Sunday, July 13, 2014

Unexpected Stay in Zagreb, Croatia: City #5 on Our Croatian Tour

So, our group of eight and the nice taxi driver arrived in Zagreb. We dropped off Wyatt, Emielia, and Michael at the train station for their return trip to Vienna. Then, the driver dropped off Chris, Andrew, Patrick, Jenn, and I at the bus station. He went on his merry way. We thought we'd be on our merry way back to Vienna, Austria that night, but that didn't happen.

When we went to the counter to pick up reservations for the bus leaving in a couple of hours, the unfriendly woman told us in broken English that the bus was full and there were no more reservations. We could check with other companies at the station, but otherwise the next bus was at 6am the following day. Well that was something we hadn't planned for ... The other bus companies were not helpful. So, we did the fifteen minute walk down the road to the train station. None of us had the EuRail pass anymore, so the train ticket back to Vienna would have cost 100 euros and up. Frustration was high, and we had to come up with a plan, especially before it got too dark to be roaming the streets of Zagreb looking for a place to sleep. We walked back to the bus station. There were two seats available on the 6am bus. Jenn and Patrick had projects due and a quiz to take the next day, thus they took those seats. Chris, Andrew, and I took three reservations for the following bus, which was at 3pm. If I remember correctly, Andrew and I didn't have class, and Chris decided to give the seat to Jenn and miss his class.

It was time to find a place to sleep now that we had bus tickets in hand. The five of us stayed in a cozy hostel called Hostel Temza about ten minutes away from the station. The owners were pleasant, the showers were great, and the price was about ten to twelve euros which was perfect for the night. We roomed with an attractive Englishman from Liverpool who had traveled around Russia, Poland, and now Croatia with great stories to share. Exhausted from our transportation conundrum, we all went to bed early.

Jenn and Patrick woke up around 5:15am the next morning and headed back to Vienna. Chris, Andrew, and myself left the hostel around 9am to explore Zagreb. We walked through some of the charming parks and came upon a scary looking sculpture (see monster picture below).

The Art Pavillion

Tree bark texture in the park

Street lamps and flower beds lined the parks

Reflection of the city street

The monster sculpture and Chris

The monster sculpture and Andrew

Graffiti on a park wall

Then, we went to go look for the Zagreb Cathedral (the tallest building in Croatia) and the Dolac Market.

It was around Easter, so large eggs were placed near the Zagreb Cathedral

You can spot the Dolac Market by the red umbrellas

The outside of Zagreb Cathedral
Andrew, Chris, and I had some more time to kill. We decided to go to a museum that we had read about that morning - the Museum of Broken Relationships. It was the best museum I went to in Europe! It is a museum that grew from a traveling exhibit revolving around the concept of failed relationships and their ruins. Unlike "destructive" self-help instructions to recover from failed love, the Museum offers a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation: by contributing to the Museum's collection (Notes taken from the Museum's website). I thought the museum was going to be depressing when I first read the description, but it was filled with stories that ranged from making my heart ache to laughing out loud. The visit refreshed my view of museums and I desperately want to return to see the additions and changes. The individuals who conceptualized the museum sold me the entry ticket, and we spent time talking with them after our visit. So cool!

St. Mark's Church built in the 13th century, roof tiles showing the coat of arms of Zagreb on the right and the coat of arms of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia on the left

The Museum of Broken Relationships logo

After the museum visit, we fetched our bags from the hostel and headed to the bus. It was a beautiful day until we stepped out of the hostel. Then it started to downpour. We took that as our cue to leave the city. The bus ride back to Vienna was calm. We met a Croatian architecture student studying in Vienna and a young cellist on the bus. There was even a rainbow to welcome us back to Austria!

I snapped the photo with my cell phone - pardon the image quality

That was my final bus ride outside of Austria before my plane ride back to the States on May 10th. Touring Croatia was a perfect finale to a wonderful four-month study abroad experience in Europe.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia: Paradise (#4) in the Woods

Around 7-8am the next day, we checked out of our hostels in Zadar and hopped into two taxis to take us to Plitvice Lakes National Park. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is halfway between Zadar and Zagreb. It is made up of sixteen lakes connected by a series of waterfalls set in the woodlands. It is one of the top tourist attractions in Croatia, and it was truly a wonderful hiking experience. When we were in Zadar, we saw a couple of group excursion offers to the lakes, but after much discussion, the eight of us decided to "choose our own adventure" and save a handful of kunas on the side. Before we started the drive, we and the taxi drivers stopped at a grocery store on the outskirts of Zadar so that we could pick up our bread and cheese for lunch. The taxi ride was about an hour and a half to two hours.  The driver was very sweet and barely spoke English. He sped down the winding roads, but thankfully he was a cautious driver when the rain arrived as we approached the national park.

We spent the day along a couple of the trails in the park. It did rain most of the day, and I was terrified that I was going to slip and hurt myself, but my encounters with various people were a great distraction. The first encounter was with the multiple masses of Asians. They were everywhere and they never moved out of the way or followed life's traffic rule: stay to the right. In addition to constantly being in the way, the members of these large groups often tried silly things to create shortcuts on the paths. I watched one man try to hop from one path to another (the paths were perpendicular with water underneath) and he almost did the splits, but instead tumbled right into the creek soaking himself. I couldn't help but laugh.

I met the second group while we were waiting for a boat to take us across one of the lakes. They were a German couple from Munich who was hiking with their Goldendoodle puppy. It was an adorable puppy, and I knew from first glance that it was a doodle. I showed them photos of Ziggy, Blu, and Rufus (fellow Goldendoodles), and we bonded over our love for these brilliant dogs. I was surprised the puppy could handle the paths (there were many gaps between wood planks and some tricky areas to maneuver along with the large groups of people), but he seemed to do a fine job.

The third group came into the picture while we were on the boat. They were a medium-sized group of Mormon missionaries based in Zagreb. I spent a good portion of the hike talking to a student about my age who was traveling with them. He said that being a missionary in the Balkan states was especially difficult. It was not the various languages that made it tough, but the fact that he was an American trying to convert others. Many of the local ethnic groups dislike Americans and being Mormon did not help. He mentioned receiving death threats and other aggressive interactions. I asked him what kept him going, and he said "he was meant to do the work he was doing."

My interactions were the cherries on top of the views in the park. Below are photos from that day. I took the photos with my cell phone because of the rain. I didn't want to put my borrowed DSLR at risk.

The rainwater brought out all of the vibrant green colors

The park's logo

We had to take this bus to get across the park to a safe starting point for the hike. The recent rain flooded some of the paths.

Cloudy lake and cloudy sky

One of the small waterfalls

The group in front of a large waterfall

The large waterfall from a distance

Waterfalls and lakes tucked in the woods

The trails were marked by the wooden bridges. We did go off of the path a couple of times ... Shh!

Photo taken by Michael Friedrich (too good not to share)

Photo taken by Michael Friedrich (too good not to share)
At the end of the day, we trekked over to the bus stop to wait for the bus to Zagreb. While we were waiting, a taxi driver with a van pulled up asking if we wanted a ride. I was skeptical at first, but he offered us a good deal. The eight of us got in the van and did the two to three hour drive to Zagreb from the national park.

The next blog post will explain how we ended up stranded in Zagreb. Adventures in Croatia ...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Zadar, Croatia: Paradise City #3 on the Adriatic

It has been a struggle recalling the day-to-day happenings from exploring the various cities in Croatia. I neglected to keep a detailed journal as I did with other cities. Being an analytical person, I ask myself the question: Why? Why didn't I scribble down every moment from the second I climbed out of bed to the last sip of wine in the evening? I have narrowed it down to this: Croatia was a totally different world. The language, the eastern vibe, the clear blue sea often a stroll away. While some moments were stressful, being by the coast put me a carefree trance. There was no need to articulate every moment - rather it was important to experience each meal, view, and activity as visceral as possible.

The bus arrived in Zadar from Split on Saturday, April 19th, the evening before Easter. As mentioned in the previous post, the drive was picturesque as we drove along the coast. When we disembarked the bus, we walked for about fifteen minutes to the peninsula where our hostels were located. Being in a large group of eight, we had to split up into two hostels. Zadar was hopping considering it was the night before Easter. There is a university there and it's a beautiful and small seaside town. It had a wonderful energy. When we arrived at the hostel, we had to climb 125 steps to the top floor. A sign read "Key Under Mat" as we approached the door. We let ourselves in and selected beds. No one from the hostel staff was there. The entire town had this very laid back vibe. While my friends went out to the bar, I fell into a deep sleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

We spent the next day exploring every inch of the city. One of the main attractions in Zadar is the Sea Organ. It's a musical pipe organ played by the sea - literally. The movement of the waves pushes air through the 35 tuned tubes, and the musical chords depend on the size and velocity of the waves. The harmonic sounds are completely random. Relaxing in the sun upon the elegant white stone steps listening to the sounds of the Adriatic was one of the most peaceful experiences I've ever had. Below is a video:

Zadar: Boats Everywhere
The Sea Organ

The group!
In addition to the Sea Organ, we hit up a few of the beautiful parks, walked endlessly next to the water, and enjoyed each other's company. We visited the Sun Salutation as the sun set; a solar-powered installation that serves as entertainment for small children at night while colors of light spastically hop around a large circle right next to the Sea Organ. The attention to each attraction seems to shift ever so politely as the waves calm down under the night sky and the colorful squares illuminate to present this whimsical art piece.

Jenn on a park bench
Emielia and the sunset
Long exposure light art

We went to Plitvice Lakes National Park the next day. Stay tuned for photos of waterfalls and a story about my encounter with some pleasant Mormon missionaries. "Hello, my name is Elder ..."