Trip Journal - Croatia




Zagreb -- 5 September 1998

The alarm went off at 5:15 and we had packed, showered and broken camp by 6:45. We were very proud. We'd seen a sign in the bathroom the night before (after it was too late naturally) that said that starting the next day reception would open later, at 7:15. I guess these were their winter hours. But we couldn't hang around that long or we might miss our train. The train was supposed to leave at 7:58 and we still had to buy our ticket from the border. So we left our tent number and the Mastercard information near the door to reception and just left. We have no idea whether the charge came through or not, since we never see the credit card bills. I'm curious, though.

We shared a compartment on the train with a Croatian nun, who'd lived through the stifling of religion during Communist times. She had worked in Austria at some point for 8 years as a nurse. But I think it had been quite a long time ago. We spent almost the entire six hours of the trip talking. And I never even found out her name. But we had a wonderful conversation (in German), difficult and tiring, but wonderful. She told me that she'd trained to be a teacher, but of course during the Communist era, nuns weren't allowed to teach. So she worked in a hospital and learned from the other nurses, since alternative training also wasn't allowed. I had hoped that maybe she had worked caring for refugees, and could tell me about the war, but when I asked, she said, "You know, I live in a cloister, and don't know so much about worldly things." She is retired now, but still works caring for elderly and sick nuns in her cloister. I sounded as if there were only older nuns living there now.

The nun also told me about the Bishop of her parish. The way she spoke of him, I couldn't tell if he had died or not. I think in her mind, he is still very much alive. He was a great leader during Communist times and the people loved him very much. Consequently, he wasn't very well-liked by the Communists. According to the nun, they poisoned him several times, but he refused to die. He had all kinds of blood problems but lived. His name was Alojzije Stepinac and the Pope was coming on Oct. 3 to have a "Selige Sprache" (Conversation with the Soul) with Stepinac. Or at least that was what I understood. I thought for a while that Stepinac must still be alive and that the nun had just gotten "selige" and "heilige" (holy) mixed up. But I found out later that the Pope was coming to beatify Stepinac, the first step in the process of becoming a Saint. The Pope was then travelling down the coast to Split to celebrate its 1700-year anniversary, and then going to a town called Solin (I think), which is where Christianity began in Croatia. The nun was very sorry to hear that we wouldn't be in Croatia when the Pope arrived. I tried to ask if she would be attending some of the celebrations, or if she had ever met the Pope, but I don't think she understood.

We went through Slovenia in the pouring rain. But it was lush, green and wonderful. Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia, apparently gets twice as much rain as Zagreb, which explains why Slovenia looks so thick and dense with green. I'd love to go back and visit someday.

We read in the Lonely Planet guide too late (on the train) that we needed a visa to get into Croatia. We were worried but there was nothing we could do about it now. We'd either get away with not having one, or they'd kick us off the train and we'd have to spend the night on the border. As it turned out, the soldiers just gave a cursory glance at our passports, saw that they were American, and gave them back without even opening them. We didn't even get a stamp. The soldier didn't even take the nun's passport. She told me that she used to be so afraid at border crossings, but now nuns are respected again.

She told me that Croatia has been fighting for freedom for 900 years. Turks, Tatars, Hungarians, the Hapsburgs, Venetians and the French have all occupied Croatia at one time or another. Now they have their freedom, but the Serbs will never be satisfied, she said. And now, she found it quite intolerable that the "strong" countries were putting pressure on Croatia about fighting the Serbs. It wasn't right because all they were doing was defending their freedom, and they must have freedom.

I'd read that the propaganda on both sides of the war has been firmly entrenched in the minds of the people and that it was best not to discuss politics. I just nodded and listened. It's true that Croatia (Hrvatska in Croatian) has been occupied, seized, invaded and sieged (but also willingly allied with various countries for protection) countless times in the last millennium. But as far as I can see, the real, lasting grudge is against the Serbs. And I never read a compelling reason why there should be such hatred.

There are some that say that it's because both groups were so preoccupied with being occupied by other nations that they never had a chance to work out their differences, whatever they are. Having now been there, and admittedly having heard only one side of the story, I'm not at all sure what the real answer is. And it's very frustrating not to be able to pinpoint what caused the Serbs and Croats to become such bitter enemies. Both the Serb and Croat tribes migrated to the South from what is now Poland around 625 AD. Presumably the two tribes would never have settled so closely together if they weren't getting along. During the 11th century, the Croats were fighting so much amongst themselves that they couldn't even agree on their next ruler and had to ally themselves with Hungary. I'm assuming that the Croats didn't have time to hate the Serbs at this point, or they rarely came into contact with each other.

More recently, during WWII, some Croats, especially around the area of Split, sided with the fascist Ustasa movement, which attempted to expel all Serbs from Croatia and send them back to Serbia. This caused a lot of problems and eventually the Germans stopped the process, but the Ustasa decided to launch their own campaign of elimination, which was more brutal than the Nazi's own in scale. Some 35,000 ethnic Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were killed. The policy was that one third of all Serbs should be killed, one third expelled, and one third converted to Catholicism. But not all Croats supported the Ustasa, and this doesn't seem to be the beginning of the feud. Both groups have done horrific things to the other. Nowhere have I read the reason why. My first image of Croatia was when we walked in the rain through the park across from the train station in the direction of Tourist Information. There we saw a pigeon attacked by a rat. The attack was very quick and seemed entirely without provocation. They are, in a sense, creatures of the same ilk, although one walks and one flies. This to me was the lasting impression of this senseless feud: two adversaries, more alike than different, destroying themselves in hate. I deeply regret not having read Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1937) about Yugoslavia before I came. I've had it for a couple of years but it's thousands of pages long and seemed a bit daunting. I will when I get back though.

We decided not to camp that night, since it was raining. At Tourist Information, they told us that the Youth Hostel was "quite bad" and that we should get a room in a hotel. Accommodations in Zagreb are notoriously expensive. We had no idea whether to believe the story about the hostel or not. But the woman helping us told us that she could get a room in town for 380 kuna ($64.00). She said the room was very nice, had a TV and phone and private bath. We figured we could at least check it out. So the woman called the hotel. They only had a single room, but we were assured that they could put in another bed and everything would be fine. We got on the tram right outside Tourist Information (after Paul went to change some Austrian Schillings) and rode two stops to the hotel. We'd been told it was off the street in a courtyard. I was very surprised to find out that that meant an enclosed parking area. The loud, passionate, young woman behind the counter showed us our "room". It was unbelievably small, so small that in order for one of us to move around in it, the other had to go into the bathroom. It was a good thing they hadn't tried to put another twin bed in the room; it wouldn't have fit. Instead, a grossly misnamed "helper bed", which is really a small, low cot, was squeezed into the space between the bed and the wall. It was at least a foot lower than the other bed and had a steel strut running down the middle of it. We finally found the phone under the helper bed. There was a little B&W TV with lots of snow and only four channels, and a tiny shelf to put things on. Our gear wouldn't fit.

The feisty woman wanted the double price for this outrageous excuse for a room. I thought this was ridiculous. I asked for a discount, since it obviously was not a double room. We went back and forth (which was kind of fun, since we knew we could always go to the youth hostel and probably have more space) and finally made up our minds to go to the hostel. Then the woman said, "Okay, okay, I'll give you the room for 215 kn ($36.00) but no breakfast. We agreed. "But my father will kill me!" she wailed as she left the room. We came out later (suffering from claustrophobia) and the woman said, "So, you want a cup of coffee? On the house." Apparently now that the bargaining was completed, we were friends again.

We called the bank to find out how close our estimates of what we had spent were to reality (it's hard to know what the exchange rates will be). We had thought that once we got the phone out from under the bed we'd be able to call from our room, but the call had to be placed from the main phone at reception and then transferred. Our feisty woman didn't seem to know anything about toll-free calls though, so we had to dial it from reception (and she charged us for it). We never did get anything transferred back to the room. We also had to upload all the new pictures in reception. It was a local call to dialup, which we later found out is free, but we were charged one kuna a minute.

We went to dinner at an Italian pizza place. The pizzas were cooked on an open fire. They were great. We had Croatian beer; mine was Karlovacko. It poured like cats and dogs while we were in the restaurant but luckily it had quit by the time we left. Croatia didn't seem like such a scary place after all. I'd been a little afraid of going, since the press make it sound so grim. But this was the first day and already it felt comfortable.

Zagreb -- 6 September 1998

We had to be out of the hotel by noon. We got up early, packed up and left our gear at reception. We'd had this idea in mind for quite a while that it would be a good idea to attend a religious service on Sunday (or whatever day) wherever we were. We had been well-intentioned, but it never seemed to work out. But today we were determined to go to mass at St. Stephen's Cathedral. We arrived toward the end of high mass (which was accompanied by a wonderful men's choir), so we stayed through the next one which started at 11:00. The customs are a bit different in Croatia than in the States. Back home, when someone wants to sit in your pew, you slide in to let them sit down on the end. In Croatia, you get points for arriving early. You get the aisle seat, and when someone comes in after you and wants to sit down, you get up and let them in, then sit back down on the aisle. It was really interesting to watch. At first I thought it was only the old ladies that were doing it. They were the ones dominating the aisle positions, but then they are the ones who have the time to arrive early. When we slid in for the woman who came to sit in our pew, she must have been secretly whooping it up. The man in front of us must have felt how crowded it was getting because he spread himself out as much as possible in order to make the pew look fuller. It was all starting to feel a bit pushy to me, like all the people were afraid that there wasn't going to be enough space for them. Of course, this is one thing I deal with all the time, so it was interesting to see it on a large scale. The mass was in Croatian, so of course we couldn't understand anything. But somehow, it was still all beautiful and meaningful. The woman next to me always stood, knelt or sat just before it was time to, and placed her hands on the pew in front of us far apart, so as to claim as much space for herself as possible. People who came late stood in the aisle at the ends of the pews. No one got up to give their seats to the old ladies who came in late and had to stand. I think the sermon was about generosity and loving your neighbor, but I couldn't swear to it. It was just the feeling I had. The priest really was able to reach people. His heart seemed very open. While he was speaking, the pew hogger in front us actually got up and gave his seat to an old lady who had been standing in t he aisle for 10 minutes., and it seemed like the woman next ot me relaxed a bit, so the priest must have really broken some barriers. After the first mass, we looked around and found St. Stephen's tomb behind the altar. It was huge and all gilt in silver, with his likeness on the side. People were praying there, and kissing his face. There were plaques all around giving thanks. This man was really loved.

After church, we went ot look for the Internet cafe. The door was open, but the cafe was closed (a charming E. European characteristic. Why doesn't anyone invest a few kuna in a "Closed" sign?). I was starving. We looked for breakfast but couldn't find it. Too many cafes serve only drinks. It was really frustrating. We finally decided it was actually time for lunch and settled on funghi (mushroom) pizza again. Then we went to Tourist Information to find out how to get to the campground, which was to be our next residence, and get some groceries from a nearby grocery store. Just a few things, since we had some food with our stuff back at the hotel, or so we thought. When we got back to the hotel, our bags had been moved, and the bag with the food in it was nowhere to be seen. The Father and owner of the hotel was on duty and kept insisting that it wasn't his fault. Of course not. It never is. But I kept wishing he'd just be a man (or woman) and say he was sorry on behalf of his hotel. Instead, he just blamed the cleaning lady. We'd lost jam, oranges, cheese, and most tragically, our cheese slicer. but what can you do? We loaded up our packs and headed out to the campground.

It turned out to be a long, arduous journey. First we took a tram from near the hotel (but not too near) to Savski Most (Bridge), where there is a bus station. From there, we'd been told we could get a bus to take us to Lucko. Easier said than done, because all the busses had numbers on them, but no destinations. After a bit of wandering about and an uninformative conversation with a lady selling sodas and snacks at a kiosk, a nice woman came up to us and offered us help. Sort of. She said she was also going to Lucko, so she got us onto her bus, which came after about 10 minutes, then once we were away, she started asking everyone on the bus about where we were going and how to get there (the motel/campground). Then she spoke to the bus driver. Not many people seemed to know where the motel/campground was, but she managed to put together some rough directions for us. Then she discovered from the bus driver that there was another bus that would take us directly there. This was after we had left of course. We got out where we were told to (our well-meaning helper stayed on the bus) and then mad a right where we thought we were supposed to. The road went on and on, winding through a little residential neighborhood. We were hot and thirsty, so we stopped by the side of the road for a drink (we did have the foresight to pick up sodas before we left). On the other side of the road there were two women and a man standing in their front yard watching us. When we stopped, one of the women came over to us and asked if we spoke German and if we needed help. We had a nice little conversation and she told us how to get to the campground from there. It was great. Just when we needed it, every step of the way, help showed up for us. After we left, we overheard the man ask the woman where we were from. She said USA, and he let out a hearty laugh. It guess he enjoyed the sight of a couple of Americans brought low, wandering lost and confused through his neighborhood. The last bit of the walk was along the highway, which I found a bit alarming. But we finally walked up the ramp to the truck stop that was Motel Plitvice, behind which lay our campground. It was huge and filled with tour busses, and the truck stop had a walkway built over the road so you could get to the motel and restaurant from either direction. The campground turned out to be very nice. It was large and nearly empty, so we practically had it all to ourselves. We picked out a nice spot near (but not too near) the bathrooms and right next to a power outlet. I told Paul that he could set up the tent and I would direct. I was really hot and tired from the long walk. To my surprise, Paul was happy to oblige, so I dragged over a table and some chairs (very civilized campground) and watched Paul set up. It was great. Then we went exploring. We never did find out why the motel was called Plitvice, which is the name of a National Park 133 km to the south. There were beautiful photographs of the sights in the park, but the only connection we could divine was that this rest stop was on the way to the park for anyone coming from North-Eastern Croatia. We got some chocolate and drinks at the store there and too photos of the view across the plain to the city. We ate dinner at the tables and chairs I had moved next to our tent, which we really enjoyed.

Zagreb -- 7 September 1998

We woke up and Paul took a shower, but we ended up going to bed again. Later, I took a shower. At reception, we asked about the bus to Zagreb, but apparently, we were too late. In the cafe, we ate apple murek, which is the national breakfast. Murek is filo dough pastry filled usually with meat or cheese. I think the apple filling is a concession to tourists. We walked back to Lucko, taking a shorter route off the highway this time. We caught the bus to Savski Most and the tram to the train station. We wanted to find out the best way to get to Split, our next intended destination. At Information, we had the times of the trains rattled off to us, too fast to write down, and without any arrival times. The trains were all overnight so we'd have to pay for a couchette as well as the ticket. I was in favor of taking a bus if the time it took was comparable to the train. Paul seemed less inclined. Next we went to the bus station. Busses ran every hour all day and night. At Information we were told that the trip took "about 8 hours" and that it cost "about 100 kn." This disdain for precision is really frustrating sometimes. But we basically had our answer. We had vanilla pastries and cokes for lunch (it's great to be a grownup) and went to explore the city.

First we stopped into the internet cafe, the ArtNet Club. It had a really swanky, high-tech look: glass and chrome tables, monitors behind the glass bar, grand piano and the bartender was wearing a suit. And, unlike most places we've been to, the network security was good and we couldn't get Tamino on. We couldn't even check our email on their machines. We asked the bartender about the possibility of hooking up Tamino to one of their phonelines and were told that only members get such special privileges. But it sounded like he was saying that if we came back the next day and talked to the programmer, we might be able to work something out.

We went to Dolac Market, which had row after row of tables filled with all kinds of fruit and cheese. We picked up peppers, grapes, cheese and apples, for very little kuna. The kuna, as I should have mentioned before, is the Croatian currency. A kuna is a small, furry animal that looks like a marten. In former times, its pelt was used as currency. The kuna is definitely my favorite money so far.

We walked up too many stairs to the Lotrscak Tower, hoping to go up inside and get some great views of the city, but we couldn't see any way to get up, and really, the tower wasn't that high, so we decided to skip it.

We next went to the Stone Gate, from the 13th century. It's a sort of tunnel under a pedestrian road. In it is a painting of Mary which somehow escaped harm in an otherwise devastating fire in 1731. It is considered to have been a miracle. It's a very strange place, because technically it's a road, with foot traffic, but there are also pews set up for the devout, with red glass candles that you can light. The stone walls are covered with metal plaques giving thanks to Mary for various favors, cures, etc. The painting itself is quite small and is surrounded by dozens of vases of flowers, and is kept safe behind a wrought iron gate. The emotional fervor there was pretty intense.

On the other side of the Gate there was a statue of St. George and the dragon. I can't understand why so many cities have these statues. (Zagreb has two.) Wasn't he British? Why does every city feel it can claim George?

We walked down Savska Street to a drug store where, from the tram yesterday, I'd seen that they had Freeman's products. They're the one luxury I'm unwilling to do without, and had intended to get in Vienna, except they didn't have them. They cost twice what they do in the States, but it was worth it.

We wanted to go to the botanical gardens but they were closed. We ended up taking a rest in a small park with a fountain in the middle of it near the train station. It was full of bums. There was great people watching. One man in a trench coat with a huge stomach asked us for a cigarette. He just wouldn't believe that we don't smoke. He had two open bottles of beer, one in his hand, and the other in his coat. A policeman came striding importantly into the park. A couple of the bums slid quietly away. The cop walked up to one man and asked for his I.D. We were amazed. There were lots of questions, and the cop even called in the guy's information on his radio. He then proceeded to do the same thing to another guy. He skipped us, and more importantly, he skipped the bum with the gut and the two beers. So what was he looking for? Refugees? A suspect? We don't know.

We went to the Importanne, which is a glitzy underground mall near the train station. We got some food at the grocery store there and headed back to the campground. We found out from the woman at reception that local calls were free and Paul saw that we could use the house phones with Tamino. He stayed in reception to upload pictures and I went back to the tent. I set up dinner on the table (bread, cheese, the veggies and fruit, and a bottle of red wine). Too late I remembered that my journal and book were back with Paul. So I started an Arthur C. Clarke book that Paul had recently finished. It was great. Over an hour later, though, Paul still wasn't back. I'd already eaten a few grapes and the Mikado chocolate (it had puffed, stale rice in it) that Paul didn't like. I finally walked over in the direction of reception. Paul came out before I was halfway across the field. We had a great dinner, although disappointingly, the red peppers were moldy, and I didn't like the wine. I thought it had a metallic taste, although Paul thought it was fine. I had thought the same of the beer the night before. I guess I'm supposed to lay off the alcohol for a while.

When it got dark, it got damp and cool again. I had closed up the tent beforehand in anticipation of this, but I don't think it made much difference. I put on warm clothes and stayed at the table reading the Clarke (which I now couldn't put down) with the aid of Paul's head lamp. It's goofy, but it works.