Thursday, 26 January 2017

Interrail 1975 Part Three - Croatia & Italy

The previous instalment of this narrative about my 1975 trip round Europe trip, by rail, saw me and my travelling companion Nick, reunited on the platform, at Stuttgart railway station. We then continued our journey south, into warmer climes and fresh vistas. 

Our rail journey from Stuttgart, took us through Munich and Salzburg and then up across the Alps. Unfortunately dusk was approaching as our train climbed up into the mountains and so we missed some of the most of the spectacular scenery of the whole trip. I remember us having to change trains at a junction, high up in the mountains above the small town of Bad Gastein, and spending time chatting to a local Austrian family whilst waiting for our train to arrive.

Ljubljana, now the capital of an independent Slovenia, but then part of Yugoslavia, was our next stop, followed by a halt in the Croatian capital Zagreb. We then took a train heading south towards the Dalmatian Coast, passing through the mountains which form a barrier between the inland plains and the sea. The mountains consisted largely of bare limestone, with the occasional scrub and small trees, and the journey seemed to take an age. It was also very hot in the train, especially when it kept stopping to allow a train travelling in the opposite direction to pass.

Diocletian's Palace 1975 - Split, Croatia
Our destination was the Croatian city of Split; "not a hippy phrase for departing", as Nick kept pointing out! This was to be our base for the next few days, and was also our first chance to try out the tent. 

During the initial planning of our trip, our aim had been to visit Dubrovnik; that pearl of the Adriatic which was then only just being re-discovered by western tourists, but with no trains running to the city, and with no idea of local bus services, we opted for Split instead. Split, with its setting on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, was a delight on the eyes, and we soon discovered there was a campsite on the edge of the old town, on a semi-wooded hilltop, over-looking the sea. With our tent pitched for the first time on the trip, this was now the perfect opportunity for a spot of serious relaxing.

There was a regular bus service into town, but even better was a coastal path along the rocky shoreline, which ran from just below the campsite. The waters were crystal clear and perfect for snorkelling. Nick had brought some snorkelling equipment with him, which he allowed me to share on occasion.

The main tourist attraction in Split was the ruined palace of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. This was right in the heart of the old town, and I remember it also housed a farmer’s market, where we could buy to fresh produce. From memory, there was also a café-cum-bar nearby, which sold a very acceptable drop of locally-brewed beer. I have no idea of the name of the beer, and can’t remember whether it was bottled or draught (probably the former). Nick and I just knew it as "Pivo"; the only  Serbo-Croat word we managed to learn!

We spent a couple of days in Split, but then, purely on a whim, we decided to take a ferry across to the island of Hvar; one of several large islands which lie off this stretch of coast. After landing at Hvar Town, we then took a rather hair-raising bus journey across the island, to the port of Stari Grad. We again found a camp site, although I’m pretty certain we only stayed one night.

Stari Grad claims to be one of the oldest towns in Croatia, and has its own attractive, natural harbour. I remember us walking along the shaded road, on the opposite side to the quay, and finding some rocks to sunbathe on, and also to launch ourselves into the crystal clear water for a spot of snorkelling. During the evening, we visited a café, overlooking the harbour, where some kind of special occasion was being celebrated. So far as we could make out, it was the Marshall Tito’s birthday; although we weren’t 100% certain of this. Again, the local Pivo was good and incredibly cheap; so it was a good evening.

Arriving back on the mainland, we spent one last night in Split, but as it was just for a single night, we didn’t bother pitching the tent. This was the first, and still the only time I have ever slept out under the stars, and I have to say it was a strange experience. It seems crazy that without the “protection” afforded by just a few millimetres of canvas, I felt somewhat vulnerable and exposed, but once I got use to it, the cool night air, with the scent of the pine trees and the clicking of the cicadas, was enough to lull me into a deep and restful sleep.

After “chilling out” in Yugoslavia, it was time to get back on the rails and undertake some serious train travelling. Our journey took us in a roughly easterly direction towards Italy, crossing the border close to Trieste; a city which had several rulers during the 20th Century, including Austria-Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia and finally Italy again.

Out itinerary didn’t allow for a stopover, as we continued our journey into northern Italy and around the coast to Venice. We had a day earmarked for sight-seeing there, and our anticipation grew as the train rumbled across the lagoon via the causeway which links the city with the mainland. As we alighted from the train we soon realised the high temperatures were not conducive to traipsing the city streets, but we did our best. The photo of me below, taken in St Mark’s Square, gives some idea of just how hot it was, but we trudged on passed the Doge’s Palace and then across the Rialto Bridge, slowly making our way back towards the station.

Yours truly, in that hat again!- Piazza Marco, Venice
Venice in a day is not to be recommended but, however briefly, I’m glad we experienced the city when we did, as I gather it is now seriously overrun with tourists. Our overall impression was that the city was slowly crumbling away, and sinking into its many canals; but I suspect Venice has given that impression for decades, if not centuries. We boarded an early evening train, heading across Italy to Milan, relaxing in the splendour of our ornate, wood-panelled compartment. It must have been around midnight that we changed trains in Milan, taking one which was heading into France and along the French Riviera to Marseille.

We awoke to a view of the Mediterranean out of the left-hand window, but soon realised this was the direction the sun was coming from. I’m not sure what time we arrived in the bustling port of Marseille, but I’m pretty certain our time was limited. For this reason, Nick left me guarding the luggage, whilst he rushed off in search of provisions and more bottled water.

I stood on the steps of the station, fascinated by the comings and goings in this most cosmopolitan of all French cities. When my companion returned, we boarded another train, again heading west; this time in the direction of the French-Spanish border. 

So Croatia apart, there was not much opportunity for beer on this leg of our trip. Spain proved a little different as I will recall in the fourth and final instalment of my travelogue.

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