Croatia: A Love Story

Travel

Early on in this blog, I wrote about a trip to Slovenia and how beautiful it was there. It’s on my list of must returns – but that’s the problem with traveling: once you fall in love with a new destination, you’ll want to return and also maybe go to that other place you heard of while you were there. Sitting right next to Slovenia on my list is Croatia, the next stop on our roadtrip that April.

We took a Flixbus from Ljubljana to Zagreb. Initially, we planned to explore Zagreb, but there’s not a whole lot going on there and by this point, we were maybe halfway through our trip and ready for a calm night. We picked up our rental car in Zagreb after a couple of rocky Uber rides to the airport.

(Don’t ask me which roads we took as I was not driving and may or may not have fallen asleep for a good portion of the drive.)

From Zagreb, we aimed south. To break up the drive, we stopped for lunch in Rastoke in Slunj. This teeny little town with waterfalls flowing in between homes was picture perfect and a wonderful break from five people packed in a tiny European car.

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Despite skepticism about the possibility of “surprise caving” on our trip, we managed to actually do some surprise caving on our drive. We stopped in Rakovica, Croatia to visit the Caves of Barać. Slovenia and Croatia have tons of caves and we thoroughly enjoyed our quick trip in and out of the darkness (especially since we spotted plenty of baby bats).

After our surprise caving adventure, we made our way to our Airbnb for the night. The next day’s adventure was the reason we chose to do a roadtrip instead of flying or taking a bus: Plitvička Jezera.

Plitvice Lakes National Park is on the list of the most stunning places I have ever visited – pictures just do not do it justice.

Because we were there in April, we missed the big summer tourist rush and winter weather. We started at the North Entrance (Entrance 1) and made our way upstream. Our route started with the highest waterfall, Veliki slap, and moved up the streams toward and through the lakes.

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We made the right call because it seemed that tour buses started at the Southern entrance and end with the Big Waterfall. And tourist groups are rude (and may or may not try to push you into the water). No matter the crowd, there’s various paths you can take, hopping from one to the other depending on people and mud levels. We got to a bus stop and ate some lunch before taking the park’s bus back some of the way to where we parked.

Bring a raincoat and proper walking/hiking shoes as the boardwalks get quite slippery and all that falling water creates a bit of a constant mist.

(We spent a solid day on this particular adventure and even if you aren’t a fan of hiking, it is worth it to see the falls.)

We continued South the next day towards Split. Split is a city on the Adriatic that was home to the history portion of our roadtrip. One major draw of a visit to Split is Diocletian’s Palace, built for Roman emperor Diocletian and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Diocletian’s Palace makes up the old city and can be wandered through with ease. (We bought tickets to see Jupiter’s Temple, Saint Domnius Cathedral, and the Bell Tower, and it really wasn’t worth it.) You can wander around the old structure and underneath which is now a little market. Piece of advice:  visit at night – you can listen to music in the square near the Tourist Information booth and cafés set up little seats if you want a drink.

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For the active amongst us, Park Šuma Marjan is a beautiful hike right next to the old town on a peninsula. You can venture up the paths with views of the Adriatic. The peak point is a platform with a view over the city that makes the hike worth it.

We made two stops outside of Split. The first was Solin for the ancient ruins of Salona. The former city is a fascinating wander and you can go right into the middle of the amphitheatre, right next to someone’s laundry hanging in their backyard. Our second stop was the Fortress of Klis. The medieval fortress sits on top of a hill overlooking Split and has lived many lives from a small stronghold to a castle for kings to a fortress during the Ottoman wars and finally as a filming location for Game of Thrones. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the structure learning more about the history of the region (particularly the story of the Uskoks).

From Split, we continued down the coast towards the next stop on the unofficial Game of Thrones tour of Croatia: Dubrovnik. We spent quite a bit of time there so I’ll make a separate post about that particular adventure.

We made a quick stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina to stretch our legs and wander along the water before continuing south.

I absolutely loved our time in Dubrovnik and would return in a heartbeat. One great tip: if there’s a cruise ship coming in, go elsewhere. Just like with Venice, Dubrovnik gets a massive influx of tourists that take over the city when cruise ships come to port. We used this opportunity to go to Montenegro and explore Kotor (where I turned 23!).

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When our adventures in Dubrovnik ended, we hopped back in the car and drove up Croatia back to Zagreb with a stop in Zadar. While munching on pizza from a stand, we wandered towards the sea organ, a musical instrument played by the sea. We stepped over the ruins that sit in the middle of the town and listened to the church bells ring. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but with some gelato in hand, we made our way back to the car and continued towards Zagreb.

I can honestly say that this roadtrip was a once in a lifetime experience and I wouldn’t trade the memories for the world. But I am also counting down the seconds until I have a good excuse to go back to Croatia and continue exploring.

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Happy Places

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I recently read a blog about places that make you happy. I could name a thousand times I smiled on a trip or places that took my breath away, but there’s those comforting spots that you always return to – those spots where you’re most at peace.

If we’re honest, I’ll always include my parents’ couch on this list. Even if it’s just for a moment, there’s something very calming about being sucked into a recliner with a blanket over my lap while I hear my parents go about their daily lives.

I also think about the top of Primrose Hill in London as one of those spots. Especially early morning or as the sun is setting, there’s something about being so close yet so far from everything and everyone. After I’ve managed to catch my breath from the hike up (it’s really not that high, I’m just lazy), there’s a peace there that I haven’t found in many other places.

I recently visited where my grandma grew up in West Virginia – there was no cell service, minimal noise, no light pollution, and just a slight chance of a bear wandering down the mountain to say hello. We paused one night and looked up at the stars. That’s one thing you don’t get in the city – stars.

In reflection, maybe I’m just chasing the stars that hung above my parents home when I was a child – like the stars above West Virginia or lining the sky over Uluru in Australia or imitated by the thousands of sparkling lights in London.

Maybe under the stars, I feel myself at peace. And happy.

Five Favorite Day Trips from DC

Five Favorites, Travel

Maybe you’re just in town for a few days or maybe you’re looking to avoid a tourist rush, but there’s plenty of quick trips worth taking that’ll get you outside the city. These are my five personal favorite day trips from DC:

Harpers Ferry

A friend recently visited from Indiana and wanted to cross West Virginia off her list of states unvisited. We initially planned a longer trip, but when we ran out of time, we looked a little closer to home. Harpers Ferry is a little town with history and nature galore. The town was home to John Brown’s rebellion but also has a great hike and plenty of tubing/rafting/kayaking opportunities. The hour and a half drive from the city was easy enough and parking was $15 for a spot through the National Park Service. We hiked the Maryland Heights Trail to the overlook and grabbed lunch in town.

Luray Caverns

If you’re looking to beat the heat, Luray Caverns is a fantastic option. To get there from the city is a beautiful drive through Virginia that’ll take you through Shenandoah. I’ve been in plenty of caves in my time (like four or five, okay? That’s a lot…) and Luray Caverns is amazing. Your guided walk through the caves is both scientifically fascinating and historically interesting. Plus the temperature inside always feels about 60 degrees.

Baltimore Aquarium

Maybe you’ve made one too many trips to the National Zoo and need to mix up your animal intake – take a drive up to Baltimore’s National Aquarium. The Inner Harbor has plenty of cool restaurants and the aquarium is amazing. I could stare at the jellyfish for hours, but there’s also other fish and critters to learn about. Bonus points: they’ve stopped their dolphin shows and are now focused even more on sustainability and the impact on local water systems.

Delaware Beaches

I’m not a huge beach person – too much sand, too many people, too high a chance for sunburn. But I love the sound of the ocean. Delaware has some lovely beaches within a 3 hour drive (if you’re lucky). Rehobeth and Bethany both have great beaches with plenty of food nearby. My personal favorite stop is Lewes Beach which is a little quieter and less busy but still just as cute. Another tip: visit off season – it won’t be a thousand degrees and packed in October or May but you’ll still get to hear the water.

Old Town Alexandria

Maybe you don’t have a car or maybe you only have a half day (or maybe you’re seriously inspired by my post about my favorite part of the Metro area), but Old Town Alexandria is worth the trip. Metro to the end of King Street and walk towards the water. After stopping in every cute shop and sampling ice cream, enjoy a wander along the water. You can either make the hike back to the Metro or hop on the free King Street Trolley.

What’s your favorite day trip from the city?

Seasonal Transitions

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We’re at that strange point of the year where we’ve had one or two cool days and all of a sudden every bone in my body is ready for winter. And when I saw cool, I mean not a thousand degrees out and humid.

Maybe it was the first load of Halloween candy displayed at the beginning of September but I’m fully in an autumn mindset.

I’m dreaming of crunching fallen leaves beneath my feet and wearing a scarf everyday. I’m thinking about road trips to see the leaves change colors and switching out my summer clothes for warmer sweaters and tights. I’m looking forward to hands wrapped around cups of tea and that tingle that comes from being hit by a brisk wind.

I am officially over sweating and tourist season and sunburns.

So everyone grab a cozy sweater, light a candle, and lets all pretend it won’t be 90 on Sunday.

Not Quite Wanderlust

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I wouldn’t call it wanderlust – I think I just wanted to see how far I could get away before I had to bounce back. The first step had been the Midwest – would I come running back to the East Coast or would I want to go even further?

There’s a different mentality in the middle of the country. Folks from the Coasts would label it complacency or a lack of curiosity. The desire to explore far flung places wasn’t ingrained in every decision amongst the cornfields.

But I’d come this far. The next step should be easy. I’d done quick trips – vacations with supervision, first to France and Spain and second to Italy and Greece. Neither was particularly challenging – I knew that by the end of the two weeks I would be home; I knew that my lack of foreign language knowledge could be brushed away with a snarky comment about “American tourists”. It was all quite safe.

But then came the big leap. A twenty-something hour flight with layover that would take me from my East Coast home to the other side of the planet. The safety net had been pulled away, it was time to take a proper leap and not know when I was gonna hit the next ledge.

But I didn’t hit the bottom. Instead, I got my extrovert on (kinda) and met new people. I learned about a country so similar yet so different than mine. I saw fish swimming in a coral reef and stood in the middle of the desert staring in awe at the full Milky Way hanging above me in the sky. I shared my new life with my parents and explored two new countries with them while I was at – a “I must come back” trip to New Zealand and a “totally overwhelmed yet amazed” trip to Phuket in Thailand. As I boarded my plane away from Australia, I couldn’t help but think how quickly can I get back here?

The turn around was quick – a month or so to sit at home and realize I was ready to go far, far away yet again. This time the plane ride was much shorter, the stress was much less, but the destination would be much colder. It was a challenge – to fight against the seasonal depression of four hours of sunlight a day.

The cure was to move, jumping from plane to train to ferry over and over. Flights to France and Germany, Norway, the UK, and Denmark; trains and buses to Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic; the infamous booze cruises to Russia and Estonia, Finland and Latvia.

In the constant rush, I looked up and there was twenty-two hours of sunlight, not four. I had been everywhere except the “here” that I had traveled so far to see. I told myself I’ll be back, but it’ll never be the same. The people will have shifted, the places will have grown, and who will I be?

Once you’ve left a place, it’ll never be same.

So with a brief layover in Iceland, I returned home. My East Coast had shifted beneath my feet and the cornfields had grown while I was away.

People had drifted away and together. Buildings had been torn down and build.

So I kept going – forward momentum pushing me further and further. Until I paused. In my rush to get as far away as possible, I’d made a loop back to the start.

Honey, I’m Home

Travel

It came to my attention that a friend who shall remain unnamed has lived in the DC area for a few years and never ventured down to my favorite place in the metro area: Old Town Alexandria. I was personally offended. I think Old Town is one of the coolest part of the DC area. And if you love history, hate crowds, and always want to be surprised, Old Town is the place for you.

Getting There: The excuse I was given was that Old Town was too tough to get to. Which is bull. When Metro hasn’t shut down all of the Virginia stops, you can get to Old Town easy peasy on the Yellow or Blue line and hop off at the King’s Street stop. The walk from the metro isn’t horrible and is a straight line down King Street to get to the water front, or you can hop on the free Trolley that’ll take you all the way down King. Parking isn’t ideal, but if you’re keen on a day’s adventure, there’s bike paths that lead straight there from all directions. You can also hop a riverboat from Georgetown and National Harbor.

What to Do: Old Town is filled with history: go on a ghost tour of town, visit Gatsby’s Tavern, wander the cemetaries. It’s also a quintessential walkable area. You can wander down the history cobblestone roads and see historical buildings with just a touch of cute. If you’re on the hunt for that perfect birthday gift or that not-too-touristy present to bring back home, there’s plenty of boutiques and cute shops all up and down King’s Street that are fun to just pop in and out of. Make a stop in the Torpedo Factory to peek at some local artists’ workspaces. If you’re there in the summertime, the boardwalk is filled with performers and opportunities for people watching. Plus there’s that relaxing sound of the water that just can’t be replicated by an iPhone.

What to Eat: Old Town is constantly updating their food options, with shops coming and going. I’ve got a few favorites that are consistent: for “Chicago” style pizza, go to Bugsy’s. Looking for a Marg and a couple tacos, Los Cuates is a good bet. On the hunt for a classy meal, the Chart House has good food and great views. And to round it all off, there’s nothing better than a scoop (or two) of ice cream for your wander onto the boardwalk: there’s a Ben and Jerry’s, but my personal favorite is the Cookie Dough at The Creamery – just keep an eye out for the bear in the window.

Basically, there’s so much to do in Old Town and it’s just so close to DC that you have no excuse.

How I’m (Working on) Spending Less

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The other day I had a conversation with a friend about job benefits and how terrifying it was to pick a benefits package – it was one of the first adult decisions I had to make that seemed permanent. Right after that conversation, I wrote a check for my rent, looked up LSAT prep classes online, and cooked myself a nutritionally balanced (ish) meal. I was adulting. It is terrifying.

One of the perks of adulting is recognizing that money should probably be saved more frequently than it is spent. I’ve tried the whole budgeting thing before and had varying levels of success, but this time it is real. Thankfully, I have no student loans – shout out to mom and dad for that one. But in a possibly stupid move, I’m considering law school.

The goal is to save as much money now while I’m fully employed so that law school is less of a burden (fingers crossed for a nice scholarship). However, spending money is just so much easier than saving it. If you’re like me and pretending to adult or you want to save up for that trip to Bali next year (take me with you!), I’ve taken some (very basic) steps to save money.

First up was a nice little closet clear out. Maybe you’ve heard of the capsule wardrobe craze or the minimalism movement, but the core idea is to limit how much clothing is hanging on your rail at any point in time. I regularly go through my closet and pull out things that don’t fit or that aren’t my style or that I wanted to fix but never got around to. The move from my parent’s house to my apartment meant a big clear out – my donation pile was embarrassing large, but there’s a satisfaction to going through and clearing all those maybes out of the way. (Feel free to try the Marie Kondo Konmari method or just to do it willy nilly – whatever works best for you!) Despite having fewer items of clothing, I could see every single piece and know they fit – I didn’t have an “I have nothing to wear” excuse anymore.

Next up, all winter pieces were tucked away for the summer and all summer pieces were pulled out and hung nicely. The mentality is that only that which is useful right now is visible. I tucked all my winter clothes in a gym bag I never use and will rotate out my summer clothes when my apartment switches from A/C to heat. An added perk of this organizational update is that when I pull out the clothes from the next season, it’ll be like adding new clothes to my wardrobe – all those sweaters that have been tucked away will be a new surprise. Switching to summer, I didn’t really feel the need to buy twelve new summer dresses because my old favorites came out of storage and I was reminded how much I loved them in past hot weather rather than remembering them as the things that blocked my access to my sweater.

Continuing the clear out theme, I went over to my emails. My mom jokes that she doesn’t need an alarm because every morning she gets an email from Joanne’s Fabrics that wakes her up. If you’re like me, you get a thousand emails a day from every website you’ve ever ordered online from. Well now’s the time to clear them out – unsubscribing from all those stores you might be tempted by means one less temptation to spend money on things you don’t really need. If you really need a plain white work shirt, you can always go shopping specifically for that. Once I unsubscribed from a bunch of those email lists, the temptations to shop every week were gone. Maybe you’re not a quilter and don’t get those Joanne’s emails, but everyone is on a listserve they don’t need to be on – since typing this I’ve received an email from Keds, Potbelly, H&M, and IcelandAir. The temptation to buy myself a new pair of shoes and a new outfit, grab a sandwich and head for the airport is strong. I’ll be unsubscribing shortly.

Next step was to head to my wallet. I’m trying to transition away from using a credit card for every little purchase and focus on using cash and/or a debit card. There’s limitations to how much cash I have on hand at any given moment, which my spending lower. (I also really don’t like handing over cash and receiving change for some reason – it sparks some serious anxiety.) Using a debit card is slightly less successful in this because I do not want an overdrawn charge (again :/). But both keep me in line better than a credit card. Even though I work diligently to make sure I don’t overspend on my credit card, the temptation to pay now and worry later is there. I am trying to build credit, but I’m trying to transition to only using it for emergencies and to pay a biweekly metro card reload.

Speaking of my metro card – one of my job benefits is a travel reimbursement program that means I don’t get charged tax for my daily travel-related purchases (I think that’s the deal – I could be getting swindled right now. One of the perks of an “adulting” decision.) Each paycheck has a fee withdrawn and I then pay for my Metro card reload and can get reimbursed for that payment. It would be easy to pretend that that reimbursement was new money, but it’s not – I’ve already paid for it in my check. So that reimbursement money has been going straight to my savings account. I try not to look at it and just pretend the money is long gone. Reimbursements and tax returns and checks from Grandma are all going straight to savings, where they can build a slightly higher interest and be saved for a rainy day (a.k.a. the start of law school). I calculate money based on that direct deposit, rather than on the money I’m being reimbursed.

(Quick shout out to direct deposit for saving me from a biweekly trip to the bank).

Every other money-saving step I’ve taken has been relatively small. Like a proper adult, I use my mother’s washing machine (thanks mom!). I try to metro as much as possible rather than taking Ubers or paying for parking. I try to avoid eating out (despite Chipotle being my one true love). In a strange bit of health conciousness, I’ve been trying to work out multiple times a week and thanks to YouTube, there’s a thousand free 15-minute, 30-minute, 45-minute workouts online, rather than paying for classes or a gym membership. I’ve adopted a more European approach to the grocery shop, where I buy for a day or two rather than a week – I make less waste when my fruit doesn’t inevitably go bad, and it’s easier to pop in and out without extra purchases than it would be if I was doing an aisle by aisle shop.

Basically, there’s a thousand ways for me to save money and I’m trying them all. So here’s to hoping we all find scholarships and cheap travel deals.