It felt great to arrive in Zagreb. Prague and Budapest were both stunningly beautiful, but so busy with tourists (like us!) at every corner. Arriving to the train station we were in the minority, unlike the previous two cities, with people speaking predominately Croatian and not English. For the first time, we landed in a city where very few people spoke English.
The train ride took about 6 hours stopping at smaller towns and, surprisingly enough, felt fairly quick for the four of us. Kids had the opportunity to catch up on their school assignments. The schedule was two writing assignments, 1 hour screen time; followed by 2 reading assignments, 1 hour screen time; and then journal writing. Minus a few tears from Elliot, they both did pretty well.
After a couple of hours, both kids ended up fairly hungry and wanted to check out the dining car for the first time. They each ordered a full dinner (no kids menu anymore) and finished everything-–including a side order of vegetables. A first so far on this trip.
For the last hour to Zagreb, we had a gentleman from Croatia join our berth who was thrilled to learn of our visit to his country. He prioritized the top 10 things we should do in and around regions we planned to see. One big take-away was Zagreb makes the greatest cakes in the world. He spoke in finite details about how they’re made with fresh butter, rather than margarine, using only natural ingredients without any added dyes, preservatives and a best-before date plaque to indicate freshness. There’s a chance he owned a bakery, but that didn’t matter—we were sold!
We arrived at the hotel by late evening. The kids had their feast on the train and were already too glued to the TV to even think about leaving to find a dinner spot. On the other hand, we haven’t eaten in the past 8-hours…we ended up getting dinner at a small bakery to bring back home. We had a slice of cake (as required by our new friend: a walnut, fig and orange cake—amazing!), burek (phyllo pastry baked with ground meat…soooo good), and various cheese breads to share. It was the perfect late-night meal we wanted (we still think about that cake and our mission for the rest of the trip was to find more).
The next morning was a visit to Zagreb’s Dolac Market—a large concentrated outdoor market with vendors from all over Zagreb’s surrounding areas, selling fresh veggies, fruit, mushrooms and cheeses. Smells, colours, and people packed into such a small area all hawking their products–it felt great to be part of it. We ended up with large bags of the sweetest little plums, fresh figs, and shelled walnuts before leaving to pick up a rental car for our trip south to Plitvice National Park with a night layover in Rastoke.
Rastoke is a tiny little hamlet built on top (and around) surrounding waterfalls. The town even has a few homes with waterfalls running underneath them! Most visitors (aka tour buses) use this town as a lunch stop on their way south, a precursor to the larger waterfalls in Plitvice Lake. Staying the evening allowed us to have a lovely dinner beside a waterfall without the hustle of tourists around us – just locals enjoying their dinner.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast in Slunj, we drove out to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Plitvice was one of our many “must-dos” on our trip.
Every image of the park we saw was absolutely stunning in our research. The plan was to spend 4 days (contrary to everyones suggestion that one day is plenty) to explore the park – thankfully we did because the first day it poured. When we arrived we were so excited to see the park for the first time that we ventured out, even in the rain, with our newly purchased plastic ponchos. By the time we got to the first look-out point we gave up (because plastic ponchos turned out to be very good at pooling water until they’re ready to find each dry spot to soak through) and ended up driving back to our cabin. Mother nature 1, us 0. Day two it poured again. We ended up spending our morning catching up with school work and reading. By afternoon the showers ‘seemed’ to have stopped, so we decided to venture back to the park and ended up getting only moderately soaked this time. We did, however, manage to finish a small section of the park. Again, mother nature 2, us 0. Day three was forecasted to be sunny with zero chance of precipitation. We left extra early to take advantage of the sun and spent an entire day in the park, visiting both the upper and lower lakes. The morning was a refreshing 8 degrees. Freezing! (One tip is to always travel with a toque. The kids made great use of theirs in every country we’ve been to so far. Now we need to get a couple more for Nepal!). Freezing in the morning, but absolutely warm in the afternoon. Mother nature 2, us 1.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is gorgeous. Nothing like we’ve ever seen before. The water was clear as in the Maldives and as aqua blue as glacial lakes in the Rocky Mountains. What made this place extra special for us were the numerous waterfalls, the meandering boardwalks covered with tropical-like foliage, and the many walking paths sprinkled across the park.
We were definitely not the first to discover Plitvice Lakes’ beauty. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, there are BUS LOADS of visitors each day. Mostly Germans and Koreans posing for photos like us (instead of “cheese” we heard “kimchi”). It was hard to take a photo without someone accidentally walking into your photo or waiting in line (some walkways were single file) for someone else to finish with their snapshot. Even with all these inconveniences, however, we’re still very glad to have visited and were able to capture the beauty of the park as a vivid memory in our minds, because our pictures don’t do justice it deserves.
We ended our last morning in Plitvice Lakes with breakfast at 7am so we could get an early start to our next destination in Croatia. The highway signage, even local roads, have been really good so far and we seldomly use our offline maps. The previous night we didn’t think we needed to download further map sections of Croatia but ended up downloading – just in case – to our phone. Well, good thing we did because the main highway to Split was CLOSED for maintenance (think Toronto’s summer closure of highways) and forced us to take backroads looking for an available onramp. Onramps aren’t plentiful like we have back home, but rather towns apart and between towns are scattered with single track roads. We serendipitously crossed the Dinara Mountains as a result. Beautiful, switch-back drive up and down to the Adriatic sea. Driving single file behind a late-era farm truck carrying a cow at 20 km/h at times wasn’t a bother –the scenery outside made the detour a success! We made it eventually, but set us back a couple of hours by meandering through small towns and mountainous landscapes we wouldn’t have seen otherwise if we stayed on the highway.
In Split we stayed at an apartment overlooking the vestibule in the Diocletian’s Palace in the old town of the city. An all-male acappella group was performing klapa—Dalmatian folk music—in the vestibule all day and into the early evening. The acoustics were so good, we heard it straight through our window. At first we thought someone had their music playing next door to share with the tourists walking around Old Town until we realized the music was directly below us.
Split was a lovely seaside town surrounded by the Mosor mountain and the Adriatic Sea. Its waterfront riva is lined with palm trees and cafes overlooking the bay. It’s the main ferry hub to several other Croatian islands.
We bought our first art piece in Split. A goal of ours is to buy original art in each country as mementos of our trip. In Split, we picked up a piece by a local Croatian artist that works in print and sculpture designs. It’s now wrapped securely in a cardboard frame and ready to be shipped home from Delhi, India (our first point to ship our collected items home) including the two not-so-light rock-salt eggs from Wileczka Salt Mine the kids had to get!
From Split we took a catamaran (no closed highways on our route this time) to our last destination, Hvar—a picturesque island town off the Dalmatian coast where locals go to holiday.
Hvar, which is an island in itself, has even the smaller Pakleni islands hugging the coast where we stayed. Our goal was to spend a day exploring those islands. Originally our plan was to take a water taxi to one of the islands and go island hopping via water taxis. After some research, we ended renting our own motor boat, going at a leisure pace on our own schedule. And so we did. The islands have rocky coasts with crystal clear water and deserted coves where you can anchor, swim, lunch, and enjoy the afternoon – we did all four.
Our time in Hvar was perfect. It was the first place we had a hard time leaving. The town of Hvar, deserted coves of the Pakleni Islands, swimming in the super-salty Adriatic and lounging in the sun overlooking the sea at the house made for everlasting memories.
From Hvar we took a catamaran back to Split, then a bus to Dubrovnik. Our original plan was a catamaran ride straight to Dubrovnik, but they stopped service on the day we wanted to leave (not noted on their site, by the way). The bus to Dubrovnik took four hours and was right along the Dalmation coast. Mountains on one side with alarming cliffs to the Adriatic Sea on the other. Stunning the entire way. As we got further south the landscape changed to more rolling hills with vineyards and orange groves.
Dubrovnik was beautiful, however, between tour buses and 2,000+ person cruise liners, to us it seemed very busy and hectic for their low season. Couldn’t imagine what high season would be like. We spent a few hours exploring the fortress city, and walking the upper city walls around the old city.
Our time in Croatia introduced us to some new dishes: Burek, Black Cuttlefish Risotto (made with squid ink), Gregada (Dalmatian fish stew made with local white fish, potatoes, onions and olive oil baked in a stone pot…so, so good—will try to make at home), and the delicious spicy Croatian olive oil—which the kids loved as well. Last, but not least, Croatian wines – especially the Plavac Malis – rounded out a fantastic time in Croatia.
Our 10 days in Croatia were fabulous and definitely a place we want to return. We’re off next to Montenegro.
Read about Chloe and Elliot’s time in Croatia: