Sooner or later every traveller is brought low by some unexpected destination. For Phil this happened in Croatia, while everyone else was having the time of their lives.
For 49 weeks the world had loved me. For 49 weeks I had made my way around the world, through South, Central and North America, and then onto Europe. When I had needed company it was there. When I had wanted work, it was provided. When I had just craved a safe place to sleep for 24 hours, it appeared before me. I was knocking, and doors were opening.
Then I arrived in Croatia. The country was riding high on all the ‘next big thing’ lists put out by Lonely Planet and its imitators. Back at home Croatia had usurped the Czech Republic in our conversations as that mythic place that offered cheap, beautiful everything-you-could-possibly want. Everyone, it seemed, was going there, and everyone was loving what they found.
This all made it so much harder to stomach that which followed. Croatia was showing off and flirting with everyone, and yet it looked on me with cold disdain. It didn’t care for my frayed clothes or my cumbersome pack. It didn’t care for my haggling or my supermarket meals. I was just another grubby backpacker getting in the way of the perfect view off the prow of the yacht.
The capital, to be fair, treated me well. I arrived in Zagreb and on my first night fell in with a crowd of medical students who had finished the final exams of their degree. They were celebrating hard, and they were delighted to have a foreign accent to drag around town. Apparently only coastal Croatia hated me.
Plitvice Lakes National Park was not mentioned in my tattered and long out-of-date guidebook, but I had been told by several people that I absolutely could not miss it. Arriving at the National Park, I was told by the tourist office that the first hostel had just opened in the area, and that if I hurried I could catch a ride with the owner. I found the guy, a small, moustached guy wearing a wifebeater, and jumped into his pickup. He took us away from the park, then off the main road, over a lazy dirt road winding through yellowed fields. The ‘hostel’ turned out to be his house, which looked only half-finished. There was no electricity and no doors. A policeman’s uniform hung in my ‘room’. There was no one around to hear me scream. I picked up my pack, ran out the door, across a field, and after climbing over a few fences, somehow ended up in the only campground in town (which was mercifully free of dubious cops).
I didn’t have a tent and so had to stay in a cabin, which was quaint and, up until that point, probably the most expensive accommodation of my trip. The campground was a long way from the national park. Having just come from Slovenia, I assumed it’d be easy to hitch a ride. After a couple hours walking along the roadside with my thumb out, I began to suspect that Croatia didn’t really care for me.
I disappeared into Bosnia, and for a while the world embraced me again. Then I re-crossed the border, and was greeted by the cold shoulder of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik was, to be fair, one of the most beautiful cities I had seen in those 49 peripatetic weeks. The view from the old city walls was lovely, the view from St. Lawrence Fortress better still. Climbing the steep hill behind the city offered the most spectacular views of all. Up there were the only signs of the recent war, the hill riddled with trenches, rusted loops of barbed wire, and middens of bullet casings.
Still, as much as I loved the city, it refused my every advance. Arriving at the bus terminal I was determined to find a cheap place to stay. This was summer and the high season though; no one budged on their starting price, and all my usual, clumsy tactics proved ineffective. Eventually one guy approached me while I skulked about waiting for a bus into the centre. He quoted me the price I had been asking, and then offered me a ride.
Again, this hotel turned out to be a house, but at least this one was outfitted for travellers. There were actually people staying there; upon arrival I witnessed an awkward conversation as a couple tried to ask the owner if he knew what had happened to the bag of weed they had left in their room. He claimed to have no idea what they were talking about.
My room, the reasonably-priced one, turned out to be a fold-out bed in a dingy concrete room. I shared a dusty bathroom with the owner. Still, the whole place smelt like the ocean, and I was content until I woke up on the first morning with a metal rod digging into my back. For three days thereafter I couldn’t stand up straight or lift my backpack. Already scruffy and now a hunchback, I definitely wasn’t measuring up to Croatia’s very high standards.
Once I could hoist my pack I set sail for Mljet. What little I’d read suggested fantasy castles in an enchanted forest on a magical island. Odysseus and St. Paul were both supposed to have spent time there, after surviving their respective shipwrecks. Such days were over by the time I arrived, though, and it quickly became apparent that I was the only guy on the island without my own yacht. The only one marooned and waiting days for the next departing ferry. I was also the only guy exploring the island on foot. Everyone else zipped about on bikes or dune buggies while I stomped about in silence, before retiring to the room that had replaced the Plitvice cabin as my most expensive accommodation in Europe.
Stay tuned for the second part of Phil’s Croatia ordeal, and the spiteful revenge of the inanimate sea life.