Popping In To Croatia


OSIJEK, CROATIA — After the thunderstorm in Novi Sad cleared, I hopped back on the Hamburglar and headed west along the north side of the Danube towards the Croatian border. The heavily agricultural southern fringe of the Vojvodina plain is flat and orderly and prosperous-looking, and, unlike the scene further north along the E75 highway towards Szeged, actually has trees. Although I left the family farm quite some time ago, I still have an eye for this sort of thing: the soil in this region is black, the air is thick with insects, and the impression you get is one of intense fertility. Lots of heat units and such, hereabouts. Driving along, you could be fooled into thinking you were in, say, Kent County, Ontario. Or anywhere else in North American corn country, for that matter. Here in Northern Serbia they even have those Dekalb and Pioneer Hi-Bred seedcorn signs stuck into the headlands at regular intervals.

My low-speed crop tour came to an end, though, when I crossed the Danube again, leaving Serbia:

So long, Serbia. It's been a slice!

…and entering Croatia:

Welcome to Eastern Slavonia

I was hoping to reach my friends’ place in Osijek by sundown, but I still had a little time for some disaster tourism. This part of Croatia was hotly contested during the Yugoslav Civil War in the early ’90s, and as I approached Vukovar evidence of the war appeared here and there. Vukovar in particular was badly battered during a brutal three-month siege, inviting comparisons to a latter-day Stalingrad, albeit on a vastly smaller scale. Much of it’s been rebuilt, cleaned up, and repainted in the 20-odd years since, but it’s interspersed with some pretty abject-looking properties:

Adventures in real estate: this one's a real fixer-upper

I was maybe being a bit disrespectful in taking pictures of the devastation, and the good city of Vukovar eked out its revenge on me in the form of a wonky sewer grate I’d accidentally parked my Vespa on. A worn-out rubber foot on one of the kickstands gave way, the kickstand slid between the grate’s bars, and the Hamburglar keeled over. And then an early-summer hailstorm hit. Argh. I wrenched the bike out of the sewer grate and trundled through the hail to Osijek, where my friends Iva and Denis and Mate were waiting.

The Croat crew in Osijek

I’d gotten to know brother & sister duo Iva and Denis Nappholz over the last few years, as well as Iva’s man-friend Mate, and was due to pay them a visit after they spent a weekend in Budapest a while back. My trusty GPS guided me straight to their place, I dropped my stuff off, and then one of their neighbours ambled up. He was pretty enthused about about my Vespa. Turns out he owned a cream-coloured Vespa back in the ’60s, and he had a picture to prove it.

Different century, same hairdo

My righteous Croatian chums then treated me to a grand tour of the region, complete with a visit to the local wetlands national park and then to a series of wine cellars northeast of there in the town of Zmajevac. As we dug into a feast of grilled meat and vegetables, it dawned on us that we’d stumbled into something that was, for lack of a better word, the exact opposite of what some less-cultured folks might call a sausage party. Or, as the Hungarians say, a kolbászfesztivál:


And then it was back to Osijek’s second downtown, a city-within-a-fortress on the Drava river called Tvarda. It’s a pretty cool place, a bit rough around the edges and very 19th-century Austro-Hungarian looking, and isolated as it is from the rest of the city by massive stone and earth walls, it’s packed with bars and cafes that stay open late. And after making a night of it, we drunkenly hit the hay and I braced myself for today’s drive up to Budapest.

(By the way, thanks, Mate, for the thoughtful gift of hemorrhoid cream. I hope the long days in the saddle won’t force me to actually use it.)


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