- Day 1: Zagreb, Croatia
- Days 2-3: Plitvice Lakes National Park
- Day 4: Split
- Days 5-9: Stari Grad
- Days 10-12: Dubrovnik
- Day 13: Travel day
RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→ Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan
Dates: July 7-19, 2014
When my grandmother found out Tim and I were going to spend about 2 weeks in Croatia, part of former Yugoslavia, she was apparently worried about us. My mom tells me it’s because the last time we heard much about Croatia in the news was in the 1990s, during the Bosnian Wars and the Croatian War for Independence shortly after the fall of Yugoslavia. My mom said that back then, people in the United States thought of that region much like how we think of Iraq today- it may offer something to a tourist, but it’s generally not safe or desirable to try it. At that time, I honestly didn’t know anything about Croatia’s recent and dramatic history- I only knew that several good friends of ours highly recommended the country for its beautiful beaches and islands.
We started our visit in Zagreb, the country’s capital. We stayed with a guy about my age, Zenid, and his mom, in a room in their home that we booked on Airbnb. Conveniently, Zenid is also an expert on his city and gave us a walking tour when we got in that evening. We learned about the city’s medieval roots, and traditions that remain today that are unique to Zagreb. For example, every day at noon, they still shoot a cannon ball (actually just a puff of smoke and a loud “boom”) from the Lotršcak Tower, which dates from the 13th century. They are the only city that still upholds this daily tradition. Additionally, every evening, they still light gas lamps along the streets. In this way, Zagreb certainly has its share of European charm.
But what Zagreb also has is a unique history and national identity that, frankly, is challenging to understand due to its complexity. It was clear to us that Croats today have a certain degree of pride in their Croatian heritage- as evidenced by an abundance of red and white checkered prints we saw during our visit, a pattern that represents Croatia. Historically, however, Croats haven’t had their own true nation since their time as a kingdom from the 10th to the 12th centuries. After that, while they had their own ruler and parliament, they obeyed the kings and emperors of greater European powers- namely Hungary and Austria. Croatia first appeared as a duchy in the late 8th century and then as a kingdom in the 10th century. From the 12th century it remained a distinct state with its ruler and parliament, but it obeyed the kings and emperors of various neighboring powers, primarily Hungary and Austria. From the 15th to the 17th centuries they were warding off invasions from the Ottoman Empire, and, after being part of Yugoslavia for most of the 20th century, Croatia finally regained independence in 1991, shortly after the fall of communism.
Shortly after they acquired their independence, they were involved in the Bosnian War with Serbs and Bosnians from 1992 to 1995. It is considered the bloodiest event in Europe since WWII – 100,000 people died, many civilians, and many war crimes took place, including the Serbian president’s attempts to “cleanse” parts of former Yugoslavia of Croats, Bosnians and Muslims. The war ended in 1995 when NATO intervened, but you can still sense some tensions and prejudices today.
After our brief time in Zagreb, we headed a few hours south to Plitvice Lakes National Park. We stayed at a guesthouse near the entrance to the park and spent a beautiful day hiking all of the trails around the park. The park contains sixteen lakes that are grouped into upper and lower regions, creating cascades as you move to lower lakes. The water is a brilliant torquoise blue, and the waterfalls are delicate and elegant. After spending the past few months in primarily urban landscapes, we were so happy to spend a day back in nature, enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery we’d seen in a while.
Our next destination a few days later was to Split, a seaside town famous for its nightlife and for being a departure point for Croatia’s famous party cruises along the Croatian islands of the Adriatic Sea. The ruins of an ancient palace also make up the city center, and parts of “Game of Thrones” are filmed there. While sitting in Diocletian’s palace (named so for the 4th century AD Roman emperor who had it built), we met an Australian guy named Peter who was in Split before joining one of said party cruises. We ended up having a fun and rather sponatneous night of good conversations, good beer, and some pretty awful local liquer.
The next day we took a ferry out to Stari Grad, a small town on the island of Hvar. This town is one of the cutest places I have ever been. It is one of the oldest towns in Europe, having been occupied as early as 3500 BC. The old town is set along a bay of the Adriatic Sea, and docked boats dot the coast line. While the beaches here are rocky and not really typical of what you think of when go to a beach in the United States, the water is beautiful and warm, and salty enough to stay afloat easily. We spent several nights in this town, relaxing by the water during the days, and enjoying some of the quaint nightlife in the evenings. We also watched the last World Cup game at a pub there, and were quite excited to see Germany win since we’d been rooting for them ever since Fussen!
Our last stop in Croatia was to Dubrovnik, which is about as far south as you can go in Croatia. In order to get there, our bus actually had to go through Bosnia and passport control, which was unexpected and interesting, as we can now claim to have been to Bosnia. Dubrovnik is famous for its majestic, medieval walled city that is probably the best preserved walled town in Europe. We also enjoyed two more relaxing days reading and laying out on the beaches.
All in all, Croatia felt more like “vacation” than any of the places we have visited in Europe, perhaps because we allowed ourselves to really slow down for several days of just laying on a beach, doing nothing particularly educational, cultural or strenuous. Even so, we both feel like we learned a lot about a culture and a people previously unknown to us, and we were very happy to relax while doing it (especially leading up to the crazy travel day we had getting from Dubrovnik to Venice, Italy… but more on that later…).