Again, we rattled our suitcase down the road as day was breaking over the mountains - this time to the Split train station. We were headed north to Ogulin where we would find a connecting train to Rijeka.
Ogulin was the first surprise. We had expected a bustling community in place of the quiet little village which seemed to consist of little more than the train station and a tiny grocery store. No matter. It was big enough to sell bread, cheese, and wine. Due to good prior planning, we had napkins, wineglasses and olives with us. It was the best lunch I've ever had by the side of the rail tracks.
Rijeka was the second surprise. Obviously the city didn't pay the guide book companies enough because all we had read was how perfectly awful Rijeka was. By contrast, we wished for more time to explore. It may lack the touristy little nooks and crannies, but it appeared to be a charming, busy city.
The third surprise of the day was the transportation schedule. We had been led to believe that transportation from Rijeka to Rovinj was intermittent at best and unavailable at worst.
We were on the bus to Rovinj within an hour of our arrival in Rijeka. Of course, that left no time to make a reservation in Rovinj, but it hadn't been a problem before. No need to think it would be an issue now.
The next surprise was the Ucka Tunnel. Completely open now, it has made a huge difference in Istrian travel. We were in Rovinj three hours later but it was already cold and dark. After a long day of trains and buses, we were ready for the group that had appeared at every tourist town on our agenda, hawking rooms and apartments.
Imagine my next surprise! No one met the bus! It seemed we were the only tourist passengers. Everyone else was local and they disappeared before we realized what was going on, or more like what was not going on.
Totally disoriented, we managed to find our way out of the bus station.
We walked the entire 10 block length of the town and we met only two guys neither of whom could speak English. We finally spotted an outdoor cafe at the end of the street that was just closing down. Several young men stood around sporting black leather jackets, smoking cigarettes and looking like they had just stepped off the set of the Sopranos. I hated for them to know how desperate I was, but I thought that might get me more help than my stern teacher "don't give me any shit" look.
Luck was with me.At least three of the group spoke excellent English. They listened compassionately to my story and gently chastised me for not understanding how quiet the place is after the first of October. Then they got on their cell phones. After several aborted efforts, a room was found, the price fixed, and the landlord promised to come to the cafe and take us to the apartment.
With steaming cups of the world's best coffee to help thaw us out, we were ready to make conversation while we waited. These were Albanian men who had immigrated to Croatia 15 yeas ago with their families. Now, with families of their own, they maintained homes in both Croatia and Macedonia, splitting the year between the two places.
I have come to think of this experience as my brush with the Albanian Mafia and they were a delight. We went back to the cafe several times and the coffee is still the world's best. Each time we encountered one of them on the street (easy enough in a town this small) they wanted to know if everything was OK, if we needed anything, if we had any problems. Good friends to have, I think!