Croatia

By abbieredmon

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On my train from Budapest to Zagreb, I had a small experience.

I shared my six-seat compartment first with an older Hungarian woman who got off about 50 miles from the Croatian border. We waved goodbye to each other when she left. I had the space to myself for a while, but right at the border, a Hungarian man boarded and joined me. Young-middle-aged, balding (but not quite given up), and curious -- very curious.

After we had completed the expected pleasantries of saying hello, I focused my attention back on my book (Paul Bowles, if you must know).
He interrupted me to ask where I was from. When he found out it was the U.S., he proceeded to go on a tirade about Obama, to which I answered mostly blank-faced. When I thought he had sufficiently wound down, I went back to my book.

He interrupted me again -- this time with the most unexpected question: "Do you believe in god?"

Then he proceeded to explain how evolution was just a "theory," and at that point, I lost patience.

The icing on the cake was when he asked to see my passport and wanted to know my surname.

I'm usually a friendly, smiling person, but I promptly declined, and from that point forward, tried very hard to put on a stoney face. Suddenly my book became much more interesting than I ever imagined it could be.

Incidentally, I should remember to lie to strangers with more regularity.

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The church on Hvar Town's main square rings its bells for a full minute at six o'clock in the morning, every morning. At first you think it is ringing the hour -- six chimes -- but then it goes on and on (and on), and you think it might never stop. If you are tired from an evening of drinking wine at a bar on a small landing between staircases (with a peek of a view of the harbor), then you roll over and go back to sleep. But if you are ambitious, you resign yourself and rise to greet the day anyway.

The fruit market is only starting to set up when you walk past at 7:30, and the square, which smells of lavender, is lined with palms. Taxi boats are waiting to take you to the nearby paklinski otoci (perhaps the gay beach? maybe the nude beach?), and the first ferry from Split unloads its tourists around 8 a.m.

It is much more pleasant to look at the off-white walls and red-tiled roofs of Hvar at this hour, before the sun has risen high enough in the sky to render most surfaces, including the reflective Adriatic, blinding. The smell of fresh bread, the smell of coffee, the (surprisingly faint) smell of fish and salt water -- this is Hvar Town.

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When the waves crash on the rocky beach, they make a lovely sound as they trickle back through to the water. It is mid-afternoon, and a group of men on one of the boats in the harbor has begun singing -- I think they are a choir, because they aren't bad.

I just finished a late, leisurely lunch with an older couple who live in Geneva. He is from Spain; she from France. He used to work as a human rights expert for the United Nations, and now his son does. They converse with each other in French.

I met them at the port in Hvar. I was trying to figure out which island I should go to and how I should get there. This nice woman asked if I wanted a "sandy beach" -- the receptionist at their hotel had apparently told them where to find one, and that's where they were headed.

So I went with them -- to Palmižana (which I remember by noting that it sounds similar to "parmesana," the cheese) (were we speaking Italian).

The taxi dropped us off at a small marina, and we walked across the island (it's narrow here) to the south side, where the beach is.

There is a nice bay, with several large sailboats parked in it (including the one with the singing fellows), and there are two or three restaurants in addition to a few tiny houses that rent to honeymooning couples or other privacy-seekers.

The beach is about 30 yards long, at a generous measurement, and there is decidedly no sand. However much this has disappointed the French-Spanish couple, the lack of sand is one of the reasons the water here is so gorgeous. It's magically blue and impossibly clear. You can see everything on the bottom as neatly as if it has been displayed in a museum.

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I'd met a new friend on the ferry back from Palmižana, and after a series of happenstantial meetings on the main square this morning, this Frenchman and I ended up renting a scooter together for a day.

Upon our valiant, motorized steed, we rode for 45 minutes or so to the north side of the island. The landscape on the way there is interesting: Much more elevation gain than I had expected, and lots (LOTS) of little stone walls built into the countryside all over the place. I asked later, and they are for the reason I suspected: to curb erosion. We also passed a few lavender fields, but sadly, the harvest had already been picked.

We arrived in Vrboska, and it was at least ten minutes before we saw another living soul. The smaller villages on Hvar island are already out of tourist "mode" -- for them, now it is officially off-season.

We did manage to find, however, an open cafe on the harbor where we could sit outside, grab a bite, and enjoy the sunshine.

Afterward, we drove over a tiny bridge to reach the far side of the bay, and another few minutes left us at the entrance to a decent-sized beach. It still wasn't a sandy beach, but it had a cafe and a few lounge chairs for rent.

There was a long stretch of coastline just past the beach that had some nice rock ledges and places to perch -- we chose one to have to ourselves (not difficult since I believe we saw approximately six other people in the entire vicinity). The Frenchman went for a swim, and I read Paul Bowles in the sun. It was windy, but still enjoyable.

After leaving Vrboska, we had a quick look around Jelsa, another nearby village, and stayed long enough in Stari Grad to have a coffee (tea for me, por supuesto) before heading back to the south side of the island.

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Objectively the best (hidden) beach on Hvar island is Dobovica, our last destination on the scooter.

You park at the top, in some gravel by the road, and walk down the hill on a rocky path, which reveals nothing until you are almost upon this tiny village, nestled into the hillside in the small cove. It is empty now, at the tail end of tourist season, but we found the restaurant someone had recommended.

It is a few yards from the beach, the entryway almost obscured by a couple of decaying rowboats and piles of fishing nets. There is a black signboard out front that lists a few items (wine, fish, shrimp, ham & cheese), and upon closer inspection, the owner/chef/winemaker -- and only inhabitant of the town, one thinks -- was sitting at one of the picnic tables on the covered "patio," having his dinner alone, save for the three or five stray cats who kept trying to take his bread. He had one unruly eyebrow and welcomed us graciously.

After a quick bite, we wandered off to have a look. Next door to the restaurant (which is also this man's home, as well as his wine-making facility), is one of the smallest churches I have ever seen, with an absurd amount of overgrowth in the front yard.

If you walk around the cove to the south, there is a lovely view of this small, unassuming paradise. The sound the water makes as the waves crash on the pebbly beach and trickle back through to the Adriatic is a most sublime lullaby.

This might be one of my newest favorite places in the world.

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Sometimes when you're traveling alone, it's best to just say yes.

Today, I found myself chartering a boat with a group of three Chinese people, and three Brazilian girls. We had two skippers who drank the whole time (clearly they are functioning alcoholics), and at one point, we all shared a joint.

We just did a little island hopping and hung out all day. Quite fun (mis)adventures, and a nice end to my stay on Hvar! (Not to mention the lovely sky as the sun set...)

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After taking the (very) early morning ferry over from Hvar (sadly 6:30a and 7:30a are the only options), I spent the day in Split.

It's a nice city with some interesting corners. The palace is in the middle of the old walled city, and its architecture is very Greco-Roman -- lots of columns and arched entrances, etc. I walked up some very acrophobic-unfriendly stairs to see the view from the bell tower, which was nice.

The city looks and feels quite old, and the narrow streets of the walled section are unique and characterful.

I perused the truly massive outdoor fruit and vegetable market set up outside the south/east gate, and I had hot tea and gelato (what? that's a normal combination) in the main square right outside the north/west gate.

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On my afternoon wanders, I found the smallest chapel I've ever seen literally built into the north wall of the old city.

A nondescript staircase takes you up into a corner where two of the city walls meet. Through a door, you find this minuscule chapel, with a old nun standing quietly inside.

She smiled, I smiled.

The room is approximately six feet wide, and maybe 20 feet deep. There is a small altar. Everything is stone. There are a few small windows.

Croatia is full of little surprises.

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I walked up a large amount of stairs to see another view of Split from the corner of a large park on the northwest end of town.

On the way up, I passed a few houses behind fences on either side of the staircase. They each had their own gated entryway at the staircase landings. I looked through the trees into the secluded yard of one of these, a big square stone house. There was a small shrub "maze" in the yard, and a little boy was running through it wearing swim trunks and goggles, taunting his playmates, who were somewhere hidden from my view.

It was like a scene out of "The Secret Garden," or some similar movie.

I walked back down from the viewpoint a different way, through some residential "streets," which were really just deep stair after stair after stair -- downhill toward the center of town.

I spotted a man on a third-floor balcony. He was just gazing into the street, both hands on the railing, and there were two or three bird cages on either side of the balcony door. One of the birds on the left was madly flopping around its cage; the man took no notice.

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I'd seen some incredible photos online of Plitvička Jezera, the national park in the middle of Croatia that features a huge series of lakes, impressive cascading waterfalls, the clearest blue-green water, and a series of boardwalks weaving serpentine across them. If you Google it, you'll immediately see what I mean.

As someone who likes nice hikes with pretty scenery, it was appealing.

As a photographer, it was VERY appealing.

So, on my way up from Split to Zagreb, I booked two nights at Hotel Plitcive, which is a good place to stay if you don't have a car, because you can walk right up to one of the park's entrances. Also, if you buy a one-day pass, the hotel will extend it for however many days you are staying (for free).

The hotel itself is interesting -- it feels like a relic from the 1950s or 60s, with some modern upgrades. It was clean, well-staffed, and had everything I needed, but there were hints of "The Shining" if you found yourself in a hallway or on one of the massive staircases alone.

The park itself is quite large. There are two parts: the upper lakes and the lower lakes, and a system of boardwalks winds through each, with a ferry ride connecting the two.

I entered with high hopes for beautiful photos, but I'll admit to being disappointed. Because the park is in a sort of canyon, the light is very tricky. At least in mid-October. Morning is tough because most things are still in shadow. Same for the afternoon, past 2 or 3 p.m. Mid-day is tough for the same reasons mid-day is always tough for photographs. And to top it all off, the orientation of the lakes and waterfalls is such that the sun is always BEHIND the waterfalls, making for crappy, back-lit photos overall.

One of the main attractions, Veliki Splat ("big falls"), a 100-foot waterfall that you can walk right up to, is never completely out of shadow at any point during the day (again, at least not in October).

As a photographer, I was disappointed. But as a person who likes nature and pretty things, it was still all well worth seeing.

The water is very, VERY clear, and you can find fish everywhere -- swimming to stay put in the current. Some parts of the boardwalk were flooded or becoming flooded, and though it was a bit nerve-racking to walk over those parts, it was also a bit thrilling. The power of falling water is not to be underestimated!

On my last morning in the park, I finally figured out the vantage point the great photos were taken from: the trails at the rim of the canyon, high above the lakes and the boardwalks. I wished I'd found them earlier -- with the changing leaves and shady trails, it would have been nice to spend more time up there. The views of the lakes and falls from above (crappy light or otherwise) would have been icing on the cake.

Next time.

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I spent my last two nights in Croatia in Zagreb, and on my final night, I visited a wonderful museum that I had been looking forward to seeing since I first started researching my visit to Croatia:

The Museum of Broken Relationships.

It is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of momentos from broken relationships. Submissions from around the world are curated into a wonderful selection of stories and memories and lessons from broken relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and lovers of all kinds.

And it was fantastic. Lived up to all of my expectations. Made me think about some of my own past relationships a little, of course. It really just made me feel like a member of the human race.

Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, some are very sad, some are poignant. You should really read them all -- together they provide a wonderful holistic representation of the human condition, with our faults as well as our capacity for forgiveness and understanding exposed.

Incidentally, they accept contributions from around the world, so if you have an object from a broken relationship you'd like to let go of (don't we all?), consider sending it to them.

brokenships.com

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