We rented a car for a few days and decided to travel from Split, Croatia to Plitvice Lake National Park. I needed to hike; we were not exercising enough. The Plitvice Lake National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage consisting of a chain of 16 terraced lakes joined by waterfalls. Peter drove and I searched Booking.com for places to stay. I stopped at the following review for a half board, breakfast and dinner villa with four guest apartments:
‘Villa Irene – you are greeted with an exceptionally warm welcome and everything is wonderful,’ said the review.
What more could I want? I am always curious if I can get a cheaper price if I phone the place directly. I called the phone number on the webpage and Irene’s husband, Damir, answered. I managed to tell him I needed a room for tonight before he proceeded to tell me how he was picking up his son from school, how well his son had done in school that year and all about what he will do with his son for the Easter break.
“Do you have a room for tonight?.”
“I phone my wife I phone you back. Just opened Thursday and so busy.”
A few minutes later Damir calls me back with a price that was 50 Euro below the booking.com price for one night and described all four apartments to me in detail. Obviously not as busy as he thought. I said yes to the mountain view.
“What time would you like dinner?” He asked. I reframed from giving the typical American answer 5:30/6 and answered:
“7 pm.” He replied with the following:
“That is very hard. Irene is alone. I pick up my son. 9 pm is better. Then I can help Irene.”
Once again, I wondered if most of the southern European population just dropped down dead from heart disease because they ate so late.
“8 pm?” I asked.
“8:30 pm.” He replied.
I, the customer, gave up and replied: “Yes.” I hung up and focused on the scenery.
After driving into the national park we arrived at the resort.
“Peter, Jill, Peter, Jill.” A trim dark haired woman bellows and strides toward us as we climb out of the car.
“Hello, welcome to Plitvice Lake Resort – Irene’s Villa. I am Irene. You will stay two nights, not one.” And she grabbed my shoulders and hugged me.
“You stay two nights.”
I began to stutter.
“Er, one. We only booked one.” The irony was that we had no plans or ideas about where we were going the night after. We were improvising.
After Irene gave Peter a huge hug and kisses on both cheeks, she guided us to our apartment and repeated several times.
“Two nights, you stay two nights.”
At 8:30 pm we walked over to the eating area, which did not have walls, but instead heavy plastic draped around the area to keep some warmth in. It was freezing. Damir appeared with two sheepskins and proceeded to drape them over our shoulders.
“Irene’s brother prepares sheepskin for our guests during the winter.” He declared. I had been eating basically vegan for the last two years and cringed at being wrapped in a sheepskin. Damir’s enthusiasm equals that of Irene and I could see how they function as a work team. The big difference was that Irene had a look in her eye which clearly stated, ‘Don’t cross me, I run the show’. Hence the name Irene’s Villa. Once again, our names were repeated with the sort of greeting one would give to a long-lost friend.
“Peter, Jill, Peter Jill. Here champagne.” As the glasses were thrust into our hands, the word ‘no’ was becoming harder to use. The champagne was followed by Irene’s homemade tomato soup. Damir went into great detail to explain to us how the tomatoes were picked in Irene’s father’s garden. Tomatoes that he had grown with loving care. The explanation continued throughout the entire first course. It had become obvious that Damir was going to stand by our side the entire dinner. And that he did. In between, he would deliver jokes which might have been tolerated in the 1950s but now were sexist. I performed my disapproving lip purse. But to no avail. Irene appeared with the second course. Noodles soaked in truffle oil and butter. The Croatians are proud of their truffles. However, the amount they use for dishes and the amount I think is normal differs greatly. The noodles were swimming in oil and truffles. The final course was Irene’s homemade apple pie. I sighed and wondered how long I would stay alive if I continued with days of no fruit and vegetables. I asked Peter and he replied: “This is not the time to talk about our intake of fruits and vegetables.”
We stood to leave, but Damir would not allow us to depart.
“Schnapps Peter and Jill.” The glasses and Schnapps landed in front of us before we could mumble a word. Then Damir called Irene to join us: “Tomorrow we serve huge trout. You stay two nights I have already picked up the trout.”
“You stay two nights and I cook wonderful Irene special for you,” said Irene.
The third time she said it I replied: “Yes we stay two nights.” Peter’s mouth fell open and he shook his head. Finally, we had the opportunity to stand up and they stepped forward to hug us again. In all fairness, they genuinely loved running a guesthouse. We walked back to our room and took a minute to look at the stars, free of light pollution.
“If we stay two nights, we don’t have to rush on our hike tomorrow,” I commented. I felt as if I had been converted by a commune. Irene and Damir’s commune.
“We don’t have to stay two nights just because Irene says so.” Peter replied.
“I know, I felt pressured. I’m weak.” Laughing, we both shook our heads.
After Damir delivered breakfast in a basket the next morning, we drove to the main gate of the National Park and decided to hike the longest route around the lakes. It was worth it. The lakes are terraced, and connected by numerous small waterfalls. These are the moments I enjoy traveling out of season. Not too many people and the ability to maintain a decent hiking pace as we circled the lakes.
That evening we sat in the inflatable hot tub which had a battery device attached to spin the water. There were three inflatable hot tubs which the villa proudly advertised. Not exactly what we are used to in North America. I think they were closer to a paddling pool with spinning water.
Dinner was trout wrapped in parchment paper soaked in butter. Two other families had appeared, and Irene and Damir were running the whole show alone. Damir and Irene raced between tables, waving as they went by and always asking:
“You need more food?” I have to admit I was happy to share Damir with the other tables.
The next day we exchanged hugs and kisses, thanked them, and said goodbye. As we drove out the driveway, Irene and Damir waved their hands in the air yelling: “Come back, come back again.”