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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Reflections on Croatia

The medieval town of Šibenik has been our home for the past few months.

The medieval town of Šibenik has been our home for the past few months.

We made a good choice to make the medieval town of Šibenik our home for our time in Croatia.  I cannot describe the feeling of living in a town where the buildings date back to the 15th century and the history of the town dates back to Roman times.  I love the stone-paved streets just wide enough to let donkey carts pass through, which is how they were designed 500 years ago.  I love our apartment which is divided off of what was once the residence of the Bishop of Šibenik.  This we know because of his statue on the wall as we enter the courtyard outside our door.

The weather is nice most of the time.

The weather is nice most of the time.

I love the weather here on the Dalmatian Coast.  There have been December days where we walked along the seawall without need of a jacket as the sun shone brightly on us.  I never tire of the view of the bay and the surrounding hills as we enjoy taking coffee at any time of day, just like the Croatians.  We have been taken through the surrounding countryside by our Croatian friends to experience amazing sights like the medieval village of Primosten, the vineyards of prized babić (BOB ich) grapes grown almost exclusively in this region, and the viewpoint overlooking Lake Vrana, the largest lake in Croatia.  There is so much history here that it takes more than one visit to take it all in.

Good food is the standard fare in Croatia.

Good food is the standard fare in Croatia.

I have experienced so much good food and drink during our stay.  The Croatian people live close to the land.  If someone does not live on a farm, they are closely related to someone who does.  Everyone has home-pressed olive oil from the olives grown on their land or the land of their families.  Everyone has homemade wine as well as rakija, the distilled beverage made from freshly pressed grapes.  Everyone eats fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally.  Everyone gets fresh meats from the local farms and fresh seafood from the coastal waters.  I need only walk a few blocks to the open market whenever I wish to restock our kitchen.  And now my favorite baker and produce vendor greet me by name when I show up.

We love the friends we made in Croatia.

We love the friends we made in Croatia.

The best part of Croatia, of course, is the people.  To say they are warm and welcoming would be an understatement.  One of our acquaintances told me Croatians are sometimes better hosts to visitors than they are to one another.  I do not know to what extent that may be true.  All I know is that we have been treated incredibly well.  Our landlady, Nina, has been more than a business contact.  She has been our most reliable friend.  She took Florence to her doctor when Florence was ill.  She used her beautician skills to give me a haircut and to give Florence a hairstyling for our anniversary. 

Biljana and Tina toured us off the beaten path to reveal the Croatia we would not have seen otherwise.

Biljana and Tina toured us off the beaten path to reveal the Croatia we would not have seen otherwise.

Our friends, Tina Vickov and Biljana Lambasa*, took pride in showing us local hidden treasures that are off the beaten tourist paths.  We have seen enough of the islands, lakes, waterfalls, fortresses, and historic landmarks that some of the local people say we now know more about Croatia than do many Croatians.  All I know is we have come to appreciate and love Croatia because the people we have met during our stay have not only opened doors for us.  They have also opened their hearts to us.  We know whenever our path should bring us back to Croatia that they will welcome us back like family. 

Overlooking Lake Vrana, Croatia's largest lake

Overlooking Lake Vrana, Croatia’s largest lake, with the Dalmatian Coast and islands in the distance

Thanks to the friendships that have been forged, Croatia will always occupy a special place in our hearts.

*Note: For information about lodging and tours, here are links for
Tina Vickov and Biljana Lambasa.

Cruising the Hidden Waterways of Croatia

The inland waterways near our hometown of Šibenik are scenic and peaceful, at least in the off-season.

The inland waterways near our hometown of Šibenik are scenic and peaceful, at least in the off-season.

Today was a day of discovery for me.  Nothing was disclosed ahead of time about where this excursion would be going.  My friends have been plotting to surprise me with an outing hosted by diving boat skipper, Emil Lemac.  It was finally revealed that our boat trip was to take us into the fjord-like waters near the mouth of the Krka River.  What did not come as a surprise was that I was offered a shot of rakija as we started off. 

Emil welcomes us aboard his comfortable powerboat.

Emil welcomes us aboard his comfortable powerboat.

Emil was our skipper back in September for our island boat excursion to Kornati National Park.  Summer is when he takes scuba divers to the islands for amazing underwater exploration.  Winter, when there is not a commercial diving job, is when Emil and his brother maintain an oyster and mussel farm they just seeded this year. 

Some villages hug the hillsides near the shoreline

Some villages hug the hillsides near the shoreline

There are only a few villages clinging to these sheltered shores.  The area remains quiet and unspoiled, at least at this time of year.  Emil informs me that as many as 800 boats per day cruise in and out of these inland waterways during the summer months including fancy yachts.  The townspeople of Skradin seem unduly impressed by the rich and famous celebrities that vacation there, and that, of course, gives the town its appeal.  Famous people can escape their busy lives here with some degree of anonymity.

The water is like glass as we enter the Gudića estuary.

The water is like glass as we enter the Gudića estuary.

Our cruise takes us to a quiet estuary at the mouth of the Gudića (GOO dee sha) River.  No Entry signs are posted in Croatian and English along the shore.  I am told the area is a bird sanctuary.  I can see by the reeds crowding the shore that this is an ideal nesting area for migratory waterfowl. 

A swan swims by to see if we have any food to give away. (We don't.)

A swan checks us out while we stop for lunch.

This tranquil spot was our lunch stop.  Emil and his friend, Boris, readied fresh fish for the frying pan.  I helped make a green salad.  A fresh loaf of bread and a bottle of wine appeared and we feasted while basking in sunshine and listening to pop music playing softly on Emil’s onboard sound system. 

Standing at the mouth of the bat cave

Standing at the mouth of the bat cave

On the return trip Emil led me up a hillside scramble to a bat cave he knew about.  It is not visible from the water below, so not many people visit this cave.  There were plentiful signs of bats which Emil informed me were numbered in the hundreds and were sleeping somewhere another 200 yards deeper into the cave.  There were also signs of wild boar which are common in this habitat.

The surrounding countryside is beautiful.

The surrounding countryside is beautiful.

As we headed back to the dock, we meet up with an interesting older gentleman named Zivko.  He rents apartments in his modern building near the shoreline.  He has created sculptures in his garden which symbolize our galaxy and Earth’s fragile place within it.  His site serves as a message to all who visit that we are stewards of this beautiful place, and he warns us we must all tread lightly to keep from destroying the planet for future generations.  Having just spent the day in the garden-like setting of this stunning landscape, I also hope this place retains its unspoiled beauty for all the generations of visitors who may pass this way.

 

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. 

 

The 6 Monthers Prepare to Move Again

Looking back on our time in Šibenik, we will remember living near the iconic Cathedral of St. James.

Looking back on our time in Šibenik, we will remember living near the iconic Cathedral of St. James.

My wife and I are The 6 Monthers because we choose to live in a new country every six months.  We chose the six month time span because we now have time to visit more places and see more of the sights each country has to offer.  We also choose to live like the locals.  We rent an apartment to use as our base.  We shop where locals shop and we eat like locals eat.  Six months may seem like a long time in which to stay in a country, but it goes fast because here we are preparing to move once again.

The 6 Monthers overlooking Sarajevo, Bosnia.

The 6 Monthers overlooking Sarajevo, Bosnia.

This current six month interval was divided into two three month periods for a couple of reasons.  First, we were invited to visit Croatia in September as photo and blog journalists by Dhar Media for a Touristar production called Discover Croatia.  Our intensive 24 day series of excursions opened our eyes to the beauty and historic wonders of Croatia, and we knew we would love to return.  Second, we found our move to Scotland forced us to live at the extent of our budget because there were hidden costs to living there.  Perhaps ‘undisclosed’ is a more accurate term.  Florence wrote a story with details for anyone who is interested. 

Outside the walls of the medieval city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Outside the walls of the medieval city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

We have a month left before we depart.  We will celebrate our sixth anniversary the weekend before Christmas by throwing a party at a waterfront restaurant for all of our friends here in Croatia.  We will also celebrate Christmas and New Years here in Šibenik.  We have been the grateful beneficiaries of much kindness and caring on the part of our Croatian hosts, and celebrating with them is an appropriate way to express our appreciation.

Picturesque Mlini, just south of Dubrovnik

Picturesque Mlini, just south of Dubrovnik

We have completed most of our research for our next move.  We leave January 3rd to catch the overnight ferry from Split, Croatia, to Ancona, Italy.  I have not yet seen Rome, so we will spend a week there to take in the many sights that must be seen.  We will also submit our papers for dual citizenship with Italy while in Rome.  The application process has been time-consuming.  We are hopeful the final approval will be forthcoming in the next few months.  Traveling in Europe on Italian passports will solve a lot of issues when visiting Schengen Alliance countries.

Vela Spila cave, an archeological site on the island of Korčula with human remains 20,000 years old.

Vela Spila cave, an archeological site on the island of Korčula with human remains 20,000 years old.

After Rome we will fly to Barcelona, Spain, where we will spend at least four days seeing the sights.  I look forward to strolling past the shops along La Rambla and visiting La Boqueria Market, sampling tapas, and viewing Gaudi architecture.  Maybe we will even get inside La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s crowning achievement that has yet to be completed.  Tourists line up for hours to view the cathedral during the high season.  We simply cannot overlook this landmark on our ABC Tour.*

Vineyard and olive country on the island of Pag

Vineyard and olive country on the island of Pag

We will visit Madrid for a few days before settling in Alicante, Spain, for the next six months.  I look forward to improving my Spanish during our stay.  We will soon be sharing our stories from Spain on our next adventure, life on the Costa Blanca.  There are so many places to visit with romantic and familiar names:  Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Malaga, Bilbao, and more. 

If you have a favorite memory of Spain or a destination you wish to see some day, please share your comments.  I would love to know.

*Note:  ‘ABC’ stands for Another Blessed Cathedral, a reference made numerous times on this blog.

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.

Market Day in Šibenik, Croatia

Overlooking the first fruit vendor booth at the fresh market

Overlooking the first fruit vendor booth at the fresh market

The fresh market in Šibenik, Croatia, is open every day.  However, Saturday morning is when shoppers turn up in large numbers and the most vendors are set up to serve them.  This is one occasion where I make no effort to avoid the crowds. 

I embarrassed the bread lady when I asked for a photo.

I embarrassed the bread lady when I asked for a photo.

Surrounding the open air market is an array of meat and cheese shops and my favorite bakery kiosk where my preferred baguette of whole grain bread costs $1.20.  I have returned so often that the lady no longer needs to ask me what I want. 

There is a fish market and several butcher shops.  However, I am eating mostly vegetarian these days, so I peruse these shops mostly out of curiosity.   I will say it is a good thing I no longer have a barbecue grill, because I cannot envision this vegetarian lifestyle if there were a grill on my deck.

The vine ripened tomatoes look awesome.

The vine ripened tomatoes look awesome.

I love the hum of the crowd and the animated vendors encouraging shoppers to take advantage of their great deals.  And most of the fruits and vegetables are great deals.  I bought a pomegranate for 60 cents.  We mix and match a variety of apples for about 40 cents/pound, and we get pears for about 65 cents/pound.  Carrots, broccoli and cauliflower are about the same.  Potatoes and onions are quite inexpensive.  Bananas are over 90 cents/pound because they come from Ecuador or Costa Rica.  However, we save so much on other produce that we do not mind paying extra for bananas.  The eggplants, which are not my favorite vegetable, look amazing.  They are thin and firm with few seeds, perfect for the way Florence cooks them and the way I most enjoy them (recipe below).

Fish and meat, cheese, honey and condiments - there is much more than produce available at the market.

Fish and meat, cheese, honey and condiments – there is much more than produce available at the market.

Florence’s Recipe for Baked Eggplant Wafers

Mike has never been a fan of eggplant, especially when it is cooked in thick slices that become mushy when baked.  However, when I bake thin wafers of eggplant so that they come out of the oven with the texture of a cookie, there are seldom leftovers.  He even requests them if we have gone a long time without having had some.

Ingredients: 

2 or 3 small to medium-sized eggplants
Approximately 1 cup of bread crumbs
¼ cup olive oil
1 egg or egg substitute

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350°F

Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and spread a layer of olive oil across the sheet.

Peel eggplants and slice into thin wafers no more than ¼” thick.  Bathe in whipped egg and then coat both sides of eggplant wafers in bread crumbs. 

Lay bread crumb-coated eggplant wafers on oiled cookie sheet and bake about 20 minutes on one side or until they begin to brown.  Remove cookie sheet from oven and flip eggplant over to bake on second side also until lightly browned.  They will come out of the oven with the texture of a cookie that is crispy on the outside and still slightly moist inside.  Serve hot. This recipe will yield two or three sheets of baked eggplant wafers depending on the size of the eggplants.

Save leftovers to snack on either cold or reheated.  Try using some leftovers in a sandwich.

If you try this recipe, let me know if you like it or any variations you may have tried.