Even before we entered Croatia, my preconceptions had been altered from the image on Western television. I had talked to Zanina, a pianist from Zagreb, and she reassured me that the evil Let’s Go was indeed out of date: Croatia was very ready for tourists, all the way to the southernmost end of their coast, at Dubrovnik. Then on the train from Budapest, we met a Croatian woman who spoke English and (better) Polish, who it turns out had gone to the very same institute at which we were studying in Poland, though in its better days. She worked in Torun, and was a bit upset at small-town Polish provinciality. Her oft-repeated phrase: “There is no war in Croatia!” She seemed rather contemptuous of Polish representations of her homeland. She did have a few of the typical attitudes we had been led to expect: “Serbs will have lunch with you and then cut your throat afterward. They just aren’t trustworthy. We Croatians were always naive about them.” For the most part, however, she just gave us a good idea of what to expect and tips on getting around.
Strangely, Poles and Japanese can go into Croatia without a visa, but Americans need one–though it’s granted for free, at the cost of what I would think is needless paperwork. I quickly learned, however, that reports of Croatia’s poverty either describe the gulf between the present and a few years ago, or they were rather biased and inaccurate. Anyway, in good time we got into Zagreb after dark, and after the usual currency exchange hassle, we managed to find a hostel. It was extremely expensive by post-Communist standards. USD 20 per person, triple occupancy. Even Budapest hadn’t hit that high. Mietek, my Americanized Pole friend, was rapidly coming down with a cold, Keiko was just recovering from one, and I was in the incubation period. So we set off to see the city a bit before everything closed.
The first thing I noticed was that Zagreb was clean. Cleaner than any city I’ve ever been in in my entire life, including German and Swedish cities. Considering it was already spring down there, there wasn’t a patch of melting snow or a cigarette butt to be found. The people seemed rather reserved and paid virtually no attention to this unlikely trio of foreigners just wandering about a mere eight months after the last rocket attacks to hit the city. They were all well-dressed and exhibited little of the malaise of spirit common in the rest of Central Europe. While surface impressions are always suspect, they can tell you some things, and the Croatians were at least able to put on an appearance of cheery wealth, if not the reality.
We stopped into a bar that had something sorely missed in conservative Kraków: German beer. Warsteiner. And a mere USD 6 per 0.33 liter glass, please. Choking, I forked over for all of us. Well, at least Keiko got to try a good beer. Afterwards we wandered around, rather amazed at the shops we saw. One unique thing: there were far more brand-name rip-offs than in most Central European cities. Apparently Croatia’s isolation from normal integration processes led it to develop homegrown competition for McDonald’s, etc. An interesting method of import-substitution: have a war and keep the conservative foreigners out while you get your own knockoffs up and running. One question that nagged at me the entire trip: where did all the money for this come from, given that they’d just concluded a war?
The next day we hit the sights, seeing the two old hills that contain Zagreb’s older parts. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and spitting rain, so we couldn’t get the full effect of the surrounding mountains, but Zagreb has a beautiful setting. We wandered through a main outdoor market, where oranges, beets, lettuce, and IFOR T-shirts could be had for bargain prices. Yes, NATO T-shirts with US code-names for the operations were doing a brisk business. And we’d been warned (not by Croatians) that they wouldn’t like Americans. We did get an example of what was to become a regular occurrence in Croatia, and the only real disappointment: we ate at an expensive place to get some “Croatian” food, and found it to be bland Central European dishes for hideous prices. A pity we didn’t know anyone well enough to eat at a real Croatian home. Even on the coast, the “Croatian” food was disappointing. However, the Italian food was always great and affordable.
Mietek was getting quite ill and it began to rain come evening time. Since we had (after long discussion) bought overnight bus tickets all the way to Split for that night, we ended up wandering around. We ended up seeing “Leaving Las Vegas” with Croatian subtitles–one bit that had us laughing in an otherwise totally inappropriate movie for sickly youth: when the “Russian Mafia” guy is speaking on his cellular phone at the same gas station as the anti-hero, he’s speaking Polish. Well, at least they got a Slavic language. We also had a bizarre experience in the newly-opened Zagreb McDonald’s. As we came in, a small army of people greeted us, cleaned the floor ahead of us all the way to the counter, at which every register was double-staffed, and cleaned the floor behind us. Then they shooed out the beggar that tried to come in after us. It should be noted that there were maybe six other people in the place besides us: there were about three or four employees to every customer. They were continually taking our trays away and hovering over us as we ate to make sure our every wish was fulfilled. Needless to say, it was the best service I’ve ever received in any McDonald’s. It would have been better had we not been there mainly to kill some time in a warm place out of the rain.
The bus ride that night to Split was…interesting. Actually, no, it was terrifying. The mountains had only a two-lane road that twisted and turned with the briefest of guard rails. Did I mention there was a blizzard? Yep, that high the rain had turned to a blizzard which reduced us to a crawl in order to avoid being stuck. Other buses had their passengers out, trying to push the bus out of drifts and icy patches, and scarily close to slipping underneath each time the bus jerked forward. Our bus, miraculously, never got stuck. It was quite a nice one, which we boarded at a bus station that had more in common with a modern airport than any bus station I’d ever seen in my life. It had some B movies with Croatian subtitles, and was fairly comfortable.
However, the ride doubled our journey. The sun came up to the first signs of war we had seen. Several buildings were clearly shelled and had bullet pockmarks all over them. A few had been fortified with barbed wire and sandbags. The land was hilly and dry, sort of like the pictures of the southern California coast. After a very windy end to a trip that was supposed to be 8 hours but instead was 16, with only one fifteen minute break, we arrived in Split.
No doubt the exhaustion of staying in a bus twice as long as we’d planned had something to do with it, but Split was very depressing. Most of the city was 70’s or earlier Communist construction, great soulless blocks. Some was run down, most of it was under repair or reconstruction. However, this was at its ugliest phase, giving the place the feel of an urban desert. We resolved to just stay one night and then take the first bus to Dubrovnik.
The strange thing is, once we’d found a room and slept and showered, the small tourist section was impressive. The old town literally is built inside the amazingly intact remains of Diocletian’s late Roman palace. The waterfront, from which you can’t see the Communist sections of the city, was beautiful, with palm trees, seagulls, and the incomparable blue-green of the Adriatic sea. To the northern end, you could walk up onto the top of a hillside through some very pleasant homes and gardens to a lush park that overlooked the town, the bay, and placed them before a backdrop of the suddenly sunny weather, fleecy clouds and the picturesque mountains which come nearly to the coastline in southern Croatia. Some of my most beautiful pictures are from there.
Needless to say, we slept early and got an early bus out, which deposited us in Dubrovnik during yet another rain. Unfortunately, the bus station is a fair walk from the older part of town, and it’s not terribly well-marked. The fact that I was now in the full throes of the rather nasty virus Mietek was passing along also damped my enthusiasm. This would soon change–a fortunate thing that I was unaware of what had transpired the night before.
When we found the old town that I had seen destroyed on CNN, I was amazed. Dubrovnik’s old town is one of very few in Europe that is still completely surrounded by its medieval walls. They are built from white (limestone, I assume) rock and on two sides drop straight into the sea. Evidence of war was hard to find. I did spot what looked like a shell pockmark in the asphalt, but it was a strangely shallow (3-4 cm deep) crater with radial spokes from the blast. It could easily be mistaken for a pothole. Once inside the city, we saw a sign which identified each of the hits in the old town, almost all of which had been repaired or were under repair. I have one picture of a steel roof obviously hit by a shell, but that’s it.
We found an incredibly friendly travel agent who endured our bugging for our entire stay. He pointed us to a nice hotel (we had been looking for a room in a private apartment) which turned out to be only USD 20 per person! This for a room for me alone, with one bath–very modern–a balcony, and an English-speaking staff. I was even able to have my laundry done. Apart from the lack of a TV, it was a very nice modern hotel. The concierge pointed us to another hideously expensive “Croatian” restaurant (trust me, just eat Italian) where we ran into another group of Poles on some sort of tour–and then heard voices break into the easy listening music, speaking rapidly in Croatian. Then, at an obvious press conference, an American voice suddenly started speaking in English and began to make sense of the strange headlines we’d seen in the Croatian papers: the rainstorm we arrived in had been the one that brought down Secretary of Commerce Brown’s plane, killing all on board.
I tried letting my folks know that I was at this most beautiful city during a world news event, but the lines were completely tied up by the reporters who had moved in right after we checked in. It would be a while before we could get a full account of what had happened. In the meantime, there was little we could do and an amazing city to explore.
Well, what can I say? Dubrovnik is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Soon I hope to have photographs to show you. The place was crawling with NATO troops, mainly Spanish and French, later joined by US Marines on leave from grisly work on the crash site or peacekeeping in Bosnia. We toured around the old city, just randomly exploring the narrow, Italianesque alleyways–most of which were hewed from the same rock. The old city is still quite inhabited, and not by the newly rich, either. Some areas had clearly fallen into disrepair long before the Yugoslav war, probably during World War II or the communist period. Despite having a temperature and having to clear my sinuses every few feet (yeah, I know, thanks for sharing) I had one of the best times I’d had.
The next day we slept in a bit and then toured a suddenly sunny city, taking the walk along the top of the old walls. We also found a way onto the rocks at the base of the walls, which then go straight into the blue-green sea. In the evening, we booked passage on an overnight ferry to Bari, Italy (a stupid idea, but oh, well). One note about Croatia: in Dubrovnik, I found it impossible to exchange my Kuna for American dollars. Croatians I talked to outside the banks were surprised, but I still couldn’t do it. However, they don’t check going out of the country, and if you visit Slovenia second, you can convert it to Tolars, and from that to USD without loosing too much. Presumably in Zagreb this isn’t a problem, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Croatia did seem to have a strange modern/nationalist split personality. A photo exhibit in the national museum pictured middle-aged guys proudly displaying their artillery, etc., but it was such an advanced economy with so many people who spoke excellent English–far more than in Poland or Hungary, let alone the Czech Republic. There was one crazy guy who kept saying things to us in German, Russian, and (more frequently) Croatian, who kept going on about Stalin and Hitler and Tito, but apart from that there was little overt mania about history displayed. Still, I have high hopes that they can integrate into Europe and with the Dayton accords, finally let go of the past and keep their eyes on what looks like a bright future.