Crawling into Croatia


I awoke to a misty morning in the Slovenian countryside. It was the 1st November, and the eeriness from Halloween seemed to linger. I had a comprehensive breakfast in the simple and comforting guesthouse where I was staying. Not longer after, I set off on foot with the aim of crossing into Croatia and making it to the city of Rijeka, on the Istrian coast, by the end of the day.

Initially setting out on foot along the main road and through the non descript village of Podgrad, soon my google maps route veered off into woodland and a rocky and windy path. My mind started to wonder as to whether there were any bears in the woods. It then jumped to the thought that I would soon be crossing into Croatian territory, according to the dot on my map. I wondered if there would be a formal border. There had been nothing when crossing into Switzerland, Italy or Slovenia, so I was preparing myself to have to do a border crossing, celebratory jig based on the dot on my maps crossing the border line on google.

However all of a sudden a very clear, foreboding fence, crowned off with barbed wire, imposed itself upon me. It looked serious. I assumed it had been erected to prevent migrants heading West from Croatia into Slovenia and beyond. If it could have spoken it would have loudly bellowed, ‘You Shall Not Pass.’ In spite of its domineering nature, there was a very clearly space for a rucksack and a scrawny Stokie to squeeze under.

I took 5 minutes or so to consider my options. I could go back on myself and return to the main road and head into Croatia at the inevitable formal roadside border crossing. This would involve a good 10km extra mileage. Or I could crawl underneath. My dramatic brain wondered if a sniper might appear out of the woods and shoot me. In the final judgement, the risk of getting shot seemed worth it for the sake of saving 10kms in the legs. Maybe I just liked the idea of crawling into Croatia.

             Anyway, crawl into Croatia was what I decided to do. I dusted myself down, put my rucksack on my back and continued along the woodland path, which now had a green border fence running along to my left. Soon after I thought I saw a figure running into the woods a hundred yards or so ahead. At least that it is what I thought I saw, however I think it may have been my mind playing tricks on me.

             The mist remained, as did the eerie atmosphere. Arriving in Vele Mune, the first village I came across in Croatia, did not bring an end to this eerie feel. I didn’t see a single soul. However what was very clear was an information board stating that the village had been destroyed and used as a labour camp in 1944. I sat in the village’s bus stop eating chocolate and bread with tears in my eyes. In the distance on the edge of the village, people with flowers were arriving at the local cemetery, commemorating All Saints Day. It felt like grief was all around me and it felt that I’d been brought back down to earth with a sudden thud. My view of my journey as a joyful skip through Europe on foot suddenly felt naïve.

             Conscious that Rijeka was 30kms away, I thought I best get a move on and I felt grateful to put the ghost village of Vele Mune behind me. Shortly after continuing on foot, a white escort van with two people in it  pulled in on the road in front of me. An ordinary looking man spoke to me out of the window,

‘Do you need any help?’ he asked.

‘No, I’m ok, I’m just travelling on foot to Rijeka.’

His tone changed to a more demanding one, ‘We are police, we need to see your passport.’

Surprising myself with my assertiveness I responded, ‘I’m not showing you anything unless you show me a badge.’ There was nothing indicating they were police.

One of the men duly showed me a badge. I rummaged into my rucksack as we stood outside the back doors of the van, mindful of the fact that I was close enough to be in the back of it with a single push. Looking for the passport, I was conscious that I was twitchy and nervous, and that this was making my passport harder to find. Once I had located it, I presented it to them. They appeared happy with what I had shown and allowed me to go on my merry way. I felt an appreciation that I had been born in a country where I was perceived as less suspicious, whilst simultaneously confused and conflicted that this was the case and wondering why we had decided to revalue our passports through leaving the EU.

             I continued to make my way along the road, with woodland surrounding on both sides. I felt determined to make it to Rijeka by the end of the day. However, it suddenly started to comprehensively pee it down. It wasn’t long before I was drenched through and found myself sheltering underneath the roof of a car wash. I was still a good few miles away from the city. Next to the car wash was a café and I took shelter in there.

The staff there were understanding of the fact I stumbled in like a wet dog and subsequently mopped and towelled down the floor after me. I told them about my experience at the border and subsequently being stopped by the police.

‘You are ok because you are the right colour’ was how the woman working there responded. To me it sounded blunt and racist, however there was undoubtedly some truth to it. I had survived the experience and was now continuing to mince around on foot with the minor worry of staying dry because of the privilege that goes with being white and British.

It continued to pour down. I asked the staff if they knew of anywhere to stay near by for the night. They said they would make some inquiries. It seemed that I was in a pretty insignificant village with little to entertain oneself. I was partially relieved I was informed that a room couldn’t be found for me. Onto Rijeka I would have to go.

I bid the staff farewell and headed back outside, relieved to see that the rain had quietened to a light drizzle. It felt exhilarating to be back on the road and to know that I would have to get a bit of a move on to make it into Rijeka before dark. I broke out into a run and enjoyed running amongst the comprehensive puddles that had formed on the road. It felt like on of those occasions when running feels like a joyous fance.

             As I descended into the edge of the city and as the Istrian sea came into view, things that I associated with Croatia came into view, betting shops with signs that looked like they were from the 80s and the smell of Croatian bakeries. Overall, there was a sense that I was now in Eastern Europe but I find it difficult to explain why.

             In the city centre I headed for a youth hostel. I followed a tall woman with dark hair and the shortest shorts possible into the apartment building and walked up to the second floor to the hostel’s reception. There I started chatting to Nate. He was a busking, semi rough sleeping Canadian who was treating himself to a hostel for the night. Our calm and pleasant conversation was interrupted by a bullish, abrupt and stern looking member of staff,

‘How did you get into the hostel?’ he asked us.

There was something in his approach that reminded me of being stopped by the police.

We explained that we had followed some one else into the building and that we wanted to check in. Eventually the member of staff calmed down and we were placed into a comfortable and stylish looking dorm room. The room included Nate, short shorts and Lev, a young hyper Israeli chap, who was motorcycling around Europe and simultaneously trying to consume as many class A drugs as possible. It made sense that a dorm room in Croatia in November would most likely be filled with wonderful weirdos, myself included, that had somehow not got the memo that the holiday season was over.

Me and Nate headed out for the evening and grabbed some food and a couple of pints of Guiness in a local Irish bar. It felt good to end the day with good company. A day of wide ranging emotions; the fear from crawling under the border fence and subsequently be stopped by the police, the grief of arriving at the first village in Croatia, the joy of prancing about in the puddles and the relief of making it to the comfort of the city, a warm bed and a pint of Guinness.

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