It was almost noon as the train rolled into Zagreb. We had left Ljubljana early morning, wending our way along the banks of the Sava river, through Slovenia’s pastoral countryside of summer greens, tidy chalet-style farm houses and tall church steeples.
At a nondescript station, the train stopped abruptly. We were at the Croatian border, a sister country also once part of Yugoslavia – the former federation of the southern slavic peoples.
Guards stamped our passports with curt efficiency (and a charming small train icon). Croatia, until recently absent from my travel wish list, now laid before us.
As I write this now, on day six, how fortunate I feel to be meeting Croatians in their own country. They are disarmingly gregarious, welcoming, and prone to robust outbreaks of humour.
As to the sites and the history? Beautiful and richly layered.
The drawbacks? It is scorching hot, summer-tourist busy, and that’s before we’ve even reached the epicentre of tourism that is Dubrovnik. Yet already, I have developed a fondness for Croatia, for its people and place.
We’ve journeyed through the Slovenian hinterland before, the views are familiar, yet on the Croatian side of the border, the countryside was not quite as picture-perfect. Absent was the pristine orderliness of farms and villages, those neatly stacked woodpiles and signature window boxes in blossoming reds.
We passed through towns like Zadine Most, Sevinca, Blanca Rozno and Libna. At each station I noticed a station master standing at attention as the train passed. In Slovenia they were dressed in blue shirts, navy trousers and berry-red berets. In Croatia, their shirts shifted to white and each man, or woman, stood as if a sentinel as the train passed.
I began to watch for them, with just a hint of anticipation. I imagined the station masters’ presence as assurance that the trains are running as they should, that all is in order – my mind drifted to the heartaches of this once war-riven region .
Today, the trains are efficient, safe, economic and as always, I relish the unhurried pleasure of train travel. For does not a train journey ease one more gently into a new country, allowing it, mile by mile, to introduce its signature and beauty?
We alight at Zagreb, the once-ornate station now showing signs of neglect. Across the street, a park greets us, modern bright blue trams glide past grand buildings. I immediately love that hydrangea is prolific in green spaces and in planters; splashes of colour against the terracotta roofs and cobbled streets.
I try not to compare Zagreb to the more-polished Ljubljana, our ‘home base’ for this past month, but Zagreb at once feels different.
The city is wrapped in much the same layers of history, yet perhaps it reveals its treasures more slowly. But then how better to delight than rounding a bend to come across the chapel within the Kamenita Vrata, the stone gate that guards the old upper town, or encountering the impressively coloured tiled roof of St. Marks. And within half an hour of arriving, I’m welcomed in traditional Croatian style with a glass of chilled local wine. It is the perfect introduction to this beautiful country.
The market just off Dolac Square is winding down as we stop for a late morning coffee at Cafe Opatovina. The café has front row seats to the busy market, its chairs mostly occupied by older men, gently rotund, straw hats shading tanned faces, some reading the morning paper, others chatting animatedly. All are already enjoying a beer or glass of wine. As in neighbouring Slovenia, anytime of the day is wine and beer time.
Outsized umbrellas shade both produce and vendors and after coffee, I take note of the cast-iron scales weighing the fruit and veg. I have observed these intriguing contraptions in markets far and wide and notice that these possess a unique ‘holder’, almost like a bucket. And as in India, the vendors rent the scales on a daily basis. I offer a ‘Dober dan,” as greeting to the young man operating the scale-rental stall. I learn that he charges only 13 kuna (about 2 US dollars) for a rental and his face tells me that he’s mystified at my interest.
Meanwhile, my travel companion has ventured off to St. Mark’s to survey the intriguing tiled roof that bears this country’s coat of arms. I’m happy to be alone for an hour or so as it often opens different doors. So it is here that I enjoy a pleasant and unexpected welcome to Croatia.
I meander through the nearby market stalls; amply stocked with lace and aprons, wicker and honey. A small tavern in hues of Greek blue is tucked alongside and ever curious, I take a peek inside.
Five men, of a certain age, are nestled inside the postage-stamp of a bar, though I soon learn its actually a private club. It’s a cool refuge from the heat and I’m immediately invited to join them.
I’ve read enough about Croatian culture to know that it’s impolite to refuse and after all, the church bells have just chimed noon! I accept a glass of dry white and join the locals on the long banquette. It seats maybe six people, the exact width of the club at the back.
“Zivjeli”, Cheers! Their toast is wholehearted and genuine.
I ask Branco, Miro, Nikola and Seavo if they come here often. They’re deadpan serious when they retort, ‘every day, and all day’.
When they that learn that I’m Canadian, they’re surprised to hear that our capital isn’t Vancouver or Toronto. Ottawa is indeed a revelation. We discuss the recent Raptors win – big news in basketball-crazy Croatia. Another glass of wine is placed in front of me before I can refuse.
When the ‘men’s club’ discover that I’ve spent time in Slovenia, Branco nudges his heavy glasses up on his nose and settles a little deeper into the sofa to qualify the situation in Croatia.
“Here’s not as rich. Many young people leave Croatia,” he laments. “The retirement pension isn’t enough and we can’t work even if we wanted to. It was better when we were part of Yugolsavia.”
Yet Luca, positioned by chance under a poster of his home town on the island of Hvar, listens to the conversation. He interjects only cautiously. He’s debonair in a movie-set kind of way with a white fedora and a thick moustache complimenting his handsome face. He becomes a little more mysterious still when he mentions that he’s spent time I San Francisco, but doesn’t elaborate. The discussion trails off to handball, local wine and our upcoming itinerary.
“Go to Jelsa for sure,” Luca suggests just as an older gentlemen, with the face of a cherished grandfather, rises from the bar to shake my hand. He proffers me a piece of notepaper. On it is a name of a distant relative.
“In case, you’re in Toronto, go visit. Tell him you met Nikola in Zagreb,” he says with the genuine warmth and another handshake.
It’s time to take my leave and my attempt to pay for my wine is emphatically rebuffed and I accept gratefully. “Hvala lepa,” I say, thanking them for my ‘official’ welcome on Croatian soil. They ease themselves off the banquette.
“Time for lunch,” says Miro. He gives me a final wave from the doorway.
I disappear into the streets of Zagreb’s old town to find Bruce and over a late lunch, we brush up on Croatia’s history. As a country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, it borders Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Its people are a legacy of their maritime past and history of a former territory of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Venetian Empires… and that’s just the recent past. Even the Greeks and the Romans built on what came before. As Miro had mentioned at the club, “We are a proud mix of everything.”
As we glide out of Zagreb on the 3:20 to Split, I’m appreciative for this snapshot of a city that despite being the capital, is often overshadowed by Split, Dubrovnik, and the much vaunted Adriatic coast.
By 9 pm, Croatian flags fluttering on lamp posts welcome us into Split. The station master, tips his berry-red beret and we enter a city for the ages…