I head into inland Croatia, visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park, and enjoying the excellent food of Istria (truffles!). I encounter a number of surprises along the way.
An accordion, a guitar, and a warm country welcome
After spending several blissful days in Split, my family and I rent a car and drive towards the interior of the country. After several hours, we leave the toll highway for a winding country road that takes us past farms and through forests. Our destination tonight is the small town of Korenica, which will serve as a stopover on our way to Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Google Maps has trouble identifying the streets in this little town, so it takes us about an hour to find our accommodation. Our hosts, Biliana and Nino, welcome us warmly, and offer to cook us a BBQ dinner (for a small fee) so that we don’t have to go out in the cold, drizzly evening. We retire to the two rooms she has prepared for us and enjoy some local wine while we wait.
Some time later, Biliana knocks on our door and invites us to join them in the backyard. They have constructed a shed around a brick hearth BBQ, and a variety of meats are sizzling away on a grate over a heap of smoldering charcoal. Biliana chats merrily while she attends to the food, although some of her stories are rather sobering. She longs for the long-gone days of Yugoslavia, when the standard of living was better. She herself is of Serbian heritage, and while the people of Korenica are welcoming, she acknowledges that not all Croatians accept her. She, her husband, and her two children rely on the meager income from the bed and breakfast for sustenance. There are no customers in the winter months, and in the summer months she sends her children to live with their grandparents to free up their bedrooms for rental.
We eat heartily in the family’s dining room. The children look towards the food hungrily, but their mother insists that they have already eaten and sends them away. After we are finished, though, I notice that she gives them a subtle signal, and as soon as we leave the room, the children dive into the leftovers.
We stay up late with our hosts, drinking wine listening to jazzy covers of pop songs streamed off of YouTube, and conversing with our new friends. Before long, Nino produces a guitar and reveals himself to be an accomplished musician. With a grin and a flourish, Nino also produces a worn accordion, and after another glass of wine I find myself squeezing along discordantly. Everyone applauds me anyway. The evening ends with a few folky sing-alongs, feeling like we have made new friends in the most unlikely of places.
The place where nymphs come from
The following morning we head to Plitvice Lakes National Park, just north of where we were staying. It is a crushingly popular destination during the summer months, when a near-continuous Congo line of poncho-wearing tourists clogs up the boardwalk. Now, though, their numbers are more reasonable, and we only have to contend with an occasional umbrella in the eye or Japanese tour group cluster.
The park is most famous for a series of pools that cascade down a series of forested terraces. As it is now spring and rainfall is plentiful, the water flows fast, turning the forest into a sort of Sylvan Venice, fanning out between the trees and down temporary watercourses. Often, the water flows beneath (and sometimes over) the boardwalk itself. A hundred waterfalls, ranging in size from tiny up to a striking 78-meter free-fall, fill the air with the sound of crashing water and the coolness of perpetual mist.
The route through the park takes us along boardwalks, on a tram, and along the shore of the largest lake by boat. At the end of the route, we ascend hundreds of stairs up through a natural cavern, and then walk back to the parking lot, thoroughly amazed.
The strangest museums
We drive from the park to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. We are here with the sole purpose of dropping my sister Katie at the airport, so we only plan on staying one night. Nevertheless, we can’t resist checking out the intriguingly named Museum of Broken Relationships.
The museum was born from a temporary art exhibition featuring objects, and their accompanying stories, that symbolize the emotions and circumstance of various people’s failed relationships. The show was a surprise hit, and over time its creator began receiving more and more objects in the mail from heartbroken visitors who wished to share their stories. The now-permanent museum contains an intensely interesting subset of these objects, ranging from the amusing (“I wanted him to suffer, so I took his toaster. How are you going to make toast now?”), to the tragic (a photograph of a young man who, after his intended’s father refused his request for his daughter’s hand, committed suicide by driving off a cliff.) There is a stiletto shoe belonging to a woman who became reacquainted with her high school lover while working as a dominatrix. There is a stack of love letters sent between a soldier and a refugee who found themselves on opposite sides of the fence during the Balkan war.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is not the only unconventional attraction in Croatia. A few days earlier, back in Split, and at the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, we had the pleasure of visiting the extremely quirky, but no less engaging, Froggyland. This peculiar museum claims to hold the world’s largest (by far) collection of posed taxidermy frogs. The animals are arranged in themed dioramas, each artfully constructed over a century ago by a very eccentric, and infinitely patient, man named Ferenc Mere. In one display case is a classroom of frog children sitting on little wooden chairs, attentively copying notes off of the blackboard. Another shows frogs going about their professions, such as a chimney sweep and a garbage man, while drunkard frogs sing and dance in the tavern. The most dynamic scene shows an amphibian circus, including frogs on the trapeze, frogs forming a four-tiered acrobatic pyramid, various other displays of balance and strength. A loop of ribbiting plays on tinny speakers throughout. It’s exquisitely weird, the acme of bizarre hobbies. It is quite possibly the best museum—nay, the best anything—I have ever seen.
Hunting for truffles in Istria
My mother and I spend our last few days together in Istria, the earlobe of land that dangles into the Adriatic at the northwest end of the country. Istria is famous for relaxing beach towns, mouth-watering Mediterranean cuisine, and—above all—truffles, those rare and horrendously expensive mushrooms that grow only a few places on Earth.
To find out where truffles come from, we visit the tiny village of Vrh, a place that is short on vowels, yet is richly endowed with black and white truffles. Black truffles, the lesser of the two, grow here all year round, and fetch several hundred dollars a kilogram (for the cheapest summer black truffles). The most prized winter whites can fetch thousands.
The son of the Karlic family, which has owned a truffle-hunting company for generations, takes us into Motovun Forest to look for truffles. We are accompanied by two truffle-sniffing dogs (both mutts) who have been trained from birth to locate the subterranean morsels. It doesn’t take long. Within a few minutes, one of the dogs begins to dig and bark, and our guide, caught unawares, romps after him, waving his hat and shouting. Too late—the truffle is dislodged and swallowed whole. It’s not a total loss, though, for a few minutes later, the dogs once again catch a scent and start scratching at the earth. After shooing them away, our guide gently pushes away the earth under a young oak tree to reveal a little brown lump about the size of a chestnut. I dislodge it using my fingers and proudly present my find.
Back on the homestead, we are treated to a meal of truffled eggs, cheese, and salami in their garden. I buy a tiny jar of chopped truffles in oil as a souvenir. Now that my palate has learned to appreciate the full and fragrant taste of truffles, there’s no going back.
Across the Adriatic
We spend our last few days in Croatia exploring the hilltop fortified towns, rural countryside, and seaside villages of Istria. Each is more charming than the last, and I again marvel that most North Americans aren’t very aware of this incredible country. Early on my final day in Croatia, I board a high-speed catamaran in Poreč and head towards Venice, Italy. I’m sad to see the Croatian coast disappear behind me, but am excited to revisit Italy—the first place on my long journey around the world that I have visited before.