The sun beat down white-hot on the concrete platform as we sweated inside the crowded train compartment. The window was open, but we felt no breeze. We longed for the train to roll out of Budapest's dingy Deli station in the hope that the rushing air would provide cool relief.
My wife, teenage daughter and I were embarking on the first leg of a trip through Eastern Europe, an eight-hour train ride from Budapest to Zagreb, Croatia's capital city. Unfortunately, we had to endure a long, sweltering afternoon and evening on the train before we could enjoy Zagreb's pleasures. We shared our compartment with three female Norwegian college students heading for a Croatian holiday. The train crawled along, stopping every few minutes to pick up or drop off passengers at a series of stops along Hungary's Lake Balaton.
Through the train windows we glimpsed sunbathers and swimmers at the edge of the sparkling blue lake and watched as people in shorts and tank tops poured back cold drinks at outdoor cafes. Our misery was compounded by the fact that we hadn't brought enough water with us on the train and no food or drinks were available for purchase.
As the train slowed at a station, I asked the conductor how long we would be stopping. "One minute," he said, holding up a finger. "Will there be a longer stop?" I asked. "Zagreb," he said.
We arrived at dusk in Zagreb, and after withdrawing kuna from the ATM, we bought bottles of chilled water at the train station snack bar and downed them on the spot before searching out a taxi to take us to our pension. Happily, the train ride turned out to be the biggest disaster of our trip, and we faced much smoother -- if still hot -- sailing as we traveled through Croatia and beyond.
Minor annoyances aside, we soon fell into a pleasant rhythm of sightseeing in the morning, napping in our room during the hottest part of the afternoon and then venturing out in the early evening. Most people we talked to planned to spend as little time in Zagreb as possible, using the city as a transit hub to reach Croatia's better-known destinations along the southern Dalmatian coast, including Split, Dubrovnik and the islands of Korcula and Hvar.
We spent two nights and one full day in Croatia's capital and found it very enjoyable. The city center is compact and walkable, so we didn't need to ride the electric trams and buses that zipped up and down the major streets.
A few steps from the front door of our pension was Dolac Market, a wide plaza where vendors set up tables every morning and loaded them with fruits, vegetables and flowers. The plaza was ringed with open-air cafes, and on our first night we ate at a trattoria, where a full meal of salad, pasta dishes, wine and desert cost less than $40 for the three of us. The twin-spired Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was built on the foundations of a medieval church, looms over the market square.
Down a flight of stairs from the plaza, in a cavernous subterranean space, was a busy meat, fish and cheese market. Zagreb's central business district is lined with shops selling everything from fashionable clothing and cosmetics to books and music CDs. In the evenings we walked along a green belt of parkway that was several blocks long and dotted with stately trees and fountains and people-watched as families and teens came out to enjoy the cool air.
From Zagreb we planned to go next to Plitvice Lakes National Park, 2.5 hours south of the capital by bus, which boasts 16 turquoise lakes and dozens of waterfalls. The park maintains a tourist office just across from Zagreb's main train station, and on the morning before our departure we stopped by to get information about accommodations and transportation to and from the park.
The friendly English-speaking woman at the counter said we could either stay at one of three hotels inside the park or rent a room from one of the small, privately run guest houses clustered outside the park gates. She told us that the staff in the visitors' office at the park gate could call around and help us find a room once we arrived at Plitvice. (She also suggested that we ask the bus driver because drivers on the Zagreb-Plitvice route generally live near the park and know many of the guest-house owners.)
The next morning a pre-ordered taxi picked us up at the pension and drove us to the bus station, where we climbed on our bus for the scenic ride to the national park. As promised, a staffer in the park information office across the road from the bus stop quickly found us a place to say that was within walking distance.
After checking out the immaculate room and dropping off our bags, we walked back to the park, which can be thoroughly covered in three to four hours. The park's hiking trails are split into upper and lower segments, which are connected by a ride across a lake on a quietly humming electric-powered boat. We walked along the park's crowded pathways, admiring the lakes that were so clear we could see fish and underwater plants as if through a magnifying glass. The water looked inviting in the mid-day heat, but swimming was not allowed.
The paths -- some of which were dirt and others wooden walkways -- went next to, around and sometimes right over the park's many cascades and waterfalls. Once we reached the end of the upper segment of the park, we took a tram back to the park entrance. Both the boat ride and tram were included in the admission ticket.
One of my favorite spots was a path along the upper rim of the park that offered panoramic views of the blue-green lakes and dozens of large and small waterfalls. On the July afternoon when we visited, the hot, sultry day turned overcast, and as we watched from the viewpoint, bolts of lightning lit up the sky and deep, rumbling thunder shook the ground. Plitvice was one of the highlights of our trip, and its beauty rivals the world's most scenic natural wonders. From there we took a bus south to Zadar and then traveled on to Split, Korcula Island and Dubrovnik, each a gem in its own right on the Adriatic Sea.
It's no wonder that Croatia's entire southern coast is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. Whether we were walking on the marble streets inside the walls of Diocletian's Palace in Split -- where shops, restaurants and private apartments are crammed into a space once occupied by the emperor's summer residence -- or hiking along Dubrovik's city walls, taking in the views of sea, cliffs and orange tile roofs, we contended with throngs of visitors from Europe, Asia and the United States. Next time we'll travel in the spring or fall to avoid the large crowds, high prices and soaring temperatures of summer. And we'll bring plenty of water to drink on the train.
WHEN YOU GO
For further information on visiting Croatia, go to www.zagreb-touristinfo.org, www.zagrebcard.fivestars.hr, www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/ and www.croatia.hr/en-gb/homepage
Joe Tash is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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