Fortunately our bus got into Zagreb in plenty of time for us to catch the train. We picked up a map from the tourist office in the bus depot and headed off down the road for the train station. It was maybe a fifteen minute walk, and once we arrived we followed the signs for the international ticket sales. Walked up to the counter and asked for two tickets for the next train to Budapest.
The salesman behind the counter shook his head.
“No train to Budapest!”
“But we found one online, to leave at (insert time here – about 1pm?)!”
“Border closed, for a year! No trains to Hungary.”
Border closed. The words were just a little terrifying. If we were totally winging it, this would be ok, but we had a hostel booking in Budapest and had really been looking forward to it. Why did nothing we read online say this?? Why were websites still listing trains running from Zagreb to Budapest?? We asked the man behind the counter if he knew of any other way we could get to Hungary. He wrote down the name of a nearby tourism agency who might be able to help us, and so we stepped back out of the train station, deflated and anxious.
Well, considering we were no longer in a rush to get a train, we could at least stop and get some lunch while we planned our next move. We found a little burger & pizza place with wifi and parked ourselves at one of their tables while we waited for our order. Flights. Could we fly to Budapest? Yes, but most wouldn’t get us there til tomorrow morning and the earliest one would cost us about 600 (I don’t remember if we were looking it up in dollars, euros or pounds). Either way, ouch. No, not doing that.
We did some googling and found the problem was that Croatia was doing nothing about the number of asylum seekers coming up from Greece and pouring into other countries through Croatia’s borders, and Hungary had had enough. It closed nearly all border crossings with Croatia, including all train services and all but two roads. There were pictures online of closed, guarded border crossings. This startled me. I had thought EU countries weren’t allowed to close borders with each other. Croatia is not in the Schengen Area though, so there are border control points at the crossings between Croatia and Hungary which Hungary simply closed.
We posted about our predicament on Facebook. My sister responded fast, saying she had a friend encounter exactly the same problem a month ago. And the rail websites were all still listing these non-existent train journeys! I emailed our hostel in Budapest to explain our predicament. We wouldn’t be there tonight, I explained, but hopefully we’ll find a way to get there tomorrow. We got a prompt reply from them – no problems, we will hold your room for you and good luck!
Lunch done, we decided to check out this agency the train ticket sales guy had suggested. They were only a few blocks down the road, and when we walked in we felt like we’d found a sanctuary. It was a very chilled, laid back space – a travel agency designed for backpackers. There was nobody there besides one or two staff members who understood our problem as soon as we began explaining, and yes, they could help us. They ran shuttle buses direct to Budapest via one of the only remaining road crossings. They explained that the next scheduled one wasn’t until tomorrow. They could run one for us this afternoon, but their driver wasn’t back yet from having already done a ~6 hour trip that day and they would prefer not to put him back on the road for another 5 hour trip. It would also be cheaper for us if we waited til the next day when the cost would be shared with other people who were already booked onto the van.
That’s fine, we can wait. We’ll still get there.
The next order of business was to figure out where we’d stay that night and let our hostel in Budapest know our plans. The agency staff told us to take all the time we needed, so we sat in their couches and (in Andre’s case) drank their coffee while using their wifi. I emailed the hostel to update them and confirm we’d found transport and would arrive tomorrow. Then it was onto booking websites to find somewhere to stay. Fortunately as it was the off-season we found a really cheap room in a decent hostel on exactly the same street as the travel agency! We booked it then and there, farewelled our saviours at the Wanderer Travellers’ Point and headed 100m down the street to our hostel.
Our room was perfect – clean private bathroom, comfortable bed, and the staff equally helpful. They had a cheap laundry service, so we left a bag of dirty laundry at reception and headed out to take advantage of our unexpected time in Zagreb!
Because we had no plans to see Zagreb and basically knew nothing about it, we took our tourist map and just went for a walk. We were fortunate that we were quite central and easy walking distance from most of Zagreb’s best sights. We’d not planned a stop in Zagreb because a lot of what we read said it was a somewhat boring city relative to most other major European cities, but we found it to be a beautiful city.
It was too late to go inside anything, but we saw beautiful museums, churches and the town hall, old school gas street lights (now powered by electricity though), an amazing look out over the city, cobblestone streets, and a fabulous dinner spot along a thriving nightlife stretch. Perhaps it’s no Paris or London but I would gladly go back!