I’m a bit unconventional in terms of what I desire out of visits to foreign places (I’m so churched out!), so I popped in my headphones and took a proper wander through the historic city. Down one little alley near in the Lower City, I came across colorful tags adorning the the old European buildings.
Zagreb, Croatia was my the first stop in my 30-th Birthday World Tour in September, 2009. It was also the city which reinvigorated my love of travel, re-introduced me to crazy backpacker antics courtesy of some Aussies, let me believe (for a moment) in Hollywood endings, and eventually, began this crazy journey I am on today.
My first day, I simply wandered with my camera, shooting photos of daily life in this mesmerizing city that blends old with new.
It’s no secret I love Croatia. My first trip to Croatia is what started me on my current life path. It spawned my career-break, and to this day, holds a very, very special place in my heart.
I have spent more time in Croatia than I have in almost any other country, other than America. I can close my eyes and instantly recall the mesmerizing bluegreen of the Adriatic. I can almost taste the homemade olive oil on my tongue. I can feel that warmth in my heart that Croatia first evoked.
This photo is from my first trip, in September 2010. It was before I knew … anything.
In Zagreb’s Upper Town, there are little streets with exposed brick, colorful graffiti and narrow paths that branch out from the gorgeous cafe-lined main roads. Often short cuts to some amazing view, restaurant or museum, I found myself wandering the tiny paths only accessible to people and motor bikes. I’m pretty sure this photo was taken the moment I fell in love with Zagreb.
“Come by and see me at my coffee shop,” the note on my Facebook wall said from one Jonathan (my Travel Love from Zagreb) who was now residing in Amsterdam.
As soon as I received that message, a little glimmer of what I felt in Zagreb shot through me. I had sent Jonathan a message earlier in the week, keeping it real casual because I didn’t want to come off as that crazy girl he shared one night with way back in September in a foreign country.
Before learning Jon was not going to be meeting me in Zadar, Amy and I adventured to Plitvice Lakes National Park.
After an hour of sleep, a haul to the bus station, and the pure adrenaline and hope pumping through my veins at what the day would bring, sinking into the seat on the bus was divine.
Quickly, my head bobbed to the window and sleep coursed through my blood. There were a few times along the way when my eyes would flutter open and I would marvel at the road we journeyed down. Amy had nudged me at one point to show me homes that had been destroyed by the 90s war; another time I was greeted with the sight of turn-of-the-century homes teetering over waterfalls and rushing waters.
When we finally arrived to Plitvice, you wouldn’t have known what was contained beyond the thick forest where we departed the bus.
To say Plitvice Lakes is a stunner would be an understatement. Its sheer technicolor natural beauty around each and every meandering turn is jaw-dropping. Its 16 turquoise lakes link together through waterfalls cascading down sheer rock cliffs. Unlike most water bodies I have seen, you can see straight to the bottom with astounding clarity. That twig resting on the lake floor? You can see even the most minute detail.
The four of us walked aimlessly at first from the bar, trying to determine where we were headed. The boys wanted to go clubbing, and I wasn’t going to debate.
Jon and I led the group. I had seen the club, Park, earlier in the day. Tin had pointed it out to me on our drive. The club was tucked in (shocker) a park by the cathedral, so I kind of knew where to go. Being backpackers on a budget, we opted to stop first at the gas station across the street and stock up on some beers.
Well, Jon and I did. The others just hung out. Slightly buzzed already, we stared at the cooler debating which poison we wanted and what size. We ended up with some super-sized cans of Croatian beer. Two a-piece. The plan was to sneak them into the club, so we shoved three of them into my purse and one into his shorts. It wasn’t the classiest. It wasn’t the most honest. But, it saved us a few KN so we weren’t going to feel too bad about it. Especially after Jon forked over cover for both of us.
Inside was unlike any club I had ever experienced. There was a terrace, a bar and a dance area with the DJ set on a slightly raised stage. A mix of Euro house music and cheesy 80s music flooded the room. Jon and I looked at each other and headed straight for the bar for a shot.
Needless to say, we did not last long there. We bopped our heads to the bad music and when the DJ made an announcement in Croatian, Jon could only interpret it as an apology for the crap we were listening to, and reasoned that he must have left his music at home and what we were listening to was the backup.
The rest of our party seemed to be having a good time so they weren’t keen to follow us when Jon and I decided to depart for greener pastures (and to meet his friends at another club). The thing about greener pastures is this — once you get there, they aren’t so green. Luckily for us, we never made it to another club.
Davor and I stood on Fulir’s balcony, overlooking the tiny shops and bar below. He was telling me a Canadian girl was staying here and also going to Plitvice Lakes the next day, and when she got back, he promised he would introduce us so we could take the bus together the following morning. He had tried to explain to me where the bus station was, but when I became exasperated because of my lack of map-reading skills, I just asked if him or Tin, a worker at the hostel I had befriended the night before, would come with me so I wouldn’t get lost. Instead of agreeing to that, Tin said he would drive me to the bus station to purchase the ticket.
It worked for me.
That’s when I saw Him on the street below. He caught my eye immediately. Perfect height (I’d probably recon around 5’9 or so). Perfect weight (the right blend between athletic and non-athletic). And completely different from the typical guy.
He wore plaid shorts, a dark shirt and shiny gold-framed sunglasses. He had a healthy serving of tattoos on his arms and legs, and a lip ring hooped through the middle of his bottom lip. His brown hair was cropped close to his head.
There was no way he was staying at Fulir. He just didn’t fit the mold of a typical backpack-hostel-goer. But, he walked up the ancient, red colored stairs, pulled a key out of his pocket and walked through the yellow painted door into the room I was staying in. When he walked in I caught a glimpse of a tattoo peaking through his hair on the back of his head and melted just a little bit.
At what point does one become “churched-out?” I think on my first trip to Europe, I was sufficiently churched out.
It’s amusing and kind of sad. I was reading one of my last journal entires from my previous trip and I had noted every significant place I had been. In the entry I had actually written, when trying to convey the enormity of my experience, that I had walked past the Duomo. Walked past.
Who writes that?
I also walked past the Sistine Chapel. I never made it inside. I had arrived to the chapel just as the doors had shut, and at that point, I was ready to head to Florence, you know, to walk by the Duomo, and didn’t want to stay another day in Rome just to go there. Ridiculous.
In reading that journal entry, I realized I wasn’t really about hitting all of the hot spots. Yes, I have every intention to go and walk IN the Duomo and the Sistine Chapel. And, soon. But, the true beauty of traveling in my mind isn’t those places that everyone says you must go to — it’s the places that you discover on your own.
My first morning in Zagreb, one of the first things I discovered all on my own was the McDonalds. I had promised I would not eat fast food. I don’t in real life and in travel life, I try to stay pretty healthy (at least in terms of food). But, after a night of binge drinking, chicken nuggets and a Diet Coke fountain soda soundly godly.
Of course, no one believes in “Diet” in Europe, so I settled for a Coke Zero. Ice-free (they don’t believe in that either. Even if you get a shot, it comes with one pretty cube of ice and that’s it). And chicken nuggets.
As I walked around Lower Town’s Trg Josipa Jelacica (the main square) and its meandering streets, I ate my breakfast of chicken nuggets chased with Coke Zero and tried to figure out where I was going next.
And, by “try” I mean “walked around aimlessly.”
When I had arrived at Fulir, they gave me a nice pocket guide detailing walking tours in the city. I left that in the room. Along with a New York Times article detailing how to spend a good 36 hours in the city. And the map.
Here’s the thing — I don’t believe in maps. Or tours. I prefer to just move. Learn as I go.
So, it was just me and my gut instinct which guided me back towards the hostel, first to the Katedrala Marijina Uznesnja (Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and then to a street I had seen the day before.
There was a large crowd gathered at the church, which didn’t surprise me much since the day before in my quick wanderings to get my bearings, I had seen numerous tour buses parked on the street. This time, the buses were absent, and just people filled the area. People and television trucks.
I walked up to the entrance of the gothic structure and was pretty much stopped by the wall of people at its doors. I could hear mass taking place and when I peaked in, there was a massive crowd, cameras on dollys and studio lighting. Something was going on.
I asked a monk and he explained it was something like the 800th anniversary of the order. We couldn’t communicate that well, but I gathered it was a pretty big deal to the people there, so instead of being an obnoxious tourist and fighting my way in so I could say I was there, I settled for exploring around the church instead.
In my early 20s I dated a guy who, at the start of our relationship, identified me as a planner. I denied it, but when I found myself calling him on a Wednesday to figure out what we were doing that weekend, I realized I, in fact, was/am a planner.
In nearly every aspect of my life, I plan. As I have gotten older I have eased up a bit, but still, there are certain activities that warrant planning. Activities like my 30th birthday celebration.
We were sitting at Park Tavern one night in April, my friend Karen and I, talking about my 30th birthday. Sure, it was nearly six months away, but I am not one to sit and wait for life to happen. Typically, I chase after things. I mean, it would be absolutely fantastic to just have things fall into my lap, but in my 29 years of life (up to that point), that phenomenon had yet to occur.
So, Karen and I were sitting outside overlooking Midtown Atlanta and my favorite place ever in the city — Piedmont Park — discussing what exceptionally awesome event I could plan for myself to celebrate my 30th birthday.
I had tossed around Italy and Israel and done some research on tours for people my age, but had not come up with anything I was very impressed with.
“Why not Croatia?” she had asked.
I had never considered traveling to Croatia for my birthday.
“Yeah, it is just like Italy, but cheaper since they aren’t on the Euro yet,” she explained.
Sounded good to me, and in typical impulsive D fashion, I called my parents the next day, reminded them of the airline ticket they had said I could have, and got their blessing to go ahead and book a ticket to Croatia.
It was that simple of a decision. Karen said “Croatia.” I booked the ticket. I did no research. I knew Karen traveled a lot, so I immediately trusted her suggestion.
The last time I went to Europe on a one-month solo backpacking adventure to celebrate graduating college, I had planned. Not much. But enough. I had purchased my one-month Eurail pass (a MUST if you plan on exploring Western Europe on a timeframe and not spending too much money on transport), booked my first few nights in the hostel (an International Youth Hostel in Venice my first night and another hostel in Athens for three more) and purchased a plane ticket from Venice to Athens. I knew I wanted to see the Acropolis. The Coliseum. The Vatican. The Louvre. The coffee shops. Basically, I had some highlights I knew I wanted to hit. The exact days were TBD, but it was nearly a sure thing I would see certain places.
This time, the only planning I did was buying Lonely Planet’s Croatia book. The book certainly wet my appetite. The gorgeous photos of the Adriatic coupled with the outdoor cafes and shots of locals immediately made me long for my vacation. I am an avid photographer so seeing those shots made me want badly to create my own book-worthy images.
I was two weeks out from my trip, sitting at my desk, when my COO came in to ask me about my trip.
“Where ya going?” she asked. “What have ya planned?”
I hung my head and shook it from side to side.
“Absolutely nothing. I know when I have to be at the airport and when I land in Zagreb, and I know when I have to be in Dubrovnik to fly home. That’s it.”
My COO is the left brain of the company. I think it is safe to say she is a planner. So, when I told her that, she smiled, shook her head and left.
We were cramped on the hostel bed in Zagreb, him hovering over me, trying his best to talk me out of my clothes.
We acted like two drunken teenagers. Fumbling. Stumbling. Mumbling (incoherently).
The deal breaker was when he uttered the following words through clenched jaw.
“I want you,” he said, pulling at my dress.
Cue the record player needle screeching to a halt.
That was the deal breaker of my cougar-antics for the evening.
In the world of hostels, you don’t shag in a room with other people sleeping. That is equivalent to shagging in a dorm room when your roommate is in the bottom bunk (something I can attest to completely and utterly sucking). Sure, there was a young, fresh, ambitious 22-year-old Aussie in my bed. And yes, he desperately wanted me to enjoy my evening, but still … the code of hostels could not be broken. Well, it could, but I wasn’t going to be that girl.
Instead, he went to his top bunk and I fell asleep, smiling to myself that for my first night of traveling, I had indeed not done too shabby.
In fact, the first 12 hours of traveling were speckled with adventures. And booze. Lots and lots of booze.