The late summer days of Croatia’s Adriatic coastal cities linger on like a never-ending song, waiting to reach a final cadence that may or may never arrive. I had gone to Croatia with a friend with whom I share the same frustrating problem: I have just graduated and my bank account is a little fragile (even despite a year of opting for Sainsbury’s basics yoghurt and buying all train tickets months in advance). My friend and I were also desperate to get out of the UK and to make the most out of some European travel before it starts to get difficult. Croatia is a country many consider visiting for its cheap alcohol and amazing nightlife. But my friend and I were there with the intention of finding a good time without the hangovers and away from sweaty clubs. We were seeking something a little different.
We ate breakfast in a backstreet cafe in Zadar. There, worn by our previous night’s lack of sleep from sharing a hostel room with someone who evidently suffers from quite severe nightmares, we decide to make our coffees last a little longer over a game of cards. The cafe manager spots us and instantly asks us to leave.
Socially bruised, and with a slight feeling of having become characters of a Kafka novel, we head towards the sea, through Zadar’s charming white-stone paved town centre and Roman architecture. We sit on the steps of the Sea Organ, which is an architectural installation combined with a pipe organ converting waves into music. The therapeutic experience totally resets our mood as we are immersed in nature being converted to another form of beauty. Gradually, our attention is lost to an American man making a success of the seemingly impossible task of floating in the sea whilst keeping his hands above the water.
We take a tour with an old friend, who is a local, when we arrive in the city of Split, which is bigger than Zadar and has a much more aggressive nightlife. (I say nightlife - there’s no shortage of sun-cream clad British boozers for whom nights out start when it’s still very much day.) Standing at the top of the bell tower of St Domnius and looking out at the city, you can almost see the waves of history of this place in its architecture, which spreads out radially from its centre in this order: first, white-stoned Roman architecture, then a little further out, raw and brutal communist-style architecture, and further again, new, luxury flats and expensive houses are visible as the city folds into the mountains. Just as we are lost in admiration for this extraordinarily picturesque city, the bells of St Domnius’s bell tower (which we are a few feet away from) start ringing.
The bells, originally designed to tell the whole town what time it is, send shockwaves through our bodies as we try to descend the 12th century structure, which has a staircase made of metal grating and wobbles as you move down it. The hard stone floor never felt so solid.
To calm our nerves, our local friend (great guy) buys us a round of Cockta, the hilariously named Yugoslav drink, which was the drink of choice back when Yugoslavia existed. He tells us of his experience being drafted into military service at the age of 18 during the 1990s’ Yugoslav Wars when all he wanted to do was maths, and how the whole place and everyone he knows are very much still recovering. On a walk later, my friend and I spot a lone child tightrope walking along the railway tracks that run into Split central train station.
Things get better. After a roasting hot coach journey along one of the most beautiful roads in Europe, we find ourselves eating breakfast again, only this time in a more friendly setting beneath terrace grape vines in a house outside Dubrovnik, alongside a family who lives in the same block of houses as our Airbnb. We’re struck by the kindness of one of them who offers us some of his homemade grape-based spirit.
Before we know it, we find ourselves on an adventure with this new friend to an abandoned Yugoslav holiday resort down the road that he wants us to see, which used to be the go-to holiday place for Yugoslav army officers and which now lies in ruins and covered in scars from the war in the 1990s. The derelict resort stands as a creepy relic of Croatia’s past, its war and its economic crisis, all in one. We explore the derelict site for hours.
Even without relying on usual methods of entertainment like partying, we were able to experience a country authentically- by immersing ourselves as much as we could in the place itself rather than just what it had to offer touristically.
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