Croatia Part One
(Oli) Friday April 6th: our first day in Croatia and the night we stayed in the house of Alen Zensenovic. We arrived in Croatia with the expectation we would be able to camp more but finding campsites still closed, and with a spectacular neon pink sunset highlighting the fact that we would soon be in the kind of total darkness you only experience in rural places, we gratefully took the opportunity to do a bit of late-in-the-day research at a roadside cafe that was still open & had wifi. Shortly we were Googling variations on 'is wild camping legal in Croatia?' & trying to work out how we felt about it. Finding a discreet place to pitch a tent in a new country is always easier to do whilst there's still some light. Being able to take in your surroundings while there's still some natural light always makes you feel more reassured in your choice. It's very easy to end up feeling spooked when creeping through forests with head torches. The back wheel of your bike cracking an unseen twig, or a pine cone tumbling innocently through the branches of a tree, can quickly be attributed to an exaggerated mental image of an angry wild boar mother or wild man of the Balkan woodlands. Especially when the two of us turn in unison to whisper loudly 'WHAT WAS THAT!?'
Our camping experiences have generally been lovely & always been safe but that doesn't mean we haven't managed to wind each other up at times - after all we both have overactive imaginations and anxiety is contagious. After listening to the Desert Island Discs episodes of both Bear Grylls and David Mitchell I remember joking that I sometimes feel like a curious blend of the two; an anxiety riddled adventurer.
What we’d learned by then was that different means of navigation, which for us usually meant a variety of offline mapping apps and websites, work better in different countries. And, having arrived in a new country, it usually takes a day or two before you work out the particular ones that are going to serve you best. That first night in Croatia, Ruth found a website that linked us to suggested camping spots. One map-pin that appeared to be within range was in the gardens of the house of a man called Alen. We emailed hopefully but without any expectation, given the short notice. To our surprise Alen rang back immediately. He wasn't home that weekend but insisted we let ourselves into his house & stay inside.
'Just find the village of Semić and ask anyone you see. Knock if need be, they'll all know my house. It's always open’.
What followed was a steep uphill journey to the village of Semić. And after that, a farcical game of picture based orienteering in the dark to find Alen’s house. Via WhatsApp and text Alen was amazing, sending the clearest pictures he could find and most accurate descriptions he could muster, to aid us against the dark. The house appeared to be cobbled together; a grand design of upcycled debris. And it looked like it had a pirate ship sticking out the front of it. And it was local! Or so we thought. In reality the pin was not quite so local as the website suggested but with Alen on the end of the line we had an aim. And having an aim in the darkness feels far better than being aimless in the dark.
This was an incredible example of hospitality as well; a man we’d never met, who we’d emailed out of the blue moments earlier and with whom we didn’t share a language, was messaging us directions to his house from afar. It was a crazy couple of hours in the end though, to locate the house. Semić is a tiny little village perched up on a hillside. Lanes that lead to isolated houses look like dead ends in the dark. And every so often a dog would lurch from its sleep and bark alarmingly at us. I hate seeing animals on chains but in the darkness of an unknown place, when an explosion of frenzied barking and growling suddenly commences nearby, I confess I was relieved each time the unholy din was followed by the clinking rattle and jerk of a chain at full stretch. If it was a long chain we would sometimes freeze for a couple of nervewracking moments before its full length was reached and the shadow of a charging dog was abrubtly halted. During which time, stock still in the darkness of whatever deserted cul de sac we’d ventured into, we’d hold our breath.
From the small road leading up into Semić you have three options; a lane curling off to the right which soon forks into two more heading up the hill, a kind of straight-on lane going up a hill, and a lane leading off to the left; also going up a hill. In the moonlight we could make out the vague shapes of little clusters of buildings at the top of each of them. The one to the right had a church or clock tower uplit by a street lamp. By now I guess Alen was busy enjoying his Friday night on the coast; more offline than on, and fair enough. He’d already gone above and beyond. We figured we shouldn’t bother him again until we’d found his house, at which point we could send a message of thanks before bed.
We were far from home and dry though. The directions were comprehensive and yet confusing; there was definitely a degree of clarity lost in translation. Was the clock tower a landmark we could see across the valley from his house or the building next door? It was referred to but gut instinct suggested it was not something to aim for with total conviction.
Short of any other logic we decided to pick the flattest option first.
At the end of the lane we discovered a tumble down farmyard; a graveyard of machinery and ripped tarpaulins amongst derelict looking outbuildings. An outburst of echoey barking was amplified through an open doorway, unseen dogs evidently within. We paused and waited but nothing emerged. This dead end was probably quaint and beautiful by day, but in the middle of the night it looked more like the set for a Croatian remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And besides, there was no sign that this was Alen’s house. There was no ‘you’ll know it when you see it’ vibe here.
We wheeled around clumsily on the bumpy ground and rolled back down the hill.
We investigated the second option, working anti-clockwise round the lanes from the original crossroads. Halfway up an incredibly steep section a car came towards us. Headlights on full beam so we couldn’t make out who was inside. A window wound down and voice yelled something in Croatian. I had scrawled down a rough translation for ‘We’re looking for the house of Alen Zensenovic!’ Having been told Croatian was a phonetic language I gave it my best shot. Upon a second attempt a grunt from the car and a dismissive gesture through the open window seemed to infer the driver was acknowledging we were in the right area but perhaps he wasn’t a fan of Alen’s. He drove on without further guidance. Oh well. We were still out and about but it had stopped raining and dismissive is always preferable to aggressive.
By now we had been searching for over an hour.
We heard voices and saw a light down the final lane. It sounded like a family. Families are usually friendly and in Croatia children learn English in school so we hedged our bets, skipped the third lane, and headed for them.
An old man was sat on the veranda of a house, smoking and talking to a young girl and boy. ‘We’re looking for the house of Alen Zensenovic.’ Ruth stated with a smile. After some consultation with her family the girl took a torch from her younger brother and replied in perfect English; ‘I’ll show you’.
We looked at her grandfather, who stubbed out his cigarette and shrugged back at us before lighting another from a different packet, evidently there was consent enough for her to head off into the dark with two total strangers. We smiled at them and followed the girl.
Back to the beginning of our first choice path; the one leading to the Semić Chainsaw Massacre farmyard.
Her name was Lena and she told us there was ‘a path that doesn’t look like a path’ behind the farmyard through a field. There was no road. After a second field we’d see a gate made of branches and a 'house made of old bits of different old stuff'. That sounded more like it. She told us to keep an eye out for jackals and boars, then smiled at the concerned expressions that must have formed on our faces and told us not to worry; we’d have no problem. With a wave she turned around and we continued down lane number one.
The lane became so rough we had to dismount. Soon it became a path which in turn became a field. There was no way we’d have found this without asking and I’m glad it was only eleven at night; not a great time to be arriving into a sleepy village on a hillside but nor is it a totally inhuman hour of the night.
My phone lit up. A message from Alan arrived; ‘Are you ok?’.
Typing quickly; ‘Yes, thanks Alen. Almost there. We took a wrong turn but we can see your gate now’.
A reply came through immediately: ‘Great. There might be a man sleeping in my house. I don’t know.’
Oh. . . this was a whole new reason to be apprehensive. Alen had previously told us that there was no electricity in the house. The door would be unlocked as it always is. He’d asked if we had a torch and told us there were candles on the side just in case. Our instructions were simply to go in and find our way to the room at the right of the house. We were about to creep down a dark lane and let ourselves into a stranger’s house. This much I was comfortable with. But the addition of ‘there might be a man there’ definitely increased anxiety levels. By this point we were a bit hysterical though and burst out laughing.
Ruth held the bikes and I went on a recce down the lane. We’d learned the exhausting way not to take the heavy bikes down any awkward-looking slopes until we were sure they were the right awkward-looking slopes.
After walking for thirty seconds or so a fairy tale construction became visible in the beam of my head torch. Casting the light around I knew we were in the right place. Rising up from the top of a slope it looked like a child’s dream house; the bow of some kind of outsider art pirate ship complete with mast, wooden wheel and cargo netting projected from a wall made of sheets of irregular shaped glass. Tree trunks rose up through the roof at the back of the house, and I could make out a hammock strung between them surrounded by plants. Peering through the windows I could see a huge old wood-burning range oven and a sunken bath, surrounded by more plants and pieces of mirror and old glass bottle, tiled into the wall around it. The inside was curving and organic. I caught glimpses of my fragmented reflection, wide eyed, staring and distorted. Clearly there had been no geometry or set squares used here; it was pure playfulness and recycling. If Gaudi had been one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys this might well have been the result.
I couldn’t see any evidence of a man inside so returned to Ruth; ‘It’s amazing; we’ve definitely arrived.’
We let ourselves in.
‘There he is.’ Ruth whispered. And sure enough we could make out the shape of a man asleep on a sofa at the back of the first room.
How do you wake somebody you’ve never met before who doesn’t speak your language and is really not expecting visitors in the middle of the night?
I guess you just wake them.
Having just been in Italy we must have had ‘ciao’ on the brain. We went with ‘ciao’. First quietly and then getting a bit louder.
The man remained asleep. ‘Ciao’ we repeated.
‘Er, ciao, CIAO?!’
After a few ciaos the word ceased to have any meaning for us, the distance between us and the sleeping man gradually decreasing and the volume and frequency of our ciaos increasing.
Suddenly the man rolled over, opened his eyes, and sat bolt upright, shouting something in the gloom.
We jumped backwards and babbled at him; talking over each other and shining both head torches directly in his eyes: ‘Alen Zensenovic, ciao. Alen’s guests, Alen said we could stay, ciao, hope that’s ok. This is Alen’s house right. We’re friends of Alen’s!’
Poor startled guy. Didn’t even have trousers on. He lit a candle and rubbed his eyes. Then he got up and started to walk towards us whilst saying something quite loudly in Croatian. I think he was gesturing for us not to worry but it was dark and this recently disturbed figure, whose face we still couldn’t really see, waving his arms around and lit only by torch and candlelight, was more than a bit scary.
After a minute or so of confusion in the candle lit room, during which time we backed slowly toward the doorway as he staggered sleepily towards us, the man with no trousers put some trousers on and dialled a number on his phone. He handed it to Ruth who said calmly and confidently ‘Hi Alen, we’re in your house now. This is the man you said might be asleep.’
A female voice replied back in Italian. Something we hadn't expected and didn’t understand.
Evidently this wasn’t Alen and perhaps our chant of ‘ciao’ had been something of a curveball. Poor startled Mr No-Trousers thought we were Italian. And fair enough.
Next followed one of my favourite moments of the trip when Ruth calmly and confidently replied:
‘We are amigos de Alen; amigos de Alen!’
It was all a bit Basil Fawlty.
When you’re English and floundering for languages it’s funny what comes out. Apparently a little pigeon Spanish in this instance. By this point the scene was so ridiculous that we were trying not to giggle.
Then my phone lit up. It was Alen calling. We turned speaker phone on and held the two mobiles together. The brightest lights in the darkness; two little smartphones having a chat in broken Italian to help a useless English couple out.
Alen sounded amused but kept it brief. It was fine; ‘don’t worry, sleep well’.
The unknown man lit us a candle. I think he was in his mid forties and was a stocky shape. Now wearing a checkered shirt and jeans he showed us to a nice room at the end of the house, handing us his candle before returning into the darkness at the other end of the house.
We were stood in a lovely room. The walls curved and kind of flowed up out of the floor, a large home made bed appeared to be floating in front of a line of plants on a window seat. There were no curtains and by now the moon had reappeared from behind a cloud. Once again everything looked more fairytale than horror story.
The next morning we woke up to find the house deserted and half wondered if we hadn’t dreamt the whole debacle. We had a quick breakfast, emailed Alen a picture of us in front of his house and a message of thanks. And set off back down the hill.
Our first night in Croatia had lead to a broadly anonymous act of kindness, trust, and hospitality. Not to mention one of the most hysterical and interesting encounters of the trip so far. To say we were excited about what lay ahead is an understatement.