Zagreb: Change trains, five minutes

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.

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A thrilling Hungarian train ride

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 requested, 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 at the end of the carriage.

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 Croatian 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 and asked what was happening, 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, before opening my laptop and typing out perhaps the most ambitious lost-and-found email ever composed and sending it into the ether that is the Croatian rail service.

Suddenly a lengthy but hushed conversation in Croatian 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.”

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St Mark’s Church, Zagreb

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 parameters, I found myself actually quite surprised by it as a city. The main square is typically unglamorous 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, or stroll through parks resting in the shadows of opulent government buildings draped in enormous Croatian flags.

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Good name choice

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 I’ve visited where locals can be seen mingling with foreigners without rolling their eyes or charging them double.

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 honestly, Zagreb is on another level to the rest of the Balkans when it comes to food and wine.

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Brunchfast

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 that pools water inside when it rains, which then freezes in the winter and threatens the integrity of the entire structure. As a result, it has been consistently under scaffolding 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 almost certainly 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.

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Glagolitic script

Amazingly, there was almost no information regarding the text available 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 the region’s cultural heritage and 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, it should go without saying that 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.

Gabe

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Budapest: Bugs of the Bed

In almost any other dimension in which I exist, this sprawling blog post would likely start with me saying that I am an extremely unhappy man right at this moment. But as it happens I’m actually not. I’m chilling on a chaise longue, watching Roma hilariously dismantle Barcelona in the Champions League on a giant flatscreen TV and eating some suspiciously tasty Hungarian sausage that I just cooked. Life is good.

But for a (fairly) brief and chaotic moment last night it turned into a nightmarish Bruegel painting of angry hostel managers, painful insect bites and maybe the strangest phonecall I’ve ever been a participant of.

When we first booked this trip a few months ago, we resigned ourselves to staying at 11th Cinema Hour Hostel in the Astoria district of Budapest, booking it through the HostelWorld website. Cheap and cheerful but with great reviews and in a decent location, we felt like it would be hard to go wrong here; I’ve stayed at many a hostel on my travels and – bar the time my bed collapsed in Nagasaki – most of them have been relatively incident-free.

When push came to shove, however, 11th Hour, the great hope, was a great shithole.

You could tell from the moment you regrettably waltzed through its oversized doors; cavernous, cold hallways, rude staff and a bizarre 8-bed dorm room masquerading as the “private double en-suite” bedroom they had sold us, this was a dingy, empty and grimy hostel. It was the exact thing you didn’t want to see when trying in vain to convince your partner that hostels are a great way of seeing the world. We checked in, dumped our bags, triple-locked our door and headed out into the city to spend as much time away from the room as we could.

The first night – we thought – went without a hitch. Despite the blazing heat from the radiators that were inexplicably on full blast all night, the sleep was pretty comfortable.

And then…

Bedbugs. Bed bugs. Bugs of the bed.

After a second day of hiding in a point on the map of Budapest as far from our hostel as we could physically reach, we headed back home after a night of drinking and boom: while getting changed Kate noticed a row of three bites on her hip. Having learned – ironically in Budapest three years earlier – that three bites in a row was some sort of cruel joke only played by scheming bedbugs, we immediately freaked out and darted out of bed, both of us no doubt resisting the urge to leap into the others’ arms like Shaggy and Scooby at the sight of a vampire.

“What do we do?!” was my immediate response, to which Kate replied, after we had decided that bleach-boiling our skin or passing out were not viable solutions, that we should stay calm, move all our clothing off the beds and onto the floor, and go get someone from reception.

While I was putting my shoes on I heard a faint but purposeful “oh there it is” from behind me, and I swivelled to see Kate forlornly pointing at full arms-length toward a shrivelled black insect resting on the sheets in much the way a family from Basildon might point at a vandalised council-funded fence in a local newspaper. We took some close-up photos of the creepy little intruder to both present to HostelWorld and to undoubtedly reminisce while fondly looking over with our distressed grandchildren, before I left the room and headed down the corridor to the reception.

Nothing. A pitch black room with nobody in it. Sure, it was midnight by this point, but come on. There should be some way of contacting a staff member, right? There was no way I was heading back to that bloody bed. But nope; the nothingness continued despite me waiting around. Nobody came for 15 minutes. With hope sinking I shouted into the staff room, I waved at the CCTV as if there would be someone watching every move I make remotely, and then gave up and called the main phone number of the hostel listed online.

After a brief connecting tone, a small 2005-era flip-phone in the bookcase in front of me lit up and started vibrating. I silently watched as it shuffled its way across the shelf, teetered on the precipice for a moment, and bravely plunged its way onto the stone-tiled floor behind the counter, leaving me standing in a dark room listening to the voicemail message of a phone I had just witnessed kill itself.

Then I saw it: the overnight number pinned to the wall in scrawled handwriting. I thought it would be my ticket out of this surreal waking nightmare, but was sorely let down when I phoned it and it rang out the first three times.

Fourth time, however, someone on the other end rejected the call before the voicemail came. Aha! Someone’s there! You can run but you can’t hide.

Fifth time they rejected the call even earlier.

Sixth time it went back to ringing out again, so I gave up and began composing a tedious email to them while Kate and I started making solemn, tear-soaked preparations to sleep on the floor and/or in the bathtub.

Suddenly, in the dark, my phone rang. It was the same number. No longer would I be left wondering what might have been. I grabbed it, pressed the “accept call” button and heard a croaky, sleep-deprived female voice say “… hello?”

Puffing my chest out with an unearned victorious pride, I described with great gusto the current predicament within which my girlfriend and I had found ourselves, after which was a painful, lingering silence before she sighed, composed herself and shouted something along the lines of: “… I don’t really give a f*** what is happen with the bugs, you are f*** idiot and I have baby here at house and it is night and [swearing in Hungarian] bedbug [swearing in Hungarian] emergency [swearing in Hungarian] f***ing hold on moment.”

[sic]

Then I heard a click. Then the line went dead.

Having overheard the rather surprising conversation as it pierced the glum silence of our disgusting room, I spun round to see Kate standing in awe, jaw on the floor and hands frozen mid-sock-fold. But before we could even begin to stammer ourselves back into coherence, my phone again buzzed in my hand. I looked down, my mouth still agape. It was the same number. I picked up and said “… hello?!”

This time it was a softly-spoken Hungarian man. “Hello? Hello there. Hello Mr Gabriel. Hello I hope everything OK,” he said with an extremely unsubtle, almost pulsating guilt punctuating his words.

“Hello,” I responded harshly. “What the hell happened there?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?!

“It is nothing.”

“Why on Earth did that woman just speak to me like that?”

“Oh it is nothing,” he again insisted with an almost bizarrely passive tone, as if trying to persuade me that I had somehow imagined being sworn at by an aggy mum.

After a lengthy chat about the bedbugs he promised he’d drop by so we made ourselves comfortable for the hefty hour and a half it took him to get to our hostel. Sleep deprived and riddled with insect bites, we insisted he move us to another room, which he did, before we sent him on his way while reminding him we would be seeking a full refund. We then woke up the following morning to find that our new room had also been infested. Ten new bites. We took more photos and left immediately.

Long story short, we salvaged our stay here. We booked a quite amazing aparthotel at the last minute for £30 while waiting for HostelWorld to fully investigate what they call a “case file” on our incident at 11th Hour to determine whether or not what the manager called a “rigorous poisoning scheme” on the bugs had in fact wasted everyone’s time by doing f*** all.

We’re off to Zagreb on a lengthy train tomorrow so, although my writing feels a little rusty, I hope I can use that time to fill you in on the stuff we did in Budapest that didn’t involve taking close-up shots of bloodsucking insects and engaging a hypnagogic Hungarian man in an unexpectedly abstract debate over whether being sworn at by his raging wife counts as “nothing” or not.

But right now it’s pretty late and the word count on this post is getting out of control. Well done to those of you who have made it this far.

Also, never stay at 11th Hour Cinema Hostel.

Gabe