Backpacking the Former Yugoslavia v.2: Plitvice Lakes

The picturesque Church of the Assumption sits in the middle of an alpine lake in the fairytale town of Bled, Slovenia

Off to Plitvice Lakes National Park

Hopped a bus first thing this morning to Split to pick up a connection to Plitvice Lakes. The first leg of the trip hugged the coastline. Weaved through endless small villages, which all started to look alike after a while. Pretty, but all the same. White stucco with orange tile roofs on white rocks that drop suddenly into turquoise water. Every village beach had at least one very retired man in a Speed-O doing a lazy morning backstroke off some rickety, rusted dock. The water was so clear, Jeff and I could literally see fish from the bus windows.


Was reminded of an interesting fact we learned on our Montenegro tour… Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is highly characterized by these orange tile roofs. (Terra cotta maybe?) And they are everywhere. Turns out those tiles aren’t even from Croatia.

After the Yugoslavian War, the homes on the Dalmatian coast were largely destroyed. I guess France was feeling generous and donated a bunch of tiles to help restore the country. The native quarry tiles are brown. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t seem a single joint without the orange-y tiles. I asked Jeff if this grand gesture changed his mind about the French. He won’t budge.

The Headless Sphinx

Found some things to do for a few hours and got lunch. I suppose there’s enough around to do a couple days in Split. Definitely not as cozy as Dubrovnik, though. It’s very obviously a cruise line stop and the taxi drivers and accommodations owners are like vultures around the docks and the bus and train stations. Makes you check your pockets when you find a clearing. Little vending booths all up and down the streets leading to Diocletian’s Palace. Walked around there for a bit. Saw the Temple of Jupiter with a headless sphinx, a gift from Egypt dating back to 400 AD.

Finally found a post office and was able to mail my nephew a couple postcards. He gets very excited and runs around the house when he receives them I’m told, and my stepmom says I’ve contributed by far the most postcards to his fledgling collection, both of which make me happy. Full confession: I’ve had a postcard collection since the age of 8. Yes, I still collect them, but now I only keep the ones of places I’ve been. If there’s one contribution I can make to this kid’s life as a cross-country aunt, it will be the gift of travel.

The Romantic Englishman

Caught the bus to Plitvice Lakes. Seemed to be a lot of younger folks on the bus. Eavesdropped on a conversation between a Scottish guy and an English gentleman behind me. Both were avid travelers as far as I could tell, just met or met on the road recently.

I think the conversation started with the Scottish guy ogling some girl. (It was gross. More on him later.) The English guy mentioned he was “the relationship type.” He said he was formerly married. He’d invested in too much responsibility at too young of an age and ended up leaving his marriage and his job and… well, he just up and left and started traveling.

He said in retrospect he’d perhaps overemphasized his own feelings to himself too much—no one else hated their job as much as he did, or doubted their marriage as he had in his own mind. It seemed very insightful.

He talked about his first kiss with his ex-wife, Sophie. How they met at a club and, “[how] could you ever forget a name like Sophie?” Very romantic. He said he’d just have to see in a few months how all these feelings sorted out.

Three. Hours. Later.

Oh my gaaawd. You really are overemphasizing your own feelings. I’d hate to break it to you, kid, but life doesn’t get any easier. You just sort of… get better at accepting your own circumstances (like working. every. single. day.) and making the most of it (like traveling with your hard-earned money). That’s it.

There’s no grand secret. Not one I’ve discovered, anyway. If anyone has found one, please let me know. We do find down the road that the dirty Scottsman got rip-roaring annihilated at a strip club and was mugged. Had to order all new credit cards. Doesn’t remember a thing.

More stories from tonight (good ones!), but getting late. Spotty wifi. Will update you all tomorrow!

Plitvice Lakes National Park

So, last night I left off on the bus headed to Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. The landscape started to turn from bright coastal cliffs to dark, forested mountains. Weather started rolling in. And it got cold. Very suddenly cold.

“Hostel” in Croatia

The English gentleman had finally cried himself to sleep and the dirty Scotsman basically picked up conversation with anyone on the bus who would talk to him. (One kid told him he had been traveling for four and a half months. #Jelly.)

Nightfall came and the bus was running late. The bus stops were becoming few and far between and the towns got smaller and smaller. We were all tourists headed to the same place and everyone gradually became concerned that we’d missed our stop.

I overheard the bus driver take a phone call. He was speaking in a deep, quiet voice. Presumably in Croatian, which if you haven’t heard, sounds what you might imagine Russian to sound like. Totally eerie. I was convinced he was plotting to “Hostel” us all. Jeff and I started guessing who the survivors would be.

Not the young couple in front of us making out; they’d be the first to go because they were surely having way too much sex. I thought I might have a good shot at the female survivor, but if you have an outcome like “Cabin In The Woods,” I’d be stuck with the dirty Scotsman in the end. We imagined the driver would be awarded $1,000 USD for the whole busload of us.

“American Werewolf” in Croatia

Well, we didn’t get Hostel’ed, but we did all get dropped off at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere… in the pitch black night… in the rain. No town. No street lights. In the mountains. The non-planners hitched a ride as a group with an accommodations vulture who randomly drove up (the people who approach you with hand-scribbled signs offering rooms or taxis).

They obviously know the bus schedule well. We never saw those people again, so maybe they really were Hostel’ed after all. We walked down the road a half mile with our packs and a couple of Japanese kids to our hotel, which you couldn’t see at all from the road. Very… “American Werewolf in Croatia.”

The whole thing creeped even me out, and I’d consider myself a fairly adventurous traveler. Our hotel was a complete dump, but there weren’t very many rooms available at all when I was booking. After our night, I’ll take it. We did run into the Japanese kids the next day, so… they must’ve escaped the terrifying grips of their murderous sadists.

Travel Insights Over Dinner

We caught dinner at a neighboring, much nicer hotel. Started chatting with an older couple from New Zealand. They’d flown in through Riga and drove Venice to Ljubljana to Plitvice Lakes. The man had been to 73 countries and wanted to complete 100 by the time he died.

He commented that American work-life balance was just awful and how terrible it was that we had such limited time off to devote to travel. Love a good outsider perspective on American culture.

We started talking light politics and he’d mentioned that a couple weeks ago he had lunch with a Russian friend in Moscow, and the Russian fellow asked if he should fear Americans. A few interesting points come to mind here.

One is that, while the United States certainly has its very own propaganda, one of these two countries has a reputation for censorship… and one does not. The other is… that’s funny; I was just wondering when I could feel comfortable traveling to Russia as an American. At any rate, interesting perspectives on the open road. I asked the man my favorite closing question, “Where’s your favorite place you’ve ever been?” His reply? The United States.

Touring Plitvice Lakes

Woke up early to grab breakfast and hit up the park. As terrible as the hotel rooms were, the hotel itself was a shorter walk to the park entrance than from the bus stop the night before. Score!

Jeff and I hopped the park ferry and shuttle and cruised all throughout the park. It’s filled with waterfall after waterfall and the water is clear as clear can be. It’s quite astonishing really. The only downside? There had been a lot of rain the past few days and the boardwalks flooded. I bet the falls would have been pretty impressive from down below.

“Drunk & Angry” in Zagreb

From Plitvice Lakes, we picked up a bus to Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. It’s really just a jump-off for Slovenia tomorrow. The Old Town seems nice enough, but the rest of the city is pretty depressing. Lots of Eastern Bloc-looking buildings, run down. Lots of graffiti.

This English couple we met at the bus stop described the people in Zagreb as “drunk and angry” and “a little threatening.” Not my top stop this trip, but we haven’t encountered any drunk, angry people yet, so things are going better for us here than they did for the other couple apparently.

Staying at a five-star tonight and relaxing. Jeff and I like to travel on a shoestring and then treat ourselves with an adventurous excursion or a luxurious hotel along the way. I’m shamelessly appropriating all the L’Occitane toiletries and the fancy weighted hotel pen. #ImStillJordanFromTheBlock

Off to Bled, Slovenia tomorrow by train. A little castle town in the Julian Alps. …After my breakfast in bed, of course.

A Fairytale Castle in Lake Bled, Slovenia

Had breakfast in bed and stole my toiletries. Master plan successfully executed. Walked to the train station where Jeff and I got confused about our tickets and the correct platform and engaged in your typical marital spat. You know, the one where the OCD wife is responsible for all the details, and the well-meaning, laid back husband would seemingly be totally fine if you both ended up three countries away in the Ukraine? Yep, that one. There’s gotta be at least one per trip. But now we’ve checked that box and can both stew silently for fifteen minutes before moving on.

Getting to Bled

Contrary to the English couple’s assessment, the people in Zagreb are totally sober and angry. The train station employees hate tourists and they work at a transit center in the capital city, so… pretty sure that makes them miserable for at least 35 hours a week. They did not at all seem interested in helping us. In the end, we figured it out. Getting from Zagreb or Ljubljana to Lake Bled is pretty straightforward overall.

Had a gorgeous train ride through the Slovenian countryside. The train followed an aqua-colored river through the mountains and dropped us off at a station so tiny, it has one platform with only two trains—one going one way and one going the other.

Caught a cab to the town center, which consisted of a large alpine lake, a little island with a church on it, and a castle overlooking it all. A fairy tale setting. I’d seen this in many a picture, I desperately wanted to go there, and happy to say, now I have.

Lake Bled’s Fairytale Castle

One of Jeff’s official to-dos was to take a gondola ride out to the church island, so we did. You don’t realize how far away the church is until you’re out in the middle of the lake fifteen minutes later and still not there, or even close. But it’s certainly one of the best viewpoints of Lake Bled! You would think the gondola guy would be completely cut from rowing a fourteen-person boat all day every day, but he was really just an average guy with an average build.

Interestingly, he told us that in the 1600s, 22 families were awarded the rights to row pilgrims to and from the church island and that, today, only the same 22 families are still allowed to row. Some of the families have changed over time; if a family doesn’t have a son to pass the boating rights down to, they might bequeath them to a nephew or a husband. Once at the island, we hiked 100 stairs to the church. Supposedly, you can make a wish, ring the church bell, and Mary will grant it. …The church bell rings all day.

Bavarian Cream Pie at Sunset

Had lunch and took an afternoon nap. Got up and walked around the other side of the lake to the base of the village fortress and another church. There’s no way to the top of the fortress but to walk or hire a cab; Jeff and I were sore and exhausted from both the Plitvice Lakes hikes and our earlier hundred stairs, and opted to admire it from below.

We’re having a pleasant walk on the lake admiring some swans when a random cannon explodes right in front of us. We have no idea what the exact source was or why it went off, but there was a lot of smoke and a very frightened dog that had to be carried away by its owner. Sat down at a cafe to have some drinks and watch the sun set. Tested out some legit Bavarian Cream Pie. Magic in your mouth. A must do if you’re ever in the area.

Discovered the hotel had American TV and fell asleep to the sweet, sweet sound of… “Cheaters.”

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Cheers, Jordan