On our last night in Dubrovnik the weather changed. We slept to the sound of thunder rolling across the sky while rain pattered on the skylight. The following morning was looking grim as the rain continued to fall. There was nothing but dark clouds on the horizon. Our local rental car representative showed up and “took us for a ride” to pick up our mode of transport for the next week. This turned into a tour of Dubrovnik as he crawled through streets clogged with traffic, eventually arriving at an isolated hotel on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Our car was a sickly shade of white, with an even sicker sounding engine when we finally managed to get it to start. The big orange oil indicator on the dashboard wasn’t a good sign either. As we were to learn, life is hard for a car in Croatia. Most of them sound like they’re on their last legs (and they probably are). Enforce the equivalent of an NCT in this country and it’s debatable if there’d be any traffic left on the roads.
We were starting our road trip by taking the coastal road all the way up to Split – a town that grew itself around a Diocletian Palace. This sounded quite impressive, and the route up there is described as a scenic one. Some guides mention the presence of “hair-raising bends”, but as it turned out, the road itself is pretty good and the view is beautiful, you just have to be wary of the insane Croatian drivers The trip is probably worth doing just to witness the death-defying feats performed by these drivers. There are speed limits in Croatia – there may even be the odd policeman tasked with enforcing them, however the natives obviously believe in speed limits like they do the tooth fairy. Travelling at 10kph above the average 70kph speed limit will see you getting overtaken by other traffic that appears to be going at the speed of light. They’ll optimistically attempt to overtake anything upto 10 cars in one go before an incoming truck on the far side of the road creams them. It’s a little embarrassing when you can see a coach approaching in the rear mirror and accurately predict that they’ll be overtaking you in a few seconds. Even though you’re way above the speed limit yourself. These drivers are impatient to the point of having a death wish. Ironically their antics actually slow you down as you constantly brake to ensure they complete their risky maneuvers in one piece. It takes a lot of effort to learn to ignore the regular backdraft as something unexpectedly hurtles past you.
Happily we were at least leaving the worst of the weather behind us. A small consolation as we encountered other difficulties with the journey. One of the unfortunate side effects of travelling around Croatia during the off-season is the difficulty finding somewhere open and serving whatever food you’re looking for. The driving is a lot more tedious without some breaks. While there are some places open along the coast, they don’t do themselves any favours by indicating that they’re actually open for business. No one wants to stop the car several times and go peering into a dark window until they eventually find somewhere that really is open, although it looks deserted. As we grew wearier of being on the road, we were eventually desperate enough to stop off at a hotel/restaurant/market on the way into one of many unremarkable villages despite the unappealing exterior. What we found was a large smoky room with unsmiling inhabitants. After a very quick cup of tea and coffee, it took some time for the waiter to eventually accept our currency. As we left the village we passed through the second police checkpoint we’d seen in the space of only a couple of miles. The penny started to drop and a check of the vague roadmap we hadn’t been using confirmed the suspicion. We had just inadvertently stopped off for tea in Bosnia. This country had most definitely not been on our itinerary. But then none of the guides had bothered to mention the fact that you can’t drive from Dubrovnik to Split without passing through a narrow strip of Bosnia that dissects Croatia. You’d think that might have been worth a small mention.
Somehow we arrived in Split without mishap. Sure enough, the view along the coastal road was worth seeing, just a bit more stress-inducing than anticipated. Split itself was a lot bigger than expected which led to a lot of heartache when it came to getting through the traffic and actually parking. Parking space is a rare commodity in the cities. We had grown used to seeing cars abandoned at all angles on the sides of roads as we travelled up to Split Once in Split, they were practically parked on top of each other. Mounted on pavements, wedged in against the walls. The reason behind the scraped and bumped look of all the vehicles was becoming clear. We eventually gave up on parking near our accommodation and left the car in a car park while we sorted things out. Our ‘landlady’ zoomed up to the apartment on a scooter and informed us that there was loads of parking all around the apartments. We doubtfully looked at the street with cars squeezed in bumper to bumper, but returned to pick up the car from the bus station and began our PARKING THE CAR attempt.
Croatians are very optimistic about how much space a car is likely to need to get past where they’ve abandoned their vehicles. We found ourselves edging up an incredibly narrow street that sloped at an angle that was severely challenging the car. With the engine wailing in anguish and someone else already nosing their bumper into our exhaust pipe, Brodie eventually closed his eyes and hoped for the best as we scraped through gaps in a cloud of black smoke the engine was now producing. The smell of burnt something was rapidly filling the car and the engine had progressed from sounding extremely ill, to death rattles. A brave dash to the top of the hill ensued as it grew ever more likely that we would find ourselves sailing backwards if the engine cut out fully. Looking thoroughly on edge, Brodie finally navigated into a parking spot at the top and killed the engine as quickly as possible. There was no need to mention the fact that we would not be moving the car from that spot until we were ready to leave the city. We would leave the Croatians to play their national sport of extreme parking by themselves.