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Kasteel Well Week 11: Croatia

  • April 10, 2013
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I had never considered traveling to Croatia before I heard my friends from the previous semester start talking about their trip. Their stories were wonderful enough until I saw their pictures. I gathered a few friends to travel with; we booked our trip and began to get excited. The more excited we got, the more people joined our trip. Our original group of 4 grew to 12, with several other castle dwellers going in different groups as well.

We based our trip on advice from past travelers and their adventures. We were to spend most of our time in and around Zadar, with an excursion to the mountains to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park. They had also explicitly warned us that the buses in the country are predictably unpredictable. When our flight from Weeze landed it took a decent amount of time to clear customs. Most countries in Europe have signed the Schengen Agreement that allows for free travel between those countries. Croatia is not a part of the Schengen Area so we had to go through customs in Zadar and in Weeze for both legs of our trip. These would end up being the only passport stamps I received in Europe besides entering and leaving Amsterdam in January & April.

Zadar Harbor

Zadar Harbor

It was pouring rain when we arrived, so we huddled inside the terminal while we took turns retrieving Croatian kuna from the ATM. We ventured into the parking lot and tried to figure out how many taxis we needed for our group. 12 people with 3 destinations somehow worked out well enough and we were on our way. The plan was for everyone to get settled into their hostel or apartment and then meet for lunch. Our hostel was essentially a large rom with 10 beds in it with a kitchen and bathroom. The manager met us to give us keys and gave us the lowdown on Zadar. The city is split between New Town & Old Town – the latter being a peninsula bound by the harbor and the Adriatic Sea. He recommended spending most our time in Old Town so that’s where we headed.

We thought the central square would be a good meeting spot for our friends. It was for half of us. Then we tried the bridge. Then the pier. Then we called the other half of our group because apparently texting wasn’t working. We tried meeting at every landmark until we called and realized they were in a different town. They had rented an apartment in Biograd na Moru – about half an hour southeast of Zadar. Oops!

Waiting on the Pier

Waiting on the Pier

The group actually in Zadar then settled down for lunch. In such a small section of the city, there weren’t too many options, so we knew we’d end up at most of them by the time we’d leave. After lunch, we all split up for a bit so Annie and I went on my typical search for a cycling jersey. I had found a bike shop nearby online, but now I had to find it in real life. It wasn’t where their website said it was so we started asking the locals.

We started at the library, then to a burger joint, to a currency exchange, who pointed us to the library. Apparently everyone had no clue. After an hour of walking in a giant circle, we abandoned our search and returned to the hostel. Our hostel that was directly across the park from (you guessed it) the bike shop. They had already closed for the evening, but I planned to return first thing when they opened the next day.

We spent the remainder of the night planning our trip to Plitvice Lakes. The national park is approximately 2 hours from Zadar and without a reliable bus service it became increasingly difficult to get there. Our hostel manager told us the easiest way was to rent a car. He said for the equivalent of €20 we could rent a car for the day and drive out ourselves. There was one catch: we couldn’t find a rental car in Zadar with an automatic transmission. On top of that, out of the 10 of us planning to take the trip to the mountains none of us could drive stick. I saw us renting a car going in one of two ways: “Hey! Remember when we learned to drive stick-shift in Croatia?” or “Hey! Remember that time we blew out a transmission in the middle of Croatia?” So we got a cab.

It was a bit pricey to get out there, but it all evened out considering our flights to Croatia cost practically nothing.
While some of the group finished up the logistics of getting the cab all worked out, a few of us began to hash out our food plans. We discussed our plans and then set out to find a grocery store. We found one not too far from our hostel and even ran into another group of castle dwellers along the way. Due to various dietary needs & preferences, we thought we’d keep it simple and make PB&Js. However after quite a bit of time struggling to find the right ingredients, we just started buying things. Shopping in another country can be a challenge considering you usually can’t read the labels at all. It is like a game of guess and pray. We ended up with natural peanut butter and prune jam on corn bread along with a huge bucket of trail mix that we threw together. We went out for a late dinner and then called it an early night because the cab would be picking us up very early to go to the national park.

We had the hostel to ourselves at this point so it wasn’t a big deal that we all made a bunch of noise getting ready. Our friends from Biograd had already made it to our hostel by the time the cab arrived. The 10 of us piled into the minibus and off we went! It was just over a two-hour drive to Plitvice Lakes but clearly we did not account for weather. It wasn’t something that even crossed my mind because I’m always the one with extra layers for other people, so I had plenty of layers. Nobody else in the group though had thought that the sunny 60-degree weather on the sea would transform into the rainy mid 30s we would encounter in the mountains.

Large Waterfall, Plitvice Lakes

Large Waterfall, Plitvice Lakes

After a quick stop at the gift shop so everyone could buy more layers for our adventure. We entered through the gate and were immediately greeted with beautiful waterfalls. The park hosts a series of 16 lakes that cascade into one another following the flow of the water. The series ends at the same point that the Plitvica river careens off a cliff creating Croatia’s largest waterfall which is aptly named in Croatian: Veliki Slap (Large Waterfall in English). This junction created a beautiful chasm covered with falling water.

We followed the pathways down to the water just above the chasm and walked across the lake. Due to spring runoff, the water was running over many of the bridges so many areas were not accessible, but that also made for spectacular flows of water. Much of the group was very motivated to keep moving throughout the park, so Courtney and I naturally lagged at the back of the group as we were trying to capture some photos along the way.

We eventually reached another bridge that allowed us to cross another one of the lakes. We crossed over to find a lodge that had some food and yet another gift shop. There was a pavilion next to the lodge so we took advantage of the cover from the rain to eat our lunches before continuing along the trails on the other side of the lakes from where we came. More fog had settled into the valley by now to the point where all we could see at a lookout point was grey. The fog had cleared a little bit by the time we reached the top of the large waterfall. It was a totally different view from the top and we also found a pathway with stone staircases that allowed us to reach the bottom of it. Due to the high water levels, this was the only way to reach this section of the park.

Water covered pathway at Plitvice Lakes

Water covered pathway at Plitvice Lakes

We took the long way back from the top of the falls, looping through the streets we found. Luckily it was actually a loop! At the beginning of our loop, we found the remains of abandoned house that sat close to the top of the large waterfall. Our group had split over the walk back, so we regrouped at the lodge and waited for a ferry to take us to the other side of the lake. It was a bit windier out on the lake, so we bonded over the cold with some other tourists on the ferry.

There wasn’t as much to see on this side of the lake because the access to the upper lakes was closed. We waited for one of the park trams to take us back to the main entrance where our cab was going to meet us at the end of the day. Somehow we timed our adventure almost perfectly and only had about 20 minutes to kill in the gift shop before our taxi pulled up. Most of us slept for a majority of the ride back into Zadar. We were exhausted when we got back but found the energy to have dinner. We all ordered very different dishes and tried a little bit of each. I tried a bunch of dishes that I’ve had before that were made differently, but this was definitely the first time that I’d ever eaten cuttlefish.

Old Town Zadar from Ferry

Old Town Zadar from Ferry

The next morning we decided to go to visit one of the islands off the shore of Zadar. We boarded the ferry and enjoyed the beautiful weather on the top deck during the ride. The mission of our journey was to find a beach and just relax there, however we quickly discovered there weren’t really any beaches near us. So we got some strange looks from some locals when we decided to swim in a little cove we found. The water was very cold as it was the first weekend in April, but we were determined after coming so far. It was a short swim but not short enough to catch the next ferry back, so we found a restaurant across from the ferry terminal where we passed the hour until the next ferry.

We just wandered around Old Town for most of the day until dinner when we went to what appeared to be one of the nicer restaurants in town. It was. Definitely the classiest bruschetta we’ll probably ever have. The rest of the meal was phenomenal as well and we all left happy with minor food comas. Our final dinner in Croatia seemed special even just sitting and enjoying everyone’s company over some wonderful food in a beautiful setting.

Simply Beautiful Bruschetta

Simply Beautiful Bruschetta

Everyone headed back to the hostel after dinner except Courtney and me. The two of us wanted to go sit by the Sea Organ at night. The Sea Organ is a series of holes in the concrete by the northwest corner of Zadar that make music as the ocean breeze blows through the holes. In the words of our hostel manager: “sometimes it sounds wonderful, sometimes it sounds like a dying whale.” It was a fairly accurate assessment of the tones that emerged from the steps of the organ. Courtney and I just laid down for over an hour on the steps taking in the sounds of the organ and capturing a few photos of the stars. As it was our final night of traveling in Europe, we reminisced about our experiences over the last few months and what we thought it would be like to return home after three months abroad. Lying under the starry sky and reflecting just seemed like the perfect way for our European adventures to come to a close.

The next morning was yet another early one as we had a seven o’clock flight home. It was a rush back to the castle from the Weeze Airport as most of us had classes precisely as our cab pulled onto Kasteellaan in Well. It was a bit tight flying back on Monday morning, but luckily it worked out and we made it to class on time!