I’ve gone and got myself behind in these dairies again, so I’m gonna do another whiz-through to catch up.
So! After being humiliated and nearly killed in Slovenia, I caught the train to Croatia. I shared a carriage with an Indian dude who was super chatty and friendly. We spoke a lot about India and films while the green world flicked past; all the trains I’ve been on in the Balkans have been those Harry Potter trains with confined carriages. It feels very cinematic.
In Zagreb I booked a party hostel by mistake, and was consequently subjected to two nights of teenage girls shrieking back and forth across beer pong tables. The staff of the hostel was composed entirely of middle-aged Australian man-children who went by nicknames like ‘Bozo’ and ‘Helmet’ and ‘Zoink’. I made friends with a couple of Finnish girls and an English guy, and we left the screaming havoc masses to explore the city at our own pace.
I went to two museums in Zagreb: the Museum of Broken Relationships (good), and the Museum of Hangovers (wank). The latter was possibly the worst museum I’ve ever been to; its creation was almost certainly the idea of a couple of still-pissed blokes on a Sunday morning. It had no idea what it wanted to be: a fun, interactive exhibit? A cautionary tale? An informative history of boozing? The first thing you do on entry is don beer goggles and try throw a dart at a bullseye. Then you read twenty dry paragraphs on the US prohibition for some reason, and then you walk over a tiny wooden platform that wobbles a bit. Then you read some information about how many people die because of alcohol each year, and then you have a go at playing a song on empty beer bottles. There’s a machine which tells you whether or not you drink too much; I jokingly entered that I consume twenty-five pints a week. The computer pondered this for a moment, then a new screen came up saying ‘congratulations – healthy liver!’.
Next you walk into a recreated bathroom – again, no idea why – which is covered in thousands of post-it notes, on which visitors have written their best drunken stories: all things like ‘I shit all over my floor!’ and ‘I chinned my uncle!’ The final room is designed to look like someone’s bedroom. There’s a fur coat on the wall, a simulator where you can practise drunk driving, and a mobile phone on which you can make TikToks. As I say: wank.
The Museum of Broken Relationships was much better. Poignant, funny and intriguing, it’s composed of a collection of objects with close ties to a relationship that had ended. Items of clothing, books, notes, appliances, jewellery, a big pink dildo. Normal people submit the items along with a short description of the relationship, why it ended, and how the object is relevant. Some were funny, some were tragic, some made me gag. All in all – an hour well spent.
Later that evening, one of the hostel staff – a broad-bellied Australian alcoholic named Gonads or Slappy or something – asked me what I’d done with my day. I told him I’d been to the relationship museum.
“Pah, I’ve been to that museum once. Good place to spend your whole afternoon bladdy reading,” he said.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to this so I just went ‘mmm’.
“I don’t get that place,” he continued. “It’s like they just get loads of old things and put them on display and print out some story about them, and they call it a museum. What a gimmick.”
“Aha,” I offered. That’s literally what a museum is, you boob.
“You coming to celebrate the 4th of July tonight?” he asked. “Basically you pay €20 and it’s karaoke and unlimited drinks from 8 until 10, then we head to a bar and you get free entry with your wristband, and you also get a free hotdog. It’s gonna be lit bro.”
This made no sense whatsoever: a beer only cost €2 anyway, which meant I’d have had to drink ten pints in two hours to get my money’s worth. Also, the 4th of July is the USA’s holiday for celebrating beating up the British in a war. Also also, a night of drunken karaoke with Sharky and Gumbo and Weiner sounded like hell on fucking Earth. That said, I like to be agreeable.
“Nice one brother. See you there,” he replied, slapping me on the shoulder.
You bloody will not.
I arrived in Pula after a coach ride from Zagreb, and was very happy to find the coastal town warm, sunny, and beautiful. The town has a lot of old Roman and Greek structures, including a well-preserved temple and an awe-inspiring colosseum. I didn’t know there were any left outside Rome.
I spent three nights in Pula because the hostel was spacious and clean, but I didn’t really make any friends there; I wasn’t too fussed about socialising. I hung out with two quiet German girls for a few hours one evening, but otherwise I was on my own. I went to a few cafes, took some long walks, and sketched a picture of the temple in the town’s Roman forum in my new notepad.
I took the ferry to Zadar; I could have got the bus easily enough, but the ferry felt more adventurous. It was a fun journey, sailing down past little islands, warm green water sloshing up against the windows. I went up on deck a couple of times to breath the sea air and feel all Jack Sparrow, but instead got bowled all over the place by the whipping salty winds. The air buffeted my hair into salt-brittle strands resembling Jeff Daniels’ scarecrow mop from Dumb and Dumber; a fact I didn’t realise until much later, when I’d already spent a good two hours walking around the ship wondering why everybody was staring at me.
Zadar itself is nice but touristy; you can’t walk through the old town without being pinballed between bronzed mothers scrabbling after escapee toddlers and twenty-something couples having quiet arguments in expensive outfits. They have a sea organ there which is cool – pipes underground channel the noise of the sea into a ghostly orchestra.
It was tough finding a hostel in Zadar. Due to it being peak season, prices are sky-high and beds are scarce. After my initial plan of finding a place to stay on Couchsurfing failed, I had no choice but to book the one hostel that still had space: Horizon Hostel. The worst reviewed hostel in the whole damn country.
‘DO NOT BOOK HERE, IT IS FILTHY AND DISGUSTING’ read one of the reviews on Hostelworld. ‘THE OWNER IS RUDE AND USELESS AND THERE’S ZERO SECURITY’ read another. ‘HE KICKED ME OUT OF BED AND MADE ME SLEEP IN A TENT??’ said a third. ‘FUCKING SHITE, GO ANYWHERE ELSE’ read a fourth.
I had no choice. Feeling annoyed and apprehensive, I walked through the city to find the place. It looked pretty dilapidated, even from the outside: shutters hanging off, paint peeling, roof tiles missing, garden littered with debris – and, I noticed, a row of tents.
I found an old man in a string vest hanging laundry around the back and told him I was there to check in. He stared at me as though I’d just spat in his goulash, then instructed a jolly young Turkish girl over to attend to me. She took me upstairs and showed me my room – no key, no locks on doors. As far as I could tell there wasn’t even a front door to the building. The room had several unmade beds, cobwebs everywhere, rickety bunks, and chest of drawers on which lay an old tobacco pipe and various lengths of wire.
I chose a bunk and slung down my bags and thanked the girl, and shortly after the old man came into the room.
“You are satisfied?” he asked.
To be fair, I didn’t mind the shabbiness of the place. A bed’s a bed, and I’ve certainly stayed in worse.
“It’s great, thank you,” I replied.
“Good,” said the old man. “If you have any complaints… don’t tell anyone.”
Made me chuckle.
A couple of Kiwi guys, a German girl and a Canadian girl checked into my dorm later that evening, and we chatted lots and went out for drinks in a pretty old park near the old town. We’d all seen the same reviews of the hostel, and all thought them unfair. Sure, it wasn’t exactly ‘nice’ or ‘clean’ or ‘functional’, but there was something about the place I really liked. It reminded me of how backpacking used to be ten years ago, before all these soulless chain hostels sprang up everywhere with on-site bars and ultra-fast WiFi and USB ports by every bed. I feel like backpacking is supposed to be a little bit dirty. I like roughing it – it helps me to feel more present and alive. Yes, the shower door came off in my hand when I tried to open it, and yes, the floor tiles in the corridor kept popping up, and yes, the kitchen constantly stank of boiled cabbage (because the owner was constantly boiling cabbage) and yes, on my second day I did indeed discover a small beehive in our dorm – but all of that just adds spice!
Travel should never be too easy: if your trip is just a sequence of postcard moments, they eventually lose impact and the fulfilment vanishes. You have to earn the beautiful moments by journeying through the stinky parts and the weird nights and the uncertainty of it all – and, on occasion, sleeping in a room with a lot of buzzing bees.