Love and Mourning in Zagreb

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This will be the last post about our Croatian honeymoon in 2010.  I’m almost wistful about this.  It’s been so nice reliving the trip.

Pete and I had the good fortune of arriving in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, in time for All Souls’ Day.  We found out about this while waiting for a bus in Plitvice, when a park employee let us know that the next few days in the capital would likely be very busy due to the holiday.  This information would come in handy.

When we arrived in Zagreb we walked from the bus terminal to the train station (it’s a long story) and we were greeted by this amazing sign.

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Croats do not appreciate handguns or ice cream on their trains.  They are serious about this.

We spent a night in a hotel near Zagreb’s downtown core and the next morning we wandered into the city centre.  It was a stunning, sunny, 15-degree day.  This was such a relief after our chilly few days in Plitvice.

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We were told by the man in Plitvice that the Dolac fruit and vegetable market would be full of people buying flowers for their departed loved ones.  Everyone in Zagreb would then travel to Mirogoj cemetery, north of the city, to pay their respects together.

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We were also told that we should absolutely visit Mirogoj cemetery, which is often called the most beautiful in Europe, but that we should be prepared to walk, since the buses would be packed.  Again, invaluable advice.  There were long lineups for all the buses, which were all crammed full of people clutching flowers and candles.

So we walked there and we were not disappointed.  Mirogoj cemetery is breathtaking.

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It was also a much more celebratory atmosphere than what we had been expecting.  People were milling about, talking together, buying items to lay on gravestones and eating roasted chestnuts.  They were taking pictures, and even having picnics and lunches among the graves.

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In all, we spent three days exploring Zagreb.  Both of us were completely taken with it.  I’ve been to a lot of European capitals, and so has Pete.  Zagreb has a lot going for it.  It has a lot of what we were looking for in a European city without being enormous or completely crowded with tourists.

It has a gorgeous town square.

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It has a clean, efficient transit system.  In fact, tram rides within the city centre are free.

It has beautiful achitecture reminiscent of what you would find in Vienna.*

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It has an impressive art gallery, with a collection donated to the city by a very, very wealthy benefactor.

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A benefactor who had this incredibly creepy death mask made of himself.

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It has beautiful parks with equestrian statues.  There are a lot of really gorgeous green spaces that we really enjoyed, especially after being so cold for the previous few days.

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Zagreb also boasts St. Mark’s Church, a 13th century building with Zagreb’s coat of arms on its roof.

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And, nearby, there is the Museum of Broken Relationships.  A perfect place to visit on a honeymoon!

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Also, there are these impressive mutton chops.

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The world’s shortest funicular.

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Nikola Tesla.  I’m so sorry, Croatia, that I always thought Tesla was Czech.

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Europe’s tiniest bathroom.

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And last but not least, giant, delicious kebabs.

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So, Pete and I spent our last day soaking in these sights and wishing we had booked a longer honeymoon.  A week is definitely not enough time.

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We were thrilled to discover, after a few days of terrible food in the nearly-abandoned hotel we stayed at in Plitvice, a great little brew-pub in Zagreb’s old town.  If I could remember its name, I would share it with you.  But I can’t, for the life of me, remember what it was called.  I do know that it was on Tkalčićeva street, which is a very charming and chic part of town.  They had good food, at a very reasonable price, and their beer was so, so good.

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We ate there a few times, and made sure we sampled all their varieties of beer.  Just to be thorough.

On our last night, in a mostly empty restaurant near the airport, we drank mistletoe rakija and toasted to a wonderful trip.  If you ever get the chance to go to Croatia, then absolutely go.  But maybe skip the mistletoe rakija.

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*Please note: I know nothing about architecture.

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The Cascading Waterfalls of Plitvice

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Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the oldest parks in Southern Europe.  Situated near the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is a large preserve in a mountainous region, dotted with crystal-clear lakes connected by streams and waterfalls.

Plitvice waterfall

The park was the site of the first conflict in the Croatian War of Independence, the Plitvice Lakes Incident.  At the time, the region was home to a large number of ethnic Serbs.  In March of 1991, Serb rebels, backed by Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav People’s Army, took over the park in a violent conflict that left two people dead.  The rebels declared the park a part of an autonomous Serbian region and occupied it for the duration of the war.

There are a number of lodges and hotels in the park, and during the conflict, these were used as barracks by the Serb forces.  A number of buildings were burned down and areas of the park were mined.  The park was re-taken by Croatian forces in 1995, but not before a large number of Croats were ethnically cleansed from the region.  When the war came to an end, the park was de-mined as part of an effort to restore what UNESCO had declared a World Heritage Site in Danger.  Today, a visitor would never suspect the park’s violent history.  It is a serene and beautiful place.

Pete and I took a bus to Plitvice from Split and as we approached the park, the surrounding countryside went from soggy to snowy.  We got confused about where to get off of our bus and ended up disembarking too soon and wandering around the park, pulling our suitcases behind us through the snow.

Pete pretending that he knows where he’s going

After wandering around aimlessly, trying to follow confounding signs, we eventually found a hotel.

As someone who has seen The Shining approximately 386 times, it was a little eerie staying at a large, nearly empty hotel boasting ’70s decor.  We were visiting Plitvice at the very end of the tourist season, and there were perhaps three other groups of people there with us.  There were no other guests staying in our wing of the hotel.

Even the “Do Not Disturb” signs were creepy

When we ate at the restaurant, there were two staff members, Pete and I, and rows upon rows of empty seating.

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It creeped us out a bit, but it was nice to have the park nearly to ourselves.  In summer, Plitvice is so packed with tourists that the boardwalks are pedestrian traffic jams.

No traffic jams today

In October, you get the ferry to yourself

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We spent two days hiking around the cascades and waterfalls and trying to keep warm.  Our first day, it was quite overcast and we didn’t bump into any other tourists.  The second day was cold but sunny and beautiful.

Pete enjoying the sunshine

That second day, we encountered a group of elderly Japanese tourists stopping by the park on a bus tour.  It was sunny, but it was still quite cold, so Pete and I were wearing nearly all of our clothes.  Long-johns, rain pants (to cut the wind), toques, mittens: the works.  Some of these tourists weren’t even wearing hats.  They must be made of tougher stuff than us.  They put these two Canadians to shame.

After two days of hiking and exploring, and getting lost, thanks to vague Croatian signage, we were ready to move on to Zagreb.

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Plitvice is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen, and I hope to go back one day.  If you ever have the chance to visit, please go.  You’ll be glad you did.

Split: Rain and Bed Bugs

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Split, Croatia, is a balmy, picturesque tourist haven in the summer months.

What Split looks like in summer, not that I would know.
Photo via Cunard

Unfortunately, Pete and I travelled there on our honeymoon in late October and got drenched.

We got a lot of use out of our raingear

We arrived at the tail-end of the tourist season.  Many museums and attractions were shutting down a few days later.  So we expected to have cooler temperatures.  The rain put a damper on our time in Split, but we enjoyed the town nonetheless.

Inside Diocletian’s Palace

The main attraction in the city is Diocletian’s Palace.  In the fourth century, Roman Emperor Diocletian built himself a very large and very fancy palace in Split.  Today, the site takes up a large part of downtown Split, with restaurants, shops, and apartments inside the walls of what was once a massive pleasure palace.

Via Wikipedia

Our first night in Split, we stayed in a little stucco hut that was in the old part of town, just outside of Diocletian’s Palace.  To get there, we had to wander around labyrinthine streets and alleys occupied by packs of feral cats.  Our hut had a bedroom, a kitchenette and a bathroom only separated from the living quarters by a shower curtain.  Romance.

I had trouble sleeping that night.  At one point, when I was lying in bed trying to read, I noticed a little black speck running across the mattress.  We had bed bugs.  I didn’t know much about bed bugs at this point but I knew they were evil little bloodsuckers who were nearly impossible to eradicate.  I woke Pete up in a panic and showed him the bed bug I had squished.  There were little specks of blood.  Ew ew ew.

Via Wikipedia

We moved out the next morning and found a nicer (albeit teeny tiny) place to stay.  We did our best to de-infest our luggage before moving and hoped we hadn’t brought the bugs with us.  We did our first (of many) mattress checks in our new hotel.

Via howtodetectbedbugs.org

We spent the rest of our trip periodically worrying about the bed bugs.  When we arrived home, we left all of our luggage and clothes outside before going in.  Yes, all of our clothes.  Our neighbours got quite the show.

After consulting the internet we put nearly everything in the washing machine and dried all of our clothes at the hottest temperatures our poor, old dryer could muster.  We left a suitcase outside in our shed for the entire winter, hoping that the cold temperatures would kill any bugs we couldn’t launder to death.

Even though we avoided an infestation, we’re now completely bed bug phobic.  Check out this highly scientific map of bed bug presence in North America:

Via bedbugregistry.com
AHH! They’re everywhere!

We’re now completely paranoid whenever we go to hotels.  We do systematic bed bug checks.  I would suggest that you do the same, if, deep-down, I didn’t think that these checks are kind of futile.  They’re going to get to us eventually.

Despite this icky turn of events,  we do have some fond memories of Split and we would definitely go back, *in summer*.  The city is beautiful, historic, and charming.

Dubrovnik in October

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I’m continuing to blog about past travels because Pete is steadfast in his refusal to travel with a baby.  This is my method for dealing with my travel bug.

We went to Croatia on our honeymoon in October of 2010.  We chose Croatia because:

a) I wanted to go to Europe

b) we wanted to go somewhere warmish

c) we wanted to go somewhere neither of us had been before.

Croatia was an easy decision.  I had always wanted to see Dubrovnik, and Pete had been to neighbouring Slovenia and really liked it.  We had a winner!

Croatia was an easy decision. Look at the gorgeousness.

We travelled the last week of October because I was teaching college at the time, and that was my Reading Week.  We spent a week there, and saw as much of the country as we could in that very short time.

After a three-hour layover in Vienna where we ate some chewy airport strudel and attempted to nap, we landed in Dubrovnik.

Airport strudel is never a good choice

It was an absolutely gorgeous day.  We had left snow behind in Canada and arrived to temperatures in the mid-twenties.  Just warm enough for short sleeves without being too hot.  Heavenly.

T-shirt weather! In late October!

We had made arrangements to stay in private accommodations we found through our Lonely Planet guidebook.  Our host, Marija, was warm and friendly, and took us to her home on the side of the hill overlooking the walled city.  Her house was similar to a B&B, but we had a separate entrance and we had the use of her gardenside outdoor kitchen.  Note to self: our next house must have an outdoor kitchen.

That first day we wandered (in our jet-lagged stupor) around the city and enjoyed some beer on a patio, which was outside Dubrovnik’s city walls, overlooking the Adriatic.

Beer on a patio overlooking the Adriatic

As we soaked up the sun and the view, we saw a cruise ship* begin to pass.  We patio-dwellers were snapping photos of it while the cruisers were snapping photos of us.

The Costa Serena sailing toward Italy

The next day, Pete and I woke up to much colder temperatures, cloudy skies, and drizzle.  Not a big deal, except that this weather stuck around for the rest of the trip.  Bye bye t-shirts!  Thanks, sister, for lending me your rain pants!

Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main street

Despite the weather, we really enjoyed exploring Dubrovnik.  What really struck me about the city is that although it is a picture-perfect walled city, it is a living city.  Often, cities this beautiful are full of tourists but few residents, due to the cost of living, or to inconvenience (think Venice).  But Dubrovnik is a vibrant place.  Walking along the city walls, you can see into apartments and rooftop terraces.  There are schools, playgrounds and soccer fields for the children.

Basketball court within Dubrovnik’s city walls

Dubrovnik’s vitality is all the more stunning considering how badly it was shelled during the civil war.

A photo displaying the damage Dubrovnik suffered during the civil war

I won’t linger too long on the topic of the civil war here, because it has been well covered elsewhere, but Pete and I did visit museums detailing the impact of the war.  I highly recommend War Photo Limited, a war photography museum in the old city.  It is curated by a former photojournalist and it is excellent.  It is a difficult museum to visit, but it is moving and will leave you impressed by the strength and resilience of the Croatian people.

View of the harbour from the city walls

After taking in the museums and historical sites, we spent time wandering around the city.  Although it was a cool evening, the city is absolutely breathtaking at night.  We got lost more than a few times in the labyrinthine alleys of the old town.

Our honeymoon was off to a lovely start.

Happy travels, everyone.

* I later realized that this ship was the Costa Serena, the sister ship of the ill-fated and now infamous Costa Concordia.