No Straight Roads In Croatia

One knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.
—Paul Fussell


I was at the Budapest train station last Friday when I decided to come to Croatia, which is strange because I woke up with the vague determination to go to Transylvania, Dracula's Carpathian home.

"How much for a ticket to Braşov?" I asked the stocky ticketress.

"Boorrla?" she asked, rolling R's and crushing vowels in a way impossible to transcribe. Everyone I asked pronounced Braşov, Transylvania's biggest city, with a different enunciation. I still don't know how to say it.

"Yeah," I said.

She tabulated the price of my trip, including variables for age, class, and further destinations on a solar powered calculator.

"15,209 Forints." That's about $70 dollars.

"How much for Zagreb?"

Calculating. "880."

"Then I guess I'm going to Zagreb."

She wrote out the ticket by hand with a sheet of carbon paper under it so she would have a copy. Computers are overrated.

Zagreb, the Croatian capital, lounges in a flat valley enclosed by the Alpine foothills of upper Illyria. The city center is neoclassical in a postwar concrete kind of way. Big sheets of stone are missing from most of the weathered buildings, revealing brick and mortar. The suburbs look like Palo Alto. Greening trees and stuccoed houses with roofs of sangria-colored tile line the wide avenues, plied by fleets of tiny German and Japanese autos. Generally ragged gardens buffer the tightly packed houses, but it feels like there is infinite space.

The Croats make this familiar landscape unique. The men swagger around asking for cigarettes and sit at streetside cafés chatting pleasantly over powerful espresses and glasses of water like magnanimous mafiosos, Italians who never took to the Renaissance. They are liberal with car horns and loud voices. Women are wiry and wily with passing spells of dignity and sound like they started smoking in utero.

I made the mistake of coming to Zagreb on Easter weekend, when the city shuts down. The only food available are the Croatian staples of espresso, beer, and ice cream, as well as McDonald's, which maintains America's 24/7 no holiday doctrine in the face of strong local resistance. If you have not prepared for Easter weekend, then you have to starve. I was ready to leave, and after two buses did not show up, I got on a late one that drove down through the Croatian highlands and south on the coast to Split.

I stayed with a woman named Anna who I met at the bus station with a sign around her neck that said "Rooms" in four languages. She looked like a clay golem in a purple sweater, a green skirt, and a brown wig. Anna walked me through the fantastically exotic streets of the nighted coastal town to her apartment and told me about Split in between yelling at people she knew.

"Anna like Split, yes? Anna love Split. It is a nice town. Poor town. No money money, yes? This is Caritas. You eat eat between 10 and 2, yes?" She started eating out of one hand with the other. I didn't know what she was talking about. It looked like a pharmacy.

I said, "Da," which is what I learned to say whenever confronted with Croatian inexplicability.

The next morning Anna shouted, "Jonnie! Jonnie! Jonnie!"

"Yeah?"

"You sleep nice?"

"Yes, I slept very well, thank you."

"Good Jonnie."

Then she went back into her room and clicked all 1800 deadbolts into place. Her lair is more secure than NORAD.

I left Anna's apartment to explore Split, which is someone's dream of the Adriatic. The old town surrounds the ruined palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, which once abutted the clear water of the crescent bay but now stands fifty meters back to leave room for outdoor cafés and palm trees. The high wall, with its gates and towers, is all that remains of the old palace, other than Diocletian's Mausoleum -- the Christian massacring Caesar's tomb is now a cathedral -- and the substructure, once a garbage dump and now a subterranean market. Pizza shops, ice cream parlors, cafés, and little fashion boutiques have found places in the old wall, which makes Split look like a movie set. The inside is filled with bars, Roman ruins, and narrow streets of slick marble, the outside surrounded by gardens and tented market stalls.

With your back to the palace, the bay curves out to either side, cruise ships on the left and a forest of yacht masts on the right and a rectangular glass building that stands out like an abscess against all that red and white. Split blankets half of the long Dalmatian peninsula, the other half being a hill too steep to build on. Houses climb halfway up, but the rest is forest and stone steps with a Croatian flag at the top and a sunset on the other side.

Split is a city colored by hanging laundry, by lounging and yowling cats, by Croatian arguments, by ethnography museums, by cyprus, lemon, orange, olive, and palm trees, and by Vespas, some made entirely of duct tape.

I went to a bar with some people the next night, when halogen illumination turns Diocletian's Palace into something like an Aztec temple. The bar was on a balcony over the ocean, and some sort of Croatian Ranchero music piped over the speakers. It sounded just like Mexican music, with a little less accordion. Croatians have a strange affinity for Mexico. They have a lot of restaurants with Mexican names that serve Mexican pizza, which has corn, olives, and mushrooms on it.

Anna made me coffee before I left for another coastal town. "Anna need big black coffee," she told me. We talked for a while about family and where I got my money money, but ran into problems. "No capito. Small English," said Anna. "Where you go Jonnie? You come back, come to Split, call Anna, okay?"

The nauseatingly serpentine highway from Split to Dubrovnik winds around the coves of the Dalmatian coast and passes under mountains and through little red and white villages wedged in the green slope between the water and the sheer slate cliffs above. The houses go up in rows like stadium seats, and all their balconies face the Adriatic, which on that clear day was a calm, blue expanse. Distant islands and the receding ridgeline seemed to float on the water, buffered by white mist.

The inner hills are rocky scabs patched with green, sparsely populated and dotted with clear lakes and canals and with ivy-splashed stone towers. Ubiquitous Roman and Medieval foundations demarcate family gardens. These hills open up into wide river valleys and neat haciendas.

Dubrovnik is an old fortress town of narrow stone streets, overgrown with orange trees and laundry, on a square peninsula ringed by a 30 meter wall, which opens on the south to a noisy harbor of argumentative fishermen that feeds a thriving fish market near the bus station. I got a discount on a single hostel room in the New Town, on another peninsula a few rocky coastal kilometers north of the Grad, the Old Town. The land here soars up over the clear watter in green-swabbed vistas marked by dead fortresses and parking lots. The New Town is in a valley between two wooded peninsular bluffs that stick out into the water like mandibles.

From my hostel, I walked 200 meters down a cobblestone street shaded by palm trees and canopies for the tables, chairs, and couches, to the little sand bar beach in the middle of the west-facing bay. Everything happens outside here. Restaurants, bars, cafés, and markets spill out into the sunny streets. It's nice to just sit and enjoy the scenery.

So basically I spent the last week reading in the shade, taking bracing Adriatic swims, drinking coffee and beer on patios, eating pizza and ice cream, and ruminating over Roman and Medieval ruins. I guess I'm on vacation.

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  1. A million thanks for psonitg this information.

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