I’d left my new swimming trunks in the apartment in Split, putting myself once again in the position of having nothing to wear but jeans.
Ever helpful, the morning weather was hot and muggy and I was sweating as I accepted defeat and began turning our bags the right way round again. Unable to salvage the day with a fashionable wave of double-denim, I chose instead to pin my impending heat death on Sarah – who was appointed bag packer yesterday morning. The hours walking around Plitvice national park would not be kind unless we could figure something out. I was stuck being unreasonable again when Sarah suggested we ask the campsite owners for a pair. It was a long shot, but there weren’t any clothes shops for miles. I had to hold back my surprise as my request was accommodated in the form of the owners husband’s pre-beer stained baggy shorts. The old saying beggars can’t be choosers comes to mind, but I wish I’d had time to rinse them first. Regardless, the cool breeze stroking my testicles as I rode the few miles to the park entrance was not to be sniffed at… excuse the choice of phrase.
At 10am the car park was filling up slowly but was still relatively quiet. By the time we’d bought a sandwich, bought a ticket, wandered across the road, wandered down the trails to the first lake and boarded a tourist boat it was clear that’d we’d beat the tourist crush. There was no rush, no crowds and little noise aside from the trickling of water as it eked it’s own trails through the mossy undergrowth and built up root networks. Schools of orange finned fish played around the boat in the sparkling clear waters. We left the jetty to amble along miles and miles of wooden boardwalk and rocky nature trails surrounded by stunning lakes and waterfalls. For the early part we were alone with the singing bullfrogs and the fish.
The walkways crossed and intertwined with each other under different waterfalls and features until both paths reached a restaurant at the top. After a dry chicken burger and ice cream we swam our way down through the massing crowds, almost entirely comprised of exemplary Asian tourists with their sun hats and expensive cameras. Back down around 2 or 3 o’clock we went for another ice cream to cool off and laughed at the number of prams being pushed blindly into sections of narrow boardwalk and rocky winding paths. Jokes on you suckaz.
It was still super hot. I’d lost the respect of other bikers on the way back to the camp site – my hand waves weren’t being returned as I was that guy in shorts and a t-shirt. But the cooling benefit of being overwhelmingly under-protected stopped as we crunched to a halt on the gravel outside the tent. Of course the two-man microwave was too sweltering to sit in by now and there was little shade on offer at this time of the day. We needed to cool off badly. After a picnic lunch of softy cheese, dried meats, baguette and crisps Sarah got directions to a swimming spot from the ever helpful camp site owner and we swooped down the road on narrow country lanes bordered by tall grasses. The area looked distinctly residential -nice pools forming in the river round the back of wooden holiday apartments. We rose over a small bridge and followed the river through a small meadow before finding a spot near the bank to leave the bike and get changed. An Australian guy and girl were towel drying outside their car and told us how lovely the water is with a hint of mischief in their voices. The river was enormously inviting and worrying at the same time, but the sun pressed its heat into my shoulders and forced my hand. I dived far to clear the sticks and growth along the bank holding my lungs in tight against the bite of the icy water. After the first gasping reach for the surface Sarah threw me the snorkel and I practiced my dives (YEAH, SNORKELLING!), encouraging my muscles to generate as much heat as possible. Finding equilibrium I managed to frolic for a full 10 minutes before clambering numbly out over the roots to the bike. I held the snorkel while Sarah took her own dive and emerged to the surface shocked by the temperature. And so it went, playing in the river and rotating between being burned and being frozen. Sarah pointed out a water snake gliding it’s way along the river bed to shelter underneath a rock. Eventually we migrated further upstream to where the water collected behind a small wier and fish surfed aggressively in the eddies.
Really sticking it to the bikers now. The latest Health and Safety movement road-tested in Croatia. Notice back up shorts aren’t really appropriate for walking around in.
After a couple of hours play we rode back through the meadow of drifting motes back to the camp site where we got dressed for dinner at the restaurant down the road. Twilight had broken as we sat under a canopy eating huge identical pizzas and drinking restaurant priced beers (a shock compared to our previous stints of supermarket bought 2 litre bottles). Getting tired we headed back and crammed in some beauty sleep for our ride north to Zagreb. Sarah hadn’t been keen initially, but I’d won her over at dinner. Capital cities tend to have their own separate ecosystems and with it different cultures, attitudes and perhaps more importantly, bars.
We woke to another beautiful morning – Monday the 9th of June. Sarah had 5 more days on the trip, though she’d be flying out early on the 14th – so only 4 whole days for activities. This alone spurred us on to cram as much into the remaining days as we could. The start was early, the tent was packed away quickly and the gear was loaded up efficiently and kept balanced – we were getting better. Before long we were cruising on roads through what could have been the Yorkshire moors – vivid green with rolling hills. Northbound on the number 1, we were once again avoiding the use of motorways. Not having the faff of Croatian toll systems and lovelier country roads made it a no-brainer. The beautiful open countryside turned into a tall forest on both sides north of Karlovac. I lapped up the cooler woodland air and fantastic aromas as we rode through, feeling more and more rejuvenated in the brief moments of respite before hitting Zagreb’s expansive network of suburbs then the city itself.
We were delivered into the city on a wide motorway past sporting arenas and shopping malls. We suffered the predictable decline of forward movement as you close in on a city centre, but Zagreb was in the midst of a 40°C heat wave and we were fully armoured – Sarah almost completely in black. The interlacing of a million tramway lines, unending traffic lights and congestion added to the pressure behind the sweat beading from my brow. In the ad hoc spirit of our trip we’d arrived in Zagreb without any pre-booked accommodation. Like many times before I’d clocked signs indicating the city centre, following them to where a confusing network of one way systems sprawled uneasily on narrow roads between residential buildings. A quieter side road, an old looking bar and some seats underneath sun parasols beckoned us from the congestion. I parked up and Sarah went for drinks and the Wifi password. I was impressed – despite the football-pitch-full of sweat I’d lost into my jacket Sarah was sat sipping a nice refreshing coffee. I didn’t even taste my Coca Cola as it went down.
We’d made it respectably close to the town centre on vague signposting alone and fortunately the wifi indicated a number of possible hostels close by. Comparing notes we settled on a little place called Swanky Mint, the other side of the block we’d parked on. Unfortunately getting there on the one way systems involved a couple of loops, selective blindness to certain no access signs and plenty of swerving to de-rut from tram tracks. Sarah pointed me to the hostel courtyard and we rolled the last few meters up to reception with the engine off as to not disturb our fellow guests. Before long we had stripped the luggage from the bike and dumped it all in our swanky private apartment room, got showered and changed and left to explore the city with a full half day left. We grabbed a bagel from a bakery on the outskirts of Ban Jelačić Square and headed into the markets for fresh cherries.
From there we wandered across to an imposing cathedral. I insisted Sarah go in at least on during her visit and followed her through the antique wooden doors on the path of righteousness.
We followed our map across the square and back through to the other side of the market. We climbed up and down steep ramps as if this part of the city had been carved out by kids with ADHD. We passed a giant painted egg, plenty of cafe-bars, a statue of a sad man on a horse killing a dragon and a gatehouse temple as we made our way to another large square that was home to the most interesting church roof in Croatia.
Over the road was the highly recommended museum of broken relationships. Its basically a collection of user-submitted heartbreaking stories and associated objects from all over the world. Some are innocent, some are seedy – all serve to indicate the cultural differences between East and West. The collection is fascinating, sometimes funny and well worth a trip if only to experience the treat that is a museum of humanity. That said, after the 20th story I started to skim read and elected to skip the writings for boring looking objects entirely, mind already drifting to what sort of doodles I can make in the guestbook as I left.
Running danger-low in my bag of cherries we sought further oral stimulation with the light refreshing taste of beers al fresco before roaming the southern aspect of the city in hope of visiting the botanical gardens. They were shut, but we saw some good sights on the way.
Retiring back to our hostel we relaxed away the rest of our evening in the courtyard bar playing cards and talking to other guests, from the politically upstanding to bright purple haired concrete scientists. Our one day in Zagreb had satisfied us, but I’d seize the opportunity to come back in the future. If every capital city could keep such a relaxed feel to offset the inevitable hubbub the world would be a richer place. Tomorrow we’d sprint up to Ljubljana, entering Slovenia for the first time. A new country with new possibilities and nothing to direct our expectations – tomorrow would be a day of adventuring at its purest. Maybe we’d even see a real dragon.