• The Rail Holiday Maker

Split Personalities – Zagreb to Split

Updated: Jul 5

The previous 24 hours had been testing to say the least, travelling overnight in a train vestibule from Venice to Ljubljana, viewing hotel after hotel in beautiful Bled and lovely Ljubljana, then hopping on another train to Zagreb for barely a night in what still remains my favourite hotel bar none, Zagreb’s Hotel Esplanade. The next 24 hours would be thought-provoking beyond any other train journey I have ever made, with two very contrasting Croatian cities connected by a scenic line scarred physically and emotionally by relatively recent history.

A sunny Zagreb morning saw my Slovenian guide Milan drag me around another few hotels, all nondescript in comparison to the exquisite Esplanade in which we had stayed. It was a waste of a morning, to be fair, because I was already determined that the Esplanade was the one for our groups. Built for the Orient Express during the period when its route traversed Croatia, how could we stay anywhere else? Pleasant parks run down the middle of central Zagreb’s wide main thoroughfares in grand central European fashion, harking back to the city’s Habsburg past. Speaking of fashion, on walking past a tie shop Milan explained to me that ‘cravat’ was actually a word derived from ‘Croat’. Apparently Croatian women had adorned their warrior males with a keepsake neckerchief before they rode off to war (probably against the Serbs). That’s where it comes from. I’ve since googled it and it is true. I genuinely hadn’t known that.

Back at Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor station I bade farewell to my Slovenian friend, Milan, who is indeed still a friend and a person I would recommend to anyone reading this, even competitors! I boarded the afternoon direct train to Split, a journey cutting due south from central Europe to the Mediterranean coast that would take all afternoon.  The trains are modern, commuter-style and German-built, reminiscent of Transpennine Express trains back in the UK, reasonably comfortable and air-conditioned, which was a godsend in the oppressive heat of this July day. It’s a long journey, the train doesn’t ever reach a speed you might expect from a long-distance ride between a country’s two main conurbations, but it’s certainly a scenic one, trundling through backwaters of rural Croatia not too distant from the Bosnian border.

This is the former Yugoslavia though, scene of unimaginable acts of cruelty in a war not long ago, and along the route are buildings left to ruin, ominous signs of the region’s tragic recent past. It seems crass to offer a potted history of the Balkan countries. But there may be people reading this who weren’t around in the early 1990s or aren’t generally aware of the history of the region, so I will try to do it with respect and impartiality.

I hate the term ‘ethnic cleansing’. It was used in the media non-stop during and after the Balkan conflicts, mainly aimed at Serb nationalists who, after the fall of the Soviet Bloc and the breakdown of Yugoslavia, sought to reclaim territories either bound within their own historical ideal of nationhood or in which there existed ethnic Serb communities. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ is a term used to describe the dispersal of a neighbouring people from their homes, or, worse still, the bloodshed of torture and even genocide inflicted on that people by their neighbour. In order to gain support for and to validate their actions, fascists need to dehumanise their victims. By using terms like ‘ethnic cleansing’ we are contributing to this cycle of dehumanisation. Expulsion, torture, rape, murder, genocide are better words, however unpalatable, for the acts perpetrated on neighbours between 1991 and 1995.

In our safe western European homes we saw night after night the unspeakable scenes from a war taking place on our own continent, yet distant and unfathomable. Weren’t the Serbs and Croats neighbours? Didn’t they speak a very similar language? What was it about? Well, it’s potted history time for which I apologise in advance. The Croats are predominantly Catholic and have generally looked towards central Europe; the Serbs are predominantly Orthodox and look towards Mother Russia. During the First World War the Croats fought alongside the Austro-Hungarian troops in the Axis, whereas the Serbs joined the Allied forces. After all, the war was sparked by a Serb nationalist assassinating Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. During World War Two in annexed Croatia the country was split between the Nazi and Fascist regimes and a horrible Nazi puppet government called Ustaše ruled, victimising the usual Nazi victims, plus Serbs. In Serbia the nationalist Chetnik movement grew strong, offering resistance, but also collaborating with the Nazis when it suited them. The Chetnik of Serb folklore was a warrior fighting for a Greater Serbia, and Croats and Bosnians were their own victims of choice. In the aftermath of the war Marshall Tito, an ethnic Croat, managed to keep the peace within a Soviet Bloc Yugoslavia where the past was brushed under the carpet. When Yugoslavia disintegrated all hell broke loose. And what a hell.

The Serb war crimes are well-documented. Srebrenice, Vukovar, many more. Mass killings to a scale beyond all comprehension. But the train line between Zagreb and Split crosses through a region of ‘ethnic cleansing’ less well known in the West. The region is called ‘Krajina’ by the Serbs, literally ‘border area’. There were many ethnic Serb communities there and in 1990 the region was seized by ethnic Serb separatists, dispersing their Croat neighbours from their homes and with the bloodshed and murder of Croat civilians. The Croat forces responded with ‘Operation Storm’, a blitzkrieg which drove Serbs from this land and which resulted in the massacre of Serb civilians in and around Karlovac, Gospić and Knin, all of which sit on this otherwise unassuming, scenic rural railway line. ‘Operation Storm’ resulted in up to 200,000 Serb civilians leaving Croatia.

Early evening Split station in the Mediterranean heat of July. After a thought-provoking journey the British travel professional lugged his case off the train, trussed up in shirt (though no cravat), trousers and linen jacket, the latter being the only nod to the temperatures in which we would be working. My guide for Split, Ivica, stood grinning in shorts and tee-shirt, sweat patches under his armpits.

“What the hell are you wearing, man?! Are you crazy?! It’s July!”

He had a point. I was the archetypal stuffy Englishman, totally not dressed for the local climate. I may as well have been wearing a bowler hat and three piece suit.

I learned a lot from Ivica over the next 36 whirlwind hours in Split. We had so much in common. We were a similar age and we both loved football. Ivica was a big fan of local heroes, Hajduk Split, a club with an interesting history and to be a supporter of Hajduk would have been at certain points in time a massive two fingers to whichever regime was ruling.

Hajduk was formed by a group of students from Split in exile in the famous U Fleků brewery tavern in Prague. By the way, it’s a pub I would highly recommend if you are ever in Prague and want that authentic Czech tavern experience, with hearty (if a bit stodgy) food and the best dark Czech beer to wash it down.

Anyway, I digress. Back in the 1940s the Axis powers annexed Croatia and Split was to be governed by the Italian fascist Mussolini. Hajduk Split was offered a place in the Italian Serie A football league on the proviso that they would change their name to AC Spalato (the Italian name for Split). Hajduk refused. The Italian dictator responded by forming his own club in Split and moving into Hajduk’s stadium, even naming the stadium after his sons. The people of Split had lost their home, their independence and even their football club.

Unable to meet in Split itself due to the war, Hajduk players came together on the island of Vis, together with Tito, leader of the Partisan resistance, and British officers including the son of Winston Churchill. That night it was announced that Hajduk Split would reform and become the team of the Yugoslav resistance against fascism.

It is also said that after the war Tito offered his favoured club the opportunity to move to the new Yugoslav capital, Belgrade in Serbia, to become the team of the people’s army. As you might expect from the story so far of Hajduk Split, they stuck to their guns, remained in Split, and the army club Partizan Belgrade was formed instead.

Hajduk became very successful in the 1970s, winning four Yugoslav league titles and five cups, also reaching the latter stages of the European competitions. Recent years have been turbulent though, with a rapid decline in sporting standards, plus a string of financial problems that have threatened to ruin the club.

The Hajduk fans are an interesting bunch too to say the least. In the 1950s, inspired by Brazilian fans creating a carnival atmosphere at the 1950 World Cup, the fan group Torcida was formed to replicate South American style fandom on the Dalmatian coast. Since then, though, Croatian football has been plagued by problems such as hooliganism, violence and the rise of the far-right, the kind of things hopefully nobody wants to see. Hajduk fans and Torcida are far from immune from these social problems. Looking around Split back then, around 2009, I saw quite a few tee-shirts bearing the name “Hajduk Jugend”, a miserable reflection on how it seemed acceptable in Croatia to use inflammatory Nazi language and imagery.

Back to Ivica, as well as football we had music in common too. He was a big fan of the British post-punk scene and the seminal Manchester band Joy Division in particular. In most Soviet-era Eastern Bloc countries western music had been difficult to access, but Ivica told me that Tito’s regime had been much more relaxed than those of Yugoslavia’s neighbours.

But that’s where the similarities in our lives ended. It became clear that Ivica and I had experienced very different lives through our early 20s. Whilst I had been living the life of Reilly at Leeds University, state-subsidised by a student grant, attending lectures when I could be bothered and cutting gangly nocturnal shapes on dancefloors in dark basement clubs in my safe western European home, Ivica had been fighting a bitter war that clearly still left deep scars, particularly when he described the Serb shelling of Dubrovik, the Croatian jewel of the Dalmatian coast.

What a city is Split though! Imagine a busy Dalmatian port, nearby beaches and resorts, a big city sprawled behind heading inland, but facing the sea the incredible Diocletian Palace. Covering a huge part of Split’s Old Town, it’s a Roman city fortress really, built in the 4th century for the Emperor Diocletian. When Split became part of the Venetian sphere of influence the Venetians built their own city within the stunning ancient Roman walls. I was gobsmacked by this place. I had expected to be blown away by the next ancient city on my itinerary, Dubrovnik, but Split’s Old Town was every bit as beautiful and actually more interesting.

The hotel visits were a tad more relaxed. I may have even loosened my tie. Mediterranean-style, we took a mid-day break, heading up into the hills overlooking Split to a grill restaurant, once again hammering home the huge cultural differences of Croatia. The food of the south is the food of the Mediterranean, with grilled fish and meat dominating menus, plus Croatian wine as accompaniment. Zagreb had been much more central European, harking back to an Austro-Hungarian past. Like France or Italy in many ways, Croatia has a deep-rooted north-south divide of a serious stoic or industrious north and carefree Mediterranean south.

The hotel that sticks out most in my memory was the last one we visited. Brand new, only just opened, the air conditioning was a huge respite on a blistering hot July day. It had in total 99 rooms, plus two suites.

“That makes 101 Dalmatians!” said the hotelier.

Next stop Dubrovnik.


I'm Rob Carroll, tour operator and travel writer. I love making holiday dreams, particularly those involving trains. Imagine a "kind of Portillo in Primark pants" scouring the world, looking for your next holiday.                       Contact: railholidaymaker@gmail.com

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