Balkans 2003

A winter weekend in Croatia and Slovenia

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Trieste

Friday, February 7th 2003

A week ago I'd missed out on a trip to Sardinia, when a couple of inches of snow had caused transport chaos and my flight had been so badly delayed that it just wasn't worth going. So I was happy this week that the snow had long since melted, and when I bunked off the Friday afternoon at work it was not in vain. I was heading for the Balkans, and my route was via Trieste, because Ryanair was having another sale and the flights were very cheap. The last time I had been to Italy was five years earlier, when I went to Sicily.

My flight got to Trieste just after sunset, and as we descended over the Alps the snow was blazing red in the evening light. By the time I got to the centre of the city it was dark. Trieste seemed incredibly different to Sicily. It was part of Austria-Hungary for centuries, only becoming Italian in 1921. Then it was an independent state from 1947 to 1954. It definitely felt un-Italian to me. A wind was blowing in off the Adriatic but it was much warmer here than it had been in London.

I headed to the station at 11pm, and bought a ticket to Zagreb. The train pulled out of the station at 11.40pm, and I was on my way into Eastern Europe.

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Zagreb

Saturday, February 8th 2003

It was a tiring journey. We crossed two borders, spending a few hours in Slovenia, and I looked out at Ljubljana to see it covered with snow. Then before daybreak we entered Croatia, and at 5.04am we pulled into Zagreb.

It was cold and pitch black, so I found a corner of the station near a heater and slept for a couple of hours. Then at 7am I headed out into the city to explore. I walked through the quiet streets to the centre. There was snow on the ground, and a temperature display at Trg Jelačića said it was -3°C. Slowly the city began to get busier. By 9am there were people around and the shops were opening. I took refuge from the cold in a cafe near Jelačića, where I got a burek and a coffee for breakfast.

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Upper town

Saturday, February 8th 2003

I walked up to the upper town and found the Lotrščak Tower on a hill overlooking the city. It was closed but even from the bottom there were good views over the city. The skyline was a mix of grand old Central European and grim boxy Soviet.

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Train to Ljubljana

Saturday, February 8th 2003

In the afternoon I got a train to Ljubljana. I shared a compartment with a Croat called Srečko, who was a journalist on his way to do an interview in Ljubljana. He said his German was better than his English, but my German wasn't up to a conversation so we spoke in English. About half an hour out of Zagreb we arrived at the Slovenian border, and Srečko said that even now, eleven years after independence, he was still surprised by how close the border was to the capital.

For most of the journey to Ljubljana we were travelling down the valley of the Sava River. Out in the countryside there was thick snow, and the green river was hemmed in by steep forested mountains. It all looked pretty stunning, especially when new snow began to fall. Srečko said he often travelled this way, but never got bored of the scenery.

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Ljubljana

Saturday, February 8th 2003

We got to Ljubljana at four. Srečko pointed me in the right direction to walk into town, and then headed off for the radio studios.

The streets were virtually empty and the city felt like a ghost town. Someone told me that everyone heads for the ski slopes each weekend in winter, leaving the city in the hands of the old, the infirm, and the travellers who don't carry skis. I walked randomly, eventually finding my way to the foot of Castle Hill just as night was falling.

An icy path spiralled up the hill, and I walked slowly up. I stopped half way to look out over the snowy roofs, and could see the dark silhouette of distant mountains on the skyline.

By the time I got to the top it was dark. I headed into the castle, and bought a ticket to visit the clock tower. A short climb up a narrow staircase led me out onto the roof, and I was the only person up there. I stayed for a while, feeling like I had the view, the castle and the city all to myself.

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Back to Trieste

Sunday, February 9th 2003

In the morning I headed back to Trieste. I got a train to Opcina, and as we sped through the Slovenian countryside, the grey skies were gradually breaking up. As we descended there was less and less snow on the ground, and the air was getting warmer and warmer. At the Italian border it was a bright sunny day.

I got a bus from Opcina to Trieste, and then bought a ticket for the airport bus. I waited at the station for a long time, before someone came to tell us the bus had been cancelled. There were five other people waiting for the bus, and after we'd been refunded for our tickets, we headed for the station to get a train to Monfalcone. We were all on cheap Ryanair weekends, and we still had plenty of time before our flight. But at the station, confusion set in. We needed to get the train at 12.15pm, and by the time we'd all got our tickets it was 12.14pm. We rushed onto the platform, and there was a train there which half the group jumped on. But this train was on the platform next to where ours should have been, and I reckoned it was going to Udine. If it was the Udine train, it would not be stopping at Monfalcone and we'd miss our flight.

I told everyone what I thought, but no-one seemed convinced. I was sure enough to jump back off the train, though, and now that I had infected everyone with my paranoia, the group suddenly decided to follow. But disaster struck - the train doors closed before half the group could get off. A couple were divided - a girl got off the train but her boyfriend didn't, and she was carrying all their money.

Luckily, the train driver noticed the panic, and opened the doors again. Our reunited group had now failed with the bus and the train, and our only option was a taxi. We got two taxis between us and made it to the airport with a few minutes to spare before check-in closed. We flew back to the London winter, relieved not to be stuck in Udine.

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