Including Assisi on my backpacking trip across Italy was a no-brainer once my friend Jenn talked about her dream of visiting the gorgeous Basilica of Saint Francis. We spent just two days visiting the sights in Assisi before moving onward again, this time we would make a very long travel day(s) from the center of Italy to the coast of Croatia. From our hostel in Assisi to our friends’ cottage in Croatia, it would take eight separate legs of travel — including buses, trains, taxis, and ferries — to reach the end of the journey.
It’s during this misadventure in transportation that I was once again so glad that I have packed light on this trip. Although many backpackers who go full carryon, I chose a small 52-liter pack that is often packed with room to spare, especially in the warm weather when I was able to ditch some of my cold-weather gear. Over the past months, that decision to use a modest backpack for round the world travel saved me money, from exhaustion, and it saved my sanity on numerous occasions. I have hiked steep hills in search of an elusive hostel and up seven flights on a winding staircase to find my top-floor room. I have stood for hours when there were no seats, and I’ve clutched it with fervor when “helpful” porters offered to store it on the Indian train for me (um, no thank you). On the 24 hours of travel torture that it took for this long journey, my ability to run at top speed with my pack became essential. Read on to discover why.
Hiking from Bus to Train
To reach the bus station from our hostel in Assisi, we made an intense uphill hike on a narrow road with cars winging around corners at high speeds — it was a mercifully short distance. We caught the bus and it stopped directly in front of the train station. What a relief! It was mid-day the heat had begun to bake the ground, and us. A tiny train left the station with us on it, and we stopped after a few towns when we reached the larger train station in Foligno. From Foligno, we commandeered a set of four seats on the nearly empty train and stacked our luggage in a heap for the few hours it took to cross the waving fields of wheat splayed across the picturesque Umbrian countryside. The three of us all work online as freelancers and writers, so we put in a several hours of work while we sped across Italy. In Ancona, a coastal town and the central departure point of ferries, we figured the rest would fall into place easily once we found our ferry. It’s a straightforward ferry ride across the Adriatic from Ancona, Italy to Split, Croatia. In actuality, there was much more to come—we were just three legs into this eight-leg journey!
Navigating from Train to Bus to Cab
Arriving at the train station in Ancona left us confused. Our Italy Lonely Planet didn’t include the nitty-gritty details on how to travel from the train station to the ferry terminal? That meant I had to dust off more of my Italian language skills that I had allowed to languish since my study abroad and I eventually figured out which bus ran directly to the docks.
With a few hours to kill, we spotted an internet café directly across from the train station and we all decided we needed time to submit our work, blog, post photos, etc. We didn’t know if the cottage on Brać Island would have wifi, so this could be our last access for six days. As a working digital nomad, that’s a long time! So I made sure to contact my clients and get everything situated in case I was taking an impromptu internet sabbatical.
With our internet fix satiated, we boarded bus 21 and fervently hoped that we were headed in the right direction. Lucky for us, the bus dropped us at the ticket counter for Blue Line Ferries. Except, when looking around, we realized that the ticket offices are nowhere near the actual ferries themselves. Confused, we watched other ticket holders walk outside and queue for the cabs that make the five-minute ride to the docks.
Up until this point in our travel day, all was fairly simple. Then we made a mistake. Instead of promptly lining up for the cab, we grabbed dinner, figuring that we could cab to the docks closer to the time that our ferry was scheduled to leave. As we sauntered down the stairs to the taxi area, we realized that the line had grown quite large because one of the two cabbies that runs this circuit was actually off for the rest of the evening.
We urgently flagged down the cabbie as he circled back for the next load but, since we weren’t first in line, he gestured another couple into the cab instead. I begged him to look at our ticket time, and he was displeased with us. We were cutting it majorly close and even though he was frowning, he told us he would try to help return quickly so that we could catch our ferry. Those next 11 minutes ticked by in agonizing slowness. A young Canadian backpacker joined our group while we waited as he was also taking he 8:20 ferry to Split — like us, he was perilously close to missing the ferry.
As minutes ticked by, Jenn grew more nervous, checking her watch every 30 seconds. We jumped into action as the cab sped to the curb, the cabbie shoved our backpacks into the trunk and motioned us four of into the cab. Then, because ridiculousness comes in threes, a man with his four year old son started a heated argument with the cabbie — he was on the 8:20 ferry as well! The man and the child took the front seat, which left my cousin, Jenn and I to squish together. Jenn jumped onto my lap and the Canadian guy somehow also squeezed himself into the car, closing the cab door with a dull thud as it squeezes our bodies even closer. The cabbie floored it and we raced away toward the docks with our hearts racing and an intense fear that our boat would leave without us.
Taking a Cab to a Ferry to a Ferry
The cab made the two-kilometer drive to the docks in record time and we tumbled from the vehicle in true clown car style. Grateful for having mobile luggage, we all slung our packs onto our backs and darted into the customs line for a perfunctory passport check. The customs official stamped our passports with loud thunks and shooed us to the ferry.
It was still there!
With relief washing over us, we jogged to the ferry and we jogged past a large group of older Eastern European women taking pictures of the rapidly setting sun. We were far more concerned with making the ferry, so we press onward at full speed until we reached the back edge of the ferry, where a crew member informed us that the passengers were already on board and we could board only once all of the cars were loaded.
There was no chance we would no miss the ferry, so we lined up to the side as instructed by the ferry crew. I love a good queue, and throughout my South Asian travels I had learned that this love for lining up is not universal. The four of us (we were still chatting with the Canadian backpacker) patiently stood waiting for the crew to signal that we could proceed onto the ferry. But from our hind quarters and with a stealth usually reserved for the African savannah, the large group of older women (in their sixties at least!) descended on us just as the crew member indicated that we could proceed in an orderly line onto the boat.
Those women bum-rushed us!
These woman literally went a little bit insane in that split second and with absolutely no warning whatsoever the old women began throwing elbows, pushing, shoving, and pulling us backwards to jostle for a better position in the mob. My shock has to be wholly attributed to the fact that I never even saw it coming!
They surrounded the four of us and tried to push us out of the way. The only excuse I have for my next behavior is that fight or flight kicked into gear. I wasn’t sure what was happening, so I used my sheer size (I am a tall woman with two large packs strapped onto my body!) to push them behind us. The four of us were rapidly separated, and as a mob instead of a line, the women surged toward the stairwell, with each of us trapped between them and separated. Jenn summited the steps first and shared with us the reason for the bum-rush — there were a dwindling supply of seats and the last on board would have to sit on the floor for the overnight ferry ride.
Madness greeted us when the four of us reconvened on the top of the steps. There were at least 40 women behind us ascending the stairs, and just a small section of airline seats. Others had staked out multiple seats and were doing the “fake sleeping” as they ranged their bodies across several seats. A few people dared me to question them, meeting my gaze with a fierce glare if I so much as pondered plunking my bags down on one of the “open” seats.
It’s was chaos. The women began pushing and shoving us again, attempting to bypass our careful walk though the passenger area. We were overwhelmed and harried by the aggressive arguing some people were now engaged in over the handful of remaining seats. Jenn looked distinctly frazzled by the entire situation and a crew member nearby plucked her from the churning rush of people and pushed her through what we now call the “magic door.” Jenn grabbed my arm and together we followed the crew. My cousin stayed behind and guarded the three seats that we wrestled control over, and Jenn and I entered a quiet space free from the fray.
Like the door to Narnia, this magical door with no special markings. We followed a dark stairwell deeper into the belly of the ferry into an empty area holding 100 more airline-style seats. We were ecstatic. Jenn and I immediately staked out a small room with glass doors on each side and only a dozen or so seats. I grabbed my cousin from upstairs, and as I returned we passed a few others. I spotted the Canadian too pulled him from the chaos. Then we passed two other backpackers — they could come too! Everyone was relieved to discover the calm oasis, such a wonderful and on the ferry’s lower deck.
We settled into our enclosed room and slept on the cold, hard floor — but thankfully it was so quiet. We woke at sunrise and ventured to the upper balcony just as the ferry approached Split harbor. Once in Split, we said adieu to the Canadian and we booked our ticket for another ferry, one that would take us to the Brać island, just off the coast.
Seeking a Ferry, a Bus, and a Cottage
We arrive on Brać without incident and begin the search for the bus that would take us to Milna. At this point, it was our luck to run into a Croatian woman who spoke great English. She offered us a room, but when we told her that we had a rental in Milna, she explained that buses don’t run to Milna on Sundays. Then she offered to fetch us a cab for 30 Euro. My Spidey senses tingled for some reason, and feeling that something wasn’t right, we declined. The bus station was completely deserted, and there were moments we wondered if we should have taken the cab, but mere minutes later we discovered that there was a bus leaving for Milna momentarily. The bus ride cost four dollars for three of us, compared to the 30+ dollars we might have paid if we’d fallen for her ploy.
My cousin connected us with this cottage rental. It was the vacation home of her friends’ parents, and they offered us the cottage for an easy 25 Euro a night. It sounded like the perfect way to relax, enjoy the sunshine, and take our first footsteps into Croatian culture and language.
Our surly bus driver dropped us in Milna, and my cousin read from her directions to the cottage:
Walk along the harbor and turn right at the church steps.
Perfect and easy! We located them within seconds. Then proved trickier.
Take a left off of the square and the house is at the end of the road.
There were four lefts off of the square?!
We were royally lost. Finally, we dumped our packs in the middle of the cobbled path. Jenn stayed back to guard the packs, and my cousin and I fanned out in search of the “small latched and gated cottage at the end of a cobbled street.”
Finally, a local spotted us wandering in confusion. She darted into a nearby house, located a young woman who spoke English, and that friendly woman led us to our cottage.
At this point, it was 10:00am and we had been traveling for more than 24 hours. We had taken three busses, two ferries, a cab, a train, and our own two feet . . . or is that six feet? Anyway, we were tired. It was a welcome relief to walk into a newly renovated and sweet little house that was all ours for six whole days. After sweeping out the bugs, a nap was tops on my agenda. We all curled up in the beds and let dreams erase the the 24 hours of misadventures in transportation.