Early Arrivals – Ferry At Split: Kinetic Intellects & Kindred Spirits (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #56)

The hour finally arrived when the long awaited ferry ride would take place. Despite yet another perspiration inducing death march beneath the blazing sun, this time along the waterfront to Split’s ferry terminal, I could barely disguise my excitement at finally getting an opportunity to spend five hours sailing southward along the Adriatic. The voyage would provide an opportunity to view some of the Dalmatian Coast’s most stunning scenery. An added inducement was that we would pull into several of Croatia’s most famous islands along the way. My excitement was as much a product of avoiding another long bus journey, as it was the opportunity to ride the waves southward in the shadow of towering mountains and jagged stretches of coastline. I had high hopes for what would be my first long ferry journey on the Adriatic.

Sailing away – Jadrolinija ferry in Split

Standing Ready – Half The Battle
What were the chances that a New Yorker and a Siberian would be the first in line for the ferry from Split to Dubrovnik? On this day, the chances were very good. Arriving at the appointed place to board the ferry, it was still half an hour before boarding was to begin and early enough to quell my anxiety. Either that or satisfy my impatience. I have an obsessive fear of being late for a scheduled departure whether it is on a bus, ferry, plane, or train. This means turning up well in advance and this mid-afternoon departure in Split was no different. If that meant standing on the concrete quayside beneath the broiling sun, then so be it.

A close friend of mine once told me that just by showing up you have already won half the battle. Whether in work, life, or travel, there is a great deal of truth in those wise words. Being an excessive obsessive who believes in the opposite of moderation, I have spent much of my life not only showing up, but also showing up early. I drag along those willing to share in this recurring madness. Anyone unlucky enough to be prone to habitual tardiness does not last long with me. I have to feed my addiction for early arrival. Like all addictions this one comes with a downside in the form of a waiting game that almost always ensues. On this occasion, the ferry was standing ready to take on passengers or so it seemed. I tried making my way onto the boat before being waved off by a couple of the personnel. I was not surprised.

Window seat – The Adriatic as seen from the ferry from Split to Dubrovnik

Coming Together – The Gifted & Talented
There were also two other people who had arrived early. I felt a twinge of competitiveness when I saw that they had shown up earlier, beating me at my own game. This couple had their luggage in tow and was standing patiently while profuse amounts of perspiration poured off them. I assumed correctly that they were also making the journey to Dubrovnik. With nothing better to do, we struck up a conversation to distract us from the merciless heat. This conversation would continue for a large portion of the next five hours. I knew immediately by the man’s accent or the lack of one, that he was an American. Soon I learned that he had just married the woman who was standing patiently beside him. She was a dark haired Russian with a deeply penetrating look in her eye, a kind of preternatural seriousness, softened by a relaxed smile. She had a quiet way about her that was as endearing as it was disarming. Her silence spoke volumes. Even when she spoke, it was in such hushed tones – barely above a whisper – that it was hard to hear what she had to say. The couple had met years before and finally decided to wed in Croatia. I soon learned that they were newlyweds, it was the best of times and time was running out on their honeymoon.

The marriage had been a long time in the making. Both worked in academia and from what I could glean from our conversation, it sounded like they had met through an academic exchange program. Their kinetic intellects made them kindred spirits. They were destined for the best of both romantic worlds, connecting on both intellectual and emotional levels. They were in the throes of a love affair that transcended the barriers of space and time. The differences in the couple’s backgrounds were just as striking as the similarities in their intellects. The man had grown up in Queens, New York, traveling in and out of the city for his schooling after being accepted into various programs for gifted and talented students. He had used these talents to become an accomplished actor in various theatrical and film productions. Eventually he found his way into academia, publishing a book and gaining tenure.

Looking down – Chita (Credit: Artem Svetlov)

Right On Time – A Universal Language
The woman had grown up in Chita, Russia, an obscure city that is about as deep inside Russia as someone can get and still be on the beaten path. Chita is only known to foreigners because it straddles the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is a quintessentially remote Russian city, one that most pass through and where few dare to stay, let alone get to know. When I told the woman that I had heard of Chita, she looked genuinely surprised and confused. It is not every day that a Siberian meets someone from the American South who is aware of their hometown. To get an idea of just how remote Chita is even by Russian standards, consider that it is three and a half times closer to Beijing than Moscow.

If not for my interest in the Trans-Siberian Railway I would have not known that it existed. I mentioned to the woman that my familiarity with Chita was the product of reading guidebooks to the famed railway line that put the city on a few foreigners’ mental map. Her academic background and life’s work involved linguistics. Her English was excellent, but it was only one of several languages she spoke. Of course, this couple spoke a universal language, one of love. It transcended borders and cultural barriers. The world was large enough to accommodate their relationship. And the coming journey by ferry would be the final voyage of their honeymoon, It sounds romantic, probably because it was.

Click here for: An Opportunity to Achieve Immortality – Split to Dubrovnik By Ferry (Travels On The Croatian Coast #57)

The Know Nothings – Split: A Tour In Ruins (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #55)

Split offered a quandary. Rather than to be or not to be, it was to do or not to do. With only a half day in the city before our ferry departed for Dubrovnik in the mid-afternoon, I had to decide how to would spend that time. It was an either/or choice. Either try to make the most of limited time by hurrying from one site to the next or try on various attitudes of repose while waiting for the appointed time when the ferry left the port. The fact that I had spent four days in Split eight years earlier meant there was not much left to see or do on the well traveled tourist paths. I was pretty much left to my own devices on this brief visit. Of course, I started off with the obvious, taking a stroll through Diocletian’s Palace, the palatial retirement home of Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305).

A tour in ruins – Diocletian’s Palace in Split

“Now People” – Embellishment, Emotion and Exaggeration
In the years that had passed since that first visit, I had forgotten the fragmented nature of the palace and its history. One moment there is the splendor of late antiquity, the next a medieval church, then there are modern tourist trinkets for sale in the palace’s depths. Clothes are draped for drying atop classical architecture. The ancient and the modern coexist side by side. Anyone looking for historical verisimilitude with the palace’s classical past will search mostly in vain. The closest they can get is an artist’s rendition which can be seen supersized on an information panel along the Riva, Split’s waterfront promenade. The rendering shows the sea lapping up against the palace walls. That stretch of seafront has long since been covered over by the Riva. The rest of the rendering shows a fully intact complex, one that has ceased to exist for well over a millennium. The amazing thing is that so much of the palace still stands today. One thing we wanted to do during our half day in Split was to learn more about the palace and the city from a local. In my experience, there was no better way to do this then to take a free tour.

One of the most enlightening ways to spend an hour or two in an Eastern European city is by availing oneself of a Free Tour. At least that was what I thought until the experience of one in Split. The tour met an hour before noon at a park that was within a five minute walk of the Riva. The tour guide was a woman with long brown hair, wearing a light dress. She looked to be the very essence of Croatian chic, gliding from one participant to the next, ingratiating herself with the future audience. There was a flair for the dramatic in her voice as she exuded emotion. Her modus operandi was to embellish sentences by exaggerating the pronunciation of words and sentences. Her favorite phrase was “now people.”

She pronounced the latter word with a certain zest that would rise to an irritating crescendo each time she said it. It was her way of addressing the group in a rather didactic manner that drove me to distraction. It became rather obvious that this woman liked to hear herself talk, but then again doesn’t every tour guide. This one was a sort of self-anointed voice of authority. While she was not rude, her presentation smacked of condescension. She felt the need to tell us that she was something of a scholar when it came to Diocletian and late antiquity. She promoted her bona fides as having written a book about him. As though this bit of self promotion, rather than her presentation, would somehow confirm her legitimacy. I was interested in what she had to say rather than her academic background.

Passage into the past – Gate at Diocletian’s Palace in Split

The Cabbage Patch – Details & Diocletian
The tour got off to an inauspicious start with the guide telling us how she knew everything about Diocletian. The corollary according to her, was that we could ask her any question and she would have the answer. In my experience, when someone says they know everything about a historical figure, it is a combination of arrogance, condescension, and ignorance. It is impossible to know everything about a man such as Diocletian, an extremely complex figure who lived over 1,600 years ago. The historical sources are relatively thin and much has been left to supposition. To take but one example, very little is known about the early life of Diocletian. For that matter, there are whole parts of his life we know nothing about and most likely never will.

For instance, one of the most oft repeated stories about Diocletian’s time at his retirement palace in Split, concerns his mention of the pleasure that he derived from growing cabbages. This was in reply to a plea for him to reassume the post of emperor. While the anecdote is certainly telling, we have no idea if he did other gardening or if his green thumb was confined to cabbages. And while this pithy story of the cabbage patch emperor is quite memorable, we can scarcely imagine the hundreds of other tales of Diocletian’s exploits in retirement that historians will never know. When the guide said she knew everything about Diocletian, she was really saying that she knew more than a group of random strangers who had shown up for a tour out of curiosity. In comparison to this Free Tour group, the guide probably was an expert, but that was not saying much.

Seeing is believing – The ruins of Salonas amphitheater (Credit: Carole Raddato)

Follow The Leader – “Nothing Worth Seeing” 
Perhaps it was the heat or maybe it was the guide’s continuing condescension that made me begin to have second thoughts about the tour. Then again, the tipping point may have come when the guide mentioned Salona, a major Roman city whose fragmented ruins can be found in the town of Solin not far from Split. The guide dismissed these as “nothing worth seeing.” This self-professed authority on Salona had supposedly spent a great deal of time there as part of work on her book.

Contrary to what the guide said, Solin does have quite a few ruins, including those of its ancient aqueduct, amphitheater, baths, basilica, and city walls. That is not surprising since its ancient iteration had over 60,000 inhabitants and was the capital of a Roman province, The ruins might interest those looking to learn more about the probable site of Diocletian’s birth. The guide’s dismissiveness led me to dismiss myself from the tour. This was the first free tour I had ever decided wasn’t worth the effort. In our guide’s words, there was “nothing worth seeing”, especially when she was involved. At least I can say that I went on a Free Tour of Split, the memory of which still comes at great cost.

Click here for: Early Arrivals – Ferry At Split: Kinetic Intellects & Kindred Spirits (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #56)

Hyper-Normalcy – Split: A Party In Progress (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #54)

Wandering in the darkness while searching for accommodation in the serpentine streets of Split’s Old Town was not what I had in mind at ten o’clock in the evening. By this point I was soaked in sweat. Thanks to the technological wonders of GPS and Google Maps, I was able to find the accommodation despite a series of narrow streets consumed in near darkness. The winding stone walkways that led the way through shadowy corridors called to mind a murder scene from a European noir film in the mid-20th century. Touch of Evil in the back streets of Old Split was now playing with exhausted travelers diving deeper into the unknown.

The dense, heavy air added to the dramatic effect. In many countries, including my own, this area would have been deemed sketchy. Despite this, I never once feared for my personal safety. My only worry was whether I could find the correct address number. After knocking on the wrong door more than once, I heard the voice of someone calling out “hello.” It was the hostess, an older, soft spoken lady who mysteriously appeared in the street. She guided us less than 50 meters away to the accommodation on this night. Within minutes, she had shown me all anyone would ever need to know. This amounted to knowing how to turn up the air conditioning to arctic like levels. From that point, I do not remember much since sleep blissfully carried me away.

Wake up call – Morning in Split

Claustrophobic & Cloistered – The Stoicism of Strangers
Is there anything more disconcerting than waking up in a different room, in a different city, on a sunny morning? The feeling of having fallen into an entirely different world did not escape me during our first and only morning in Split. I awoke long after the sun had risen. By this time, Split was already wide awake. I stepped outside to seek caffeine and a quick snack. A palpable buzz could be felt throughout the narrow alleyways of the Old Town. Locals were already going about their business with a determined sense of duty. I almost got lost among the twists and turns that took me to a small shop. Along the way, everything felt new and noticeable. The stone seemed to burn brighter, every cobblestone looked like a possible trip hazard, the stoicism of strangers made me feel much more foreign.

Since I had been in Split before, I assumed that it would look instantly familiar to me. The fallacy of making such an assumption soon became apparent. This was not the Split I remembered with Diocletian’s Palace, the Riva and Marjan Hill. The Old Town’s streets managed to look the same and somehow different at the same time. The area felt claustrophobic and cloistered. It was a confusing maze that my wife and I would soon escape. Split felt like what it was for us on this journey, a one night stand that leaves you with misgivings caused by confusion and sleep deprivation.

Classical scene – Diocletian’s Palace as seen from the Riva in Split

Explosions of Emotion – A New Sensation
Split was the liveliest city I visited in these travels along the Croatian coast. It felt like an unending party was in progress. The pandemic was over as far as those on the Riva and surrounding area were concerned. It was now thriving on a hyper-normalcy. The pervasive feeling throughout the city’s tourist areas was one of release from the shackles of mask mandates and social distancing. It looked more like a university town where the energetic and youthful were away from home for the first time. Now that liberation day had finally arrived, everyone felt free to do as they pleased. Expressions of scarcely disguised euphoria were on full display. It was as though the entire citizenry of Split had been let out of jail. They were enjoying fully fledged freedom from a pandemic that refused to go away, but which they now willfully ignored. It was an impressive display of a newfound normalcy much of the world continues to crave.

The pandemic has changed the economic prospects of Croatia, most prominently its thriving tourist industry which faced devastation in 2020. The number of visitors this year is still not what it was prior to the pandemic, but from what I saw in Split, the Croatian tourist industry is in the throes of a full recovery. Anecdotal evidence suggests as much. The hostess at our accommodation mentioned that she had never seen so many people in the Old Town and along the Riva. She believed it was a reaction to the lifting of restrictions.

Despite the continuing dangers of contracting COVID none of the Croatians I saw seemed to be giving it much thought. Foreigners were feted by accommodations, restaurants, and tour companies. Caution regarding Covid has been thrown to the wind, but there was another change taking place in Croatia. One that was much more palpable than the pandemic. Throughout our two week journey up and down the coastline, the sun beamed down upon us with a merciless intensity. At first, I thought this was just another sign of summer, but I heard Croatians call attention to the suffocating heat several times.

Sunny side up – Along the Riva in Split

Heating Up – Sign of the Times
Croatia was suffering – along with the rest of southeastern Europe – a blistering heat wave that showed no signs of subsiding. As we traveled up and down the coastline, we were accompanied by cloudless skies and temperatures that ran between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius. These temperatures would have been tolerable for a couple of days, but two consecutive weeks of them made me dread the inevitable wall of heat that would greet me anytime I stepped out the door. It was imperative to always have at least two large bottles of mineral water at hand to stay properly hydrated.

Since it was mid-summer, I tried to explain away the daily infernos as a symptom of the season. Of course, global warming was the underlying reason that Croatia was so hot. While climate change might extend the tourist season by making the spring and autumn seasons much warmer, it also meant summertime was going to suffer under a scorching sun and brutal heat. The heat wave in progress at the time of our visit was an ominous portent of future ones to come.

Click here for: The Know Nothings – Split: A Tour In Ruins (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #55)

The End Is Near – Trogir to Split: A Merciful Conclusion (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #53)

As evening descended upon the Croatian coastline, the Adriatic Sea became a silhouette that slowly disappeared into the darkness. The final phase of our bus journey from Rijeka to Split also succumbed to a blackout. The darkness made it difficult to tell how far we were from Split. One of the side benefits of the darkness were fewer potential passengers standing at remote bus stops. Our pace quickened, as the drivers had nothing to distract or delay them. Nonetheless, I could not help but think we would already be in Split if not for the earlier roadside adventures inflicted upon us by the bus drivers. They had sought to ingratiate themselves with roadside bystanders and in the process put us further behind schedule. Getting to Split was an all day process that would now go on well into the night.

Energy in the evening – Diocletian’s Palace in Split at night

Return Trip – Terms of Endearment
Getting one’s bearings in the darkness is difficult enough without trying to do it in a foreign country while traveling at 100 kilometers per hour on a crowded bus. I finally realized where we were when the bus pulled to the station in Trogir. This historic town was a very different place from the one I had seen in the daylight eight years earlier. Old Trogir, with its limestone walls radiating history, was obscured on this evening by artificial lighting. This did nothing to keep me from recalling memories of the monumental discoveries to be found within those walls. I found myself longing to stay in Trogir. Not only would it have brought to a merciful conclusion this seemingly infinite bus journey, but I would also have been able to wake up in the medieval treasure box that is Trogir’s Old Town.

I was reminded of just how extraordinary my first visit to Trogir had been while walking those cloistered streets beneath a burning sun. It was one of those days that memory has molded to perfection, whether this matched the reality of that visit hardly matters to me. Love is an excellent example of how little reality means to us. My lust to spend more time in Trogir was fleeting as the bus was soon traveling the highway for the final half hour. As the bus closed in on Split, its bright lights began to cast their glow in the distance. They served to remind me that Split is as much a metropolis, as it is a haven for tourists. Tourism is one of several economic engines that drives Croatia’s second largest urban economy. Speaking of tourism, I was joined on the last stretch of this journey by a young Croat. He was still in high school and as I soon realized, highly intelligent. He asked in exceedingly fluent English if he might offer a bit of advice. I was more than happy to hear what he had to say.

Night closes in – The Riva in the evening (Credit: Michael Angelkovich

Go West Young Man – Life, Fate & The Balkans
The young man started off by explaining why bus drivers picked up those waiting by the roadside. I immediately felt a twinge of guilt, He must have overheard my incessant complaining about the innumerable stops and starts that had been inflicted upon us during this journey. He sincerely stated that this was a sort of Balkan tradition. The drivers felt compelled to provide a lift for those who might not otherwise be able to find one to their chosen destination. He said this in such a sincere manner that it made me curse my own innate selfishness. The terms of endearment drivers willingly offered potential stray passengers were heartfelt.

My temporary Croatian travel companion also provided advice about avoiding the vendors along Split’s Riva. He talked about how their economic livelihood came from hoodwinking tourists with high prices, cheap goods mostly manufactured in China and pulling the proverbial wool over the eyes of foreigners who were so intoxicated by the setting that they failed to realize what they were purchasing or the price they were paying for it. He said this in such a forthright manner that I could not bring myself to tell him of my visit to Split eight years earlier. That I knew the touts were rip offs and to always avoid buying anything in the most heavily trafficked tourist areas. The young man was part of a newer generation that I assumed did not feel the same sense of desperation for dollars that those who had lived through the economic implosion after Yugoslavia’s collapse. At least that was what I thought until my newfound friend added, “everyone knows the economy is a disaster.” That was when I knew that he, like so many of his countrymen, would most likely leave Croatia for opportunities in other EU countries. Such is life, fate, and the future in the Balkans.

Life On The Riva – Making A Statement
Split never ceases to amaze me. It is supersized and sordid in a spectacular kind of way. It is lively to the point of rambunctiousness and extremely ugly in many parts of the city. The proverbial concrete jungle is on display anywhere outside the Old Town and Riva. There is classicism and communism, the spiritual and ramshackle which manages to coexist rather than compete. In short, a bundle of contradictions that informs everything about it. Split feels much larger than it is mainly because the tourist areas are so heavily trafficked. Traveling by bus through the congested city center to the station is anything but easy. The driver had to run a gauntlet of traffic lights while dodging pedestrians and weaving his way through an obstacle course of cars. On this evening, the foot traffic was just as bad as the vehicular kind. The bus fought its way through the chaos and delivered us not far from the waterfront. This still meant a kilometer and a half walk before arriving at the destination. Toting luggage while fighting through what amounted to a melee along the sidewalk was not anyone’s idea of fun.

Nightscape – The Riva in Split (Credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD)

On this evening, Split felt positively tropical. The thick, heavy air was saturated with moisture. After a few minutes I was pouring sweat amid the stifling humidity. I questioned my own sanity for booking an accommodation that was a long and grueling walk from the station. The walk was made much worse by the legions of youth who had turned out this evening to crowd the Riva. Split was packed with teenagers and twenty somethings looking to release pent up energy that had been postponed by the pandemic. Walking along the Riva was an exercise in frustration with great masses of people socializing in the most animated of manners. It felt like New Year’s Eve had come early to the Riva. The waterfront could have been mistaken for Goa or Ibiza. Lights flashed, music blared, the youth of Croatia was making a statement. All I could think about was air conditioning and a bed for the night.

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Hyper-Normalcy – Split: A Party In Progress (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #54)

Momentary Lapses of Reason – Dubrovnik to Split By Bus (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #7)

After the Neum Corridor, the landscape suddenly changed as the road plunged into the Neretva River Delta. This delta looked like something out of the Netherlands with its well watered, low lying land that had been intensely cultivated. We passed close to Opuzen, the tangerine capital of Croatia. This was one of many crops that grew in a landscape teeming with life. This area had little in common with the rest of our journey. Intensely agricultural, there was nothing spectacular about the delta other than how much its eye popping greenery contrasted with the rest of this stretch of Dalmatian coastline. There was a reason hardly anyone lived along the coast between Dubrovnik and Split. It had always been sparsely settled. There was nowhere to grow anything. The spectacular scenery was a byproduct of land so rugged and infertile, that making a livelihood here usually meant taking to the water.

Well watered world – The Neretva River Delta (Credit: Beyond silence)

A Single Moment That Lasts Forever – Stepjan Filipovic
Opuzen did not seem to offer much in the way of interest. Yet it did produce something besides crops in one of the more famous historical figures in modern Balkans history. Opuzen’s most famous son, Stepjan Filipovic found his way into history books, to the point where even I had seen his image long before visiting the area. Filipovic is famous for an act of defiance so brazen and courageous that it has never been forgotten. It occurred during World War II while he fought and died for the partisan cause. After being captured by Chetnik (Yugoslav Royalist) troops, Filipovic was sentenced to death. Rather than hanging his head in despair during his final moments, Stepjan raised his arms in the air and provided some defiant words of inspiration. He did this with a noose hanging around his neck. Whomever captures this image of Filipovic secured his legacy. The image was used for propaganda purposes during the war. It has also enjoyed quite the afterlife, including being displayed at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Long before I ever even thought of visiting the area, I had seen Stepjan’s last and lasting image.

The bus soon moved back up into more challenging topographic terrain. Before long we were stopping for a bathroom break at Ploce. On this day the air was dry. The entire Dalmatian Coast had been suffering from a drought. According to locals it had rained once in the past 60 days. Thank goodness that Ploce was less than infernal on this day. It has a reputation for extreme heat, owning the record for highest recorded temperature in Croatian history which was measured here in 1981 at a stifling 109 degrees Fahrenheit (42.8 Celsius) By American standards that does not sound all that bad, but the Dalmatian Coast is mostly rocks with limited shade. The ground radiates heat, just as the coastline radiates beauty. Ploce was nothing extraordinary on this day. Buses rarely take breaks in the most spectacular settings for a good reason. Stop somewhere people want to see and corralling them to get back on the bus would be difficult.

Lasting Legacy – A defiant Stepjan Filipovic (Credit: Slobodanka Vasic)

The Superficial & The Spectacular – A Land Stripped Bare
When the bus stopped again, it was to pick up more passengers. This was at Makarska, a super busy seaside town that had been inundated with holiday homes and hotels. The town was notorious for lacking a development plan and it showed. Makarska looked soulless probably because it was. The architecture was straight out of the 21st century. The town was a great place if you liked to hang out on the beach with thousands of others soaking in the rays of sun. I could only imagine how crowded the beaches at Makarska must be. The entire town looked like a package holiday. One where the meals come pre-prepared, culture is whatever might be playing on the radio and tourists were a life force that gave the town meaning. I got the distinct impression that everything in Makarska was temporary. The people only stayed a week or two at the most, the architecture would not last a half century. Makarska played to a superficial instinct. One where style trumps substance every time. Speaking of style, I soon struck up a conversation with one young man who had gotten on the bus at Makarska. He proceeded to tell me that there was a nudist beach nearby, as though that made the place palatable. To each their own, but Makarska was not a place I would want to stay.

Three hours into the journey we finally got a closer look at the mountains which had loomed to the east. I did not realize just how big they were until the bus turned to traverse them. This was a landscape for geologists and giants. It was with a sense of sadness mixed with relief that we crossed over them. The sadness came in knowing that there would be no more spectacular vistas akin to the ones we spent the first three hours enjoying. Relief because we were now on a four lane motorway which meant tarmac, tunnels and tedium all the way to Split. The landscape had moderated somewhat, but it was still covered with small trees, scrub rush and rocky soil. Besides the Neretva River delta there was no hope of agriculture with this geology. This ground grew rocks in every shape and size. It was an intimidating landscape. The kind that can defeat a man who stares at it long enough. Anytime I saw groups of houses which denoted small villages, I was simply astonished that anyone could carve out an existence in such a place.

For what they dream of – Beach in Makarska (Credit: DaBier)

Split Personality – Two Cities In One
Around lunchtime we arrived in Spilt. It was a revelation and not in a good way. I had forgotten just how unsightly the city was beyond the Riva and Old Town. Much of the city was covered with concrete apartment blocks and industrial detritus. Sea foam green cranes hung over one section of the city where the port was located. It was no exaggeration to say Split was teeming with dust and grit. The many unsightly structures looked menacing. Split looked like the kind of place tourists would fear until they reached its enchanting Riva. The city had come a long way from its beginning in the early 4th century when Roman Emperor Diocletian decided to build his retirement here. What the city had become since then was a Croatian equivalent to the Rust Belt.it was hard to square the gritty images with the languid beauty of the Riva or the antique grandeur of Diocletian’s palace. I realized that Split was two cities, one for its inhabitants and the other for tourists. On this day, we made a short stop in Split to pick up passengers before heading further northward to Zadar.

Click here for: To Those Who Wait – Dubrovnik To Zadar By Bus (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #8)


Blighted Charm – Split’s Railway Station: An Unforgettable Wake-up Call (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #4)

At first glance, the railway station in Split, Croatia was a wretched looking sight. So much so that many years later I still find myself thinking about its beautiful ugliness. This mild obsession turned into love rather than loathing. The romance began after the usual fitful journey, falling in and out of sleep on a night train. My experience with these trains is always the same. The excitement of making a journey through the dark of night from one cityscape to the next starts out as invigorating, then slowly over the course of an evening degenerates into habitual tossing and turning. At about 2 a.m., a sleep induced exhaustion sets in. This was how the journey between Zagreb and Spilt went.

The sun was already rising over the Adriatic and the port of Split as the train covered its final approach into the city. The closer one gets to the coast of Croatia, the more forbidding the terrain. Most travel along the coast of Croatia is done not by train, but by automobile, bus or boat. Keeping a train line going is a cost prohibitive option. The coastline may be rugged, but it is also stunningly beautiful. I thought to myself how fortunate Croatia is to be blessed with its Adriatic coastline. If not, this part of the country would be just like Bosnia, a landscape of sublime beauty with limited economic potential. Instead, the Croats had more tourism than you could shake a dinar (the national currency) at.

Minor Monstrosity - Split Railway Station

Minor Monstrosity – Split Railway Station

Down At The Heel – Splitting The Difference
Tourism was the life force that drove the economy. Since the Yugoslav Wars ended, the coastal communities had been spruced up with holiday homes for hire, boutique hotels and any other kind of accommodation that tourists might find desirable. Anything dinar-able is not safe from this trend. Fortunately for me, it looked like the tourism authorities had overlooked the eyesore which is Split’s railway station. This was precisely why it caught my eye and has remained with me ever since. To say that Split’s railway station is bare bones might be an overstatement. Anyone looking to buy much more than a ticket would be wise to take their business elsewhere.

Split’s train station was not made for waiting or wandering. The lack of amenities and its small size reduce the amount of time someone might spend inside to a minute at most. Here was the epitome of function over form. The station could handle the relatively meager traffic count. That was because most foreigners coming to Split arrive by bus. I would later experience just how different Split’s bus station was from the train station. The bus station had a kinetic energy, it was the hub for thousands of people coming and going each day. By comparison, the train station was quiet, unprepossessing and down at the heel.

An Early Retirement - Diocletian's Palace in Split

An Early Retirement – Diocletian’s Palace in Split

Less Than Love – An Unexpected Greeting
It was less than love at first sight. The train station was a study in blighted charm. I came expecting something very different, after all Split is synonymous with one structure, Diocletian’s Palace. It is the city’s headliner, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a rarity for many reasons, foremost among them the fact that Diocletian, the Roman Emperor from 284 – 305 AD, actually made it to retirement and lived the final years of his life in a seaside palace. It was here that he could enjoy himself while torturing Christians and lamenting the backbiting that threatened to draw him out of retirement. The city of Split grew up around the palace and extended outward into a modern metropolis. There is a great deal to see and do around Split. The quay beside the Adriatic is beautiful, but there are plenty of seaside areas much more beautiful in other parts of Croatia. A visit to the city only seems to begin at Diocletian’s Palace. At least that was how I imagined it.

My visit really began at the train station. Stumbling out into the warmth that enveloped the city that October morning made for an unforgettable wake up call. I could already smell the sea and taste salt on my tongue. It made me suddenly aware of an exciting prospect, my first view of the Adriatic was mere minutes away. It’s a wonderful thing to disembark in the early morning, amid weather fit only for shorts. Unfortunately, in front of the station the smell of exhaust and cigarettes mixed this message. One minute, Split felt like fantasy island. The next, like a concrete capital of the coastline. With ideas like this floating in my head, I knew it was time for a cup of coffee. In the blink of an eye, I passed through the train station. From what I discerned, the station seemed exactly like what it was, unpretentiousness and surprisingly small.

City By The Sea - The Old Town of Split

City By The Sea – The Old Town of Split

A Minor Monstrosity – Tale of Two Survivors
Meanwhile, my wife had agreed with me that a concoction of caffeine might cure our early morning malaise. It was an attempt to stay semi-conscious in the hours before our check-in time. We stopped at the first café on the sidewalk just beyond the station. A few sips of a Balkan eye opening brew, nearly brought tears to my eyes and helped me see things more clearly. I studied the station which was nearly hidden from street view by trees. It was short, squat and shoddy, a rectangular concrete box, baked by the sun and weathered by salt. Its yellow hue was still in the process of fading. Non-descript and almost unsightly, I immediately fell in love with it.

I doubt there is another train station in a major European city that could possibly be this small. My attraction to it was almost sublime. There was something about this station that reminded me of myself. Later I would take a picture of it from the trackside. The photo encapsulated everything I loved about the station, dull pastels, traces of graffiti, four air conditioning units attached to this minor monstrosity. The station was no one’s idea of an aesthetic achievement, but it reflected my self-perception perfectly. Weather beaten, battered by time and looking the worse for wear. Despite all that, the station and me were still standing.

Click here for: Searching For Solitude – Lake Velence: The Distantly Familiar (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #5)

(Note: Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny is an intermittent series on places in Eastern Europe that have made a lasting impression upon me)