There are certain trips that go down in the memory bank as “that one trip.” The kind that when you hear a particular song or catch a smell or taste something vaguely familiar, the memories come rolling out of you like a wave, an echo of images and thoughts and feelings reincarnated from another place and time. Where moments come pouring out of you in one long string of images, as if they were sewn together, washing you in all of those good memories.
This past trip was one of those. I heard some songs today—songs that are now embedded into the memories of the trip—and I couldn’t help but feel that sensation you get when it all gathers in your chest, almost tangible, and you miss people or places or moments so overwhelmingly that you can’t help but smile.
It started nearly a year ago when a few friends suggested that we go to Ultra Europe, a three-day music festival in Split, Croatia, and which so happened to coincide with my birthday. Being a fan of epic birthday bashes, I had whole-heartedly agreed.
While a year-long reunion in addition to a birthday bash abroad seem like enough motivation for a two-week Euro trip, it also had another purpose: a last travel hurrah before coming back to Mallorca for a few final weeks and then back home to California. And in some ways, all three reasons couldn’t have culminated in a more fitting celebration. After a year abroad—new experiences, new friends, and new places—here we were a group of friends coming together to celebrate another whirlwind of life. In spite of the changes that a year can bring, we decided to reunite and celebrate a year of growth, of being a year older (and hopefully wiser), and appreciating this beautifully chaotic life of ours, together.
Our reunion started with a three-day warmup in Madrid, then to Pamplona for Running of the Bulls, followed by an all-nighter in Barcelona, and finally, a weeklong epic finale in Croatia. However, the most notable for me were Pamplona and Croatia; perhaps because I had never been to either, they both had that wide-eyed, take-it-all-in, new-place spark to them.
To begin with, San Fermin (the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona) started the day before the actual Bull Run with the opening ceremony, el Chupinazo, at the Pamplona City Hall. The typical all-white/red-sash garb makes the town look a little bit like a Where’s Waldo book. People drink sangria like water and it’s poured over friends and neighbors nearly as much as it is consumed, so by the time you return home your clothes will not be so much white as they are pink, and you will more or less smell like the human equivalent of a wine barrel. In short, if you plan to go to the festivities the day before Running of the Bulls, be prepared to throw away your clothes, or have a large container of bleach at the ready.
The encierro, or the actual running of the bulls, started the following day at 8am. Persuaded against it by nearly every Spaniard I spoke to, I decided not to do the run (next year perhaps?), but two of the guys in our group woke at dawn, ran their asses off through the streets of Pamplona with angry bulls at their heels, and lived to tell the tale, saying it was one of the most insane adventures of the trip. That being said, I have to give mad props to Ronnie and Emilio for dancing with the devils!
The rest of us, as non-runners, instead braved the blocked off areas around the course which was packed full of spectators. A sea of red and white figurines, stacked high up on bleachers and peeking out of every first, second, third, and fourth story balcony, made it difficult to see the actual race (Note: I recommend getting there early if you plan to watch the race!).
Nevertheless, hearing the shrieks and gasps of the people in the stands combined with the thundering of the bulls on the pavement was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. The moment the guns go off to signal the start of the race, the energy in the air is electric. Breath is suspended for a few moments until you hear a few screams here, gasps there, and while you can’t see it, you can sense that someone has fallen, the bulls are running, thundering down the streets, everyone’s hearts pounding for a solid few minutes.
And then it’s over, just like that. A few minutes and the bulls have bulldozed past and are safely corralled in the stadium at the end of the course. People disperse and (albeit it being early in the morning), head to the bars to celebrate or to the stadium to watch the last theatrics of the bulls and runners.
From Pamplona, we headed to Barcelona where we caught a 6am flight to Dubrovnik, Croatia where we wasted no time in exploring. For any Game of Thrones fans out there, you are probably more than familiar with the city. The series shoots quite a few episodes here and for good reason. The red-tiled roofs and thick stone walls of the Old City, in stark contrast with the deep clear blue of the Mediterranean at its edge make for beautiful and dramatic scenery. The city is stunning with a quaint harbor, a scattering of white houses on the hillsides nudged between hedges of maroon and hot pink bougainvillea, and dramatic green hillsides dropping into the water.
About a 15 minute walk from the Old City, near Hotel Bellevue, is a beach which we were quick to find has great cliff-jumping and a cave tucked into one corner of the beach that you can swim into and explore. The water here is crystal clear, and the deep blue and turquoise shade of the water makes it unique in comparison to other beaches around the Mediterranean.
The second day we were in Dubrovnik was also my birthday which we kicked off with fresh pastries from the nearby bakery and a walk along the Old City walls. The walls themselves are impressive, in some places reaching an astonishing 6m thick and up to 25m tall. Originally built as a defense system to protect its citizens against foreign attack and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the massive stone walls encircle most of the Old City and offer picturesque views of the coast.
The weather was unrelenting the week we were in Dubrovnik, reaching into the mid to upper 90’s, so after sweating our way across the city walls, we decided to take a much needed dip in the sea. After, we sat on the harbor walkway for a bit, our feet dangling over the edge, the sun drying the seawater from our backs—complete summer bliss. Later in the day, we caught a late afternoon boat to Split which took us up the coast past the scattering of islands like Korčula, Hvar, and Brač, and those lucky enough not to be passed out, caught the sunset from the back of the boat. We ended the day with a live DJ on the beach just down the coast from Split in Omiš, dancing barefoot under the stars. As far as ends to birthdays go, I have no complaints.
Here was where we began the incredible three-day journey of Ultra Europe in Split. The festival itself was nothing short of epic and could not have conjured up a more noteworthy lineup. We saw Armin Van Buuren, Afrojack, Alesso, Axwell, David Guetta, Steve Angello, Tiesto, Nicky Romero, and more. I mean, talk about epic…
Split itself is an older city, and one that isn’t too impressive in the ways of beauty. In spite of it being a bit run down, you can still find adventure in the way of Diocletian’s Palace, an ancient Roman fortress once belonging to the Emperor Diocletian. We were also told to go to a restaurant called Calypso that turned out to be amazing—one that I would recommend to anyone traveling through Split (the wild boar stew was amazing). Needless to say, the festival, the trip, the whole experience was incredible, and I could not have been happier to spend two weeks with such an awesome group.
But vacation can only last for so long, and while the rest of the crew had to fly back after the festival for work, I decided to extend my trip for a few extra days of solo travel in Croatia. When in Rome, right…?
For my first solo travel day, I decided to do a canyoneering adventure which took place in the River Cetina. It actually reminded me a bit of the Torrent de Pareis in Mallorca, but with water (see blog post on Torrent de Pareis here). With huge jutting cliffs on both sides and brilliant green pools situated in the canyon, it was the most beautiful place to walk, swim, and jump our way from one end of the canyon to the other. The landscape is unreal, like photos you would see in adventure magazines.
The next day I took a bus up to Zadar, just north of Split, to explore a bit. At the far end of the city, you can find two interesting art installations. One, the Sun Salutation, consists of a large solar panel (about 22m in diameter) right next to the sea. It takes solar energy from the day and converts it into electricity at night in the form of bright colorful lights and which is supposed to represent the solar system. The second installation is a Sea Organ. Yes, a Sea Organ. The instrument is the first of its kind and consists of pipes below the water that play various musical chords based on the size and speed of the waves pushing air through. Above the pipes are white marble stone steps that go down to the water’s edge and contain small holes under each step, allowing the air from the pipes to escape, thereby making musical chords. The pipes’ sizes were specifically built to ensure that all of the chords play in harmony at all times. This is where I sat and watched the sun sink into the sea—between the Sun Salutation and the Sea Organ. Not a bad place to watch a sunset if you ask me!
The following, and sadly last, day of the trip was spent at Plitvice Lakes—an absolute *must* if you are traveling in Croatia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Plitvice is an intricate maze of lakes and waterfalls cascading down into various sized pools of brilliant candy-blue water. The surrounding mountains are packed with greenery, a mix between pines and ferns and tall grasses. You can find all kinds of animals here, but my luck happened to chance upon a giant snail the size of my thumb and some kind of lobster, along with hundreds and hundreds of trout.
Plitvice is one of those places that after you pass by so many incredible viewpoints, waterfall after waterfall, expanse of blue lake after expanse of blue lake, you feel the kind of awe and humbleness that can only come from grandiose nature. If you’re ever been to Yosemite, you know the feeling.
And it was this, combined with the afternoon sitting and watching the sunset in Zadar with my feet dangling over the water, the Sea Organ playing below, which created the perfect end to an incredible trip. A few days of traveling by myself to soak in, reflect, and appreciate. I’ve written a post before on how solo travel can allow you to take in your surroundings or your experiences more acutely. Not always, but sometimes. It hits you more profoundly because you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas or feelings off of. Instead, everything you see or interact with comes in as raw perception; you feel without the feeling being altered or passing through any filter of outside analysis.
So it was after the trip that I began to take it all in. A whirlwind of a couple weeks, culminating in a few days of solo exploration around Croatia.
I think back on last year, spending my birthday at the beach with some of my closest friends, the smell of the ocean, and sunshine, and thinking how good life was. Of being on the brink of so many changes, of so much newness—jobs, relationships, a move across the globe—and thinking that in spite of the curveballs and surprises that life throws at you, you surround yourself with some pretty awesome people and as much positive energy as you can, and it hits you that man, life is pretty damn good.
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that we should be the sole dictators of how our lives play out, and to feel a pang of injustice when something deviates from what we envisioned. The truth of the matter is that when we feel this sense of entitlement as to what the scenes of our stories will look like, we lose site of the fact that perhaps deviations from the story aren’t such a bad thing. Life can have switchbacks and roadblocks and bumpy parts, and in spite of it all, maybe it all happens because of something. Maybe in spite of the people, places, and moments that come in and out of our lives, there are certain ones that stay with us through it all because in doing so, they change us in some way. They point us in a new direction, redirect us in a way that maybe we don’t quite understand at the time. And maybe there’s a reason that there are certain people in our lives that no matter where we are in the world or how many detours we've taken or how long we go without talking, we can see them a year (or more) later and it’s as if we saw them yesterday.
So as people enter and exist our lives, relationships start and end, and we have the experiences we do, it's natural that sometimes we wonder why. Why did someone enter or exit my life? Why did it start or end the way it did? The great “If I could change x…” rolls around in your head like a ping pong ball. But at the end of the day, it can drive you crazy to play the What-If game. Whether good or bad, I think every once in a while it’s good to pause and appreciate the process. To remember that all experiences led you to where you are now and got you to this point in time.
This past trip was a reminder of just that. A year of new travels and new friendships and new jobs, and yet coming to the same realization that I did 365 days ago: That life is pretty damn good. Spending two weeks traveling with these amazing people, having the incredible experiences we did, was a huge reminder to be grateful for the process. It’s pretty incredible to think that it took 26 years of beautifully chaotic twists and turns and changes to get me to this one moment, to traveling around Spain and Croatia with some pretty badass people.
That being said, I want to give a big shout-out to this crew for bringing in another year with a bang. And for celebrating the big 2-6 with me. I remember thinking last year how old 25 seemed. Quarter of a century. Mid-point of “the best years of your life.” And at 26, it more or less feels the same but with a bit more self-awareness. Turning 26 means passing the mid-twenties marker. It’s another time of shifting, a change from early adulthood to sort-of-kind-of an actual adult. The in-betweener stage of trying to figure it out while realizing I don’t or should have it all figured out, at least for the time being. It's a time of trying to get it right, and sometimes falling down. The difference is that now I have the wisdom to know that maybe that’s okay.
So every now and then, remember to appreciate the people that got you here, whether you understood it at the time to be positive or negative. Appreciate the people that have stuck with you through all the changes, the ups and downs, the detours and straightaways, the confusion and the clarity.
And every once in a while, remember to tell the goobers that you love them. Emilio, Ronnie, Elizabeth (and honorary new crew members Raul and Vera) – thank you guys for participating in two weeks of ridiculousness, for celebrating my birthday with me, and for being the badass people you are. Love you guys to the moon and back.
So here’s to 26, to being over the mid-twenties hump and for kicking off the next four years of “the best years of my life.” Cheers to another full-blown awesome and epic year ahead!