Sunday, October 10, 2010

Diocletian's Imperial House of Cats

Last week, Takako and I went on a holiday to Croatia. Four days on the Adriatic coast. It was great, and full of pleasant surprises. Of course, we nearly didn't make the flight to begin with. I lingered too long over an ice cream in Burger King, and arrived at the gate just as they were closing. The staff were in the process of sending us away when some more breathless passengers dashed up behind us, so they reluctantly allowed us through. So began a great journey.

The first surprise of the trip was right after we touched down in Zadar. While walking across the runway to the terminal, someone gave me a rap on the back of the head. I turned around to see who has the audacity to bother a stranger in such a manner and was greeted by the grinning face of Adrian McGearty, a man who was one of my best friends way back in primary school when I was 9 or 10 years old. Sometimes this world is so small it scares me. He's now an anthropologist of some sort and was on his way to Bosnia.

From the airport, we got onto a local bus, which seemed to have been procured second hand from the Dutch bus company Connexxion, it still bore the green XX livery. Taking that bus to the main bus station, and another bus from there, we proceeded to get lost in the heart of the old city of Zadar. Large churches, old apartments and big white stone streets. It was a beautiful city. After a short sleep in the guest house, we headed back to the bus station to grab a bus to Plitivice National Parks, stopping only briefly to grab one of the most amazing sandwiches of my life.

The sandwich, from a fast food shop was shockingly simple yet stunningly tasty. I ordered a chicken sandwich, the woman in the shop proceeded to throw a few pieces of fresh chicken breast onto a grill and fry them. Then she cut open a large, thick, fresh bread roll, gave it a quick layer of mayonnaise and added the recently friend chicken. It certainly hit the spot.

Buses seem to be the main form of long distance travel in Croatia. They take a slightly different form to Bus Eireann services. There is a driver and ticket inspector. The ticket inspector tags your luggage and stows it, then after the bus is underway comes along to check or sell you a ticket to your destination. A couple of hours into the journey, there was a half hour break at a curious restaurant high in the mountains, which had pens of elk and brown bears out back. After the break, the driver and the inspector swapped roles.

The bus journeys we took to the national parks, Split and back to Zadar were very relaxing and interesting. The bus would wind its way into the mountains and pass through lots of interesting Croatian countryside and villages before reaching the lakes. The road down from the mountains was quite spectacular and afforded us many views of the valleys. The final bus journey took a coastal road from Split to Zadar. The entire journey was spent overlooking the sparkling blue Adriatic sea.

Plitivice National Parks, high in the mountains, are a set of wonderfully crystal clear lakes in a valley, flowing from one to another by way of spectacular waterfalls. We walked several kilometres around the lakes taking in the sights from every angle. We even took a boat across the largest of the lakes. It was off season, but the park was full of tourists from all over the world. We stayed in a hotel on the side of the park, it took us a day and a half to see all we could manage.

The park was beautiful, the trees were wonderful shades of green, orange and gold. The waters were deep green and full of fish. ducks followed us wherever we went. We explored some caves, stared in awe at some waterfalls and climbed a mountain.

After Plitivice we headed to Split in the south. An old city that grew up around the retirement place of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The centre of the old town sat right on the harbour. It was a busy town, with a large market and a bustling shopping district. We explored some of the ruins of the old Palace and the old city, some parts converted into museums, some restaurants.

One thing I found interesting about the old city of Split, was the number of cats there were to be found. As we wandered through the underworks, we found cats lounging on the rocks. In the gift shops, there was a cat sleeping on a chair and some other cats eating dinner. Up in the square, there were cats wandering around the basilica grounds. Outside the walls, cats wandered between the statues. Everywhere we went, we found cats. It was odd.

On our last night, we tried to find a hotel recommended in a guide book. We got directions from an information office and a hotel receptionist, though the second woman was doubtful that the restaurant was still in business. The first set of directions led us to an empty patch of wasteland. The second to a sea front with an array of small restaurants and bars, none of which matched the one we sought. Eventually we gave up and returned to the city, after a walk on the beach.

Croatia was a beautiful country. There seemed to be lots to do. Though outside the cities, it seemed a bit odd. The main roads were in perfect condition. Though in a lot of places where the side roads broke away, they looked like they hadn't been resurfaced in decades. No potholes, probably due to there not being much rain, but the surface was cracked, broken and worn away. Some didn't even have any kind of road signs or markings.

Every town would have the same odd mix of buildings. There would be brand new buildings, and old buildings in wonderful condition. Then right beside them, there would be old or new abandoned buildings, and odder still, buildings that were partially or almost completely constructed and then abandoned. You could see unfinished buildings having been left idle for years. As if one day, the builders packed up their tools and went home without bothering to finish the building.

In some of the towns, there were abandoned hotels, one even had a gutted bus station. We even drove through more than one village that was completely deserted. Driving through the mountains you would see people building houses in the middle of nowhere, with nothing of note for miles around. On one plateau we passed a cemetery, with no other house or village visible for miles. Another building would be riddled with bullet marks, and holes which looked as if they'd been made by shells.

Croatia is an interesting country. Beautiful, varied and interesting. Though I got the impression that if we hadn't kept travelling, we may have run out of interesting things to see and do. I may return some day. We didn't go anywhere near the capital Zagreb, or the most famous city; the pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik. For now, this holiday was enough.


  1. Bah, you're making the rest of the world sound too beautiful. And cool. A cat-ridden town called Split built around Diocletian's retirement palace - there is an anime in there somewhere.

    Yes, the Anthropologist thing is very true. I've been giving him my 1st year anthro textbooks over the past half-decade. All I need now is a particle physicist and I've got my Star Trek landing party.

    (a) Are you going to cheat on Florence with Split?
    (b) Pictures!

  2. Shells don't make holes, they make no building :P


  3. I stuck some photos up on Picasa.