I do not think a broad description of Croatia would do this spectacular country the justice it deserves. Seduced and in love, I have been willingly coerced into writing an sweeping treatise on the beauty, the people, the food, the drink, and the experience of my Istrian adventure. So get comfortable, pour yourself a glass of wine or a pint and celebrate the land of my ancestors and perhaps your own.
Like Norway, I arrived in Croatia with a thunderstorm tailing my steps. The sky darkened, and I with an overstuffed pack weighing heavy on my shoulders made a split second decision to either walk to the BnB in which I would be staying the night or take a cab. It took the cab-driver standing on the curb a total of three seconds to realize that I was indecisive, aware of the encroaching storm, and an American. It was the hat, he later told me in broken English – the crushable cowboy hat I bought from Duluth Trading Co, vented and comfortable, which makes me look very American.
Before I knew it, my bag was stowed safely in the trunk of a Citroen C1, and myself riding shotgun with the window open enjoying the warm Istrian air. A wooden rosary and a picture of Michael the Archangel encased in plastic twisted around each other and swung in unison around a turn as the cab-driver started speaking indiscernible Croatian, his gold ringed hand resting lazily on the five-speed stick, and my eyes taking it all in. I am in Croatia, this is unreal. Lines of fig trees and their adolescent fruits, the roughened bark of the sycamore and spiky pomes of the chestnut tree stood along the avenues.
The address I had scribbled on a crumpled receipt said Ulica Marsovog, Pulja 13. Nearly as impossible as my cab-driver’s dialect, was apparently the location of my lodgings. With a look and an expression of bewilderment, my gold adorned motorist slammed on the brake and cursed.
U-turns in Croatia consist first of frustrated expletives under the breath and then a violent turn of the wheel, typically a nice little impact with the chipped curb comes next and then a renewed round of cursing, barely a glance behind before the gas pedal is slammed down hard and the pull away at an impossible break neck speed. Passersby will get a show, and perhaps a colorful series of hand gestures coupled with a vocabulary lesson in advanced expletives. So far a colorful experience.
At last, as the sun was disappearing under the horizon we found the desired location. The faded number “13” stood beside a half-opened gate and beyond a vast garden, verdant and colorful. This was the place. The meter rung 140 Kune, an exorbitant amount in this affordable country, and the most expensive purchase I have made so far in my travels here. I paid him, and walked through the gate and away from the approaching rain clouds.
Thunder and lightning and true darkness, with the television blaring in the next room I sat at the kitchen table with a full plate of heirloom tomatoes, a loaf of bread and a glass of homemade wine. Spicy on the palate, but warming to the heart, the vintage was a welcoming surprise. My host did not speak a lick of English however the language divide did not stop us from erupting into laughter after a considerable series of hand-signals that would make a mime sweat. It was a strange, but apt introduction to Eastern Europe.
Later that night, a close friend from the states, Tiffany, met up with me. Exhausted from travel, upset plans, and adaptations that only come from the journeys we take in foreign lands, we were tempted to pass out, but not before walking in the rain through the nearly deserted streets of Pula to grab a “zima pivo” and a pizza. That cold, golden half liter of Istrian fable was enjoyed in the proximity of the ancient Roman forum, among stone walls, scalloped balconies, and wrought iron porticoes. Cobble stoned streets worn smooth from millennia of foot traffic shone like mirrors after the short-lived rainfall.
My first impression of Croatia was of an antediluvian modernity, a constantly contradictory appearance that is both beautiful and charming. Thousand year old stone above illuminated shopping malls, sycamore lined promenades with caffe-bars in the shade and motorcycles parked symmetrically down its length. Generosity and honesty is a common occurrence here, at a word these people will give you the shirt off their back and instead of a complicated list of directions, will act as your personal guide to your desired destination.
Everything here is so damn cheap, I love it. There are stands for homemade beer that are poured into mismatched 1 liter water bottles and then sold for a scrapping four dollars! Wine is sold the same way. Fruit trees line the streets, where unripened figs dance lazy in the wind and apples, though tart, hang seductively out of reach. After Norway, I look at the prices and realize with shock that a nice shirt costs 40 Kune ($8.00) and a half liter of beer runs me no more than 15 Kune – about $3.00! The croatian currency is the Kune which according to my couch surfing host is the word for “weasel,” whose pelt a hundred years ago was worth quite a bit. Right now, I got a pocket full of weasels and a whole country to explore.
Fish, though whole heartedly delicious and amazing, may be the most unflattering meal you can order in Croatia. Grilled whole after being fished from the sea, and put on a silver tray in front of you, its abysmal eyes stare up at the encroaching hands ready to tear it asunder. I made the first mistake of using utensils, later I found out that the only proper way to eat fish, is to use your hands. Rip off the scaly epidermis to reveal a buttery and meaty under layer, rife with vicious little bones that must be picked out of your mouth like sunflower shells. The skin is rather salty and actually really delicious, though not recommended for the first bite as it is a little tangy.
So much has happened in the week since I have left the North. The southern territories sparkle with life, and the beaches beckon you to their watery depths – the Adriatic is almost therapeutic though extremely salty and I cannot get enough of that clear water. The people are so healthy, browned by the sun, and always wearing these endearing smiles. An oddly enough, almost all the middle-aged men look like Uncle Marc – I often do double takes when they pass me on the street. I have so much more to explore, though for now, this passage and a few choice pictures shall suffice.