If you’re a regular reader of the site, then by now you will have no doubt learned that I kind of enjoyed my trip through Croatia. I’m a passionate person and frankly tend to fall in love with most places I visit, but a few go beyond that and implant themselves firmly in my heart. New Zealand, South Africa and France have all done that and now so has Croatia. Today I want to share not a specific city or a national park, but a few moments of sheer travel joy, that wide eyed spark of wonder and awe that I felt in Croatia and which makes travel the adventure it is. Without these moments I’d probably never leave home and I was lucky to have experienced so many in Croatia.
1. Ancient discoveries in Zagreb – Zagreb surprised me in a lot of ways. I suppose I expected a typical, post-Communist capital with drab buildings and sour people. While there are definitely some architectural holdovers from the Tito era, most of the city is anything but drab. Not only is Zagreb fun, interesting, lively and even colorful, but it captivated and help my attention in a way that few other cities manage. I was intrigued and there seemed to be a lesson around every corner. From the Meštrović sculptures dotted around town to the intricately tiled St. Mark’s Church, the city is just damn interesting. One of my favorite moments though wasn’t at a scenic overlook or a famous cafe, it was inside the ancient Zagreb Cathedral. I’ve been in a lot of churches and frankly many of them blur into a composite of altars and crosses. But as I turned a corner inside the cathedral and looked up I was genuinely and honestly surprised. There in front of me was a large inscription, except it wasn’t in a language I recognized. I don’t mean that it was in a language I didn’t know, the script was totally new to me and looked more alien-made than borne from human hands. My guide quickly informed me that I was looking at an example of Glagolitic. This script was created in the 9th century in order to create a common written script for the Slavic peoples to hasten the introduction of Christianity. It’s not a language, it’s a script. So Croats still speak Croatian, but it can be written in Glagolitic. It was the first attempt to really unite the Slavic peoples and it fascinated me. It held my interest not because I love languages and history, which I do, but because I had never before heard of it. I’m no genius, but I’d like to think I am pretty well educated and yet there I stood in front of something totally new and alien to me. It created a sudden rush of curiosity and excitement that doesn’t come along often, but which is to be relished when it rears its head. At that moment I knew that Croatia had many more surprises in store for me, just waiting to be discovered.
2. Scenic delights on the island of Brac – By the time I reached the island of Brac off the coast of Croatia, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Croatia. Driving along hundreds of kilometers of roads I saw everything from farms to dry, arid lands, mountains and the beautiful coastline for which Croatia is so well known. Brac wasn’t the first island I visited in Croatia, but it was the biggest and an easy day trip from the ancient city of Split. As I walked along the old port in the city of Bol in Brac, I turned around and saw one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand. The beauty was in its simplicity; boats in a small port, shops lining the promenade and a cloud encircled mountain in the background. But the vibrancy of the colors and the spirit of the landscape were both so intense that I feel short of breath. At that moment a lot of what makes Croatia so popular clicked. It’s not just a pretty place and there aren’t just a few nice places to visit. The natural beauty of the country is prolific and even on the relatively unknown (to Americans at least) island of Brac, and in a very small town on that unknown island I found a truly amazing visual wonderland. I realized that there must be hundreds if not thousands of other hidden landscapes, just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by those willing to look for them.
3. Perfect sunset in Zadar – I’ve featured this amazing sunset already a couple of times not just because it’s pretty, which it is, but because I think of what that moment and indeed that entire day spent in the coastal city of Zadar meant to me. Walking through town I felt as if I could really imagine what the same streets looked like during Roman times. The sun shining brightly on the ancient stones, kids running by on the way to somewhere important and locals enjoying an afternoon coffee at the many cafes around town. That evening, standing on top of the clock tower and watching the sun fall into the Adriatic my heart filled with such joy and happiness I could barely contain myself. I understood why Hitchcock called it the best sunset in the world and couldn’t agree more. It has to be seen to be believed though and Zadar is an unlikely city that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
4. Walking through Plitvice – I am not what one would ordinarily call an outdoorsy guy, and yet I seem to constantly find myself a willing participate on hikes and other woodsy explorations. Of course, no trip to Croatia is complete without visiting what is arguably it’s greatest natural wonder, Plitvice Lakes National Park. A series of cascading lakes and waterfalls, Plitvice is massive and almost impossibly green. The brightness of the verdancy so extreme that at times I thought my sight marred in a sort of green blindness. It’s also a very busy place, with hundreds of thousands of people visiting each year and the day I visited was no exception. There was a moment though as my small group walked along a wooden walkway with a small lake to our left fed by waterfalls that I understood the magic of this place. I was enrobed in green wonderland, a place just as fantastical as Croatia’s coastal cities. But this was a natural fantasy, which of course made it even more special. The moment didn’t last long and before I knew it another school group was rushing past us, but the spirit persisted and transformed what was a nice walk in the woods to a wonderful day of exploration and wonder at nature’s beauty.
5. Going local at a cafe in Dubrovnik – I’m not the only person who has fallen in love with Dubrovnik; it’s the top tourist destination in Croatia for a reason. A spectacular walled city, Dubrovnik is fantasy made into real life and walking around town feels like exploring a movie lot instead of an ancient city. But it wasn’t the walls, the ancient buildings or the beautiful architecture that created my defining moment. No, instead that happened at a simple wine bar in one of the city’s many alleyways. Walking down the main thoroughfare in Dubrovnik, dozens of small streets radiate out into all directions and even more branches developing beyond, like an urban tree. At the end of a long day exploring town, we traipsed through one of these alleys and settled at a small wine bar, D’Vino’s, to enjoy a quiet evening with good food, wine and friendship. Sitting there outside at a small table, I watched as life walked by as the sun slowly set transforming the city yet again. It was a beautiful way to experience what life is like in Dubrovnik in a way that no tour can ever approximate. Stepping away from the touristy and the commercialized, I began to see the true beauty of the city and to appreciate it for what it is; enduring and almost everlasting charm. I think it’s because of that night that I truly fell in love with the city and can’t wait to return to see if my love remains constant and true.