Trip Journal - Croatia

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Split -- 8 September 1998

We wanted to take the earliest possible bus to Split, but there were a couple of things we wanted to do before hand, so we packed up the gear and broke camp in the morning and took the packs to Left Luggage at the bus station. We had some great Lineckis at the same bakery we'd been to the day before (because they didn't have any vanilla pastries). Then we went off to the Ethnographic museum, which sounded pretty cool in the write up in the Lonely Planet and in the literature from Tourist Information. The museum didn't open until 10:00 though, so we had some time to kill. Paul really wanted to check out the American Embassy, so we went to see if we could register ourselves there. I was slightly less than enthusiastic about this - I don't think I like the U.S. government being able to track my whereabouts. But I agreed to go anyway. We had to go in through security one at a time and we were inspected at the door with one of those hand-held metal detectors. The guard searched my day pack and seemed not to believe that it contained only books. Paul ended up surrendering his pack entirely because it contained too many "forbidden" items: camera, computer, knife. Then we were in. Everyone in the room besides us and one American man was Croatian - probably waiting for visas to go to the U.S. A very nice woman behind the counter gave us cards to fill out while we listened to the other American tell his sob story: that he'd been kicked off the train at the border because he had no money, even though he had a ticket out of the country, so legally they had no right to stop him. His story had the air of one that has been long and well rehearsed, leaving the teller firmly settled on his throne of righteousness, leaving everyone else in the dark. For that can't be the whole story - why would he resort to the embassy? Does he want the customs officials punished? Why didn't he have at least a couple of bucks on him, a credit card? Why didn't he just hit an ATM and then get on the next train? I would have loved to hear the story's conclusion. We didn't have an address in Croatia, since we had not arranged a hotel in advance in Split, so the woman told us that the registration cards wouldn't do much good. She told us that they are usually used to find someone when someone calls from home with news of a death in the family or some other emergency, and they need to find the person. All too often, when the call does come, the registration cards have no address and phone number, so there is nothing the embassy can do. They will also call you if there is some emergency in Croatia. I can't see that they can keep track of people at all unless they call the embassy every time they change hotels. It's really only useful for people who are staying for months at a time. But Paul had gotten what he wanted out of the experience - to go inside the embassy and see how the process worked.

Here's what the brochure for the Ethnographic Museum claimed to have on exhibit: Zagorje Wedding, Life of a Young Married Couple, From Hemp to Linen, The Blacksmith Trade, Pottery, From Grain to Bread, Wine Production, Gingerbread Figures, Manufacture of Shepherd's Pipes and Wooden Toys, Private Collection of Milan Juranic, Wheel Wright's Trade. Sounds great doesn't it? If only it were true. We walked in to the museum, paid our 18 kuna (the price above the kasa said 15 each, but the man there said ten, but couldn't change our 100, so we gave him all our change, which totaled 18) and as we headed up the stairs, a girls sprinted up ahead of us to turn on the lights. The wide stone staircase was covered in cardboard and there were bits of scaffolding scattered about. Some renovation was evidently underway. We saw lovely costumes. One of them may have been a wedding dress. The men wore white, accordion-pleated pants, the women wore white pleated skirts. The embroidery was beautiful. The dominant colors were red,white, black and blue. I did see a couple of ginger bread figures at the feet of one of the costumed mannequins, and there were a few loaves of bread. But I thought they would actually show how the shepherd's pipes were made. It was beautifully disappointing. Downstairs there were exhibits from other cultures. It sounded like wealthy Croats had long ago gone into the wilds and brought back artifacts from the natives of Africa, Australia and South America. I thought the British had a monopoly on that sort of thing.

When we got to the bus station, the woman at the ticket booth told us there was an express bus that left later, at 12:30 and arrived at 6:58 p.m. That sounded better than the 8 hours we had been expecting. We hung around in the waiting room until about 15 minutes before the departure time, which we should have realized after Sunday mass was way too late. The bus was packed. We managed to find 2 seats together in the penultimate row. Then an older couple came up to us and managed to make us understand that we were in their seats. It was then that we realized that there were assigned seats, so we looked at our tickets and saw that we too had seats, up near the front of the bus. When we found our seats, two young women were in them and they were not inclined to move. It's hard to argue with someone effectively when you don't have a fluent language in common. They seemed to be telling us that no one sits in their assigned seats anyway, so we just sit wherever. It was more of the "It's not my fault" that we had been hearing since we arrived. However, there were only single seats remaining, no seats together. Paul and I had just decided that we would have to get rough with them and force them up when a man near the back signaled to us that he would be willing to move and let us have his seat and the empty one next to him, so we let it go. Again, people showing up for us at just the right time.

One last story before we leave Zagreb. At Tourist Information, they gave us a City Walks Guide and here's what it says about how the city got it's name: "According to legend, Zagreb got it's name from a chance meeting at this square (the central square in the city), when a viceroy called out to a girl standing near the well 'Manduso ZAGREBI (scoop)' and that is how the well came to be named Mandusevac and the town Zagreb". Huh?

The bus was a bit less comfortable than the train, as Paul had predicted. We found out that the WC was locked, and leg room was non-existent, especially after the guy in font of you put his seat back. Having said all that, what we were able to see by bus we would never have viewed from the train. We first drove to Plitvice, the national park that had nothing to do with the campground where we stayed outside of Zagreb. The views were stunning. The hills were white stone and cedar-covered; the valleys were surprisingly wide and fertile plains. South of Plitvice, we drove through the valley past one abandoned village after another. At first, we just saw buildings with spatterings of gunfire, but then whole towns were just gone. None of the houses had roofs anymore. This is the area in the South of Croatia (from Karlovac to Knin) where the war took place. Presumably, the Serbs who used to live here had fled, or are still refugees. In 1995, after the signing of the Dayton Accords, the Croatian government agreed in principle to repatriate refugees, but they've created a bureaucratic nightmare that leaves refugees still living in youth hostels and villages falling into ruin from neglect. When we got off the bus in Split, there were dozens of old women, mostly dressed in black, calling, "Sobe, Zimmer, Camarre!" ("Rooms!" in three languages). They were quite persistent. We told one woman we were camping and she said, "No camping, no camping in Split." We showed her the listing in the Lonely Planet guide but she still insisted that it did not exist. Whom to believe? We figured we'd go to the campground and find out. I tended to believe it was really there and that the old woman was just making the hard sell because she had a room to let. Paul thought that we should go to Tourist Information and check. So he left all the gear with me at the bus stop and walked down. In the meantime, I watched for the #17 bus which was supposed to take us to the campground. There were no schedules posted. I never did see the bus.

Paul came back and confirmed the old woman's words: no camping in Split. But we could get a room from Tourist Information. We were tempted to walk back down to the bus station to see if the old woman was still there, but it was so hot and so late, we took the easy way out. Tourist Information gave us the address of the place where we were to stay and directions. To my charmed surprise, the "street" we stayed on, Radunica, was mostly steps, and all paved with the same white gold limestone all the houses were made of. And no traffic noise. (I didn't yet know how loud the local men could be and how late into the night). We found #54, which was a "typical" Croatian house. They are made of concrete and stone, and the second floor is usually reached by an outdoor staircase, which usually also has a large deck attached to it. Our room was on the second floor, which was really three levels up. The couple who owned the house lived on the first level, and their grown children above us. We were shown two rooms and I was allowed to choose the one I wanted. Naturally I chose the one with the real double bed. We put the gear down and went back out to explore and try some roasted corn on the cob, which we'd seen a man selling on the street. As mentioned before, Split is celebrating its 1700th birthday this October. This is by far the oldest place I've been to. Split is situated on the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea. The region is the legendary Illyricum, which the Romans conquered in 228 B.C. I've just learned that the politically correct replacement for "BC" is "BCE" which I initially thought meant Before Christ Existed, but actually stands for Before the Common Era. Likewise, A.D. is replaced by CE, for Common Era. Anyway, the Roman Emperor Diocletian built a palace and retired there in 285 CE. This was my first brush with Roman history, and it was very exciting. I have Pam, my friend and boss, to thank or perhaps curse for my new interest in Roman history through the many and voluminous books by Colleen McCullough she introduced me to.

I had expected Diocletian's Palace to be a ruin outside town somewhere on a hill. Imagine my surprise on discovering that as we walked around nibbling our roasted corn, looking at all the brightly lit shops and cafes, we were actually in it. In the old days, the palace was right on the water, and boats could pull right up to palace wall. Either the land has risen since then or the later inhabitants have built up the shoreline. I'm guessing the former. It was a very large rectangular compound with high walls surrounding it and towers at the corners. It's technically a ruin, but there's so much of it left you don't really see it that way. Over the centuries, the town has just been built in and around the remaining parts so that it is completely integrated into downtown Split. Now the ancient barrel-vaulted cellars house artist's galleries and there are shops and cafes crammed into all the space within the old walls and spilling out beyond them. A church has been built inside the building that used to be Diocletian's mausoleum. The former Temple of Jupiter is now a baptistry. I would have expected to be disappointed that there was a Benetton inside Diocletian's Palace; instead I find it charming that the building has been in continual use since its inception.

We had been at one of the cafes within the palace walls. All the chairs were placed facing the street, for people watching. The whole town is paved in limestone blocks, which have become incredibly slippery over the years by the rubbing action of countless feet. Split-ites have an interesting way of walking that shows that they've adjusted to the slipperiness. Instead of rolling the foot from heel to toe, they place most of their foot down all at once. We didn't see many ridiculous high heels either. Most of the buildings look alike. As said before, all are made of the same limestone. They also all have green shutters and red clay tile roofs. It's a very pleasing combination. It seems a little strange at first that there's no grass anywhere, but you get used to it. We went home and tried out the real double bed. It was lovely.

Split -- 9 September 1998

We had gotten a map from Tourist Information the night before and its welcome read:

"It's [sic] inhabitants, bright and smiling, loud as all Southerners, but always close, await you with an open heart.

"We wish for you to fell [sic] at home in our city, and for you to discover its' [sic] historic monuments, but above all, its' people. Places worth seeing and the natural beauty of the city will leave you in awe and inspire.

"But if sometimes this colourful, loud and temperamental southern city tires you, take a walk through its' quiet settlements, still coves, woods and promenades."

We already knew about the loud part; local men had stayed up talking and drinking until past midnight. Amazingly, they were already up and drinking beer by 8:00 a.m. or so. We had coffee and tea at a cafe inside the palace. Had they offered food, which we fully expected them to do, we'd have had breakfast there. Instead, we went to an incredible bakery on the harbor and picked out four yummy pastries to eat by the sea. Life is not too bad.

We climbed the tower of the cathedral (5 kn) to get a bird's eye view of the city. The climb was really intense. First we climbed a series of stone block stairs to the part of the tower that houses the bell clock. From then on, we climbed a little metal staircase that was not only open to the floor below but also to the outside. I'm not afraid of heights and I thought it was rough. Some people couldn't handle it and had to go back down. I, and every other woman with a dress on, felt a bit exposed.

But the views were really worth the exertion. It was like looking down upon a maze from above. The town is full of little streets and alleyways, all too narrow for cars. This makes the peristyle of the palace, a large colonnaded square, that much more impressive. We went into the cathedral afterward, which was actually quite small, but beautiful. Then we walked through the cellars of the palace, to look at the jewelry, antiques and art.

By then, we were ready to seek out the coves and woods that the map had recommended. It was hot and crowded; we walked uphill through tiny streets to Marjan, the peninsula park on the hill. It's covered in white stone, honey-scented fir and bromiliads. We visited a tiny, one-room church dedicated to St. Nicholas and wrote postcards in the relatively cool shade.

We made a quick trip back to the room (WC break) and headed to the open air market to pick up food for our ferry trip to Dubrovnik the next morning. (We'd walked to the ferry office in the morning and gotten tickets. The ferry left at 6:30 a.m. the next morning and took 6 1/2 hours.) We bought some lovely apples, now in season, and some pistachios. We attempted to buy some terrific cheese from an old woman, but she didn't want to sell it in sizes smaller than half a wheel. We couldn't eat that much before it went moldy, and besides, it wasn't cheap. So we went along to the other cheese vendors, all of whom were happy to give out free samples. None were as good as the old woman's though. She let us get three or four stalls away and then finally relented and let us buy a quarter wheel.

We took our purchases back to our room and put on our swimsuits. Time to check out a cove. A man at the harbor ("Sobe, Zimmer, Camarre") showed us where the beach was on a map we were looking at. It turned out to be a pebble beach, with a strip of concrete on one side, but a beach. The water was incredibly clear, and a lovely shade of blue -- and impossibly shallow! I could walk out a hundred feet and the water still only came up to my knees. There were no waves at all (I've only swum in the Atlantic) and the salt water lets you float with very little effort. It was heavenly. We stayed a couple of hours and then went back to our room to change and get some lunch. We finally found it at a restaurant on the harbor. It was really nothing special and a lot of the items on the menu were crossed out. I'd read that most Croats were willing to give up going out to dinner and films in order to go to Italy and buy fashionable clothes. Maybe that, coupled with the lack of tourists, has caused a lot of restaurants to cut back or stop serving food altogether. We had salads and sauteed mushrooms. There was a whole gang of cats begging for food. Some were quite aggressive; others did the pitiful routine. None were really tame. If you held out your hand to pet them, they hissed and backed away. After lunch, we went into Tourist Information to ask about a nice Italian restaurant. We really wanted good pasta. But the woman there seemed so disappointed that we didn't want to have Croatian food. We figured that, since the Dalmatian Coast has historically had a lot of contact with Italy, there'd be great Italian food. And we'd be able to eat vegetarian, which had been difficult in the Czech Republic. But in the end, the woman showed us a place on the map, and we left feeling terribly guilty. I had read that Diocletian's Palace had three gates: gold, silver and iron, and I wanted to go check them out. It was very anticlimactic, as they all looked the same, and none actually contained any of the above elements.

We walked by the Gregorius of Nin statue. He's famous for getting the mass said in Croatian, I believe. We mailed postcards at the post office, then decided to walk to the campground ourselves and see if it was really closed, and if so, why. We'd heard that refugees had stayed there, but surely by now, they must all be repatriated. It was only a couple of km away, so we thought it would be a nice walk. And it was. We walked along the coast on a road that kept getting smaller and smaller, until it was little more than a goat path. The campground was definitely closed, but how sad, because it's in a beautiful location, right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. But the facilities were completely trashed; I can see why it's closed. The funny thing though, is that the information board outside Tourist Information still lists this campground, and a phone number. I could see why Lonely Planet still had it listed in their book, even though it's been closed to tourists since 1991, as we later found out. On the way back, we encountered a very drunk or stoned guy. He called out to us, and said, "Do you...? Do you...?" accompanied by some hip shaking and a very vague hand gesture. Of course, he meant drugs, but with the hips I was afraid he might be offering something else. A little while later, we ran into a guy who wanted to change money in the street, which is illegal. It was like they had let all the kooks out for the night. Harmless but nuts.

We went to dinner at the recommended place. The waitress brought us the menu, which was entirely in Croatian. We only really knew the words for tomato, cheese, and mushroom in Croatian, so we hadn't gotten very far by the time the waitress came back to take our order. She very kindly translated for us. We had a very nice meal and then rolled ourselves home to pack for the trip to Dubrovnik. We were in bed by 11:00.