Hell in Valbandon, Croatia at a bargain price

If misery truly loves company, then this spiritual home belongs in a little Croatian enclave called Valbandon, where myself and my travelling companions spent a week-long getaway lasting all of 45 minutes. Let me preface this by saying that our overall experience of Croatian hospitality was impeccable, with our hosts in Pula going to great lengths to greet us warmly, attend to our needs and give us advice and assistance throughout our trip. Having spent a couple of days in town, we prepared to decamp to the countryside for a week of poolside lounging at our private villa. Well, lah-di-dah indeed. Or indeed not The alarm bells should have rung when our host “Isabella” first popped up on Airbnb, her avatar showing a forced, mean smile and narrowed, hard eyes burning darkly – the sort of smile one imagines Isabella usually reserves for special occasions, like twisting the heads off small kittens. Her messages trilled with bouncy helpfulness, yet somehow sounded staccato and businesslike, rather like Davros running a cake-stall. At first we brushed this off as a language barrier, rather than seeing the barked orders and friendly tips for the borderline protection racket that they were. Isabella, who we later nicknamed the unladylike “Isac***” was not one to take “no” for an answer. “TAXIS FROM AIRP-ORT WILL BE DIFF-I-CULT,” boomed the Dalek Supreme, insisting that she’d do us a favour and get her friend to drive us instead. Our choice of apartment was brushed aside: “I have far better apartment,” she snapped, swiftly taking our preferred option off the table. Isabella’s “friend” was a cheerful illegal cabbie, with the loyal glassy gaze of a golden retriever. He was a nice guy, so we’ll keep his name a secret. Let’s call him Torgo. “You from Glasgow? You must have plenty of illegals there. Is work,” he explained cheerily, warning us to keep our story straight if we were stopped by the police and to pay him discreetly, trying not to look like an under-the-dashboard hand-job. He told us about the local film festival, and that he’d booked tickets for Mr Turner (“Very funny, he does not talk.”). His puppy face must have looked a picture when later discovering that Rowan Aktinson’s Mr Bean was a world away from Timothy Spall grunting his way through two hours of rough sex inflicted upon his psoriasis-riddled housekeeper. Torgo was eager to drive us wherever we liked, and as we later discovered, would usually only charge a tenner more than a taxi driver shouldering trifling overheads like a license and insurance. Torgo told us that our landlady was an “old woman”, distrustful of strangers, blithely revealing that our private villa was in fact shared with two other parties and that this wary old crone would likely seize our passports as insurance, along with pocketing a substantial security deposit. We considered this on the drive, sweating just that little more as we did, noticing how much further from town it was than Isabella’s carefree promises had suggested. Airbnb places great importance on any given property looking like its pictures. All quite laudable, undoubtedly, but it’s a barometer that makes little allowance for the magic of photography. Our hosts had not seen fit to invest in a net to remove the dead leaves from the pool, but had nonetheless managed to secure a wide-angle lens of sufficient breadth to transform a puddle-filled shoebox into a horizon-busting expanse of blue stretching as far as the eye could see. I believe it’s a syndrome otherwise known as “profile pic vs real life”. Having not swiped left, we found ourself greeted by the owner of this micro-hovel, a leather-bound, stern lady of indeterminate age, though likely less elderly than the wizened hag of Torgo’s hushed warnings. Val, for we shall call her that, greeted us with her most welcoming scowl. She wore a sleeveless dress in hot pink and walked with the bow-legged manner of someone smuggling a watermelon out of a supermarket. “You come theeess way,” she threatened, beckoning with a razor talon. Val was house proud, quite surprising really, given how little house she had to be proud of. Squeezing sideways, crab-like, into her narrow kitchen, Val showed off its splendid amenities, including water from taps, a mismatched handful of cutlery, and a coffee maker that would have been the pride and joy of any kitchen circa 1977. Val explained the coffee machine at length, painting pictures in the air with her hands, as if casting a spell. Perhaps she was. At any rate, she seemed more enamored with the coffee maker than the prospect of fellow human beings. “You read the house orders,” she glowered, pointing to a stuffed plastic sleeve of papers drawing-pinned to the kitchen doors. “And then, you give me passports.” Passports were everything to Val. She just loved them. “You give me!” she insisted, her rheumy eyes suddenly alive with fire. We were unconvinced. A 20-minute walk from the nearest whiff of civilization was one thing, but a week stuck in the countryside with no ID had the smell of a wrong-un. “You think I sell them?” declared Val, outraged, when we offered her photocopies instead. “Perhaps your passports are not in order?” she opined, eyes narrowed, with the disappointed air of a vampire denied a virgin’s blood. Perhaps inevitably, it wasn’t to be. On the long car journey back to Pula, Torgo attempted to make light of our retreat. He said that Val had once been married to the head of the local police and that a tourist’s baby had drowned in the pool. Isabella was indignant, first furious and unapologetic over email and then later, when cornered, a blubbing, wounded party: “You assault me,” she protested, like a Travelodge Lady Macbeth. The lesson learned? Trust your instincts. If your brow settles into a frown when presented with a stranger’s supposed generosity, trust that frown. We ended up in sunny Pula, back out our original apartment, and felt welcomed and wanted once again. As for Val, I can picture her by the poolside, a gin in one hand, morosely stroking an empty space on her armrest reserved for an imaginary passport. A salty tear etches its way down her mahogany face, a whisper of defeat rises from her throat. “Always. No… passport.”

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