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November 10, 2012 – The Full Story (Parts 1 &2)

By now you’ve probably heard about our misadventures in getting deported from Europe. If you haven’t, here’s the basic story:

Due to a misinterpretation of immigration laws (and to them being changed in the past several years), Holly and I had the misfortune of not being allowed back into the European Union after a weekend in Croatia, which we had taken because we thought we needed to, to get new stamps on our passports and essentially “reset” our visas. Unfortunately, our interpretation of the law was not correct, and after being stopped at the border crossing back into the EU, we were pulled off the train, put in a police car and driven back to Croatia to be left in the middle of the highway with nowhere to go and no way of getting there.

But believe it or not, getting pulled off a train and put in a police car and dropped off at a border was not everything that happened to us that day. That was just the bureaucratic icing on the cake. We haven’t even really told everyone about our full November 10th – just the climax that resulted in our 3 month, unintentional trip back to the US. But a story with all climax and no lead-up isn’t a good story. So here’s the lead-up.

Part 1: Hidden Gem

All travel is an adventure, and we like to travel purposefully with adventure in mind. But that philosophy is a gamble, and sometimes it turns out like November 9th, 2012 – a day spent in beautiful luxury, in a rarely-explored part of the world, in a hidden gem that we can call our own. That day, the gamble paid off.

But sometimes the gamble results in a day like November 10th.

Rovinj

Rovinj, Croatia, our hidden gem

We spent November 9th in our hidden gem, Rovinj, Croatia, a city so beautiful that it should be popular but so remote that it isn’t. Situated on the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia, the Italo-Croat village is another Venice, without the crowds but with all the atmosphere. The 18 hours we spent here were fantastical, romantic and bold, and we went to sleep November 9th with satisfaction and the exhilaration of new discoveries in our lungs.

November 10th, we woke up still in our own dreamland but in a rush. We had to leave town quickly to catch a bus, then a train, to take us to the neighboring country of Slovenia and then back home, to Austria. We walked through the Rovinj streets in the still, fresh morning, hating to say goodbye so soon to our discovery. But we were ready for more adventure.

Just not this kind.

Part 2: 45 Minutes

Kvarner gulf bus ride

Bus ride along the Kvarner Gulf

The bus ride back across the Istrian Peninsula was uneventful but filled with scenery and the unique culture you experience only from taking local Croatian bus lines filled only with local Croatians going about their Croatian business. The beauty of it is in the ordinariness, the chance to see a country as a group of lives instead of a conglomeration of tourist attractions. And the landscape, as we cut across the peninsula and reached the Kvarner Gulf before winding north, turned from dry, sparsely vegetated hills into lush coastal cliffs overlooking the gulf islands hazily in the distance. The drive up the coast to Opatija took about 2 hours, and I was antsy for most of it.

Because I had created a problem for us. You see, this was the Mediterranean in the off-season, meaning train and bus connections were sparse, especially for non-touristy areas like we had just visited. So when planning this jaunt, my options were limited. I needed a train back to Slovenia from Croatia, but most of the connections I found had us coming on the bus to the town too late for whatever train was heading north, including in Rijeka, the main city on the Kvarner Gulf and where we had left from the day before for the coast. I finally found one option: Opatija, just around the curve of the Gulf from Rijeka, a small resort town famous for being the holiday destination of choice by the Hapsburgs for centuries. Our bus was scheduled to arrive in Opatija at 11:45, and our train to Slovenia was leaving at 12:30 – 45 minutes, plenty of time for a transfer.

ticket

The train ticket with the lifeline words on them. I still have this.

Except for one hiccup. The train station was not near the bus station in this cramped town, set on rising levels above levels arching up above the ocean. I knew this from research, and knew I would probably have to get a taxi to rush us between stations, a trip that should only take about 10 minutes. But still, I was nervous as our bus wound ever closer to Opatija. I pulled out one of my old train tickets and, using my Croatian guidebook, had Holly (because her handwriting is so much better than mine) write the Croatian words for train station on the back, and the name of the station itself. I hoped it would come in handy.

The bus pulled into the station, and we bounded off, grabbed our bags, and immediately started looking for a taxi. Unfortunately, as we had already discovered far too many times, this was the off-season. No taxis in sight. Except one – sitting empty across from a sleepy cafe near the sea. We rushed over, thinking the driver was probably getting coffee inside, but could see no one. After waiting around helplessly for about 5 minutes, I decided to trigger Plan B: local bus.

I found a local bus office and asked with a hideous German/English/Croatian mashup where the train station was and if there was a bus going there soon. The grumpy office worker nodded yes, pointed back down to the parking lot where we had been dropped off, where some local buses were sitting idly, and said one was heading that way in 10 minutes. It was 11:55.

We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how long the bus would take, and how close it would get us to the station. So we had a predicament: wait for this mysterious bus, or try to track down the missing taxi driver. It was a tough call, but I left Holly to wait for the bus and went off in search of the driver in the hopes that this path would be faster overall.

opatija

The harbor of Opatija, taken (quickly) from near the cafe while looking for a taxi

I had just gotten down the street to the sleepy cafe when I looked back and saw the bus pulling in and Holly waving at me frantically. What should we do? Risk that this bus might not go fast enough or get us to where we needed to go? Or risk never finding the taxi driver and being stuck? Each path was potentially disastrous. But at the least the bus was going – somewhere – so I rushed back over to Holly and boarded the bus.

I showed the bus driver my train ticket with “train station” written in Croatian on it, and tried to ask if the bus was going that way. He gave a brief nod, I bought bus tickets, and we started off – up and up, away from the ocean, on winding roads rising ever higher above the resort town and into the hills and cliffs jutting against the sea. I could see from my iPhone’s map that we were heading the right way, so we relaxed a little bit as the town turned more commercial instead of touristy. We passed some shops, a grocery store, some strips of bakeries and ice cream parlors…riding for about 15 minutes before the bus driver suddenly looked in the mirror, gestured at us, pointed out the window and said, “train station”.

One problem: there was no train station. It was a busy commercial area with stores, shoppers and commuters bustling all at once, and the driver was pointing at a large supermarket – definitely not a train station. I was confused, so I showed him my ticket again with the name of the train station scribbled on it. He nodded and pointed again at the supermarket…and gestured above it to the hills continuing to rise above us. I suddenly understood. The train station was on the cliff above the supermarket, this was as high as the bus was going, and we were going to have to find a way up this cliff before our train came. It was 12:10.

We barreled out of the bus and walked as fast as we could with our hiking backpacks on towards what looked like could have been a path behind the supermarket. When we got there, all we could see were dumpsters and the cliff wall, so we turned back toward the street, this time with my only means of communication clutched in my hand – my Croatian-inscribed train ticket – determined to ask the first person I saw how to get to this stupid train station. The first woman I asked gestured vaguely up the street, so we headed that way – and saw a path up the hillside winding between some houses. Huzzah! We began sprinting uphill, determined to make it up there in 10 minutes.

But the path was blocked off. Of course.

Due to some pipe work, the only way up was completely blockaded by a large gate. I couldn’t believe it. It was 12:20 and our only way up was closed. Still determined, I yelled at the construction guys working about 20 feet uphill. Two of the more curious ones came down, and in my Germ-eng-tian and with my faithful train ticket I got across that we needed to get to the train station, well, Schnell. The nice Croatian workers immediately lifted and moved the gate for us, and again, we were off – slogging uphill, carrying our backpacks, avoiding pipe ditches by scrambling up dirt hillsides while the construction team cheered us on.

opatija train station

Us finally reaching the train station, at right

I didn’t know how far uphill the train station was, so we booked it, past houses and trees and more ditches and more houses until suddenly – we were there. The backside of a tiny two-track train station, facing the main building with all of Opatija and the ocean to our backs. It was 12:26. We had done it, with 4 minutes to spare. We tiredly crossed the tracks, exhilarated at what we had just done. This was it – this was travel in its purest form (and the closest I’d ever be to getting on The Amazing Race). We felt on top of the world as we plopped down on the benches by the tracks to stare at the scenery and wait triumphantly the remaining three minutes for our train.

But that train never came.

Holly train

Holly enjoying a snack while waiting for a train that wouldn’t come.

Read Part 3 here.

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