Our Journey to Croatia

It has been my dream to see Croatia since I can remember. The original reason we organized this entire trip was because of this dream – so we just looked at a map and planned from there.

We were relieved at the train station when our bus pulled up and was large, spacious, and had this magical invention called air conditioning. The bus was not crowded at all, which made it even better. They say the best way to see a country is to drive through it, so I was excited to have some time off a train and to be on a bus. It was a great experience to look at little towns as we drove through and to see other parts of Slovenia.

We got off the bus as this little train station, Divaca, in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. We had an hour to wait until our next train would be leaving. We later found out that the train waited for the next bus from Ljubljana, so if we had taken the later bus, we would have been fine. But we couldn’t have known that before and it’s better to be safe and prepared. So for this hour we hung out in the heat because there was nothing to do around there. Inside the station there was one person working who didn’t speak any English and there were no other waiting passengers, shops, or anything going on. So we sat outside and talked with two French girls who were hiking and camping around different parts of Europe. We were happy when our train finally arrived – that is, until we got on board – because it was very warm, humid, and uncomfortable. I fell asleep for most of the hour long ride.

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At the next station, where we were to switch onto another train, the next train was there waiting for this one to arrive – something I’ve never seen before. Their whole system waits for buses and trains because there are so few passengers – if one train is late and the next one does not wait, they barely have any passengers to make it worth leaving on time.

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We had thought the last train was uncomfortably hot, but we had spoken too soon. This next train was over a hundred degrees inside without any sort of fan or air conditioning system. It was close to one hundred degrees outside, so with the greenhouse effect happening and the heat having nowhere to escape from this train, it was brutal. I didn’t think it was possible, but it was even worse than the trains on the previous day. On the ride, we went through pitch darkness at one point as we passed through a tunnel without any lights, which was a little creepy. I stood most of the ride to keep my face against the open window, desperate for fresh air. This train ride was a little different than our other experiences on trains this trip. Despite the heat, there were beautiful views as we entered Croatia.

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It was so exciting to finally see the ocean appear – our energy returned almost as quickly as it had disappeared earlier.

When we got off the train in Pula, we arrived at another very small train station with only one employee working who was extremely rude, indifferent, and unhelpful. She didn’t know or care to answer any of our questions and was too busy looking at Facebook to be interested. So we decided to call a taxi because there were no other buildings nearby and the walk to a bus stop was far enough that it didn’t feel worth it in the heat. It turned out our hotel was a bit further than we had expected from the train station, so the taxi ended up making much more sense in the long run. We had a really nice driver who showed us around and talked about the city and gave us great advice. It’s always nice to meet people who take real pride in their towns. His hands and arms were badly deformed from burns, and I wonder if those scars were from the war.

When we finally arrived at our hotel after a full day of buses, trains, walking, and car rides, it was such a relief! Our hotel was so beautiful and different from the other hotels we had been at because it is much more for families and sits right on the beach. It is slightly outside of Pula in a town called Medulin. We picked this area in Croatia because it was pretty easily accessible from the rest of our trip, it is famous for its beautiful beaches, and Katharina remembered being there as a child and said it was the perfect spot to end the trip.

We had to wait to checkin because a British woman was throwing such a fit at the front desk that it required all the staff’s attention. She claimed something was wrong with her bill. But once we finally checked in and walked around to look at the hotel, we were so excited and happy to be there – like just look at this!

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We got settled in and immediately went for a swim in the pool because we both needed to relax and cool off after the long day we had been having. Behind the pool was a stone beach and a long promenade full of shops and restaurants. After we cleaned up, we took a walk along the water to find dinner and chose a small Italian place right on the beach. It was a five minute walk from the hotel and a fifth of the price of the hotel restaurant – sometimes in touristy areas it’s worth exploring to find cheaper options.

We were so happy to get back to our room and get some sleep in the air conditioning after the long day. It felt good to be settled in and finally be in the country I’d been wanting to see for so long.

Our Brief Time In Ljubljana Before Visiting Croatia

I don’t think either of us had woken up feeling as refreshed as we did on our morning in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It’s those hard days of traveling, the ones that push you past your limits, that make you appreciate the good moments that much more. We looked outside and were excited to see such beautiful weather! So we got ready and made our way downstairs to have breakfast in the hotel and it was so good!

There were so many options available:

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And the thickest hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life – basically just melted chocolate!

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Ljubljana is such a beautiful city! And yes that’s a real place – (my friends all asked me if I sat on my keyboard when I texted them where I was). Many people told me it was turning into a game of Where’s Waldo except Where’s Shiri because we moved around so often on this trip!

The city is full of mountains and truly stunning old European style buildings. The city was located at the middle of the trade route between the northern Adriatic Sea and the Danube region. This city has kind of a similar vibe to Bratislava in that it felt like Old Europe with less tourists, but it was a lot fancier in the area we explored.

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We stumbled upon some really goofy things in this city. Like this small section that had it’s “own weather” because it mysteriously rained right there and only there:

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It was so refreshing in the morning heat!

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Or this random chandelier hanging in the middle of the street for no apparent reason:

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So we looked around different shops and made our way up to the castle – which turned out to be more of a hike than we expected! We certainly got our morning workout on this walk. We had to go up the mountain on very steep roads that residents must walk daily, like this one:

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But once we made our way up, the views of the city were amazing!

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And the castle was lovely as well! The castle is estimated to have been built during the 11th century and was rebuilt in the 12th century.

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Unfortunately, our visit in Ljubljana was very short because we had to leave in a few hours for Croatia. We had planned on having more time the day before, but with the craziness of our journey to the city, we lost out on a lot of time. You have to expect the unexpected when you travel though and try your to make the best of it, which we definitely did. So we had to head back down those steep roads and walk through the city very quickly, grab some food and necessities for our next part of the trip, and just explore for only a short time. But what we saw was so worth it!

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And I loved this because it’s one of my favorite quotes!

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So we made our way back to the hotel (totally bummed we had to leave already because it was the best hotel of the trip!) and we headed to the train and bus station to figure out how exactly to get to Croatia from here.

Saying Goodbye to Budapest and Hello to Ljubljana!

I think our only real disappointment with Budapest was that we didn’t have enough time there because it was such a great experience. On our last morning there, we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and went to the subway station. We couldn’t get the machine to give us the kind of tickets we wanted, so we asked a man who checks tickets standing at the top of the escalators that lead to the platforms. Even though his English wasn’t perfect, he helped us figure out the problem and told us another place we could buy tickets. I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when they travel is not asking for help when they need it. Sometimes it’s worth possible embarrassment to save time and stress.

We headed to the Parliament and it’s one of those moment’s I’ve described before when you step out from the subway station and bam! There’s this masterpiece of architecture right there so casual.

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So we crossed the street and took a closer look and it was just overwhelming. As one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, it is definitely a notable landmark worth checking out along the bank of the Danube River.

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It was early in the morning and already 100 degrees outside, but we were grateful for such beautiful sunshine. So we walked along the river towards a monument we both really wanted to see before we left the city. The views along the river were stunning that morning

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And on the way, we found this statue of Hungarian poet Attila József, who died on railroad tracks at the young age of 32.

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Here are a few translated lines from his poem At Last, which was written in 1926.

“I have flashing eyes and the will to win,
and I must have the willingness, the means
to do justice and so to take sides
with these severest of memories.”

If you’re interested in reading some of his work, here’s a link to many of his translated poems.

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And then we walked next to the river some more until we found the monument we had been looking for – the Shoes on the Danube Bank, which was developed by film director Can Togay, who worked with sculptor Gyula Pauer to create it. The monument was designed to honor the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.

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The victims had been ordered to remove their shoes and were then shot at the edge of the river so their bodies would fall into the water and be carried away. This monument represents all those empty shoes left behind that were never filled by their owners again. I found this to be one of the most moving monuments we saw the entire trip. Looking at the shoes, it’s one of those moments where you are faced with such a horrific tragedy that occurred right where you’re standing only a few decades ago. The shoes are so personal to the victims that you can’t help but feel something when you look at them.

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This monument gives you the ability to attempt to imagine the victims’ perspective and try to put yourself in their shoes

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We each placed some stones in a few of the shoes to go with Jewish tradition of mourning.

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Because we both were touched by the monument, we needed a moment to reflect. We sat in the shade to get out of the heat and just looked at the water and our beautiful surroundings.

And to break up the silence, we couldn’t help but laugh when we saw this bus turned into a boat making its way through the river:

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But we had a train to catch, so we headed to the station and took the subway towards our hotel and stopped for milkshakes in this nice cafe. It was so hot out and the shakes were deliciously refreshing.

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We grabbed our bags from the hotel and headed to the main train station. It was hard to carry our big backpacks through the trains and stations in that kind of heat. We envied the men who walked around shirtless with nothing to carry. We had some pizza at the station before finding our platform – I am so grateful we ate this pizza because it was the last food we would have for a while. My slice had corn on it, something I’ve never had before but it was so good!

When our train pulled up, we realized this was going to be a rough journey because it was only two train cars long and as we stepped inside, a huge gust of hot air came at us because air conditioning did not exist on the train. Again, we were glad to have our reserved seats even though they weren’t as needed as on other trains. The train ride was supposed to be 8 hours with a long train, a restaurant on board, and a direct trip to the next city. None of this was the case though.

We spent five hours on a very hot, crowded, stinky train so it became uncomfortable quickly. The bathrooms were filthy and out of toilet paper early on in the ride, which was not good. Everyone opened the windows, but it did little to cool anyone off because it blew in warm air. I tried to sleep to pass the time, but the heat made it difficult and I woke up so sweaty and yucky. After the five hour point on the train, when we should have only had 2-3 more hours left, the ticket woman went to each seat and told everyone we had to get off at the next stop and would be taking a bus instead. She could not speak much English and was very difficult to understand, and she didn’t know other languages as an alternative that we could understand either. Everyone on the small train was extremely confused and concerned because this wasn’t disclosed when we had purchased the tickets and no one knew what was going on.

But everyone got off at the station, and we were divided up between three buses that were not all going to the same place. This was stressful because the bus drivers did not speak English very well either and we were not sure we were getting on the right bus! After about an hour and a half bus ride, we finally arrived and stopped at a stop in the middle of nowhere. During the bus ride there were no bathrooms available and no one gave any kind of explanation of what was going on. Turns out this direct train ride to Ljubljana was not so direct because the train tracks were not finished being built yet! So this whole alternative route was designed with major detours.

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Once we got to the next train, it was similar to our trip to Prague where there were individual compartments made for about six people. It was almost as hot as the previous train, but as the sun set, it became gradually cooler. An older couple from San Francisco, Nancy and Carlos, sat with us and were incredibly friendly! We were thankful to have such nice people to talk to during the long ride. We discussed traveling, our lives, our homes, our dreams and plans, and different experiences. Carlos is from Argentina and they had married young and lived in Chicago for a long time before settling in California. They had very interesting stories and Nancy used to be a flight attendant so they had tons of travel experience. Watching the two of them really demonstrated what I hope to have in my future – someone I can love that much and travel with even at that old age. The way they clearly cared for each other was wonderful and a privilege to witness.

Along our journey we saw so many amazing views or the country side – one of my favorite parts of traveling by train.

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After several hours, the ticket woman came around and told everyone there were more delays. This journey felt like it dragged on forever. We were thankful when we finally made it to Ljubljana!! It was almost 11 at night – several hours after we were supposed to have arrived. We helped Carlos and Nancy with their luggage and walked with them to find their hotel because it was on the way to ours. I think it’s important to help people when you can. My grandparents travel around the world and I would want someone to treat them this way, so the least I can do is help someone else like that.

When we made it to the hotel, we were literally blown away. It was so much nicer than we expected! After arriving, the man at the front desk was very concerned and mentioned that they were out of the room we had reserved. And we both looked at each other like oh great how can this day get any worse. But then he asked if it would be okay to upgrade us to a bigger, better room with no extra charge. Would it be okay? Umm duh!!! So we found ourselves spending the night in a king suite.

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I can’t begin to explain how good it felt to get in this luxurious shower and clean up after the long, hot, sweaty, stressful day we had. We even ordered room service to treat ourselves! Traveling can really cause you to appreciate the small things and i love that. We passed out quickly because we were exhausted. We were happy to have the longest day of the trip over and done with because we had worried about the logistics of it since we originally planned the trip months ago. I’ve rarely slept so well.