An organ that is built into the sea, a man named Joe and a park with 16 interconnecting lakes… 3 more reasons to go to Croatia. This is Beth’s last post on Croatia, but certainly not her last post with us. Thank you Beth for sharing your words and travel wisdom with us.
As mentioned in my first post, we were ultimately headed to Vienna to meet up with one of our other sons. Instead of flying, we opted to take the train from Zagreb to Vienna— a 7 hour trip through Slovenia that would allow us a day to relax and see the countryside. Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, about a 4 hour car ride from Split. Between the two cities there are two amazing sites that we were fortunate enough to experience. One was made by man and the other by Mother Nature. We easily picked up our rental car in downtown Split (about $60 per day with GPS and gas) and headed up the coast.
Our first stop was Zadar, home of the Sea Organ, about two hours north of Split. It dates it’s origin back to the 4th-century BC and is the oldest continuously operating city in Croatia. It is a growing tourist destination because of its rich history, smaller crowds, and the magnificent Sea Organ. A friend had told us about this gem and we were so glad we decided to see it for ourselves. Designed by local architect Nikola Bašić, this musical instrument is about 250 feet long and is set into steps that descend into the Adriatic Sea. As the waves push through the pipes, the organ plays. The sound is hypnotic—like a more melodious version of whale sounds. At night, the sound is accompanied a light show (which we missed, but it sounded pretty cool). Like so many great public art installations, the Sea Organ is interactive. You can climb on it, sunbathe on it, and you can swim from the steps! We hung out there for a while, watching people and boats and listening to the music. After having some great pizza at a little place on the harbor (there is great pizza everywhere), we headed to our next stop.
From Zadar, we drove about two hours west to Plitvice National Park. It was a beautiful drive through the mountainous karst area of central Croatia. The main highways are toll roads that are in much better shape than anything in the New York/New Jersey area. I made a hotel reservation near one of the park entrances with the idea that we could hit the park first thing in the morning. I panicked a little when we passed Entrance 1 and 2 and then seemed to drive off away from the park. After a hairpin turn and a few miles of narrow, winding roads up a mountain, we arrived at the very private and very lovely Ethno Rooms and Guest Houses. We cannot recommend these accommodations highly enough. And right around the corner? Park entrance 3!
Joseph (call me “Joe”) welcomed us, checked us in, and brought us to our very comfortable and well-appointed room. He let us know that he would be serving dinner for any of the guests who were interested at 7pm in a rustic outdoor kitchen (there were probably about 50 guests in total). There were chaise lounges and tables outside, a pool table in the main room, wine and beer for sale, and a traditional Croatian breakfast of meats, cheeses, and pastries in the morning. He also offered a bagged lunch for the park the next day. “The lines can get long and some guests prefer to bring their own so they can picnic at their leisure.” How perfect is that, sign us up! It was about 4:30 pm at this point and Joe suggested that if we wanted to stretch our legs from the car trip, there was a walking path just around the corner. My teen opted for wi-fi rather than a walk, so my husband and headed off.
Turns out our guest house was situated very close to the top of the largest waterfall in the park. The path meandered along a ridge that offered panoramic views of many lakes and several of the larger waterfalls. Gotta love Joe; he only promised us a nice way to stretch our legs. He never hinted at the beauty we were to encounter on that walk. I cannot tell you how amazing it was to peak through a clump of trees and find that you are standing on top of a 78 meter waterfall! We were gone for nearly two hours and weren’t even in the park yet!
Croatia has 8 national parks. The biggest and most popular is Plitvice Lakes (another UNESCO site). The 75,000 acre park features a series of 16 connecting lakes, waterfalls, caves, and lush forests linked through a series of walkways, bridges, and trails. Like everything else in Croatia, the cost is very reasonable – 180K (about $26.00) for adults and 80K (about $11) for students.
The 7+ hours we spent in the park (and we were walking for most of the time) flew by! It is so hard to describe the beauty. The water is, again, an amazing color of blue. There are millions of fish in the lakes and it is hard not to stop every few feet to watch them swim. There are miles of wooden walkways that put you beside and over many of the waterfalls, in and out of caves, and through the forest. When you are not looking at the water falls, watch for wild flowers, metallic blue dragon flies, a host of butterflies, a crazy Hawk Moth that people mistake for a hummingbird or the 6” slugs (one whom wanted to join us for lunch)! Make sure your iPhone has lots of power because I dare you to not take 1,000 photos!
It is not just the amazing beauty that overcomes you. Here is the marvelous part—everyone here is respectful. Outside of the entrances there are dining facilities with a huge menu of food and drink choices, clean restrooms, water filling stations and, when we were there, a group of Croatian musicians and dancers.
There are no trashcans and there is no trash. People graciously wait for (or volunteer to take) “photo moments.” Strangers help older folks or folks with kids climb stairs and navigate the walkways. And none of this is enforced from rangers—we only saw one ranger outside of the entrance points—it is simply a huge display of common decency and a true display of our “social contract.” A trip to Plitvice Lakes is good for the heart in many ways.
We were completely full of the park and the experience when we rolled into Zagreb around 7pm thinking only of a meal and a bed. We had a 7:30 train in the morning so we hadn’t planned on “seeing Zagreb.” Our mistake. It is yet another beautiful city in this beautiful country.
We dropped off the car at the airport and took a cab to our hotel. The cab driver gave us a great recommendation for a local place to eat and took us directly to our hotel (even though it was in a pedestrian-only location). The Hotel Jagerhorn was awesome. Upon check-in, the clerk told us about the hotel breakfast and we let her know how early we had to leave. In less than a heartbeat she offered to book us a cab to the train station (we could walk, but it would take about 20 minutes) AND to pack a breakfast to take with us. The suite (a room for us and a room for the teen) was wonderful.
The restaurant the cabby directed us to was fabulous (our hostess asked if we had a vegetarian among us—if yes, she directed you to the café, if no—us—you were directed to the main restaurant). The cabby told us to order the local specialties (clearly he was very helpful), so we ordered the meat platter for two (the teen opted for a burger). It featured PUNJENA VJEŠALICA (Veal steaks stuffed with ham and cheese and grilled with breadcrumbs) and PLJESKAVICA mit KAJMAK (Hamburger steaks with thick cream) along with some chicken and grilled veggies. We topped that off with the local wine and the bill barely came to $60.
After dinner we meandered through a very active and vibrant city back to our hotel, steadfast in the knowledge that this, our first trip to Croatia, will not be our last!