Published: October 23rd 2010October 19th 2010
“I had had a bellyful of travelling ... I wanted to arrive.” The Great Railway Bazaar
by Paul Theroux, p. 378
From the bus station at Belgrade I caught a coach to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, a journey between two states that were also arch enemies. Both have been the victims and agents of ethnic cleansing not only during the Second World War (Croatian Fascists the Ustaše
but more recently during the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia of which atrocities were committed by both sides. They are different to each other: Croats are Roman Catholic and use the Latin writing script and Serbs are Serbian Orthodox Christians and use Serbian Cyrillic).
When we arrived at the Bajakovo
border I wondered if there might be a frosty atmosphere - but there wasn’t. The only evidence of animosity I found was trying to change my Serbian dinar
into local Croatian kunar
- everyone refused - even banks.
After six hours on the bus I arrived in Zagreb to drizzly rain. It was a rare sight, but I optimistically hoped it would not last and that I could dump my bags off at the hostel and go for a wander. It
didn't happen, it rained the entire day, getting heavier as the day went on. It was cold, the rain didn’t let up and I didn’t have an umbrella. Zagreb looked gloomy and as I walked around the city’s streets for something to eat - I quickly grew fed up. Three months of being in the sunshine had taken its toll.
In these conditions there wasn’t a whole lot to do- I’d just arrived and didn’t fancy walking around getting wet just to then walk around a museum in equally wet feet. So I returned to the Fulir hostel
and in the kitchen got talking with two Asian lads - one from Malaysia living in London and the other from Sydney working as an air steward. It was Saturday night and despite wanting to go out - it simply chucked it down relentlessly - so I stayed in and tried to keep myself warm.
The following morning was even worse but this time I had an umbrella - borrowed from the hostel. The Malaysian guy and I then wandered around the old city taking in the sights. It’s a pleasant enough city - lots of Austro-Hungarian style architecture and
a few nice Catholic churches I went for a wander to see the sights. There are pretty streets to amble along in the old part of the city and old churches to visit; they were full of worshippers for Sunday mass. So was the towered neo-Gothic cathedral which was built after an earthquake destroyed the medieval Cathedral in 1880.
Justin and I then walked through the city with our umbrellas and escaped the miserable weather by stopping at the Museum Mimara
. We ended up thoroughly enjoying the two floors of superb renaissance art and sculpture. Outside, there was more rain, getting heavier and heavier - so we went to a nice little cafe and had some lasagne and a coffee. I wanted to do so much more exploration of Zagreb such as Mirogoj Cemetery which is supposedly the most beautiful in Europe but the weather prevented me. So I looked at leaving Zagreb and going down the Dalmatian coast where I would find ancient Split, exotic islands, walled cities and of course a few beaches. But it was not to be; the forecast for Croatia was rain and a significant drop in temperature. Fed up in Zagreb I looked
into heading to somewhere hot, perhaps Spain or south of France but I there were no budget airlines from Zagreb and a train journey to the Cote D’Azur as well as the cost of staying there forced me to think again. By this point I was tourist-ed out, suffering from culture fatigue and disinterested in hanging around any longer.
Justin was taking a train to the Austrian city of Salzburg that evening and seeing as I was stuck for ideas in a rain sodden city I decided to go to the station and buy myself a ticket. Mozart here I come.
At 9pm Justin and I boarded the train at Zagreb railway station, where we left on time for the overnight journey through Croatia, Slovenia and finally Austria. Having booked separate tickets our seats were in different compartments but to my absolute delight I was sharing my compartment with a very charming and attractive young lady. On my best behaviour I discovered this young hand maiden was returning to Ljubljana from a few days in Zagreb visiting her parents. She not only spoke beautiful English having enjoyed an education at a British school in Zagreb but in addition to
her native Croatian, Slovakian, German and Spanish. She was now at the university in Ljubljana for an exchange year - studying the impressively esoteric subject of Economics. Three hours flew by as we chatted, told stories, laughed, and made fun of the miserable Austrian who sat uncomfortably in the compartment with us as if he had piles. Alas the Slovenian capital was soon upon us and although we both wished I could have gotten off that train, my ticket and the continuing miserable weather played their part.
After we entered Slovenia there were no more on-board border checks - we were now within the E.U. - Slovenia having been the first and only member of the old Yugoslavia to join the European Union. The 6 seat compartment filled up with locals who sat in the near dark and silence. I noticed the woman sat opposite me had a gammy cross eye - but I could never establish if she was looking at me or not.
What I needed to keep my
eye on however was Salzburg. Justin was in another compartment fast asleep and as we suddenly arrived I had to wake him up (and his half-asleep carriage) in
order to get him off. I wondered what would have happened to him if I had not been alive and kicking at 3 in the morning.
Justin already had a room booked at a pansion
in the city so he kindly called around for me at the hostels but they were fully-booked or at 3 in the morning were not answering their phones. So, we walked to the pansion hoping it would perhaps have a reception that was open. It wasn’t open until 7 am so we shuffled back with bags to the station and looked for a hotel where we could crash, we were both exhausted. Each hotel seemed to be around €100 a night so we retreated to a petrol station and waited it out in a waiting room full of Croatian labourers drinking coffee.
Back at the pansion I got a single room and slept from 9am until 3pm where I got my arse out and into the city of Salzburg - the birth place of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Salzburg is a charming city on a river, chock-cull of baroque churches and other buildings; it’s a tourist’s delight. It’s also incredibly clean, well organised
and very Austrian. I bumped into Kevin and Justin on the street and we had a lovely coffee and I tried a traditional Apple Strudel which was very nice. We then just wandered around the city, taking in a spooky graveyard and a myriad of beautiful baroque churches. (one of which had the incongruous sight of a white bloke playing the didgereedoo and selling his cds - in Mozart’s city of all places. We then took a funicular up to the castle overlooking the city and because it was night time was practically deserted. That night we all went out for a few drinks and learnt to my astonishment that gay men frequently use the internet to arrange rendezvous’ with other men in every city they visit. Gay bars are positively dangerous places - a man sat on a stool at the bar suddenly tumbled over head onto the floor and proceeded to weep and argue with the irate barman until we left thirty minutes later.
I didn’t do much the next day and merely booked a train from Salzburg all the way up through Germany to the Netherlands - I was finally on my way home. Of what
I had seen in Austria had impressed me, brilliant organisation, everyone spoke English including every railway staff member and shop owner and it was clean. Maybe a little too clean and organised bordering on the sterile, but it was all fine by me.
I said my goodbyes to the boys - who’d enjoyed a night at The Sound of Music musical and got a 9am train to Utrecht in the Netherlands.
There are more photos below