From Istria to the End: Croatia Round Two

After my initial Norwegian infused tour from Dubrovnik back up to Zadar it was time to set out on my own for the land of truffles, olive oil, and old Venetian cities: Istria. After a long day lazing about Zadar hiding from the rain, I hopped a night bus to Rovinj via Pula. Though I didn’t have to change busses, when we hit Pula we went from being a quiet, nearly empty night bus to be a crowded school bus with pre-teens filling not only all the seats but also the aisle. It’s a bit of an awkward arrangement on a coach that is in no way designed for standing passengers.

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ROVINJ

Either way, we eventually wound our way into Rovinj where I, realizing it was far too early to check into my hostel attempted to acquire caffeine in a cafe next to the bus stop. I really must stop having hopes. It was a cappuccino most foul. It was however, also adequate excuse to camp out in the cafe for a few hours until I thought I might be able to talk my way into the hostel or at the very least drop my backpack and head out into the city unencumbered.

It took a bit of doing to attract anyone’s attention to the front desk, but once I did find staff, I was quickly let into my dorm and handed the keys. In a brief burst of responsible adulthood, I decided to write a few job applications, but having poured my soul onto the page for a couple of opportunities, I concluded that it was time to go out and do a bit of adventuring.

It was a grey day but I decided that rather than going into town, I would go down to the Golden Cape park which was meant to have beautiful beaches and fascinating trees. When I first entered the area, I found peaceful forest paths populated almost exclusively by joggers. As the path wound towards the sea, I came across an abandoned and heavily grafitted seaside something or other and a lovely bouldery beach. Needless to say, I promptly abandoned the path and rock hopped merrily along until the shore turned into cliff and the rocks became rather less above the water line. Apparently at some point some intrepid Italian decided to make the Golden Cape into a park and health resort. He imported plenty of exotic trees and started drawing up plans but was never able to finish the part where he was to build a spa. As a result it’s an odd mix of decorative trees, wild coastlines, an ancient limestone quarry, and a few lost and lonely buildings.

As the path wound back around towards the town, I found that in place of my local joggers, I was now joined by a collection of miscellaneous German tourists. I would end up seeing a lot of German tourists throughout my second adventure in Croatia. I suspect that off-season travel is their preference while everyone else shuffles off back home as soon as the weather turns. As I traced my way along the seashore towards the town it seemed that the autumn storms were on their way. the greyish sky was growing darker and the wind was blustery and wet. It also seemed that I was (once again) looking too local. I do so love when other tourists accost me for information and then are shocked to find that I cannot help them. Bless their frustrating little hearts.

Once in the old town, I wandered up the hill to the St. Euphemia Cathedral which sits on the highest point in Rovinj. It’s a fairly grand old thing but I had far more fun wandering back down through the narrow, winding, and gallery filled streets of the old town. Somewhere along the way I swallowed another foul espresso and chowed down on a bun of some sort which featured cheese, ketchup, and a hot dog cooked right in. I also attempted a cheesecake but I have no idea what I actually ate. On the top there was a clear gelatine based glaze with a slice of peach set firmly into the topping. Next there was a slightly thicker layer of very very dense custardy business and under that, the thickest layer of all which appeared to be a shortbread crust but which may have actually been a very dry and dense cheesecake layer. I honestly have no idea what I was eating but it was interesting enough to keep my fork in motion.

I eventually left the old town and, in my continuing quest to be a responsible adult, did a bit more work on job applications and other similar goodies before scarfing down a grocery store dinner and collapsing into bed.

The next morning began with me plopped on a bench in a park filling my face with delicious greasy meat burek and reading Fitzgerald. Eventually I moseyed on up to the local library but, finding it shut, was soon toddling off back to the old town and the harbour. I ended up in an ice bar with a rather curiously flavoured ice cream and coffee concoction and a lovely view of the harbour that enabled both people and boat watching. Once I’d conquered the coffee and ice cream, I wandered around until the ominous clouds turned their threat into real rain at which point I fled back to the dry indoors of my hostel.

When the sun reappeared I set out to explore the evening’s restaurant options as recommended by TripAdvisor. Some were closed, some were impossible to find, and some were so hideously expensive that I didn’t dare enter. I eventually settled on a former snack bar along the harbour: Rio. It was both quaint and sleekly modern and the food was heaven. After a complimentary codfish appetizer, I had a glass of wine and a plate of truffle and cheese filled ravioli. I followed that savoury heaven with a divine slice of apple cake and one more mediocre coffee. I don’t know why I do it to myself, but I just kept hoping that SOMEONE would make me a decent espresso. I sat in the restaurant until the sun had nearly sunk below the horizon and then headed back.

In the hostel, I was beset by malfunctioning wifi which sent me out into the common room to attempt a better connection. Once there I was met by one of the owners who was having a birthday party and sharing the wealth merrily with everyone. I was given a local fortified wine and a slice of cake and so sat quite happily on the couch enjoying my wifi and my treats.

I went to bed feeling very much pleased with the world. I would be woken up in rather a different mood some few hours later.

Sometime around 5:30am I woke to a loud shout “FUCK!” Mildly alarmed I remained in bed listening to try to figure out what had gone on. It seemed that everyone else in the building was conducting the same experiment so our raging shouter continued “AH SHIT!” and then he and his Australian accent began dinging the service bell. It’s one thing to wake everyone up, it’s entirely another to continue being a nuisance until someone comes to listen to your foulness. When one of the hostel owners finally reached our angry Aussie, he laid into them about the tragic turn of events which had lead him to miss his bus to Trieste. Though he clearly said that it was the people at the bus station who hadn’t been clear enough to him about where to wait for the bus, he seemed to think that our hostel was also somehow to be blamed. He’d spent too long here, he couldn’t sleep, he hadn’t slept the night before “BECAUSE OF THE NOISE” and he was not about to quiet down. I’d estimate it took nearly 30min of very patient repetitions of “okay, what can I do to help you” before the staff managed to get him to at least return to a slightly more sensible volume. Some people should not be granted passports. Let their own countries keep their foul tempers and senses of entitlement.

After that rude little awakening I slept for a few hours more before getting up, packing up, checking out, and heading into town. I bought a burek on the way, acquired my bus ticket, and then settled into a slick little gelateria that I’d ogled every time I’d passed it on my adventures. It was called B52 and it had oodles of exciting flavours. I ended up with a scoop of the most heavenly pistachio paired with a second scoop of delicious, flavourful fig. It was the best gelato I’d had in ages, and I was charmed by the presence of a patron sink with towels and a little basin for cleaning off any escaped ice cream.

As the time crept up on the digits stamped on my ticket, I left the ice-cream parlour and headed back to the bus stop to wait. And wait. And wait. As each bus pulled up, I showed my ticket to each driver, and each one responded identically, shaking his head saying “no, not this bus”. I was beginning to suspect that my bus was a lie, or at the very least that I was never going to catch my connection in Rijeka when suddenly there it was. They packed us and our luggage in like sardines in a tin and set off rattling down the road to Rijeka. Despite some evidence of possible mechanical problems, we managed to make our way to Rijeka about 15 minutes before my next bus left. Never have I been so antsy in a ticket queue! Despite the line, I made my bus and soon was zooming down the highway past the rocky, otherworldly reaches of Pag to Zadar. Some hours later I would find myself once again in the Zadar bus station but this time meeting the last travelling partner of this trip: my mom.

ZADAR

My mom met me at the bus station from whence we made our way back to the guesthouse to drop luggage before heading out in search of food. We stopped by the sea organ and the Sun Salutation which alas seems to be somewhat in need of repair before making our way back into the tangle of streets to search for a restaurant. We didn’t make it far before hunger trumped any desire to shop around and we settled down in Konoba Stomorica in the pretty little hipster district where Kim Tomas and I had stayed less than a week before. We shared a plate of frittura, which was basically just all the sea could offer, battered and fried and served up with lemon and sauce, and a greek salad which featured the most intoxicating salty delicious cheese. We probably should have just gone home at that point, but that would have been far too sensible so instead we slipped into an elegant little cafe with cases upon cases of perfectly decadent desserts. Mom had the Zadar Cake which was a moist orange cake richly glazed with chocolate ganache while I dug my fork into am embarrassment of indulgence labelled the Profiterole cake. Yes, the topping was composed of a thorough tiling of cream puffs, the perfect finish to an already absurdly rich composition of cream and cake. I loved it.

The following day we woke up early in the pouring rain and set off for the ferry to Ugljan, the olive island. We’d been promised olive groves and fig trees and no amount of rain was going to stop us. Which is how we found ourselves on a winding country road in the intermittent rain on our way to an old Venetian fortress. We walked through olive groves passed pomegranate trees, and found some possible almond trees and a bizarre species of something that strongly resembled rambutan (they weren’t though, I investigated, obviously). At the fortress we found a radio tower, lovely views, and the typical Eastern Europe approach to health and safety, namely, none at all. I suspect that in Canada, on account of both the general dilapidation and the specific presence of electricity and radio equipment, there would have been no access.

As we headed back down towards the sea through the continuing drizzle, we encountered an adorable little cat who appeared rather lost and lonely. He followed us, jogging along underfoot no matter how quickly we tried to walk or how often he ended up colliding with our feet or nearly tripping us to the ground. Had either of us lived locally, that poor little fellow would have had a new home but sadly, airplanes don’t exactly allow stray cats with unknown histories on board. So, with heavy hearts, we broke into a jog and left the poor little mewling fellow behind.

About 15 minutes away from the ferry terminal, I finally decided to check the time and realized that we were about 5 minutes to far away to catch the midday ferry and so would need to kill about 4 more hours before we could get back to Zadar. We began our time killing with food. Mom had a lovely fish soup and a “beetroot salad” which was actually just sliced pickled beets on a plate while I had a black risotto and another entirely unremarkable macchiato. The food was good and the restaurant was pleasant enough but soon we were off again walking along the shoreline. We wandered past sleepy little coastal villages and tidy little harbours before turning around and heading back to the ferry just in time for the rain to get serious about its return.

We made it back into town just as rain turned into downpour and so quickly tucked ourselves into a cafe near the ferry dock. We paid the coffee tax for a dry place to sit as long as we could reasonably justify our presence. And then as the ferry neared its departure time, we slipped over to the bakery, grabbed a few treats and hopped aboard.

Back in Zadar the weather was even worse. There was, I believe, more water than air circulating around above Zadar that day and we had a twenty minute walk between us and our next dry port of call. Suffice to say we could have been wrung by the time we dripped back into the guesthouse. And so fully water-logged we hung around the room with me researching and mom resting until at about 10pm we suddenly realized that we’d neglected dinner entirely and so plodded back out into the wet to hunt sustenance. We ended up with two great big beautiful burgers from one of the fast food joints in the bus station. The restaurant itself would lead you to believe that your dinner would be dissatisfying, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The burgers were giant! The veggies in them were fresh and the meat? Well it was seasoned and cooked to perfection.

Some few hours later we were back at the bus station to catch the 10am bus. As is always the case with these things, the promised 6 hour bus ride was much closer to 8 as we rattled through Bosnia en route to that last lonely little strip of Croatian Dalmatia: Dubrovnik.

DUBROVNIK

Sadly, Dubrovnik met us in the rain. It was beginning to be obvious that summer was over and winter was well and truly on its way but we elected to remain undeterred and after a brief rest and a bit of time on TripAdvisor, set out for dinner at the highly reviewed Mimoza. It deserves those reviews. We were given complementary appetizers (cod pate for Mom, farmer’s cheese for me) and treated to the most spectacular service I’ve had in a long time. Mom’s calamari were also just heaven on a plate though my cheese and pear tortellini left somewhat to be desired in terms of both taste and texture—I suppose you can’t have everything. I did however finish the meal with the spectacular Dubrovnik Carob Cake which was richer that I care to think about and absolutely divine. It was layers of carob cake resting between clouds of meringue and indulgent dollops of thickened cream all dusted with chocolate flakes. Between that and the charm of our server, I forgave the entree easily.

The next morning began with far better weather. We did, in fact, experience several hours of blue sky, during which we strolled all around the old town, ate bureks, scarfed down cinnamon ice cream, climbed the walls, and visited the fortress next door. We also found wonderfully cheap mandarin oranges which would feed us intermittently for the entire duration of our stay in Dubrovnik. As the day wound towards evening we found that despite our ice-cream and our oranges, we hadn’t really had any substantial food since breakfast and we were hungry. So we headed off to find a restaurant that would provide us with the local specialty: olive oil soaked cheese and prosciutto. We both swear we spotted a place at some point that had a price tag that was about 20 kuna less than anyone else but we never did find it again. In fact we made several laps of the old town hunting for it and peering at all manner of menus finding each one, too expensive, not currently serving, or lacking our anticipated dish. Somehow we ended up in a rather scabby little guesthouse bar just off the main street. Mediocre would have been too strong a compliment for the place but it did get our respective blood sugars back up enough to carry us back towards the guesthouse. On the way we picked up a few pieces of bread and ended up eating our second snack masquerading as dinner sitting on a bench on the cliffs while watching the sun set over the sea.

Substantially later, we once again found ourselves starving. Reasonably convinced that no respectable restaurant would welcome us for dinner at 11pm we set out to find the little fast food joint that Kim and I had stumbled across when we were in Dubrovnik. Within half an hour we were filling our faces with giant, scrumptious burgers on a pair of stools overlooking the darkness that I think housed a sporting facility.

The next morning I woke up very much the worse for wear. Apparently I had begun to worry about my return to Canada and my charming brain had turned that niggling worry into a vast selection of impressively nasty nightmares. Such joy.

Shaking off the remainders of sleep, we set out to walk the seashore around Lapad. We spent a while on the sea level patio outside the cave bar before setting off past all the big hotels and eventually ending up on the rather more humble dirt trail towards Gruz harbour. Somewhere along the line my navigational challenges ended up with us back on the main road but we soon found our way back to the path via a windy little service road which sported a rather large but thankfully dead snake right in the middle of the way. I am happy to say that that was the only snake I saw in Croatia.

Once we found ourselves back in Gruz (the modern part of Dubrovnik near the harbour and the bus station) we decided to try to get out to the airport where there was meant to be a wine bar in a cave under the airport. We had a lovely drive along the Dubrovnik Riviera but alas when we reached the airport found that construction had rendered the cave inaccessible. So we caught the next bus back and just pretended that our primary goal had been to observe the quiet vacation towns and pretty red tiled roofs that line the riviera. We definitely hadn’t just ridden the bus out to the airport for no reason!

After our return and a short rest at the guesthouse we set out to have dinner at the wonderful Wanda which you may recall my raving about in a prior blog. It was equally excellent this time. We started with a plate of prosciutto, cheese, olives, and roasted red peppers which we followed up with a gorgeous salad featuring avocado and pine nuts and a salmon penne with vodka sauce. Ever bite was perfectly prepared and we were absolutely in heaven. It helped that the servers there are just the most charming old fellows. They do not perhaps speak the best English but their passion for pleasing is unparalleled.

Our final day in Dubrovnik we checked out of our guesthouse and headed into the old town. We began with cake and coffee for breakfast at Soul Cafe. The woman who runs it definitely doesn’t appear to be local. Based on her choice of retro styling and her accent, I’m guessing USA but I couldn’t be certain. The food and drinks were rather average but the atmosphere was nice and the music selection was far superior to most of the local radio stations we’d heard thus far with their muddle of 80s American music and local traditional tunes from heaven only knows when. As it began to get cold, we decided to go for a wander. We stopped by the Dubrovnik Cathedral and probably would have seen more but by then the rain had begun again so we took shelter in Cafe Festival which, though very pretty, is a mite overpriced.

When there was a moment of clear sky, we headed out, picked up some food from the grocery store and set off to catch the ferry to Split. We’d bought our tickets the day before but when we got to the pier there was no boat, nor anyone else waiting. I ran over to the ticket seller to see what was up and found that the boat had been stuck in Split under heavy seas and so wasn’t sailing that day. We had 15 minutes to get our tickets refunded and run to the bus station to catch the next bus—either that or end up on a bus that would get us into Split sometime near midnight. So we ran.

SPLIT

We caught the bus by the skin of our teeth and nearly five hours later were once again in the rain, but this time in Split. After a curious bit of waiting and then being lead through the rabbit warren of Diocletian’s Palace to a second location, we were let into a lovely little room overlooking the street. We ate a simple dinner and very soon crashed into bed only to be serenaded by the thunder of the newly arrive rainy season for most of the night.

The following day, I decided that I needed to bite the bullet and get a rather large imposing application finished so we settled down in Cafe Teak for two cups of thick, rich, Spanish chocolate and a bit of work. Mom stayed a while and then headed out for a walk while I committed myself to a few solid hours of research and writing.

Around 3 we met up again to sort out bussing for the following day’s trip to Plitvice Lakes. It was blessedly simple and so, in no time at all, we were strolling along Bacvice beach watching the wind and the waves. It was a lovely walk right up until the moment that the promenade disappeared beneath the froth and it was at that point that we carefully timed our exit and nipped away up the stairs to dryer territory.

Our dinner that night was in a little local grill near the beach. It was the cheapest food we ate in Croatia and I would venture to say that it was some of the best. I had pork stuffed with cheese, ham, and spicy peppers while Mom ate barbecued chicken skewers wrapped in bacon. I don’t imagine it was very good for us, but it was so tender and juicy and delicious, I am happy to suffer the consequences. And then, just because we’d clearly decided that our arteries didn’t need our love, we found our way to a bakery where we managed to end up with a cherry strudel, a layered rum cake, and a piece of baklava. The rum cake was gorgeous and the baklava was, well, baklava which is to say: perfection.

PLITVICE LAKES

Bright and early the next morning, we were on a bus to Plitvice Lakes armed with water, snacks, and energy. The ride took about 4.5 hours and left us at the park entrance under grey (but dry!) skies. We dropped our backpacks in luggage storage, bought our tickets, and headed for the trails. The trails started with a ferry ride past the first dock which was entirely under water, several boardwalks which strongly resembled waterslide flumes, and an impressive autumnal display from the surrounding forest. Once we got of the boat we set out for a speed hike of the medium length trail only to be quickly turned around by water where path ought to have been. The rest of the day was an amusing exercise in pursuing paths as far as possible and then turning around when the water decided to take possession of the path again. It rather stymied our attempts to hike, but honestly the high water was probably a blessing as it made the entire park—famous for its waterfalls and lakes—into a gushing, cascading tribute to the wet season. There were waterfalls where walkways should have been and lake where there once was lawn and all in all it was gorgeous. After touring most of the southern parts of the lakes including the “Big Waterfall” and a rather steep cave, we collected our things and caught a bus on to our guesthouse in the next town.

From the bus station to the guesthouse we had a curious bit of walking along a narrow shoulder next to speeding cars, but once we reached the house we were delighted. It was atop a hill and our bright, beautiful room had a balcony overlooking everything. After collecting some groceries, it was no suffering at all stop spend the evening munching bread and meat and drinking tea overlooking all the shades of green through russet that the Croatian mountain forest had on offer.

Our second day in Plitvice was spent mostly in a little open air cafe chatting and waiting for the bus. We did also stop by another restaurant to eat a surprisingly lovely ‘Slavonian’ pizza which was decked with meat and cheese and roasted red pepper paste. Once fed, however, we dutifully installed ourselves at the bus stop some 15 minutes before the bus was to appear. It did not appear. It, in fact, neglected to appear for a whole other hour and then finally came speeding into view with all manner of bluster and hurry.

ZAGREB

As we drove towards Zagreb, the narrow winding mountain roads lined with rushing streams gave way to straighter, wider highways flanked on either side by marshland where once were cornfields and villages. I guess the winter rains came early because absolutely everywhere there was nothing but water. Fortunately things were dryer up in Zagreb so we didn’t have to wade to reach our hotel, or to visit the charming Booksa cafe. It’s an interesting little place with a small library consuming one wall and a loft and the rest of the space spread with tables claimed by young alternative looking people spread out with all their books and technology evidently working away. As I understand it, it’s actually a club of sorts and people can buy a membership to be there and work without guilt even after your first cup of tea has long since disappeared. For random interlopers like ourselves however, there were delicious matcha lattes with ginger and honey and a short rest before we set off sight-seeing.

We adventured off through the old town where we found pretty old houses and churches and what we can only assume was some sort of celebrity wedding—there were giant tv cameras on cranes and very fancy cars. I hadn’t expected Zagreb to be a pretty city. Somehow I thought it would be dirty and old and soviet, but I guess Yugoslavian communism was really a different thing entirely. Zagreb is a lovely old city, perched on two hill tops and now flooding away like a train draped behind a blushing bride.

As it began to grow dark, we headed back towards our hotel and a humble little restaurant that reviews had suggested might be worth trying. We each had a very tasty set meal which began with soup and “cooked wine”—prepared by heating spiced wine with the milk steamer on the espresso machine—and ended with a bowl of lovely light fruit compote. It was our last supper in Croatia.

And then it was time to go. I was up at ungodly o’clock to head to the bus station. At the bakery I met last night’s partiers still seeking snacks and picked up my final burek before hopping onto the airport bus. By virtue of my well known airport neuroses I was 3 hours early for my flight which meant lots of bad coffee and wi-fi frustration once in the airport. But soon enough we were boarded and ready to go…or so we thought. First there was a wait while we loaded half a dozen late passengers, then there was talk of engine difficulty of some sort, and then, in a great show of competence and mechanical soundness, our plane found that it could not detach the stairs. So we waited on the runway and watched out the window at the scurrying staff and supervisors trying to figure out why on earth the stairs were stuck so fast. They never did tell us why but some 40 minutes late we did eventually leave the ground bound for Frankfurt.

In Frankfurt, I changed to the plane that would float us over the Atlantic with great hopes of sleep. Sleep was not forthcoming. Instead I read books, played majjhong, and stared down my very first customs form in over 2 years. I’d almost forgotten how! And then at last, it was time. The plane touched down in YVR and, for the first time in years, the Canadian was in Canada.

Back in the homeland,
The Canadian

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