The first thing that I noticed about Rafael was his brown matted hair as he stood bent over the basin scrubbing his face with fanatic determination. The red in the roots of his hair was still visible, where the mud from the rocks, the sea and the road had not trickled in. His backpack lay perched on the sill, where its contents carelessly spilled out: a toothbrush, a white shirt no longer crisp or white and a cardboard placard that screamed in capital letters: TROGIR.
Rafael looked up from his rituals to acknowledge me, a stranger in a public washroom on motorway E71 in Croatia, and I nodded back a stranger’s silent hello.
“Where are you heading?” Rafael asked, still examining himself in the mirror. The vigorous hand movements had now shifted to the neck.
“Dubrovnik.” A flicker of disinterest appeared on Rafael’s face. “And you?” I asked.
Rafael pointed to the board and offered his story with a smile. Every year, an adventure club in Poland organises a hitchhiking race across five countries and the quickest ones win a fair amount of money. Rafael was participating in the race — not for the money but for the adventure, he claimed — and things did not seem to be going well for him. Now here he was, quite a few mishaps later, humbled and dusty, in the bottom heap, according to his estimations.
I was on European motorway E71 in Croatia, taking a break from driving through what I calculated to be the 16th tunnel, when I bumped into Rafael at a stopover. E71 is the transportation spine of the Dalmatian coast. I had covered most of the Croatian span of the 1,000-kilometre-long oblique road that originates in bordering Slovakia and ends in the city of Split. I was only a few hundred kilometres from my final destination, Dubrovnik. But after four days of driving on these roads, stagnancy smelled of death. So, I decided to turn back and head for Trogir along with Rafael. Dubrovnik would have to wait.
And it was only then that I noticed, as Rafael wobbled to the car, that he had a wooden leg.
I had arrived in Croatia a few days ago when an 80-seat Bombardier CRJ had flown me in from Zurich to the rather slackly-run Zagreb airport. For a country that boasts of more than 14 million tourists every year, the airport resembled more like Amazon’s warehouse, sans the robots, than an international transport hub. The girl at the airport’s tourism office explained why things all around looked lazy. “You came too early; we normally do not have tourists at this time of the year. They start next month. But anyway,” she continued, “seems like there will be heavy rains today and tomorrow at Plitvice.” “That’s okay, I am driving,” I offered by way of a lame excuse for arriving earlier than most and in weather predicted to be bad.
A few hours into Croatia, I was on the road to Plitvice, a national park known for a series of lakes, stacked on top of one another in a cascading waterfall formation.
I must have spent several hours walking through Plitvice the next day, for I remember returning to my car just when the skies had begun to turn a shade darker. The water in Plitvice has magical possessions. It metamorphoses from bluish cobalt to dulse green to frothy white and eventually to a clear nothing! They say that the colours are rendered by the mineral dust from limestone erosion catalysed by moss and algae. Good luck trying to rationalise such alchemy to someone who watched the clouds melt into water, drop by drop, rippling first, then embracing and flowing as a festive colourful whole. And I am sure the hundreds of Japanese grannies who walked alongside me all over the formation in exact lines, adding yet some more meticulousness to the already picture perfect symmetrical park, would agree.
The road to Split is when the true character of E71 emerges. Starting from the landlocked hilly regions of Plitvice, the motorway opens up to the vast Dalmatian coastline at Zemunik. The cottony road to Split gives you glimpses of the coast to the right while mountains flank you to the left. Just as the wind farms start to appear, the city of Split emerges like a fantasy. The entrance to the city is grand enough to remind me that this is the second biggest city in Croatia. A long harbour, where the rich come to party in their expensive yachts, stretches in a loop across the city. The harbour circumscribes Diocletian's Palace, which has become the nerve centre for tourists; its narrow limestone ridges are now residential quarters and lined with expensive hotels and restaurants.
It was at one such restaurant, which claimed to have the best cakes inside the wall, that I ordered a mint tea and chatted up Duje, the owner. He was preparing for a busy season, the summer was going to be warm and Croatia had qualified for the World Cup football, all of which meant good things for his business. “You have no idea, Mister!” Duje exclaimed with a toothy grin when I asked him how much he makes every season. Tourism has pushed up everyday prices in the city. If parking fees are a good benchmark, Split is definitely the most expensive city in Croatia: I ended up paying 250 kuna (about Rs. 2,750) as overnight parking fee. It was half the total rental for the car for five days. Duje helped me find a cheap homestay next to the harbour. The Mediterranean stalked the inner décor of the apartment in the form of chalky walls and iron ore garden chairs. I would lie on the bed below the tiled ceiling for many hours that night, waiting for the hullabaloo just outside the window overlooking the promenade to die down. I waited for my restlessness to fade away, for sleep to come. The morning after, I drove to Dubrovnik. On the way, I would meet Rafael.
Rafael’s head rolled to a side as he dozed off again. We were driving with the windows rolled down, and the dense wind carried the rumour of impending rain. Somewhere in between, the road bifurcated to Sarajevo. We had just crossed 55 kilometres of the motorway stretch that passes through Bosnia and Herzegovina, and already many of my preconceptions about that country — in particular, about its extreme poverty — were being shown up to be erroneous. I would learn much later that the country was experiencing one of its worst droughts around the time that I was driving across its narrow tail. But the uptown city of Neum gave an impression of affluence, with its white marbled beach houses and terraced gardens, and a selection of yachts in the adjoining sea. It was difficult to imagine that this country went through a massacre for several years that shattered its economy and infrastructure — as well as the spirit of its people. Perhaps, I wondered, I had stumbled into the richest part of this landlocked country where such a short spread next to the Adriatic must be a valued lot.
The tarmac below us was melting away fast. The turn to Trogir merged into the country roads that opened up to small Croatian villages, poor and derelict, with a few stone houses, that seemingly subsisted on agriculture. At Boraja, a roadside shack had oranges on sale, and I stopped to buy some. Rafael joined me to inspect the offerings: oranges, strawberries, apples. By now, hunger had become our silent companion. Nipping at strawberries, we tried to make conversation with the friendly fruit-seller, who was selling produce from his farms. He was unable to communicate with us foreigners, but he was far from shy, and seemed eager to point us in the right direction. Thanking him, we headed to the hill behind which lay the promise of warm sunny beaches, leaving behind the poverty, visible but rarely noticed.
The city of Trogir surfaced as sprinkles of white crisps on a chocolaty coast. The Adriatic Sea had just a few yachts that tepidly upset the otherwise unblemished, calm azure waters. The descent was short, but it would have proved difficult to keep my eyes on the road if I hadn’t gotten used to the sparkle of the coastline in the bright sunshine. The city itself, referred oftentimes as a ‘twin city’ to Venice, is lazily chaotic, and made for good walking. While I scouted for a parking spot, Rafael was busy making a new placard, writing ZAGREB behind the old one. He would have to register himself at a local counter somewhere in the narrow lanes here, and start all over again to find rides to the capital. He plucked his backpack from the backseat, we wished each other luck, and he disappeared into the crowd at a busy corner along the old limestone walls of Kamerlengo Castle.
I wolfed down mouthfuls of sautéed fresh vegetables at a restaurant next to the water. As I soaked in the chill draft wafting in from the sea, the bell tolled in the church behind me, serving a reminder of dusk. As darkness began to descend, I sat alone watching the other tourists pass by. Next to my table was a bunch of tired, scrawny bikers whom I had happened upon a few times along the way. We exchanged brief acknowledgements as we knew well that we would meet again on the road to the east the next day. As they stood up to move on, a tile dropped from the pocket of one of the bikers, one with a heavy build and a greying moustache. It was a soft stone tile, a souvenir that had a starfish enclosed behind a blue glass, something that you would perhaps put in your bedroom. I smiled at the softness of the token, this affectionate symbol that the macho biker carried, and picked it up. I would hand it over the next day, I decided.
As I write, the starfish stands on my desk, serving as a reminder of a forgotten responsibility, a reminder of minty smell, a reminder of limestone walls and coloured water, a reminder of the sun that showed up despite several misgivings, a reminder of friendships formed on the road, and a reminder of a road well driven.
Aeroflot, Swiss Air and Turkish Airlines operate hopping flights from New Delhi to Zagreb from approximately Rs.37,000 one way.
The route starts from the capital city of Zagreb in the Prigorje region of the country, through the hilly Plitvice Lakes National Park before moving out to the Dalmatian coast by the Adriatic Sea at Trogir, and culminates at the seaport of Dubrovnik. The distances between the main towns and cities are:
Zagreb-Plitvice Lakes National Park: 138 km
Plitvice Lakes National Park- Trogir: 242 km
Trogir-Split: 28 km
Split-Dubrovnik: 226 km
Car rentals are dirt cheap in Croatia. A good deal can be found for 400-500 kuna (1 kuna=Rs.11) for 3-5 days. Global car rental players like Hertz and Europcar have their pick-up centres at Zagreb airport. However, check out the local company, Oryx (oryxcarrental.com), for good deals.
Many car rental companies also offer mobile wi-fi devices instead of GPS, so do enquire. I had chosen a mobile wi-fi device for my Google Maps-enabled smartphone instead of conventional GPS for the rented car. I had a Swedish driving licence, which allows me to drive across Europe, but it is possible to rent a car in Croatia on an Indian driving licence as well.
Where to stay
Zagreb has plenty of hotels, and many good budget hostels as well, like Funk Lounge (from $15 per room, funklounge.hr) and Hobo Bear (from $22 per room, hobobearhostel.com). At Dubrovnik, you could stay at cheap and nice places like Bokun Guesthouse (from $33 per room, bokun-guesthouse.com) or Begovic Boarding House (from $48 per room, begovic-boarding-house. com). For the rest of the journey, homestays are an excellent option for €35-75 per night. Good homestays can be found at homestay.com/Croatia.
What to see & do
There are plenty of great places to stop and take in the sights while on the drive. Zagreb itself is a fascinating place with the 13th century LotršÃ„ak Tower and St. Mark’s Church and the shrine housing a 17th century painting of the Virgin and Child at the Stone Gate. It’s a great city for museums as well as vibrant public spaces like Jarun Lake and the Trg Josipa JelaÃ„iÃ„?a square in the heart of the city. The Plitvice Lakes National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is famed for its 16 or so cascading lakes, as well as thick forests, limestone caves and rich biodiversity. Split is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The city is based around the summer villa of the Emperor Diocletian (c. 305 CE). It also boasts of some great white sand beaches. Dubrovnik, apart from being a scenic natural harbour , is also a Unesco site. The Old City is quite lovely to walk around in; the approximately two kilometres of city walls hold the celebrated Rector’s Palace as well as many beautiful medieval churches and monasteries. The city has also become a favourite with Game of Thrones fans as considerable portions of the fantasy show have been shot here. Trogir, a small island, is also a Unesco site. Of particular interest here are the Trogir Cathedral, a Renaissance-era city lodge and the old Monastery of St. Nicholas. Trogir is also a great place to hang out at restaurants and cafés overlooking the Adriatic.
Croatia is a huge draw for water-sports enthusiasts, especially divers. Several options for diving are available, including shipwrecks of Roman galleys and WWI and WWII warships off the town of Vis or the Odysseus’s Caves near the island of Mljet. The price for one dive is approximately 400 kuna per person (which covers full equipment, speed boat, scuba diving instructor and diving insurance). If you’ve never dived before, you can take a discovery dive, which is meant for beginners and consists of approximately 45 minutes of training and an additional 45 minutes of diving with an instructor to a maximum depth of 10 metres. Snorkelling is for approximately 150 kuna per person. Mljet is a great place for dives. It’s famous for a 12th-century Benedictine monastery in the middle of a lake. Good diving schools include Aquatica-Mljet (aquatica-mljet.com) and Orca (orcadiving.hr).
You’ll get excellent non-vegetarian fare in Croatia, especially seafood. However, vegetarians can find reasonable options if you search carefully. Soups are on most menus and do lookout for the vegetarian chain Nishta (nishtarestaurant.com). You can also refer to happycow.com for more local eating options.