One of the reasons I chose to start my journey in Zagreb was that Croatia is home to my long-time internet-friend Matej. Matej lives in a small town (14,000 population) called Nova Gradiška, 150km away from Zagreb, accessible by train. This is the story of meeting him and exploring his town.
Despite it’s small size, many Croatians seem to have heard of Nova Gradiška. Patrik, the host of Pozitiv Hostel, happily told me that Nova Gradiška literally means
The New City, whilst a couple of young women that I spoke to told me that it was a very small place, and a strange choice for a Foreigner to visit.
I looked for accommodation a few days before I was due to arrive, as I didn’t want to be caught out in such a small place. I couldn’t see an hostels online located in Nova Gradiška at the time of my booking (though Matej’s mother later told me that there are some), so I was forced to booked to stay at the Hotel Kralj Tomislav. This cost more than 5 times what I was paying per night in Zagreb, so it felt like a very expensive trip.
The Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor train station is very central (I went under it on my second or third day in Zagreb, and I’ve been able to see it from the window of one of the Hostels I stayed in), so I had no trouble getting there. It’s kind of a weird place. The outer facade of the building is very posh and imposing, but inside it is dark and grimy, and the tunnels that connect the platforms are covered in Graffiti. Even some of the trains are covered in Graffiti. There’s also a Christian shrine to Jesus just randomly through an archway on the platform, which is kind of odd to run into.
I arrived plenty early as I didn’t want to miss my train and because I wanted to make sure I knew where to go. I ended up needing the toilet as I had been bored and drinking water, but when entering there I was shouted at by a lady who yelled “4 Kuna 4 Kuna 4 Kuna” at me repeatedly. This was a pay toilet, but I didn’t know because either there was no signage or I couldn’t read the signage. I was surprised because I’m used to pay toilets being automatic machine things, but obviously that isn’t the case in Eastern Europe. I object to pay toilets in the same way Richard Stallman does, so I just left.
The train I boarded was very old - it actually reminded me of the trains in Half Life 2 - and as such it shook so much as it went along, and was very very loud. It was a train with cabins rather than rows of chairs, which is rare for me to come across in the UK (at least for the routes I travel), but which felt cool and reminded me a little of Harry Potter. Or at least, somewhere that might have been visited by Harry Potter’s Eastern European Cousin, Henrik Petrov.
I was riding the train fairly late, so I was able to watch the sun set, which was very pretty. I wanted to take a picture but the train was shaking too violently, so I couldn’t. The window was also too dirty and the internal lights were too bright that I don’t think a picture would have come out well anyway. Most of the rest of the journey took place at night, and I was continually peering out into the gloom.
The conductor for the train didn’t speak any English, so when his machine rejected the ticket that I was displaying on my phone, I got worried and thought there was a problem. A nearby passenger, Tomislav, told me that the conductor needed me to make the barcode bigger. Things were easily resolved, and the conductor shook my hand afterwards.
Tomislav talked to me until he got off the train. He told me that he worked for a large construction company that took contracts from the government. His role was ‘somewhere in the management structure above supervisor, but below CEO’. He’d worked there for ten years (directly from Graduating), and his paycheck was very good for a Croatian salary; he told me he felt lucky about this, but that he also keeps quiet about it among Croatians as there are so many poor people here. He doesn’t want to show off or make a big thing about it when other’s are having a tough time. I asked him if he had any aspirations to change role sometime soon, and he told me it wasn’t worth rocking the boat; he lived a comfortable life, not many people were hiring, and the only promotion he could get was to become top-tier management, which is much more work for not much more pay.
Most of the stations the train stopped at had no clear markings that I could discern, so I was concerned I might miss my stop. Tomislav told me that Nova Gradiška would be a small station a few stops after he got off. We chatted for a little while longer, but eventually he departed. To make sure I didn’t miss my stop, I kept going to the next cabins whenever the train began to slow down, and I’d ask “Is this Nova Gradiška?!”. The reply was “Nema, Nema!” (No, No!) until eventually a lady excitedly told me “Da! Da! Nova Gradiška!”.
A worker at the Nova Gradiška train station lead me across the dark, bare tracks with a flashlight held high above his head. I could smell burning wood and cooking food in the air, and could hear church bells in the distance. I left the train station, and faced with the dark street before me, I realised I had made a mistake.
My planning for this trip had been less than ideal. I had forgotten to take a screenshot of my hotel booking, and worse, I didn’t even remember the name of the hotel I had booked to ask for directions. I had also forgotten to download the map of the town to my phone. I had intended to do both of these things whilst I was still in Zagreb but they had slipped my mind. Faced with little other choice, I went around staring at my phone hoping for an open WiFi signal. I walked through some poorly-lit streets towards the center, and I soon found the city’s open WiFi just as three young men passed me by.
I looked up everything I needed to, and messaged Matej telling him I was in Gradiška. By chance, it just so happened that one of those three young men had been Matej, and that he had thought he recognised me but didn’t say anything at the time! I had been in this place for less than five minutes and we had already passed each other. Wow, it really is a small city!
The Hotel Kralj Tomislav is an okay place to stay, and they serve free breakfast every morning. The lady at reception kept trying to tell me about different things they serve for breakfast - tea, coffee, eggs, sausages - but every time I told her I didn’t eat/drink that thing, and eventually she gave up and just said it would be easier if I asked questions when I had them. They have a large selection of food for breakfast but most of it wasn’t vegan so I kept to fruit, juice, and jam sandwiches.
My room was quite shabby. A socket was hanging out of the wall, the wooden furniture all had damage of some kind, and the floor was cold stone slabs. They provided a few disposable sewing kit, which I used to repair my wallet and shoes (at least, until the needle shattered). The WiFi was terrible and the power sockets were positioned in inconvenient positions, so I shunted my bed to different positions in the room to try to make things work.
I had started to feel a little ill over the past day, so that night I just went straight to sleep in my hotel room. I felt even worse the next day so didn’t leave then either - the most expensive place I am staying so far and I waste 1/2 of my time there being ill, great! Despite my complaints about the hotel, I had to admit that after sharing 6/8-bed hostel rooms for the previous two weeks, it was a welcome change to have a little bit of privacy (especially as I felt so ill!).
Eventually I agreed to meet up with Matej when I felt a little better. Meeting an internet friend in real life for the first time is an interesting thing. Matej - for whatever reason - chooses not to put many pictures of himself online. This meant that the last time I had seen a picture of him was a summer or two before this - a long time in the life of a young man! He looked completely different to how I remembered him. He was now a stocky, tough looking guy who wouldn’t look out of place with a biker gang. Conversation was a little stilted at first - but we quickly managed to adjust and get comfortable.
Matej showed me around Gradiška, showing me (the outside of) his house, his elementary school, his high school, and places of interest like the Yugoslav War Memorial, the Croatian Military Reservists building (Which has a Yugoslav War era machine gun out front), and the main street (a handful of cafés and shops). There really isn’t a lot here, honestly! When I was in Zagreb, I had noticed that there weren’t many people with laptops in cafés. Here, they have dedicated internet cafés! - something I honestly thought had died out by now as I had only heard of it from 90s stories. Matej told me that most people here didn’t get an internet connection in their home until 2010-2012, which says a lot.
At some point, Matej pointed out big piles of wood to me, and a well or two. Most people in Nova Gradiška don’t have gas connected to their house, so they heat the house and cook by burning wood instead. Some don’t have running water, so they use wells, but I got the impression the wells may just be a legacy thing and that most houses did have water now. I also saw a lot of homes had crops growing in their gardens, or livestock milling around. During my remaining time in Gradiška, I definitely noticed all the lumber - many houses had visible stocks somewhere!
The wood burning leads to a kind of haze across the city - it’s hard to notice in pictures, but it is very noticeable in real life. The horizon is kind of a colour gradient rather than a clear line, and colours seem to “bend” a little more. This effect increases during the evening, as does the smell. I really like this aspect of the town. It almost feels kind of ‘romantic’.
Eventually it got late enough that Matej felt it was best to go home. We’d had a good time so far and I was reluctant to say goodbye but accepted I had to.
The next day, Matej wasn’t available to meet me in the morning, so I decided to explore Gradiška in the day. I decided to walk down the main street and then just keep going. The town was small enough that I had left it’s confines after just a few minutes of walking. I kept going as I wanted to take a picture from the nearby hills.
After walking for an hour in specific direction, I reached a small bridge over a stream. Even way out here in the middle of nowhere, I saw a small religious shrine. It felt really surreal to me; who is coming here to see this? Croatians are very serious about their religion.
Eventually I started heading back to try to take a good picture of the countryside. I climbed somewhere into the hills in the north.
When I went to leave, the path quickly devolved into walking through undergrowth and spiky trees. There was a big dog snarling, barking, and growling at me from the other side of a very poorly constructed fence. I actually started feeling a really unsafe.
The foliage was getting more and more dense, but I didn’t want to go back to where the dog had been as it was very possible it could find it’s way through the fence. I ended up having to push my way through some trees and crawl under a branch or two. Little spiky balls got stuck in my laces and shredded them so that they looked like a horse’s tail. When I got back to the road I was scratched and uncomfortable and had leaves and sticks in my hair and stuck to my clothes.
I got back to town at around 1:30PM and reconnected to the public WiFi to check on the status of Matej, but sadly he still wasn’t available to meet up again yet, and wouldn’t be for a few hours. This made me a little worried as I’d need to leave fairly early at around 5PM so that I could book a hostel in Zagreb, which left only a small I decided to walk up the hills to the north west of Gradiška and take a picture of the city itself.
Sadly, when I got back to town, Matej told me that I was probably better off just getting on to the train as he was busy and in the middle of something. I was worried that somehow I had upset him or made him uncomfortable, but hoped that wasn’t it. A train was leaving soon, so I sadly just made my way there. I felt a little dejected that I only got to meet Matej once, as meeting him was one of my big reasons to make Croatia my first destination.
As I was sitting in the train station ready to leave, Matej surprised me by turning up at the other end of the platform. He was accompanied by a woman, and I quickly realised that she was his mother. They invited me to their house, and we went there in her car. I don’t know what Matej had been busy with, but I was glad that they were able to make time for me.
It was neat seeing Matej’s house; it was kind of small but it was very cosy and homely. Matej lived there with his mother and his brother, both of whom were also very welcoming too. Matej had mentioned me a lot to them in the past, the same as how I have mentioned Matej to my friends and family too, so they were meeting someone they had heard a lot about. Apparently Matej had actually mentioned to his mother that I was in Croatia when I arrived in Gradiška, but she hadn’t realised that I was in their small town!
Matej’s brother Luka was fairly shy, so didn’t say much. Instead he wandered around awkwardly - something I definitely recognise - I always did the same thing when my parents or sister had friends visit. Matej’s mother was very friendly, but spoke little English, so Matej often had to translate for her. She seemed like a doting mother - she gave me juice to drink, poured us bowls of nuts and snacks, and relocated all of the above for us when we moved between rooms of the house.
I needed to use some tape to fix the broken shoelaces that I had destroyed in the hills that morning, and they were only too happy to oblige. They even gave me an extra pair of shoelaces to use for when I wore mine out too much! They also let me use their scales to weigh myself, as I hadn’t had the facilities to do so yet during my trip. Needless to say I felt very welcome and at home here.
At one point, Matej’s mother offered me some Ajvar that she had made. Apparently it is really easy and cheap to cook up in big batches. It is a pepper-based condiment that you typically serve with bread. I had already eaten enough that day so I didn’t fancy any bread, but I had a little to try on spoon, and honestly it was just so delicious. My enjoyment was obvious, and I was quickly offered me the whole jar, which I gratefully accepted. It barely lasted two days once I got back to Zagreb - I liked it that much! It was really, really tasty and reminded me of the Zacuscă that my Father had brought back from Romania during the summer.
Eventually it was time for me to leave to go back to Zagreb. Matej and his mother dropped me at the train station. His mother had a conversation with the train conductor in Croatian, and they both laughed a lot, and judging by the fact that he started talking to me in English rather than Croatian made me think that my nationality was mentioned. I had been worried that my ticket might be denied as I wasn’t going back on the train I had selected, but I had no problems.
I really enjoyed meeting Matej. I felt like it would be weird to meet somebody you only know from online interactions, but it was refreshingly simple in this world of complicated human interactions.