I should have asked the taxi driver to wait while I checked to see if the hostel was actually open. Now I was wandering the outskirts of Zagreb on a Sunday night, disoriented, without a good map and devising an austerity diet to keep me solvent through the week. Could I survive on croissants that long?
The internet can make you do some stupid things. Had Pristina International Airport not had free wireless, I never would have skipped my connecting flight from Zagreb to Sarajevo. I had intended to report on the financial crisis’s impact on Bosnia but, realizing that there would only be one reporting day if I planned to reach Dubrovnik by midweek, decided to bag work and see a new city instead. No big deal, I thought. Zagreb’s a modern European capital – just look at all the hostels Google finds.
Now, searching Croatia’s capital for a place to stay, I was having flashbacks of a sleepless night I spent at Heathrow Airport watching the floor cleaner drive back and forth, and panicking at the swelling cost of this Balkan boondoggle. My plan had been to travel by bus from Macedonia through Kosovo and Bosnia to Croatia. I didn’t regret my decision to fly from Pristina instead of crossing the Serb border by bus, but an extra plane ticket was not in the budget, nor was a night in a hotel.
But with the lights of downtown approaching as I passed the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, its spires towering through the trees in the surrounding park, I knew it was either a hotel or a bench at the train station – the two other hostels I had found online weren’t in Lonely Planet, and there wasn’t a taxi or person around.
I stopped at the first hotel I passed, Hotel Jadran, where the desk attendant offered me the reduced weekend rate. Reluctantly, I accepted, showered and, disgusted with myself, paid my credit card bill online. To make myself feel better, I thought of that delightful line from The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux’s classic about travelling by rail from Europe to Asia. Early in the journey, Theroux’s Milan-bound train stops in Domodossola, Italy, and the author gets off with two other passengers, Molesworth and Duffill, to buy lunch. Duffill gets left at the station.
“Duffill,” Molesworth says, safely eating lunch back on the train. “If he’s got any sense at all, he’ll sit down and have a drink. Then he’ll get a taxi to Milan.”
Good advice, but there wasn’t any booze around, and I wasn’t going anywhere. So I took a sleeping pill.
The ambler’s city
A friend once described Zagreb to me as a miniature Prague, but I would say it’s more of a Mediterranean Prague. It has the architectural beauty, the polish, even the majesty – just before dusk, the falling sun sets the rooftops of Zagreb momentarily alight, a spectacle to rival anything you’ll see in the Czech capital. But Zagreb is alive and welcoming in a way that Prague is not, in a way unlike any central European city I’ve visited.
On a hot sunny Monday, young people packed the streets, many defying the heat in jackets and black shirts. Street vendors sold strawberries outside the train station and in the outdoor market downtown, where old-timers sat in the cafes chatting and playing chess as teens walked by with their ice-cream cones. Zagreb seemed designed for the flâneur. Abundant nooks and crannies added the chance of discovery to its roomy, breathable layout, and the city was filled with greenery and cafe-lined boulevards for people watching.
And there’s another critical difference between Zagreb and Prague: Zagreb has a respectable train station. After exploring the city during the day, I spent several hours there waiting for the 10.50pm train to Split. Night trains aren’t quite the pleasure many nostalgic modern-day travellers say they are – the beds are thin; the ride, bumpy – but it saved me on accommodations, and I arrived not entirely unrested.
In the early morning, I strolled on Split’s harbour-side promenade, shopped for strawberries in an outdoor produce market and walked to the beach for a swim in the Adriatic, still cool in mid-May. I hadn’t experienced Croatian nightlife yet, so the next evening I went to Ghetto Club, a bar and cafe within the walls of the Diocletian Palace, the fourth-century retirement home of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, in Split’s old quarter. Having neither a Mohawk nor a tattoo, I felt out of place, but the intimate courtyard – surrounded by the palace walls that today host apartments, restaurants and bars – was filled with young locals, and it felt good to be out. I took a seat near the back and ordered a red wine.
‘Logic without feelings’
“Reading anything interesting?” a man behind me asked, then cackled for a full terrifying 10 seconds after I held up Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh,” he said. “It’s just so complicated!”
A self-described “toothless old man”, Zarko was in his 70s, with bronzed skin and a full head of white hair.
He was a semiretired political cartoonist who had been a “celebrity from the time I was 30”, working for The Washington Post after emigrating from Yugoslavia in his 20s.
Zarko was fond of the fist bump. After learning that I lived in Prague, he told me that The Good Soldier Švejk was his bible. He was full of aphorisms, advice and anecdotes – which he laughed at insanely – and began any description of a man he had once known here or there with “he was a gay”. Because he liked me, Zarko said, he would tell me the secret of journalism.
“Do you know who the best reporter in Washington was?” he asked, offering no time reference.
“No! Art Buchwald!”
Zarko’s other insights included “I know the owner of this bar. She went to London, she was straight; she came back, she was a lesbian.”
And: “Police are like a woman: When you need them, they are not there.”
And: “When you are my age, your feelings disappear, and you are left with logic. But trust me, there is no logic without feelings.”
For all of his evident faults and certain kookiness, Zarko seemed kind, asking questions about my life, drawing his characters – old and new – for me as keepsakes and inviting me for a whiskey at his studio the next night. I accepted and we agreed to meet at the Ghetto Club at 8pm.
“If I’m not here, it means I’ve found something else to do,” Zarko said. “Now one more round, and then I’ve got to go. I’ve got to do something for my hormone,” he continued, pointing at his groin. “I need a woman!”
We parted outside the bar, and I navigated the corridors leading from the palace and sat in a small square in the old town where a guitarist was playing Clapton. It was dusk, and the night air was cool. On every long trip – especially the solo trip – there is at least one heightened moment that seems to justify the hardship. Aside from an evening I spent swimming in the Pacific Ocean on a past trip to Mexico, I had never felt more at harmony with my surroundings.
But this time, six years later and six years older, it wasn’t pure harmony, I realized. Something else was there, a longing for more than harmony, for some revelation to arrange the muddle. It had to be here, on these steps, in this square, beside this palace: if not here, where? Sitting there, with the music and the other onlookers around – their faces serene but perhaps inside searching desperately like me for meaning in the moment – I felt like I was flirting with the essence of this trip. I just wished I wasn’t alone.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, there was Zarko – more stomping than walking – passing through the square, evidently still looking for a woman.
Dubrovnik dawn and dusk
Beware of anyone who says he wouldn’t give it all up to live in Croatia: He’s a philistine at best. Croatia is simply a spectacular country – cosmopolitan, emotive, beautiful.
On the bus ride to Dubrovnik, the hazy air made the views of the cobalt-blue Adriatic and surrounding mountains look almost like a mirage. Dubrovnik itself is one of my favourite cities, and it sickens me to think of the Yugoslav army shelling the centuries-old town during the war. Framed by a virtual maze of pedestrian footpaths and residential buildings, the centre of old town spans two gates connected by an ivory stone boulevard polished glossy by millions of footsteps. At dawn, the surrounding buildings capture the sun’s reflection off the stones, and the city glows.
I, unfortunately, was nearly broke by then and couldn’t afford to stay near the centre. I had booked a room a few kilometres away in Lapad, a suburb of Dubrovnik, and put myself on a diet of bread and fruit for breakfast, a beer or two for lunch and bread, cheese and meats for dinner. My room had a terrace overlooking the sea, perfect for dining, and I ate there alone every night, watching the sun set over the Adriatic – a real treat for an East Coast boy – and spent my last two days swimming and lying in the sun. I went to my first nude beach, an exhilarating experience that I’d recommend to anyone without friends or relatives in a 1,000-mile radius.
On the last night, I treated myself to dinner at the highly recommended Levanat, in Lapad. I ate tuna pâté, mussels stewed in a rich tomato-garlic sauce, and shrimp sautéed in butter and herbs and drank white wine and grappa. My table sat high above the sea, and I could see what looked like an old warship from the heyday of the British Empire anchored offshore. The alluring abandon of the road now exhausted, I felt lonely and tired, and I didn’t much enjoy the view.