I have twice now given Split short-shrift, and undeservedly so, considering its reputation. My only defense is that it lies between two places I really like: Zagreb and Hvar. Getting from one to the other, when pressed for time, has seemed somehow more important than giving Split my undivided attention. The first time I was there, almost seven years ago, I at least had several hours during the day to explore the Roman walls and get some feel for the city itself. The second time was this past September, and I arrived when it was nearly dark. I saw only the waterfront, the ferry station and the path to my lodgings for the night, leaving early the next morning for the catamaran to Hvar, that Adriatic jewel that I have written of before and soon will do again.
This latest snubbing of Split was unintentional and came as a result of missing a train. I had budgeted a lot more time for the coastal town, but life stepped in the way, as it tends to do. This time life made its presence known in the form of my own hubris, but it paid off in the end. I will tell you a bit about this adventure now. The first part takes place in Zagreb, and it begins and ends with a rain storm.
Act I-A Long Night’s Journey Into Day…Sidetracked.
The statue of King Tomislav, riding a horse and dominating the square that bears his name, is the first thing that you see upon exiting the central train station in Zagreb. That is, of course, provided that you are fortunate enough to emerge at the split second during which there happen not to be any trams blocking your view. I say this not because I dislike trams (I love them, in fact-just ask anyone), but because it is true. Go to Zagreb and you’ll see for yourself. It’s worth a visit just to see the statue of the little boy peeing. And once you pass the trams, being careful not to get run over, you will see King Tomislav, 10th century Croatian ruler, in all his glory. He is looking out across Tomislav square, as if to challenge the great yellow monstrosity that is the Art Pavilion, facing him on the other side. In between lies the square itself, beautiful in its own right, sandwiched neatly between a wide avenue of trees. And if you’re picturing your average ham-and-cheese-style sandwich and thinking that the square sounds rather crowded by these trees, try thinking of a different sandwich entirely. It’s much more than a generous tuna salad or even a hoagie. This is a full-on Dagwood sandwich, and believe me, the park has plenty of breathing room.
On what was intended as my only night in Zagreb, I stood next to this statue of King Tomislav and watched the clouds gather overhead like an army preparing for battle. The battalions moved in swiftly and assembled their weapons of war, casting their grave faces, dusky and laden with reproach, onto the land below. I stood waiting, meeting their gaze as I looked up into the heavens and wondering if the enormous metal statue was truly the wisest companion to have at that moment. The opening sorties were but a demonstration, as if the orchestra were merely tuning its instruments in advance of the cosmic performance. The cannon rumbled a number of low, rhythmic volleys, but few shots were fired before the curtain went up. It was not until the rain began its measured assault that the battle began in earnest. The sky exploded in a full-scale cannonade as tracers lit the faces of soldier above and peasant below. Great crackles of thunder threatened to rip the air apart, and the storm reached down with its terrifying white-purple claws to show that resistance was futile. Only seconds into the campaign, it was clear that this would be a one-sided war after all, and it fell into a demonstration of might and a flexing of nature’s indomitable power. With no mortal response anticipated, the attacks would be postponed, but the show would continue.
Between King Tomislav and the steadily receding form of the Art Pavilion, I bore witness to one of the greatest displays of strength I have seen in many years. I must admit that there were moments when I grew fearful, imagining that the earth was going to be scorched and scarred along with everything in it. My random comrades-in-arms at the statue (local teenagers, as far as I could tell), appeared to share my awe, if not my fear. With each renewed banging of the war drum and every shock of electric fire, more heads were drawn aloft and more bodies joined the watch at their king’s side. I’m willing to bet that not far from this square, even the little statue of the boy contentedly peeing into his tiny fountain turned a curious eye to the scene above him and wondered if there wasn’t something more to life after all.
The rest of the evening was rather uneventful. The rains did not last that night, and as I walked back to my hostel I dried off fairly quickly. It was on my way back that I first stumbled across the Café Godot (surely there was something witty there…involving the servers, perhaps? ‘Waiting for “Godot”’? A bit on the nose, Mr. Woods). I was in a hurry, by which I mean that I did not feel like stopping because I had it in my head that I was going to my hostel and hardened my heart against any detours in between, so I missed my first chance to enjoy the delightful looking atmosphere that appeared to reign there. Pleasantly drunken Croats smoked beside equally pleasant and drunken foreigners, and laughter and mirth seemed to be getting the better of all of them. It did not get the better of me, however, and I made my own merry way back to my bed where I promptly fell asleep, as visions of Godot puns danced in my head.
I purchased my train ticket for Split the following morning. I proudly spoke to the man at the ticket counter in Slovene, and he patiently sold me a ticket in Croatian. I did not think to ask for a reservation, having requested a ticket on the overnight train that evening, but he had sold me an open ticket. This is probably exactly what he was supposed to do, but later that night, when I discovered my mistake, I decided that he had not appreciated my Slovene.
My day in Zagreb was splendid, but I won’t recount it here. Suffice to say that I was drawn back that evening to Café Godot but could not seem to find it again. Because the simplest explanation often eludes me, replaced instead by the most fantastical, I decided that Café Godot was the public house equivalent of Brigadoon, appearing only at certain times before evaporating into mist. To me, it wasn’t so far-fetched. It certainly would have explained why people were having such a great time. But then again, I’ve never been the Occam’s Razor type. I’m more of what you’d call an Occam’s Butter-Knife kind of guy. I decided that ‘Looking for “Godot”’ was going to be as close as I came, and I made my peace with that.
When I finally boarded the train to Split, somewhere close to midnight, I realized that I was going to get very little sleep. My plan had been to save money on accommodation by taking the overnight train, and then I would get to spend the whole day in Split. As crowded as it was already, and with the kind of seats that make sleeping very difficult (even for me, a seasoned airport-sleeper), it looked as though I was going to be dead tired the next day. I asked myself if I wouldn’t be better off getting a place for the night after all, waking up early and making it into Split around noon. To be honest, I’m such a cheapskate that I don’t think I would have made this decision without a little push. The push, far from little, was wearing a flower-print dress.
Two women entered my compartment right about then, looked around and said, ‘There are five of us.’ There were six seats, two of them occupied, and another two that had been claimed by a couple who had just trotted off to get something to eat before we pulled away. I tried explaining this to the woman, using my handy-dandy Slovene, but she insisted that there were five of them. Again, I explained that there were only six seats, and four were taken. This did not console her. She pointed at me and declared that there were five of them. ‘There are FIVE of us!’ she exclaimed. And somewhere around the time that she signaled to the number behind me, I finally realized what she was actually saying, which was ‘twenty –five’. You see, in Slovene the ‘five’ goes before the ‘twenty’. Now don’t get weird. German does it, and English did too, once upon a time, or don’t you remember ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’? This eccentricity of Slovene, coupled with old-lady-voice and added to the fact that she was speaking a different language (namely Croatian!), made dvadeset pet, ‘twenty-five’, sound a lot like nas je pet, or ‘we are five’. And no, they don’t sound anything alike, really. I was tired.
So when I realized that Croatians knew full well to make their reservations in advance and that the train was likely full, I accepted that I would be paying for a bed that night. To be honest, I was relieved. I was relieved all the way up until I got outside and the rains began again. They weren’t too heavy at first, but as I made my way back to the hostel someone began turning the handle on that faucet. Before long it was difficult to see through my glasses, and that’s when the Café Godot again appeared before me. By that time, the faucet handle was turned so far that the dang thing had fallen off, and the sky just let the water fall. So there I stood, sheltered by café umbrellas, and dried out a bit while someone up there called a plumber and got that faucet situation all sorted out. And I smiled because I’d found my pun. I was waiting at ‘Godot’.
Act II will follow mañana…