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The Balkan Holiday: Vienna to Zagreb

First Observations on this Journey: 21stCentury Train Travel. Not your father’s Orient Express.

The boarding process in Vienna was like any queue in an Italian airport. Those of you who understood that sentence know that it can not be described to those who do not.

We arrived at our reserved compartment to find a squatter in my seat; an older gentlemen who pretended that it was an accident, and then proceeded to ask the other 4 passengers in the compartment when they were disembarking the train before finding another place to squat. He also left his luggage(two pieces!) to take up space he hadn’t paid for, meaning that one of our suitcases was wedged in the aisle between our seats, and my camera bag rested on my lap for 3 of the 4 hours. A comfortable ride it was not.

The other paying passengers in our car included two college-age students, both appropriately dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and an older Pleasant Couple wearing long pants and shirts. Just looking at them made us perspire.

When one of the passengers in our cabin disembarked, Old Squatter appeared from nowhere to claim the seat. At that point I commented to Anna Grace, “I hate people who take seats they haven’t paid for.”  The look I received from him, as he clearly understood English, was priceless.

One of the few interesting scenes from the train, if you don’t count all the cows.

For the last hour I was able to move the camera bag onto an empty seat and try to stretch my cramped legs. Of course, this is when the AC in our car fails. On a 33°C day.  The student group traveling in our car became restless, roaming up and down the aisles to open windows and find fresh air. The Pleasant Couple in our car decided to close the door to our compartment to block the noise, but doing so trapped us without circulating air. Having none of that, especially as Old Squatter was sitting next to Anna Grace wearing long pants, a shirt, and a jacket, and perspiring like the fool he was, I opened the door. Old Squatter and Pleasant Couple quietly sulked for the remainder of the trip to the Slovenian border.

The best thing about Zagreb (so far) is real ice in our beverages.

 

Neither Anna Grace nor I were holding much hope for a better second-half of the journey, and so were pleasantly surprised to find a respectable (circa 1990s) train with considerably better AC than the Austrian train had (before it failed, even!), and the entire compartment to ourselves!

Crossing the border from Slovenia to Croatia required us to provide our passports (and Austrian residency cards) on three separate occasions.

Taking advantage of having a compartment to ourselves.

We arrived at the Zagreb train station in the late afternoon with fresh, cool, and renewed spirits. The first priority was to (hopefully) secure two first-class seats for our train from Zagreb to Sarajevo in a couple of days.

Nope. General seating. First come, first served.  That should be fun. The tickets were hand-written, the copy made with a carbon paper, too.  Quaint.

Dinner rounded out the evening, at Pizzeria Karajola, self-proclaimed, “best pizza in Zagreb.”  We had a little trouble finding the pizzeria on our first attempt; had the directions included, “go through the questionable alley to the left of the Petit Bateau store and up the stairs by the sex shop,” we would not have missed it.

The waitstaff appearing with water glasses containing REAL ICE CUBES felt like Christmas morning!  Ice cubes—even thoroughly cooled beverages—are rare finds in Europe. And the local diners at the table next to us had an entire small bucket of ice cubes, so we knew that the restaurant wasn’t just saving the ice for the Americans.

We can’t say whether Karajola’s serves the best pizza in Zagreb, because our paper-thin, wood-fired crusts adorned with roasted garlic, Buffalo mozzarella and rocket salad disappeared too quickly for us to make an assessment.

We returned to a hotel room with no AC. (“It is too hot. The AC can not work.”) What were we thinking to expect functional AC in a newly renovated hotel?  And, as seems to be the case in Croatia, non-functional Internet. (“The Internet is not working. It has not worked all day.”)  I did not bother to ask if someone had contacted the service provider.

Breakfast is also included with our hotel rate. I hope there will be ice cubes.

We Should Have Gone to Berlin. The Conclusion.

On Monday morning the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the breeze blowing across the fjords smelled fresh and spring-like. With a renewed sense of vacation spirit Tony and I sat down with our coffee and began to search for lodging in Zagreb. 
Fifteen minutes later we had used up the 72 kunas’ worth of Internet. But hope was not lost. We were given the option to spend 10 kuna for “24 hours of unlimited Internet.” 10 kuna is roughly equivalent to €1,31/$1.68. This was expensive Internet?
There was a catch. The action to add additional Internet had to be approved by the owner of the account. Ilka. She refused, telling us that we could go to a gas station and purchase more time if we “wanted to surf the Web.” Something about Ilka, and this rental began to seem, well, unseemly, and further motivated us to leave. (At some point I think we even expected the real owners to show up and wonder what we were doing in their house.) Not having found lodging in Zagreb, we went ahead with plans to enjoy the sunny day in Istria and return to Vienna in the morning.
The former Imperial Hapsburg port city of Pula houses the largest Roman amphitheater outside of Rome, and is now used for summer concerts. The amphitheater is extremely well preserved; below the amphitheater was another remarkably preserved collection of ancient oil and wine jugs, something we hadn’t even seen in Rome. 
Much of the rest of Pula was heavily bombed during WWII; as a result, the city is an eclectic mix of ancient Roman, Venetian, and Mediterranean architecture, side by side with architecture from “the social time.”

The following morning Ilka arrived to collect the keys to the house. She asked us why we were leaving, and when we described the various ways the rental had not lived up to its billing, she just pronounced us “not the right people for the house” and told us to leave. We happily obliged. 
The drive home north of Croatia was another snowy and miserable slog, and to add insult to injury we awoke on Wednesday to a few centimeters of snow on the ground, with more continuing to fall throughout the day. 
We have enjoyed many holidays, even a few with greater inconveniences, that statistically I suppose we were due for a holiday bust. We should have gone to Berlin.

We Should Have Gone to Berlin. Part II.

Ilka arrived in one hour with The Stick containing the software we would need to download to access the mobile broadband. Ilka also provided a passcode for 72 kunas worth of Internet usage.  She explained that Internet in Istria was “very expensive,” and that we would have to pay for any additional usage.  We told her we felt that she had been dishonest with us, a comment that she disregarded as if we were speaking the ancient Croat Glagolitic tongue again.
Now, it is not as if we can not have a holiday without Internet. This had become a matter of principle. The rental amenities also included a gas cooktop (with propane tank–remember, it was a small village), and we should no more have to ask whether there was enough fuel to cook one meal or seven than whether there would be enough Internet for one day or seven. 
By this point, as well, we had discovered that many of the amenities promised did not live up to expectations. The fireplace lacked tools (and matches), save for a small shovel we found; the “activities and restaurant guides” were simply the leftover maps and outdated brochures from previous guests piled in a basket; the “DVD Library” was a single movie to be watched only in the bedroom where the DVD player had been placed; and the “fully supplied kitchen” was a single 6-inch sauté pan and a stock pot of such poor quality (as we would come to learn that night) that we needed an hours’ head start to boil 4 quarts of water for pasta. 
The house was indeed fully renovated, however, its only saving grace. 
While we waited, and waited, for the water to boil, Tony investigated The Stick. The software was only compatible with Windows, and we are Mac people. I sent a text to Ilka for help, and she replied with the technical support contact. We do not speak Croatian, and the technical support folks did not speak English or German. After racking up a small country’s GDP worth in data roaming charges on our mobile phone, Tony determined that the Mac software could be downloaded, if we had Internet access. We called it a night.
Easter morning dawned wet and breezy, but with the promise of clearing skies. By late morning we set out to explore the neighboring town before our lunch reservation at 14:30.  The town was full of Mediterranean character, and lots of stray cats. It is said that Rome is the city of stray cats, but we saw more cats on this day than we did in a week in the Eternal City, many of them enjoying quite the life.

Try as we might, exploring every nook and cranny of Labin did not take the half-day suggested by our guidebooks. Even if the half dozen stores and the lone museum had been open, we likely could not have filled the time. We found our restaurant (in spite of Ilka’s map) and sat for lunch a couple of hours before our reservation, then went to Rabac, a metropolis compared to where we had been.

Rabac, though delightful, did not take nearly the suggested time to explore either, and we found ourselves back at the rental house in mid-afternoon. Ilka had provided another “map” of a path to the coast “about 1 kilometer” from our house, so we collected Cletus and went exploring for a couple of hours.
Ilka’s directions: “Take the road to the end. Next to the garage is the path.”  We drove every road, paved or otherwise, within a 5km radius; we traipsed down every path, paved or otherwise, through private gardens and ancient Roman ruins, and never reached anything resembling a coastal path. Or the garage, or any garage or path for that matter. One of the two little boxes on the map was supposed to be a market; we did not find the market, either.
By Sunday evening the mood in the house was of frustration and exasperation. Ilka had been dishonest about the house and its amenities, both inside and out; and the guidebooks seemed to have oversold Istria as a weeklong family destination, as well.
We had taken my laptop into Labin, where Ilka had flippantly said we could go if we “wanted to surf the Web” and downloaded the Mac-friendly software to connect to the broadband at the house.  By evening we had Internet, and in the morning we planned to scrap the rest of the week in Istria and find lodging in Zagreb for a couple of nights before returning home. 
We Should Have Gone to Berlin. The Conclusion, to be continued…

We Should Have Gone to Berlin. Part I.

When the subject arose of where we might venture for the fourth, and final school holiday of the academic year, Berlin and “someplace else” were the top contenders. Given that winter and its petulant dreariness had been hanging on us like an overtired toddler at Disney World to his parents, “someplace else” gradually evolved into “someplace warmer than Vienna” and claimed the top holiday spot. 
So, on Saturday it was off to Croatia’s Istrian peninsula.  We rented a newly renovated Mediterranean-style house, complete with all modern amenities, in a little village on the east coast of the peninsula. The forecast for the week called for mild temperatures and with a chance for a rain day on Tuesday. Perfect!  A down day from sightseeing to catch up on homework (the children) and some pleasure reading and napping (we grownups), with perhaps a small fire added to the charm of a “day off” during our holiday.
First, of course, was the slog to get out of Austria. Surprise! Wet and cold, snow and rain. (Stock tip: invest in Austrian windshield wiper solvent. The ROI will set you up for life.)
Slovenia seemed little more than a drive-through country. Maybe it was the gray. Curious relics and roadside remnants from its past intrigued us, and perhaps we’ll get to Ljubljana and Bled someday, but really, that was about all. 
I caused the Border Patrol Officer to roll his eyes when I asked for stamps in our passports as we entered Croatia. Croatia joins the EU in July, so I’m sure the officer was too busy counting the days to his retirement to be bothered stamping passports, but he did anyway. I thanked him. 
In surprisingly good time given the six hours of rain, snow, and heavy coastal fog we drove through we reached the petrol station where we were to meet the owner of the house. I’ll call her Ilka. Ilka had explained that many small villages in Istria do not have street names; the village name and house number served as the address, and so it would be easier if we followed her to the house. 
Weather aside, the holiday got off to a less than idyllic start when, in response to my text that we had arrived at the scheduled time and place, Ilka said, “The house is not ready. Go have a coffee and I will text you in an hour.” I explained that we had just driven six hours, the children and the dog were with us, and we were not interested in coffee.  She then snapped back with, “Go get some groceries.”  
Realizing that sitting in a petrol station parking lot in the pouring rain would not be productive, we went grocery shopping. Because, of course, there was plenty of space for provisions in an unpacked station wagon; and, I like to be ordered around by the person to whom I will eventually hand over the balance of the rental payment for my holiday.
TWO HOURS LATER, Ilka whipped into the parking lot of the petrol station, looking suspiciously like she (and her “assistant”) had been out shopping for the day and just maybe not getting the house ready.
The rain had stopped, but as there were no rugs or mats at the entry to wipe wet shoes and paws, only I traipsed across the floor with my wet boots for the information download. Dogs were indeed welcome, as Ilka had confirmed when I inquired two months ago, but now she added that she did not want Clayton Theodore upstairs, on the furniture, or in any of the bedrooms. I assured her that Clayton Theodore only slept on the dog mat that we brought with us and that we would tell him not to go upstairs or into the sleeping rooms.
Have you finished laughing over that little white lie?  I shall continue. With an artistic wave of her hand first upstairs (to the sleeping rooms and bath), a slight glance to the fire (that she had quickly started before racing to the petrol station en route from her shopping outing) and then finishing with a swoop across the main level, the tour of the house was complete.
Ilka offered to draw a map to the restaurant in the neighboring village at which she had made reservations for Easter lunch for us. This is the map.
The directions: “Go into the square. Between the two buildings there is a path. Take the path to the restaurant.” It is clear Ilka was never a Croatian Girl Guide.  I had to ask her three times for the name of the restaurant.
I then inquired about access to the Internet, one of the amenities touted in the rental description. Ilka looked at me as if I were speaking in the ancient Croatian Glagolitic tongue.  After a very long pause she said, “There is no Internet. You can only check your email.” I will bring you The Stick in an hour. When I reminded her that Internet was included in the amenities, she only said, “You didn’t ask what kind.” 
This is when we decided that our children may well be recruited to lead the village donkey around the corral in circles in order to power The Stick if we all wanted to check our email this week. 
Tony unloaded the car and attempted to stoke the fire, but lacking fire tools it was a bit of a challenge (however did Ilka get the fire started, we wondered?) Anna Grace retreated into a book; and Jack, Clayton Theodore and I roamed the little village while we waited for The Stick.
Not a footpath, but the two-way road in our village.  

To be continued…

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