Excellent European Adventure – Part 3 – Croatia

by Becky Burns / Aug 22, 2011 /
Becky Burns's picture

After bidding goodbye the next day to Lake Balaton in Hungary, we headed south to Croatia and the capital city of Zagreb. We spent very little time there, as we realized we were weary of big cities and the energy it took to negotiate unfamiliar streets, find legal parking, and get to a good restaurant. We explored Tkalciceva Street, a lovely pedestrian friendly avenue of cafés and shops, and then meandered to Virgin Mary Assumption Cathedral and found throngs of primarily Chinese tourists. After getting caught in a downpour, we decided not to stay in the city overnight. Instead our collective instinct told us to drive into the countryside and try our luck there.

 

Zagreb. Croatia

Zagreb. Croatia

 


Driving through the countryside outside of Zagreb, we were reminded of how recent war had cast its dark shadow on this land. We drove by many homes where bullet holes still could be seen from the time when Serbian armies practiced ethnic cleansing during the Serbo-Croatian conflicts of the early 1990’s. It was sobering, and made us consider again how it must have been back then…a mere 20 years ago…to be hiding in your home, paralyzed with fear that you would be pulled outside of it, lined up against the stone, and shot. How is it that humankind ever gets to this point? As if understanding our gloom, the sky became dark and it began to rain.

The rainfall became torrential, and as we were driving in what appeared to be endless stormy weather, we took refuge along the highway to make a decision as to which direction to travel. We wanted to go to a natural area in the south, but didn’t want to head there if the forecast called for continued storms the next day. Upon the advice of a police officer at the rest area, we went into the café to ask about Internet access. Of course what that meant is that if you had a laptop or a smart phone that you could use it to look up the weather report. We had neither. But again, a friendly merchant asked us what we wanted to know, and looked it up for us.  The weather report was promising. The next day was to be sunny and clear, with just a chance of afternoon showers. That was enough for us to continue our trek south toward Plitvicka Jezera National Park.

As we curved around the beautiful and verdant country roads, we were keeping our eye out again for a “Zimmer” (bed and breakfast). We happened upon a tiny little town perched in a canyon, where a creek pitched and turned back and forth from an idyllic babbling brook to waterfalls cascading down a limestone cliff. It was truly one of the most magical fairy-like places I have ever seen. I could really just imagine Frodo peeking his head out of his hobbit-home.  We pulled in to ask about a room, and ended up staying in Milka’s kitchen because she had just rented the last bedroom. Lily and Roberto slept on a pull-out sofa, and I slept on a small mattress on the floor. We had late afternoon tea on the terrace overlooking the creek, and Milka showed us her garden and a new project, which was a lovely gazebo-like area with a stone fireplace that was perched right in the middle of the creek.  So lovely!

 

View from the terrace, Milka's kitchen room

View from the terrace, Milka's kitchen room

 


We asked about a restaurant, and of course there was an excellent local one just up the hill, over the footbridge, and down another hill. Milka gave us a flashlight and umbrellas to make our way there and back. At the restaurant we ordered the grilled trout, caught in the stream earlier that day.  We each were served two whole fish with fresh garden vegetables, and an unbelievably good bottle of white wine, also local. As amazing as the trout were, the best part of the meal came at the end when we relished the best apple strudel that has ever been baked…ever. 

The next morning saw a lovely and hearty breakfast on the terrace, and a short drive to Plitvicka Jezera National Park. I didn’t think anything could be more beautiful or more magical than the little town of Slunjcica the night before, but I was mistaken.  Plitvicka Jezera has to be the crown jewel of Croatia. A series of hanging lakes suspended above the forest with interconnecting waterfalls, they are also part of the Karst period formation across Eastern Europe. Because the lake bottom is limestone, the water is bright aquamarine and crystal clear. The three of us hiked the trails in stunned silence, enraptured with the beauty of nature. All stress disappeared, all was forgiven. Lily and I at one point tried to come up with an adjective, some sort of superlative descriptor that would capture this place…but writers that we are, we struggled. It seemed that the simplest concept was the most apropos: beautiful. We felt it may have not been a strong enough word, but perhaps it was indeed.

 

Plitvicka Jezera National Park

Plitvicka Jezera National Park

 

 

One of the remarkable features of this park was the natural wooden walkways that allowed visitors to be as close as possible to the waterfalls, the lakes, and the vegetation. They had no guard rails, and were simply constructed of thin planks of natural wood. It was such a complete breath-of-fresh-air to have a natural site so…natural, unencumbered by human anxiety. Perhaps that is why I felt such tranquility there, a total and complete reverie.
Thanks for hanging in there with me. Croatia was stupendous. (There it is! The superlative that eluded us!)  I have just one more story to share, that in-and-of-itself seems to embody the overarching narrative that my Excellent Eastern European Adventure offered.

 

Hanging Lakes, Croatia

Hanging Lakes, Croatia

 

 

On our last night, we drove to the port town of Rovinj, on the Adriatic coast. This town’s proximity to Italy means that it actually has two names – one Italian and one Croatian. It was a part of Italy prior to WW11, and feels very much like Rio Marina on the island of Elba, where Lily and Roberto have a home. Again, we arrived at bit later than we had hoped and we needed to try to take care of accommodations first. After a disappointing recommendation in the local tourist information office, which we declined because it was too far from the center, we decided to eat dinner and worry about a hotel later. We happened upon a beautiful seaside restaurant, Galeb, where we sat outside and watched the sunset. The town was abuzz with wealthy European tourists. Evidence of this could be seen in the parking lot: Mercedes, BMWs, and Ferraris. We also notice a preponderance of beautiful people. Really beautiful people. 

 

Rovinj, Croatia

Rovinj, Croatia

 

 

Anyway, we had an absolutely gifted waiter. He was friendly and informed. He spoke English to me, Italian to my friends, and we noticed him speaking German and French to our neighbors. At one point in the evening we asked him how many languages he speaks, and he responded “Eight. However I can understand an additional ten, but am not fluent in them.” Alrighty then. We ordered the local catch of the day, which was sea bass. The fish was enormous, and he expertly deboned it for us and served us, chatting all the while about the town, the people, and the sea. He suggested we try some local greens and potatoes as a side dish, which of course we did. At some point during the many times he checked in with us, Lily mentioned that unfortunately we could not linger, as we still did not have a hotel for the night. “Give me a few minutes,” he replied. “I will see what we can find for you.” Are you kidding me? He was also going to find us a hotel?  Well, well, well…let me tell you what happened next. After we enjoyed a lime and vodka frozen dessert and paid the bill, that is.

We were instructed to talk to a woman, also a restaurant employee, who had found us a room about four blocks away.  She had another person walk with us to show us the way, and we met the manager of an apartment that was available. Most of these types of vacation apartments are available only for weekly rentals, but this one was vacant and she was willing to rent it to us for one night. The price was a fraction of what we had been quoted for a hotel room, so we really weren’t expecting much. Maybe another pull-out sofa, as in the night before in Milka’s kitchen?  It was three floors, totally furnished and equipped with all of the comforts of home. Each floor had its own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It was unbelievable. How had we been so fortunate? Oh yeah, remember? I am traveling with Lily…my friend with the karma of “just mention that you are looking for a room to the waiter in a seaside restaurant and you’ll get one for less than the bottle of wine we just drank”…yep, that one.  Oh, and by the way, it will be an apartment, furnished, within walking distance to the sea.

Okay, so that should be the end of the story, right? Sometimes in life you have to be reminded of what it means to be surrounded by good people. People that run their business like their customers are their family. The next morning we found a note on our door that asked us to return to the restaurant where we ate dinner the night before. The note said that there had been a mistake with our bill. I took out my receipts, and I immediately noticed the mistake. I hadn’t noticed it the night before, but I had signed a credit card copy that had an extra zero on the end! Yikes! The restaurateur, who was the same woman who had found us the apartment, had cancelled out the bill when she discovered the error at the end of the night. She was beyond gracious in her apology, and treated us to a creamy cappuccino for our troubles. Our troubles? Okay, will somebody wake me up when this is over? Or no, please don’t. I’m thinking I enjoy this world. And it IS this world. Remember these times, America? Perhaps you are lucky enough to experience them still. I haven’t in awhile, but I find myself remembering this experience, and trying my best to show the same sort of respect and kindness to anyone….ANYONE…I meet along my path. We obviously weren’t part of the beautiful people crowd at this restaurant. Our waiter knew that. Perhaps that is why he wanted to help. But you know what? I don’t think so. I think he would have helped us had we been wearing Gucci and diamonds. He/they were just that type of people. Good people.  And all I can say is that I’d like to be just like that. I want to look into the eyes of any person on this planet and respond with goodness and grace. Beauty….and stupendous energy.

 

 Sunset on the North Adriatic

Sunset on the North Adriatic

 

 

And that, my friends, is my Excellent Eastern European Adventure. Thanks for reading!

 

 

Part 1 - Slovenia

 

Part 2 - Hungary

 

 

 

Becky Burns, our Soulful Traveler editor, is
an educator living in the Chicago area.
Her column will give you insight
and inspiration, taking you to the core or essence of the travel
experience, something we all feel as a result of exploration and
discovery. Look for her monthly postings describing local exploits in
and around Chicago, regional road trips in the Midwest, national adventures from coast to coast, and overseas excursions. You are bound to be inspired and enriched, nodding your head in agreement as a familiar reminiscence comes to light again.  You can find her work at www.beckyburns.com or www.soothethespirit.com 

 

 

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