This May Bulgarians were lucky enough to have 6 free days in a row – the official holidays Labour and St. George’s Day (1st and 6th, respectively) were close to the weekend. As usual, I had to make good use of these days, and what I did was travel to Croatia with my parents. My wife couldn’t come with us, but it wasn’t going to ruin my trip. We picked the offer of a travel agency called Gulliver Travel, which unfortunately didn’t include Dubrovnik, but there were still quite a few nice places to be visited, so it wouldn’t be a big loss. After all, Croatia’s pretty close – we can always go back for another trip later.
I have to say I went with relatively low expectations, and Croatia managed to exceed them. It is a Balkan country, with a language pretty close to our own, and their spirit, their mentality is very close to our own, too. But the Western influences, mostly from the time it was under Austrian rule, also show. The architecture and the way cities are built, the beautiful towns along the Adriatic coast, those are things that will be quite familiar to people who have gone to Austria or Italy.
All photographs in the article have been taken by me or my parents. Click on them to see them in bigger size.
THE CALM ZAGREB
After a tiring 12-hour bus trip from Sofia, we finally reached Zagreb. Our guide was a young lady named Vasilena Proynova, obviously a beginner in her profession, but showing some promise. She’d made her research about the places we needed to see, and guided us in a calm fashion. The group was rather large – some 40 people, much bigger than during the Japan trip. It wasn’t very easy to stay ahead of everyone, so the girl needed to constantly count and check whether someone was missing. Interestingly, as we stopped at a gas station in Croatia, I noticed an interesting article being sold – chips accompanied by an XXX video DVD… There was even a small slip with the available adult videos… Naturally, also a warning that no-one under 18 can buy those particular chips. Apparently, they also had those same chips with nature documentaries, etc. Soon enough, we were off the bus and spent the night at a neat hotel called Hotel I in the outskirts of Zagreb. On the next day, after a decent breakfast, we were guided to some of the most beautiful places in the city’s centre.
First, we saw the Ban Josip Jelačić monument, some 5-minute walk away from the little park where we got off the bus, at a square which seemed to be the “true” centre of Zagreb, most similar to what I was familiar with and had seen in Sofia, Belgrade, Varna, and even my hometown Dobrich. Afterwards, we reached a nice funicular that would take us to the Zagreb “upper town”, called Kaptol. Me and my parents decided to just walk up the stairs, as the distance wasn’t particularly big. And it was an excellent call! We went through a tunnel with graffiti all over, and passed by a small gate made completely from chains. We eventually reached a place with great view of the city, and took the chance to take several pictures before continuing on.
St. Mark’s Church with the wonderful crests on the roof was the next cool place we reached. Near it was the Zagreb Cathedral, and we went inside. Unlike us, Croatians are Roman Catholics, and the cathedral was different from the Orthodox ones, and closer to ones we’d seen in Italy. But we were delighted to see a whole wall with writing in the Glagolitic alphabet, created by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the two brothers who also created the Cyrillic that Bulgarians and Russians use. Apparently, it saw wide use in Croatia, where it was used until the 19th century (!) – in contrast to Bulgaria, where the Cyrillic replaced it soon after it was created. There were some beautiful stained glass windows, too. Leaving the cathedral, we bought some souvenirs on our way down and back to the bus. We headed to Plitvička Jezera – the Plitvichki lakes.
PLITVIČKA JEZERA – A NATURAL WONDER
After some more time on the bus, there we were, at the Plitvička Jezera park. Apparently, groups had to enter one by one, lest too many people gather in the park at the same time… We had to wait our turn for a while, and it also started raining… I was carrying my umbrella and wasn’t gonna let the bad weather ruin my mood. Right after we entered, we saw majestic waterfalls before us in the distance! They were the most beautiful waterfalls I’d seen. We quickly took some pictures, taking note also of the people walking far in the distance, much closer to the waterfalls, and then went on.
The lakes are actually connected to each other by small waterfalls, each lake on a higher level than the previous one. There was a wooden walkway all tourist walked on, and it was partially covered in water, at some spots even completely covered, forcing us to jump over. Soon enough we reached the spot we’d seen the people walk as we went in, and we went right under the biggest waterfall we’d initially seen. I took some pictures while being sprayed with water bouncing from the waterfall, the rain falling around me, too. It was magnificent! Despite the weather, it was a real pleasure to be at the base of this amazing natural wonder!
After walking a bit more, we reached the biggest lake, Kozjak. The group had split in several parts by then, and our guide had to run around to gather them back together. She did well and eventually we gathered near a very small quay, where we would take a boat that would take us on a pleasure cruise around the lake. There were souvenir shops around, so that people never had to feel bored while waiting for the boat. Some tourists from Hong Kong were waiting alongside us, and some women among them made quite some noise when a part of us tried to join with the rest, complaining we were breaking the queue. Nevertheless, we came to terms and then it turned out it was all pointless, as we got on the boat together… There was space for 100 people on it.
The cruise only lasted about 10 minutes, but we could relax and enjoy the wonderful scenery around the lakes. We also noticed another boat in the distance – it seems there are two sailing simultaneously on the huge lake. I made a video during our trip, capturing the natural beauty for people who couldn’t be with us to later see. We landed and it seems that was it for our visit of the Plitvichki Lakes – we’d be too late if we tried to see also the remaining 3 lakes that were on a higher level… I wasn’t happy about that at all, but I knew I’d have to take the wife to see this beauty, too, so I left it for then. After a pleasant walk through the woods, we were back to our bus and left for the next place we’d stay – Opatija on the Adriatic coast.
THE BEAUTIFUL ADRIATIC COAST
We were delighted to catch glimpses of the sea already while on the bus. Opatija is a resort town, and there’s not all that much of note in terms of historical monuments or sights, aside from some villas with nice architecture. There is, however, a nice beach, and many hotels – and we were lucky enough to stay in one of the best ones there – Grand Hotel Adriatic. We had a nice view of the sea, the dinner was of the buffet variety, and the meal selection was excellent! We got stuffed with mostly tasty food and that was more or less it for the night. On the next day, we would travel to two of the most beautiful Adriatic towns nearby – Pula and Rovinj.
We left in the early morning, and this time we didn’t have to travel too far – just an hour and a half or so. We reached Pula and, after a couple minutes’ walk, we saw its most famous sight – an old amphitheatre from Roman times. It was pretty big and I’d even say it was like a mini-version of Rome’s Colosseum. We marvelled at its majesty, and naturally, took some photos. Afterwards, we headed to the town centre, and we saw several Roman arches along the way. The central square was quite nice, and it had another amazingly well-preserved Roman structure – the Temple of Augustus. It was truly marvellous, and the children playing in front of it completed a nice scene combining the distant past and the future. On our way back to the bus, we passed by the yacht harbour with numerous yachts docked there.
Then, we were off to Rovinj – the other Adriatic gem we were to see that day. As we entered the town, we noticed several sailboats and a green island some distance into the sea. The close relations with Venice showed even more than in Pula – lots of signs were in Italian, it was almost like we were in Italy! The architecture and the small lanes we often encountered strengthened that impression further. There were beautiful little cafés in the centre, people enjoying the rather cool and even rainy at times day. Of course, there were also little souvenir shops all around… Mostly in good style, and adding to the small-town atmosphere.
We climbed up a hill through such small lanes that I mentioned earlier, and reached a beautiful, big church. We took some pictures and then went back down to the sea coast, encountering many seagulls and looking at some beautiful yachts. On the way, we went in a little shop and chatted with the owner in Bulgarian-Croatian. We were mostly able to understand each other, and she recommended some nice rakias that we bought to bring to friends and relatives in Bulgaria. It was really a nice feeling to be able to speak with her – despite our languages being quite different in the big picture, the root was the same, they were close enough to exchange some simple phrases.
Finally, we were back in Opatija and decided to finally take a walk in the town we were residing in, too. There were some nice villas with palm trees in front, the sea was relatively calm and we took a few minutes to enjoy the views in the distance. Near Opatija’s centre, we found a neat little walk of fame with stars for such famous Croatians as Blanka Vlašić, the high jump athlete, the basketball player Dražen Petrović, and even the genius physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla. Back in the hotel, after a glorious final dinner in Opatija (I tried every dessert available ), we went to sleep before the final full day we’d spend in Croatia…
WONDERS OF POSTOJNSKA JAMA
On the next day, after a nice breakfast, we set off for Slovenia, where we’d explore the huge Postojna cave – or Postojnska Jama. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the difference really started showing once we crossed the border. Slovenia is by far the richest country on the Balkan peninsula, and the roads, buildings and the environment as a whole were visibly better. We were in a mountainous region, and it was quite pretty. Soon enough, we reached the cave itself. Around it, there were restaurants and shopping sites. We bought some beautiful gemstones, I picked a really nice turquoise for the wife. And then, we headed to the huge cave entrance.
There were plenty of people alongside us, the whole group that would enter was probably over 100 people. We were led to the open cave train and took our places on it. Our ride began shortly, and we passed through some beautiful spots, marvelling at the stalagmites and stalactites around us. Occasionally, water would drop on our necks from the stalactites above – not the most pleasant sensation, but one that enhanced the feeling of the nature at play in this vast cave. It was relatively cold inside, and we’d taken measures and brought our jackets with us.
After a long ride lasting some 10 minutes, which I filmed with my camera, we were off and separated into groups, depending on the language we wanted to listen to the tour guide in. We’d decided to join the group with the guide speaking in Russian, but it turned out there had been a mistake and there was no Russian-speaking guide at that time… Despite my attempts to convince my parents that I could translate from English for them and they’d understand that way, they insisted we went with the Slovenian-speaking guide. Unlike Croatian, the Slovenian language only had loose similarity to our own, so we couldn’t understand much at all. It was much closer to Czech or Slovakian than to Bulgarian. So we were mostly on our own…
We saw some beautiful things in the cave – I was most impressed with the curtain-like formations at different spots inside, as well as the spaghetti-like ones at one particular place. The curtain ones were just like real curtains – almost transparent! It’s amazing what beautiful creations nature could accomplish, given enough time. Soon enough, we took the train back to the entrance/exit, not before marvelling at a beautiful underground river and waterfall. And, near the souvenir shop before the exit, we saw another miracle of the cave – the mysterious, unique creature called “človeška ribica” in Slovenian – or human fish, due to the human-like colour of its skin. Its Western name is proteus, and it’s an entirely aquatic amphibian, living only in caves in the region. There was one in an aquarium near the shop, and, after much observation, we managed to locate the creature inside…
BACK IN ZAGREB
With that, our journey was truly coming to an end… We headed back to Zagreb, where we would have a few hours for walks before spending the night and heading back to Bulgaria in the morning. It was an inconvenience that our hotel was in the outskirts of the city… So we only got like 2 hours to ourselves, before we’d all need to be back on the bus and head to the hotel together. We tried to make good use of our time and saw some churches, the beautiful building of the national theatre, and even a big monument of Nikola Tesla that I couldn’t miss the chance to take a picture next to.
After a final walk through the centre, we headed back to the hotel, and decided to use the daylight as well as we could, taking a walk near it. It was close to the big Arena Zagreb stadium, and there was also a shopping mall in the vicinity. We browsed it quickly and then went back to the hotel, drinking a beer in the lobby to enjoy our final night in Croatia for the time being. After a good night’s sleep and a quick breakfast, we were on our way to home, sweet home…
Croatia is a nice country, definitely worth visiting. The Balkan spirit is still there, albeit to a lesser extent than in Bulgaria or Serbia, but the Western influence starts showing. Croatians are Catholics, the Adriatic coast has a big Italian influence, and the centuries-long Austrian rule has left its mark on the architecture. But the languages are still close, and the people don’t look much differently than us. On that note, I was surprised I’d seen so few pretty Croatian girls in the beginning – Serbians were definitely beating them in that aspect. In the last 1-2 days, that changed to an extent, but I’d still give the overall edge to Serbians.
The places we saw were far from everything Croatia has to offer. Next time, I’ll make sure to see Split and Dubrovnik – while repeating for sure the visit to the Plitvichki lakes, whose natural beauty I believe my wife would greatly enjoy. The Adriatic coast didn’t seem to have any nice sandy beaches, which doesn’t make it too attractive for quality summer beach time.
All in all, it was a fun trip to take with my parents – not too far from home, and convenient enough so they were never too tired. There were the inevitable restrictions of the guided tour, and next time I’ll definitely organise it myself, but they just feel more confident when it’s done by professionals. Visiting Croatia was a memorable experience.