Travelogue EE 4: Zagreb – Dubrovnik (Croatia)

14 August 2010


Having done all our sight-seeing in Budapest (including some things we didn’t want to see, like the punk assuming the number 2 position on the pavement right outside Sziget on a road full of people making their way to the station), we were very ready to move on to Croatia. And very ready meant up and out in a 05h45 taxi to catch the 06h30 train! We nonetheless managed to pass pleasantries with the driver, who was very well-spoken in English (very uncommon in Budapest based on our experiences) and apparently a few other languages, which he learns on course in winter when it’s quiet season for him. He told us that the lack of English was because kids had to learn Russian in school as a mandatory second language during the communist regime so English was optional. Makes sense.

The train trip from Budapest to Zagreb is 7 hours, made easier because we’d left so early (and been out so late the night before) and slept the first 3 away. Spite & Malice and a happy picnic pack (our now usual smokey bacon chips, bananas, drinking yoghurt, chocolate milk and choc chip cookies) helped pass the rest of the journey relatively painlessly.

Got to Zagreb and were immediately enchanted. It was a city that neither of us had any burning desire to go to, but had included primarily compelled because it’s the capital and seconded because Budapest to Dubrovnik direct would have been a hell of a journey to tackle in one go (no direct flight – would have had to go via Paris if you can believe it! – no online train routes because too many stops, and car and bus simply too long to want to do).

Zagreb is a lovely city and very easy to move around. Trams and buses right outside the train station, with simple and logical routes covering all sides of the city – a welcome change from Budapest’s complicated mesh (made more irritating by how unbelievably close together the stops are – no more than a couple of hundred metres each, making for a very stopstart journey!)

A short tram ride and we were at Ban Jelacic Square, which is the hub of the city, with parks and museums between the station and the square, restaurants, shops and hotels around the square and presumably residential and suburbs up the hill and beyond.

We found our hotel with little trouble. Hotel might be a strong word though. We made our way to reception, which was housed in a third storey apartment and were met there by 2 stoner types who look like they don’t leave the apartment much (and are happy with that). One had a glass eye – an odd running theme with the guy on the Gautrain sitting in front of us who had an eye-patch (and moved because the sun was in his eye!), a fellow patron at the table next to us later that day with a noticeably lazy eye and a chap we’d spotted on a Budapest House Of Terror monument that had the squintest squint eyes we’ve ever seen.

Anyway, turns out we’re in the 3rd storey apartment – but they count from reception up, so we had to put the lug into luggage and haul them up SIX flights of stairs. The stoners had warned us that we might happen upon an old lady who cleans the apartment. Turns out that the ‘cleaner’ is actually the primary inhabitant of the flat and ‘our apartment’ really is a sleeper couch in her front room! Hardest on Christian with his aversion to shared bathrooms, but softened with the building’s prime positioning on the main happening street in town (something wildly unpronounceable – like a lot of things here. Between the lack of vowels and a whole bunch of accents, kappies, inverted kappies and double dots, we don’t have a hope of phoneticising anything so have taken to renaming almost everywhere and everything to suit our tongue better). She’d also provided FIVE ply toilet paper. We joked about it being so absorbant that it just about cut out needing the toilet as the middleman! *grin*

Grabbing a quick pizza slice (despite ourselves, being fascinated then horrified how traditional food has been quite hard to come by while there is a pizza bar or spagettaria on every corner) we hit the sight-seeing. The tourist bureau at the station had given us a lovely glossy book, with routes mapped and pictures, descriptions and historical significance of everything we needed to see. A very manageable walk and we saw almost everything – lots of parks, museums, fountains, statues, old buildings and churcheschurcheschurches.

With best intentions of pausing for sundowners and a bite before seeing the last quadrant of the city, we settled into the brauhaus we’d earlier pinpointed as watering hole of choice (from a leaflet at the train station and that serendipitously happened to not only be across the road from our lodgings, but was also recommended unprompted by Glass Eye Guy), called Pivnica Mali Medo (mountain of the bears). We were lucky enough to get an outside table on this stiflingly hot (mid 30 degrees!) and humid day. All the restaurants have pavement tables, but the roads are narrow so tables are limited and there were loads of people out and about being Saturday evening.

We shared 2 excellent local specialities: goulash pasta and mixed grill of Medin Brlog pub sausage, chicken fillet, minced meat fingers, braised potatoes, overdone beans, and mustard. Christian’s beer was a darker red ale called Mrki Medvjed and mine a light lager called Zlatni Medvjed. We had several. We also had a few jagermeisters, which they serve in a tumbler with ice and lemon – we got some funny looks when we threw it back so surmise that it’s a sipping drink here.

We ended up rolling out of there the better part of midnight, having had a most excellent time (and having only spent about R220 for the whole bangshoot! Bargain!)

Word to the wise planning a stay in Zagreb. If you’re only spending one night (as we did) and think you may end up overdoing it on bar street (as we did), do it on a friday night, not a saturday night (as we did). Church bells start chiming at a ridiculously early hour. Every few minutes another church starts its sequence. We’re guessing it’s because there are so many churches in such a small town that they all need to get a go and – rather than a deafening cacophony on the hour – they’ve dished out random times, so you’ll for example get a church that relishes it’s turn and goes hammer and tongs celebrating the 23rd minute of each hour or somesuch. Not easy the morning after the night before… When it’s already sweltering outside! … and your ‘apartment’ only has net curtains!

We did manage to pull ourselves toward ourselves and do a flash half hour trot around the last quadrant ticking the last few must-see checkboxes. We were very sorry to say goodbye to Zagreb – it’s an amazing little city and well worth including in your itinerary if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.

Caught a taxi to the airport, which took us past the less pretty side of Zagreb. The side that was what we’d expected to see – brown and grey apartment blocks, grimy shop windows and grafitti everywhere (seemingly the bane of this side of the world). We were tickled by a particular series of spraypainted messages which went through the usual logos, profanities, proclamations of devil worship, metal bands, to end on The Jesus And Mary Chain (very long compared to the usual Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica stuff), basketball, La Coste. La Coste? Really?!

A 45 minute flight later, we landed in Dubrovnik at 13h00 on Sunday. Beautiful coastal town, no stranger to tourists judging by the fact that every second house advertises itself as accommodation to rent. We dumped our stuff at our very neat little apartment and headed out to explore.

Dubrovnik has an Old City, literally the original city from medieval times within the old city walls etc. It was a bit dissappointing as it was really just restaurants (no surprise mostly pizza, pasta and seafood) and souvenir shops, but we did enjoy wandering the narrow, winding cobbled streets at the top of the town where people still live in the little ramshackle units all one on top of the other, with original little doors and windows).

We’d decided we didn’t want to do dinner in the Old City as the restaurants were all expensive and dime a dozen), so headed for the port where we expected to find bars and restaurants lining the waterfront. No such luck. Oddly, there was very little entertainment there. We managed to find a nice enough place for some sundowners and cards, but all they served foodwise was pizza and ‘sendvices’, so we were once again on a mission to find an eatery.

We walked the full length of the waterfront to literally the edge of town (across the road from the bus station) and found a place that had a lasagne and chicken pasta thing we’d have settled for, but they were out of stock (a very common, very frustrating occurrence) and the waitress suggested we have the… Pizza.

No dice.

We left in a huff and luckily soon stumbled upon a little bistro where we were delighted to find they had awesome seafood pasta options. The waiter was very confused when we greeted him with asking what they DIDN’T have, meaning what was out of stock and whether they didn’t serve pizza. Astoundingly, they had everything on the menu (and a few specials that weren’t) and didn’t even serve pizza at all! We shared a salmon tagliatelle and a tomato/seafood pasta, which were both perfect, alongside a switch to the local brew, Osujkvo. Nice. The only marring of this perfect formula was getting my first bee-sting ever. Not allergic though. Phew.

Monday we took a ferry from the port in the Old City out to a nearby island, 10 minutes to Lokrum. We trekked around to the olive groves, the monastery and the fort, dotting our mission with dips in the ocean on all sides. First time in the Adriatic for both of us! It’s bluer than blue and refreshingly cool and very salty. Pity they’re not sandy beaches though – rocky coastlines make for tricky entry and exit and the big rocks under the water have left parts of our feet a bit shredded. 🙁

Still, a great day out. Caught a bus outside Old City so as the see the remainder of the peninsula – and see if there was anywhere else to dine. We took the bus a full circuit, so are satisfied that we’ve seen everything Dubrovnik has to offer – and found a spot on the opposite side of the marina to where we’d been the night before.

Settled in for a few sundowners on a bar that serviced a little jetty with 4 or 5 tables and entertained ourselves with views of our little piece of paradise and a man in a speedo(n’t) coming into port and mooring his little boat called ‘Tina’ right in front of us.

We had the perfect dinner at a little spot across the road called Bistro Riva. Unable to choose (and not having to), we shared a calamari and rice, mussels (which were peculiarly battered and deep fried – unusual, but good) and lasagne, which turned out to be layers of thin pancakes with mince between and cheese melted on top (notwhat we were expecting, but also nice).

Had planned on walking off our dinner to go home and pack, to get an early night for this morning’s bus ride to Split (4.5 hrs so figured we’d try get out early), but got sucked in by a warm and inviting bar called Cavello’s a few minutes from home). The barman took a fancy to us and plied us with jagermeisters (also served in tumblers, so probably fascinated by us throwing them back) and brough out his guitar and played us sing-along English songs (mostly classics like Stairway to Heaven, Beatles, Hotel California etc) and sang some Croat songs to us, and was delighted when Christian showed him how to play Wonderwall.

Got home much later than expected, which made this morning quite a challenge. Could certainly have used a good old chicken and mushroom pie. No such thing around here. They don’t seem to do any savoury pastries (loads of pancake, croissant and doughnut style things stuffed with sugars, jams and fruit though) and the supermarkets don’t do our typical deli or bakery things, so no pies, subs etc (not even pizza slices which is odd around here!). The locals (according to one of our tour books, which we didn’t believe until we saw it) seem to favour eating dry rolls. No butter even!

We ended up getting our usual picnic pack and getting on the bus for our long journey.

So, first thing on the agenda in Split is to find something (non-pizza) to eat with a view over the magnificent port and azure ocean.