While beautiful, Croatia is still lacking a decent internet system. At least as far as I could tell. The connections that I did find were slow and the internet cafes were exceedingly expensive. As a result, it’s been a long while since my last update and I have a ton to catch up on. I’m currently hunkered down in an internet cafe in Florence waiting to connect with a friend. So hopefully, with a few hours to spare, I’ll be able to get caught up. At some points the post may wander a bit as its been a lot longer than I would have liked and some of the memories are not as fresh as I wish they were. I’m going to break Croatia into two posts. This one & one that will immediately follow it as I have a hunch they will be lengthy.
After exploring the town I returned to the hostel where I relaxed for a while. During that time I socialized with one of the two owners. Our conversation roamed all over the place from the running of the hostel, the economic rebirth of the town, the war, women and travel. Eventually I mentioned that I was hungry and he was eager to show me a local eatery. He tossed up the good ol’ ‘Be back in 5’ sign and off we went through a light rain. The meal was from a small stand in a shopping center. It took a few minutes to get our food as there was a line eagerly waiting to place their orders. What we got was an odd mix between a hamburger and a gyro…or something of the sort. Tasty, different, filling… It hit the spot.
Upon returning to the hostel I relaxed a bit and met/formed a decent group to hit up the town that night. Our host recommended a few places to go to and we set off. Before long we found ourselves filing into a tiny bar that didn’t even have the space for a proper bar, but instead had an alcove full of the usual bar goodies. We piled in and began relaxing. Shortly there after three English men piled in. All in their 30s or so, it turned out they were down on loan by the British military from the Czech Republic and were working with the local police force and military to prepare Croatia for it’s estimated 2011 entrance into the EU. It turns out that while the interior borders of EU countries are very soft, they try very hard to keep a tough external border. To that end any new state joining has to significantly beef up its exterior border, which also means demolishing a lot of the crossover. From what I’ve heard and read, in preparation, countries like Croatia have to demolish many of the bridges into their non-EU neighbors in order to create more secure strong points of entry. I can only imagine the political and economic issues that causes. One of the guys in the group ended up hitting it off with one of the guys that was part of a larger group of local students in the bar. While not appropriate to share what started their conversation…our two groups ended up intermingling fairly quickly. It turned out that it had been a big student day and they were out celebrating. Most attended the local university and were studying art & media in some shape or form.
Before long they grew restless and eager to move to a different bar. They picked us up in tow and we followed them to the other side of the square, down a side street and into another tiny basement bar. This one was mostly deserted which allowed us to all fit inside. At this point in time our group split up a bit, both the hostel and the local group were large enough, and the mixtures odd enough that we all found various sub groups we had more in common with. I ended up joining a small group at one of the tables. Three girls and one guy, who I at first had actually mistaken for a girl. They ended up being extremely friendly and a bit more down to earth than some of the others. One of the other hostelers, a tall Kiwi also joined us.
We got acquainted, ambled through conversation and drank for a bit before they got antsy and decided a club would be a fun idea. We touched based with the others from the hostel, then split off from the main group. The six of us made our way across the old town to a local nightclub. They got us in free, we looked around and left almost immediately after. The club itself would have been ok but it was packed. Not in a fun busy sort of way, but more like sardines in a tin, or perhaps even more accurately white fish in a smoker – as it was again a small basement club that allowed smoking which made it almost impossible to breathe. I continued talking to one of the girls that I was getting along with especially well – Diana was her name – as we wandered slowly back toward the center of town. We took some playful guff from the one Croatian guy in the group before eventually ending up back at the square. There one of the girls decided she was calling it a night which meant the rest were joining her and an end to the festivities. The mother hen collected her chicks (which unfortunately included Diana) and they started towards home leaving the Kiwi and I to figure out what we were going to do for the rest of the night as it was still early. As Diana trailed behind the others a bit she gave me an ALU (their University apparently) pin she’d been wearing from the days festivities. The Kiwi and I grabbed some food then retired back to the hostel and called it an early night. We had an early morning ahead of us.
Plitvicjka Jazera – The Magic Canyon
The night before most of the others had decided upon going to a set of waterfalls located a ways outside of the city. Traveling as I do, I had seen a poster of them but was fairly oblivious. I figured it was one set of small falls that while pretty were not worth the trip. My plan was and had been to leave for Split and arrive mid afternoon – but as the others talked about it it turned out that the falls were on the way (you took the Split bus to get to them), highly recommended and some two hours south of the city (almost half way to Split). Since it was along my route and everyone spoke highly of them, I elected to make it an early morning and a long day with a 4 or 5 hour stop at the Falls before continuing on by bus the remaining three hours to Split.
The morning was rough, I was feeling fairly decent but a few of the others were hurting. One had managed to pass out at/on the bar and the other had apparently (and quite comically) crawled out of the basement bar, curled up in a ball on the sidewalk and passed out. Both had been collected and made it home but were suffering the after affects. Up a bit early and energized I kicked everyone out of bed and we raced to get ready and make it to the bus station in time for our 8:45 bus. There were 5 of us in total. We got to the bus, got our tickets purchased and not a moment too soon.
The bus pulled away and we were off on a new adventure. The morning was cloaked in dense fog as we made our way south. The fog lasted a good 45 minutes before it finally burned off. The drive itself was beautiful as we twisted through valleys, past vineyards and through autumn kissed trees. There were two things during the drive that truly stood out… The first was the spiderwebs in a number of the fields. These fields were that straw-gold color of dead, wet grass stalks. Within the grass the leftovers of an old crop stood up 2 or 3 feet. Stretched between these stalks were tight lightly woven spider webs perfectly formed, coated in a light dew. They caught the light and looked like giant snowflakes. The fields were covered in them and as we drove by the light caught them as if they were little stars shining out.
The second thing about the drive that really stands out in my memory is a small town in a little canyon with a river running through it. It was perhaps, the most beautiful and picturesque village I’ve ever seen. For those of you who have seen the Lord of the Rings it was a mixture between Rivendel and Hobbiton. As we drove past it I very nearly jumped off the bus and had there been a proper stop near the city I might not have made it to the lakes for an hour or two at least. The water was a deep, crystal clear, turquoise blue.
I cannot imagine how it deals with flood waters, but perched on the side of a hill as it was, there were small dammed areas everywhere as the water zig zagged its way down the side of the hill and through the village. It was like a tiny Venice with different architecture, quality water, surrounded by forest and waterfalls. Truly words escape me – I’ve never seen anything like it and I only saw it for the minute we drove over the bridge and past it. There were flowers, grass, the clearest, gorgeous blue water you’ve ever seen, picturesque houses, fall trees…if you don’t recall it or have not seen it google a photo of Rivendel…that’s as close as I can come to a description.
Thirty or forty minutes later we arrived at our destination. We collected our bags and I set off immediately to find somewhere to stash my backpack while I did the tour. Luckily there was a baggage area where you could pay a small fee and leave your bag. That done we purchased our tickets and began our walk into the park which as it turns out is a UNESCO World Heritage site. After walking through the ticket area we turned a small corner and found ourselves on the edge of the canyon wall directly across from a huge waterfall.
The waterfall was a massive white mass that crashed down over gray rocks covered in red and green moss framed by the yellows, golds and reds of the fall colors. At its base there was a mangled bit of rocks with lilly-like plants, moss, and water grass. From there the fork flowed down into the main river which wound its way through the bottom of the canyon.
The water everywhere was a pristine blue that screamed out invitingly. We snapped some photos, took in the sights and then began to walk down toward the water. The whole path is brilliantly done, in place of an ugly winding cement path, they had selected a walkway of cut wood which created a tree house look that blended in perfectly to the natural beauty. The whole canyon is a series of lakes and waterfalls. If one wanted to walk the entire thing, even at a bisque pace, it would take a good 7-8 hours. The path we selected allowed us to see all but the highest falls in 5 or so.
Some of the waterfalls, as was the case with the first main one, are large flowing masses that drop 20-100 feet. Some are small and crash down through the moss, lilies and grass en mass all along the small natural dams. The lakes themselves are not only crystal clear but a stunning light amethyst which allows you to see deep into their centers. The lakes also are heavily populated by large schools of what I think were whitefish. The fish are so familiar with people that they school in giant schools along the edge of the lake and behave a lot like goldfish.
In and along the water everything is green…not just a simple shade of green…but the full width and breadth of the spectrum. In the water and the falls themselves the rocks are seldom visible. Instead they are almost all covered by fallen leaves, moss, lilies, water grass, or old pieces of trees covered in a whitish blanket of silt that reminds me of natural springs. As we wandered our way along the walkway we were surrounded by falling leaves. Eventually, we came to a fork in the path, one branch wound up and continued following the water – the other split off and worked its way up through an arch back toward the top of the canyon wall.
We took the path on the left expecting to backtrack and eager to see the view it offered. It crossed over a finger of the lake which led into what looked like a small water grotto only accessible by boat or a good doggy paddle. We walked past it then wound up a little ways at which point we were faced by another fork. The right hand side consisted of large square blocks carved out the stone that were obviously meant to be steps…though they were more like square pillars of alternating heights that scaled the 15 foot stretch to a small cave. Legs pumping we made our way up and were dumped into a small cave that looked out over the way we came. A dead end, but well worth the climb.
We retraced our steps and took the other fork which wound through what seemed like a small cave before zig-zagging its way up and out of the hole. We turned and looked down on the falls before returning down the way we had come and continuing to trace our way along the waters edge. Every second step seemed as if it were straight from a dream. I cannot even begin to imagine the wonder and awe that the first people to discover it must have felt. Because of the early hour, it being off season and mixed weather (it alternated between light sprinkles and mixed cloud cover) there were very few people out and about. If I’m able to upload some of the photos today you will notice the lack of people. It was a dream!
I’m afraid that though I could ramble endlessly about the experience it would mostly just be repeating myself. So, to that end let me just say that Plitvicjka Jazera, is truly a natural wonder of the world.
I boarded my bus later that afternoon and napped intermittently during the 3 hour ride to Split. The ride itself was gorgeous, Autumn has been my constant companion as I head south, but during that bus ride Winter began to catch up. The higher mountains (perhaps a thousand feet or so above where I had been) had received a light dusting of snow the night before and looked incredible. From there we descended toward the water and sea level. The hills and that part of the country were rugged, treeless and consisted of crumbling stone, small bushes and the occasional river. You could see the occasional footprint of war in abandoned, bombed out, or shot up buildings here and there. At one point with the sea before us and the snow dusted mountains behind us, the sun set. The sunset was a golden sapphire, a burning orb that set red fires across the landscape and clouds casting everything in a rosy hue. The mountains picking up a blue haze and cast in that pink light were incredible. I find it a bit funny to constantly refer to the Lord of the Rings as I travel, but the reality is that in many ways I feel a hobbit traversing a great and incredible world. While many of the scenes shot in the movie were enhanced with computer generation or digitally created, what I see and have experienced is the real, raw, authentic version.