Slowly I drive towards the toll booth and stare at the ticket machine on my left. I feel my boyfriend looking at me in a curious way. I begin to feel the urge to throw an old cleaning rag from the glove compartment at him. We have now been together on a road trip through Croatia for almost two weeks and for the same two weeks I've been providing entertainment at every toll station.
Somehow, I always manage to stop about three yards away from the ticket dispenser which only pushes the ticket out 2 inches. So while I lower the window and wave my arm around in the empty air yet another time, my boyfriend tries unsuccessfully to hide his loud chortles to my right, at the same time someone behind me is honking his horn, and I feel like a cat who put its head through a too-narrow garden fence and can’t back out.
Somehow, despite my fatal inadequacy in grabbing tickets while remaining inside the car, we manage to see the magnificent waterfalls in Krka National Park, a sunset on the beach and the cozy Old Town section of the city of Split.
As I park the rental car we note that it is parked "totally crooked" (says my boyfriend) or "absolutely still somehow in the lines" (I say). Afterwards we always seem to spend our evenings on our small balcony above the roofs of Split where we find a glass of wine and either pizza or pasta with homemade sauce are waiting for us. These are summer nights where it is not quite dark and still 85 degrees at 10 p.m. These are the days, and this is the life that never completely comes back, except in wonderful memories.
"Where are we going?!" asks my boyfriend as we slowly turn towards the small gas station. We do not enter from the main
street however, like all the other cars, but through the apparently unused back lot full of potholes. I look at the GPS navigator he had given me some months ago so I can drive safely through the
roads of Europe.
“No idea, this is the official route to the highway, according to the GPS” I answer. We rumble over a curb, through the gas station, and then turn onto the main road.
"Are we already on the toll road?" my boyfriend asks nervously, looking around as seemingly hundreds of speeding cars thunder past him.
"We haven’t passed the tollbooth to get our ticket yet!" I reply. The ticket is used to calculate your toll fee when you exit the turnpike.
"What if we accidentally ran around the booth when we went through the gas station lot?" He is speaking a bit too loud now and his face begins look like he thinks the FBI is after him.
"Then you gave me a really cool GPS unit," I say cheerfully.
We spend the next 15 minutes going a bit crazy trying to figure out how we could explain all this to the guy at the tollbooth where we want to get off. Then we figure out we are still on a freeway, but not yet on the tollway. Although the cars to our left and right speed by as if they are racing in the Daytona 500. But it is just that the driving here is totally Croatian normal.
After only about an hour from Split, we arrive at Krka National Park.
“Krka", says my boyfriend. I defensively crisscross my index fingers in the shape of a cross. The word sounds like he just coughed because of Corona virus. "What happened to all the vowels here in Croatian words?" I ask.
“The Croatians gave them to the French, who stuck them randomly in their words,” boyfriend explains, with a straight face. We both begin to laugh like a pair of silly geese as we stumble into the park. If there is one thing that is important in a relationship, it is that both parties have the same crazy sense of humor.
Krka National Park is over 27,000 acres in size. Driving from one entrance to another can take over an hour. There are many monastery ruins we could see, but we decide to visit the main attraction, the Krka River, which winds its way through a long canyon as it plunges down in seven waterfalls.
We walk over wooden boardwalks between high reeds and crystal-clear turquoise water to Skradinski Buk, the most beautiful waterfall in the park. You can even swim there. Of course, I left my swimming gear at home. But even without a swimming suit, the sight of the wide, white cascades thundering over the precipice into the depths of the river as it continues below is simply impressive.
In the afternoon we search for the Roski Slap waterfall for several hours in scorching heat. We finally find it, or what’s left of it, as we also learn that it dries up in the summer due to lack of water. Oh, fudge nuggets. My face seems to be burning up. I plop it into the river to cool it down. Now we go home.
The Krka National Park is so large, we decide a second day is totally worth another day trip. As we approach the toll booth I mention to my boyfriend that grill tongs would be very handy to extend my arm and get this shitty ticket out of the slot which is, again, 300 yards away from my window.
“You could just drive a little closer to the machine,” my boyfriend points out.
"Hush," I diplomatically reply. “Just remember you still drive in third gear at 60 miles an hour.” (Editor's note: My boyfriend is American and for 10 years only drives cars with automatic transmissions.)
The Manojlovac waterfall, Krka’s highest with a fall of 180 feet, and the Rosnjak waterfall are hidden in the northern part of the Krka National Park. It is often said that both falls are difficult to get to. But that is not exactly true. At the Manojlovac waterfall, the temperature hovers around 99 degrees as we descend on a somewhat eroded serpentine path and fight our way past a ruin, possibly Roman, to a heavenly intermediate cascade of the waterfall, where I sit with my legs in the green water. A hidden place but not impossible to get to.
And at the foot of the Rosnjak waterfall, we find a small eddy in the river with a wonderful place to sit on a bent tree trunk. Which is especially nice as I am drowning in sweat and feeling like I want to die. As I sit here, I think that August is not the best travel time for Croatia because of the heat, but it is the only way for my boyfriend and I to see each other due to the Corona border closings.
After all the drudgery of Krka, we head to the beach the next day. Our landlady recommends the small town of Omiš, which is about thirty minutes south of Split. Despite the intense competition for space, we find a parking spot right by the sea; but only because I shout to a family with an open trunk lid, “Hey, are you leaving?” We then flick on the turn signal to show our intent and block other traffic until the spot is actually clear. One road trip through southern Europe is more instructive than fifty hours in a driving school.
The port city of Omis has a small historic center with narrow streets, crumbly brick roofs and cats. We take a wonderful walk hand-in-hand through empty cobblestone streets. In the evening we sit together at the pier with homemade sandwiches made of brie, arugula, and black olives and watch the sun set across the bay. I lean against my boyfriend's shoulder as the orange-tinged water in front of us begins to darken. It's incredibly nice to just be out with someone special. But above all, just to be with someone special. Sitting somewhere with someone who reacts to events like you do and who sees the world as you do; someone who doesn't have the attitude of those who stumble across the crowded beach, shouting needlessly while eating fries and drinking beer.
"Sarah, life with you is so wonderful. So special. Life with you is like a poem," murmurs my boyfriend. Since we have been together, I know this is not just some line in a movie, but his true feeling. Looking deep into his eyes, I answer, "Yes, Shakespeare, I know. Being with you is the best thing that has ever happened to me."
Because we do not really want to eat in corona-infested restaurants, we cook ourselves each evening. But tonight, we spend the evening in Split's old town. It is large and much more beautiful than the Old Town of Zagreb. A beige church towers over the harbor which is lined with sailing ships. We enter a huge plaza with red arcades that opens before us like a ballroom under an open sky. We buy some gelato and begin to walk (lavender hazelnut ice cream, COOL!). We stroll through the narrow streets, walk up staircases, wind past wine shops and look at handicrafts displayed along the way.
Later we sit on our balcony with the small wooden table. It's dark and warm, as if someone had left the oven on. My legs lie across my boyfriend's knees. On one side, the distant lights of the city are shining, while on the other side, we are just able to make out the mountains looming nearby in the darkness.
We are having a fantastic time in Croatia. I had wanted to spend the whole summer with my boyfriend in the USA, but all borders are closed due to Corona. We find a temporary solution in a third country open to both of us. At this moment, Germany is deciding on an exemption for unmarried, binational couples that would allow my boyfriend to visit me directly in Germany. "Now it's too late, now we're here," I say thoughtfully.
"Well," my boyfriend whispers into my ear. “Now we have seen a beautiful country instead. Croatia."
"Yes," I say. “Life is funny. Somehow everything always seems to happen for a reason."
You can read more about our film-ready meeting in Croatia after four months of separation under A Love Story in a Third Country: How I saw my Boyfriend despite Border Closures.
Our adventures at the Plitvice Lakes and in a sloping cottage in the Croatian countryside can be found at With the Leadfoot from Turquoise Cascades to Dracula’s Cottage - Road Trip Croatia I.