Extreme Croatia

When I first learned that I would be living in Germany for a year, I immediately began my making of lists. Lists of what to pack, where to go, what to buy, etc. etc. Point is, I made a lot of lists. On my where to go list, I only had a couple of definites: Croatia and Edinburgh. As you have seen, I did make it to Edinburgh, and it more than exceeded my expectations. Up until March, I didn’t think I was going to end up making it to Croatia, but my friend Jordan and I found a last-minute cheap plane ticket, and the date was set for April 6 – 9.

The first thing I’ve been asked about Croatia is, did you make it to Dubrovnik? No, I did not. The main reason for my Croatian dream was Plitvice Lakes National Park. It is a g-o-r-g-e-o-u-s, gorgeous, gorgeous park located inland and it is filled with clear lakes, wooden plank walkways, flowers, waterfalls… it is truly one of the most beautiful settings I have ever been in. When we were there, it wasn’t as green as we wished…the trees had not completely grown back yet, but the water was still my favorite shade of aquamarine and the weather was long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans type of weather: perfect for hiking. We spent a day, night, then another half-day exploring these sights. The Plitivice Lakes is the #1 rated spot to visit by Croatians. Dubrovnik doesn’t even make the top 10, which surprised me.

The first picture/view of the hike.

The beginning...

Some smaller waterfalls and lakes below...

absolutely adore these walkways.

The "big" waterfall and some of the lakes below… our starting point of day 2.

Love.

After visiting the lakes, we drove our fire red rental car through the mountains of Croatia into Split, which is located on the coast. It was raining when we arrived, so we checked into our hostel, found some food, then hung out in our hostel for a while. We were tired from hiking and driving, so we decided to relax for the night and hope that it was sunny explore-the-beach-type weather the next day. Staying in at the hostel turned out to be a grand idea, because we met some amazing people. Almost everyone at the hostel was from an english-speaking country: Ireland, Wales, England, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, the USA. We all sat around and played games, then went out to explore the town a bit. I found that Croatians in their 20’s are very hostile towards tourists. They did not like us joining them in their local haunts, but that’s OK. I learned how to do the Irish Jig from my new Irish friend a group of us ended up making it to the beach that night on the walk back to our hostel. I wish I would have had my camera…the Adriatic Coast at night is definitely a sight to see.

The beautiful coast in Split.

Jordan admiring the view…can't get enough.

Thinking about how lucky I am and wishing it was warm enough to swim.

Loved this sweet, colorful dock… there was a little boy fishing off the end of it.

In the morning, we got our wish: it was sunny, explore-the-beach weather…although the temperature was not warm enough for bathing suits. Jordan and I explored to the beach, looked around a bit, then hopped back in our rental car to drive to Zadar, where we would be flying out of the next day. I do have to say that we did not get to see much of Zadar while we were there, and the weather was rainy and cold, but it was nevertheless a very clean, white, charming city, even despite the rain (or maybe in spite of?). Because we did not get to spend much time in Zadar and I loved what I saw, I want to visit again someday. It is on the coast as well, and our hotel was close to the harbor, where the old town is also located. We walked around in the rain a bit to find some dinner, and while it was pretty deserted (being Easter Sunday), I could just imagine it with people bustling around the streets with shopping bags and drinking coffees outside of the many cafés.

(Unfortunately, there are not any pictures of Zadar due to the fact that we were terribly tired, cold, and therefore, regrettably lazy.)

The coast of Croatia really reminded me of how I picture Greece to be…when we were driving inland around Plitvice Lakes, however, it reminded me a lot of when I was in Switzerland or Austria. From one extreme to the other. I think that accurately describes Croatia…it is a country of extremes. The extremely breathtaking views and aquamarine water, the cliffs…it is truly a country worth visiting, and in my experience, I think the less-tourist-packed cities like Zadar and Split were great choices rather than Zagreb and Dubrovnik. One day, I would like to make it back to those, but I think the vast amount of my time will be spent in the Plitvice Lakes, Zadar, and the surrounding islands.

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La Bella España: Andalucia

It would be a hard task to find anything bad to say about Spain. It is different than any country I’ve been to so far, having its distinctive Spanish flair. I traveled to Spain with my friend, Alita, who is also an au-pair here in Germany, and comes from the Andalucia region of Spain, which is where we spent our travels. I feel extremely lucky to have had the benefit of a local tour-guide; this way I received the true Spanish experience.

Here is a slideshow of my travels:

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We landed in Málaga, where her parents picked us up from the airport. Our plans were to have lunch with some friends of her parents before Alita and I drove to Granada that afternoon. Riding through the streets of Málaga, I was reminded of San Diego, and I realized how much California really has a Spanish and Latin American influence. The weather was perfect: sunny, in the 70’s. The sky was a beautiful blue and there were Palmetto Trees everywhere. Oh, how I have missed the Ocean. It was a gorgeous sight to behold again. We arrived at the friends of her parents and walked to a nearby restaurant to eat a lunch of fish, calamari, salad, fries, and, of course, red wine. A Spaniard never forgets their red wine (number one reason I love Spain).

We stayed with the family for a bit, so that Alita could see her parents and catch up. More family arrived and my brain tried desperately to recognize at least some spanish words so I would have some sort of idea what was going on. Mostly I just gazed around at my surroundings and tried to memorize everything. As I just started learning spanish about a week before, keeping up with native spanish speakers wasn’t really possible. My knowledge goes about as far as “How are you?”, “I’m good”, “Me, too”, “I would like a coffee with milk”, “I would like a tinto de verano”, “Where is the bathroom/train station/etc”, “What time is it?”, “Goodbye”, and “See you later”. So, I can pretty much speak the same amount of spanish as any 5-year-old American child.

When we arrived in Granada later that evening and made way to our hotel, I was again beguiled by Spain. Granada was explored with many tapas bars, shopping (of course), and visiting la Alhambra. Granada really is a gorgeous city and I would love to visit again one day when I have more time to explore. Nevertheless, we saw enough for me to realize again that I love Spain and I love the people that live there.

It just happened that while we were in Granada, one of the biggest protests in Spanish history was happening because of a new labor law. March 29th was the day and it so happened that Alita’s mom had already purchased tickets for us about 2 months previously to visit la Alhambra. By the actual day, the whole city of Granada and cities all over Spain were preparing for this day of protest, and with the city not knowing exactly what to expect, they decided to close la Alhambra for the FIRST TIME in its history. Our tickets were unusable, and after standing in line for 2 hours while making new friends (being upset over a common problem really bonds strangers together), we found out that we could either not see la Alhambra at all or come back at 6 am the next morning to stand in line until the ticket office opened at 8 and hope that we got tickets. I asked Alita if it was worth it; she assured me that it was, and so our plans were laid to get up at 5 am the next morning in order to make sure we were in line by 6. We crossed all of our crossable digits and limbs while standing in line for 2 hours, and again bonded with the other grumpy, cold, and hungry people in line. The hoping and crossing must have worked because we got tickets and I do have to say that it was definitely worth it. And this is coming from a person that will do almost anything to avoid getting up early.

While standing in line, we met an adorable spanish couple, Daniel and Victoria, and walked around with them the whole time. La Alhambra is really a place I recommend seeing. Spanish people flock there every year to see and learn about this very important part of Spanish history. It is a fortress and palace complex that was built in the mid-1300’s when the Moorish ruled spain. It contains 2 palaces: one which was inhabited during a majority of the year, and the other palace being the summer residence. They are maybe about 500 yards from each other, so I’m really not sure why they needed both, but who am I to judge how many palaces a person needs? The palaces are filled with arabic script and tiles, the walls and ceilings in some parts being so ornate that it is incredible they were ever finished. Besides the palaces, the gardens of la Alhambra are almost just as famous. Some people come to see only the gardens alone, they are so gorgeous, being filled with fountains, water, and flowers. Everywhere you go in la Alhambra, you can hear the running of water. It’s almost magical. While there, I bought a book by Washington Irving called The Tales of La Alhambra, written while he lived there for a period. It contains descriptions and stories of the workers and villagers, and it is a very interesting read that takes you back to another time.

Something that the whole world should know about are tapas bars. Sure, we have them in the states…or we have restaurants posing as tapas bars. Now I know that they are all a bunch of liars. A true tapas bar works like this: you buy a drink for usually about 2 euros (wine, liquor, coke, whatever) and then they bring you out appetizer-size portions of food…for free! It’s included with your drink! How amazing is that? Tapas bars in the states usually end up being more expensive than an actual restaurant and you don’t get as much food. But these places are genius… I always got plenty to eat and only paid about 6 euros for everything! I really do not understand how they make money, but from the amount of tapas bars and the fact that they are always crowded, I am guessing making money is not an issue.

Because we had to wait and visit la Alhambra on Friday, we left later than planned to go to Sevilla. I was really excited about Sevilla because I’ve read and heard amazing things about it. Once again, I fell in love. It was just as beautiful as Granada. We didn’t have a lot of time there – maybe about 24 hours in total, but we made sure it counted. Alita and I stayed with a couple of her friends: Julio and Mariano. When we got there, they cooked us a delicious dinner and we drank some tinto de verano (traditional spanish drink of half red wine/half lemonade) while eating. They then decided that I needed to experience a true flamenco bar, so we hunted one down and had a great, late time. The next morning, they took me to a traditional breakfast of churros and chocolate sauce and showed me around Sevilla before Alita and I sadly drove away to her hometown of San Fernando/Cádiz.

The rest of our trip was to be spent in San Fernando and Cádiz, where we stayed with her parents and visited with her friends. Cádiz is also an enchanting city. It is one of  the most southern points in Spain and sits on the coast. It fits right in with Granada and Sevilla as a beautiful Andalucian city. Our time there consisted of a lot of sight-seeing, coffee drinking, and eating, eating…then more eating. Alita’s parents were wonderful, making sure I learned all about Cádiz, San Fernando, and the Spanish life in general. I really can’t thank them enough for all that they did. They took me to fabulous restaurants, tours around San Fernando & Cádiz, explaining the history, and her mom even made me a homemade tortilla (spanish omelet) for me to take with me and eat on the plane. The traditional food in the area consists mostly of seafood…I ate one of the best meals of my life in Cádiz, which included salmorejo (basically a tomato gazpacho), baby squids in ink with rice, rock fish paté, camaron (baby shrimp that grow up in salt-water pools) fritters, grouper stuffed with shrimp…all washed down with a spanish red wine. Can life get much better?

Because it was Easter week and Spain is very catholic, there were a lot of different festivities going on. This included “parades” (don’t know of a better word for it?) with passos, which are basically floats (again, can’t think of a better word), but carried by people, that depict different scenes from the Bible. These happened 3 times every day (I believe) and we went a few nights to watch them. The streets would fill up with people, making it almost impossible to move, and music would be played as the “floats” passed.

I’m not sure if I can pick a favorite out of these cities. I would have to say that the Andalucia region is definitely my top choice right now to come back to and teach English out of all of Europe. I would say Edinburgh is my top choice, but as they already speak english there, they don’t do the program I would enter into. So now I am trying to decide between Sevilla and Granada…I would be lucky to live in either.