Some holidays are hard to encapsulate – and to predict. My latest belongs to both those categories. Last Friday, sick of the English rain, I booked flights for my partner and me for the next day. So it was that we found ourselves on Wizz Air, a Hungarian budget airline, winging our way to Split, in Croatia. We were en route to the sun and a cheap self-catering ‘apartman’ I’d found in a 5-minute search on the net. Though small it looked like it had a nice sea view, was on an island only 12km from Split airport and the weather map showed nothing but giant yellow suns. How wrong could you get for four nights ?
When I’d phoned to enquire about the studio-flat, the man sounded genuinely friendly. When I asked about nearby restaurants, shops, bars – life in general, he announced cheerily “No problem. My father and I drive you where you want.” And how do we get to you? “My father he come to airport.” Very nice father.
On arrival we looked hard for a man who might fit the description “black, only 50 kg” by which I’d understood he was very tanned, small and thin, basically an undernourished Croatian peasant. No old man like that in sight. In fact Croatians are all tall and frighteningly strapping. So we called Andrej who insisted that his dad was there. As we wandered up and down outside the terminal, suddenly a tall, good-looking man in his 50s dressed in neo-designer white materialised. With a big smile he started pumping our hands. This was “Flo” (we never quite grasped his exact Croatian name), our host for the next few days.
Inimitable, unforgettable, this man could be a major celeb, or at the very least a stand-up comic. First thing in the morning, he would trip down the steps from his rooftop flat to join us breakfasting on our terrace, kneel by the table clutching a decanter of slivovic and plead “Meester Reechard, slivovic – Croatian specialitat”. Mr Richard sadly declined the offer of this Dalmatian version of grappa aka rocket-fuel. Last thing at night it would be homemade salamis, mountain hams, patisseries, wine and even, one evening, an entire fish dinner served with aplomb. There was something of a Parisian café-théatre about him, or even a mime-artist thanks to his Marcel Marceau-like visage, angular body and fluid gestures.
Despite our zero Croatian and his zero any other language but that, we still managed convoluted conversations about food (particularly charcuterie and alcohol), Croatia, football (that was my partner, not me), weather and, surprisingly, world affairs. It was he who told us about a new terrorist attack in Britain and, on our last day, of the freeing of the BBC hostage in Gaza, Alan Johnston. All done with theatrical gestures, much sage nodding of head, pursing of lips and a stream of fast Croatian.
The real test of our friendship had come on the second evening. After offering to drive us into Trogir, the nearest town, Flo had then suggested we borrow his car so that he could concentrate on preparing our fish dinner. So off we tootled in his vintage VW Jetta, a bit low on the suspension but otherwise a fine old automobile. Trogir, a World Heritage Site, has impressive Venetian buildings and a beautiful Romanesque cathedral but is massively overrun by Czech, Polish, Slovak and East Germans; tourist trinkets dominate. A couple of hours later we were on the road ‘home’ when suddenly the car hit something – a rock probably. Seconds later we heard the aural equivalent of that sinking feeling, the slow hiss of a tyre losing air. Puncture. We were still about 5 km from base so on we drove, the lop-sided car stared at by impassive passers-by, until finally Meester Reechard announced it was impossible to drive further and swung off the road. That was when we saw there were actually TWO punctures.
It was hard to feel much worse. We were having to abandon a car kindly lent to us by a virtual stranger – with not one, but a double puncture. Back we trudged to Flo’s roof terrace above our little studio, where we confessed, breathless and guilt-ridden. Although he understood, Flo didn’t bat an eyelid and simply carried on barbecuing fish, leaving Andrej, who was luckily present, to deal with practicalities. Our al fresco dinner was served with style, no sign of irritation and plenty of alcohol to calm our nerves. The next day Flo was beetling around on a little red scooter which actually suited his personality much better, and 48 hours later the car reappeared with two new tyres and an entirely new wheel, all paid for by us. Luckily, Croatia is cheap.
The upside was that, seeing our immense guilt, Flo doubled his own. As a result, our final departure seemed to possess deep poignancy as we turned down gifts of his finest Croatian wine. (Try and explain the intricacies of today’s airport security to an island-bound Croatian). And communication did not stop there, as the night after our return to London the phone rang. It was Andrej. “My father say you must come back, stay for free in autumn”. Yet this was despite our less than happy relations with our neighbours at his house, a noisy Czech family who never left their next-door terrace and a bunch of carousing Poles downstairs who seemed limitless in numbers and stamina.
People like Flo and Andrej are a rare find, even more so on the soulless net and even more so in an enclave of surly East European holiday-makers. Croatia isn’t on my list of must-returns (despite the current hype) but we didn’t see or hear one English voice in five days. When you’re trying to wind down in record time, that’s even more priceless than two punctures.