After about three and a half months wandering around Europe, I was finally set to enter my last country of the trip: Croatia. On account of its excellent reputation and the fact that I have a ticket home from Zagreb, Croatia ended up being the place where people decided to come meet me. Initially, my mom arranged to come and join me for my last ten days, but then a certain intrepid Norwegian found a seat sale and it was arranged that I should have company for the first week of October as well. As a result, I left Montenegro set to spend the entire rest of my trip drifting around Croatia in (with the exception of three days between the two) the best of company. I also decided that given the length of the stay, I would split up the blog. So this is Croatia Part 1, or Croatia with the Norwegian though it could equally be called Croatia with the Blondes.
Early on the morning of the 30th, I hopped a bus in Herceg Novi and set off to Dubrovnik where I was to meet Kim Tomas. As we crossed the border, it appeared that I was to get no Croatia stamp—I was heartbroken! The Montenegrin officer hopped on, checked my passport, and then hopped of and we zoomed off into the mountains, leaving me with no evidence of my crossing. It seemed rather odd as all previous bus-board border adventures had involved two sets of police within minutes but I decided to swallow my disappointment, just sit tight and not worry. Some 15 minutes down the road however, we came to the Croatian border guard post where all proceeded as normal. It struck me as odd, however, that there should be a gap, especially given that I had only ever seen such a gap on train crossings never with buses. I shall presume that it was on account of the mountains.
Once into Croatia I was amused by the sight of a cow crossing sign in the vein of standard deer crossing signs but with rather less leaping, and a large billboard advertising Taj Mahal Bosnian Cuisine. What the Taj Mahal has to do with Bosnia I shall likely never know but as I got closer to Dubrovnik, the frequency of advertisements strongly suggested that it is popular, or at least enthusiastic about marketing.
When I arrived in Dubrovnik, I checked into our guest house and set out to collect a few necessaries including the usual toiletries (of which I had completely run out) and a new pair of shoes. After stopping in about half a dozen shops, I finally lost my patience with the small sized feet of the local ladies and decided to just go for a pair of men’s shoes. Fortunately they were cheap to begin with and on sale as a bonus so I had no guilt at all leaving my poor, sad, broken, and squeaking sneakers from Prague to die a death in the public dustbin.
Equipped with my new shoes and a few hours to kill before my travelling companion turned up, I set off to do a bit of reconnaissance work in the old town. I got a little lost on the way but then when I got there, god help me, I was smitten. It really is a city of stone and light. The high walls and tall elegant buildings all gleam a bright creamy white in the hot southern sun while the streets are paved with stones smoothed by centuries of pedestrians. As you enter the main gate you are greeted by a broad avenue which is studded on either side with small streets composed mostly of staircases that lead up past restaurants and cafes to the city walls. There are porticos and archways and all manner of beautiful architectural touches and then there are the churches and the palaces. I shall dare to say that the Venetians who once held Dubrovnik had the most excellent, if not exactly practical, taste in architecture and city planning.
As a strolled, only a little awestruck, I was charmed by a group of three young Chinese tourists walking before me. Clearly they are more used to old towns on the model of the Forbidden City which is all museums and no commerce as one commented to the other two “这是古城还是餐厅城?” Which translates to: “Is this the ancient city or the cafeteria city?” I suppose he had a fair point in the little side streets filled with cafes and tavernas all with sidewalk seating. After I had a fair sense of the city, I slipped back out the gates to explore the options for water sports and to investigate a smaller fortification nearby. As I climbed up to take in the view, I passed an older fellow who I guess had been watching me for a while. He first confirmed that I spoke English and then informed me that we were taking all of the exact same photos. I think he might have liked to chat more but I was on a mission so I made a quick reply that we must both have a good eye and carried on up to my fortress. As there was an entry fee I decided to save it for later and then found myself a peaceful bench overlooking a little bay and set down to read. My photographer companion stopped by once more but I think this time he sensed my engagement with my book and no longer had the look of one who very much wished to converse.
Walking back towards the bus station, I stopped in a park where I saw a tiny little hummingbird no bigger than the last knuckle of my thumb. Initially I took it for an insect but as it dipped its beak to a nearby flower, I realized my error, alas to late to snap a photo for identification purposes. Waiting by the bus station I found myself in a sidewalk cafe drinking a lemonade. It was fresh made and the use of sugar was very restrained which though refreshing was quite a shock for me. Sadly the cafe proved to be a suboptimal waiting place as the entire sidewalk was wedged with chain smokers who turned the air nearly blue with their habit. So off I went to the waiting room in hopes of a no smoking sign or two. While waiting there for the inevitably late bus, I observed two Puerto Rican men trying to arrange accommodation for their stay. As I heard the prices I thanked my lucky stars I’d booked in advance and had their been wifi would have offered to try to help them find something better online lest they be fleeced by enterprising local hoteliers. They did however eventually find something and set off seemingly satisfied and I continued to wait.
The bus was just under an hour late but it was a worthwhile wait.
Once we’d gotten Kim Tomas’s luggage up the rather lengthy staircase/street to the guesthouse, he took a shower to wash off the effects of travel while I joined two other guests in getting the full run down of recommendations from our host. Following those guidelines we set off towards the nearest access to the sea where we found a pretty restaurant with a patio pointing towards the sunset and a fairly well rounded menu. We drank local wine, ate seafood (my tagliatelle was very nice, Kim Tomas’s risotto, slightly underdone), and talked well into the evening. Our waiter, it seemed, was one of the very small set of local coffee aficionados so he and Kim had quite the chat about how one should and shouldn’t go about preparing that particular beverage. Alas, however, when it came time for coffee and dessert, the specially prepared double espresso fell rather short of Norwegian standards.
By the time we left the restaurant it was full dark but we went for a wander nonetheless, passing sports centres, cafes, bars, and a miscellanea of residential buildings before we eventually looped back to our guesthouse to sleep.
The following day was hot and sunny and we set out to walk the town. We wandered all through the old town from the old port, past the churches, and into a couple little coffeeshops which unfortunately were unable to provide a decent espresso. When we had covered about as much ground as we could on the ground, we ascended to the walls where we circumnavigated the city dodging tourists, snapping photos of sleeping kitties, and plotting ambitious acquisitions of stunning old Dubrovnik real estate tucked neatly against the walls and rather in need of restoration. Once we found ourselves having come full circle we decided to head out of the old town in hopes of more affordable food. Being who we both are however, we were soon distracted by the second fortress which we found was included in out tickets for the wall so up we climbed to explore that. It’s rather large and empty but would make a fantastic venue for all manner of events—presuming, that is, that anyone could ever afford it.
And then somehow we ended up wandering around the beaches near the old town, over the cliffs back towards Lapad. Our host had said there were lots of good restaurants on the pedestrian street in Lapad but when we got there we found none to our liking so we kept walking which lead us onto the seaside walk around the edge of Lapad. There were restaurants, but again none exactly suited so we kept walking. (We also met a Kiwi couple doing the same but in search of a place for drinks.) We’d nearly reached the end of seaside civilization when Kim Tomas took pity on my flagging blood sugar and suggested a stop for ice cream. It was probably some of the most mediocre ice cream I have ever eaten but it was enough to keep me functional and to fend of the hangry for a little longer. Long enough, in fact to lead us past an exclusive Russian hotel, and several sunless beaches before we found ourselves back on the harbour near the bus station. As I was dangerously close to no longer functioning (or at least no longer functioning happily) we stopped into a cute little alternative place right near the bus station where Kim had a plate of massive, filling burritos, and I stuffed my face with tiny fried fishes rather like the ones I’d had in Lappeenranta and a side of polenta. It might have just been because I was so hungry, but it tasted absolutely heavenly!
During our adventure through the harbour, we also stopped to check for options to get to Split that would not involve another long bus journey and found that we could take a ferry but only if we changed out plans and left the following day rather than the day after. Consensus was: swallow the cost of changing accommodation and take the ferry so we headed to bed with a plan to rise at a reasonable hour and climb up to the hill fort before our ferry left in the afternoon.
Once again proving that neither of us is nearly conscientious enough about food, we set out from the guesthouse aiming for the mountain with a vague plan to ‘find food somewhere on the way’. When we found ourselves having hiked all the way up with only water in our stomachs, it became obvious that we had failed in that little plan. So we scooted around the fortress, elected to skip the museum on the Serbian attacks, ogled the view, and then hopped onto the cable car down to the old town. After a smooth glide through the air, we landed at the edge of the old city and made a more concerted effort to find food. We settled on a place called Wanda which marketed itself with a poster listing about a dozen excellent reviews from newspapers all over the world. It was an excellent strategy, and the reviews were all well deserved. Kim’s tortellini were a whole new kind of decadent, and my seafood pasta was perfectly prepared and seasoned.
We left the restaurant with full, happy bellies and made our way to the beach for a quick swim before we had to head to the harbour. Despite my whinging about being cold, the water was warm and very salty and we had a lovely little dip before hustling back to grab our things and get to the boat. It was a very full ferry and there is little surprise as to why. It’s a pleasant four hour journey through islands and along the coast. The water is glassy and calm and the boat motors along so smoothly that you almost wouldn’t believe you were moving.
We arrived in Split after dark but quickly found our guesthouse where we were welcomed into a very eccentrically decorated room by an equally eccentric (and very chatty) host. Once we’d managed to check in, receive recommendations, and excuse ourselves from an all night conversation, it was past 9pm so we took our host’s advice an headed to a little restaurant nearby. It was good advice. The restaurant was filled with vintage photos of Split, the tables were covered in white and red checked cloths, and in the corner just behind me sat two musicians regaling us with country and americana music from a piano and guitar. The singer had such a perfect tone and timbre for the music that we seriously doubted he was actually Croatian until we heard him afterwards chatting away with his partner and the proprietors in easy relaxed Croatian. Either he was an American who had learned perfect Croatian, or he is a very talented musician who can mimic Johnny Cash and all manner of other rich voiced crooners such as few can even in their native language.
We ate a massive meat platter followed by ice-cream and would probably have sat their all night just soaking it all in, had the waiters not been beginning their closing procedures which suggested that perhaps we should pay and head back.
In sad contrast to the weather we’d had in Dubrovnik, our first full day in Split was wet and rainy. We made a brief tour of the old town before deciding that it was a day for cafes. We attempted on cafe which was meant to have the best coffee in town. It actually had mediocre coffee and lots of smokers so we moved along to a cafe in the old palace walls. The building hundreds of years old and the cafe is deliciously dim and cozy. Their coffee was equally uninspiring, but they made a pretty fantastic sup of Spanish chocolate and they had wifi so we sat writing, reading, and otherwise working away on niggling little bits of real life for the better part of the afternoon.
When our stomachs finally reasserted themselves we set off in search of a restaurant and completely by chance stumbled across a little taverna just outside the old town. We got the last unreserved table and would spend the entire meal watching couple after couple be turned away on account of the restaurant being full. For a place that popular the prices were entirely reasonable and of course the food was delicious. There was another delicious plate of tortellini, a magnificent mussel risotto, and some very tasty wine all followed up by ice-cream and pancakes with fig jam. We may neither of us be very good at eating regular meals, but we eat well when we finally get around to it!
The following morning we had planned to catch the ferry to Brač but on account of my fantastic eyesight/reading abilities we missed the morning ferry and so found ourselves bumming around town until the 2pm option. We ate brochettes and drank coffee before wandering through the town spotting cats and people watching. When we started to get hungry again we stopped for ice-cream somewhere outside of the old town where rather than the usual traditional gelato case we found a cool little joint with more exciting flavours. Kim Tomas’s lime gelato was more limey than anything I’ve ever tasted (excepting of course an actual lime) and even had some pulp in the ice-cream. I on the other hand had a rosemary frozen yogurt which was sweet savoury heaven and emboldened me to my plans of all manner of herbed desserts when I am once again in possession of a proper kitchen. We then finished our ramble along the harbour promenade where we found the newly installed tribute to Croatian Olympians which takes the form of tasteful bronze plaques installed in amongst the paving stones on the walkway.
When we finally caught the ferry we were some of the first to board and had ample time to see up on the top deck watching (and of course judging) all of the cruise ship passengers streaming off the Costa Mediterreanea. We did not however last long out in the wind when the ship started moving and quickly moved indoors to read in the rather less windy though enthusiastically air-conditioned cabin.
An hour later we were on Brač, famous for its pristine beaches and, as I understand it, very little else. We wandered along the shoreline past beach after beach waiting for the sun and eventually settled down on a fairly deserted stretch on the back side of the island to wait for the glimmer of sun promised by a gap in the clouds. After reading for some time we decided we were in as much sun as we were ever likely to get and I began my slow journey into the sea. The water was colder than anywhere previous and I probably would have chickened out had it not become obvious that my amused audience had grown from just Kim to include everyone else on the beach. It was only about half a dozen people but it was enough to prompt me to suck it up and splash out in my trusty breast-stroke. Neither we nor the sun lasted very long. We were soon back on shore heading back to the old town with ambitions of food followed by ferry.
As we were walking we passed the assembly area for the opening ceremony parade of participants in the World Boat Angling Competition for U21s and in the harbour encountered the rather mediocre brass band assembled to welcome them. We took a brief tour of the historic centre to the eclectic playlist of the band before watching the little parade of Italy, France, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia, and then headed to the cafes. Arsenal-ManU lured us into one cafe where we found only ice-cream, no food. But the game was on so we ordered and no sooner had the ice-cream hit the table than the tv changed channel and we found ourselves watching Bayern Munich v. Dortmund which was a far less appealing match for himself and the staff were unwilling to change back. Needless to say we abandoned our plan to stay on the island until the later ferry, scarfed our sundaes, and raced down to the pier to catch the 6pm ferry.
Back in Split we elected to return to the guesthouse for a nap before attempting to find supper. By the time we awoke and set off, the city was dark and the restaurants were starting to empty. We wandered with our usual tendency towards indecision until we stumbled across a restaurant with a guitarist sitting in the window picking out various acoustic covers of pop songs from the last 30 years. Lacking any particularly appealing alternatives, the guitar was motivation enough so we sat down and ended up having some of the best food thus far. My octopus salad, though not at all what I’d been expecting was very tasty, and Kim’s steak was cooked to a genuine state of perfection. We left very much full and happy.
Once again aiming to avoid bussing, the next day was set to involve a rather long but scenic train journey first from Split to Knin and then from Knin to Zadar. We grabbed breakfast at a bakery and then hopped on the train in Split just managing to avoid the oncoming downpour. The ride to Knin was an uneventful one on a tilting train which, if you closed your eyes felt suspiciously similar to being on a boat in fairly large seas, but when we got to Knin we found a rather large surprise awaiting us on the train station time table. It seemed that we would not be riding another train but instead a bus operated by the train company. We found the tiny bus station with no real waiting room and, preferring not to stand amongst the crowd of dripping travellers headed off to find a cafe in which to wait out the hour until our bus.
The cafe was mostly filled with older local men one of whom asked Kim Tomas in French where we were from. We communicated Norway and Canada respectively and then the aul fella turned to me to ask “English or Francais”, I, not having realized that he had asked the original question in French (I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to sort the language out of the old man’s voice and the noise of the cafe), replied English! And the seeing his disappointed face said “Je parle un petit peu Francais” but by then I suppose he’d given up on the probability of a conversation with me so he returned to his friends and their Croatian conversation. As he was leaving however, he bid us adieu in at least six languages. We still aren’t sure if he spoke French or any of the others fluently but he was certainly an entertaining old codger.
Once we got on the bus we were treated to a wonderful mix of local colour, from the aul fella fighting with the bus driver about making us wait outside until he’d been replaced by the colleague who was to drive us to Zadar, to the two young lads who were either high or simply found everything hilarious, and a seat that either fell forward onto itself, or backward onto other passengers depending upon its inclination. It was an entertaining ride through the rain attempting to make sense of the Croatian news pumping towards us from the radio.
When we arrived in Zadar we found ourselves in an ugly industrial area that slowly gave way to a quaint old town filled with Roman history and elegant old churches. Because Google maps loves me so very much we had a delightful time being misdirected to the complete opposite end of the old town in search of our guesthouse but did eventually find the correct one after a bit of inconvenient data roaming and the application of rather more skilled navigational skills than mine. When we reached the apartment we found a charming host and a beautiful little studio in the hipster part of town with an actual kettle which promised to provide us speedier water boiling that the stove top option we’d been using for our coffee in Split.
We dropped our things, rested a short while, and set out to find food. Just when we were ready to give up and just buy pizza to take back to the room, we stumbled across a cute little restaurant proudly displaying a Trip Advisor certificate of excellence in its front window. Trusting the wisdom of the masses we went in to find ourselves dining on a reasonably priced and very amply proportioned meal of scampi gnocchi and roasted meat with cider and a lovely white wine. It was so much food that even sharing, we had to leave a bit on the plates and neither of us felt the slightest bit inclined to seek dessert.
In the interests of not falling immediately into a food coma, we followed our lunch with a walk around the town. The old town is very pretty, the new town, not so much. The light on the bay that separates the two was however absolutely stunning. It was the warm rosy light that you so seldom get and it was such a terrible pity that it didn’t have more beautiful white stone than ugly painted concrete to grace with its warmth. We finished out walk with a stop at a curious little stationary/book store where you had to request anything you wanted from the counter, which was a bit of an added challenge for the two of us non-Croatian speakers, especially when the woman at the counter seemed to completely miss our point. Either way, after some awkward negotiations we left with a pen that promised to prove adequate for Kim Tomas to finish writing his postcards despite their ballpoint defeating glossy surfaces.
We routed back to our guesthouse via the park and then decided to indulge our tiredness by taking it easy with a movie and some snacks. While plotting snacks I was struck by a sudden need for an orange float and when I suggested it, found that such things were unknown in Norway. Scandalized, I set out to find ice-cream and pop to deal with this glaring gap in Kim’s soda experience. The verdict: would have been better with a straw. I suppose perhaps floats are more special when they are laden with childhood nostalgia. Eating the rest of the ice-cream right out of the tub while watching Dr. Strangelove, however, suited us both to a tee.
We made it through the movie awake but it wasn’t long after we’d turned off the laptop and switched to books that both of us were fast asleep fully clothed with our books variously dropped from hands that had given up holding what our eyes could no longer process well enough to facilitate our brains comprehending.
After a very good sleep, we woke up, had some coffee and packed out bags. We returned the key to our host and ended up breakfasting on pizza and more inadequate coffee in the old town before wandering down to the Sea Organ at the farthest tip of the historic centre. It is most strange, beautiful, and magical thing. It looks just like a set of steps down to the water’s edge, but the steps have little gaps in the risers and through these gaps pours the song of the sea as played by waves forcing air through an organ built beneath the stairs. Even when the sea seems calm, the gentle wash of the waves plays a soft eerie tune, and when the ferry hurried by into the port its relatively modest wake filled the air with such a rich sonorous roar from the organ, one can only imagine what a stormy day would sing. We probably could have sat there all day but soon it was time for Kim to catch the bus to the airport.
Murphy’s law, the very first cafe I stopped in after leaving Kim Tomas, was the first one in ages that I had found playing good West Coast Swing music. It did nothing to improve my feelings about being once again without either a dance or travelling partner.
As I sat in the cafe, I decided to confirm my bus plans and, as is always the way in this part of the world, found very conflicting reports online. Not exactly desirous of finding myself stuck in Zadar with no accommodation at midnight if the night bus turned out to not be running, I decided to head to the bus station and get it all sorted early enough to have alternatives. Had I not done so, I am sure that the bus would not have been running, but because I did, it was and I was left sitting in the bus station with no desire to hike both myself and my backpack back up to the old town. So I settled down with the free wifi on a bench and began working away on travel plans for the next few days and ostensibly on job applications for my return to the real world of adult responsibility. Shortly thereafter a Chinese girl seated herself beside me and enquired after the wifi. I first helped her get connected and then ended up giving her travel advice, AirBnB assistance, and all manner of things before my stomach decided that food was required and my anti-social side reared its ugly head and decided that perhaps the food hunt should be done solo. So I bid my new friend farewell and wished her luck and set off to find a nearby bar billed as a must-see.
Some 30 minutes later in the pouring rain, I finally found the place. It was closed. So now I am sitting in a cafe of some sort on the second floor of a shopping mall, with no wifi and the most peculiar New York cheesecake. It’s rather a mousse cake than a cheesecake but it’s done its job as far as raising my blood sugar and the mall has served me well as a rain shelter despite its frustrating lack of internet access. In a few hours I will be on the night bus again hoping to find delicious wine, beautiful beaches, and substantially better weather up in Istria. Whether or not that will come to pass, I cannot be certain, but I have certainly had a lovely week travelling along the Dalmatian coast med Nordmannen.
Rather rain sodden,