The Top 10 Best Things About Croatia

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

Counting down, these items make my list of the ten best things I discovered about Croatia.

10. Fresh fruits and vegetables

There is a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

The fresh markets offer a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

Everything grows fresh in Croatia.  We were fortunate to be living in Croatia during harvest season.  There were melons, pomegranates, figs, plums, grapes and apples.  And there was citrus.  Almost the entire Neretva River Delta is planted with citrus – mandarins, lemons and several varieties of oranges and they are quite affordable.  Other fruits like bananas and tropical fruits are imported.  The variety seems endless and prices are quite good. 

9.   Coffee

Every place we have visited has a coffee bar (or two or three) on every block, or so it seems.  I am not saying that the coffee is as good as what we could purchase at every market in Panama or Costa Rica where it was grown and picked and roasted within walking distance of our house.  But every café, bar and coffee shop in Croatia has an espresso machine, and it is a custom in Croatia to ‘take coffee’ for almost any occasion.

8.   Olive oil and wine

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

I think everyone in Croatia either has their own olive trees or is related to someone who does.  The same goes for vineyards.  They make a lot of olive oil in Croatia, and they also make a lot of wine.  Production numbers seem small compared to wine growing regions in other parts of the world, but Croatia’s population is only about 4.5 million, and they consume most of what they produce.  However, wine lovers who get a taste of the finer Croatian wines will likely wish to add some bottles to their collections.

7.   Cheese

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia.  Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia. Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

I confess I love cheese.  And I have come to learn that not every country has great cheeses.  Croatia got it right!  There is probably as much cheese-making tradition in Croatia as there is making olive oil and wine.  Lucky for me!

6.   Bakery breads and other goodies

You should not expect to find a bread aisle in the supermarket.  All breads, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods are made fresh daily in a bakery.  There are in-store bakeries and independent bakery shops on nearly every block in the commercial areas.  Many Croatians still bake their own items if they have time.

5.   Natural beauty

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

Where do I begin?  The Dalmatian Coast, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Skradinski Falls in Krka National Park, the Neretva River Delta, Lake Vrana, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the natural springs.  Croatia is so diverse that the list of scenic spots seems never ending. 

4.   Clean air

To me there are two key items that define ‘quality of life.’  Being able to breathe clean air is one of those things, and it is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia, especially on the Dalmatian Coast with its steady breezes.

3.   Clean water

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

This is the second key ‘quality of life’ item, and Croatia has abundant resources of clear, clean water.  Many of their rivers are spring-fed at their sources.  You can dip your cup or water bottle into most streams and expect to get pure water better than the bottled water for sale at the market.  Wherever I travel I compare the water with what I experienced in my youth hiking past creeks and streams in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  Clean water is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia.

2.   History and Culture

The medieval fortress near Samobar reminds of the civilization that existed here long ago.

The medieval fortress near Samobor reminds us of the civilization that existed here long ago.

Croatia may have finally appeared as a country on geography maps in the last twenty years.  However, as a region with a distinct culture, Croatia has a history of its own dating back over 1,500 years.  Many of the traditional foods, dress, music and dances are still common today.  They have their own language, their own art, their great legends and their heroes.  All of these traditions are woven into the fabric of everyday life.  One of the great things about traveling in Croatia is the people are eager to tell their stories and share their culture.

1.   The people

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most lasting memories.

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most treasured memories.

I have said this before and it bears repeating.  The people of Croatia have been among the most welcoming, most hospitable and most caring of any we have met in any country we have visited.  They care how you feel about their country and about them.  They want you to appreciate the beauty, the history and culture, the food, the wine, and their hospitality.  And I do!

One more thing, the women in Croatia are quite style-conscious.  In the cities and towns women seldom go out in public without putting on makeup and nice clothes.  At first I thought there was simply a high percentage of striking-looking women.  Then I realized that women of all ages take great care to look their best in public.  The men, not so much.  They may be ruggedly handsome, but they do not dress up unless they are hoping to impress the women.  That however, is a whole new story.

 

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The Perfect Weekend Croatian Style

Babić grapes grow in a grid work of plots separated by rocks pulled one-by-one from the soil.

Babić grapes grow in a grid work of plots separated by rocks pulled one-by-one from the soil.

You need three elements to come together for a perfect weekend.  First is good weather.  It is not the most important thing, as any Puget Sounder will tell you.  However, it does make ‘good’ even better.  Second is a fun and interesting activity to do.  Third, and perhaps most important, is sharing the time with good people. 

When green olives turn dark in mid-November it is harvest time.

When green olives turn dark in mid-November it is harvest time.

I was invited to go olive picking with a couple of buddies.  I love spending time and going places with Florence.  Nonetheless, there is something to be said for male bonding time.  I soon learned that ‘olive picking’ is a euphemism for a picnic.  After a couple of beers and exploring our surroundings, we picked several kilos of dark olives.  Then we enjoyed a small feast of fish grilled over an open fire and some Babić (BOB ich), a local varietal wine.

Karmela gave me the seat of honor at the head of the table.

Karmela gave me the seat of honor at the head of the table.

After picking olives we returned to town where I met Karmela, my friend’s mother.  She showed me into her kitchen and pointed to the chair at the head of the table where her husband always sat, and she invited me to sit there where soon we enjoyed more food and drink.  Although she spoke not a word of English, we communicated well enough for her to announce proudly that she was 82 years old, something she apparently wanted me to know.  There is no stigma to asking someone’s age in Croatia, and if you do not ask they will usually tell you anyway.  I was dropped off at my apartment after as much food, drink and male bonding as I could manage in a single day.

Tina and Biljana teamed up to show us a great time in Primošten.

Tina and Biljana teamed up to show us a great time in Primošten.

The next day Florence and I met our friend, Tina, who helped us locate our wonderful apartment.  She contacted her tour guide friend, Biljana, who prepared a daylong tour to nearby Primošten (pree mosh TEN), a twenty minute drive south of our hometown of Šibenik (SHE beh nik).  It was the perfect mid-November day with cloudless skies and no jacket needed.  We had the picturesque Old Town almost completely to ourselves as we strolled to the graveyard and 15th century hilltop church of St. George.

View from the hilltop cemetery at the 15th century church of St. George

View from the hilltop cemetery at the 15th century church of St. George

On our drive a bit farther down the coast, Biljana pointed out the hillside vineyards overlooking a local marina.  The vines are planted in a patchwork grid marked by stone borders.  The locals are proud that a photo of the area once hung in the United Nations Building in New York City to portray the beautiful results of human labor.  These vineyards, famous for their Babić grapes, are now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Zaron greeted us with rakija and a smile.

Zoran greeted us with rakija and a smile.

Our route took us to an agro-tourism site called Šarićevi Dvori (shar ee SHEH vee  di VOR ee) named in honor of the Šarić family who have lived here for 350 years.  Zoran Šarić welcomed us in traditional Croatian style with rakija (RAH kee yah), a Croatian brandy, and we drank to one another’s health.  After a tour of the courtyard and house, we sat to eat a traditional dinner from our outdoor dining area perched overlooking the coast.

Tina told us, 'Now we are like family.'

Tina told us, ‘Now we are like family.’

All the food and drink is prepared by hand using traditional methods.  Zoran even revealed his callused hands from pressing grapes for wine and pressing olives for olive oil.  Our main course was cooked in a peka, a lidded iron pan that is buried in the coals of a fire to stew for an hour or more and then brought directly from the coals to the table where the food still sizzles as it is served.

Primošten, Croatia - a place that time forgot.

Primošten, Croatia – a place that time forgot.

Since meals are not rushed in Croatia, we sat with our wine glasses and watched the sun go down, which is early at this time of year.  We then gathered around the indoor fireplace to crack open fresh almonds and sip brandy while we sang songs and enjoyed new friendships in the hills overlooking Primošten, a place that time forgot.

What I learned on my Croatian Vacation

Vineyards are found throughout Croatia.

Vineyards are found throughout Croatia.

People are friendly in Croatia. Did I mention wines?

People are friendly in Croatia. Did I mention wines?

My wife and I were invited to join an international journalist team sponsored by Dhar Media in Zagreb, Croatia.  Our assignment was to help publicize to the world what Croatia has to offer as part of Dhar Media’s Discover Croatia web production while their video crew filmed the entire twenty-four day tour.  Like most of the team members, Florence and I knew almost nothing about Croatia other than its location.  Tourism is Croatia’s leading industry, and they want the rest of the world to discover their country.  Thus, with open minds and cameras ready, we set off for the capital city of Zagreb.

We were often offered something to eat on our tour.  This was not lunch, just a snack.

We were often offered something to eat on our tour. This was not lunch, just a snack.

I posted dozens of Instagram photos on Facebook as we traveled.  I have written about some of the special people we met and of the immense pride the people have for their country.  I continue to write about the treasures of Croatia’s National Parks.  I now wish to share some of the insights I gained from this travel adventure. 

I learned that there are a lot more swear words in Croatian than there are in English.  There are what – twelve words in English that will get you in trouble with your mother?  My friend Hrvoye said, “You English-speakers are like priests compared to the way Croatians talk.”  Croatian is a hard language to learn.  You may not know when someone is swearing, and a lot is lost in translation.

A choice of alcoholic beverages is optional.

A choice of alcoholic beverages is optional.

Lots of Croatians speak English.  It is taught in their schools starting in the first grade.  Lots of older folks speak German.  When I asked one of our guides why English is now taught instead of German, the explanation was straightforward.  He said, “We realized after World War II that English was going to be more important.”  I never found a place where someone in a shop or restaurant did not speak English.

Meals are served with wine and/or rakija as an option.

Meals are served with wine and/or rakija as an option.

I learned that Croatians love food and drink.  Croatia has vineyards scattered across the country, and their long tradition of winemaking produces both red and white wines which are remarkably good.  They also make grappa, a strong brandy distilled from grapes.  Also worthy of note is rakija (ROCK ee yah), a type of brandy which can be made of plum, grapes, figs or a mix of fruits and herbs.  Grappa or rakija is typically offered in a small glass before a meal or as a gesture of friendship or greeting.  I learned to always robustly shout “Živjeli!” (ZHEEV ya lee), meaning “Cheers!” as we tilt our glasses up and drink.  The cheering becomes more robust with each round if you do not stop at one drink, which reminds me of something else I learned.  Do not ever think you can out drink a Croatian.  You have been warned.

The prosciutto, cheeses and meats are all local and fresh cut.

A typical first course, the prosciutto, cheeses and meats are all local and fresh cut.

Then there is the food.  Mealtime is more than satisfying your hunger in Croatia.  Mealtime, whether lunch or dinner, is a time of gathering.  Do not spoil your appetite before lunch or dinner in Croatia.  Three courses are typical and five courses are not uncommon.  That does not include the artisan bread with local olive oil that accompanies each meal.  And do not even think of leaving the table in less than 1 ½ – 2 hours or people will wonder what your hurry is. 

The main course often includes several options of meats and vegetables.

The main course often includes several options of meats and vegetables.

Our guide in Dubrovnik, Anita, talked about the importance of mealtime.  She said, “The dining table is where we get together to share about our lives.  We laugh together because what is joy if we do not share it?  We cry together because it is sadder to cry alone.  This is how we share our lives.  This is what eating means to us.”  When she shared these words with me, I realized how much of the essence of living we Americans have given up by not spending more time together around the dinner table.   

ŽIVJELI!!

ŽIVJELI!!

Mostly, I learned to love Croatia.  The people are open.  The land is diverse and beautiful.  And, at least for now, Croatia is largely undiscovered and uncrowded.  If you wish to see Croatia before the world realizes its captivating appeal, do not wait too long. 

In the meantime, let me share some smiles from our Discover Croatia team: