The second half of my trip commenced in Zagreb, Croatia, another city where delayed transportation gave me just a few hours to explore the city. In this case, however, I found that I needed no more time to experience most of Zagreb. Zagreb has a few nice museums (though with most signs in Croatian), a pleasant old town, and is not nearly as crowded as more famous sites. Still, its attractions are fairly close together, and it has few monumental pieces of architecture, unique historic sites, or specialized museums to distinguish it from the spectacular attractions of other European cities. Zagreb is comfortable and clean, but it is a good place to visit for a day, perhaps, not a destination city given all the more interesting sites in the region.
King Tomislav Statue, Zagreb
Mimara Museum, Zagreb
St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb
Ban Josip Jelačić Statue, Zagreb
Like from Budapest, I left early in the morning from Zagreb, this time to visit Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park, a World Heritage Site globally famed for its fascinating landscape of caves, waterfalls, and pristine lakes. When I arrived and entered the park, which has an immediate view over the large waterfall and lower lakes, I felt like all the trials of the earlier few days of travelling were worth it for this. Plitvice’s waterfalls were absolutely spectacular, and I have never seen such clear water as in the lakes to the side of the boardwalk. The temperature was fantastic, though heavy rains before arrival had washed out some of the trails and forced me to walk through water in other parts (but made the falls even more impressive). Having nearly the whole day to wander at my own pace through the park was a pleasant change from the hectic last few days (though Google Maps’ mislabeling of my homestay for the night forced me to waste around an hour doubling back to a different park entrance), and the park operated a network of trams and ferries that easily connected the different areas of the park. Unfortunately, as the day went on, the park got more and more crowded, until trails were slowed to a complete standstill by the crush of tourists on them, and the entrance line for tickets contained several hundred people. It became impossible to even get on the ferry or get a good view of several falls because of these crowds, which I later realized came because it was Croatian Independence Day, which while not explicitly “Visit Plitvice Lakes Day” seemed to be taken that way by the thousands of Croatian families taking daytrips to the park. It likely would have been crowded in any case, as over a million visitors come each year for good reason, and the weather was great for a visit to the park, but I had hoped that the park would be much emptier on a fall Wednesday. Luckily, staying the night meant that I could remain in the park after all the others had left, and I finally managed to find a solitary trail at around 5:00 PM, from where I watched the sunset over the uppermost lake and listened to the sounds of nature (unfortunately but unsurprisingly, I was unable to catch a glimpse of any of the park’s wildlife). The atmosphere felt so much like being back in Wisconsin that I began feeling homesick. I also came back for an hour early the next morning, again before the crowds arrived, so that by the time I left, I had walked on nearly every trail in the park (there is very little backcountry access, unfortunately, which contributes to the crowding). The next day was spent entirely on a bus, a 12 hour ordeal that was mitigated to an extent by the fantastic views over the Adriatic as the bus veered around switchbacks on a road bounded by towering peaks on one side and small fishing/resort villages along the coast on the other, and I got brief stops in major destinations along the Dalmatian coast in Zadar and Split. Thanks to a curious border quirk, this bus ride traveled though Bosnia for a few miles as well, though waiting impatiently for the bus driver to get back from the bar for half an hour there was not a pleasant recollection of the country. Finally, I arrived in my destination, Dubrovnik.
Large waterfall, Plitvice Lakes
Valley, Plitvice Lakes
Looking over the park
The lake from above
Sick of waterfalls yet?
Sunset at Plitvice Lakes
Sunset on the Dalmatian Coast
Dubrovnik is possibly the greatest combination of historical monuments, a preserved old city, and natural beauty in the Balkans, and it has justifiably become world-famous for those. Even late in the tourist season, it was packed with tourists and overpriced, but these did not outweigh the tremendous beauty of the city. I started my day walking along the city walls, an unforgettable experience, and I visited a few museums in the old town. I was lucky enough to get a cheap hostel in the old town, which made it easy to use it as a base between excursions, so I changed and went out for 3 hours kayaking around the city. I traveled to the nearby island of Lokrum (reachable by ferry, though that’s not nearly as fun), home to a ruined monastery and fort, botanical gardens, and several rock “beaches”, an enjoyable natural transition from the architectural charms of the town, and returning I got great views of the outside of the fortifications, an imposing sight little changed from when these walls welcomed Genoese traders and fought against Turkish pirates. To get a view from a different angle, I climbed up the mountain behind town, a series of switchbacks arranged as Stations of the Cross, to where another fort (not in nearly as good condition) provided an overlook on the city, as well as a museum on the Croatian War of Independence (Homeland War) in Dubrovnik. This museum, and another on war photography in town, were sobering reminders of how much Dubrovnik suffered in the Yugoslav Wars just 20 years ago, and while the city has been completely repaired, it is strange to consider that my Croatian hostel owner and Montenegrin taxi driver were likely fighting on opposite sides of the lines along the same route I travelled. Anyone over 30 was certainly transformed by the war, and judging from the propaganda in the war museum and more subtly in locations around town, they are unlikely to forget. For the first and only time this trip, I stayed two nights in the same place, allowing me to wander amid the tight streets of town and share travel stories with the other residents of my hostel, and stop in the grocery store to make my own meals. The next morning I headed out to the bus station (not conveniently located near the old town) to travel to my last destination, Kotor, in Montenegro.
Lovrijenac (St. Lawrence) Fortress, Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik West Harbor
Northern Wall of Dubrovnik
Rooftops of Dubrovnik
Fortifications viewed from Lovrijenac
Castle and Island
Old Monastery, Lokrum
Path from Fort Royal, Lokrum
Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main street
Dubrovnik from above
Montenegro is a tiny (and new) country with tremendous natural beauty, and Kotor is foremost among its many charming coastal towns. Located at the end of a long fjord, surrounded by mountains, and like Dubrovnik maintaining the thick walls and thin alleyways of an ancient port, Kotor was a key Venetian trading center before becoming a tourist destination. Kotor was extremely small, as it took only 5 or 10 minutes to get from one end to the other, and the great Maritime Museum and the few churches in town, while interesting, did not take long to explore. However, Kotor’s fortifications extended to the crest of the mountain behind town, which were open to the public. These fortifications provided the location for a fascinating ramble in the nooks and crannies of the crumbling walls that despite their significant length and apparent sophistication were unsuccessful in preventing conquest by the Ottomans and British, as well as great views over the fjord and the old town of Kotor, from where I practiced photography. While it only took me a few hours to experience everything Kotor had to offer, the amenities and excursions offered by the hostel I stayed at made me wish I could spend another day in Montenegro. Unfortunately, however, classes started back on Monday, so the next day it was time to head back to Alanya, first over another slow but beautiful road that snaked among the mountains through the towns of Budva (like Kotor, another coastal destination with an old town) and Cetinje (Montenegro’s old capital in the mountains, home to numerous palaces and museums) until reaching the capital of Podgorica, probably the ugliest location in Montenegro but the only one with flights to Turkey, despite having only a tiny airport. Flying out over the mountains and lakes of Albania made me very interested in returning to hike in the region, escaping the messy development along the coast and around Podgorica. Flying back was uneventful, and Sunday night I returned to Alanya, ten days after heading out. As much as I enjoyed traveling, I was extremely glad to be back, looking forward to filling meals, days without the stress of catching another bus and finding another hostel, conversation with friends, and less physical exertion.
Kotor Outer Walls
St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, Kotor
Main Gate, Kotor
Kotor Bay, old church along the walls
Kotor from the fortifications
Top of Kotor Fortress
Old church in the mountains behind Kotor
Mountains of Montenegro
Lake Skadar from the plane, Montenegro/Albania
This was my first long-distance solo travel, and the most difficult thing I’ve had to arrange in my life. Very few things went exactly according to plan, and I spent far more time in buses and train stations than I would have hoped, yet I am still completely convinced that I made the right choice of destinations. There are hundreds or thousands of destinations in Europe I still wish to visit, but this trip helped me realize how I would prefer to travel, some locations I have little interest in visiting (Split, Hungary outside of Budapest), and others I very much want to visit or return to (Lake Skadar, Sighisoara, Istria). Despite language barriers and time and financial constraints, I still got a good introduction, at least, to all of the places I visited, and a taste of numerous different cultures and histories (and yes, I wish the Northern European culture of efficiency and timeliness would take root in this region, but I can’t be too optimistic). While each trip is a different challenge, I have certainly increased my confidence that I’m able to plan and execute something this complex, despite unexpected problems, and I’ll be better prepared for the next trip. I’ve probably put down here only 10% of my experiences and my memories, but hopefully the pictures will be enough to give a more complete image of all the places I visited. And someday, I’ll return to the Balkans, searching out for what I missed this time, but for now, I’ll just relax in Alanya – until we travel again, this time to Cyprus in two weeks.