Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Croatia

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.

By this time, we were growing weary of speed-touring and ready to slow down. As luck would have it, we were headed for the perfect place. It took a bit of patience to convince the Croatians that my passport was indeed authentic, but otherwise our train ride was wonderful. Nearing the port city of Rijeka, we traveled past rows of houses beyond large yards. In many cases, the yards were being tilled for crops, often by very elderly, hunched over, strong-as-ox women. We cruised alongside beautiful blue-green streams, lush forests, and fantastic views of the rolling countryside. We stopped at what we thought was Rijeka but did not see a single sign, so I walked up to a station patrolman and asked him where we were by pointing at the ground and shouting “RIJEKA? RIJEKA? RIJEKA??” He nodded yes, pointed at the ground, and shouted back “RIJEKA! RIJEKA! RIJEKA!!”

At the local tourist office, we booked ourselves a room at a nice old woman’s home very near the station in the center of town. Outside our second story window, in a cathedral courtyard below, a nun swept up rose petals following a wedding. We walked down to the pier, gazed into the Adriatic, and could hardly wait to get to Rab, our island destination for the next few days. After staring at the “Rab-bound” coach and ferry schedule for a long time, we realized that we would have to take a red-eye bus to make it to Rab by mid-afternoon, so we headed for bed.

Dawn came quite soon and we were on our way. I spent most of the bus ride trying not to look out the window. It seemed that we were nearly going to fall off the cliff-side road at any moment. There were several gorges filled with cars that had skidded down the side and become stuck on one ledge or another. However, it was hard to look away from the scenic craggy shoreline on the horizon and the barren rock islands that dotted the nearby waters.

We left the mainland aboard a ferry, floated past several more rock islands, and came to Rab. The city of Rab, located on the island of Rab, was fantastically beautiful. The streets were paved with whitewashed stone. The buildings in the ancient part of the city dated from the 13th century and were still in excellent condition. Best of all, every restaurant sold pizza and ice cream, which must have been the food of choice among German and Italian tourists.  

It was a bit difficult to converse in English with the man at the tourist office, but he quickly figured out that we wanted a cheap room and made some calls. For fourteen dollars a night, we ended up in the upper room of a bed and breakfast. The bed was soft and spacious and our balcony opened out onto the Rab harbor. We felt like we had just booked the Hilton. The rest of the day was spent napping and touring the small town. Our dinner at a nearby restaurant, where we were the only patrons, included a free dessert whiskey. This gorgeous little island seemed to be starving for tourists and appeared dearly glad to have us there.  

Following dinner, we were going to go for a walk. It was getting dark. Off in the hills, a power line exploded before our very eyes. Then bells began chiming in multiple places for the next five minutes. All these things happening simultaneously convinced us to walk home quickly. Unfortunately, the weirdness didn’t end. From our balcony, we noticed what appeared to be a lightning storm over the northerly hillside. However, we never saw any rain and the storm neither moved nor stopped as long as we watched it. I began to worry that some sort of war was commencing just over the horizon. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I’m sure it was just training exercises at the Area 51 of Croatia. But who’s to say? I’m sure what we saw never happened and the location does not exist. Other than the dripping toilet and an incessantly barking dog, the rest of the night went by peacefully.

We woke to a full breakfast and decided to venture to Lopar, a beach town on the other side of the island. Trying to find a nice beach in Europe is always a risky proposition because, as far as I can tell, many have the terrain of Mars.  

In order to get to Lopar, we tried to take a taxi boat, which we thought would be the same sort of bargain as was our hotel. No luck. The cheapest trip ran about fifty dollars. If we were smart, we would have seen that there was a regular bus route that cost ten times less. But we weren’t smart, so we gave up. We trotted off to a cement slab near the water by our hotel and tried to swim around the pointy black creatures sitting on the sea bottom and the long, poisonous-looking yellow animals swimming above them.

After getting our fill of the ancient but crispy clean white streets and buildings in town, we bought a grocery store dinner of wine, cheese, and crackers with some chocolate and strawberries for dessert. We strolled to a nearby overlook next to a cathedral to take in the sunset over the Adriatic. On the way home we stopped at an internet café, sent some emails to family and friends, and got caught up on the latest news. Unfortunately, the latest news was that two Chinese planes and an Egyptian plane had both crashed in the last month, giving ample fuel to my flying fears. It was a strange feeling to be so far away from home and feel trapped, not knowing if we would get back safely. It was all very irrational. But unfortunately, knowing my fears were irrational did not make them go away.

At 4:40 AM we were on our way back to Rijeka along those spectacular sheer ocean-side gorges filled with less fortunate cars. Our bus driver kept nodding as though he might fall asleep, so I kept my eye on him just in case we veered off the road and I had to sprint to the front of the bus and guide us smoothly down the vertical cliff face. I think this trip was proof for me that facing your fears only makes them worse. We did not crash at all, no doubt thanks to my constant worrying, and made our connection in Rijeka onto another bus that would take us to Trieste, Italy. I did my best to spend my last remaining Kuna, although I left myself so little change that I couldn’t afford to pay our driver the fee he wanted to haul our luggage. He was surly and I wasn’t in the mood to accommodate him, but we worked out a deal in which I gave him one of my spare euros in exchange for many displays of bus driver disgust.  

En route to Italy, my next passport challenge, getting past the Croatian exit station officials, went just fine. Then came the Slovenians.