Falling asleep on a train is like no other sleeping experience. More so than any other form of transport, it matches the bumpy rhythms once felt in the womb and can reward those that give in to their body’s demand for rest a reminder of peace and expectation of a new journey ahead. Or, in a particularly jarring journey, you can wake feeling on edge. From the latter slumber I woke up in my sleeper car to the sounds of gunshots. I quickly sat up and looked outside the window as the first rays of sunlight emerged from the horizon just outside of Split, Croatia. Our route took us past a group of soldiers firing into the air while another plays instruments that couldn’t penetrate the metal sidings of the passenger car. Shortly thereafter, the train conductor came by to check tickets. I asked if he knew the reason for the military processional. He informed me that it was in honor of those that had died in the Balkans War, which ended exactly ten years ago that day. Despite the gravity of the event that ended a decade ago, nothing visible betrayed dolorous sentiments around the station upon our arrival. Based sole on appearances the people present there seemed to already have forgotten past travails and look forward to celebrating that joyful time of the year that brings them a bountiful harvest of fish, fruit, grains and tourist dollars.
Shortly after arriving, I made accommodations for the night an older women that held up a placard saying “Sobe” through a mix of German, English and hand gestures. She took me to her house, gave me a tour of the space I’d be allowed to use and provides me keys and a towel. I took a quick shower, changed and immediately headed to the area around Diocletian’s palace. Once there I slowly ambled my way around marble streets to peruse the various wares that had been set up in a similar fashion around the Cathedral of St. Dominus for hundreds of years. Lined up in stalls that gave the feeling of an outdoor mall there was a mix of counterfeit designer goods and tourist kitsch from China, local crafts, artifacts from historical events and a wide variety of delicious foods. Not looking to weigh down my pack and hungry, I purchased some famed Dalmatian ham and continued to aimlessly wander around as a flâneur throughout Diocletian’s Palace. When I finally made my way up to the Cathedral, I was rewarded by being able to behold a beautiful assortment of religious paintings, sculptures and icons fit for placement in any “proper” museum. In addition to the typical religious arts, there was a large collection of religious relics including the severed fingers, hands, feet and even the heads of saints. While this might seem grotesque, their presentation made it hard not to reflect upon the human condition in a manner wholly different from the church decoration of the Kostnice Ozzuary or the practical use-value evident in the form of the Parisian Catacombs.
Here the decomposed remains of the body was to be seen as proof of divinity. Rather than serving as a reminder to our never-ending proximity to death, the intent of the presentation of these particular bones was to give hope for something sublime and divine now as well as in the hereafter. Thinking upon this caused me to spend more time that usual in such a small gallery and helped me ignore and forgive the bustle of tourists that would inevitable bump into me considering the tight confines. After leaving, I walked to the bell tower adjacent to the church. For a nominal and well-worth it entrance fee I climbed the narrow stairs which terminates with an impressive view of the newer city, the white brick tops of the building nearby, the verdigris domes of several more diminutive churches in the nearby vicinity as well as the azure and golden flecked Mediterranean. From here it appeared as if the color palette of the city was chosen to match the sea. The light blue and whites of the water matched almost all of the roofs and facades of the old city buildings. The wide-open windows of the observation tower that could easily allow the most obese to fall out and the strong wind at that height hinted at danger, but provoked more fear from imagination than actual circumstances.
After I returned to the ground floor, I made my way up Marjan Hill. This is a location able to be appreciated by all due to its beauty. By me it was particularly so due to my interest in history. Specifically, this area was known to be an anti-fascist stronghold from where various attacks against the Nazi’s were planned and staged. Additionally, former Yugoslav president Joseph Tito once used the area as a summer residence. I took in the beauty of the Sustipan cliff and the Marjipan Forrest Park next to it while resting a park bench that overlooked them both and from which the Old City of Split was also visible. After an hour of absorbing the view and writing in my travel journal I left. I took my dinner at a cheap and delicious restaurant just outside of the walls of the old city suggested to me by a barista that had sold me some of the best-tasting börek I’d ever had. After eating inky black squid risotto there, a local specialty, I make my way back down to the area I’d been earlier that day.
The battered but beautiful white marble streets that had earlier reflected the sun in an almost frivolous manner at night took on a whole new set of characteristics. Now the walkway threw off shadows in a variety of directions based upon the shape a particular piece of stone has taken from hundreds of years of people and goods on wheels going across it. While walking I heard coming from the speakers of a bar the music of The Cure.
I entered to discover that they served the locally distilled slivovitz of quality that can’t be found in bottles anywhere else. I soon found myself in a spirited conversation with a group of locals that were planning to take a ferry the next day to Vis. There was a fish and music festival being held there, and would I like to join them? Of course I would! After exchanging our contact information, discussing some places that we wanted to go in the immediate future, sharing some more drinks and many more laughs we left. Rather than take the most immediate way back to a beach-front spot they wanted to share with me, we decided to perambulate the waters edge. We passed through a circular stone building is hundreds of years old: the Temple of Jupiter. From inside the streetlights, which had obscured the night outside, ceased to reign. Our discussion stopped its jovial tenor. As we looked up at the stars and the full moon, we spend several minutes pontificating aloud about sundry deep topics. We dissected mankind and our role within this vast universe of location and meaning, then put everything back in it’s place to continue on our travels. Realizing how far by foot the next place was and wanting to get sleep, I peeled myself from the group and made my way to the sobe.
I slept well, ate a sufficient breakfast, dropped some instant coffee into the hot water my host brought me then said farewell. I encountered the group I’d met and we took a ferry to Vis, where a steady stream of natives had been making there way since the six in the morning. The joyousness of the upcoming festival on the island seemingly infected the ship. People were already drinking from bottles in bags and a single person starting to sing soon had everyone there joined in. I’ve travelled extensively all over the world and have yet to witness anything like it. At least two hundred smiling faces singing together without planning! Amazing! On the ride over I befriended a group of fellow travellers from Ireland, Hungary, Canada.
Upon arrival we took a bus to the other side of the island. As soon as the doors opened I could smell the roasting anchovies being given out for free in dark brown fish paper rolled up into cones as if they were for Belgian fried potatoes. It’s not just in this carvinalesque atmosphere that camaraderie between a group of strangers can be formed, but certainly us being all in a place new to us helped. Much like the European pilgrimages of old described by Chaucer, we shared stories in praise of life late into the night in the square are between the small shops and docks. Later, however, we followed a group of people trekking a few kilometers away to a beach party. I was worried about leaving my backpack unguarded on the beach, but it’s so many others did as well that my worries were diminished. The DJ’s played deep and hard house as we danced atop the rocky beach. Towards the end of the night I got into a discussion with a burly locals who expressed some upset at the fact that I would soon be going to Serbia, the wounds I’d thought healed over did, in fact still exist and told me that as it’d be impossible now to find accommodation that it’d be best to sleep on the beach. This is precisely what we did. After a few hours of rest I woke to a beautiful view that the dark had kept from me. Hiking back into town for food and transportation, I then made my with the international coterie of travellers I’d befriended back to Split and from there took a bus to Dubrovnik.