Left: Cherry blossoms appear in Split, where people still live (and hang out their washing) in Emperor Dioclesian's vast Roman palace, today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Most people we spoke to as we planned the trip took a boat tour. Starting in Venice, they’d cruise the Adriatic, disembarking at the Croatian ports of Rijeka, Split or Dubrovnik. As I get seasick just looking at waves, we didn’t think this would be a great idea and we decided to do something different.
We flew from Zurich to Zagreb, hired a car and hit the road, spending two weeks exploring charming, complex Croatia. Here are some of my superficial impressions:
Language: As a lover of words, the Croatia language fascinated me. A symbol of the country’s identity it’s complicated, intriguing and enigmatic, as if it doesn’t have a solid sense of a separate identity. It appears to be a mixture of French (“je”), German (“und”), Russian (“da”) and Italian (“vino”). And yet, it’s unique, with an abundance of consonants and not enough vowels.
Right: A view of the National Theatre in Zagreb from the doorway of our private box. The theatre was marvellously opulent and the opera excellent but the chairs, I have to say, were the most uncomfortable I've ever sat in!
On our first evening in the country we went to the old National Theatre in Zagreb to see Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues de Carmelites”. There were sub-titles from the French in both English and Croatian displayed above the stage. I can honestly tell you there was no correlation between the two languages.
People: Like everything else in Croatia, the people were an intriguing mix. Reserved, yet friendly and very helpful, they reminded me of many white South Africans immediately after the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings in the 1990’s. Having seen a side of our country that made us look at ourselves very differently, we felt as if our very sense of identity had been stripped from us. We became anxious for acceptance in the international community but, reeling from past wounds (self-inflicted some would say), we were an uneasy mix of bravado and courage, hope and guilt. So to are the Croatians: ever anxious for acceptance into the European Union, they appear to be a mix of aspiration and dejection, hope and despair.
Left: This old woman was a vendor in a street market. Her weathered face reflects the endurance of the people; her slight smile their hope.
Religion: A strongly Catholic country (one guidebook said 98% Catholic), there is a predominance of sacred art. From rather creepy 11th century relics reverently protected in delicate gold caskets and reliquaries to towering marble sculptures, the sacred art is breathtaking.
From the tombs of the enormous Mirogoj Cemetery to the ancient Icons in Zadar and Dubrovnik, the faith of the Croatian people is both part of their past and their present. When one walks into a Cathedral or a small parish church in Croatia (many of them over 1000 years old!), there is a silence, a stillness, which thrums with the energy of their devotion. From the little old ladies muttering to their rosaries and dressed in widow-black, to the rows of young men and women sitting waiting outside the confessional booths, these ancient buildings are clearly houses of worship and not just the tourist attractions that so many other great Cathedrals throughout Europe and England have become.
Left: Husband Beric standing in front of the harbour at Split with Dioclesian's Palace and gathering storm clouds in the background.
It's Raining Men: Perhaps this strong connection with a traditional faith accounts for an interesting phenomenon we noticed. While in the cities there is a certain amount of gender mixing, we often noticed groups of men sitting around in café bars and restaurants, while the women worked in stores.
We arrived at the Mirogoj Cemetery – with its long arcades of family mausoleums and its tree-lined avenues, today still used as Zagreb’s burial place – when a funeral was in progress. The men walked in front of the priest, followed by the coffin, which in turn was followed by the mourning family and the procession ended with the women.
Food: Hot chocolate so thick it has to be spooned from the mug. Sheer bliss. Lots of pizza, pasta and risotto, probably a legacy of the centuries that the Dalmatian Coast was under Venetian rule. All delicious and fairly cheap, but after two weeks it was a pleasure to go to the National Restaurant Lička Kuća, where Beric (by now desperate for red meat) had lamb roasted under a bell.
Above Left: Our first taste of Croatian hot chocolate at the lovely Hotel Bastion in Zadar.
Architecture: From the institutional rows of council flats, which reminded one of how recently this country was under communistic rule, to the ancient churches such as the 9th century AD St Donat’s in Zadar, built over the Roman Forum originally constructed in 1st century BCE, Croatia’s architecture is, again, an intriguing mix.
Above Right: The exterior of the impressive National Theatre of Croatia in the capital Zagreb.
The Naming of Cats: One of the two main differences between Switzerland and Croatia was The Cats. In both our 2007 and 2009 visits to Switzerland, we saw one cat. That’s it, one forlorn feline and that was in Bern, the most eccentric of the Swiss places we’ve visited. But in Croatia…there were hundreds of cats everywhere. Cathedral cats. Boat cats. Roof cats. Street cats. Cats. Cats. Cats. And one very silly dog.
Above Left: A cat walking along the promenade towards the walls of the old city of Dubrovnik; the Adriatic Sea is in the background.
War & Peace: From the influx of the Illyrians in 1000BC, through the Romans, Ottomans, Venetians and the Yugoslavian Communist Party, Croatia has suffered under the effects of war and conquest. As recently as the war of 1991/95, which started in the Plitvice Lakes and spread to Dubrovnik, Croatia has had to rebuild time and time again. Nowhere is their determination and hope more visible then in these two places.
From the rubble of mortar attacks that left many dead, the ancient walls and streets of Dubrovnik have been lovingly repaired. As one wanders down the peaceful Placa (main street) the Old Town, the only reminders of this latest war are the carefully preserved shell holes in the walls of cathedral and homes alike.
Plitvice Lakes was the first place occupied during the 91/95 war. By the end of the war, the infrastructure sustaining this World Heritage site was completly destroyed by the invaders.
Now, it is a piece of Eden. The wooden walkways blend with the cascading lakes that form a jumble of waterfalls. One can see to the bottom of the clear blue-green waters and marvel at the ghostly fingers of algae that shimmer and sway in the currents as they cling to fallen logs and branches. We meandered for hours and hours, from one lake to another, the tumbling waters providing us with the illusion of solitariness amongst all this natural beauty. Our only disappointment was that we didn’t see either a bear or a wolf, the local wildlife that has begun re-inhabiting the area. We did see a furry mouse, but somehow that wasn’t quite as thrilling.
Left & Above Right: The wondrous Plitvice Lakes with their wooden walkways that carried us over still jade lakes and cascades rushing over waterfalls alike.
Best Experience: After a hair-raising drive through rain as we left Opatija, which become sleet then heavy snow, we arrived in Zadar in an awful downpour. The weather couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to rain or snow. We crept along narrow streets to find parking, and then limped our miserable, cold way to the hotel to book in. As we only had one afternoon in Zadar, we decided to brave the icy winds and try to see some of the sights. Dumping our luggage, we wrapped up and ventured out…into blue skies and bright sunshine (See right). The glorious weather stayed the whole afternoon and Zadar has earned a special place in our hearts.
Worst Experience: Leaving the surprisingly small Zagreb International Airport we collected our Avis car and headed for Zagreb city. Having never driven in a left hand drive vehicle nor on the right hand side of the road before, it was an, er, interesting journey to find our hotel in the centre of Zagreb.
I don’t know who was more scared, me or my navigator husband (who, once he realised that all street names in Croatia appear to have three or four different names, none of which match the maps, threw the maps out the window and proceeded to navigate like an expert). But that first drive was frightful, particularly when Beric cringed in the passenger seat and let out a scream of terror as we went under a bridge. I still can’t understand why he was worried: I barely nicked the mirror on his side of the car. Actually, you could hardly see the dent at all.
Another hair-raising experience was driving along the narrow streets of Dubrovnik and playing chicken with the moped drivers who, avoiding the snarl up of traffic in the oncoming lanes, would pop out of nowhere, fly down the wrong side of the road (MY side!) and then zoom back into their own lane moments before I had a heart attack.
Left: Views of the Adriatic as we meandered through the Marjan Forest in Split.
Right: The intricate detail of a brass swan on the banisters in the National Theatre in Zagreb.
And so now, it’s back to real life. But a life that has been forever shaded, however subtly, by our wonderous travel adventures through Switzerland and Croatia.
Left: A very silly dog. But I suppose I'd also be silly if I was left chained up all day by my owners. Reminds of the poor dog in Louise Erdrich's "The Painted Drum"