Hrvatska, Part 1

The last and longest leg of our trip was Croatia. It was so long, in fact, that I have to put it in two posts so you guys don't get bored and stop reading.  Our train ride from Vienna to Zagreb was also the longest of our trip, because every time the train stopped at a station, we sat there for up to an hour. This was especially frustrating after having been spoiled by German punctuality—those trains are never late. We took advantage of an unexpected stop in Hungary by getting off the train for a minute to snap a picture. Check that one off the list.

When we arrived in Zagreb, the first order of business was to rent a car. Experts are divided on whether you should book a rental car ahead of time on the internet from the states or try to find a small, independently-owned rental agency once you get to where you're going. We checked out prices before we left—all around $300 for five days—but opted to look for a car once we got there in case our travel plans changed along the way. We checked with the only rental agency in the train station, and they quoted us... $800. Uh, no thanks. We figured the train station prices would be higher because travelers are a little bit stuck there and would pay whatever was demanded. So we set off to find an internet cafe where we could either book online or look for other rental places around the city.

Browsing through Hertz, Budget, Avis, etc., I learned that everything was completely booked. No cars. I did finally find one car—an enormous SUV for $1000. Our panic increasing, we decided to go to the nearest agency anyway to see if they maybe reserved any cars for walk-ins. Maybe? The address turned out to be a hotel. We asked the desk clerk where the rental place was, and he said it had moved out of town. Desperate, Phil asked if he could think of any other rental agency in Zagreb. The clerk marked the location of a small place on our map. It happened to be right around the corner.

The rental agency was a hole in the wall—a small, independent outfit run by a man named Zlatan, which means "gold." We told him what we were looking for, anxiously asked how much such a thing might cost, and held our breath. "Economy car, five days... I can do that for... $300." We steeled our faces against the waves of relief and tried very hard not to high-five right there. Zlatan must have taken whatever bizarre facial expressions we had managed for dissatisfaction, because he launched into an apologetic explanation about how prices were lower if you booked ahead and this was really the best he could do for us. We did our best to feign reluctance as we discussed the details. Still mistaking our stunned silence for disappointment, Zlatan said he would cover a second driver for free. We were a little incredulous and held our breath until we slid into our lovely red ┼ákoda and took off. Crisis averted.

The second order of business was actually finding our way out of Zagreb. Sadly, this turned out to be quite as much of an ordeal as the first order of business had been. We had gotten a detailed city map from the train station and a road map of Croatia from Zlatan, but both were basically useless, for several reasons: 1) the maps really were terrible (detail where you don't need it and none where you do, spotty notation of one-way streets, and even inclusion of non-existent streets); 2) there is almost no such thing as a street sign in Croatia, so there's no point in having a map anyway; and 3) the handful of street names we did see on signs were in a different grammatical case than those on the map, leaving me scrambling to decipher them as they flew past. We eventually gave up on the maps entirely and tried to follow signs and/or traffic toward the freeway. It took us a good hour, but we finally escaped from Zagreb's death grip. Philip made this Terminator face to celebrate:

Then there was the small matter of actually finding the Ostarcevices' house. Before leaving the states, Phil had corresponded with Kristina Ostarcevic to find out about staying with her parents. Kristina had given us their address and directions, and we figured that would be enough. When we actually looked at the directions, though, our confidence waned a bit. All we had was a house number in a town. No street names, no zip code, no nothing. With no way to contact Misho or Ankica, our only choice was to head toward the town and hope to find it. This was our first glimpse of their little valley:
It reminded me very much of Oregon. Our worry about finding the correct street turned out to be for nothing, because there is only one street that goes through any of these little towns. There was a moment of confusion when we noticed the house numbers were in no particular order and included letters and fractions. We saw a man standing in his driveway and pulled over to ask him where the Ostarcevices could be hiding.

-Ohhhh, Misho! (Holds hand way above head to mime Misho's 6'8"-ish frame)

This friendly neighbor led us back up the road to Misho and Ankica's beautiful cabin. Ankica fed us and fussed over us, and we talked and laughed late into the night. Misho had assured us that the stars put on quite a show out there in the middle of nowhere, and he was absolutely right. It had been a long time since Phil or I had seen the Milky Way, so the sky in Vrelo was especially stunning for us. It was a bit chilly out at night, so I put on all the jackets I could find, resulting in the following stargazing ensemble:
We warmed up by the wood stove and then crawled into bed. We woke up to this:
Literally. I didn't move at all; I just grabbed the camera and snapped this picture. It was perfectly quiet—the most peaceful we've felt since before we moved to Philadelphia.  I got up and took a turn about the yard.
Just over those mountains is Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Hammock.  Yes, please.

There's our beautiful little rental car.  After breakfast, Ankica loaded us down with food and sent us out to Plitvice Lakes National Park.  The lakes are known for their brilliant blue-green  water, caused by the unique combination of minerals in the rocks they flow through.  Thanks, science!

First, we took a boat ride across the largest of the lakes.

Then we hiked up and up so we could see how beautiful the lakes were.  They were so beautiful I couldn't stand it.

No Photoshop here; that's what color the water is.

Since we had Phil's headlamp with us, we were able to explore one of the large caves in the park.  It was sort of gross, actually—it appeared to have been used as a toilet by several generations of incontinent park-goers.  Once inside, though, we were distracted by a sleeping bat!  We fumbled for the camera, but we were so noisy and clumsy with the light that, just as Phil got ready to snap a photo, the bat woke up and flew out over our heads.  All we ended up with was a picture of where the bat was: 
Just trust me; it was exciting.

Those rail-less walkways run all through the park, criss-crossing the lakes.  There are thousands of tourists crowding them every day, with their backpacks and tripods and lack of spatial awareness; I was shocked we didn't see anyone fall in.

The park was just incredible.  We spent almost five hours wandering around and then headed back to the cabin.  

Ankica had a mouthwatering wild mushroom risotto waiting for us.  We hadn't planned this part of our trip in much detail, because we weren't sure where else in Croatia we wanted to go.  Ankica and Misho suggested we drive south to Zadar, where they have an apartment we could use.  We accepted their very generous offer and, after Ankica loaded us down once more with enough food to feed all of Croatia, we hit the road.  We loved spending time with the Ostarcevices, and we're extremely grateful for their kindness. 

On the road to Zadar...


  1. Holy cats, those lakes are insanely pretty! Looks like such a great trip. I'll have to steal your travel itinerary one day and go myself.

  2. Those pictures are beautiful. It looks like you guys had a lot of fun. I'll have to travel there someday. --brooke a.