September 29-October 2, 2016: Cinque Ci Road Trip to Croatia

One of the researchers at the CCSDD is from Croatia and she advised us not to drive all the way to Dubrovnik, but we did it anyways. We took a massive 4 day roadtrip from Bologna all the way around the Adriatic Sea to Dubrovnik and back. It was a lot of driving. A lot of time spent in the middle seat in the back of a car (I’m the smallest). And a lot of fun.

We naturally started later than we had planned. And then we let Will navigate. He likes to read the map on his own without using the navigation app. He took us off the route that our printed directions gave us. And led us on a short detour throug a bit of Austria. Just because. It was maybe an extra 20 minutes, and we figured on a road trip, what’s another 20 minutes?

The Italian countryside is really pretty. There are long single lines of those thin, tall trees you envision when you think of Italian countryside. There are acres upon acres of pristine farmland. The highway was surprisingly good in Italy. But the stretch of road we were really worried about wasn’t the Italina one, it was the Croatian one. We’ll get to that later.

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Taken by Will in Villach, Austria

The sky and clouds were really dark in Italy and Slovenia. But that same sky, just on the other side of the mountains, in Austria was totally bright and colorful. It was like night and day. The hills looked very Sound of Music. We drove through tunnels right through the mountains. On the Austrian side, we stopped in the village of Villach for lunch. I had a classic wiener schnitzel. We walked through the main part of town, which was actually very pretty. It runs along a river and looks like one of those towns you see on the European river tour commercials. We were only away for about an hour but we got a parking ticket. We didn’t even think about paying for parking cause we didn’t see a meter. Didn’t even occur to us. So we ended up with a ticket we had no way of paying or reading. Whoops. I don’t think there’s really any risk of the Italian car rental company even trying to pay that fee. So we’re in the clear.

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I don’t quite remember where this was. Somewhere above Lake Bled, Slovenia

Continuing on our way, we stopped at Lake Bled in Slovenia. It is a pictaresque lake where people camp and do outdoorsy things. People jog around the perimeter. And there is an annoying amount of bugs. There is a church on an island in the middle of the lake. There is a pretty fancy hotel along the lakefront. But we weren’t staying long. It was just on our way, and it was only on our way because we took the Austrian detour.

We then stopped ten minutes in Ljubljana to take a few pictures before we stopped for the night in Zagreb. We were literally in Ljubljana for ten minutes, but there was really nothing to see. The main attraction was a river crossing where three bridges converge at the same point. They have three bridges where one would have done just fine. It looks something like this:

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We debated staying the night in Ljubljana but we had already booked an airbnb in Zagreb, so we drove some more. We were given a parking spot on the sidewalk right in front of the building. We had a TV and they still have Xiaolin Showdown on Cartoon Network! We watched Croatian MTV for a bit, which was mostly American music, including our roadtrip theme song, Closer by Chainsmokers. I don’t really like the Chainsmokers, but the song grew on me after listening to it nonstop in the car. On the other hand, the country playlist littered with Taylor Swift and other country singers I’ve never heard of did not grow on me (we had some Southerners in the car).

There’s a cool big church in Zagreb and not too much else. The church was closed by the time we got there though, so I just saw it from the outside.  There is one main street with all the bars, but not too many restaurants. We ended up at an Italian restaurant masking as a Croatian restaurant. That is, Croatian cuisine is remarkably similar. One of the bars had a girl sitting in the second floor window singing karaoke while a Romeo admired from the street. The food and taxis are cheap in Croatia, too.

The highway from Zagreb to Split is new. Smooth driving. We left early enough that we arrived in Split around lunch time. Our Airbnb here was a little sketchier in a tall non-descript building with a view of the sea. It looked like an apartment building from the Sovet era, perhaps the equivalent of the projects. The elevator was small with a very low weight limit. We accidentally took it to the basement where there is a wall just lined in hooks for some reason.  The host was a navy man, so we made the assumption that this apartment was given to him by the military and he actually lives somewhere else. You could see the soccer stadium from the apartment, as well as some tennis courts, and a public soccer pitch.

Split is an ancient city that has a Croisette of sorts, resembling the Riviera with a long pedestrian walkway lining the sea with cafes and a cruise port.  It took us forever to choose a place for lunch. All the places were pretty touristy and we ended up choosing one a little further from the water but in a cool courtyard, even though we had to sit in the sun. We were just sick of being indecisive, so we decided on a less than optimal one.

Split has this incredible old bell tower as part of Diocletian’s Palace that you can climb up. It’s really high and the staircase goes around the inside perimeter. I started to feel my fear of heights looking down the inside of the tower. But I was quite fearless going out to one of the many ledges where we did a mini photoshoot. It was a great relaxing view just sitting out there. You could see the whole city.

We had a nice dinner where I ate a traditional Croatian dish called pasticada, which is like a beef stew.  They serve it with gnocchi. Actually, a lot of Croatian food is basically Italian food plus some specialty dishes. They do lots of fish. And pizza is ubiquitous. But I make a point to not eat pizza when I’m traveling outside Italy.

Let’s not forget, this is a road trip! Doing my part, unable to drive, I pumped gas for the first time. This was a big moment for me. Everyone was appalled that I had never pumped gas.  Turns out, it’s not as complicated as it looks. Never changed a tire either, if anyone is counting.

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The drive to Dubrovnik wasn’t as bad as we anticipated. The roads were fine, if a bit narrow and on the edge of a cliff. It was actually an incredible drive along the Dalmatian coast. Even the little stretch of Bosnia we drove through (and didn’t stop in) was beautiful. The whole coast is straight out of Game of Thrones. The nice part of Game of Thrones, King’s Landing that is. They, in fact, film there. And as we entered the city of Dubrovnik, we blasted the Game of Thrones theme song on the car speakers. It was glorious.

Now we mismanaged our time a little in Dubrovnik. The walled city and marbled streets are incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I wish we had more time to see more of it. The wall surrounds the entire city, and walking along it must be like what walkign the Great Wall of China is like–there are lots of Chinese tourists and it’s a massive wall. From the wall, you get an overhead view of the Red City, with its distinctively colored rooftops. You can even see the sea beyond the buildings. It’s a shame we had to rush along the wall, and we only got to walk along the northern part.

The reason is because we spent time on the ferry to Lokrum, where there is an iron throne. I tried to get clarification about this throne. It is a throne. Not the throne. And everyone was saying that was obvious. But if that was the case, why did we go to this throne replica? It was a nice part of Dubrovnik, don’t get me wrong. The monastery is pretty cool. But we did not need to go there and spend money on the ferry that took forever. I would’ve much rather spent more time on the wall. Especially because we ended up seeing another replica throne at the end of our tour.

We did do a Game of Thrones walking tour of the city. But the Red Keep was closed…for a wedding! I understand that diehard fans are really into it, but a Game of Thrones themed wedding? That’s just asking for it. Game of Thrones is notorious for weddings that end in death. Why would you tempt fate? So they rented out the fort and we were able to see the outside only. They did take us to a bunch of other spots where they film the show, including the infamous staircase where Cersei did her walk of shame. It sits right underneath a place of worship, which was apparently problematic when ti came time to getting permission to film the scene. And people actually live on this street too. So they had to all stay inside and close their windows and not leak spoilers. Or get cast as an extra. It’s like half the city works on this show, whether in the crew or as an extra. Our tour guide is a stand-in for the Daenerys and sometimes Cersei. It was cool, but admittedly the tour was a little underwhelming. We only saw the outside of things, because, well, the inside of those things are not the same as in the show.  For example, the whorehouse in the show is actually an ethnographic museum.

But aside from sight seeing, I actually enjoyed just wandering around the old city and feeling the atmosphere of the narrow streets untouched by cars or asphalt. I really didn’t know much anything about Croatia. I had no expectations. I never thought I’d go to Croatia. It wasn’t even somewhere I thought I had desire to go. But Croatia is simply gorgeous. I was so impressed by Croatia. And I only wished that we had more time.

Perhaps my favorite moment though was at night. We were back at our airbnb out on the terrace enjoying the night. And we chatted the night away. It was like being back in college. And since I actually am a college student, it was comforting to be back in that atmosphere. Being with close friends. And being able to just chat about anything. You need to have good friends for a road trip.

We made amazing time driving back all the way around the sea in a single day. We left around 9:30 and got back to Bologna at 8:15. Savannah and Gianna alternated driving. And it was really rough sitting in a car for so long. It rained almost the whole way too. We made a couple of stops. One was at a rest stop in Croatia that had really good food. I had a cream cake, which is a Croatian specialty. And cream and cake are two of my favorite words.

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