Heading into Croatia from Bosnia, the rain and cold chased me down to Plitvice National Park. In the thick low clouds and drizzle I made my way through dense forest on narrow roads, which barely showed up on my maps. I was able to just squeeze by a gate blocking one of these roads into the park. Before I knew it, I made it in to the upper lake, but as dusk kicked in. When the rain started dumping and light disappearing, I was forced to set up camp on the road under some large trees. It was a freezing damp night, which I could almost call miserable. The only thing that got me through it was watching documentaries on my laptop of places I would like to teleport myself to. A light layer of snow and hail covered everything the next day. It was a very difficult morning to get going, but waiting just up the road from me were the trails into Plitvice National Park. On the bright side, I managed to get in without a ticket. Even in crummy weather, the park is stunning. Small lakes of blue-green water carve and flow over the limestone rock, and waterfalls appear all around you. The wooden paths add a neat look to the stunning landscape.
A mystical park that feels like a movie setting.
After Plitvice National Park, I headed towards the coast of Croatia thinking I could find a warm beach. Wishful thinking. As I made my way up over the small mountains between me and the coast, the skies grew darker and ominous. Around the top, a full-scale down-pour kicked in along with strong winds. For the next half hour I made my way down a corkscrew road getting drenched. My old snowboarding pants were no match for the sheets of rain coming down. The weather wasn’t much better along the coast and I had no idea where to go. I hadn’t planned on getting to Slovenia for at least a couple more days, but I hadn’t anticipated the weather. So I stopped at a cafe for a warm coffee and sent my cousin Anita a message telling her I was coming up that night. After a cold ride north, I crossed into Slovenia in the dark, and made my way to the tiny village of Studena Gora, which translates to “cold mountain”. Very appropriate for the conditions I rode into. Chunks of snow still littered the sides of the road.
I had showed up for the first time almost four years ago on an old purple GT bicycle. My grandma had a little bit of info about where my grandpa’s dad had come to America from and had slightly been in touch with the family. After she died, I thought I should get myself there, and I did. In Slovenia, the last name of the family is Grlj. Somewhere along the line when my grandpa’s dad was making his way to America, it was changed on paperwork to Gerl. Thus I’m a Gerl.
The first and second time around.
I was immediately taken in like family and showed an amazing time. Turned out that my cousins still lived in the very house that my great grandpa grew up in, and left for America from. Milan (in the flannel) has pictures from way back then of Andrej (my grandpa’s dad), and letters that he wrote to his mom (Jozefa), in Slovenia, from America.
The family booze, slivovitz, from when Slovenia was Italy. Traditionally it’s a strong alcohol made with plums, but a lot of other stuff is used as well, including pears, apples, and pine needles. Once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Italy after the war, eventually Yugoslavia, and then the first country to declare independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Slovenia has quiet the history.
It was all pretty incredible and neat to see where my dad’s side of the family all came from. Milan is really into the family tree and putting it all together so he is a wealth of knowledge. Unfortunately my younger cousins have to translate for us. The tiny village of Studena Gora only has about 15 people still living in it. There’s a picture of my great grandpa standing in front of the same door before he left to America.
Heres me with cousins Danijela, Milan, Anita, Milan’s wife Marija, and a friend of theirs. In the new one Maria is missing because she was at work.
Always good times filled with tons of food and homemade booze.
Marija is one of the greatest cooks and always makes sure your belly is full of food and slivovitz. She was always cooking something delicious, from sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves) to homemade burek (meat filled dough). She loves being a mother and taking care of people. Having a full house of hungry mouths is heaven for her. Milan is in charge of the ćevapčići cooking. Bosnia is most famous for having the very best, but Slovenia is right up there with them. They are little skinless sausages, which are part of all gatherings and are basically a religion.
After over a week with the Grlj family, I had to continue east back into Croatia. There’s one more cousin in Zagreb, Croatia, who actually did a year of high school in the US and was the one my grandma had been in contact with for a short time and gotten the info she did. Sergej, is a big guy who grew up on the coast of Croatia and now has two beautiful little kids. I had met him briefly in Studena Gora the first time I went, but got to spend some quality time with him and his family this time. I stayed for a few nights and had a blast with his daughter Laura. Little Andrej is only a month old. Sergej continued on the family name of Andrej. My grandpa’s dad was Andrej, his bother had a son named Andrej, my grandpa was Andrew, my dads brother is Andrew, and my brother is Andrew. I think I like the Andrej spelling way better (the j is pronounced like a y). If I have a boy I’ll have to switch it back to Andrej in America. Sergej and I had a good night out in Zagreb drinking mug after mug of dark beer, talking about life, and finished it off with a nice night-cap of meditsa (honey raki) on his porch at three in the morning. The next night I cooked a big asian stir-fry for the family with lots of vegetable cutting help from him. It was a lot of fun playing with Laura. Definitely a great couple weeks hanging out with everyone and getting to know them all better.