Croatia in three parts: 3

My time in Croatia was coming to a close, and even though I was ready to see Emily again, I wasn’t quite ready to leave this secret paradise I had found. We woke up early our last morning and walked to the bus waiting at the end of the quay. The six of us, me and my five roommates, sat in three rows of two. I sat with Grace and we talked as the bus wound its way up into the mountains. We were going to Krka National Park.

Our Bus2Alps guide, Tiernan, said it was her favorite place in the world, which is pretty high praise from someone who has travelled all over Europe, so I knew it had to be good. Driving up to the entrance almost felt like the national parks at home–a lodge with shuttle buses, some cabins along the road, and a grassy landscape with the occasional tree (I guess that’s like Zion or the Grand Canyon). The bus went down a really windy road into a deep glacially created canyon with an ultramarine river flowing through it.

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We took a winding road down to the parking lot, where the trail started.  We walked through a beautiful forest filled with the sound of water.  We had to walk over boardwalks that crossed streams and waterfalls.  The water was always a deep blue-green.  We passed through places that seemed like they were part of a completely different forest.

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The whole time I thought that Krka was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been.  I had yet to see the grand finale.

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I basically sat in the grass and looked at the waterfalls for the next two hours.  It was cool out, but it was warm in the sun.  Some people were swimming, while others ate at the little restaurant nearby (I was out of kuna, the currency in Croatia).  On the way back up to the bus, we walked past more waterfalls rushing towards Skradinski Buk, the main waterfalls.  I sat next to Grace, and we talked for a while about our lives until we eventually fell asleep.  I woke up in time to see the sunset while we were driving through Slovenia, back to Firenze.

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Croatia in three parts: 2

Day two in Croatia, we woke up and went down to breakfast at the restaurant beneath the hostel, called De Belly. There were eggs and half-toasted bread with strawberry jam (that’s like a thing in Europe, half-toasted bread. You get used to it.). After breakfast we went back upstairs and got ready to go to Brac, an island off the coast of Split. We all trailed down to one of the piers and got into a boat that had a lower deck with wooden tables and an upper deck with benches. There were so many of us that we pretty much filled both decks. As we left the harbor people were laughing and screaming but I mostly watched the sailboats out on the water. I met another girl who joined our group, Arin, and we talked about school and the places we wanted to travel to.

Split and mainland Croatia as our boat was leaving the harbor:

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They served us lunch on the boat–spaghetti for me, but everyone else got a fish. Just a whole fish. It was kind of freaky.

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There was also an unlabeled bottle of mysteriously strong wine.  I tried some and felt like my throat and mouth and chest were on fire.  It was the kind of stuff that doesn’t even hit your stomach, it goes straight to your brain.  Everyone else was pretty wary of it, so we avoided the bottle altogether and just drank water.

We stopped in a little town on Brac called Postira.  When people saw our boat come into the harbor, they set up impromptu gift shops and postcard stands.  There were men playing cards and smoking outside a pub and a black dog running around by the water.  The buildings were either whitewashed or stone with red roofs, and there was a sweet little church that I wanted to go into.  Unfortunately we had limited time in Postira, so I bought a floaty for when we went swimming and a postcard, then went to the supermarket with Grace and got a huge bottle of iced tea and some plums.

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We got back on the boat and went around the island to another cove, and the water was amazingly clear.  I don’t know how deep it was, but I could see the sea-grass and rocks passing beneath us.  We docked in a tiny harbor, and people jumped off the top deck of the boat into the water.  Then they swam under or around the boat to reach the stone stairs that went up to land.

While walking to the beach with Grace, I blew up the floaty I had bought in Postira and discovered it was about the size of my head.  It also had cute orange fish on it.  The walk to the beach was nice, if longer than I expected.  It was hidden a cove along a little road lined with houses and gardens.  Every now and then someone would zip by on a Vespa or bike.  The beach was rocky and was also home to an orange and white cat (I took home a rock that now resides on my dresser).

After sunbathing and drinking tea and eating plums for a couple hours, I decided to go in the water and try out the floaty.  As suspected, the floaty failed at life!!!  I sunk up to my shoulders, and it basically just kept me from sitting fully on the ground.  The water was cold but incredibly clear, and I could see how the roots from a nearby tree dipped into the water and dug back into the ground.  The rocks on the bottom were orange and green and blue.

That night, Klaire, Grace, Mel and i went to Trogir with some other people that didn’t want to go on another pub crawl.  I got mac n’ cheese gnocchi, which was amazing, and we threw french fries to a black cat that was wandering around the outdoor patio.  Trogir was magical, like it was stuck in time, and there were old women walking around and gelato shops still open, and I walked around the narrow streets for 15 minutes or so looking for somewhere to get a postcard, and the streets were so narrow that if I stretched my arms out I could touch the walls on both sides.

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Ok, bedtime.  I’ll leave you with this picture that I love.

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Croatia in three parts: 1

The Croatia weekend trip was the first trip I had taken by myself. No one really knew that much about Croatia, so they weren’t as interested in going as if I’d been going to say, Provence. But I had recently read that it was an unknown, safe destination, so I was like, let’s do this. During our Siena and San Gimignano day trip I had asked our guide about Croatia and she said October 4 was the last trip of the season. So I signed up with two spots to spare.

Our tour met at Stazione SMN at 9pm, and were all herded onto a double-decker bus. There were so many of us, it was completely full. I got a window seat on the top next to some guy, and we drove on the autostrada for maybe and hour and a half before we stopped at an Autogrill for dinner.

Autogrill is like…I don’t know. The only thing equivalent to a food court I ever saw in Italy, except it also has a little shopping area with books and snacks and stuff. There’s a place that sells pizza, and another place that has burgers, and then maybe salad or something.  It’s pretty uncharacteristic compared to the rest of Italy.

Anywho, we all got Pringles and Pockys at Autogrill, which was basically closing because it was 11 at night.  I think I ate a whole box of Pocky, you know, those pretzel sticks that are covered in chocolate that are only sold in the Chinese section of the grocery store.  And then I fell in the dead sleep of one who has to sleep upright for ten hours.  We pulled into Split around 8 am, and dropped our stuff off at the hostel, which is hidden in the Diocletian Palace.  The palace was built for Emperor Diocletian back in the 4th century AD as a retirement home.  We had breakfast at the restaurant beneath our hostel (more on how cool that place was later).  The hostel stored all our luggage in a closet behind the desk (I had only packed a backpack).

So then we all got ready for white-water rafting.  We followed our guides down the Riva promenade to the taxi station, where our bus was waiting.  It was about an hour and half drive to the launching point on the Cetina river, where we put wetsuits on over our swimsuits.  Rafting was so much fun.  There were parts that we really had to pay attention to, but mostly we could relax and talk to our guide and watch fallen trees pass beneath the water’s surface.  I was with the five other girls I was sharing the room at the hostel with: Grace, Klaire, Mel, Jenna and Shannon.  They had all travelled together, and they were so fantastic and let me tag along with them.  We all made each other laugh over the silliest things, like when we saw a horse grazing by the river and Jenna yelled, “Look, it’s a unicorn!!!”

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At one point our guide told us that we were going to have to sit really fast in the bottom of the raft when we went over a small waterfall.  We practiced a couple times, then actually went over the falls, which is really just really fast water being squeezed between two rocks.  All I remember is getting a face-full of freezing cold water.

We all got to stop so we could swim and jump off a big rock.  I don’t usually jump off of big rocks into rivers, but I figured, what the hell, I’m in Croatia, and anyways, this would be an appropriate use of YOLO.  I stood on the edge for about a minute, trying to figure out if there was a way for me to turn back, but then I lunged forward and screamed and hit the water, which all went up my nose.

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It was great.

After rafting we all had a lunch at a beautiful restaurant in a stone building by the river.  Everyone got fish, and I got the usual vegetarian meal, spaghetti.  It was really good though, and there were bread rolls and for dessert we had beignets (my favorite!).

When we went back to the hostel, everyone got ready for the pub crawl, which I didn’t have any interest in.  I walked around the Diocletian palace for a while, and found a touristy shirt that said I Love Croatia, which I still wish I had gotten.  I suuuuper tired, so I went back to the hostel.

I want to tell you about the Goli+Bosi hostel.  It’s not your regular crappy backpacker place.  Even though there were six of us to a room, it was still one of the best places I stayed.  All the room numbers referred to a significant year in Croatian history.  Each bed was in a nook with a curtain you could pull over the entrance, and each nook had its own electric plugs and lights so you didn’t disturb anyone else.  The walls in the rooms were white, but the floors, and well as the entire hallway and common area was an incredible bright yellow that kind of made you feel like you were walking through apple juice.  Also our bathroom and shower were bright yellow.  The whole place was very surreal.

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I fell asleep while I was writing in my journal, and was woken up at midnight or so by Jenna, Klaire, Shannon, and Mel coming back in the room between pub visits.  Someone was crying, and I figured out in my sleepy haze that Mel was trying to call her fiance back in the US, and Klaire and Shannon were trying to comfort her.  Jenna was yelling, “You guys, SHHHH, Rachel and Grace are SLEEPING!!!”  It was so ridiculous that I started laughing.

Thus ended my first day in Croatia.

Siena and San Gimignano

In a spur of the moment trip, Erica, Nicole, Sylvia and Natalie and I went on a Bus2Alps day trip to Siena and San Gimignano.  I had wanted to go to Siena over the summer–ten days before I got to Italy, Il Palio was held in Piazza del Campo.  The Palio is a huge bareback horse race dating from the Middle Ages.  It is run twice every summer, once in July and once in August.  Ten of the city’s 17 contrade, or districts, compete (the contrade are rotated every year). Each contrada hangs a flag with its colors and symbol, usually an animal.  The seventeen contrade are Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Turtle), Torre (Tower), and Valdimontone (Ram).   The winner of the race wins the palio, which is a painted silk banner, as well as fame within the city.  Emotions are high prior to the Palio.  Even the horses must have protection, because there have been occasions when the horse favored to win, or a horse from a rival contrada, has been drugged, or even stolen.  There are feasts and celebrations, and the horses are treated like royalty.  In the end, it all comes down to the horse.  There are a couple of turns in Piazza del Campo that a pretty dangerous.  Horses and riders go down hard.  It doesn’t matter if the rider makes it across the finish line–whichever contrada‘s horse gets there first wins.

Palio flags:

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Okay, so enough about the Palio.  We met our Bus2Alps group at the train station, and took a bus about an hour out to Siena.  We stopped at a parking lot for tour busses outside of the city, and we walked to this lookout where you could see the whole city.  The skyline is dominated by the Duomo, which is unique not only because the dome is blue but because it is in the middle rather than at the end of the cathedral.

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Then we walked over to Basilica di San Domenico, where we found something amazing!  I don’t remember much about the church, just what we saw in it.

There was a head.  St. Catherine’s head.  I don’t know much about it.  I read that she experience at lot of visions of Christ and received her stigmata in this church, in the Cappella delle Volte.  I’m not really sure why they only have her head though…

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That’s literally the creepiest thing I’ve ever posted.

So then we got a walking tour around Siena.  I would love to spend some time in that city, if only to be able to find my way around.  The streets wind all over the place.  We walked up to the Piazza del Duomo.  We didn’t have enough time to stand in line to get at ticket and go inside, but I looked at pictures on the brochure, and I really wish I had been able to go inside.  The interior of the Siena Duomo is black and white marble, which is pretty unique among Gothic churches in Europe.  The outside had the most intricate masonry I had ever seen–the marble was like milk, and there was also pink marble in the entrance archways.

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We waited in the Piazza de Campo, where the Palio is held, and walked around the courtyard inside the Palazzo Pubblico, which is the Gothic-era town hall that was finished in 1342.  We also watched pigeons playing and drinking water in the Fonte Gaia in the piazza.

After the rest of our group showed up, we went to Tenuta Torciano for wine tasting.  The tasting room was beautiful, and had a bunch of tables set up for our group.  The walls were gold and there was a table with several bottles of wine on it.  There were two glasses of wine in front of each spot, one for white and one for red.  The white wine was Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the first red was Chianti, which was my favorite.  Our first plate of food was salad, prosciutto and some kind of cheese.  Second was gnocchi, and last was lasagna.  The man in charge of the tasting was so passionate about wine, and he called all the girls principessa.  The other red wines that we tried were Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Cavaliere and Bartolomeo.  They got drier as we moved up the list.  We also got to smell truffle oil, which was put by my nose when I wasn’t looking, so I turned towards it and yelled “What?!” when I saw it there.  There was a bucket in the middle of the table where we could pour the wine when we were done tasting it.

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After the wine tasting we all got to go out to the garden, where there was a willow tree and a little arbor with a bench under it.  Nicole was a little tipsy and said she wanted to bring the pomegranate tree home with her but she couldn’t.  After a few minutes of consideration, she turned me and said, “I’ll put a ring on it.”

We didn’t get to spend a lot of time in San Gimignano.  It is best known for having 14 of the original 76 medieval towers still standing throughout the town.  The towers served as both fortresses and watchtowers as well as symbols of their owners’ wealth.

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There were tiny streets–more like alleys, and no cars.  We walked up the street from the main entrance to the town and into the Piazza della Cisterna, named for the well in the center.  There, two tiny shops sold “the best gelato in the world.”  (Sorry, but the stuff in the Oltrarno was better.)  We got gelato and walked around the edges of the town to see the views from the top of the hills.  San G has amazing views of Tuscany.

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There were also, inexplicably, these guys all over the place:

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