30 May – 1 June 2014
I was sad to leave Belgrade. I stumbled out of bed, packed my things, bid a fond farewell to the fine folks at the Green Studio Hostel, and strolled across the street to the train station. The beginning of my train ride into Croatia was a mopey one for me; but with the help of some good tunes and major Game of Thrones binge-reading my mood quickly changed and I grew excited for things yet to come. By the evening I was in a brand new place – Zagreb!
Zagreb is a small and very old Eastern European city, dating from at least the 1000’s. It has only been the capital of Croatia since 1945. I felt like it was still growing into it’s identity as a capital city, and that it lacked the funky spirit of Belgrade.
My first stop in any new city is the TI, or Tourist Information center. I easily found my way to Zagreb’s TI and got maps, directions to my hostel, and the Zagreb card, which gives you free rides on the trams and discounted entry into many museums. If you are going to be in the city for a few days and plan to hit up 2 or more sites, it’s a good deal. The hostel wasn’t that close to the city center, but Zagreb has amazing trams so it was pretty easy to get there. Overall on my trip, I got fairly lucky with hostels, but one thing I failed at was location. If I had paid attention when I was booking, I would not have stayed at the Funk Lounge Hostel. Zagreb has tons of hostels with much better locations. I didn’t really care for the place either. The staff were nice, but the layout was weird. It felt more like a hotel and was hard to mix and mingle there. I love hostels with personality, and this just didn’t have it.
Just as I had in Belgrade, i made friends quickly. I walked into the hostel and promptly met Mikey, a pretty British girl who was using the computer at the reception desk. On the spot, she asked if I wanted to go into town. I eagerly accepted, and threw down my things in my room, cleaned up a bit, and we took the tram to the city center. We found a popular street lined with cafes, bars and restaurants, and splurged by going to Ivica i Marica (Hansel and Gretel), a well-known traditional Croatian restaurant with folksy decor and slow service. Although neither of us ordered traditional fare (gnocchi in cheese sauce is delicious, but not exactly Croatian) we did try the local draft beer. Afterward, we went to a sports bar with cozy outdoor seating that was packed with locals. I ordered us both rakia, but ended up drinking hers and mine. Rakia is definitely an acquired taste, and after two weeks in the region I had acquired it.
The next day, we awoke early for a day excursion to Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of the must-sees of Croatia. We were picked up by an organized shuttle bus that went to the different hostels, so it was the two of us, and Italian who spoke almost no English, a brash Brazilian girl named Dani, a Finnish guy, and three young British lads on gap year, along with our ornery Croatian driver who blared club music at 9 in the morning.
I’m going to go into a bit more detail about the three Brits. I kept meeting up with them throughout Croatia, so they will be reoccurring characters in this story. From my travel journal: “Sam Jackson is going to be studying science, is small and blonde and acts very serious all of the time, with a permanent scowl on his face, a dry sense of humor, and an accent that is similar to Ron’s in the Harry Potter films. Sam Crossley is more smiley, easy-going, with a quiet, intelligent air. Thom is going to study geology, is more grungy and artsy, with shaggy hair, multiple piercings and tattoos, obsessed with Lord of the Rings and plays multiple instruments, currently reading Charles Darwin. Thom would become the best friend I made in my travels, and on that first bus ride we talked nonstop”.
Plitvice Lakes is truly a place of wonder and beauty. The driver gave us 4 1/2 hours to see the lakes, and you absolutely need that much time. The park contains the largest, clearest, most stunningly blue lakes and incredible waterfalls and rapids I had seen. For some of the time you take a “train”, really a tram that takes a twisting route above the lakes. At another point there’s a serene ferry ride over a particularly vast and still lake. But most of the time you are walking on this wooden plank paths without rails, thrilling and frightening to some over the swifter rapids. I love the lax safety in this part of the world, it’s hilarious. I don’t do a lot of day trips when I travel, but this one was completely worth it. The lakes are a little hard to get to without a car and when planning my trip I’d written off seeing them because I didn’t think it was possible. Thanks for going with me, Mikey!
Once back in Zagreb, Mikey and I made plans with the lads for the evening, and then set about taking care of some business. I whipped us up some bangers and mash in the hostel kitchen while she was on the phone in travel hell trying to get her cell phone and pin card sorted out. After dinner, I went back to my room to get ready, and my three quiet Bosnian roommates had turned into chatty party girls with the help of vodka and Bosnian dance music. We had fun getting ready together, and took some phone camera portraits.
A fun, slightly crazy night of bar-hopping in Zagreb ensued. The first place was a packed beer garden playing funky tunes. I had an interesting beer that was half light beer and half dark, something the bartender promised I wouldn’t find anywhere else. We had fun talking and joking, then went on to the next recommended stop on our list: Medica, a vast warehouse turned legal artist squat. It was awesome, with multiple stages, art everywhere, the weirdest punk bathroom I’ve experienced, and many punky grungy folks hanging out, smoking and drinking. I really liked it of course, but we had the misfortune of going to the techno stage, which sucked and was absolutely dead. Sadly, they wouldn’t refund us so that we could go to the live music stage, so we hung out on some grungy couches, drank cheap rakia and beer out of plastic cups, and didn’t stay too long. I have some fantastic photos which hopefully give you an idea of the place.
Last on our list was the Funk Club, owned by the same people as our hostel. For staying at the hostel, Mikey and I got some bizarre-tasting free shots, and headed down to the crowded basement/techno dance floor. Thom decided quickly that this wasn’t his scene and dashed back upstairs, and although I’m not a huge techno person, I had fun dancing with Mikey and the two Sams and trying to avoid sleazy Croatians. We closed the place down at 2, and caught a cab back to the hostel.
Getting up the next morning was not so fun. I breakfasted with Mikey and saw that she made it to her bus on time, and since the lads also left that morning, I took the tram to the main square for some solo sightseeing. I did a self-guided walk in my Rick Steves guidebook, which led me along the main commercial street, into an elegant shopping mall from the 19th century, to a little courtyard where some folk dancers were performing, and a short funicular ride up to the old part of Zagreb. All the streets were quiet, which I should have expected from a Sunday in a predominantly Catholic country. The old section of Zagreb is particularly quaint. There is an old tower that used to be a prison, where every day at noon a cannon is fired and every night the gas lamps have to be hand-lit by a city worker. The street signs are heavy white stone with an old-fashioned script in both Croatian and German, harking back to the days when this was part of the Hapsburg empire.
It was also in this neighborhood where I visited two of the best and strangest museums of my life. The first was the Museum of Naïve Art, a tiny museum up a flight of stairs housing a fantastic collection. Naïve Art is the school of artists that lack formal training. While Naïve artists can be found all over the world, there was a specific movement in Yugoslavia amongst untrained peasant artists in the 20th century. The most famous, and in my opinion, best of this artists was Ivan Generalic. His scenes of peasant life are vivid, imaginative, detailed and surreal, with filled with fantastical motifs similar to Marc Chagall. I loved his use of color and brushwork. The museum was 6 small rooms and in the last were sketches that the artists used to make their drawings. They’d sketch on a piece of paper, then lay a piece of glass over it and paint directly on the glass (glass was cheaper and easier to work with than canvas), and then reverse the image to display it. Genius!
A much different kind of art can be found in the Museum of Broken Relationships. The collection is simply a group of items from relationships that no longer exist, with a story accompanying the object in the donor’s own words. On paper, this doesn’t translate to much, but in person it is so impactful. The situation is universal: everyone has relationships that have been broken, and every viewer can relate in some fashion. Most of these relationships were love relationships, but parent-child and childhood friends and crushes were also represented. Some were funny, most were sad but all had poignancy. My favorite funny piece was an ax that someone had used to chop up their ex-girlfriend’s furniture while she was on vacation with her new girlfriend. I read every single story, and nearly cried a few times, and found it a truly rewarding experience.
I attempted to do a bit more sight-seeing, but after nearly passing out from the incense in a Catholic church, I had to be honest with myself: I wasn’t feeling good. After two weeks on the road, with too much indulging in food and beverages of the alcoholic variety, not enough veggies, not enough sleep, and hauling my ass everywhere, I was feeling fairly shitty. This was hard to admit. I felt like I was admitting defeat, like admitting to myself that I needed to rest and start taking better care of myself meant I was not the pro traveler I’d been pretending to be. Now I realize that this was fine. When on the road for weeks at a time, it’s ok to take a day off here and there. And I’m glad that I was honest with myself and started treating myself better or I’m not sure how I would have made it through the next few weeks.
Next up: I make it to the magical Adriatic coast!
Good Day and Happy Travels,