Plitvice Lakes & Rastoke, Croatia: Water in the sky and on land

May 25th, 2015. Croatia, Europe
Where water and sky are the same

Where water and sky are the same

From Zagreb, we rented a car from the airport and began a two week road trip through Croatia. The plan was to take mostly local roads and stay off of the Autoceste (toll Interstates) so that we could see the countryside and smaller villages along the way. We arranged a one-way rental from Zagreb to Split through Avis, which we also used in Italy, and the rental process was flawless. For navigation, we had been given directions from our host in Plitvice Lakes and we used the maps on our phones.

To get out of Zagreb, we broke our Autoceste rule and exited the city on the A1 for time purposes. We stayed on for about an hour before exiting in Karlovac to take the smaller 2-lane local D1 road the rest of the way to Plitvice Lakes. As expected, the countryside was lush and beautiful with small towns dotting the roadway. It was also drizzling and by the time we decided to take a quick break, I happened to look up to see signs for the town of Rastoke. I urged Nik to pull over, and as we got out of the car we couldn’t help but smile as we looked over the ledge to see a quaint village of wooden buildings scattered along a river with water flowing and falling between them into the Korana River. We paid for 1 hour of parking and made our way down the path into town. It was everything you imagine a small town that evolved around water mills of the 17th century to be after it accepting its modern fate as a tourist attraction. Small cafe/restaurants with large exterior wooden decks built to accommodate busloads and rooms to rent to accommodate the road-trippers were dispersed between official admission supported tourist sights. While we were there, only two busloads and a handful of road-trippers were walking through in the rain making it seem somewhat abandoned, but the buildings and grounds were maintained just enough to tell you that it wasn’t.

I knew I would be sad if we passed up the opportunity to sit in one of these waterside restaurants because they reminded me of afternoons we spent at Huay Tung Tao Reservoir in Chiang Mai, Thailand back in 2008. So we moved the car, paid for two more hours of parking, and picked a table under cover with minimal railing along the water’s edge next to a group of German motorcyclists. Then, we enjoyed a lunch of homemade cured meat (bear, boar, dear, & pork) and cheese (sheep & cow), grilled potatoes, local beer, Coke, and coffee served by one of the kindest people we have met so far on the trip.

Rastoke from the parking area

Rastoke from the parking area

Nik eating bear meat for the first time

Nik eating bear meat for the first time

...

Based on the wood storage in this region, I assume that all buildings are heated with wood stoves

Based on the wood storage in this region, I assume that all buildings are heated with wood stoves

Living over water

Living over water

From Rastoke, it was only half an hour more to the cottage for the night. We stopped along the way to pick up groceries and when we arrived we were greeted by Dila, a 2 month old golden retriever puppy and a foggy view of the Korana River Valley. The property and vegetation from the entire drive reminded me of East Tennessee, so that evening I simply sat outside and absorbed the view. The humidity was comforting.

Our home for a few days (taken with phone)

Our home for a few days (taken with phone)

Our next and only full day in Plitvice Lakes area began with breakfast at the cottage and an early start at the National Park. We parked at Entrance 2 and took our time criss-crossing the upper lakes before taking the shuttle back to the parking area around noon (the shuttles around and ferries across the lakes are included in park admission fees). The boardwalks were stunning, the water was crystal clear, rain fell at a steady pace, and the other tourists were few and far between.

We drove to a nearby restaurant for lunch that was mostly filled with a Korean tour group. Afterwards, we went back to the lakes and parked at Entrance 1 to explore the lower lakes. As we descended, the fog was so thick that you hear that waterfalls were close, but you could not see them. It was a little eery, but beautiful because the rain and mist is why the falls exist. Our afternoon path was populated with hundreds and perhaps thousands of fellow visitors decked out in hiking shoes, ponchos and waterproof pants. It was a colorful array that contrasted with the natural beauty, and while it would have been great to see the lakes by ourselves, it was also nice to know that they are being appreciated by so many.

By the time we had seen all the lakes, we were pretty exhausted so we took the ferry back across the big lake. On the walk to the parking lot, the views that had been obscured by fog earlier were now mostly clear and we got a small taste of the vistas that were possible.

The weather for our one day in Plitvice Lakes National Park wasn’t ideal for taking photos because we were both constantly drying off our cameras, but it was a moody experience that I wouldn’t pass up. If I could do it again, I would have planned at least 3 days in the area and I would have come to the park at least twice. I would have done one if not two hikes further afield into the forrest and made sure that we had time for the “money shots” in good weather and in bad. So, if we get the chance, we will be back!

Row boats

Row boats

Wooden pathways

Wooden pathways

Observing nature

Observing nature

Grass

Grass

Small streams everywhere

Small streams everywhere

Hiker

Hiker

More pathways

More pathways

Enjoying the lakes

Enjoying the lakes

Look, I'm standing on a waterfall

Look, I’m standing on a waterfall

From above without the fog

From above without the fog

Nik’s Blog: Got wet, but not upset: Rastoke and Plitvice Lakes National Park

Zagreb, Croatia: Short but Sweet

May 14th, 2015. Croatia, Europe
St Mark's Church - I've seen this image 1,000 times, but never knew where it was

St Mark’s Church – I’ve seen this image 1,000 times, but never knew where it was

After 5 days in Budapest, we took the midday train through the countryside of Hungary to Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia. We boarded the train as soon as it pulled into the station 20 minutes before departure, and I had to fight (in English) with an older Hungarian woman (speaking only Hungarian) for our second class window seats. Nik and I had specifically requested them because of the 5.5 hour ride, and we did not want to be stuck looking over people to see out the window. I think she misunderstood the seat numbering system, which I understand because it’s bogus. Once the train started moving, I felt bad because I couldn’t apologize so I pulled out my phone and wrote a quick apology and translated it into Hungarian and showed it to her. She smiled and nodded her head, so I guess she understood.

It was a pleasantly warm day outside, and as the train moved through the smaller stations along the outskirts of town, our car continued to fill and became increasingly warm. There were no operable windows, the air conditioning was not working, and almost all of the 80 2nd class seats were taken. We had plenty of water and snacks, but I started to dread being packed in this metal box for hours. After our tickets were checked, I darted towards the front of the train to catch my breath. Luckily, the dining cars were next door, fresh air was already blowing through the 8 open windows, and all of the seats were empty. I went back and told Nik that we had to move, so we grabbed our luggage and made our way passed the other passengers sweating bullets.

We soon found out that the open windows were great when the train was moving, but not so good when we were sitting at one of many small town stations where the exhaust fumes were sucked right in. After we finished our beer and a couple snacks, I decided to explore the 1st class cars a little to see if there were any empty compartments. I found that there was an ENTIRE 1ST CLASS CAR EMPTY! That’s at least 8 cabins with 6 seats each with power outlets and individually controlled air conditioning. They were all empty while those suckers were roasting back in 2nd class. Geeze. I asked one of the conductors if it was okay if we moved up, and even though I didn’t understand what he said, I assumed he said yes.

The rest of our journey was definitely the best train ride I have ever taken. It certainly helped that we had a cabin to ourselves, but the scenery was top notch and Nik had just downloaded a couple new albums that fit the occasion perfectly.

We pulled into the train station after dark and our month in Croatia had officially begun. Zagreb was our introduction to the former Yugoslavia, and we only gave her 36 hours to make a first impression. Luckily, she was up to the task and we had a wonderful day.

We strolled under the iconic red umbrellas of the Dolac Market, walked through the cafes and bars in Upper Town near the Cathedral, climbed the hill to St Marks, descended through one of many valley parks lined with old and new homes, had a fantastic lunch on one of many pedestrian streets, and took the tram to the Miragoj Cemetery. By that point, Nik was exhausted, so I left him in the room and continued to explore the shopping area in search for the perfect sandals. After a successful purchase, I picked up take-out sushi for dinner in our room at the Palace Hotel.

It was an intense day, but Zagreb gave us the best first impression of Croatia we could have asked for.

The red umbrellas Croatia is known for

The red umbrellas Croatia is known for

Plants for sale

Plants for sale

Monochromatic

Monochromatic

A peaceful sculpture

A peaceful sculpture

Mirogoj Cemetery

Mirogoj Cemetery

Nik’s Blog: Two Nights in Zagreb and the Worlds’ Your Oyster

Budapest, Hungary: A Lovely City

May 13th, 2015. Europe, Hungary
BUDAPEST

BUDAPEST

The plan was to go straight from Greece to Croatia. I tried every possible combination of buses, planes, ferries, and trains, but they all turned out to be expensive and/or uncomfortably time consuming. As a last resort, I searched for flights from Athens to anywhere in Eastern Europe and found Budapest. I knew nothing about Hungary or its capital city, but a friend from Shanghai lives there now and when she discovered we were taking this trip, she told me to let her know if we ever made it her way. Without doing any research, we booked our flights and assumed it was a decent place.

As our flight began its initial descent, Nik and I gasped at the lush landscape that surrounded and penetrated the broad city along the Danube River. It was early May, and we were witnessing the first hints that spring had been kind to Eastern Europe.

We easily made our way through customs and into town via airport shuttle to our rental apartment. Along the way we saw large commercial zones mixed with run down old industrial buildings, huge blocks of apartments, and people young and old riding bicycles and boarding buses. Once we made it into the city center, people were scattered everywhere enjoying their Friday evening of perfect spring weather.

The rest of our short visit confirmed that Budapest is an amazing modern city with great food, pleasant people, beautiful architecture, and a vibrant creative culture. I think it would offer an affordable lifestyle similar to what we enjoyed in Portland, Oregon with the cultural advantages of a big city like San Francisco.

Basically, if we were given an opportunity to live here, I would take it.

Highlights:
1. Dinner at Zeller Bistro – everything was amazing from the homemade elderflower soda to the duck main to the carrot cake. Also, their “Kakas Dülöbem, Fekete Leányka” red wine was amazing.
2. Strolling through Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library’s 4th floor reading rooms – which are part of a restored 19th century palace.
3. Stumbling upon the Gellért Thermal Baths. We didn’t go in, but it was great to see the lobby.
4. People watching at the Keleti Railway Terminal as we waited in line at the International Ticket Counter.
5. Riding bikes on Margit-sziget.

Manhole covers with class

Manhole covers with class

Elisabeth Bridge

Elisabeth Bridge

One of three statues at the Freedom Monument

One of three statues at the Freedom Monument

Stately home

Stately home

Entry Cover

Entry Cover

An apartment building on Gelért Hill

An apartment building on Gelért Hill

The mosaic floor of the Gelért Baths

The mosaic floor of the Gelért Baths

The rebuilt central market

The rebuilt central market

Apartment buildings for days

Apartment buildings for days

The little details

The little details

Abandoned shopping arcade

Abandoned shopping arcade

Wood ceiling of a bygone era

Wood ceiling of a bygone era

The Eye of Budapest

The Eye of Budapest

Basilica

Basilica

Saint Peter

Saint Peter

Unkept, but beautiful

Unkept, but beautiful

Keleti Railway Terminal

Keleti Railway Terminal

Northern Budapest

Northern Budapest

The best cinnamon chimney

The best cinnamon chimney

Budapest-Nyugati Railway Terminal

Nyugati Railway Terminal

Train

Train

1956 Memorial in City Park

1956 Memorial in City Park

Gothic Church

Gothic Church

Nik's "I'm annoyed" face on the tram

Nik’s “I’m annoyed” face on the tram

Oh, on our way to Budapest from Folegandros, we stopped in Athens for less than 24 hours. We didn’t expect to like it, but did so we’d like to visit again someday. From what we saw, it was a blend of Bangkok and Rome, both of which we enjoyed quite a bit.

The Acropolis

The Acropolis