It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Yes, Dickens said it best. It started with a journey to Split in September for a charter adventure to the islands of Brač, Hvar and Vis with my husband Captain Mike, and our friends James, Carolyn and Karl. It ended with with a journey down a seaside road in a record-breaking bura that shouldn’t have happened. And it’s taken me almost 8 months to write it all down as it turned out to be a little traumatic for all involved.
This is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you are new to an area, don’t have all the information about local weather phenomena, are tired and sleep-deprived, but have just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
The Best of Times
Somehow I feel like the theme of Gilligan’s Island should be playing as I started writing this blog post, although the truth of the matter is the sailing charter around the islands itself was incredible. We started our voyage out of the Split Harbor and sailed out into the Adriatic on a beautiful sunny day. The weather was magnificent, and the wind was moderate, but steady. We went to the island of Brač that is nine miles off the coast of Split for our first night to the small fishing village of Milna. You can read more about it in my next post titled, “The Calm Before The Bura.”
The charter went wonderfully for seven days of beautiful weather as we hopped from Brač to Hvar to Vis to Jelsa and back to Split visiting the ruins of Roman baths, stopping at the village of Vis Town (of “Mama Mia” fame), eating Dalmatian specialities like pasticada and talking with locals as they showed us how they made wine and other Croatian specialties.
After this beautiful but exhausting charter, we spent a few more days in Split to get our land legs back then headed to the airport in Split to catch our flight home to Pula. Being off the boat for a couple of days we were no longer watching weather forecasts as we were back on land and placed ourselves at the mercy of airline professionals, like the rest of the tourists.
When we arrived at the Split airport, it was overcast and a little windy, but really, being from the city of New Orleans where hurricanes and thunderstorms are a daily part of our lives in the summer, it was nothing to write home about. It was 9 am and because we had arrived early, we had an uneventful checking in process and proceeded to wait in the gate area for our flight.
And wait. And wait.
The wind had started to get a little blustery and rain began to fall, and we noticed more and more people throughout the airport and a few announcements of flight delays, but there was no word about our flight and no gate agents to direct us.
As our flight time came and went, Mike headed to the Croatian Airline agent on the other side of the airport to seek out some information. We had begun to talk to some other passengers who were going to be on our flight: Karen and Michael from Colorado who were heading on a hiking tour throughout the Istrian hillside that left early the next morning, as well as Dina from Chicago, and Donna and Peter from Essex, UK, all three headed to beautiful Rovinj for their annual vacation.
Mike came back with word that our flight was indeed delayed (big surprise there as it was an hour after departure time!) and that they would keep us posted. Another hour passes and branches are being flung about the runways, more rain and the wind is still pretty strong. Some of the larger planes were still taking off and landing, while it seemed some were being delayed or cancelled over the airport intercom. No word on our flight though. No gate agents either.
We knew it would be a smaller puddle jumper type-plane taking us to Pula as that’s what we had flown to Split in, so it was no surprise that our plane was being delayed, but for how long? I repeat, there were no airline personnel coming to the gate to let us know what it going on.
Mike goes back to the airline desk and finds out that they are trying to get a bus to take 20 or so passengers to Zagreb (a 5-hour car ride in the wrong direction) and telling him they will fly us from Zagreb to Pula after this long bus ride. So that meant not getting back to Pula till late evening or the following morning. Our newly made friends had to be to their destinations promptly, and we just wanted to get back to our apartments after a long journey.
By the way, Mike is now the official spokesperson for the airline to the group of passengers waiting in the gate area as there is still no gate agent to give us any information. My new mystery novel will be titled, The Case of the Missing Gate Agent.
Three hours into the delay, the rain is gone although it is still fairly windy. Karl manages to get a flight directly to Frankfurt as he is traveling back to the US, and his plane is able to take off as it is a larger jet.
By this time, we are tired of waiting on the airline who has now hurriedly ushered us out of the gate area as the flight is officially cancelled. Yes, they did finally send someone into the gate area to tell us that. But we are told we have to leave the gate area “immediately,” and we stand confused in the crowded lobby area with other stranded tourists waiting on the possibility of the airline getting us a bus to Zagreb.
Mistake Number One
Remember that we arrived two hours early for our flight like good little passengers, and we have waited for three to find out its cancelled without any real information on what is going on. We are tired and flustered and aggravated that we don’t know what the airline has in store for us. Some flights are still taking off. No weather alerts have been given to us. The rain has cleared.
We decide to take matters into our own hands at this point. Mistake number one.
James and Mike go talk to a rental car company and get information on renting a car to drive home. Mike and I had driven from Split to Pula just a few months before, and in normal circumstances, it is a relatively easy 5-6 hour drive on a nice, new toll-laden highway throughout the Croatian countryside and Velebit Mountains.
Lo and behold, the rental company has a car available, so we decide we are going to bite the bullet and just drive home. When we start talking to the other passengers we’ve befriended, they want to travel with us and sure enough, the rental company has a large van, so we can all drive together to Pula. It makes sense both financially and logistically, and the airline is still not forthcoming with information. And apparently the rental car company hadn’t got the memo that there was a bura predicted either.
So it’s off we go. You can see by the photos below, it was a little windy and chilly for a September day, but no big deal, right? Driving over the Twin Span Bridge from New Orleans to Slidell during a summer thunderstorm seemed a lot more intimidating than what we experienced loading up the van. And the rain was over for the most part. So what could possibly go wrong?
James offers to drive the van, and we all pile in relieved to be out of the crowded confusion of the airport. Anyone who knows James knows that he is as calm as a cucumber in most, if not all situations. Thankfully, his calm disposition and keen driving ability were a key factor in our surviving this misadventure, along with Mike’s navigational help.
“After getting 30 minutes or so into journey you could tell winds were starting to get higher, not lower, which was at the exact time that we got to place where we were to get on an inland road,” Mike recounts. “They had just closed the inland road, and the only other road was along the sea.”
You can see in the photo below, the skies began to look ominous at the beginning of the drive, but still didn’t truly show what the weather had in store for us.
This was important juncture during this drive, because we came to a toll booth where a man sat collecting money as we got off the highway. There was no explanation as to why the road was closed. He asked us if we were going to Zagreb or Pula, and we said, “Pula,” and he raised his eyebrows and said, “Okay.” Nothing else. No, “are you sure you should be driving?” No, “the weather looks threatening, be careful.” No weather advisory. Just lifted eyebrows and a surprised look and an “Okay.”
From there, the wind picked up quite rapidly. We all began to get a little nervous so we decide to pull over at a gas station, get some snacks as nobody had eaten anything most of the day, and use the restrooms. Mike talks to the cashier and asks if there is another way back to the main inland highway and what the road conditions look like up ahead along the sea.
“It’s okay with little car, what are you driving?” says the cashier. Mike tells him we are in a large van.
“Oh, Sheet,” the cashier says.
(By the way, Croatians pronounce the short “i” sound as a long “e”).
He gets back in the van and tells everyone what the cashier said. Should we stop, or move forward? We decide to keep going.
“I keep asking myself, how did the circumstances evolve such that we were in this position, and what lessons can we take away so that we are never in this position again?” Mike said.
“We thought the brunt of storm was passed, planes had started taking off again, skies cleared, wind forecast I saw said winds would be decreasing. We didn’t see anything predicting Bura level winds. We had nine people in van, who we were perhaps overly eager to help salvage their travel plans, as well as get home ourselves, so we pressed on.”
At some point as conditions continued to deteriorate, the notion of going back was as bad as going forward, and there were no choices in between.”
So we begin our drive again which begins to lead us along the winding sea road as the inland road is shut. The wind sweeps down the mountains causing what is called sea spray as the van is pushed about on the road. I crunch furiously on a bag of pretzel sticks like a beaver gnawing on a branch, one after the other. I glance at James, and I can see a hint of tension in his face, and he grips the steering wheel rather intently with both hands. I have been in a car with him driving on the Pacific Coast Highway One in California with him zigzagging along the mountain cliff roads smiling with one hand on the steering wheel where I have been petrified. He has driven us in Ireland (on the wrong side of the road no less) laughing and joking as we wind through tiny, one lane roads throughout the Irish countryside as we shared these roads with giant speeding tour buses. This is not a good sign.
It was now starting to get dark, and we are on a 300km winding road that is entirely on the edge of a sheer drop-off to the raging sea. The wind is screaming around us now at higher than gale force. (We find out later that at times it was up to hurricane force). We can’t stop at this point as there is no place to stop. It’s just a small seaside road along the mountainside with several valleys that we cross on overpasses. It’s these bridge-like overpasses that are the worst as the wind sweeps angrily through the breaks between the mountains ,and we feel the van rattle and move. Oh, sheet, is right.
Mike is now in the front seat of the van with James and Carolyn, watching the road on Google Maps and calling out upcoming turns and pivots and curves and swing backs to James as visibility was so bad from the spray and darkness. I’m clutching the handle of the van for dear life trying to talk calmly to the people we’ve just met in the airport. Karen and Micheal are from Colorado and have driven through bleak mountain snowstorms, so have been through dangerous situations like this and survived. That comforts me at this point in some strange way. The couple from Essex are joking and providing some comedic relief. We need it.
This dramatic drive goes on for hours. It felt like days. We do survive to tell the tale thankfully.
“I was scared!” James said the next day. He said he was clutching the steering wheel so tightly because he had to as it felt like the van was going to fly off the road.
The interesting part of the story is that even weather experts were surprised about how this weather system unfolded, and you can see from the news link below, it turned out to be the strongest bura in Split in September in 100 years!
Here’s Mike again on what we learned about buras:
“I see now that a cold front in Croatia is not like our cold fronts back home. After the initial blast as the front rolls through, it doesn’t necessarily begin to get better. The Bura has the mountain effect which is a magnifier, especially in the exact area we were traveling in. I’ll definitely not underestimate these fronts again, although it seems that this one took the weather officials by surprise as well.”
Above is one of the few photos we took from that day that shows the wind was coming from landward and was so strong it looked like it was boiling the water. It got worse after this photo.
Here’s a link to a Croatian news site about the record breaking bura: