Monday, September 28, 2015

Croatia - Part II

Pula's lack of sights was kind of perfect as we had to head out early the next morning for our longest drive to Plitvice Lakes. This national park in the country's interior is stunning. Fed by several rivers, the park's highlight is 16 cascading lakes and their waterfalls, ranging from babbling rocks and pools to 250 ft drops.

Unlike American national parks, Croatian parks are designed for tourists. It was like if Disney did a national park. Gorgeous and Hobbit-like, but there wasn't much "hiking" to be had. In fact, I noticed a few women wearing fashionable flats for the entire walk. A series of wood planked walkways connect the lakes, making a beautiful walkway through reeds and over azure pools. Later, a boat takes passengers over some of the larger lakes.

(Doing my best teapot impression for some reason in one of the parks caves)

Probably the most striking part of the walk was just how vibrantly turquoise the waters were... 

Ok, you've probably seen enough water and trees now, but it was really an incredibly beautiful place. We were glad we went later in the day and in Sept though because larger crowds of people easily ruin the experience. 

That night we stayed in our one non-AirBnB booked room. It was a little inn on the outskirts of the park made of a few remade houses filled with cozy but plain little hotel rooms. But we were so pleasantly surprised by our hostesses (another mom and her daughter) and their wonderful, non-touristy cooking. 

(Croatian plum brandy to start and finish!) 

(sorry for the dead fish picture, but it was an amazing dinner!) 

After our day 'hiking' around the interior and eating meat and potatoes, sitting in a Venetian-styled square in Zadar sipping our coffee again was wonderfully refreshing. Zadar was one of our favorite coastal cities. For some reason, it wasn't overly awash with tourists. It was vibrant, full of life with the locals, and yet had all the usual tourist-appeals: a fabulous Adriatic view, coastal promenade, cafe-lined main square, and even a few Roman ruins. But because we got all of this with fewer tourist-shops, Zadar made the top of the list. 

(Certainly didn't hurt that our digs were beautiful. This picture is also called "Can you find the Megan?") 

Zadar's forum with Roman ruins

Bill gets very proud of his water drinking ability. 

Zadar has a gorgeous promenade along the sea with 2 very cool additions from a local architect: The Sea Organ and Sun Salutation. The Sea Organ is a set of pipes that sit under stairs on the sea. The wind off of the sea and its waves enters the pipes from holes in the stairs and plays a beautiful, whistling sound (like a pan flute) all day and night. Check it out here
The sun salutation comes from a series of solar panels in the promenade that produce enough power to light the walk way as well as produce a nightly light show... 

We ate dinner in the square again, where we also landed in the morning, where we got to watch 2 folk dance groups do a lot of fun twirling

After our fun in Zadar, we actually went back for some more national park-ing, this time to Krka, another Disney-like, waterfall adventure, but this time, the wooden paths took you to a pool that you could swim in! 

Believe it or not, I actually went in as far as Bill is there, but there is no proof of it. You'll just have to take my word for it

We stayed the night then in the small but very pretty town of Sibenik. Very few tourists stop here, which was fine by us, particularly because we didn't need a reservation to dine at one of our top 3 Croatian restaurants, overlooking the stunningly beautiful Cathedral of St James. I kept remarking on just how white the stone was. Later, I realized that probably wasn't the only one - the extremely white limestone comes from the Croatian island of Brac which was used for many highly-white constructions, including even the White House (though it depends which historian you ask...) 

That's my proud-I-drank-that-water face. 

This was one of our favorite meals in Croatia. Unlike so many of the tourist-driven spots filled with the same grilled octopus, shrimp risotto and pizza (not to mention the countless beer gardens set up for the hoards of German summer tourists), this place was a real culinary treat. It even introduced us to orange wine! Yep, orange. 

(those little white rolls are charred polenta! yum!) 

Our setting certainly helped. We even got to watch a very playful kitten jump on dust and grass in front of the cathedral while a local choir group practiced in one of the rooms above the restaurant. Perfect European entertainment! 

The next day we drove down to Split, which I think I can summarize in one sentence: We were tired

At this point, we had been travelling for 8 days, 9 if you include the plane trip, which is longer than most of our vacations. Plus, at this point, other than a few hours in national parks, we were starting to run a theme - coffee, Roman ruins, Venetian square, risotto lunch, check in, dinner, coffee, Roman ruins, Venetian square, risotto.... 

So another day of Roman ruins, this time the very large Diocletian's Palace, had little appeal for us. So the city that a lot of people call their favorite did little for us. We were just too jaded. Plus, Split's narrow corridors are infamous for being overly congested by tourists. 

When we finally did go out to explore the palace, which is essentially most of the old town (Roman emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace here and after his little fortress's collapse a few hundred years later, settlers started building a whole city in its walls. So now the 'palace' walls encapsulate various medieval and Renaissance-period streets and homes), we actually got a few enjoyable sights... 

Like this a cappella group who utilizes Diocletian's round 'foyer' for acoustics 

The white (yep, from Brac) walls of the palace

My favorite part, though, was probably the storage halls underneath the palace, which are massive and quite impressive architecturally in their own right. Not sure what he stored down there in his retirement but later the medieval townsfolk stored their poop down there. Seriously. They tossed all their waste down in the halls until it was a gross soup. At some point in history, it all had to be drained out of there and now we walk around in there! 

Actually, some major scenes of Game of Thrones are filmed down here, right in the old sewers... 

(Keep your wine down there, your poop, or your dragons! The basement halls and very versatile!) 

 Split was also the site of what was probably Bill's favorite meal. The plethora of restaurants that make up coastal towns' promenades are generally junk, rented for prime tourist real estate. But this place, while in the middle of tourist territory, was remarkably good.

We ended our time in Split with our first dip into the Adriatic ("Finally!", said Bill). Bill spent the early morning, while I was still lazily snuggled in bed, cycling around the town, looking for swimming spots. Our house hosts were nice enough to leave a couple bikes for their guests! So after breakfast (at Bill's favorite spot, of course) and before we jumped onto our ferry to the island city of Hvar, we spent 30 mins at a busy public beach, dipping our toes into the sea and soaking up a few rays.


Next post will be about our last few days and nights in the yacht-hopper town of Hvar, the "pearl of the Adriatic" Dubrovnik, and our last night back in Zagreb.