97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 14) Dubrovnik – of Wailing Walls & Howling Trains

I leave Budapest on one of the few rainy days of the trip, so far. And on a day that turns out to very Australian, based on the efficiency of my transport choice.

As you head south the trains head south too. Slower, rattlier, fuller. The reclining seats, the speed, the power sockets all disappear. The restaurant car feels like a bit of an old 1950s film with the red velvet seats and the full meals for less than $10.

Beer, slow trains, rain and more rain

The south of Hungary and the north of Croatia are emptier and older, too. We pass the rail yards at slug-speed – about the speed that Australian express trains travel at. The rail yards are populated, in the rain, with old fat freight cars looking like something out of star wars.

The trains are so slow as to be 19th century, they creak and groan and as they wend their way around the never-ending bends the wheels howl on the tracks like some lost soul in Trump’s nightmare America. I could be anyway in the Great Brown Land (that’s Australia, for those unfamiliar with the term). Except maybe for the rain.

Dubrovnik, dawn

I had hoped to travel all the way to Dubrovnik by nightfall but it turns out that the timetables and routes didn’t correspond with my reality. As the rain falls I ensconce myself in the dining car – the only place with a power socket – so that I can finish the unfinished travel stories of the last week or so. Invariably restaurant cars are the best place to travel, if you can. Proper tables, coffee, relative quiet and more space. You can read, write, eat, drink and stare out at the passing landscape.

Departing Budapest, in the morning, the trip to Split requires two trains, one to Zagreb, where a two hour wait ensues, and then onward to Split arriving at night. With the velvet seats, faux wooden panelling, soft lighting and falling rain it feels, not just 1950s-like, but like some experience out of Murder on the Orient Express.

As we moan and screech our way through the mountains this sense is elevated by the pantomime when, at each successive tiny station, regardless of whether we stop or not, the guardian of the station emerges replete with uniform and signalling flags and proceeds, like some character out of a historical railway pageant, to perform a marionette-like set of gestures with the two flags he(no women were seen) carries which signal, who knows what, to the train driver.

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Liberated from his flags, the railway station guardian relaxes at his station

There seems to be no logic or reason for these rituals other than to provide employment to, possibly, the only remaining inhabitant of the region. It does not appear that any trains have actually stopped at most of the stations since about 1860 and there is zero evidence that anyone other than the station guardian lives any near most of the stations.

It turns out that there is a music festival on in Split, something I find out when I start a discussion with my fellow travellers across the aisle about why the train is so full and where they are going. They proceed to attempt to reduce me, without success since I have been forewarned about East Europeans bearing gifts, to the same level of inebriation as they are enjoying. They do this with the offer of an unrelenting supply of beer – which no matter how much is drunk continues to emerge, like some liquid form of the Magic Pudding.

Around lunch time we arrive in Zagreb, which for the geographically challenged, is the capital, and largest city, of Croatia. I have nearly two hours to explore in the rain. Like all European cities its outdoor sculpture reflects the long centuries of military conflict and nationalism and its squares are strewn with men on horses. European history might have been much improved had they fallen off.

Men on plinths, men on horses, men with swords, men on plinths in gardens.

Leaving aside the stone horseflesh, Zagreb offers plenty of choice if you like old buildings, churches, monuments, gardens and squares – and all within a gentle 20 minute stroll – plus, of course, the ubiquitous daily market. I undertake a sprinter’s tour of the cathedral, which is particularly magnificent as churches go, the main street, and the market and locate something approaching a tolerable coffee. Then I was able to say “my work here is done”, my tour returning me to the station with 30 minutes to spare.

Zagreb Cathedral

We arrive in Split after dark. I have two choices. Stay at an hotel in Split and take the ferry in the morning or catch the bus down the coast a couple of hours later. The former is significantly more expensive and more hassle but has the attraction of a good nights sleep and avoiding two hours hanging around in the bus/train station. The bus station has all the charm of a Russian security guard and, if you want to eat, requires one to have a worse diet.

The Dubrovnik arrival is early in the morning, at the bus station next to the port. From here it is a 15 minute bus ride to my AirBnB. The first rule of Dubrovnik in regard to finding your accommodation is that there are no rules other than ‘don’t panic everything will come to those that wait’. Do not assume there will be street names. Nor should you assume that your AirBnB will actually be on the street which it claims to be. Even if it is, the actual entrance will be down a side alley, shrouded in bushes, through an arch and around several turns.

Dubrovnik at night

Under most normal circumstances you would ring and get directions:

“Hello, Goran, this is Chris. I’m in Dubrovnik near your place. I just need some directions…”

“Ok, hello, welcome. Where are you? What street?”

“Err, the street doesn’t have a name, we’re by a large square, next to….. (you give the name of a large prominent accommodation establishment just opposite).”

“I’m sorry Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me what it looks like..”

Dubrovnik by night

” Well, it’s a square right under the city wall, there is the hotel (previously described), there is a shop selling vegetables, a house (#15 – the same number as are looking for), with two stone steps and many pots of flowers in front, there is a person selling shawls, there is another AirBnB, there are steps up to the city walls, there is a mural of King Kong, there is a lunatic asylum, four second hand London double decker buses, a model of an A380, a French patisserie, a statue of Winston Churchill and 15 black sheep and a camel grazing in someone’s front yard…”

En route to AirBnB #2, Dubrovnik

“I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me the name of the street…? Please wait.” For what, or why, we are not told. At this point the phone goes dead leaving us abandoned and with a $20 bill for an international phone call.

The point being that no matter how detailed the description you can be sure that “I don’t know that place” is the correct host response. Nevertheless, seconds later an elderly woman will emerge from the suspected doorway, which I had described in loving detail, and will embrace you, metaphorically, (sometimes literally) like her long lost child.

On this occasion, I am greeted not by an elderly woman but by a large man with exceptionally good English. He takes me to my extremely convenient AirBnB, just spitting distance from the main entrance to the old walled city, and deposits me in my room.

Dubrovnik night

This is AirBnB Turd…as opposed to AirBnB Mango (you see here my careful and clever use of lexicographical juxtaposition to make a contrast)  which is my normal, and positive, experience of AirBnB. To be fair that is a slight exaggeration but, nevertheless, the apparently spacious and airy room/unit with shared bathroom, turns out to be a poky flat with four bedrooms each occupied by at least two people. Which, had Idiot Traveller read further down the page which gave the description, instead of just looking at the pictures, I would have known

Use of the bathroom and/or kitchen require reservations about three months ahead and don’t plan on turning around in the dining room at dinner time or you are likely to get disembowelled by a fellow guest holding a sharp cooking knife.

I spend only one of my four nights here as, fortunately, it was only available when I booked for a single night. My second AirBnB is several notches higher on the approval rating with access to a great terrace overlooking Dubrovnik, its own bathroom etc. and it’s cheaper, too.

Night falls on Dubrovnik at full moon

Exploring the nooks and crannies of Dubrovnik is a real pleasure for anyone with an appreciation of culture, architecture, history, ambience, fantastic views, good food and for a myriad other reasons. It’s not without its drawbacks as described here in my post The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on my visit, in 2017.

Chief grumble, for me, apart from the obvious over-crowding and the fact that almost no local people can afford to live in the old city any more (thanks to people like me) is that the city walls, which in the day time swarm with a non-stop stream of people, don’t open until 8 am and close at 7.30 pm (earlier at certain times of year). Given that dawn and dusk are the optimum time to be on the walls this makes no sense at all. You can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those refused access to the wall at the best times.

On the Dubrovnik walls at night

On the positive side, if you are prepared to risk life and limb, a quick shimmy up the walls in the south-eastern corner will allow you to get in free and avoid the crowds, as well as enjoying the best times of day. There is a silver lining to everything. So I found myself on top the wall, one evening, sharing the views and the soft evening light with two couples, one from Dubai and one Italian/Romanian couple.

This is one of the great places to enjoy sunset and dusk which, for me, came at the cost of just a pair of torn shorts. A slip on the pointed iron railings or off five metres of wall could have been more drastic.

Dubrovnik dawn

Dubrovnik is only a tiny part of the attraction of Croatia and, as with all of the world’s popular tourist attractions, a short trip away from the centre brings you to a largely deserted part of the Adriatic Coast.

The Adriatic Coast heading north – largely devoid of tourists (relatively speaking)

Having gorged myself on an overdose of old buildings and crowds that make Pitt St look like the Itidarod trail on a slack day,  I hire a scooter and head north-west along the Adriatic coast.

Once over the main bridge north, the traffic thins out and one has to resist the temptation, at age 60, to feel that one still has the reflexes of a young Michael Schumacher and that one is sitting on a Moto Guzzi, or similar rather than a scooter with notoriously bad cornering design. Still the curves are hard to resist as one slides down the roller-coaster road.

About an hour north of Dubrovnik is my destination for the day, Trsteno, and its Arboretum dating back to 1494. It sits just about the town’s jewel like harbour, a short walk down the road, where a handful of locals swim undisturbed by the, literally, millions of visitors to Dubrovnik less than an hour away.

Trsteno harbour and Aboretum

Dubrovnik has two million visitors a year of whom, it appears, about 75% visit in June, July and August. Each day brings a new swarm of 20,000 people to a town where the population is 28,000 and where you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes.

Despite being well known, locally, it seems few tourists visit Trsteno even in the height of summer. This is another of the iron clad rules of tourism: more than a ten minute walk or a half hour drive and the visitation rate drops by 90%. Half cultural icon, stuffed full of old buildings and statues and half botanical marvel, the Arboretum Trsteno is one of those little gems that one should be prepared to travel for, with its old aqueduct that supplied water from the hills behind, its 150 year old trees scattered in among another 510 indigenous species.

Trsteno harbour and arboretum

I’ve seen other visitors comments complaining about the arboretum and saying that it is slightly run down. For me this is one of the attractions. The sort of down at heel, semi-neglected feel is precisely what gives it, its spirit and makes it well worth spending an hour or two.

The town features two other notable attractions: a beautifully crystal clear harbour to swim in and two of the largest old plane trees in Europe. At some 400 years old and nearly 50 metres tall they provide a great spot to sit and relax on a hot day. But take your helmet because a French tourist was killed by a falling branch a few years ago – arguably in revenge for Napoleon’s attempts to take Dubrovnik.

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By the old plane tree

From the gardens you can descend via a windy coast road to the small harbour below which is shared, largely, with a handful of locals cooling off in the clear and sheltered water of the harbour. To finish off the day you can return via some quiet inland villages which give one a different perspective to the coastal towns.

This is Part 14 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks
  4. Part 13 – Budapest

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Croatia Coast (north of Dubrovnik)
  2. Zagreb
  3. Dubrovnik by Night
  4. Dubrovnik Dawn
  5. Dubrovnik general
  6. Dubrovnik Sunset and Moonrise

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