On a hot summer morning I took another train between Ljubljana and Zagreb and forgot that Croatia was outside the Schengen zone of the EU causing confusion when I awoke for onboard customs as we crossed the border from hilly Slovenia into the relatively flat land of Croatia.
I arrived in Zagreb around eleven. It gave me a good vibe from the onset and I spent the day wandering around amid the intense heat of the Balkan sun. In the afternoon I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships. The entire collection consisted of random objects described in the context of a dead relationship: some were stories of first love (an undelivered letter to a girl met at a border crossing while fleeing the violence of the Bosnian war), some of rage (an ax used to therapeutically destroy all the furniture his girlfriend left behind: it was stacked in neat little piles when she came to retrieve it), of tragedies (a brass key, the key to his heart, she never knew how much he loved her until he died of AIDS), and of comedies (a “stupid fucking Frisbee” that he gave her for her birthday). The beauty of the place was in the stories which transformed otherwise mundane objects into works of art while simultaneously allowing the donors to achieve some sort of catharsis. I recommend it if it comes to a city near you.
The city was filled with other interesting sights: a massive, intricate cathedral; a slightly overgrown botanical garden where I spent a quite hour sketching; a crowded, rowdy produce market where I bought some fruit; a long street lined with outdoor cafes where I had a quite beer; and long line of parks where in the evening I settled back into the grass to enjoy a concert of classic rock covers where the older couples of Zagreb came to dance.
Before catching my night train down to the coast I walked back along the line of parks to the train station and noticed that even well after dark there was an incredible amount of people clustered in groups on the grass singing, laughing and drinking. It was a wonderfully warm feeling to see a city use its public spaces so effectively.
That night I caught a night train from Zagreb, in the center of the country, to Split in the center of it’s massive coastline. The night train is an experience filled as it is with young people on holiday saving money by “sleeping” on the train. It seemed that, unlike me, most of them were more happy to drink all night than to sleep – and who can blame them? The seats were so uncomfortable that it would have taken a pint of whiskey to get me asleep without tossing.
Yet there is something magnificent about waking up on a train running along a foreign landscape into places unknown. That morning I found myself amid low hills covered in scrub brush and ramshackle villages alternately hiding and revealing the nearby Adriatic Sea. As we approached our destination the sea became a regular fixture on the western horizon and the smell of salt air began to flood through the open windows of the train.
We arrived in Split at 8:30. The train pulled right into port amid the massive ferries running daily to the surrounding islands and across the sea to Italy. As I walked along the harbor towards my hostel my there were small cruise ships, water taxis, and commercial excursion boats offering day trips along the coast all hustling their services.
The city of Split is centered around the port and a massive Roman palace falling into ruin right off the water front. After dropping my bags I explored the ruins to find that all sorts of things had been built inside, including many people’s homes. The old town was a mess of narrow alleys and small squares including one of the coolest fish markets I’ve ever seen. At another market I got into a conversation about organic figs with a vendor and ended up buying a dozen and a few peaches. Figs, by the way, are incredible when they’re overripe.
That afternoon I found a beautiful rocky beach facing south into the sea where women were unconcerned about wearing tops and there were some twenty foot cliffs over deep water. I spent a few hours alternatingly jumping into the sea, swimming out to the buoys, rock climbing back on the cliffs, sunbathing till dry then jumping back in again.
After the beach, exhausted, I meant to head back to the hostel for a nap and some travel planning but ended up hiking to the top of the massive nature reserve towering above the city. It was filled with strange and exotic plants – some that Dr. Zeus himself must have planted. That evening I hung around on the promenade people watching and then called it an early night (since I had a real bed to sleep in.)
The next morning I shouldered my back and humped it down to the ferry terminal to catch a boat from Split to Korcula (a small island between Split and Dubrovnik where my peoples people come from). The ferry took three hours which I spent on the top deck admiring the Adriatic coastline, reading and eating peanuts. When we landed in Vela Luka, the town on the opposite side of the island, I had just enough time to catch a bus across the island. It was an hour of rolling hills and picturesque red roofed harbor towns before we reached Korcula.
The town of Korcula is amazing. It sits on a round little hill overlooking the bay, surrounded by tall walls and rusting canons with four parapets guarding the approaches. Narrow streets (now filled with galleries and restaurants) lead up to the church in the central square at the top of the hill. It’s a post-card.
I stayed in a hostel outside of town: the Dragons Den. I can recommend it despite the mild madness of the owner. No sooner than I was checked into the place Dragan (the owner) offered to take some of us to do some cliff jumping. We piled into his beater of a van and took off with him driving as fast and carelessly as a dragon might. We whipped along the coastal road though a small fishing town past bays clustered with small ships through vineyards and into a forest along the coast. Ten minutes later we were at a rocky beach where a massive channel had been cut out of the stone creating a channel of sorts with a forty foot jump.
After an hour or so jumping we headed back to the hostel. Two medical students from London and I then accompanied the Dragon to a local farm for dinner. It was like walking into someones home. We were first greeted by their three dogs before sitting at picnic tables and benches outside under a small gazebo. Before we ordered were given shots of the local booze: one made from nuts, the other roses. Then we ordered wine and grilled meat. The meat was prepared in concrete room with an island in the center where the owner set fire to a cluster of grape roots. When the roots burned down to coals he put a the meat on a grate overtop. I order mixed grill which, for ten dollars, was a whole pork chop, a skewer of chicken and a giant slab of belly pork served with chips and decanter of homemade wine.
After dinner I went into town with girls to watch the Olympics where we ended up drinking cocktails under moonlight in one of the parapets after climbing a steep ladder up through it’s center.
I woke up groggy the next day and spent most of the day in transit. The bus back to Vela Luka, then a ferry to Split where I spent the remainder of my Konas and went swimming before taking a night bus (which allowed far more sleep then the train) back up the coast, through Slovenia and into Trieste.