playlist is quirky and sweet, consisting mostly of oldies and a few modern songs that fit the oldie vibe like “Happy” and “Blurred Lines” and throwing in some Arabic music, lots of ABBA, the occasional French classic and crowd favorite “Hava Nagila.”

Nights at Chez Georges seem to have a standard progression from the two times I’ve visited (once before in 2012 with a friend studying in Paris). They start out slow – at a table if you’re lucky – and with casual glasses of wine and conversation. It’s definitely a conversation joint, although it’s a bit loud, and you’ll most definitely at points in the night have visitors to your table wanting to get to know you. Who says Paris isn’t friendly? The crowd consists of mostly French students and young people, with a few foreigners familiar with the area.

Conversations get interrupted with bits of sing-alongs, usually quite calm and intermittent at first, and by the second bottle of wine you’re much more relaxed into the environment. By the inevitable third, there’s someone in the room standing on a table or bench singing along. You laugh and smile at the guy (in our case) and comment on how good of a time he must be having. This is usually about the time the *first* play of “Hava Nagila” comes on and everyone stops talking to clap and sing along.

By the fourth bottle of wine (we did have four people!), you realize that you’re the one standing on a bench or table singing and dancing but that almost no one is really sitting down at that point and there’s not enough room to dance without using some of the place’s higher ground.

By the time you make it through the fifth bottle, it’s probably time to stumble over home and say goodbyes, and somehow we managed to make it without getting lost. You’ll wake up the next morning feeling not great but wondering how a cramped little wine bar creates such an amazing atmosphere. You’ll ask how you started talking to the five new French friends you made the night before. And most importantly, you’ll ponder when the next time you’ll make your way to Chez Georges will be and who you will bring to experience it.

Doctors in Paris (Oct. 22-26)

The gardens at Versailles

The gardens at Versailles

I had originally scheduled a Megabus out of London for a Tuesday, but come 1am in the early hours of my departure date and I start puking for hours.

Of course being sick with a cough and sore throat and indecisive snot and exhaustion wasn’t enough – I had to get food poisoning. I think I woke up the whole house with my dry heaving and at that point I realized there was no way I’d be getting up at 8 in the morning. Apparently my flatmate Connie came down to try to wake me, thinking I’d accidentally slept through my bus, and couldn’t get me up shaking my leg and calling my name.

Paris's famous "Love Lock" Bridge

Paris’s famous “Love Lock” Bridge

I spent the whole day in my sleeping bag, not eating but also somehow enjoying my sick day because it meant I got to spend another day with my flat – if any of you are reading this, thanks for the vitamin water and plethora of donated medicine.

I managed to get out of bed Wednesday morning and catch my bus to Paris and eventually to an airbnb I would be sharing with Josh and Jess, two Australian friends whom I’d met in Greece and met up with again in Croatia.

After a couple of hours chilling in the apartment, the three of us went to meet up for falafels with my English friend Lily who I’d met over the summer. It was surprising to see a falafel pita at such a steep price – €8 – but the place was really good and I couldn’t finish the falafel due to my still-weak stomach. The dinner was enough of an event for me after a long day of travel and after days of being sick, so we called it a night early.

Jess and me on the Seine

Jess and me on the Seine

The next day started out lazy, as I needed a lot of sleep those days. We all watched our respective television series – me catching the new episode of American Horror Story not too long after airing back home. We finally made it out of the apartment in the early afternoon to do some sightseeing. We walked to the Pont de l’Archevêché (the love lock bridge) and along the Seine for a while before heading to grab macarons at Laduree, at which point the walking had gotten to me and I needed to head home and sleep. My exhaustion was getting worse by the day, which is always a drag when you want to take advantage of the city you’re in.

After hours of napping and rest, Josh and Jess came home with a baguette and some cheese for dinner. I still couldn’t eat very much but knew I’d need something in my stomach since we were going to meet up with Lily to go to my favorite bar in the world, Chez Georges, which is a cool enough joint for me to write a separate post about it.

Chez Georges wine bar - my favorite bar in the world!

Chez Georges wine bar – my favorite bar in the world!

Josh and Jess were supposed to leave for Barcelona the next day, Friday, and I was going to store my bag in the train station until I could bring it to a friend from Northwestern’s apartment. We exhaustedly made our way to the train station (we had stayed out until probably 3am and had to check out before 10) and waited for nearly an hour at the ticket counter, where all tickets to Barcelona were sold out until the next day. We spent another hour in the train station trying to find accommodation for the night and then made our way to a cheap hotel to drop off our stuff.

At this point, I had started to feel so sick and exhausted (our night at Chez Georges definitely did not help) that I decided that I needed to see a doctor. We spent an hour and a half waiting in a walk-in clinic to hear what I already knew: “you need to be on antibiotics.” Of course I can’t just walk to the store and pick those up without a prescription, which my dad usually writes for colds and the like, and my dad couldn’t write one for Europe. Ironically, the last time I was in Paris, I had to go to a doctor and ended up with antibiotics.

Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore

Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore

I don’t know if it’s medically possible, but I started to feel a little better not even an hour after taking my first pill. Since we had spent most of our day trying to fix unfortunate problems, we decided to take a visit to Shakespeare and Co., the famous English bookstore that’s original location’s patrons once included Hemingway and Joyce. I had also watched Before Sunset on the bus over, where the shop was also featured. I bought a book (On the Road), which they stamped with their famous emblem, and we sat down for crepes afterwards. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to get crepes without getting a savory and a sweet one – I opted for smoked salmon and finished with Nutella banana. Because it was late, I ended up staying in the hotel instead of taking my things over to my friend’s.

Josh and Jess left early the next day and I went to visit Versailles, the old Chateau and gardens of French royalty, including Marie Antoinette. It was a nice morning surrounded by annoying tourists who don’t know how to walk without stopping in front of you, something I hadn’t really done in a while. I enjoyed exploring the area and even ran into a girl who I recognized as a Northwestern student.

Gardens of Versailles

Gardens of Versailles

After Versailles, I met up with my friend Kelley who I’d be staying with for the night in Montmartre. We grabbed coffee at her favorite café and explored the area before grabbing bread, cheese and wine for dinner. She roasted up some veggies she had in her fridge to complement.

Later we would out for her coworker’s birthday at a bar, where I met a large group of international people living in Paris. I couldn’t help but think how much I would like this to one day be me – a foreigner living in Europe, an expat, part of an international community. The real question is how I’m going to get that visa (marriage please?).

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

How Traveling Changed My Life

Motto

Trying to write about the end of this four-month journey in the Istanbul airport and subsequent flight to Chicago is a little awkward, because whenever I think about what this trip has meant to me I get pretty emotional.

Irish West Coast

Irish West Coast

I came to Europe with only two companions, an orange synthetic rolling bag and a small backpack, also orange but a clashing shade. I left the rest of my baggage at home. I remember sitting on the plane out of New York, scared of being lonely but obviously very excited – the lack of any real plans or timeframe was exhilarating, nerve-wracking and somewhat comforting at the same time.

What would follow would be four months of adventure, nights out and days in, romance, reunions, excruciating bus journeys, unpleasant sleeping situations, homey hostels, new cultures and most importantly, new friends. Friends from Australia and Germany and the UK and America and Austria, Ireland, Spain, France, Bulgaria, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, India, Japan, Poland, Canada, the Czech Republic and definitely more. Friends who taught me about their cultures, their education systems, their politics – whether air conditioning is common in their countries. Groups who let me tag along for dinner five minutes after meeting and two drinks in felt like old friends. A couple that could have had a romantic vacation in Greece but instead chose to spend a week in an 8-bed dorm with me. Friends who would meet up with me in four more countries or spend weeks with me in one. Friends who taught me that I don’t need much time to feel close to someone. Although I traveled mostly alone, I was never lonely, and I can’t thank every individual I’ve met enough for that.

Traveling is all about the people you meet.

Traveling is all about the people you meet.

Though the people I’ve met have really been the best part of this trip, traveling also gave me a crucial realization about life: you never know what tomorrow could look like.

I think it’s important that I said “could” there, because you likely know what tomorrow will probably look like if you’re caught in the day to day of normal life. But hopping from country to country alone, knowing I’d have to make new friends and learn phrases in a new language and having no idea what my hostel or the city would look like – that lack of control – weirdly made me realize the kind of maximum authority I can have over my life.

What was at first an impromptu decision to rent a car ended up in one of the great adventures of my trip.

What was at first an impromptu decision to rent a car ended up in one of the great adventures of my trip.

If I didn’t like the people I met, I could meet new ones. If I hated the city, I could get a bus out (though that never happened); if I loved the city, I could skip my train and stay for a week (my bank account hates me for that one… ok those three ones…). I never had to be stuck in situations I didn’t like, and I could stretch my plans to fit ones I did. I had a control and freedom that I had not experienced in the last 16 years of school and camps and internships and jobs and stringent, mandated routine.

In turn, this taught me that there is no right narrative for my life either. I don’t know where I will be in a year and a year ago I didn’t know where I’d be now. That lack of control and foresight in life is just the same as in traveling. Maybe I’ll find the job of my dreams in Washington and love it so much that I want to stay and make it to work every day and settle back into routine, hopefully getting to travel sometimes still and have a good work life balance. Or maybe I’ll move there and not find what I’m looking for. But then I’ll do something else. I’ve been taught for so long that I had to finish university and go right into my career and do it forever and ever and it better be an impressive one that would make me look smart and interesting and earn me lots of money. But now I realize that I’m not going to accept any life narrative that doesn’t bring me happiness. I think that’s a much better measure of success.

Creating our own party on our Sail Croatia trip

Creating our own party on our Sail Croatia trip

(An aside – I am very privileged to be able to say that, but I think it’s as much of a universal lesson as I can speak to after romping around the world for four months.)

I could go on and on about the things I’ve learned traveling – the incredible cultures, which countries you can cross the street on red without being an obvious tourist, how to travel cheaply, how to make friends like a pro, how to make decisions in a group, how to document my travels (both for myself and publicly), how to cook for a bunch of people with different preferences and fall asleep literally anywhere and know when I need to take a break, how to get someone to stop snoring (cough really loudly until it partially wakes them up and rush to fall asleep before they do) and a hundred thousand other things I could rattle off.

Reuniting with old friends is one of the best parts of traveling.

Reuniting with old friends is one of the best parts of traveling.

More than anything, though, I’ve learned so much about who I am. These last four months, I’ve felt the depths of human connection in short microcosms of friendships with strangers. I’ve talked about my country’s reputation in the world and learned how I am an ambassador of that at all times. I’ve felt happiness like I have never felt before, and I’ve gained so much confidence in so many aspects of myself. Being the only constant in my travels, I’ve become my own best friend and learned to love myself without exception.

Breaking the rules and into an abandoned theme park in Berlin.

Breaking the rules and into an abandoned theme park in Berlin.

I think the one last thing I want to say about my travels is about why I blog about them. First of all, I’ve still got quite a bit to post after this one (almost a month’s worth, most of which is already written), but it was important to me that this one was actually timely. I think in some ways could look like a self-indulgent form of a personal journal, but I really do write these things for myself. The other reason is that it’s strange doing so much, going so many places and experiencing so many emotions and having no constant person to share them with, so blogging has become my outlet for that.

If you’ve read just one post, made fun of my cheesy outlook on literally everything or even just looked at my pictures, thank you so much for letting me share a piece of this experience with you. If not, I’m going to be looking at this until I’m dead anyway and happy that I’ve got it all at my fingertips. This has really been the time of my life.

And after it all, I'll never be the same.

And after it all, I’ll never be the same.

London: Home Away From Home (Oct. 7-22)

The house in Forest Hill

The house in Forest Hill

My third and final trip to London would be by far my favorite. I would see my old flat (C6) from study abroad together for the first time in two years, although I had seen most of them at some point in the summer in visits to their homes or at the house in London. I’d be spending nearly two weeks with them, and those were two weeks at home.

Family breakfast

Family breakfast

At the house in Forest Hill, I have my own key. Fixing an extra cup of tea for me was automatic. We would clean together, cook together – spend pretty much all of our time together drinking tea and chatting and watching television on someone’s computer. I rarely left the house, which was a welcome break from the constant movement of traveling.

Nothing beats that feeling of not seeing someone for a long time but picking up like no time has passed at all. We could talk about anything, be weird around each other. We could cuddle watching TV, chat nonstop or sit in silence without it being weird. When one of us went to the store, everyone else would shout requests, knowing the others would return the favor. “Bring us some munchies,” was regularly shouted before the front door shut.

I cooked a full English for the house

I cooked a full English for the house

We were all quite sick by my second week in the house, and when I got sick later than everyone else, my flatmates would give me their medicine. I got food poisoning before heading to Paris, and my flatmate Boyan brought me vitamin water. When my flatmate Connie left for the weekend to go back to Portugal, she gave me her room (I had been sleeping on a futon in the living room).

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

The house was and remains a magical place. It’s not even a sense of welcoming in C6 – to be welcome is to be a guest. I was not a guest – I was home. It was so much my home that when I got back from a two-night trip to Brighton on the coast, Connie welcomed me with “it was weird not having you here.” The sense of belonging I feel with these friends is one of the most beautiful things about my life travels. I consider my flatmates family, and the only thing that makes saying goodbye to them okay is knowing that I will see them again soon, somewhere and sometime unknown.

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights

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