Lost In Croatia
Croatia and Hungary
We had planned our Euro-rail trip for months. We were going to take in the sights of France, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, and Greece. So how on earth did we end up in Croatia?
The whole trip had already been a bit surreal. We hadn’t even been away for a week before my friend fell victim to the pickpockets in Prague. Leaving one friend behind in Prague awaiting a new passport, my other friend and I continued on to Budapest where we promised we would wait. It was on this train that we met the crazy Hungarian.
“Where are you going? What are your plans?” he asked. We told him that after Hungary we’d be on our way to Italy but he had another idea. “Go to Lake Siofok in Hungary,” he suggested, “It’s a party town!”
Never one to shy away from a party we waited for our friend to catch up and headed off to party town! Arriving mid-afternoon in what appeared to be a rather desolate party town, we queried our decision. However, it was sunny and after weeks of unpredictable European weather we donned our bikinis and trekked to the beach. The sun lasted about half an hour before the clouds drew in and it rained and rained and rained….
So here we were in a rainy, sleepy, surreal town. But we had come to party, and a party we would find. A few glasses of Hungarian wine, later we ventured back to the lake, and sure enough, there was a party going on. Hundreds of Hungarians had descended on the beach for a weekend of drinking and Karaoke. Due to the attention that we received, I do not think that Lake Siofok has many English tourists but a great time was had by all. As the sun rose across the lake we knew it was time to leave, but we decided to make one more stop before Italy.
England was due to play Croatia in European Football Championships, so we decided that it would be a great idea to watch it in Croatia, and off we headed to Zagreb. Arriving at Zagreb train station we met three English lads who warned us off our hostel claiming it was unsafe, so yet another change of plans. After negotiating the Croatian tram system we arrived at the only other hostel in Zagreb. Greeted by the hostel owner we were informed that the last beds had just gone to the guys from the train station. Knowing that there was no other hostel, and with the football about to start, we begged and pleaded for a place on her floor–but she could do better than that. “I have an outhouse,” she explained. “We’ll take it,” we replied.
The ‘outhouse’ turned out to be a shed, but at least it had mattresses. After freshening up we headed off to the city to watch the football. By now we’d latched on to the guys from the station who donned their England shirts in a patriotic manner. Walking through the streets of Zagreb we began to feel uncomfortable. Taking a seat in one of Zagreb’s many cafe bars the atmosphere felt hostile as chairs were moved to block our view and whispers were exchanged. Croatia scored first then England scored two. England had won, Croatia was out. The hostility turned to friendly banter. Drinks were bought, shirts were swapped, and football was played in the city square. For the second time that evening we had experienced the amazing hospitality of Croatians.
Waking up the next morning we discovered one of the guys missing. As the hours ticked by, worry set in. Appearing at about 6 p.m., looking rather worse for wear, Tom appeared wearing a Croatian football shirt with no real recollection of where he had been.
It was now too late to move to Italy, so we settled in for another night in our shed. Discovering a BBQ we decided to host a little party, and our shed became the envy of the hostel that night. Waking up the next day we knew it was time to move on. We bid farewells and referred to the Rough Guide. Discovering it was going to take 8 hours on a cramped stuffy train to Italy we panicked; this was not the time for hangovers. “Come with us,” the boys suggested, and so we did.
Finding ourselves on a bus to Plitvitz, we promised ourselves that once we reached Split, we would then go to Italy. As we ventured further and further into the Croatian mountains we began to worry. We could hear the boys mumbling at the back of the bus. After asking fellow passengers how far to Plitvitz, we were greeted with laughter. Turned out that we had long since passed Plitvitz.
We got off the bus at a service station in a place that can only be described as the Twilight zone. We begged and pleaded with buses and drivers for a lift back to civilization but no-one wanted to know. Eventually a school bus agreed to take us. Finding ourselves glared at by forty six-year-olds, we became the main attraction on the school trip as they taught us Croatian nursery rhymes and offered us Doughnuts.
A lovely Croatian family put us up. They couldn’t speak much English, and our Croatian was limited, to say the least, but through the exchange of food and photos, and with help from the youngest son, we managed to communicate.
The next day we headed off to the national park. It was a 6km walk along mountain roads but the views when we arrived were breathtaking. Miles and miles of lakes, waterfalls and greenery literally did take our breath way. I have never seen such beautiful scenery before. The fact that it is still a very much undiscovered part of Croatia made the experience even more memorable.
The next day we waited for a bus to Split. Bus after bus passed and all of them were full. We started to despair at the Croatian transport system, but our saviour arrived in the form of a man with a van. For 150 Euros he agreed to take us. We drove down through some beautiful countryside; the view as you descend into Split alone was worth the journey. Along the way though were constant reminders of Croatia’s torrid history.
Amongst the almost unspoilt countryside were bombed out, burned out houses. Knowing that Kosovo was only over the hill we were reminded of the atrocities of the 1990′s. It was difficult not to question what had happened to the people that once occupied these houses. Innocent people forced to leave their homes as the army surged over the border destroying everything in their path. Had these people escaped to safety or had their end been much more devastated?
Arriving in Split we boarded a ferry to Hvar, the port of the millionaires (we’d given up on the idea of Italy after seeing what Croatia had to offer). The Yachts here and the wealth on display compared to the humble surroundings that we had just emerged from were such a huge contrast.
Hvar was pretty if not slightly touristy. Cobbled streets and shingle beaches gave more of a Mediterranean feel to the Island as opposed to the places we had just come from. My advice would be to hire a small boat and venture out to one of the hundreds of tiny and remote islands. Much more satisfying than remaining on one of the crowded beaches of Hvar.
From Hvar we travelled to Brac, a smaller and less commercial island. We found a room on a small farm and settled in. My friends climbed Mt. St. Elijha, a venture that I was gutted to miss out on. If you’re going to do this you need a map and proper walking shoes as it really is a hike. The photos were stunning and my friends have raved on about it ever since. It’s something that not many tourists will do but even just venturing half way up you can see the scatterings of Croatia’s Islands far and wide.
From Brac we headed for Drubrovnik, probably the most touresty place of all. At the port we were harassed by hundreds of people offering rooms. We literally had to fight our way through. Really shop around if you visit Dubrovnik; you don’t have to stay in the centre as buses are very regular. I think we visited just in time as the destination is becoming increasingly popular.
The city is really picturesque; a sea of red roofs and marble streets it really is something out of a postcard. Taking a walk around the city walls it’s hard to believe that the town was completely devastated during the Balkan conflict. One in three roofs was demolished during the war and it has taken ten years of shipping in the red slate from France to get the city back to its former glory. After a couple of nights miss-spent in the local night club and a few relaxing days on the beach, our Croatian adventure had come to an end, but there was one more surprise in store.
The Rough Guide should really ever only be used as a guide, but it had been our bible for most of the trip, and it was about to let us down. The Rough Guide informed us that we could catch a ferry to Greece, but there are in fact no ferries from Dubrovnik to Greece, I repeat, THERE ARE NO FERRIES FROM DUBROVNIK TO GREECE. With only two days before our flight, we discovered that the only option was to catch a 15 hour ferry to Bali, Italy followed by a 17 hour ferry back across to Greece. Hey, at least we made it to Italy!
Those last two days were hell; we hung around, slept on decks, and couldn’t wash. I have never been so happy to see a shower and a pool when as we boarded the ferry to Greece. Greek trains are also awful, and for some unknown reason, if you open a window, you will receive a barrage of abuse from every Greek on the train (something to do with air conditioning that doesn’t work). If you do travel by train in Greece, prepare yourself for a sweaty hell.
We finally made it to Athens and boarded our flight. Our whole trip had gone to pot. Every well-made plan had been pushed aside and each day brought a new dilemma. We never made it to Italy (can’t really count the 12 hours spent in Bari), but I saw breath-taking scenery, encountered untold hospitality, and made some great friends. I wouldn’t change my Croatian adventure for the world.