Sunday, January 8, 2017
Kings of Convenience – my life’s musical staple ever since I was introduced to them in 2011 – accompanied me through the Eurasian Steppe as I blazed once more between Hungary and Croatia, following the same route I took a little more than eight months ago. In winter, vast fields once home to sunflowers are now adorned with pure white sheaths of snow, above which thick smog also flows.
We’ve chosen Zagreb as a sojourn, just four weeks long, before our long-anticipating return to the tiny island nation of Taiwan. Croatia’s capital boasts what has been called one of Europe’s most enjoyable Christmas markets, but it’s the country’s national park, Plitvice, that lingers in the back of one’s mind.
Having seen the best of what the 16 lakes has to offer earlier this year in spring, we expect a very different view this time around – and a very different challenge. Temperatures will drop to below freezing and we’ll be expected, one imagines, to traverse the winding glacial park on foot, through snow, and in the face of chilly winds.
I didn’t think we’d be back in Croatia so soon, but I’m happy to say there are things in Zagreb I’ve missed over the last few months, namely a certain winemaker called Bolfan and our favourite “healthy” burger joint: Submarine BBQ. It’s a joy and a privilege to be able to find something you truly enjoy in every city; it makes the prospect of leaving your go-to restaurant or butcher shop that much more tolerable, knowing that you’ll likely find another. That said, it doesn’t make leaving any easier.
As endless fields of barren, withered grass pass us by, I think of Budapest, where we were just three hours ago. The city is like a drug: once you get a little taste, you never want to leave; when you eventually have to go, you always want to return.
An unorthodox layover from Bucharest allowed us a 12-hour foray into the capital of Hungary, and we knew exactly what we wanted to do during the limited window of time. The two bottles of Royal Tokaji Aszu resting at the bottom of our suitcases are a testament to that, and the untouched lasagna in my bag from 2Spaghi another indication of how one’s desires don’t always match one’s physical capabilities – where can I rent a stomach for a few hours?
The fireworks in Zagreb started a week before New Year’s Eve, and they entered into a crescendo on the last day of 2016, sometimes exploding so loud outside my window that I jumped in my seat. Utrina – just north of Dugave, the equally small neighbourhood we lived in last April – is a quiet suburban block, and locals have no doubt been waiting all year for a chance to disturb their annoying neighbours.
My impression of Zagreb in the spring was that it didn’t particularly stand out. That was in part due to my having recently left Budapest – possibly the best city in Central Europe – and also because the old town itself was actually very modest.
This time around, however, things have changed; with winter – and the anticipation of Christmas – Zagreb takes on a whole other form. Perhaps most noticeable are the wooden huts lining the parks leading to the central square: Tgr bana Jelačića.
The little stalls of full of ginger bread, mould wine, Christmas bread, and other things typical of the festive period. While also not missing out on any flashing lights, Zagreb’s Christmas market sparkles because of its unique ice-skating rink, which is not only big, but also – how do I put this? – not just a rink.
At its base there is a rectangle, but in each corner are openings that lead skaters into thin and long winding paths – it’s really quite incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it; it resembles more of a racetrack than a skating facility, and it has my nod for most intriguing ice-skating venue I’ve never visited.
Despite thinking I may never return to Zagreb because of how one-dimensional the city seemed, I’m happy to stand corrected this winter, when things are – for the most part – delightfully quiet and peaceful.
For us, a happy return to Croatia requires a revisiting of a certain special place: the best burgers in town at Submarine BBQ, the best selection of wine at Bornstein Vinoteka, and arguably one of the most spectacular parks in Plitvice – the kingdom of 16 lakes.
Having now past Christmas and New Year, snow is finally beginning to fall in little Zagreb. The grass outside our window is withered and a brownish yellow, but in a few short minutes it – and the cars parked nearby – turns white, until colour is restored by the noon thaw.
It still feels odd continuing this journal entry in 2017 knowing that I started penning it “last year” – a term that sounds far too exaggerated around the turn of the year.
The last time I wrote, I was sitting in an air-conditioned flat in Athens, temperatures in their high 30s (Celsius, of course) and the skies void of clouds. The stark contrast of Europe’s seasons is a noticeable one, especially given how unbearably cold it sometimes is here in Zagreb: skies grey, trees bare, grass dead, locals hiding indoors.
The second half of 2016 comprised stays in Greece and Romania, both of which are now a blur, just as Budapest is. What stands out are the small number of special places that we were lucky enough to stumble upon. In Athens a butcher shop called… The Butcher Shop, and a fabulous Peloponnesian winemaker in Semeli; in Bucharest a wineshop called Marvin, the massive Christmas market, as well as an Airbnb flat near Gara de Nord – the North Railway Station.
Naturally, the Acropolis was also one of the most spectacular sites I’d ever seen. The level of detail in the Parthenon and its surrounding structures is simply stunning, considering how long ago they were made. Unsurprisingly, the Greek government is doing everything in its power to maintain and restore the 1,500-year-old building, so there are scaffoldings, there are metal poles and wires, and there are excavators, but that should not take away from the magnificence of the Athenian high city.
In my opinion, both Athens and Romania share a common problem for the ordinary expat: They are far too big, especially given how painfully slow the public transport can be. Greek buses arrived once every 20 – sometimes 40 – minutes, leaving you waiting in the sweltering heat, and Romanian buses… Well, take the metro instead.
To fully enjoy both cities for extended periods of time, it’s probably best to have a car so you can reach some of those faraway gems on the outskirts of the cities. That said, with traffic so horrendous in both capitals, I’m not certain that’s the best option either.
As a tourist visiting for a few days, you’d hardly encounter any of these issues, since most monuments are easily reached. There are also open-top sightseeing buses that do the job. But if you’re hoping to see and explore something a little more unique, the task often becomes thankless and plain tiring.
In contrast, the city of Thessaloniki, north-east of Athens, is one we thoroughly enjoyed, because it was compact, beautiful, and everything we wanted was within reach. A certain little restaurant named Olive Lemon stands out, as does the local version of fish and chips. If we’re ever to return to Greece one day, I’m certain that would be the destination. As for Romania, perhaps a stay somewhere along the Black Sea. In fact, if we return to Croatia again, I think it’s high time we lived somewhere else as well, like Dubrovnik or Zadar. Yes.
I’m grateful, however, for having been able to see all these cities – even if only to cross them off our list.
Between it all, at the end of November, was also an unexpectedly wonderful trip to France to visit my godmother, who had lived most her life in Japan and now resides in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. Having been exposed to so many French brands in Tokyo, she had always been curious to see the shops that lined Champs-Élysées and try some French cuisine. And it was by luck and destiny – her daughter, a former classmate of mine, is now a flight attendant – that she saw one of her dreams fulfilled.
I’ve only the highest respect for her, like I do for my own mother, for the experiences she went through and the hardships she endured, and for coming out of it all a better and happier individual, embracing life’s many small joys and accepting of its frustrations.
In a chilly Paris, sometimes sunny and sometimes not, we saw all the sights and even boarded a train for a day trip to the Palace of Versailles, where the grandiose nature of Louis XIV’s lifestyle is still visible more than three centuries later . Most importantly, however, was that I got to spend some quality time with two people who I view as significant as I do my own family.
In two weeks we’ll be on the plane(s) home to Taiwan, where we’ll arrive a week before Chinese New Year to – hopefully – somewhat chilly weather. My last visit was 10 months ago in February 2016, and before that also 10 months ago in May 2015.
I may not see Taiwan as the ideal place to live, because the climate disagrees with my body, but I don’t hide my fondness for the city, where almost anything and everything is easily obtained. There is such a stellar collection of global cuisines in Taiwan that I often wonder why it’s necessary to travel thousands of kilometres and pay several times more for a plate of good pasta. Just like how there is perhaps little difference between good and great wine, maybe it’s the price and the experience that adds to the value.
Travel plans have already been made for the entirely of 2017. That’s an incredible thought, because it seems to leave no wriggle room, no space for change. But thankfully that’s not the case. Plans change all the time, and since we’re the ones who make our own plans, where we go is where we want.
I was to visit Poland for two months in February and March, but that is not happening anymore and I’m now very eager to see Taipei and especially Banqiao soon.
After Taiwan, a stay in Chiangmai, in northern Thailand, is on the cards, and then it’s either straight back to Europe or a few more weeks in East Asia.
The most exciting item on the 2017 itinerary, though, is an up-and-coming visit to Cape Town in my native South Africa. I’m becoming emotional just thinking about it, because it will have been more than 10 years since I last set foot in the Rainbow Nation. Things may be so different – or maybe not at all.
First things first, however. In the next 13 or so days before we fly back to Asia, there are a few things to check off the list: A trip to Plitvice, a journey to Bornstein Vinoteka, and maybe another burger or three from Submarine BBQ.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a very joyous Orthodox Christmas to all. JSF.