Croatian vacation

23 Sep
Trsteno Arboretum

Trsteno Arboretum

I’ve just returned from a beautiful place. You can see it in the photo. The morning after my return from Croatia, as I walked through the cold, windy streets of San Francisco to work, I could still see that brilliant blue sea in my mind. I hadn’t gazed upon it since leaving the coastal city of Split several days prior. My Mom and I had a long trek home- Friday heading north to the Croatian capital, Saturday west to Paris, and Sunday morning we left Paris, and after 12 hours in suspended animation, we were in San Francisco, technically only 2 hours after we’d left Western Europe that same morning.

The details from the last days of our trip are more in focus than those from our earliest days. When asked to talk about Croatia, I initially felt unprepared. Which was my favorite place in Croatia? I wasn’t sure I had a favorite. Would I go back? No. I loved the country, but I feel like I have seen it now, so I don’t need to see it again. I did love the country, more and more each day, so that as our plane departed Zagreb, I felt a twinge of sadness. I knew I was leaving an enchanted little place I’d likely never see again.

Why do I love Croatia? What were my impressions? Why did I even go? I admit some embarrassment over my initial interest in Croatia. It’s because I learned that many of the most scenic parts of Game of Thrones are filmed there. That was what lit the spark for me and prompted me to learn more about the country. I wanted to travel to Europe this year, but somewhere in Europe I’d never been. Northern Europe? I wasn’t particularly interested in the efficient countries of Scandinavia. I didn’t want frigid waters. I wanted the blue Mediterranean, terra cotta roofs, medieval lanes. Including Zagreb in the itinerary would give me the taste of Central Europe I craved. I bought Lonely Planet Croatia. I had the whole summer to plan, and research, and daydream.

Walking the streets of Zagreb on our first night, I felt giddy. Back in Europe for the first time in six years, I strolled among street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, musicians playing traditional tunes, students at bars, families with babies. We witnessed people in a beautiful, peaceful city halfway around the world living their lives, one of the joys of travel. And then, the next day, we headed to Dubrovnik, the walled city jutting out into the Adriatic that I had been envisioning for so long.

The physical setting around Dubrovnik is breathtaking. Shimmering blue ocean dotted with islands; my Mom and I had to take a 15 minute bus ride from our hotel into the Old Town every day, and we’ve both confessed that that scenic ride, rumbling past beaches and resorts and banks and supermarkets and sweeping ocean views, was one of the highlights of Dubrovnik for us. Seeing how locals live amidst the beauty of that town. It was also nice to get this window into local life before entering Old Town Dubrovnik which, while picturesque and lovely, was very, very touristy. Not many locals live there any more, both due to high rents and the fact that no one would want to live in a place that was all souvenir shops and mediocre pizzerias and bumbling tourists toting cameras. I focused on the beauty of the place- the many alleys, the stone carvings etched into the sides of ancient churches, the evening light over the cobblestones.

Next we headed north to Split, the second biggest city in Croatia and the major hub of the Dalmatian coast. I was curious to experience Diocletian’s Palace, the ancient heart of the city and one of the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhoods in the world. For three days and four nights we made our corner of Diocletian’s Palace our home, greeting the restaurateurs and shopkeepers with “Dobar Dan”, the Croatian “Good Afternoon” which we heard so often during our stay. We marveled at the confluence of Egyptian, Greek and Roman influence in the quarter, we strolled along the Riva, the city’s waterfront promenade, watching the passing scene, playing “Tourist or local?” as we peoplewatched. We took a day trip to the mountains and traipsed around the Upper Lakes of Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is studded with turquoise lakes and rushing waterfalls. We ate local prosciutto, local cheese, drank local wine. Those last days in Split were languid and low-key. I smell the sulphur of the main harbor (this is supposedly what drew Diocletian to the city), I hear the commotion of people walking by under our window early in the morning. I recall the warmth and humor of the woman who owned a restaurant near our hotel- I had a wonderful lunch there our first day, and we chatted with her for the rest of our time in Split.

For after all, a country is more than its castles and churches and museums and national parks. The impressions that last, the memories that linger after we fly home, are the people we meet. So yes, I think of the owner of that restaurant. I think of Marija, the bubbly young Dubrovnik local who lead our Game of Thrones tour (from which the photo above was taken). I think of Bari, our guide through Plitvice Lakes, and his wry sense of humor and easy smile. I think of Dabor, the Zagreb native who drove us from Split to Zagreb and shared with us stories about life in Croatia and discussed the travails of raising a teenage daughter. Towards the end of our trip to Plitvice Lakes, Bari gave us some parting tips for enjoying the rest of our stay in Croatia and humbly asked us to “tell people back home about our country”. The Croatians that I met were proud people who were happy to share their lovely country with us, and I think they’re pleased that the country’s profile has been elevated so much in recent years. Mentioning their national soccer team doesn’t hurt either. All in all, I took home wonderful memories from the jewel of the Adriatic. Hvala, Croatia.

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