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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Holiday Shopping in Croatia – What’s The Hurry?

 

There is always a nearby coffee bar.  Radoslav chats with a friend where we had coffee together.

There is always a nearby coffee bar. Radoslav chats with a friend where we had coffee together.

Each week Florence and I stroll to the local market to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables.  A vendor named Radoslav has noticed us shopping every week, so one day he asks us, “Do you live here?”  We tell him, “Yes, we live here in Šibenik.”  Florence gives him our business card with our photos and the caption, The 6 Monthers, which we explain means we move to a different country every six months. 

Rado and his wife at their fresh produce stand

Rado and his wife at their fresh produce stand

That wins us a big smile.  However, he is curious.  He seems surprised like so many people when we tell them Šibenik is currently our home.  Šibenik is not as well known as Split and Dubrovnik, the big cities on the Dalmatian Coast, and people are always curious why we chose to live here.  The people are so proud of their city that it warms their hearts to learn someone from the United States would choose Šibenik in which to live.

Last week, Rado as we call him, invited us to join him for coffee so we could sit and visit the next time we come to the market.  His wife tended to their vegetable booth while Florence and I accompanied Rado to a nearby coffee bar.  There is always a nearby coffee bar.  Rado had not practiced his English for a long time.  Because his English is so much better than my Croatian, we managed to understand one another. 

The variety is amazing at the open market.

The variety is amazing at the open market.

He told us about his family farm 10 miles up the coast.  He told us he gets up every morning except Sundays at 4:00 a.m. to drive his farm fresh vegetables to our market.  He beams with pride when he tells us he has two sons and five grandchildren.  We learned his farm has 1,200 vines for growing grapes and enough olive trees to produce about 70 liters of olive oil for his family and the families of his four siblings.  His grapes are for selling at the market except for enough to make a personal store of white wine to serve with dinner.  When I asked if he also made rakija (ROCK ee ya), the popular Croatian brandy he said, “Of course!  You come back tomorrow and I will give you some.”  These Croatians – they are always so generous!

Christmas decorations going up around the town will be lit up ten days before Christmas.

Christmas decorations going up around the town will be lit up ten days before Christmas.

Rado used to work at a produce distribution center in the capital city of Zagreb.  He lost that job last summer when the big retailers came in with their own distribution system.  It is challenging enough to find good paying work in Croatia.  Big corporations have pushed out the little guys which makes it harder.  I asked why we do not see more young people at the market.  He said, “Young people go to the supermarkets to shop so they can charge everything on their debit or credit cards.  They do not have enough cash.”

Decorations are up at Šibenik City Hall.

Decorations are up at Šibenik City Hall.

That tells us something about Croatia.  There is not enough work for the young people.  About 4.5 million citizens remain in Croatia while over a million have left their country to find work in Western Europe, particularly in Germany, and another million Croatians have moved wherever there are jobs like Canada, United States, Chile, New Zealand and Australia.  Having found better lives elsewhere, these Croatians are not coming back.  That is Croatia’s loss and the other countries’ gain because Croatians are not only wonderful people, but also hardworking. 

One thing I have learned from our time in Croatia is how to enjoy living at a comfortable pace.  We made time to enjoy coffee with a friend.  We sipped instead of gulped.  We relaxed without looking at the clock.  We made a memory out of a routine shopping trip, a timely reminder this holiday season that the little things are often the greatest gifts. 

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or The Daily Quest for Coffee

The Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound

The Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound from Rick and Kim’s deck

The last four weeks have been chock full of excitement. My most recent post, From Summer to Winter, covered the first half of my journey which included touring the Canadian Rockies via motorcoach. These past two weeks have been all about connecting with family and friends.

Being Papa Mike

Papa Mike and the boys in our Mexico T-shirts

Papa Mike and the boys in our Mexico T-shirts

Perhaps the greatest joy in raising children is the reward of becoming a grandpa. After settling in at the home of daughter #1, I visited my five year old grandson’s kindergarten class to tell a story at story time. I was introduced to the class as Papa Mike, a title bestowed on me by my grandson. All my years of experience as a storyteller paid off. The children loved the story of The Little Red Train that I shared. They even invited me back a couple days later to share another story, which I did.

It was also during this visit that I finally got to meet and hold the newest member of the family, my nine month old grandson. He warmed to me quickly, and I spent many happy hours on the floor playing with him and retrieving the toys he liked to throw.

(Great coffee is always available with the push of a button at my daughter’s home. That’s my girl!)

When Bloggers Meet

Mike and Dawn in Bellingham

Mike and Dawn in Bellingham

It was my good fortune to meet a fellow blogger in-person. I am a fan of Dawn’s blog, Tales from the Motherland, in which she gets to the heart of things with a writing style and a passion that inspires me. The blogosphere is a wonderful place to connect with fellow writers online. However, we seldom get the opportunity to meet face-to-face, so this particular sunny day in Bellingham was a special time. Dawn and I shared happy conversation over coffee, and two hours together passed in what seemed like mere moments.

(The coffee at Avellino’s in Bellingham is awesome!)

Hometown Friends

Rick and Kim's doggies are their constant companions.

Rick and Kim’s doggies are their constant companions.

My weekend in Seattle allowed me to connect with several people I had not seen in years. Rick and Kim were my gracious hosts. Rick and I always had fun times whether at work or away from the job. This connection was just like old times, and like me, Rick is a proud grandpa.

I spent my first evening in Seattle having dinner with my high school friend, Rosemary. We have maintained our friendship for 45 years. We talked about anything and everything as though we had visited only a few days before. There is much comfort and understanding in knowing someone your entire adult life.

I reconnected with old friends Pat and Bob.

I reconnected with my fine friends, Pat and Bob.

A Facebook connection put me in touch with a couple I had not seen for over 30 years. Bob and Pat were mountaineering students when I was a mountaineering course instructor. Their teenage children were camp counselors in children’s programs I organized. Our brief breakfast reunion brought back great memories of our younger years, and again hours passed like minutes as my departure via Amtrak to Portland loomed.

(Seattleites always have fresh coffee readily available. Well, duh – it’s Seattle!)

A Storyteller’s Game

Daughter #2 - social worker, poet, RPG gamer and all-around great kid.

Daughter #2 – social worker, poet, RPG gamer and all-around great kid.

During my Portland visit, daughter #2 included me in her game night in the RPG (Role Playing Game) Club with her ‘nerdy friends.’ These folks do appear a bit different with their anything-goes dress and hairstyles. They are also incredibly bright people with a love for creativity and improvisation.

My daughter and I joined three others in a game called Serpent’s Tooth. (If you missed the literary reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear, don’t feel bad – so did I.) I played a cynical friend of the galactic empire’s president-for-life. My daughter was a sentient robot. One young man played a career bureaucrat, and the other young man played a female admiral of Starfleet and heroine of the empire. After two hours of role playing, we wrested all power from the president, and since he was president-for-life by law, the robot shot and killed him to end the game because it was the only logical thing to do. Then we all went to the local brew pub for beers and laughter.

My dear friends from high school, Lily and Rosemary.

My dear friends from high school, Lily and Rosemary.

My daughter describes Portland as the city ‘where 20-somethings go to retire.’ There is so much to do in Portland that I can see why many young people do not necessarily want to work full time. Just visiting all the brew pubs around town could take months.

(Daughter #2 does not drink coffee. Every day I had to walk five blocks for a morning cup of convenience store coffee – ugh!)

On my final night in Portland, I enjoyed a delightful dinner with Lily, another long-time friend from high school. It has an exciting month on the road, and it was also a long time to be away from my wife who awaits my return to Mexico. Even though we Skyped and texted daily, I can say with a sigh of relief, “There’s no place like home.”

Costa Rica for the Weekend

The world's largest oxcart is on display in Sarchi, Alajuela, Costa Rica.

The world’s largest oxcart is on display in Sarchi, Alajuela, Costa Rica.

The clouds parted long enough to reveal the lagoon in the crater below.

The clouds parted to reveal the lagoon in the crater below.

After a two week cruise of the Caribbean and a week playing in New Orleans, we included a stopover in Costa Rica on the final leg of our return to Panama. There was insufficient time for cultural immersion and exploration, so we did all the touristy stuff. First was a tour to Volcán Poás National Park in the mountains north of the capital city of San Jose. We arrived so abruptly at 8,000 feet elevation that we didn’t even notice the rarified air. We were completely immersed in the clouds of this alpine jungle. Fortunately, our patience paid off. A sudden break in the clouds revealed the mile wide crater directly below us with its aqua blue lagoon nestled deep within.

The coffee plantation is decorated with immaculate gardens.

The coffee plantation is decorated with immaculate gardens.

On the return drive we stopped at the Doka Coffee Plantation for lunch and a tour. The weather was perfect, the gardens were spectacular, and the coffee was world class, so naturally we bought some. Our tour took us through Grecia, a beautiful town on the eastern edge of the central valley, and home of the Iglesia Metálica, The Metal Church. Anywhere inside or outside the church, if you rap your knuckles against the church wall, it reverberates just like the sound of an iron-hulled ship. The church was shipped in red-painted prefabricated steel sheets from Belgium and assembled in Grecia piece by piece in the 1890’s. The doors and windows were custom-made in Italy.

The Metal Church in Grecia is spectacular inside and out.

The Metal Church in Grecia is spectacular inside and out.

One last stop was an artisan shop in nearby Sarchi. The wood carvings and paintings on display were beautiful. However, nothing surpassed the intricate craftsmanship of the traditional hand-painted oxcarts or carretas. The oxcart tradition dates back to the 19th century. The carts were the only means available to transport coffee from the fields to the shipping ports. Such pride was taken in their construction that only the finest woods were used and the painted designs were ever more elaborate. The spokeless wheels, modeled after the Aztec-style, were designed to keep the wheels from getting bogged down in mud. The Costa Rican government in 1988 declared the carreta the National Symbol of Work. The tradition is kept alive today and celebrated with an annual oxcart parade and a public display of the world’s largest oxcart at the central park in Sarchi.

Local artists create beautiful hand painted oxcarts.

Local artists create beautiful hand painted oxcarts.

I will say the coffee of Costa Rica is every bit as good as that of Panama. I know saying this sounds a little like rooting for the visiting team, but why not? The two countries are similar enough that whatever grows in Panama will grow equally well in Costa Rica. Now I have to make a confession. Upon entering Panama when the bags of Costa Rican coffee were revealed during our luggage inspection, I told the Panama customs officer that we still preferred the coffee of Panama. The thing is I may have overstated that a little.

living in Panama

The Geese of Selva Negra

Selva Negra is a paradise-like eco-lodge and organic coffee plantation in the mountains of Nicaragua between Matagalpa and Jinoteca. Their lodge restaurant sits on the edge of a huge fish pond that mirrors the surrounding alpine jungle. Among the inhabitants are a flock of about a dozen white geese that live and feed at the site and that appear daily as they make their rounds of the estate.

Like childhood images of farm animal illustrations, the dozen or so geese of Selva Negra line up like a single file of wibble-wobbling soldiers as they exit the water in perfect cadence to an unheard beat and march in a perfect line on one of the paved pathways that interlace the resort. Their mission, known only among their flock, includes marching past manicured flower beds, guest cabins, and decorative gazebos in search of a midday resting spot before returning to the pond. All humans in their path quickly step aside as if to acknowledge that the geese have established their supremacy over all they oversee.

It is obvious this flock of geese spans generations when the size of the largest goose, their leader, is compared with the smallest goose, which has grown its all-white plumage but still paces much more quickly than its superiors to hold its place at the end of the line.

The animals at Selva Negra include, but are not limited to the typical inhabitants of this self-sufficient farm estate. There are chickens, dairy cows, beef cattle, horses and pigs, all of which are fed organically and help sustain the residents and visitors of the resort with their food products. In addition to domestic animals, there are two troops of howling monkeys in the jungle forest overlooking the estate. Their chorus of hoots and hollers echo back and forth across the hills like a raucous alarm clock at first light, drowning out any roosters who maybe thought their crowing to welcome the new day was their exclusive right.

Beyond the captivating beauty that makes one reluctant to ever leave Selva Negra, there is the other important offering – their coffee. It’s not just good coffee; it is world class great coffee! Each morning is made more pleasurable as we roll out of bed in anticipation of wandering over to the restaurant for an exquisite cup of freshly brewed coffee, espresso, or cappuccino. I still sometimes wonder if the coffee producing nations of Central America have perhaps passed federal legislation banning a bad cup of coffee. The coffee adds a little something extra to all that makes every day living here special.

Note – The title for this story was originally conceived as inspiration for a children’s book, a work still in progress.
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