When we first arrived in Zagreb, we stumbled past this gem on the side of the road while lost and trying to find the bus station.
Along with a shrug and a simple “it’s Croatia”, our week here was guided by this extremely all-encompassing phrase.
Attempting to describe my time in Croatia is difficult, given the multitude of diverse experiences Griff and I had during our stay here. We stayed with Loren Ban, a friend that we met in high school when he took a year as an exchange student in Boulder. A goofy, lovable character, he fills out his gangly 6′ 7″ frame athletically and with ease. Soft-spoken and one of the nicest people I know, he served as a gracious, incredible host during our stay. Loren’s parents, Titjiana, a physicist at the University of Zagreb and Orjiano, an insurance agent, provided an amazing, overwhelming amount of hospitality, a spirit that was similarly matched by both sets of his grandparents. Big L’s girlfriend Ela was just as great as Loren, despite forfeiting over a foot to the big man, and together they gave us an authentic, ridiculously fun Croatian experience. The trip was divided in half, beginning with three days at his parents’ in Zagreb and ending with four days spent on the Istrian Peninsula in and around the city of Pula, while staying with his grandparents in the small seaside towns of Valbandon and Fazana. It was a phenomenal, action packed week that I will never forget.
A late switch from a bus to a train running an hour late out of Ljubljana meant that upon arriving in Zagreb, we had to find Big L instead of the other way around, a task made more difficult by the fact that we spoke no Croatian and had no cell service. Our explorations took us past a five-block stretch of wall covered with amazing graffiti; it was the most amazing street art I’ve ever seen.
After finding the bus station, we eventually met up with the big guy. We settled down in his apartment our first night in Croatia and last with Cooper involved dinner at a sweet outdoor restaurant on the streets of downtown Zagreb. In the morning Coop was off to the airport, and our time with Loren began.
Zagreb is an interesting city, not feeling too large despite containing a quarter of the country’s population. Its streets have a grand, open feel, emphasized by large airy parks and squares, massive old baroque buildings, and twisting, cobbled streets winding around the town.
Motorbikes weave in between small sedans puttering along the roadways, and traffic etiquette is fairly self centered. There are certainly remnants of time spent as part of Yugoslavia, such as rampant graffiti, ancient public transportation, ominous grey high rises, crumbling streets, and a sometimes less than courteous social haughtiness, but overall it really is a fun city. Despite record triple-digit heat, the three of us toured the city our first day, with Big L serving as an adequate and knowledgeable guide. The main cathedral dominates the cityscape, and it is among the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Other highlights included St. Mark’s Church with its roof made of ceramic tile in the design of the Croatian flag, and a panorama overlook spot of the city. We were then treated to a large home cooked meal of pumpkin soup, chicken, vegetables, and homemade wine from his grandparents, a bit of foreshadowing for the rest of the week to come. After dinner we met Ela and spent the first of many nights out on the town, taking in the buzzing nightlife of an enjoyable city.
The next day, despite predictions for a huge storm, we adventured out to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a collection of lakes and waterfalls set among beautiful wooded hills two hours outside of Zagreb.
The massive hordes of tourists, among the worst I’ve ever seen, failed to dampen picturesque vistas of serene, impossibly blue water shimmering under the hot rays of the August sun.
The day took quite a turn with the sudden arrival of the aforementioned storm of the century. Stuck at the farthest end of the park away from the entrance, we somehow managed to cram onto a small transport bus packed with screaming Italians as the skies opened dumping sheets of driving rain and grape-sized hail to the drought-ravaged region. Back in Zagreb, the space under bridges were filled with cars seeking to avoid the hail. Getting off the bus we were instantly soaked to the skin, squelching around in rapidly forming pools of water covering the trails back to the parking lot. Managing to stay calm during the chaos resulted in great views of the lakes shrouded in clouds and mist and an extremely memorable experience. After being treated to an amazing sunset accompanied by a stellar lightning show on the drive home, bowls of hot pumpkin soup and pasta capped a great day.
Our final day in Zagreb began with the last remnants of the storm, bringing a grey, overcast layer to the hot city. With temperatures significantly lower as a result, we set off for a hike in the foothills of town, thankful for a respite from the brutal heat. Our hike took us through a gorgeous rainforest with densely packed trees and bubbling streams. Despite being a state park, trails in Croatia are not quite maintained at the same level as they are in Colorado, and a fair amount of bush whacking was required to navigate up surprisingly steep slopes.
The end of the hike delivered an overlook of the city on one and and Slovenia on the other, compete with a chairlift serving four runs as well as an annual World Cup downhill race, won this past year by Colorado’s own Michaela Shifrin. Lunch was at a hiker’s hut at the top, served by an eccentric man running around a little lodge that seemed more Austrian than Croatian. We had bowls of bean stew and a type of goulash, followed by a strudel sampler, three wraps of phyllo dough filled with spinach, garlic, and onion, ricotta and zuchinni, and apple with cinnamon straight from the oven. It was a perfect recovery meal from a long, cold hike up to the top, and we meandered down the mountain contentedly full and enjoying the sun, walking by a mine and a castle on the return trip to the car. The day ended with another huge dinner and another night in downtown Zagreb, where cafe life provides a pleasant alternative to loud bars and night clubs. We went to bed exhausted after another awesome day.
Unfortunately our time in Zagreb came to an end, and we took a bus west to the land of Big L’s heritage on the Istrian Peninsula, a large delta of land bordering Slovenia. Pula is the largest city in Istria with about 30,000 inhabitants, and we shuttled back and forth between Loren’s two sets of grandparents in Fazana and Valbandon, ten minutes apart by car and about half an hour from Pula. We stayed with his dad’s parents in Valbandon, where his grandparents grow a vast array of fresh produce, including the pears, apples, pumpkins, figs, grapes, olives, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and others that dotted our meals. They also make their own olive oil and wine, and both were ridiculously good and rich. His mom’s parents live in seaside Fazana, a cute town that seems more Italian than Croatian, and his grandpa spends his days fishing the Adriatic, providing fish both for local restaurants and home consumption, as we were lucky enough to experience one night with a dinner of whole cod roasted in the oven with fresh rosemary and olive oil.
Our days in Istria were spent waking up late, at the beach swimming in the salty but gorgeous Adriatic, driving through endless fields of vineyards growing out of famous, rich maroon soil, and visiting photogenic towns such as Rovinj and Rieka filled with whitewashed houses topped with red tiled roofs surrounding old church clock towers rising up into the cloudless blue sky.
The region has a distinctly Mediterranean feel to it, emphasized by the masses of tourists visiting from nearby Italy and Slovenia. I have yet to visit Italy, but Istria seems like it’s wild cousin, composed of the same beautiful natural genes but a little dirtier, filled with sweaty, sunburnt tourists, and promoting a minor sense of reckless abandon. The combination of an economy dominated by tourism and a permanent population of an older, more traditional generation results in sleezy tourist traps on the coast, with the vibe becoming much quieter and routine as one ventures further inland. Our nights were spent with Big L and Ela, and we went to bed late and very tired. In Pula we went to a cafe, a club, and an unbelievable concert featuring Zaz, a French singer with a killer band in the Pula Arena, the only complete Roman coliseum in the world that doubles as a concert venue at night. Under a bright moon, the great music in an incredible venue made for an awesome concert.
In Rovinj we wandered the steep, narrow back alleys, had pizza at an outdoor trattoria, and had some fun with angels. Our time in Istria was characterized by a battle of the grandmas, each seemingly trying to outdo the other with every meal they served us. Heaping four course meals began with soup made from homemade stock, had salad straight from the garden dressed simply with homemade olive oil and vinegar, mains of fresh fish, homemade pasta, killer veal stews and sauces, roasted potatoes and root veggies, all cooked with the unreal olive oil, and desserts of ice cream, fruit, pastries, and one memorable homemade cheesecake. Portions were generous to say the least, and it is clear that regardless of culture or nationality, principles of grandma’s cooking hold true worldwide, with an emphasis on rich, hearty cuisine and an assurance that all parties are stuffed to the brim. Being guests, we were treated to a staggering amount of calories cooked with evident care. The freshness of the ingredients and obvious expertise of the cooks made for a tasty, literally heart-stopping culinary experience.
Croatia is truly a gorgeous country, filled with amazing scenery and proud people. The Bans displayed an obvious amount of patriotism and love for their home, especially in Istria, where all three generations grew up. The culture is an interesting mix of a modern European population striving to emulate Western life while still retaining aspects of a more traditional era spent in an agricultural and industrial state under totalitarian Yugoslav rule. The Yugoslav breakup and resulting ethnic conflict that engulfed the region is still a touchy subject, as older generations of Croatians were alive and sometimes active participants during the tumultuous years. However, many of the younger citizens do not share these sometimes painful and contentious memories, and overall it is not a pervasive issue. Certain aspects of life, especially for students, remain restrictive, as kids have less time and flexibility to explore academic interests, especially at the university levels. Loren, a chemistry student, and Ela, studying business, attend the same university but are housed in different colleges that offer no opportunity for general education as well as academic and extracurricular mixing with students from different disciplines of study. Students essentially choose their major coming out of high school, and study abroad options are limited. For as much grief as the American education system receives, no matter how much of the criticisms are valid and very real, life in the United States, especially for a college student, is incredibly privileged, lucky, and an incredible, paralyzing opportunity. I left the States expecting to find both aspects of my home to like and to dislike, and so far I have found many of both. In Croatia, much of the country seems to operate at a bit lower of a living standard, but compact life in Zagreb and the beautiful splendor of Istria makes it easy to relax and enjoy the slower European pace of life. The friendships and ties to tradition, much like in America, are everlasting. It is interesting to observe how cities and countries were built and currently operate without being centered around the automobile, as is the case in the U.S. Somehow people make it work, and the result is a much more clean, active, conscious way of life.
I will miss my time in Croatia very much, with Loren, Ela, and all the Bans granting us such a great experience. The next trip will certainly involve a trip south to Split, Dubrovnik, and the Dalmatian Islands, although another few helpings of grandma Ban’s homemade pasta wouldn’t hurt either. As I stumble along rusty Slovenian train tracks in a graffiti-laced car headed for Budapest under yet another sinking grapefruit of a Mediterranean sun, I am extremely grateful for friends in different places, having made lifelong connections during the past week that I will cherish greatly. The first half of my backpacking sojourn is complete; it began with three young boys, grew to four for a night, went back to three different boys, added a girl, was three boys for a few hours, is now down to two young boys for the remainder of August. For now I am strangely proud to be traveling the weathered tracks of European locations other than Paris, London, and Rome, and while I know that my time in Spain will be much more mainstream in a sense, this month on the road exploring the often grungy, foreign, less beaten half of a continent teeming with many more cultures, traditions, and Zs and Js than I previously thought possible has been quite the experience, and promises to bring even more dynamic adventure in the weeks to come.
I survived eight wonderful days in Croatia, braving hailstorms, hordes of beautiful women, mountains of grandmother’s cooking, sharing a bed with Griffin, an extreme language barrier, the glistening, turquoise Adriatic Sea, and the unforgettable humility, understatement, and sarcasm of Big L for 200 long, tiring, and unexplainably fun hours. If survival is this difficult, I can’t wait for the trials and tribulations ahead for the remainder of my travels. Dovijenja Croatia.
From under a bright Hungarian moon,