Just so you know, this is my first post in 2017 and I'm so ashamed for not keeping up! Must. Do. Better. My grandma has been asking for this Croatia post for quite some time now, so here you go, Grandma! Thanks for giving me the much needed shove.
So...long ago, one early morning, we headed for our train from Budapest to Zagreb, Croatia at 6am and that's some kinda wake up call for this girl, but I managed! We got our suitcases together, closed up our little chapel Airbnb and said goodbye to Hungary. Here's the Budapest post if you need a refresher!
The train trip lasted about 6.5 hours and we arrived in Zagreb right around lunchtime. We checked into our next Airbnb, which was perfect for our one night and a five minute walk to the center of the city. Knowing we didn't have a ton of time in Zagreb, we decided to catch a late afternoon walking tour of the city. Free Spirit Walking Tours cost one Croatian Kuna, which is a whopping $0.14 (tipping your guide is strongly encouraged, so please do) and Ivan, our 23-year-old tour guide was incredibly informative. And funny! He was a student trying to break into the tourism industry, Croatia's most thriving. You can grab a tour at 11am, 2pm, and 5pm, and we met at the horse statue in Ban Jelacic (Main) Square where he took us through Gornji Grad (Upper Town) and went through full details of history, culture and top places to eat and drink in Zagreb. The tour lasted two hours, and we quickly fell in love with the local attractions.
We strolled by St. Mark's Church, a 13th century tiled roof church that is easily the most recognizable building in the city. The tiles form the coat of arms for both Zagreb city on the right and the Kingdoms of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia on the left. We were not permitted inside at the time, but I did read that it contains influential works by Croatian sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. In this same area, the Old Town, Ivan (tour guide, not sculptor) told us about the gorgeous gas lamps speckled within the city and it may be my favorite little factoid. This public lighting system started in 1863 with nearly 400 illuminating the city and just over 200 exist today. These lanterns are turned on manually every evening and turned off every morning by an elite group of gas light men dressed in uniform. Ivan told us it's a tough gig to get and one of the most prestigious in the city.
Later into the evening, we went out for dinner at a place called History & Village along the busy cafe lined street of Tkalcica, grabbed a brew sampler at Mali Medo and cozied up to people watch and relax before our busy day trip to Plitvice Lakes en route to Split.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is a dream, I tell you. To get there from Zagreb, Jon and I rented a car and we wouldn't have had it any other way. Preparing for the stopover in Plitvice Lakes and then moving on to Split, I read a lot of blogs and travel guides encouraging the bus routes, but that took significantly longer with stops and you're constantly on the bus company's time. I only wanted to be on Jon and Alex time. A hired driver can also take you wherever you want to go in the country, but something about driving our own Volkswagen Golf snacking on gas station junk food and listening to whatever music we wanted (anybody for some polka?!) seemed far more perfect for us. The process was incredibly easy - we picked up our reserved car at the Zagreb airport. All you need is a valid driver's license and we paid a little extra for GPS and a portable wifi.
Everything worked out perfectly, the navigation system was extremely helpful, and the wifi made it easy to communicate with relatives if we needed to or simply check our email/social media during the road trip. The roads are picturesque, full of farmland, hills, cute little residential streets! I can't even explain it, so just look here:
I even made Jon pull over so we could buy a wheel of cheese in the middle of nowheresville! Does it get anymore charming than that?
Plitvice Lakes is one of Croatia's most sought after tourist destinations and if you don't make time for it when you're in Croatia, you definitely missed out. There's 16 lakes, the prettiest blue hues you can imagine, connected by a series of waterfalls and woodlands. The wood planked walkways were easy enough to navigate, but with the crowds, just be extra careful as you pass by another person. We spent a couple hours here, but you can easily spend a couple days exploring, packing a picnic lunch and hiking the beautiful terrain.
On to Split, the first city that comes to mind when anyone asks me where my favorite place has been so far. It was about 2.5 hours further from the National Park and we arrived about an hour before sunset. The drive there was something out of Nevada. Seriously! It looked like Nevada. Gorgeous, nonetheless with its lack of green and desert like terrain. After a little confusion finding our Airbnb in the center of town, we made it and chatted with our host, Mia, about all things Split and how we would spend our next couple days. Mia had such a unique story - the Croatian War of Independence took place in the early 90's when Croatia was leaving Yugoslavia to become a sovereign country, and post-war, Mia was able to purchase back her family home, start renovations and turn it into a functioning aparthotel to generate the funds to pay it off and eventually become her permanent dream home. It was incredibly cute, she was the sweetest host offering up so much information about the city and providing us with any discount she could think of. We will return to Split, and really really hope to meet with Mia again.
This Split place is unreal. It actually feels like a movie set, and maybe that's because they film Game of Thrones here, which I have never seen, but the old city of Split is so in tact and authentic. Jon tells me to tell you Split is the setting for Meereen and there are several tours you can take to see filming locations.
Located right along the Adriatic Sea with a backdrop of coastal mountains and the Riva, the city's most public space and pedestrian walking promenade, is the perfect place to start exploring. We settled into a little place called Corto Maltese Freestyle Food to eat dinner. Jon had the squid ink risotto, while I noshed on pasta, and we split their famous octopus salad appetizer - not my favorite, but I gave it a try. Jon would smile at me with his teeth stained black, and I gotta say, he is one dude that can't look unattractive, even with squid ink all up in his mouth.
We walked through romantically lit Palace of Diocletian, a historical complex built between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The "palace" is eight acres of enclosed space - winding pedestrian paths amongst the ancient ruins, four marvelous gate entrances and shops and restaurants tucked galore within the medieval walls. It's like its own little town, the former residence of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian built initially in preparation for his retirement, and today it stands as the world's most complete remains of a Roman palace. Freaking MIND BLOWING, I TELL YOU. I could walk around and get lost all day in this lovely space.
The next day, we walked along the sunny Riva, walked up to Marjan Park and grabbed the best views of the city. Marjan is a hill overlooking the sea and city, and after several hundred steps, you discover all of Split in one panoramic view. After snapping a few selfies, we made our way back over to the palace area and toured the Cellars, the underground of the Palace of Diocletian that is actually a mirror image of the floorplan of the emperor's residence. The rooms are these empty ancient walls, incredible to walk through and explore under the bustling city. We were only two of a handful of people walking around, so it made the experience of walking amongst the impressive maze that much better. We stumbled upon an art exhibit which they often use the rooms for (think how beautiful it would be to see a fashion show, a play or the International Flower Show down there which they do host regularly). Bucket List item for sure now - book The International Flower Show in Split.
Once, we reached the sunshine again above ground, we walked the outskirts of the palace where you'll find an open air market full of vendors selling antiques, crafts, and other souvenirs. I bought a tiny painting of Split by a painter there who takes scraps of wood and paints little Croatian landscapes on them. Jon bought a little statue of the massive statue he's rubbing the toe of below. This guy's name is Gregory of Nin and he was sculpted by the same guy I mentioned previously, Ivan Mestrovic. He was a medieval bishop (circa 929) who introduced the national language. If you rub his toe, it's good luck. So here's Jon gettin' lucky.
We settled into the evening walking around the city I quickly crushed on and stopped for fresh mussels and pizza at Konoba Pizzeria Feral - so delicious, take me back! Ending our last night, we sipped on Croatian wine and various cocktails at one of the many outdoor cafes within the palace walls.
Split was straight out of a fairytale, and we can't wait to go back to Croatia and discover even more of the Dalmatia coastline. Dubrovnik, we're comin' for ya.