I had sworn to not go back to Old Town, especially now knowing that there are literally two boatloads more people in town than there were a week ago. But… There’s a food festival in Old Town, says my host. And I’ll drive you there on my scooter. My boat doesn’t leave until 4. I’ve already booked my ferry ticket. I can’t refuse.
We zip our way through traffic from Port Gruž to Old Town (this is the way to get around here, I think, as I become a little wistful about my own former scooter) and he locals me through the crowded Pile Gate, bypassing all the tourists as if we’ve got the golden ticket. We do, sort of, because living in a place like this earns you a right to skip past massive tour groups. We wander around the Old Town for a little while as he tells me about the war, his thoughts on immigrants (we disagree), his thoughts on the US’s president (we agree, mostly), and general tidbits about Dubrovnik. Then he explains the lay of the land for the food thing: there are tables set up on which the local restaurants and hotels lay out a spread of food. It’s a charity event, so you buy tickets – each ticket entitles you to some food at each restaurant’s table. So if you want to taste a few things, you buy a few tickets. We’re here early under the guise of my host wanting to go to church at 11, but really the game is to scope out the tables as they’re laid out and see which food you want to taste. They hold the back public until noon, but if you line yourself up at your intended mark, you’ll be right in front of the stuff you want to eat when they open the gates.
At a few minutes before noon, the emcee announces it’s time to start, which turns out to be a happy chaos. It also turns out that they don’t really care about the tickets all that much, so I’ve bought 2, plus one for wine, and I’m able to taste a smattering of fabulous seafood dishes plus some decadent desserts. My host is a big guy who has done this before so he’s at the front of the crowd in no time, helping me squeeze my way in to get to the good stuff. It was a funny scene, great food, and I’m glad he talked me into going. With the crowd at hand, the event was over within an hour, and I was back on a bus to Port Gruž in no time, with plenty of time to wander the throngless Port area, pack up, and get ready for the next leg of my journey.
Fast forward 5 hours and I’m some 230 kilometres north. It’s almost 10pm, and I’m wandering around dark streets in a completely new place. Google Maps is telling me the guesthouse should be Right. Here. And it isn’t. And I’m exhausted and I’ve got a head cold and I want a hot shower and a comfortable bed. So without the help of the kind waiter at a local restaurant, I might still be looking for that teeny tiny alley, behind another little restaurant, exactly where Google said it should be. By this point I had begun inventing Croatian expletives (hint: there are not many vowels in use).
The good news was that my Dubrovnik host had made arrangements with my Split host, and she was expecting me. So I was greeted with a smiling face; I had a hot cup of tea, a safe place to crash, and all I needed to do was figure out what to do here for the next few days.
There’s some history in this city. The Roman Emperor, Diocletian, built his retirement palace here in the 3rd Century. It evolved from a palace and fortress to a retreat for Roman royalty into the city itself – to this day Diocletian’s Palace remains the center of this bubbling place, stone archways, labyrinthine streets, narrow alleyways and all!
But I’d had enough of the cruise ship and tourist crowds, so after a day of seeing what Split’s old town was like (Diocletian blah blah, 1000-year-old palace walls, gelato, Egyptian relics, cats, narrow alleys and – WOW – where did that giant statue come from, and why are people rubbing its toe?), I decided to split Split and get me into some nature.
First up was Krka National Park. I get on a tour bus in near dread mode, then lighten at the prospect that I’m not required to stay with the group for more than an hour or so at the beginning, and then I’ve got most of the day to wander the park.
This is labelled as the mini-Plitvice, so the expectation is lakes, waterfalls, lush forest. What the guide, nor the guidebook, adequately describe is this geared-for-tourists place where you walk on a wooden plank path, counterclockwise around the park (follow the arrows; those who go against the grain will be flogged), landing at the prescribed shops and/or viewing stations along the way. There is no wooded trail, per se, and it is virtually impossible to get lost. It’s end of season here as well, which works in my favor: the crowds are smaller, swimming is not permitted (bonus opp for the picture-taking), and there are no lines for the ferry which ferries us from the small town of Skradin, across the lake, to Krka National Park proper.
The lakes here are a mesmerising emerald green and give the impression that some mythical creatures reside in their depths. In fact, there is one such being in Croatian folklore called Vodanoj, a water spirit who lurks by old mills (one still is in operation here), awaiting unsuspecting humans to trap and keep as slaves in their underwater castles…maybe it is he (or she) that helps these lakes give off their mystical hues.
I’ve wandered from the pack at this point, walking the prescribed path to admire the small falls and ponds along the way, and then to stop and gape at the exquisite Skradinski Buk, Krka’s crowning gem. After this, the rest of the park is disappointing, and since I’ve got something like 3 more hours here, I decide to walk the 4kms back to town rather than take the ferry.
Back in town, Skradin turns out to be something of a hideaway for boating types and rich recluses (one of Skradin’s claims to fame is that Bill Gates called it his favourite place in Croatia). There’s a marina, and if you follow the river far enough, you will eventually end up in the Adriatic. For a panorama of my surrounds, I climb to the top of the Turina fortress, built in the 13th century by the Šubićs (one of Croatia’s twelve noble tribes). From this perch, I enjoy the view over the sweet little town. After a while in the hot October sun, I descend in search of gelato. Finding the shop closed, I decide to rest on the sea wall by a park, where a few of the local swans stalk tourists in search of snacks. Unbeknownst to me, the she-swan is jealous and threatens to take me out should I flirt with her mate any further. At least I come away with all digits intact, and a bonus silly photo opp or two.
The next day’s adventure is the farther-flung national park called Plitvice (pronounce it if you dare) Lakes. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site*, and a proverbial Instagrammer’s dream for its teal pools and magnificent waterfalls (Veliki slap is nearly 80 metres high). Again, this park has been plotted (and gridded and girded) for the tourist trade. There is NO hiking here, and one may only travel via the planked paths around the park. Luckily, our group is small-ish and the tour guide bearable, so the few hours of the sheep-like following of the paths is tolerable. I resent the bus/train up from the parking area to the start of our journey (why can’t we walk?); the boat ride down also seems frivolous, but the intent here is to move as many people around the park as efficiently as possible, not to actually experience the nature that surrounds, but to view it and move on. Stopping to gaze for more time than it takes to snap a selfie is mostly frowned-upon, as the group needs to progress on schedule. By the end of the day, I’m feeling a tad like I’ve been a piece of luggage on a baggage carousel, wary of getting bumped by other baggage angling for the perfect angle. Also glad it wasn’t higher season, as I can’t imagine what that experience would be. I get back on the bus more under than whelmed to the overall Plitvice experience. The highlight was probably the restaurant we visited en route home, where we shared road stories over local cheeses and salad and beer (and tea for me – still fighting the bug).
These tour experiences further convince me that group travel is not my thing, though I’d met a couple of other solo travellers this day – a Canadian and an Irish woman, with whom (in search of a currency exchange and some gelato) I’d get lost in the alleys of Split’s old city that evening.
This is the beauty of itinerary-fluid solo adventures: the laughs one has with people you may or may not ever see again; the solidarity and trust forged in fleeting road connections. We laugh as we rub the toe of St. Petar (he was the first to go against the Vatican and deliver mass in Croatian rather than Latin. Heathen!) Lore has it that you rub his big toe and your wish will come true. I rubbed and wished…Jury’s still out on saintly magic.
I’ve got a morning to wander the promenade and the old town, then a bus (and a promise of another stop – and passport stamp – in Bosnia), then back to my guesthouse in Dubrovnik and an early morning flight to Istanbul for a few days to round out the Balkan Doživljaj.
That last evening, I run through the past two weeks in my tired head. I indulge in some brown bread from the little local bakery with some cheese and figs (and Ajvar OMG!) I’ve saved from the fresh market in Split… and I’m going to sleep this last Balkan night sated. I’ve hiked mountains and seen some unbelievable vistas; spent a week making memories with one of my favourite humans, and learnt how to pronounce some words I may never use again (and botched many more!). I’ve nearly filled my passport, adding 3 countries on this trip; and I’ve rekindled a love of seeing the world. I’ll go home with a camera full of photos, a head full of words, and another dose of Fernweh, that farsickness that draws me away when the real world gets to be just too real.
Next stop, Istanbul.
*UNESCO World Heritage Site tally for this trip, 6:
Croatia: Old City of Dubrovnik, Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian, Plitvice Lakes National Park
Montenegro: Bay of Kotor (Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor), Fortification of Kotor (Venetian Works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries), Durmitor National Park, Biogradska Gora (on the tentative list)
Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians | Part IV: Fog and the Road to Hell (sort of)