Alone Again

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, June 27, 2007 was originally posted on July 18, 2007.

PART 9: The city of Zagreb originated in medieval times — the period in history, not the hokey dinner theater with jousting knights — back in the 11th century when the villages of Kaptol and Gradec grew and grew and eventually merged to band together to oppose Turkish invaders.  (The two villages are now neighborhoods in the present day city.)  As Lonely Planet puts it, this capital city of Croatia is “too often overlooked by tourists making a beeline for the coast… a fascinating destination on its own, combining the best of Eastern and Western Europe.”

With that in mind, Stephanie and I were excited to explore the other “half” of the Croatian cultural dichotomy — until Steph’s fateful words that morning:

“I’m not feeling very well.” 

Feeling a little feverish, she figured it was just a little sunstroke, and needed the day to rest and rehydrate.  “You go to Zagreb.  I think I just need a day.  Have fun for me.”

“I’ll have twice as much fun and give you half.”  I kissed her on the forehead as she laid in our bed with her eyes closed.

And so, like many, many days before in my travels, I set out alone again, the lone vagabond traveler, to explore a new place with pen and pad in hand, and ripped out pages of my guidebook in my pocket.

WE HAD NOT BASED OURSELVES in a hotel in central Zagreb but at the Hotel Garni, a nice little three-star business hotel in a willage [sic] just walking distance from the airport, about 17 km. out of the city.  Since we were only slated to be in town for the day — an extended layover en route to our next destination, Zurich, Switzerland — we decided to just stay close to our point of departure.  Luckily for us, the only hotel option near the airport was a fine little place, tastefully decorated with sculptures and paintings, with many unexpected amenities for what was more or less just a big unassuming suburban house on an unassuming residential street — there was a sauna, gym, massage room, and even a pool on the third floor.

Getting to central Zagreb from the Hotel Garni was my first task at hand, and since I’d just missed the latest Croatian Airlines airport-to-city shuttle bus, I went on foot, down the road to the public bus stop on a busier road, across the street from a car dealership.  It took a little bit of waiting, but soon I boarded the bus, a complete stranger, quite possibly the only non-white person for miles.  All eyes stared at me as I purchased my ticket from the driver.

“Zagreb?”

Si... uh, yes… Da.”

Aside from the usual standing room bus crowding, there was no awkwardness afterwards; in fact, a friendly old man on the bus tapped me on the shoulder to remind me to validate the ticket in the punchclock. 

“Oh!”  He smiled and then stared out the window.

About forty-five minutes of driving through the suburbs, I found myself in Starcevicev Trg, the plaza just outside the bus depot and train station.  Immediately I saw that Zagreb was very Eastern European-looking, reminiscent of Prague sometimes, with its churches and classical architecture.  In front of me were statues of heroic men on horses, domed buildings, and overly-crowded trams zipping passed to my left and right. 

I only had about five or six hours to kill in central Zagreb, which, from my travel blogging experience, is just enough time to see highlights, especially in a relatively small and compact city with only 750,000 inhabitants.  I wouldn’t have time to see any of Zagreb’s plethora of museums (all apparently to the left), but at least I’d get a gist of its daily life, its architecture, and its food.

Walking from the train station up to the historical center, there were three parks plazas in a row — Trg kralja Tomislava, Strossmajerov trg, and Trg Nicole Subica Zrinjskog — exemplifying the Croatian love of the outdoors, so I’ve read.  Unlike Marjan Hill of Split, the city parks were situated on the lower elevation of “Lower Zagreb”; to the north and up the hills of “Upper Zagreb” were the two former medieval villages that evolved into the historical neighborhoods, Gradec and Kaptol.

The neighborhood of Gradec lies atop one hill, accessible via stairs or a funicular, is now the administrative district of Zagreb, with all the government buildings and a few embassies were situated — I could tell by the police barriers and armed cops lingering around on almost every street corner there.  In the center of it lies St. Mark’s Church — one of many churches undergoing scaffolded renovation — where inside lay works by Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, and outside is the most recognziable trait, a roof made of colored shingles forming the national crest (picture above).  To the east of the church, down the road and down the hill, is the Stone Gate of the old fortification wall, which houses the surviving painting of the Virgin Mary from the great fire of 1731 — it is now a shrine for admiration and prayer in the pews across the way. 

It wasn’t a far walk down the path, through the big Dolac produce market, and up again to the former hilltop village of Kaptol, now another one of Zagreb’s historical districts, where the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands tall (and also in scaffolding), a huge house of prayer of the predominate Catholic faith in the country.  Not surprisingly, a structure of such magnitude and significance is surrounded by several souvenir stores, as well as tourist-friendly restaurants with English menus.  I ended up at Kaptolska Klet, just across the plaza from the cathedral, a fancy-esque looking place where I’d seen a local party being catered.  The description of it in my ripped guidebook pages spoke of its typically northern Croatian specialties — plus, with its shady covered awnings and mist sprayers, it was a nice escape from the hot day.

“Uh, can I sit anywhere?” I asked the confused but stoic-looking waiter — I didn’t blame him with my inability to speak Croation properly. 

“Here,” he led me to a table for one.  Perusing the menu, I tried to get the most typically northern Croatian dish I could get — it wasn’t hard to figure it out with people around me eating the same thing:  a starter of Pag cheese, olives, and Dalmatian ham (air cured by the Dalmatian people, not the dogs), followed by one of the best meals I’d had on the trip thus far, a succulent and juicy hunk of spit-roasted lamb, with the crispy skin on it, served over a bed of potatoes.

CROATIA’S HISTORY, up until the last decade, is sadly one filled with much turmoil.  If it wasn’t the threat of Turkish invaders in the 18th century, it was the Nazis who took over during World War II and made it a puppet state of Third Reich in 1941.  Then after becoming a republic in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, an independent Croatia entered another conflict in the 1990s with the Serbs — a bloody war that was finally settled by the Dayton Agreement signed in Paris in 1995.

Today, modern Croatia thrives, like many Eastern European countries in a post-Berlin Wall world, with a newfound culture of American-like consumerism.  Champion sportswear thrives on the Croatian love of basketball; McDonald’s and Subway sandwiches are consumed; iPod + Nike packs are sold at the local Nike store, and many international clothing and cosmetic brands grace the racks and counters of Vartek, Croatia’s major department store.  These shops are found in and around the Jelacica Trg, the city’s busy main plaza, a bustling place where people come to eat, shop, and people watch as the trams zip by.  And, at least the day I was there, the plaza is where new cars could be test driven (but not too far away)

I killed the rest of the day shopping like a modern day Croatian, not for international imports but for local Croatian goods — the most well-known being a necktie.  From my guidebook I had discovered that Croatia is actually the place where the cravat, or necktie was invented — a huge contribution to men’s fashion worldwide.  I was turned on to the Kroata Cravata store, a fancy necktie boutique in my guidebook near the Trg Petra Preradovica, where I happily contributed to the Croatian economy, and my wardrobe.  On the other side of the fashion spectrum, I also bought a Croatian basketball jersey and, for Steph, a bouquet of twenty get-well roses at the local flower market.

STEPHANIE HAD SENT ME text messages throughout the day, updating me on her progress.  She rested and felt much better, and even took it upon herself to check out of the hotel and bring our bags to the nearby airport for an early check-in.  Armed with her charming smile, she managed to check both of our big bags as her own — the Croatian Airlines attendant was so enamored he waived the extra baggage weight fee, not realizing that the other bag was for her boyfriend.  “If I had told him it was for you, I probably would have had to pay,” she told me after the fact.

Reuniting with Steph back at the airport was an ordeal; I was running out of time in Zagreb and opted to take the direct city-to-airport shuttle provided by Croatian Airlines, if only I could find it — it wasn’t at the main bus station like I assumed it was.  And careless me didn’t note which local bus number I’d taken from the suburbs, although that option really didn’t appeal to me because: 1) it would have taken twice the time to get there with all the stops, time I couldn’t afford and 2) the stop near the airport was still a fifteen-minute walk away from the actual airport building, and it was starting to pour down with rain.

“Uh, gavorite angliski?” I asked, using the terrible Russian I’d used in Russia, hoping the language was similar enough to Croatian — I was addressing the uniformed woman in the office of the bus station.  Apparently I was communicating enough for her understand; she looked at me with disdain and waved her hands in a refusing manner.  From her body language, I could tell she was trying to say, “I don’t have patience for you if you don’t speak my language.”

Fortunately for me, there was a much friendlier man in the office with her.  He didn’t speak English either, but recognized when I said “airport,” and tried to give me the number of the local public bus.

“No, no… I need the bus for Croatian Airlines,” I said, remembering from my scary incident getting to Siem Reap, Cambodia that the use of proper nouns always sound the same in any language.

“Ah!” he said with his eyes lit up.  He said something in Croatian that I didn’t understand, but his body language told me to follow him.  He led me to onto a bus — apparently he was a bus driver — and told me to wait.  I figured he was saying to take that bus with him to some other stop, where the airport shuttle would pick me up. 

“Croatian Airlines?” I asked, repeating the recognizable proper name.

“Da!”  The friendly but questionable driver told me to sit at the front chair so he could see me and let me know where to go.  He started the bus up and started driving — but only about fifty feet, to the official bus stop so others could get on.  An elderly woman with a cane motioned me to give up my seat for her, so I stood in the aisle to keep sight of my new friend.

Five minutes later, with no idea where we were going, we departed the bus depot to the first stop on his route, where the driver motioned me to get off.  Where I was, I wasn’t sure; it was off my guidebook map.  “Uh, the bus for Croatian Airlines is here?” I asked again.  He nodded yes and I got off the bus to wait with the crowd of people trying to take cover from the rain with the bus stop shelter. 

Time went on.  I waited.  Thoughts raced through my head.  Where is this bus?  Had I been had?  Was that guy playing a joke on me?  Because I didn’t understand him?  But really, why would he play a joke?  He’s friendly.  Ugh, where am I?  Oy, I can’t even ask an information booth, I’m not near anything.  Why is this bus stop in the middle of nowhere.  Maybe I could walk back to the bus station… No, it’s raining now.  And what if the bus came while I walked over?  Gosh where is this bus?  Oh wait… there it is!  Wait, why is it going that way.  Oh, it’s probably going to turn around and come here.  Where did it go?  Ugh, where is that bus?  I thought it was going to turn around.  Maybe this woman with the roller luggage is waiting for the airport shuttle too.  Ugh, what time is it?  Time to get a watch, ha ha.  I’m running out of time.  Is Steph going to leave without me?  Ugh, what’s the rush, couldn’t she wait for me?  No, she wouldn’t do that.  But our bags… would they leave without us?  Gosh where is this bus?  Oh, that woman with the luggage is getting on another bus.  Maybe she’s not going to the airport.  Really, who walks around town with roller luggage?  Should I just get on that bus?  No, it would take forever to get there.  I should hold out for the direct bus.  Or should I?  Oh, too late, there it goes.  Ugh, this taking forever.  Why why why did I trust that guy?  Why wouldn’t the Croatian Airlines shuttle stop be at the main bus station?  Why isn’t the bus schedule in English?  Wait, what’s the word for ‘airport?’  Let me look in my phrasebook…. Ugh, there’s nothing that matches the posted schedule.

It went on and on like this in my head for maybe only twenty minutes, which is a long time when you don’t know where you are in town, and you don’t know if the bus is coming or not.  But finally another bus labeled “Croatian Airlines” arrived and I flagged it down.  I was the only one out of the waiting crowd to get on board.

After that, everything was easy.  I walked right off the bus, checked in at the desk with my passport an no luggage or carry-on bags.  Once passed security, I found Steph in the business lounge on the phone, chatting with her mother in Michigan, while a basketball episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air played on a nearby television.  Without speaking, I simply pulled out the get well roses I’d gotten her.  Her eyes lit up and she smiled.

“How was it?” she asked me after her phone card minutes ran out.

“It’s was good.  It’s cute.  Sort of reminds me of Prague,” I answered.  “How are you feeling?”

“Better.”

“You’re ‘back to better?’” I said, in the Planet Unicorn way.

“I’m ‘back to better!’”

Reunited, we had a quick snack before waiting — longer than anticipated — for our plane departure; there was a rain delay from the huge storm passing through.  We entertained ourselves in the interim, joking and laughing about the seemingly unattended little boy we referred to as the lone cowboy “Vagabond Baby Child” — his father had an eye on him from far away — who just hung around the airport escalator, looking like he was scoping for chicks.  Every time his dad would try to have him sit down, he’d run away to continue being a cool and independent cowboy Vagabond Baby Child.

Akin to the little boy, I didn’t mind traveling alone for the day — I’ve done it extensively before — but I will admit that it was nice to come back to someone waiting for me, someone to laugh with me, someone who’d continue along on the way to yet another destination.  Together again, Steph and I boarded yet another plane, this latest one bound for Switzerland…


FUN FACT:

“You know what we haven’t seen in two days?” Steph asked me as we boarded the plane.  I turned it into a game of Twenty Questions: “Is it bigger than my head?” “Am I using it?”  “Right now?”  “And it’s not a body part?”  “It starts with a ‘C’?”  The answer was easy (sort of):  carabiners.  Duh.





Next entry: The Backpacker/Flashpacker Part Of The Trip

Previous entry: Dalmatians 101




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  • ” Apparently I was communicating enough for her understand; she looked at me with disdain and waved her hands in a refusing manner.  From her body language, I could tell she was trying to say, “I don’t have patience for you if you don’t speak my language.”

    That sounds familiar, most of Belgrade was like that. Very grumpy mofos.

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  • I like your blog, but I wanted to make a correction of one thing. You keep saying that Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. While that is true, that was before WWII. After WWII it was just plain Yugoslavia and that’s the one that Croatia got its idependence from.
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This blog post is one of twelve travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Two in The Boot and Beyond," which chronicled a romantic getaway through Italy, plus jaunts to Croatia, Switzerland, and London.

Next entry:
The Backpacker/Flashpacker Part Of The Trip

Previous entry:
Dalmatians 101




THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY

Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

BFFN: acronym for "Best Friend For Now"; a friend made on the road, who will share travel experiences for the time being, only to part ways and lose touch with

The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

SBR: acronym for "Silent Blog Reader"; a person who has regularly followed The Global Trip blog for years without ever commenting or making his/her presence known to the rest of the reading community. (Breaking this silence by commenting is encouraged.)

Stupid o'clock: any time of the early morning that you have to wake up to catch a train, bus, plane, or tour. Usually any time before 6 a.m. is automatically “stupid o’clock.”

The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.




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