I had an effective four days to spend in Croatia. Four days is not enough time to travel in a country, much less Croatia. Here’s why:
Croatia is crescent-shaped, which makes ideas like ‘a day trip to Dubrovnik from Zagreb’ sound ridiculous. In fact, this was the most ill-planned leg of my journey. When I told a friend that I was hoping to get to Dubrovnik and eventually return to Zagreb within the time frame, he suggested flying in from Zagreb! That wasn’t the most palatable idea, so I lazily booked my flight back from Zagreb and put off planning until the last minute. Looking at this map a few days before I reached Croatia, I realised that I wouldn’t be able to reach Dubrovnik without something like a 12-hour long bus. I decided to go as far as I could without skimping too much on the details – Zagreb, Plitvice, down to Split, and back up again. (I also made crazy plans to visit Mostar, Bosnia on two overnight buses, but soon realised that I overcounted the days I had left..)
For those wondering, these are extremely overdue pictures from my winter travels. Deciding not to travel in Easter has certainly made me feel a strong travel itch – so as a stopgap measure I am vicariously living through my own travel experiences. Does that even make sense??
My train from Ljubljana arrived in Zagreb just after sundown, and after buying my bus ticket for the next morning and checking in (at a pretty cool hostel called The House), I headed out to have a look around the city. These are Zagreb’s night markets, adorned with patriotic colours.
It’s a capital divided into Upper and Lower halves – while the Lower Town contains the bulk of the shopping district (reminding me strongly of Oxford Street, except with trams), the Upper Town has more museums and churches, and is generally quieter and eerier at night.
On the topic of trams, Zagreb used to have a free tram zone in the city centre, but the zone was removed in 2011 due to the ‘difficult economic situation’. Nevertheless, locals continue to take free rides near the city centre, as the trams are hardly policed, as far as I could tell. For those interested, Zagrebački električni tramvaj, the public transport authority, is owned by Zagreb Holding, which appears to be a ‘City Municipal Company‘ – fairly interesting model.
Based on my brief time there, Zagreb felt more of an administrative and stately capital than anything else, with its museums and churches standing out as the chief tourist attractions. While that doesn’t detract from its significance in Croatian history, it just makes it less popular with tourists. That said, there are interesting museums there! The Museum of Broken Relationships is a novel concept, and it looks like it’ll be fun to visit.
Plitvice National Park
Plitvice National Park, one of the natural wonders of Croatia, is about a 2-hour bus ride away from Zagreb. Like Zagreb, it has an Upper and Lower section, but I didn’t manage to get to the Upper section due to the conditions. I thought the place would be best visited in summer – the lakes would probably have more enchanting colours. Some of the bridges through the lakes were also icy and slippery when I visited, and traversing through them alone was a confidence builder.
The Wikipedia page has a wealth of information on the lakes which I neglected to read before my visit, so I was mostly just enjoying the sights without knowing what I was looking at.
The wonders of
globalisation buying chocolate in one country and carrying it through two other countries!
Finding accommodation near the lakes is an absolute pain if you’re not driving – the hotels close to the park cost in the region of 60 Euros a night, and the affordable B&Bs are a minimum of 6 km away. So, I made a plan of great adventure – to catch a 23:45 overnight bus, avoiding the overnight stay, and reach Split at 5 am, just nice to start the day (at least the way I do it!).
It indeed turned out to be an adventure, just not the sort I was expecting. It was completely pitch-black when I walked out, and the bus stop (pictured above) wasn’t lit at night! No surprise, I missed my bus – 4 buses zoomed past from 23:20 to 00:15 and despite my valiant efforts in flagging them down, none of them stopped for me :(. In retrospect, this was a terrible plan. (Travel tip: Buses in Croatia tend to leave the departure stop on time, but may reach intermediate stops early, so it is better to reach the stop early. It will be difficult to flag down a bus at night.)
As the next bus was at 9+ am, the nearby hotel would blow my budget, and I wasn’t about to go on a crazy hitchhiking spree to Split at 12 AM, I spent a rather dreary 10 hours waiting for the next bus – half of it pacing around the bus stop in the cold (and getting tormented by a stray cat, which I now think was divine intervention to keep me sane), and the other half sitting in the hotel, which I’d only managed to enter on sympathy counts. Certainly a travel experience I will never forget…
While I was very disappointed at losing so many hours of travel due to a silly blunder (another option I should have considered was to catch the 3+ pm bus, leaving Plitvice earlier), the bus ride through Croatia’s stunning coastline made up for it. I realise that I would have missed all of it had I taken the night bus, so this adds one case in favour of the theory that ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. This is a picture taken on a moving bus!
And how famished I was when I got to Split! On the way to the hostel (Tchaikovsky Hostel – a small and very well-run one), I stopped by a small cafe on the outskirts of Diocletian’s Palace to get some meat burek. This one was pie-like, not too greasy and rather good overall.
And this was dinner, just a couple of hours afterwards – this is pašticada, a Dalmatian stewed beef dish with various spices and red wine, served with a bit too much gnocchi. Yes, the name Dalmatian came from Dalmatia, and no, not all stewed beef dishes are goulash, though that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
I don’t know Croatian, but I think it means ‘that’s my ring’.
I’d left myself with a day to tour Split, with the time I spent waiting for the bus. I had booked my flight from Zagreb on New Year’s Day, so I wanted to head back to Zagreb just in time to catch the New Year celebrations. This meant that I needed to leave Split near sunset (4.30 pm, for equatorial readers) – the bus takes about 6 hours.
This is the view of the city from Marjan Hill. Overlooking the Adriatic Sea, Diocletian’s palace remains serve as the living, breathing city centre of Split. There are a wide range of cafes, restaurants, shops and bars operating inside the ruins, frequented by tourists and locals alike. Its most visible adornment is the Cathedral of Saint Domnius (the bell tower).
Split has two markets just outside the perimeter of the palace. The buzz in the fish market can be heard from early in the morning, and it is testament to the activity going on each day.
There are more discernable signs of life in the city – clotheslines are sometimes hung rather randomly across walking pavements within the ruins. These Croatians sure don’t believe in 家丑不可外洋.
And of course, if you get lost here, there’s always this dude to point you in the right direction. This is Gregory of Nin who ‘introduced the national language in the religious service’, thus making it understandable to the majority of the population. Apparently, rubbing his toes gives good luck, and that’s why the toes of this statue are a little worn out – but who’d have guessed?
I walked down to Bačvice to catch the New Year’s Eve game of picigin, a traditional ball game played in shallow water. The objective of the game, as silly as it may sound, is to keep the squash-ball-lookalike from touching the water! Of course, you can’t just catch the ball – you’re supposed to keep the ball up by hitting it volleyball style. This can sometimes result in extremely acrobatic or ungraceful dives, depending on how you see it. This game is highly exuberant, characteristic of Split’s style.
And of course, the famous riva, a sunny, vibrant and generally noisy stretch close to the sea. It’s the perfect place to indulge in two great Mediterranean pastimes – hang out at a cafe and have a chat, or people-watch. Indeed, all the outdoor tables were packed on New Year’s Eve, and the most I could do was sit along the coast and watch people drift in and out.
I randomly caught a klapa performance on the way back to the hostel – really spontaneous (and I must say, talented!) It certainly made my day! Apparently, Croatia has picked klapa to represent it at Eurovision this year – that will definitely be worth watching.
Back to Zagreb
I returned to Zagreb just in time to celebrate the new year with a Korean friend I’d met in Salzburg. The fireworks weren’t anything to boast about, but the atmosphere was amazing – big Croatian bands belting out songs on stage, with seemingly the entire audience singing along and just having a great time. It was heartwarming to see the Croatians so genuinely happy – and united – out in the -3 degrees Celsius cold.
As Josip Jelačić might say if he were alive for 154 more years, bring on 2013! (Er, I started writing this post in January..)
So that marked the end of my winter travels, and I couldn’t wait to get back to London, as is always the case for these long trips. I wish I had more time to explore the Balkan region in general – there is just so much history that the entire region has been through, and touch-and-go trips can only uncover so little. I don’t claim to read much travel writing, but when it comes to travel, I am a big fan of Michael Palin – his New Europe really opened up my imagination to travel in this region. I haven’t even started on the chapters outside the Balkans yet – who knows what’s coming next!