Živeli: Croatian or Serbian meaning something like ‘live long’ or ‘let’s live’, used for ‘cheers’.
It’s 1AM before I finally kick off my boots and peel off my socks. They are damp with the late night rain, and sweat from almost 24 hours of traveling, walking and dancing. The damp comes as no surprise. The surprise is, instead, finding the left sock’s sole entirely crusted with blood.
I clean up, my ears still ringing with the rock ‘n’ roll blues music my friends and I had blasted across two countries, driving home in the driving rain from Hamburg, Germany. My body was exhausted; every nerve and cell felt as though they had been running circuits through the over 2,400 bridges in Hamburg – more in the world than even Venice – and doing so on a combination of drugs, liquor, and currywurst.
And, well, they basically had been.
Hamburg was not a city I had ever sought out for a visit. It was a little like Aarhus: if there hadn’t been a direct attachment with the Master’s programme I’m currently studying in, I probably never would have visited, even though it might make sense for an American to visit the fabled origin of the hamburger (for the record: it’s not). Approximately one-fourth of the people in my course will be studying their specialism of ‘Journalism and Media Across Cultures’, and I fully intend on trying to make a visit at least once. As the second-largest city in Hamburg, and arguably one of the largest cities I’ve visited since moving to Denmark, there was much to see and do.
But the real reason why I spent about one day in Hamburg was because I had spent several of the preceding weeks scanning budget airline and travel sites to find a cheap way to Croatia. I have always had a fascination with the Balkans, beginning in high school with learning about the conflicts in the 1990s — although unfortunately by “learned about,” I really mean “heard of for the first time,” because world history wasn’t exactly something my school system put much priority on. Taking a special ‘Advanced Placement’ class in European history I was able to learn much and more, though most of what I garnered on the former Yugoslavian countries was from independent projects.
In any case, when I first lived in Europe in 2012, many of the people I studied and lived with raved about the beauty of Croatia, particularly the coast, and especially the city of Dubrovnik. After lamenting the massive price jumps flying from Denmark for most of May (read: Danes have a lot of national holidays in the spring), I branched out my search to include airports in Sweden, Norway, north Germany, and even Finland. Who doesn’t want an excuse to hop three countries in one trip?
It came easily down to flying Hamburg to Split, once the dates were finagled between the end of our final module, Analytical Journalism, and the start of the coaching week and exam-writing period. Unfortunately what was supposed to be a bit of a trip en masse with Mundusians, funds, the Aarhus Color Run, and good ol’ procrastination prevented most from joining. A friend and fellow journalist also destined for the Conflict confines of next year’s Swansea specialism joined, and we spent the next week trading insults and trying not to leave the other on the side of a rural half-road trekking through a mountainous Croatian island.
But that comes later.
Stepping off the plane onto the Split Airport’s tarmac brought back something I had not realized I’d been missing from home: humidity. Sweet, suffocating humidity. The air in Aarhus has been indescribably dry, turning my face, hands and even legs into something of a dragon lady if I forget to moisturize after a hot shower.
The air, the feeling of warm sunshine, a wind that was refreshing and not freezing, all added up to four days and nights of exactly what I needed to make it through the rest of this semester and just feel a little human again.
After perusing the local open-air market and procuring all the necessities for a full day of food – warm flaky bread, sliced cured ham, cherry tomatoes, fresh sheep-goat cheese still smelling of vinegar – we set off from our hostel nestled in the upper hills of the city’s west, and began the trek around the peninsula.
Using the foolproof system of “the feel” to navigate the unmarked paths through the park, we ended up circumventing the entire peninsula instead of cutting across as we originally intended. Naturally, this made for a slightly more exciting afternoon. For a while we found ourselves like a pair of goats, limbering along the faces of the cliffs in a haphazard decent to the rocky beaches below.
By the time we reached sea level and set up for lunch, I could tell my feet were going to be trouble. Blisters and callouses are nothing new or exciting, but a history of four surgeries on my left foot tends to keep me wary of re-injury, and necessitates the occasional use of a walking cane. The experience of a blood blister was new, however; thankfully the thing decided not to lance itself until halfway through the day in Hamburg, lasting over a dozen kilometers (several miles for you US-American or British types).
On our second day in Croatia, my fellow North American and I were joined by a group of Irish girls who were traveling around Europe after having completed their Bachelor’s degrees. We grabbed a ferry to the nearby island of Šolta after one of our friends, a Serbian girl in our course, advised against visiting what she called the yuppie-Instagram-y island of Hvar. Looking over a Google map of the place, it seemed like an easy retreat for a day of drinking on the beach, and perhaps visiting the historic village of Grohote.
While it was easily one of the best days of the trip, it was a far cry from the “easy retreat” we had initially intended. The 1.2 kilometer (3/4 mile) walk from the port of Rogač to the village of Grohote ended up being a very steep hike uphill; one of the girls had to break momentarily to use her inhaler. We found another map of the island outside a small convenience store on the far side of Grohote, and decided to walk to a town called Nečujam. It seemed reasonably close enough, and we planned to just beach it once we got there.
Unfortunately for us, it ended up being an additional 6.2 kilometers, or almost 4 miles, before we arrived in Nečujam.
Thankfully everyone in the group maintained high spirits despite the long, hot walk through the mountains (one girl was even hoofing it in flip flops). We stopped for lunch at the end of a steep drive of houses, on docks across the way from some local fishermen.
Even though my friend and I had spent much of the previous day on the rocky shores of the Marjan Peninsula, enjoying the cold Adriatic waters and cracking morbid jokes about a large, decrepit boat in the adjacent bay — a queer man had even come out of the brush while we were mountain goating-it across the rocks, gesticulating for us to ‘go back’ — it was here, on the sun-heated concrete of a Šolta dock, that I felt like I was truly somewhere special. Not just a pretty place to vacation, but a real, genuine locale where people make their lives.
That has been the thing. While traveling. You visit, parachute in as a tourist or freelancer, meet a few people and maybe add them on social media, eat the quintessential local cuisine, even learn a few words or two in the local language. But you don’t necessarily actually experience a city or a country for what it actually is. My trip to Split ran wholly counter to this, in almost every way.
The hostel we stayed at, the Grand Hostel Lero, was situated between the city centre and Marjan Hill. The atmosphere was everything you could want from a hostel: clean beds, funky premises, friendly staff, full of fellow travelers. Yet one thing most other hostels lack that this one makes up for in truckloads is the opportunity to engage with locals and their culture, their histories. The owner of the hostel, Lero, was wonderful. On our last overnight in Split, Lero showed us how to gut and prepare a fish we’d bought at the market in town, set up the brick oven outside, and cooked it for us.
While we were waiting for the fish to be done, Lero regaled us with tales of his childhood growing up in Split, how the hostel was actually his family home, and how he’d dabbled in some local Croatian politics before the sudden death of his father — a turning point, he said, in his life.
As we talked with Lero in the back garden of his childhood home, for the first time in years of traveling I felt relaxed. At home. Not worrying about flight delays or changing trains, not making lists and checking them thrice to find the best free tours or museums or hiking trails. We were just living, in Split, and it was wonderful.