A rush through Central Europe

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October 19th 2010
Published: October 23rd 2010
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Belgrade to Zagreb

“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, capital of Serbia 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 although ethnically the same: Croats are Roman Catholic and use the Latin writing script and Serbs are Serbian Orthodox Christians and use Serbian Cyrillic writing script.

When we arrived at the Bajakovo border therefore I wondered if there might be a frosty atmosphere. 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 on this trip, 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 and it was also cold. The rain didn’t let up and I didn’t have an umbrella. Zagreb naturally 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 weather 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 ("Justin") and I then walked through the city with our umbrellas. It’s a pleasant enough city - there are pretty streets to amble along in the old part of the city and old churches to visit as well as lots of Austro-Hungarian style architecture and a few nice Catholic churches. 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. We escaped the miserable weather by stopping at the Museum Mimara which has two floors of superb renaissance art and sculpture.

Back 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 the 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 somewhere hot, perhaps Spain or south of France but 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.

Taking a train

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 found myself sharing a compartment with a very charming and attractive young lady. On my best behaviour I discovered this young handmaiden was returning to Ljubljana from a few days in Zagreb visiting her parents. Having enjoyed an education at a British school in Zagreb she not only spoke beautiful English but she spoke 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 Byzantine 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 his pansion hoping it would perhaps have a reception that was open. However, it wasn't open until 7am so we shuffled back with our bags to the railway station and looked for a hotel where we could crash. By this time 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 cafe smoking room full of Croatian labourers drinking coffee.

Returning to the pansion at 7am I got a single room and slept like a baby until mid afternoon. Sleeping during the day for a traveller is a guilty affair so when I finally woke up I got my guilty arse out and into Salzburg - the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Salzburg is a very charming city on a river, chock-full of baroque churches and other historic buildings. It’s also incredibly clean, well organised and very Austrian. It’s a tourist’s delight.

Whilst out looking at all this like a proper tourist (very different to my straight backpacking) I ran into my travel companions "Kevin" and "Justin" in the street. We promptly popped into a cafe where I had a lovely coffee and a traditional Apple Strudel and 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 crusty playing the didgeridoo 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. Later on we all went out for a few drinks. I somehow ended up in a gay bar where 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. I also learnt to my astonishment that gay men the world over frequently use the internet to arrange rendezvous’ with other men for a bit of you know what. This almost overshadowed shaking the hand of British Formula 1 racing driver David Coulthard in a bar later that night. Part of the joy was having half the bar full of Yanks not having a clue what was going on around them as people tried to grab him.

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. Just don't ask me to live here.

I said my goodbyes to the boys - who'd enjoyed a night watching the camp as hell "The Sound of Music" musical and got a 9am train to Utrecht in the Netherlands.

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