I am currently writing from a cafe/bar on the Greek island of Samothroki, where my boyfriend, Joe, and I have been for about a week. It’s been a pretty wild experience on the island so far, but before I get into that, I want to share a quick summary of the time I spent in Croatia for the last three weeks of March.
I decided at the last minute to spend some time in Croatia as a stopover while waiting for my boyfriend to get to Europe. Joe decided in February to drop everything and hop over here to join me for the rest of this adventure, and he was able to pull things together quickly enough to meet me at the end of March. So in order to kill time outside the Shengen, I decided to make my next stop in Croatia. I found work at a hostel in Zagreb, the country’s capital and a popular city for younger travelers. I had heard good things about the city and the country, but didn’t know much about it when I arrived on a sunny afternoon after a 13 hour bus ride.
Croatia is part of former Yugoslavia, and Zagreb presents an interesting mix of Soviet-style buildings in the suburbs and more decorative Germanic-style architecture in the historical city center, which is also where most of the notable buildings are located. (There is a walking tour that shows off many of Zagreb’s important political and historical sites, and the whole walk is probably less than a mile long. On this tour, you learn that the tallest building in the entire country is the city’s Gothic style cathedral- no skyscrapers here.)
Zagreb has a reputation as a party city, and this is well deserved- the main shopping street is lined with bar-cafes, all of which serve alcohol and coffee (which seems to be the norm is many parts of Europe) and dance clubs of all kinds- rock-themed, Latin-themed, karaoke, etc. The city is also full of pastry shops offering cheap and delicious treats, which makes it all too tempting to stop in and pick up something sweet any time you go out (which I shamelessly did). The city center is full of stylish clothing stores and gimmicky restaurants, and feels more targeted to tourists on a shopping holiday than working professionals. There is a slew of odd museums, like the Museum of Illusions and the Museum of Broken Relationships, all of which also seem more like tourist traps than genuine collections. However, the people are very friendly and down to earth, and I enjoyed exploring new bits of the city each day and sitting at an outdoor cafe to sketch the surrounding architecture or people. Plus, Zagreb is the most perfect city for roller skating, which had my hyped- the sidewalks are smooth and flat and wide, and I took advantage of this every chance I could.
I spent my time here working in a hostel near the city center, and taking a few day trips out to the other sites mentioned below. This hostel had a very different vibe from the one in Genova, and it took some time for me to adjust- it was a party hostel, always packed with young travellers looking for a fun night out, and the hostel was designed to accommodate this. There were social activities hosted by the hostel every night, like pub crawls and trivia contests and karaoke outings. The volunteers’ quarters were very cramped and rarely empty, plus we were encouraged to chat up the guests and make sure everyone was having a good time, all of which made it hard to find privacy within the hostel. I actually considered leaving early because it didn’t feel like a good fit for me, but when I talked to the management, they wanted to do what they could to make my stay more comfortable, and offered to let me paint murals in exchange for room and board instead, which I was happy to accept. I really appreciated their flexibility in regard to the volunteers’ work, and that made the rest of the stay much more enjoyable. I met lots of nice people and made a few good friends at this hostel, so I was glad to stick around.
On the outskirts of Zagreb rises Medvednica, a small cluster of mountains in an otherwise relatively flat stretch of Croatia. These mountains are covered in well marked and well maintained hiking trails, and are dotted with small pubs where hikers can enjoy some local cuisine after the long hike up. I’ve heard the mountains are most enchanting in the summer, becoming lush and magical green forests. The second half of my hike was snow-covered, but it was still a nice and leisurely walk. I’d love to come back and see the mountain in its full summertime glory.
This story will probably get its own blog post at some point, but in brief, these Lakes were one of the highlights of my time in Croatia. They are unlike any lakes I’ve seen before: an almost iridescent blue color, sunk deep into rocky gorges, and full of waterfalls of all sizes and varieties. The walking path, which has no guardrails, runs a few inches above the water and crosses the lakes in several places, providing some really breathtaking view from the surface of the lakes, as well as from far above them. Here again, I went in the off season and missed out on the full glory of the park, though it was nice to have the place mostly to myself as I walked around.
Joe flew into Zagreb near the end of the month, and we decided to spend a few days together on the coast before heading to Greece. We opted to go to Zadar, because it was the closest of several historical coastal cities- about 3.5 hours away from Zagreb, which we would have to go back to on our way to Greece. Zadar was another highlight of the trip- it has a quaint historical peninsula, much of which is inaccessible by car. It’s quite touristy, but the beaches and various historical sites are freely accessible and worth a visit. One of our favorite parts of the city is a sprawling, wild park on the edge of the historical district. We even managed to jump in the sea, although it was freezing and we were the only people crazy enough to be out on the beach in swimsuits in March (thanks, Michigan).
I could never figure out how I feel about Croatia, which is why it took so long for me to write about it. It was a transitional stop for me, and I never felt at home there the way I did in Italy. But I saw some beautiful places and met some some lovely people. I’m glad I visited, and maybe someday I’ll come back and give it a fairer shake. For now, I’m glad to have moved on to Greece, which I will talk more about next time. For now, here’s some of the art I made in Croatia.