On Sunday June 21st, we had a free day and no class. I slept until 12:30 pm and it was absolutely heavenly – probably the only good night’s sleep during this trip.
Because one of my classmates, Ben, is deaf, there are two interpreters abroad with us: Bill and Alisa. Alisa has stayed in Zagreb before for similar programs so she knows her way around the city. Ryan, Sam, and I accompanied her and Bill in the afternoon to a hidden little pizza place off the beaten path.
After, we went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibits were extremely well done and some were quite powerful. In the mask exhibit, each podium contained a real person’s face and story of physical abuse. The victims escaped their abusers and now live a specific homeless shelter with a necessary support system.
Exiting the museum was an experience. There was a slide from the third floor to the ground floor :)
For dinner, we went to a local Croatian restaurant for shish kabobs. We stumbled across a dessert place after called The Cookie Factory that just sells warm baked goods with ice cream. Popular music blasted while crowds of people entered and exited. I’ve personally never seen anything like this in the States.
That night we tried to find a casino, but because it was a Sunday no places were open. Walking around Zagreb at night was beautiful though and getting to look at everything from a different perspective was well worth the walk.
Thursday and Friday night I stayed in a hostel in Fuzine. The hostel was actually really nice; we had a couple rooms to ourselves and the Wi-Fi was decent. Breakfast and dinner was free and prepared by the owners. The actual village of Fuzine is very small and quite simply in the middle of nowhere, however, tourists and backpackers mostly still come here to explore the caves and hiking trails.
Early Friday morning we set out to visit Cave Vrelo. Made by water alone, the cave is around 3 to 4 million years old. There are no natural outside entrances so few were constructed to let out the rain water which fills the caves halfway during the winter/spring. Some sections of the cave were extremely small and slippery, forcing us to crouch down and almost crawl to get through. Our guide was really friendly and let us turn out all of the cave lights for 30 seconds to see how dark the cave naturally is: pitch black and void of any light whatsoever.
We then went to the village of Kamacnik where we walked around an old Yugoslavian military base in the middle of the forest. This forest is the only forest in Europe gaining biomass while still being used by humans. After a quick look at the base, we took a nice hike through the forest, finding a pretty large salamander at one point.
Near the end of our hike, the weather took a turn and it started to pour. We took refuge in a nearby restaurant which had an amazing view and strudel with blueberries straight from the forest.
Saturday, we started our day off with another hike. The hike, oddly enough, began on train tracks and transitioned into a forest. The steep incline during this hike was incredibly difficult, requiring an extreme amount of focus and balance. Our halfway point was the third ever hydroelectricity power plant station in the world which is actually still functional today.
Post hike we hopped back on the bus for our final destination of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Zagreb mixes the old with the new, creating an eclectic historical vibe while still being a modern city. Here there is a RIT campus where I’ll be going to class for the remainder of the trip. Our hotel is extremely close to the city center where shops and restaurants line the streets.
We arrived in Zagreb in the afternoon allowing us to walk around for a bit and grab an espresso at this cute little coffee shop. Dinner was at California Burrito because at that point we were really sick of traditional Croatian food – you can only have so many meat dishes and pizzas.
Wednesday we spent the full day touring/hiking through the Plitvice Lakes National Park. This park takes the gold in my book for the most beautiful place in the world. From the clear turquoise waters to the rushing waterfalls, I was in complete awe the whole day. On Thursday, we went back to walk around on our own. Brooke and Allie got lost in the park which was pretty funny because we called it from the beginning (they had their phones and were found quickly, don’t worry haha).
It was so difficult picking out my favorite pictures for this post although the pictures don’t even do the park justice. Also, I knew I wanted this post to be mostly pictures – no words are really necessary.
On Tuesday we went to a cheese factory so the next day we saw the traditional way to make cheese at a local family’s house. This family has been in the cheese business for generations and still uses a tree branch to stir the cheese early in production. The production rooms are very small and it took some effort fitting the whole group into the space.
Next, we drove to Smiljan which is Nikola Tesla’s birthplace and hometown. The village is practically in the middle of nowhere; the only attraction is the Nikola Tesla Museum. If you don’t know who Nikola Tesla is, he was a famous physicist and engineer who most notably invented the alternating current electricity supply system. The main museum is in a reconstruction of his house (the white building in the statue photo) and I was fairly impressed with the overall layout and interactivity.
For lunch, we ate pork on a stick which is a local favorite. It was absolutely revolting: super cold, fatty, and salty. Apparently, Stasa fed this to us on purpose to teach us a lesson that us Americans are spoiled. To be honest, that kind of rubbed me the wrong way.
We drove to our next hotel in the Plitvice Lakes National Park area. This was the night that I noticed bite marks all over my body that itched terribly. I showed Stasa and he said they were a combination of mosquito bites and bed bugs from our hotel in Pag. The pictures below show the mess that was and still is my elbow and arm.
All of us ending up going to bed pretty early because we had to wake up for another long hike the next day.
Monday morning we went to the Luna olive groves. Our tour guide told us that each olive tree in the groves grow with slightly different genetics than the others. A lot of genetic research is done here due to this unique situation. We also learned about the whole growing process. It takes years for an olive tree to produce its first harvest. The baby olive trees look more like prickly bushes to ward off hungry sheep.
Last year, there was a devastating amount of rain in Croatia; only 2% of the olives could be harvested. Therefore, I wasn’t able to buy any olive oil :(
Next stop was the Gilgora dairy factory. We had to put on hair nets, thin lab coats, and shoe coverings for sanitary purposes while looking super hot in the process. The factory has many production rooms and a cheese ageing room.
Their most famous cheese is the Paski Sir from sheep’s milk. At the world cheese festival in Wisconsin (yes, this actually exists haha), this cheese has taken home the prize for world’s best cheese a couple years in a row. We were given samples and the cheese was really good; I can understand why it won so many awards.
For lunch, a couple of us went to a place called McDarko’s. The restaurant was obviously breaking so many copyright and trademark laws, but it was really funny and clever. McDarko’s had only slight variations in the logo and menu. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries that tasted pretty decent. Of course, because we are in Croatia and the locals love their alcohol, the restaurant had a bar right in the center.
Rob, Ryan, and I walked around the city after lunch in search of some olive oil, but we came up with nothing. Ryan and I then decided to swim and chill on the beach.
A couple people decided to go to the party beach again that night but I ended up staying in. I was really tired and didn’t feel like going out again.
After breakfast, we all loaded our luggage back on the bus and drove to our next destination of Pag. 85% of the island is barren rock void of vegetation due to the strong salty winds. Pag is known for its salt, cheese, lace, and most recently its party beaches.
We went to the salt museum first and learned all about Pag’s salt pans and the history behind them. The museum itself was actually very interesting; it was built in an old salt factory with piles of salt all over the place.
Next was the Pag lace museum. Croatian women have produced this traditional lace for centuries. The time and intricate detail put into the lace make pieces extremely expensive. The second picture shows lace worth 5,250 kuna which is a little more than 800 dollars.
After a tour of the city, we arrived at our hotel. The Wi-Fi there was the worst yet and the reason why these blogs are days behind. What made up for the practically non-existent Wi-Fi and no AC was the distance away from the beach. These pictures are a taken a minute’s walk away from my hotel room.
Later on, some of us went out to the main party beach. Ryan, Sam, and I walked there so we didn’t have to pay for a cab. When we arrived, there was barely anyone there. Apparently we were in Pag at the wrong time of the season. We ended up making friends with a group of Austrians who we hung out with for the rest of the night.
The actual area was really cool. Outdoor clubs with neon lights lined the beach. The bars were selling one liter drinks for 100 kuna (about $15). I ordered a Sex on the Beach which tasted amazing.
On Saturday, we woke up at 7:00 am to go to National Park Paklenica. We made a short stop at a place called the graveyard of souls. The village elders believed that souls deserved more respect and remembrance than physical bodies after death. They would measure the height of the deceased then line up rocks in the same measurement. Lastly, a headstone and footstone were placed on opposite ends.
Our hike was originally supposed to last about 4 hours but the bus decided to break down halfway to the starting point. We had to walk uphill on asphalt with the sun beating down on us. All of us were exhausted and sweaty before the long hike even started.
The actual hike was long and difficult but actually pretty fun. I had to climb over huge rocks both uphill and downhill while trying not to fall down the mountain – there was no defined trail. The mountain we hiked up is called Mt. St. Jure which is 1,728 m above sea level. Dense forests contrasted with the barren rocky landscape as we hiked up the 10 kilometers.
When we arrived at the top, lunch was being prepared for us at a small family’s house tucked away from civilization. They cooked veal and lamb under two metal bells with charcoal over the top. The whole meal tasted amazing.
After eating, we were given time to digest before the trek down the mountain. Chris and I spotted two kittens hiding in a hole on the side of the house. While we were trying to coax them out, a little girl who lived there named Lily straight up grabbed and dragged one out of the hole. She was 4 years old so she didn’t really understand the concept that the kittens were not toys. The picture below shows her manhandling the poor thing. Lily was really cute; she only spoke German so we had no idea what she was saying. She would only let the girls hold the kitten which was hilarious.
The hike back down was definitely easier even though it was longer: about 12 kilometers. There were defined trails for the first half then slippery steep rocks for the second half. In total, the hike lasted about 7 hours. Needless to say, when we got back to the hotel we were exhausted. We ate dinner by the water then went to bed.
After breakfast in Split, we were on the road again to Krka River National Park. This park is famous for its beautiful waterfalls and plant life. There are many different hiking trails and places to swim. We had time to walk these trails and just soak in the natural beauty of the park.
There was only an hour or two before our boat departed for our next destination: the Monastery Island of Visovac. Only a section of the island is open to the public; the monks forbid anyone from entering the monastery. We were only allowed to tour the church and gardens. Roosters, peacocks, and many other animals roam the lush gardens uninhibited. Technically, we weren’t supposed to take any pictures but I managed to sneak a few.
The monks also happen to make grappa, which is an extremely strong Croatian fruit liquor. Stasa hyped up the grappa before we went to the island so we all ended up buying a bottle or two there. It actually tasted pretty good – like rich plums.
After the tour of the island, we took the boat back to our bus then drove to Starigrad Paklenica where we would stay for two nights. Our hotel was right by the beach and I could see the water from my hotel room.
Dinner at the hotel was an experience. Our waiter was extremely rude – even more so than the Croatian standard. When Allie, Brooke, Ryan, and I asked for tap water, he said they didn’t have any even though there was a jug on the table next to us. Pissed off and confused, we didn’t order any drinks in protest. Minutes later he placed a jug on our table quickly and didn’t say a word to us. We know it wasn’t a language barrier because he spoke excellent English; he was just another example of shitty Croatian service.
We all went to bed pretty early after dinner because the next day we would have to wake up around 7:00 am for a day long hike.
On Thursday, we left Makarska to go to the city of Split. Our professors arranged for a tour guide so we learned a lot about Split and the walls surrounding the center. Right by the entrance to the walls is a mini metal model of the whole city. This gives you a better idea of the size of the walls around Split.
The tour guide led us through the old substructure of Diocletian’s palace/grounds. The substructure itself was covered in moss because of the humidity down there. Apparently, Game of Thrones has many scenes shot in Split. Specifically, the last picture below is where the dragons were kept (sorry that’s all I remember haha). The actual history behind this room is quite unique. Rich Romans who lived above the substructure didn’t have any place to put their waste so they drilled holes in their floors to use the substructure as their bathroom/garbage dump. The whole area ended up being filled to the top with literal shit. Major restoration and cleaning had to be done to get that area open to the public.
The whole city of Split is beautiful and very European-looking. Next to Dubrovnik, Split is the second most popular tourist destination in Croatia. Locals maximize this with their many shops and street performers.
For lunch, our professors ordered us fresh fish – with its eyeballs intact and everything. I was a little freaked out, I must admit, but I did eat some of it.
After the tour, we arrived at our hotel. For some reason, they messed up my rooming situation so I was given a single room! Because I was exhausted from the night before, I slept until 9 pm. For dinner, I ventured into the city to grab a burger from a street vendor.
June 10th we spent the day in Biokovo National Park. At the entrance, we spotted two wild horses grazing on grass near the road. One of the horses decided to stand right in the middle of the road in front of a car so we had to lead it away. The horses were very friendly and let us handle them.
Driving through the park, we stopped at a bunch of different areas admiring the plant life and views.
The bus took us up to a certain point on Mt. St. Jure before we had to get off and walk. To get to the very top we had to climb incredibly steep boulders without a harness. There was only a guiding rope to grab onto in case you fell. I had so much fun doing this because the climb was such an adrenaline rush. If you fell, you would definitely feel it.
Views at the top were stunning; however, this time of year is mating season for local bugs and they were all over the top of the mountain. This was a real test for me – four to five bugs were crawling on me at a time. Mike liked picking up the bugs and holding them (ew.) so I took a cool close-up which I added below.
Walking back down the mountain and to lunch we saw more amazing views and a suprising amount of Croatian war damage in the the asphalt and the guardrails.
Lunch we ate at a local family’s house in the middle of the national park. They cooked a really nice meal consisting of pork and potatoes for us. I was starving after walking for a good amount of time.
At night after we got back to the hotel, we decided to go to a nightclub called Deep. The nightclub itself was in a cave right by the water with a strip of lights running across the entire top of the cave. After a couple hours there around 2:30 am, Ben and I decided to leave because we had to get up early the next morning.