The main train station at Zagreb operates under the rather grand sounding name of Zagreb Glavni Kolodvor, which is what I would've been happy to call it had I not discovered, to my disappointment, that this is simply the Croatian for Zagreb Main Station, something which is considerably easier to say when you're looking for it and everybody around you speaks English.
Arriving outside the main entrance, I found myself in King Tomoslav Square - a place which I had inexplicably not discovered until that very moment and which provided a wonderful end to my time here in Zagreb. As it turned out, I couldn't have asked for a more perfect place to hang out while I waited for my train. Dominated by a statue of the first Croatian king - King Bobby (I jest, of course - it was King Tomoslav) - the square is lined with huts selling souvenirs, confectionary and newspapers, and seems to be something of a hub for the tram network due to the amount of time I spent ducking between the tracks trying to avoid being flattened. To one end of the square, people of all ages lounge around on chairs drinking and eating and talking to their friends, while my attention was quickly drawn to the adjoining park where the dominant central fountain was in the process of delighting audiences with an impromptu performance of water dancing to rival the Bellagio. Well okay, perhaps not. I bought a doughnut - or at least, something vaguely resembling a doughnut but which inexplicably cost more than my taxi fare to the station - from a nearby street vendor and sat around on a bench in the sun watching people go by and enjoying the novelty of people actually smiling at each other until there was a very real danger of missing my train. I really didn't want to move on from Zagreb.
The woman in the ticket office at Zagreb station handed me my ticket, which I inexplicably had to pick up by taking a number and waiting to be called to a window, assuring me as she did so that my train to Bled would be leaving from platform 1. Zagreb station is, you see, one of those beautiful old stations which rattles when trains pull up, and to anyone not familiar with its layout appears to be nothing but a maze of corridors, cafes, cloakrooms and platforms - none of them positioned according to any sort of intelligible system. For this reason, I didn't feel at all comfortable with finding the correct train on my own, and felt sure that asking somebody who actually worked there to point me in the right direction might be a good idea. I often make mistakes like this.
Arriving back in the concourse, which was basically a gigantic echoing hallway bordered by stalls selling identical mysterious breakfast products and fighting each other over the same customers, I looked up at the departure board a few minutes before my train was due and was slightly disturbed to see that my connection was accompanied by the word "Peron" followed by the number 3. Just to reassure myself that I wasn't about to unexpectedly board a train to Turkey, I returned to the ticket office and was told again in no uncertain terms that my train to Bled always went from platform 1 and that I was clearly a silly little man. She didn't actually say that, you understand, but I could see it in her eyes. Out of curiosity, I asked her what "Peron" meant and she told me, as I had expected, that it meant "platform" - so I dragged her outside by her lapels and pointed an accusatory finger at the departure board, asking in a slightly patronising voice whether "Peron 3" did, in fact, therefore mean what I thought it did. At this point, her smile faltered for a moment and she pulled a walkie-talkie from her capacious pockets, speaking to a mysterious distant controller using language I couldn't understand but in a voice which clearly said "Dave, it's happening again."
"Sorry, there's been a little, how do you say it in England?.. c*** up." she told me, in an obvious attempt to placate the foreign idiot who was about to get on a train to Istanbul. She then went on to explain that my train was, in fact, now leaving from Platform 3 Track 5, which would have been slightly more reassuring if, as she vanished back into her little booth to confuse another tourist, I wasn't now left wondering how the hell track 5 had suddenly entered the equation...
Also, while I'm taking time out of my busy schedule to have a little moan about the complexity of life on the road, here's another thing that's been yanking my chain. Why can't anyone here make up their mind what currency they use? If you're going to use the Euro, then just go ahead and use the Euro everywhere - otherwise, stick to the Kuna and have done with it. Don't automatically quote me prices in Euros after I've gone to all the effort of changing up my money into the currency of the realm, and then convert everything into Kuna when I come to pay so I go away feeling as though I've been ripped off. We don't do that in Britain, do we? We don't look at your face when you come into our shops and decide on the spur of the moment what currency you're likely to have in your pocket - and if we did, wouldn't that be just a little bit rude of us? After all, what we'd basically be doing would be assuming that you're too thick to have found out what currency you're going to be needing before you left for the airport. Mind you, if there is some sort of currency conversion trickery going on behind the scenes, they've clearly got their sums around the wrong way - the lady at the Four Points reception yesterday estimated that my taxi fare to the station would be about 10 Euros, but the driver actually charged me 21 Kuna - less than two quid. Now that's what you call a bargain.
If you search the Interweb for Lake Bled travel options, you'll find yourself inundated with advice to go via Ljubljana simply because everyone assumes you're going to want to arrive in Bled within walking distance of your hotel - but to me, this sort of defeats the objective of going on an adventure, and spending great chunks of my day wandering around major train stations in capital cities trying to find my connection has never been high on my list of fun ways to pass the time. There are two stations serving Lake Bled - Bled Lesce, which is a few miles out of town but also has good bus connections and is on the main line to Zagreb, and Bled Jezero which is right on the edge of the lake but requires a change of trains in Ljubljana. I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, I probably could've left earlier and spent a day in the capital, but as I've said before, I'm not a big fan of cities so I chose instead to cut out the middle man and take the direct train to Bled Lesce. One thing I hadn't figured on, however, was that because it's a Sunday there's only an irregular bus service running to the lake from outside the station. According to a schedule tacked to the bus stop, I could expect two buses to come along within 5 minutes of each other, followed by nothing for 2 hours and so on throughout the day, which was almost enough of a cliche to make me laugh out loud - or perhaps roll on the floor laughing.
Coming out of Bled Lesce station is probably less exciting than arriving at Bled Jezero on the shores of the lake, and I must admit to not being particularly enthralled by the concrete square directly opposite which looked to all intents and purposes like any inner city estate - to be honest, the fact that the "universal" ATM directly outside the station spat out my debit card and insisted on making me borrow money from my credit card instead didn't exactly please me, either, but I've found that to be a general trend in Slovenia. On the corner, looking rather out of place, was a a delightful little bar cafe which was either called Ojro or the Wifi Cafe depending on how you chose to read the closely sited signs outside. I apologise to the one if I've just unintentionally driven all the tourists to the other - if you're not the same establishment, you need to make your signage clearer, and if you are in fact one and the same, then congratulations on your excellent signage. You might want to have a quiet word with Google, too, as it really doesn't want me to search for "Ojro bar bled", choosing instead to tell me that I've misspelt "Euro" and helpfully redirecting me to something I wasn't looking for.
When I walked through the door of the whatever-it's-called bar/cafe, I was immediately approached by a young lady whose smile split her face so completely in half that she looked like a Canadian in South Park. I couldn't have asked for a warmer welcome to Slovenia - she sat me outside under a parasol with a coffee and piece of cake, went through all the things I should do in Bled, and even lent me the phone so that I could call my host down by the lake and ask if he could pick me up. Then her friends turned up, so she went and sat with them, smiling across at me occasionally in that way people do when they're talking about you behind your back but you're just far enough out of earshot to worry about what they're saying.
For the next couple of days I'm staying at Pension Bled - a budget hotel situated approximately a mile from the lake itself - and unless you particularly enjoy falling out of bed into the water each morning, there really is no reason why this sort of distance should provide a problem for the able-bodied traveller. Staying by the lake will noticeably eat into your spending money sooner than you can order a cappuccino, and, frankly, anyone who feels genuinely put out at having to start each day with a 15 minute walk along streets of houses lifted directly from "The Sound of Music" and country lanes bordered on both sides by fields so colourful you think you're in a painting, then I have no wish to make your acquaintance - I believe they sell holidays in Magaluf that would be more up your street. You probably shouldn't take much notice of the fact that the word "Pension" appears often when booking hotels through sites such as EasyToBook, either - in Europe, budget does not necessarily mean rubbish, and some of the best places I've stayed on my travels have been very much at the lower end of my price range. I am certainly not disappointed with Pension Bled - not by a long chalk.
As we drew up in front of the hotel, I knew I'd made the right decision. Pension Bled is managed with just the right amount of love by an owner who appears to spend most of his time shuttling people back and forth to the lake and telling colourful stories about the trials and tribulations of a guesthouse proprietor - some of which definitely convince me that this is not an industry I want to go into. Trying to keep a polite face on while being shouted at by someone who has turned up 2 days late and can't understand why you've given the room to somebody else would probably age me immeasurably - especially in the Internet age, where the words "I'm going to leave a review on Trip Advisor" can strike fear into the hearts of the hardest of hoteliers. Now say that three times quickly.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.