This is the fifth installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going. She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city. In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here: My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going. The second installment is here: Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here: Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border. The fourth is here: “A” to Zagreb.
The first five days of our trip we did not need a car as we were in Venice (where no cars are permitted) and then in Zagreb where we were able to walk around. For the rest of our journey, though, we will be traveling by car. Before leaving Zagreb, we swung by the local office of European car rental agency Sixt to pick up our trusty vehicle for the next 10 days or so: a Volkswagen Golf. Thinking ahead, I requested that the car be equipped with navigation; when the car pulled up, it had a Garmin GPS system plugged into the power source. Because my wife did not know our next destination, I took the Garmin and typed in “Vila Lika,” which the GPS located immediately and told us was just over 2 hours away. How wrong it would be! Or, should I say, how wrong “she” would be. You see, the voice for our Garmin was a female, and she spoke in what initially we thought was a charming British accent. As the day wore on, we would find “her” to be more and more annoying.
Pulling away from the car rental agency, though, we were full of anticipation and excitement as this would be our first European road trip together. Our many previous trips have been of the planes and trains variety, but generally did not include long stretches of driving. For my part, I was looking forward to being behind the wheel of a stick-shift car again – something that has all but disappeared in the United States. In my younger days, all of my cars were manual transmission and shifting gears was second nature. It has been a long time, however, since I drove a car with a stick. My father used to say that driving an automatic car is just “steering,” not driving. I have to agree with this, so I specifically requested a manual transmission car for the trip. Since the missus is an old-school kind of woman, she also can handle stick-shift cars so no worries there.
After finally figuring out how to find reverse, I backed out of the space and asked the wife to use the Garmin to navigate. That’s when the fun started. Pretty quickly we realized that our lovely British-accented Garmin lady guide did not know how to pronounce any of the Croatian street names. In fairness, the Croatian language seems to have a grudge against vowels. You will find entire words that are 100% consonants. On top of that, although the alphabet is mostly the Roman alphabet (A to Z) that we use in English, there are enough new letters (and pronunciations) thrown in to really mix things up. The way I see it there are three “C’s” and a bunch of “D’s” and “S’s”. Try singing the old “ABC” song to this:
Clearly, our she-Garmin did not study Croatian in school as she blithely ignored the little “hats” that sat above the C’s, S’s, and Z’s. One symbol turns a “c” into a “ch”; another into an “sh”. But like all confident speakers who don’t know any better, the Garmin just crammed all of the letters into a cruel soup of sounds that could not be comprehended to save one’s life. The first three turns we were supposed to make just getting to the main road in Zagreb we missed because the Garmin pronunciation sounded nothing like the name on the street sign. After a while, we wondered whether some sadistic programmer at Garmin conspired to record just a single pronunciation for the tens of thousands of Croatian street names. To us, everything sounded like “yelkamostya oolika.” Already, the two-hour trip estimate was under stress as it took us 25 minutes to leave town.
Once on the road, my bad-ass self took to shifting gears as often as I could, even when shifting was not entirely necessary. But hey, when you’ve got the stick in your hand you have to use it, right? We settled in for what we assumed would now be a smooth ride. About half an hour in, the Garmin instructed us to proceed on some undecipherable road, which we gathered was straight ahead. Unfortunately, the road was closed for construction and a very major detour was put in place, forcing us to head due east for many miles instead of south as intended. This part of Croatia is not particularly wide and I was afraid we would end up in Bosnia. For nearly 50 miles, our Garmin guide, in “her” perfect British accent, instructed us “as soon as possible” to make “a legal U-turn.” This, presumably, so we could go back to the road that was blocked off. The missus and I kept thinking that “she” would readjust her bearings and give us a corrected route, but we were mistaken. She continued to bleat out the same request for us to turn around until, finally, we were able to reconnect to the main road.
When I originally planned this destination, I saw on the map that there were some impressive waterfalls along the way. Given the detours we had taken, I was no longer positive that we would pass that way. However, at the last moment, as we were about to drive by, I noticed a sign for the town where the waterfalls were located. I whipped the car over (downshifting twice, I’ll have you know) and parked by the side of the road. “Is everything okay,” asked the wife, “why are we stopping?” “I thought this might be a good place to take a picture,” I told her. Boy was I right.
I didn’t bother asking she-Garmin how to pronounce the town – Grad Slunj. But it was a gorgeous location with some amazing powerful waterfalls created by the confluence of two rivers. These are the views from just next to the main road.
We have visited Oregon several times and without question that state has some amazing waterfalls, including the impressive Multnomah Falls. Croatia, though, may have the most impressive series of waterfalls we have ever seen.
The missus would have stayed longer but I dragged her back to the car. Unbeknownst to her, we would be seeing even more impressive waterfalls the following day. Eventually, she-Garmin started to get optimistic, telling us that we were 50, 30, 10, and then finally 1 kilometer from our destination. We pulled into the driveway of a lovely lodging property that backed up to the mountain.
We got our key and headed to the room to crash. We brought food with us because I knew the location was somewhat remote and there would be few local restaurant options. The room turned out to be very nice – not overly spacious but recently built with some very modern and elegant touches.
The view out of our patio was stunning as our villa building overlooked the entrance to the national park.
So where were we, you might ask? We were about .4 kilometers from the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest national park in Croatia. It is on the bucket list of most sensible people who are aware of it, and the rightful source of national pride for Croatians. Think of it as their Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone Park. It has been chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its immense natural beauty. We were there to check it off of our bucket list.
We went to bed early and got up early as we wanted to see the entire park before heading off to our next destination. We enjoyed an impressive buffet breakfast at Vila Lika (including one of the best omelets we have had in many a year) and headed off to the park. In all, it took us about 5 hours to get around the park, which included nearly 20,000 steps and 60 floors of walking, a tram ride, and a boat ride. Plitvice Lakes is an immense place and we saw every inch of it. The missus was blown away as generally I would not think to include something in our itinerary that involves a great deal of walking. For her, and for this place, I made an exception and I have no regrets. It was one of the most stunning places either of us has ever been.
Plitvice Lakes has sixteen lakes in total, and so many waterfalls that we have not seen a reliable count. Some of the waterfalls are huge, cascading over 275 feet from top to bottom, while others fall just a few feet. But there are waterfalls every way you turn and everywhere you go.
During the first half of the day I told the missus, “I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing waterfalls.” As we rounded hour 5 and made the steep climb to get to the top of the walking path for the Upper Lakes, I reconsidered. “I’m over the waterfalls,” I told her, perhaps in jest. Perhaps not.
Anyway, we were proud of ourselves for making it through the whole park. We made it back to the car, did a quick change of shoes, and again I set the destination in the Garmin. Due to high winds crossing the mountains we were diverted from the main highway onto a series of switch back mountain roads that seemed more dangerous than the original one. Garmin told us it would be two hours to our next destination. We were starting to think that a variation of the “Los Angeles” phenomenon was in play: when we lived in LA, if someone asked how long it took to get from Point A to Point B, we would say “20 minutes.” Maybe “two hours” is the answer in Croatia? In total, the trip took about 3 1/2 hours with a series of missed turns – some of them our fault, and some of them “hers” due to the wretched butchering of street names. Next post I’ll tell you where we ended up ….
October 29, 2016