LIFESTYLE Travel & Food  >  Grand Tour Part 2: Starting Over in Croatia

Grand Tour Part 2: Starting Over in Croatia

Hvar Island
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BY MARY JANE HORTON

I didn’t have a great introduction to Croatia. The ferry I took from Ancona Italy to Split, in Croatia, had seen way better days. I should have known from the sign that said “Low Cost” plastered all over it. The people on the ship were nice enough, yet the older women smacked of having lived through a communist regime. The main problem, though, was no fault of theirs. Weather. Choppy, stomach-wrenching weather.

I had tried all day to get there in time. I missed all of my connections because of a train strike in France (where I was coming from). It was a horrendous day of having to rebook trains with people who only mildly cared. Very frustrating. And there I was, finally having made it, throwing up in my cabin. “Twelve hours,” I kept telling myself. I only have to wait this out for 12 hours. But after a couple of hours, I think I actually fell asleep.

Arriving in Split early in the morning, I begged the cab driver to take me to my hotel even though he pointed and said “it’s over there.” Now that I understand the city better, I see why. Split is a little city with charm to spare, and somehow it represents Croatia. The oldness and the newness. Croatia is a country that is starting anew. After being part of Yugoslavia, enduring the Soviet-era dictator, Tito, then the wars that broke Yugoslavia apart, war and Slobadan Milosevic, who was accused – but never convicted of war crimes — Croatia has been quite a bit. But now, since 1991 it is a brand new free country. And it shows.

Split, a Big Party

Split is the sight of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace –building was begun on this masterpiece in AD 293 — and it is still there!  Diocletian grew up nearby and after he ruled in Rome, he wanted to retire near his hometown so he built his city by the sea.  The city is just amazing because it is a UNESCO protected city, but the ruins are incorporated into the homes and buildings – into people’s everyday lives. There is a bank in which the floor is one of the roads that divided the city.  So they have something old – and precious to offer – and, with their new freedom, they seem to have a new lease on life with which to do it.

All throughout the streets of Split – the second largest city in the country, after its capital of Zagreb – there is singing in the streets all of the time. People are proud be Croatian – and even if they don’t have the latest and greatest gadgets on earth, they seem to be happy.  I suppose the intensity of the feeling of starting over, and the individual sense of contentment, has to do with to whom you talk and how old they are. One day I talked to a man who was working – or owned – a café by the beach and he gave me an abbreviated history lesson.  From his perspective, Tito wasn’t the despotic ruler that he was made out to be and that everyone was equal in those days with free health care and education.  He did say that the war years were very bad. He seems very happy today – not rich, but comfortable – and says that he has everything he wants, he and his family have a house in the city and one on an island, and all seems to be well with the world. It is amazing how bad politics turned good can make for contentment.

Most of the people in Croatia are wonderful, helpful and fun loving. There are some, though, whose faces show the toll of the political situations through the years. Everywhere you go in the city there are outdoor cafes where people are having coffee or a drink, sitting, and taking in the sights. Granted, many of them are tourists, but many are also Croatian (I have an ear for the language now). No one is rushing anywhere, except maybe to a ferry to go to one of the nearby islands, or back to their cruise ship (lots of the them make port there).  The food is very pure and simple and mostly organic (even though no one talks about it – it’s just the way it is)

The Island and The Big City

After Split I went to Hvar Island. It is an hour catamaran ride from Split and I kept reading that it is the place where “jetsetters” and royals go. Maybe, but not when I was there. I hit it just before the season started, so it wasn’t really up and running yet. But it was a beautiful and peaceful place. I could hear the water lapping up on the sidewalk just outside my room.  I stopped into a jewelry shop and got another story of the “real” Croatia. The jeweler, whose silver and gold designs were intricate and very different from all of the mass-produced jewelry in the other stores, knew he had talent but had no way to get his designs out to the world – no international sales reps or internet sales – said, “This is the way it is in Croatia, I am just happy that some people come in the summer, like my jewelry and buy it.” Contentment again…

Back on the mainland, I took a train to Zagreb where I am now. Along the way, I saw some of the remnants of the war – houses with roofs that had been bombed. Whole little towns that seem deserted. And in quite the juxtaposition, I am staying at the Esplanade, which was a stop for people who were on the Orient Express. This is a grande dame of an old hotel – the kind I use to go to with my parents. The city is very cosmopolitan and the people more citified than in Split or on Hvar.  But, still everyone wants to explain the traditional Croatian dishes – such as “little fried cakes” that you stuff with cottage cheese and vegetables – they want to tell you about their wares – such as the fresh lavender that grows like weeds, and they want to tell you how proud they are to be Croatian. I have really fallen in love with Croatia, yet I feel like I have just scratched the surface of this young, yet old country. It seems so complex and deep and I feel like I could stay for months.

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