Tuesday, October 15, 2013 | Category: GUEST POSTS, Travel Stories
Ed. note: I’ve known Diane for almost 20 years. When she and her husband, Kevin, announced they were going to Croatia for their summer vacation (with the kid) this year, they got a lot of baffled looks…
“Why did you pick Croatia?” some people asked.
“What’s so special about Croatia?” others wanted to know.
Before I go any further, a little back story is in order. My husband is British. I’m American. We met in 1986 in Canterbury, England, where I spent my junior year abroad. Travel is something we’re passionate about, and we share that passion with our 13-year-old son (or “the kid”, as he’s more commonly known in my frequent Facebook posts about him).
Since two of our English friends and their children would be vacationing with us, our destination had to be close enough to London for them to get in and out for one week (Kevin, the kid, and I were going to stay for two weeks). We wanted to go somewhere that the four well-traveled adults had never visited. Oh, and wherever we chose had to be kid-friendly.
Croatia fit the bill perfectly. None of us had been there; heck, your average American has never even heard of it, let alone being able to find it on a map. The flight was less than two hours from London. And since Croatia is on the Adriatic coast, there would be plenty of beaches for the kid. Kevin and I planned an itinerary that included Trogir, Split, the Makarska Riviera, Dubrovnik and its surrounding countryside, plus stays on the islands of Hvar and Brac.
The second question – What’s so special about Croatia? – is a lot harder to answer. That’s because pretty much EVERYTHING about Croatia is special.
First, there are the people. Croats are unbelievably hospitable. During our stay, we were warmly welcomed everywhere, even in tourist-dominated Dubrovnik. Although English is widely spoken, we scored huge points with the locals by learning some kindergartner-level Croatian. Armed with about two dozen words and phrases, we got cheers of “bravo!”, high-fives, and even an invitation to knock back some homemade walnut grappa with the owner of a restaurant on the island of Brac because we said hvala (thank you), molim (please), and izvrsno (delicious).
While driving from Trogir to Dubrovnik, we stopped at a roadside farmstand near the Croatia-
Bosnia border to buy some fruit. It turned into an impromptu language lesson; I asked the
farmer to teach me the Croatian word for “apple”, and we were off and running. The kid even joined in the fun and announced that he wanted us to buy some shliva (plums).
Or how about this: one night in Brac, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner at a restaurant near our hotel. When the waiter appeared with the bill, we pulled out our credit card and were informed that they accepted cash only (we later learned this is quite a common policy at many smaller restaurants and hotels). Horrified, we realized we had only a few kuna (the local currency) in our pockets. To our amazement, the waiter laughed and said, “Just come back tomorrow and pay.” He didn’t even ask where we were staying or what our names were. As we ran to the nearest ATM, we half-joked that an American restaurant would’ve made the kid wash dishes in the kitchen while Kevin and I went to get the cash.
And then there was Branko, the man who owned the villa we rented for a week outside Dubrovnik. He was hilarious, spoke six languages fluently, and had a life story that would make a blockbuster movie. You know the dude in the Dos Equis television ads who, according to the announcer, is “…the world’s most interesting man”? Well, he’s got nothing on Branko, who has been an underwater demolition expert, a hotel owner in Cambodia, a nightclub bouncer in Sweden (where he supervised a then-unknown Dolph Lundgren), an artist, and an antiques collector. The guy also happens to be a close friend of his fellow Croat Goran Visnjic, the actor who played hunky Doctor Kovac on the TV series ER. As far as the kid (and the rest of us) was concerned, Branko was a rock star.
When I mentioned that Kevin wanted to do some scuba diving, Branko arranged for a private diving trip with a boat-captain friend of his in the tiny seaside village of Molunat. When we asked Branko to recommend a good fish market, he turned up at the front door the next day with two kilos of fresh-off-the-boat fish. We looked forward to Branko’s visits and stories almost as much as we looked forward to our sightseeing excursions. We even invited him to have a barbecue dinner with us at the villa; it was one of the highlights of our vacation. When our week at the villa was over, saying goodbye to Branko was like saying goodbye to an old friend. You don’t get that kind of experience at a mega-hotel.
But the locals aren’t all we loved about Croatia. The scenery is spectacular, and we saw only a small part of it. The Dalmatian coast and its hundreds of islands are ruggedly stunning, with high, sheer, rocky cliffs that plunge into some of the clearest turquoise water I’ve ever seen. The hairpin turns on the roads at the tops of those cliffs reveal one jaw-dropping vista after another. There are countless small coves, beaches, and villages at the bottom of the cliffs. Some, like quiet Dubovica beach, are only accessible via a steep hike down from the highway. Others, like picture-perfect Cavtat with its waterfront restaurants and its harbor full of million-dollar yachts, are worthy of an entire week’s stay. And the panorama of terracotta roof tiles and church bell towers that we got from atop Dubrovnik’s medieval city walls was so beautiful it made me cry.
I once read somewhere that your sense of smell triggers the most powerful memories. If that’s true, then every time I smell oregano from now on, I’ll immediately be transported to the hiking path high up in Kuna Konavoska near the Bosnian border, where I stepped on a clump of wild oregano and asked Kevin and the kid, “Who could be cooking something so delicious in the middle of nowhere?” When I catch the fragrance of lavender, I’ll suddenly be back at the open-air market stalls on Hvar, where old men and women sell sachets, lotions, and oils made from the island’s most famous crop. And I won’t be able to smell a wood-fired barbecue without instantly remembering the Dalmatian coast’s konoba restaurants and the “lamb under the bell” dinner that is the region’s gastronomic celebrity.
Before we left for Croatia, some people asked Kevin and me if taking along a 13-year-old was going to cramp our sightseeing style. In fact, just the opposite happened: we got to see the country from the kid’s perspective and, to use one of his favorite words, that perspective was epic. Without him, how else would we have so quickly learned to say sladoled, the most important Croatian word of all? (It means “ice cream,” in case you’re wondering.) When we were sitting on jam-packed Donja Luka beach in Makarska, it was the kid who announced, “Hey, this is COOL. There are no other Americans here!” (He was right. We realized we were surrounded by Croats, Italians, Bosnians, French, Germans, and Russians.)
And finally, it was the kid who unwittingly created the most special vacation memory of all. We were at the beach in Mlini when he and our British friends’ son started kicking a soccer ball back and forth on a nearby patch of grass. Within minutes a Croat boy had joined them, followed quickly by some Bosnian and Danish boys. Suddenly, we had a League of Nations pickup match. There was no single common language to unite the spectators and players – just a love of soccer. At the end of the match, the boys grinned, shook hands, and gave each other the silent nod of the head that means “good game” in any language. Then everyone went and got sladoled.
When I first shared the soccer-game story on my Facebook wall, a college classmate of mine who is a minister commented, “Our children will lead the way if we let them.” Kevin and I hoped Croatia would be a fun experience for us as a family, of course, but we also hoped it would open the kid’s eyes and help him see that he’s part of a much bigger world. We knew the trip had been a success when he announced, “I love Croatia. It’s awesome – I could live here.” Hard to argue with that.
So grab your own kid – or your inner kid – and go to Croatia. Go soon. Go experience one of Europe’s truly authentic, friendly, and unspoiled places. Go see for yourself why the Croats love their country so much, and why lots of visitors like me do as well. But most of all, just go.
Diane Giombetti is a freelance business copywriter . She’s working on a book which chronicles her many adventures during her gap year at Mount Holyoke. Among them? Meeting her husband, Kevin . . . She is also an independent stylist for Stella and Dot and can be reached at www.stelladot.com/dgiombetticlue