When we’re stuck in a traffic jam leaving Ljubljana, hugging a highway curve along with hundreds of other annoyed cars, I send a picture of our next destination to a friend of mine.
damnn, he texts. it’s like something from tolkien
it’s probably going to be raining though, I text back. and all the pictures are always on a sunny day
I wish I wasn’t, but I’m right. When we arrive at the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Parks, it’s miserable drizzle. The few dry sections of the tiny bus stop is hopelessly crowded, and the next bus hopelessly late. When it finally comes, we’re sold overpriced tickets for a twenty-minute ride an Indian couple uses to shout their plans in Hindi to each other from opposite ends of the vehicle.
But once we walk the damp distance to the place we’re staying, our hiking boots are off, and our backpacks unstuck, we begin to warm up. It’s been a long day coming back to Croatia since we left Ljubljana this morning, also in the rain. This new hostel is spacious and cushy. The common room is stacked with board games and the kitchen even has a bowl of biscuits that disappears in seconds. We introduce ourselves to the only two other visible guests—Noe, an economist from Argentina, and Ella, an Indonesian flight stewardess living in Hong Kong—and decide to cook dinner in company.
Ella and Noe met down in Dubrovnik in a hostel, and have been travelling together, first by accident and then by intention, since. As the pasta boils, Melanie asks Noe about her job: what does an Argentinian economist do? Noe laughs. “Ask Ella. She knows how much I love my work.”
They’ve been together for a week, maybe less, but finish each other’s sentences, answer questions in lieu of the other. “And you remember that party hostel—”
I turn to Hannah, about to make some comment about how crazy it sounds, like something from a movie, to travel together after such a short time, declare best friendship, but then I remember we met Hannah, too, a week ago, and she came across Europe from Germany to see us. I never thought anything of it. There wasn’t any grand narrative to any of it. Things just happened.
Plitvice Lakes, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the oldest national parks in Croatia. Surrounded by mountains, the many forested slopes act as a giant water catchment that drains into this canyon, which, over the years, has segmented into 16 lakes, each bordered by natural dams of accumulated debris. The end result is waterfalls.
We see our first fall twenty minutes into the park. There are six of us together, Noe, Ella, Melanie, Hannah, me, and someone who overslept and jumped into the van just before it left, introducing himself over mouthfuls of banana as Othman. All of us collectively pause and turn. It’s not particularly big, but it’s crashing down in torrents, across the lake. We go down to the water edge and take pictures, groups, couples, singles, trying to place ourselves together with it. Something about it arrests the eye, even if you know what a waterfall looks like— to know all of that is tumbling in white mass right there compels you closer.
“Don’t say it,” Melanie says suddenly.
“Fairytale. Don’t say it. You need a new word.”
I begin to protest that it undeniably is a fairytale, that this is the place just around the corner from where the castle will come into view, but I get her point. As a self-proclaimed writer, my repeated use of such a horrible cliche is getting a little embarrassing. “I’ll find a new one,” I promise her.
“Picturesque and postcard don’t count,” she says.
I make to punch her. She ducks away. “You need to tuck your thumb in more,” she calls back from the other side of Hannah. “You’re just asking to break your fingers.”
It’s not raining, thankfully, but it’s still cloudy, and most of the lakes have mist ungluing from the surface. It is, like I thought, too gray to be the postcards sold in the gift shop outside. There’s not much of Tolkien around. But the mountains around broaden upwards and the lakes sink so clear you can count the fish in each shoal.
“Sublime” I say to Melanie, out of nowhere.
“That’s the new word. Sublime. As in subliminal.”
She laughs. “Now you’re just getting pretentious.”
I smile. Probably, but the point of subliminal is also sublimate, as in go from solid to air, slipping concrete to insubstantial without warning. And fairytales are concrete things with defined tropes and patterns: this is not. The forests in the distance blur at the edges; at first I try to wipe my glasses, but it’s just where the fog comes in, nibbling at the clarity of leaves, branches, and instead there’s trees so barely sketched out they might be thoughts. You have to walk tentatively to remain rooted on the slippery boardwalks. Skeletal trees figure ghostly where fallen into the water. Reflections flicker out halfway down.
We’re none of us quite sure where we’re going. There are signs, but some loop back, and there are crowds, but quite often it’s just the six of us and the water and wind. Othman tells us about coming to Germany from Libya in the height of the revolution. He smiles and laughs easily and is going back to see his family for the first time in five years after this trip. He wants to get a scholarship to do his master’s in the United States. His German visa requires he have a certain amount of money every year, and there’s no support from his parents. “When I first came I had to work in a canning factory,” he says, and shudders. “Don’t do that if you don’t have to.” But now he has a paid internship at a solar energy research firm.
Across a lake in a ferry we find a canteen for lunch. There’s barely room for all of us to squeeze into a booth. As the rest of the tables fill up, a girl and her mother ask to join us. They’re Lauren and Susan, respectively, from Australia. Lauren is on a gap year and travelling Europe as well before taking an au pair position in England. “I took a gap year as well,” her mother says. “I met my best friend in a hostel in London. We ended up travelling Africa together—my friend and I met our husbands when we were late for a bus in Ghana and had to sit in the back. She married the man on the left, I got together with the man on the right.”
Susan is impossibly matter-of-fact about it all, even after everyone else around the table repeats no way in turn. “I keep saying there should be a movie about her life,” her daughter says. “I’m hoping to make similar stories of my own.”
The route through the park ends by the imaginatively named Big Waterfall. The spray is too loud for us to talk to each other, and so I can’t overload Melanie with clichéd descriptors, but it doesn’t matter. Instead we shout and gesture, raise our arms, jump off the rocks, over and over, trying to get close, or just instead prove that we were there, next to this force more concrete than body, which thunders into our feet, our bones. If we were to stand under it we would be driven to pieces. Who are you next to this power? What are your stories next to the world’s? Or perhaps that’s the story travel tells us all along.
It’s Melanie’s birthday the next day, and back at the hostel we stay up till midnight making chicken curry, playing cards, and eating ice cream. There are new arrivals to learn the names of: Tom, the music festival host who met Noe and Ella weeks ago, Anna, a Canadian twenty-something divorcee who asks me why my English is so good (“I didn’t know people spoke English in India!”), Bob, a sixty-something man who plays an obscene card game with us, more people to laugh with into the dark, spinning out jokes and stories to last for warm moments.
The next morning I raid the kitchen’s flour stores, use up the rest of the bananas and eggs, and mix pancake batter. I have vague plans of piles of fluffy flapjacks waiting when Melanie wakes up. The hostel is almost completely still. Melanie and Hannah won’t wake up for another two hours, at least, and everyone else has gone to the lakes for the day.
It’s snowing. Lightly, true, but still snowing, small flakes that hurry purposefully to the ground and then vanish, and again, and again. I make myself a cup of instant coffee, take out my notebook, sit with the intent of journaling at the dining table. Without opening the book, I grip the cooling coffee and stare outside at the balcony. Each flake rests for a flash of white on the blackboard outside. I try to take a picture but it seems like the snow is too fragile for the camera; it slips out of the lens and leaves the impression of movement alone. In my indoor cocoon, I am warm, safe, and simple in the knowledge the sky patterns colder rhythms beyond.
Later I scrape burned pancakes from the skillet while Melanie eats the rest before they’re fully cooked. “I don’t really like pancakes,” she says between mouthfuls. “But I appreciate the effort.”
I sigh. “I’ll buy you a chicken instead.”
We pack, hoist, and venture outwards. Our bus takes us out from Plitvice, slowly, past the bare cliffs that loom unexpectedly massive around each turn, till those too recede and we near the coast.
Buildings creep back in around us, department stores and restaurants. At Zadar we buy a bus ticket to Seline, a small town by the Velebit mountains where we’ve booked an AirBnB for our last three nights with Hannah.
The Velebit mountains draws a jagged line down the Adriatic coast of Croatia. Though not the tallest, they encompass 2000 square kilometers of the country’s largest range of peaks, and some of its most naturally valuable areas, with two national parks set across its mass and an endemic mustard plant lingering on the high slopes. As the AirBnB marketed itself, this is “where the mountain meets the sea”.
It’s a romantic image, but as we look out from the bus windows, it’s clear these are not romantic mountains. They’re gray, jagged, and barren, bereft of any vegetation, save for dusty bushes that scatter the slopes. They are hard, solid, and unforgivingly ominous.
If they’re a fairytale, they’re where the thunder cracks ominously and a lightning strike briefly shadows them into towering horror just at the climax; if Tolkien, this is where the dragon lives. Under the perennially cloudy sky that’s followed us since Ljubljana, they gloom. The sea it meets is murky teal.
Melanie squints. “The hills look like piles of gravel.”
We laugh, and haul our bags up the stairs to the apartment. The mountains can wait outside for now. Today, it’s still Melanie’s birthday. She has not forgotten her chicken. In fact, she’s talked about little else since leaving Plitvice. We collect supplies at the shipping-container supermarket down the road and fumble around the kitchen, snatching bites of the food as it darkens outside. When nightfalls, we watch as Melanie slowly, surely, and almost entirely unassisted reduces the whole chicken to bones, which she sucks dry and then puts to boil for stock.
Over the next few days, we cook long meals, go for long walks, and sit around the small kitchen table. For a moment we’re rooted, and the world radiates outwards from here.
We venture into the mountains our first morning, following a canyon known as Mala Paklenica—Little Canyon. It begins next to our apartment as a small ditch, and deepens heading into Velebit; we look up, half an hour down, and suddenly there are steep cliffs towering over us. There’s no fixed path, only red painted circles marking a general direction on the boulders that scatter the place. Going up means a lot of clambering, scraped knees and hands, and careful shoe-watching for the loose stones that might send us clattering.
The walls close in on us, tightening at one point to an intimate ten meters across. The sun’s come out, but we remain in shadow among the unexpected thickets of trees with their unexpectedly purple wildflowers. They cling to the slope, wrinkling determinedly at strange angles towards the light. When we began our hike we could almost see the end of the canyon and the snow slopes beyond, but within it that’s vanished, and instead we wander a strange lengthened room of rock. As we ascend, behind us the Adriatic yawns into a greater and greater slice of the horizon through some trick of perspective, cut into a neat camera obscura square of blue by the canyon rippling downwards. The red houses by the store feel very distant. We eat lunch like that—sea at our backs and unknown slopes ahead.
I go for runs, my first in weeks. It’s chilly and dry and my strides lengthen the houses into blurs of rosemary-lined porches. A crumbling church is fronted by a meadow of waving white flowers. At my side, the mountains are cast in different colors as the sun falls: first pale with late afternoon, then gold, and finally a deep purple as I push against the twilight to get back. When I walk into the apartment, breathing hard, they’re hazy and mutable on the horizon, geologic ghosts.
None of the towns on the coast—there are two in proximity—are more than a line of houses along the coastal road, broken by the occasional camping ground or grocery. Now, in the low season, everything’s mostly shuttered, which means the playground by the coast is empty enough to colonize the monkey bars for a gleefully childish half hour. This is a slow place. On our second day, we we walk further along the coast. An old couple hunch underneath a grove of olive trees. I call out to them—they’re collecting vegetables to stuff meat with, apparently, and all the herbs grow in people’s front yards. By the slate beach we collect and skip stones. Each ripples briefly, concentric circles fighting against the waves, before yielding to the smooth silver of the bay. It’s still cloudy and it remains so until we leave. Everything happens under the muted dishwater sky.
In the evenings I go out alone for the sunset and arrive at the shore just after it disappears. But the horizon lines with streaks of orange and red, pointing in the direction it went.
Zadar is a jolt of urbanity after Seline. We delight in a restaurant meal, literally licking each dish clean, wander the Forum, and dodge tourists to get a seat on the Sea Organ. This urban installation—winner of an award of the best public space in Europe—is the creation of Nikola Basic, a Croat who transformed the monotonous sea walls of a reconstructed Zadar into a series of pipes that transformed the waves into music. It’s, obviously, not melodic—or even obviously rhythmic, for that matter. It doesn’t comprehend neatly. All I can really do is sit there, and try to make out where one wave ends, and the next begins. After a while I can tell the shifts in timbre when a cruise ships rocks the water further out, the slight deepenings and keenings.
Hannah leaves while we wait there for it to get to dark. Her bus to the airport beckons. It hardly feels like a week, or two, or any time at all, really, and as Melanie and I walk back to our accomodation for the night, we try to wrap our heads around the idea of halfway through the trip as a whole. By all rights we have passed the peak, and everything that follows from here is denouement, the counting down. But it still feels that everything is coming at us. It still feels like the story has barely begun.
We’re staying with Lujica, a loud, laughing Couchsurfer who studies the psychology of hitchhikers and budget travel at the university here while campaigning for mental health issues, collecting asparagus with her friends on weekends, and researching Balkans mythology. We stay up late as she explains the Croatian economy and new gods in familiar fables.
I realize I have no compulsion to describe any of Zadar as fairytale, nor Seline, even though it fit the postcards—the glittering sea and red houses, a Sphinx statue peeking out of a garden, boats lining the shore. Maybe it’s because I have fewer expectations. Or maybe it’s because it all feels so human now—not human as in mundane, but human as in sprawling beyond the confines of a postcard or a beginning / middle / end. A fairytale also implies a protagonist, which would be me, I guess, and so many people have been telling me I’ll be a different person when returning from this trip. Perhaps I’ve been waiting, too, for that storybook transformation. At some point the mice were going to make me a dress and take me from ignorance to enlightenment. The sun would come out and everything would glisten.
But Lucija puts on a playlist of what she declares the worst music possible—Balkans disco. Subliminal was my replacement word for fairytale and maybe it’s more apt: I will lose myself in the music, self sublimated in the absolute horror of it. But even thinking it the word sounds oddly stiff and so instead I think back to the mountains at Seline and their shifting colors. I think of my long legs and the kilometers disappearing into the meadows and the lightness of the simple goal of the next lamp post, the next corner, the next town. I dance in Lucija’s living room, laughing.