The Hungarian and Croatian rail networks are rare and perplexing beasts. Having done a hell of a lot of cross country travelling around Europe in the past, I expected – as is usually the case in this part of the world – to simply rock up at Budapest Deli Station with our pre-booked tickets, jump on a shonky old Eastern Bloc cattle car and grind along crumbling rails accurately, if somewhat slowly, to the next capital city over. But somewhere in their mission to adhere to these simple criteria, these two central European nations badly lost their way.
In this case, our trip was a straightforward six-hour shot from Budapest into the heart of Zagreb, Croatia’s under-visited capital city, often seen as little more than a layover or connecting junction for backpackers heading elsewhere in the surrounding area, perhaps down to Belgrade or Croatia’s own famed coastal regions. After partaking in a blood-vessel-bursting race across town at 5:30am in a taxi that inexplicably waited to collect us almost two blocks away from the place I had asked, we wandered frantically yet aimlessly around the moody concrete mess that is the Deli terminus before finally locating our train and clambering up its unusually steep ladder, our wine-loaded suitcases bouncing precariously against the steps below us as we ascended into the carriage.
A few hours passed in which Kate slept stretched out across three seats in our private compartment while I sat opposite with my feet up, sipping a miserably warm Coke Zero and staring into the middle distance as the endless conveyor belt of flat Hungarian farmland inched past at an agonising tempo. At about the hour mark, the first – and less crazy – of this journey’s two ticket inspectors popped his head around the door; a portly Budapestian who took our tickets and punched them without so much as glancing at them, chucking them back to us with a tired nonchalance before slumping into his own seat in the corner.
We crept past the blue expanse of Lake Balaton, pointlessly stopping every five minutes or fewer to neither let anyone off nor let anyone on, before finally, three hours into a six hour journey, we reached the border.
As always, two swarms of ever-so-slightly zealous and incompetent border guards boarded the train one at a time. First were the Hungarians, who haphazardly stumbled about the carriage interrupting each other and cracking jokes, and who needed reminding to give us back our passports after scanning them. The train fell silent as they hopped back down the steps, their chatter flooding back out onto the platform, before the train shuddered back to life and creaked forward 50ft, bringing a huddle of frowning, tightly-wound Croatian border guards and their shimmering assault rifles sliding ominously into view.
Shouting and jostling their way down the carriage, they ripped passports from hands and pointed fingers as they went. A group of five young Japanese men who spoke no English ended up acting as a magnet for their collective anger; about five of the guards crowded round the entrance to their cabin as the Japanese guys’ surgical-mask-covered faces contorted into a mixture of shock and terror, or at least what I could see of them. By screaming for their passports a mere two minutes after they had already shown them to a group of bumbling fools, the guards had clearly baffled the Japanese guys who obviously hadn’t quite adjusted to the weird world of Balkan bureaucracy. They instead presented their tickets which seemed to enrage the guards further, and I was just about to jump in to show them my passport to help them understand when one of them finally reached into the inside pocket of his coat, ripped out his passport and shakily held it up to the policeman. Almost crestfallen, they shrugged, fell silent and wandered off the train. We clunked back into gear and headed off again.
If it hadn’t been weird already, it was at this point that our journey took a strange turn. When we booked this trip we specifically bought tickets for a 6am train as it was one of only two daily direct services between Budapest and Zagreb. All other options had at least three connections, the whereabouts and duration of which I had no interesting in discovering first hand.
Yet we had barely lurched another 100 metres down the track before the second of the journey’s ticket inspectors then came calling, a short, spiky-haired Croatian man in his late 30s who checked our tickets before handing them back to us and mumbling: “Next stop, change trains. Five minutes.”
Huh? Was it five minutes from now? Or did we have five minutes to wait at the station? I raced down the carriage and tapped him on the shoulder before asking, allowing him to explain that we inexplicably had to change trains, and that the station was five minutes away. I hurried back to inform a bleary-eyed Kate who helped me scramble together all of our things. We hopped off the train into the hazy sunlight to see before us a deserted freight yard platform somewhere on the border between Hungary and Croatia, with not so much as a farmhouse in any direction as far as the eye could see.
As both of us stood still, melting under the heat of the three jumpers, hoodies and coats we were wearing as they couldn’t fit into our bag, the Croatian ticket inspector pointed vaguely into the distance at a coal shipping carriage, before gesturing that our train was hidden behind it. We and around 30 other passengers hopped and skipped across the depot over exposed train tracks before a rather shiny Croatian passenger train came into view. We took a seat and again started to move, this time at a much more 21st century pace, before the same ticket inspector yet again came calling, asking for our tickets again before handing them back and saying: “Two stops, change trains. Five minutes.”
Seriously? Everyone on the train had been somehow inadvertently conned out of their direct service and began searching for answers, bewildered by the wild goose chase this man had sent us on, until the train ground to a halt in the tiny village of Lepavina. Behind the crumbling station building sat four Yugoslav-era coaches belching out black exhaust fumes, each one more hideously Communist than the last, and none of them with their destination listed as Zagreb. Without much explanation we were ferried across the parking lot by the mad ticket inspector and piled into the buses haphazardly. We crested hills and troughs as we snaked our way through the surprisingly green Croatian countryside before I nonchalantly turned to Kate, both of us covered in sweat from our manic journey, and said “… where’s my coat?”
As her face fell, I immediately ran to the door to demand the ticket inspector let me out, but neither he nor anyone else seemed to understand what I was doing or why I – clearly a British holidaymaker – was so adamant to alight in a small Croatian village consisting of a horse, an elderly man in a beret and two houses, one of which didn’t have a front door. I slunk back to my seat and collapsed in a miserable heap, typing out maybe the most ambitious lost-and-found email to the Croatian rail service.
Suddenly a lengthy but hushed conversation broke out between the ticket inspector and a passenger a few rows ahead of us, complete with plenty of intense hand gestures and furrowed brows. The ticket inspector looked at me and pointed, and the other man nodded. Using the corners of the seats he clawed his way toward us and said “Excuse me, you lost something on train?”.
“Yeah, my coat,” I sighed wearily, my head resting on my fist.
“And a white plastic bag?”
“… Yeah?” I responded, realising this had suddenly got interesting.
He smirked and scuttled away to the front of the bus like an excited schoolgirl before reappearing, arms fully aloft and with my gigantic woollen winter coat in one hand and what I assume he didn’t realise was a plastic bag full of unwashed bedbug-ridden clothes in the other. I almost jumped out of my seat as he returned them to me, my moment of joy accompanied by the soundtrack of one overenthusiastic onlooker a few rows behind me making a failed attempt to kickstart a round of applause by awkwardly clapping twice and then giving up.
“Thank you so so so much,” I said. “And please thank the other man for me too.”
“That is not problem, do not worry,” he responded, chuckling. “By the way, change trains. Five minutes.”
And so, mentally bruised, battered and bewildered Kate and I made it to Zagreb. The capital cities of the Balkans are – for the most part – quite similar in architecture, layout and atmosphere. The recipe seems to be: take one “old town” on a river, maybe 500-1,000 years old and with a fort or castle dominating the landscape and expand rapidly from there, commissioning the construction of some questionable Communist architecture that grows exponentially more hideous the further from the centre you are. Throw in some dodgy food, a tram network that hasn’t been renovated since 1958 and maybe an uncomfortably nationalist statue in the city’s main square and boom: you’ve got yourself a Balkan capital.
There’s nothing explicitly bad about this set-up, however, and while Zagreb adheres to most of these guidelines, I found myself actually quite surprised by it as a city. The main square is typically bland at first glance, dominated by pastel-shaded knock-off Vienna Secession architecture left over from the city’s history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the outskirts are mainly made up of dead straight tram-lined streets and chain supermarkets. There really isn’t much to see on the surface until you enter the walled old town.
Up here feels like being in a different city altogether, its surprisingly chaotic layout allowing visitors to twist and turn their way through tiny cafe-flanked alleyways and parks resting in the shadows of opulent government buildings draped in enormous Croatian flags.
The old town is also home to what the locals ominously call the “bar street”, a zig-zagging lane of clubs and restaurants catering to tourists that should, on paper, be absolutely hideous, but the soft streetlamps and fantastically landscaped parks breaking up the rows of bars leaves it feeling like a rather relaxed place. Furthermore, Croatians are a friendly, unpretentious bunch, meaning the bar street is one of the only truly touristy drinking districts where locals can be seen mingling with foreigners without rolling their eyes or spitting in their drinks.
But really the greatest thing about Zagreb – and what really sets it apart from other Balkan capitals – is below surface level, and I don’t mean their impressive underground aquifer network. Dig a little deeper into the city and you’ll find some funny little quirks that make the visit well worth it.
For example, from the gargantuan hangover brunch with which we started our second day there to the truffle-infused cheese board we washed down with Dalmatian wine later that evening, everything we ate or drank during our time there was astonishingly good. I know I’m one to massively exaggerate everything on this blog but seriously, Zagreb is on another level to the rest of the Balkans when it comes to food and wine.
And yet despite the somewhat elaborate range of nonsense we ate during our time here, consisting of everything from organic Istrian olives to uštipci soaked in pumpkin oil, the hearty old-school pljeskavica, which I had been raving to Kate about for well over a year now, was easily the highlight. A spiced meat patty mixture of pork, beef and lamb, this ludicrously unhealthy dish is originally from Serbia but each country in the Balkans has made their own version (and loves to claim they invented it). In particular, the punjena pljeskavica is the absolute king of burgers – a gigantic patty around seven inches in diameter, stuffed full of chilli, cheese and bacon and topped with kaymak, a kind of cream-cheese-esque sauce served in a ball on the top that melts all over the plate. It sounds disgusting, and it kind of is, but it’s also the best burger you’ll ever eat.
Kate and I embarked on a tour of the old town, which took in the mosaic-tiled roof of St Mark’s Church and covered the calamitous reconstruction of the city’s cathedral. The tallest building in Croatia, this towering neo-gothic cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1880 (which also levelled most of Zagreb with it) and was accidentally reconstructed using a highly absorbent limestone, pooling water inside which then freezes in the winter and threatens the integrity of the entire structure, meaning it has been under scaffolding constantly for at least 50 years.
However, again, the surface level information simply wasn’t the highlight here. If you’ve visited European cities before you’ll likely have seen more impressive cathedral facades and interiors than Zagreb’s, and you’ll definitely have seen less garish chandeliers than the ones here, which the local Zagreb authorities bought second-hand from a Las Vegas casino, and no I am not joking.
But what was not mentioned by the tour guide is that, in the corner of the right-hand nave, stands a mammoth 100ft deep grey concrete wall that acts as a break in the cathedral’s vibrantly colourful interior, engraved with a floor-to-ceiling paragraph of script in a bizarre alphabet neither Kate nor I had ever seen before. With not so much as a pamphlet or caption in sight, I was forced to rather inconspicuously get my phone out, being careful not to drop the bottle of wine I was hiding under my hoodie. It’s a long story.
Amazingly, there was almost no information online either, but just as the headscarved old woman selling candles in the corner had started to stare at us for an uncomfortably long time, we stumbled across a random blog post from 2013 by a lady called Vivienne Mackie who, after doing some impressive research, had ascertained that it was a biblical passage written in the Glagolitic script. The oldest known Slavic alphabet, the Glagolitic script is thought to have been created in the 9th century by Saint Cyril, a Byzantine monk who, along with his brother Saint Methodius, were sent by the Byzantine Emperor Michael III in 863 to Great Moravia to spread Christianity among the Slavic people in the region by attempting to translate liturgical books into the Old Slavic language that was understandable to the general population. However, many of the words of the Old Slavic language could not be easily written in Greek or Latin alphabets or vice-versa, and so rather amazingly they decided to invent a new script, Glagolitic, based on the local dialect of the Slavic tribes from the Byzantine Salonika region. It fell entirely out of use in the early 1800s.
That this bizarre medieval language and alphabet still exist in 100-ft bold letters carved into the walls of a cathedral in a major European capital is an awe-inspiring and almost moving tribute to history, yet the fact that there was not a single item of information on it is indicative of an unfortunate trend from which Zagreb urgently needs – and deserves – to break free. A city that clearly cares so deeply about its messy, wildly diverse past should undoubtedly do more to proudly showcase it to the outside world. Even if it seems pointless to preserve the Glagolitic script, and even if before I stumbled across it here I had no idea it existed, the extinction of things like this remarkable linguistic find would be a tragedy.
Thankfully, the next leg of our trip was about as straightforward as it gets, turning up at Zagreb bus station in the late afternoon and asking for a ticket to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. But that’s a story for the next blog post, because right now Kate and I are anxiously clutching our seatbelts on a bus headed north from Ljubljana to Bled, the driver of which appears to be dead set on doing anything except actually navigating the bus round these perilous cliff-edge hairpin turns, instead choosing to count wads of cash and, rather ominously, sift through an operating manual.