Many years ago, when I was in boarding school, a new student appeared who said he was a Croat. The word had no meaning for me. The boy might have added that his family came from Croatia, but at that moment independent Croatia didn’t exist. It, along with other ethnic Balkan countries, was part of Yugoslavia. Of course, as an imperfectly informed teenager in 1960, I knew nothing of these things. In 1991, Croatia declared its independence, then had to fight for four years to achieve it. Finally, the country was free to chart its own destiny, and a few years later, life gave me the freedom to experience it.
I remember how exciting was that first visit that included the historic coastal city of Dubrovnik. All during my young life, Croatia, like all the other Balkan and East European countries, had lived behind an “iron curtain” and were shut off to westerners. Now, most were open to tourists, and in the early years of the 21st century, Kay and I, living in Turkey, took full advantage.
Singer-songwriter Paul Simon called these the “times of miracle and wonder.” I think we’re still waiting for the miracle, but wonder is all around us if we have the curiosity to look for it.
Since that first visit to Dubrovnik in 2007, I’ve returned to Croatia several times, always with Kay until this last time. Croatia has been a part of our lives mostly because the annual conference of the International Society of Contemporary Literature and Theatre (ISCLT) has met there three times since we became members. In addition to their intellectual activities per se, each conference includes full-day and half-day group excursions to destinations both well-known and obscure, but always interesting.
I’ll never forget our first year as new members when the conference was held at the small town of Lovran on the coast of the Istrian Peninsula. From our comfortable hotel we could walk along the Croatian Rivera past the former summer homes of the grandees of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some of these are now elegant hotels.
Walking the Lungomare toward the city of Opatija we would pass holiday makers sunning themselves on flat seaside rocks before arriving at what we recognized as a stone beach.
Other conferences, including this year’s, were held at the lovely Hotel President in the village of Solin, a suburb of Split, whose principal claim to fame is the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian containing his large mausoleum that was converted to a church in a later century. One of the very few Roman emperors to actually retire, Diocletian spared no expense in either materials or manpower to build his enormous palace enclosed by a high wall, most of which is still standing. As the story goes, he chose the location because it was near the town of Solana where he had been born and whose ruins have been excavated and can be visited. Kay and I toured the palace and especially the mausoleum on a couple of occasions and found them to be extraordinary and among the greatest ruins of Roman civilization extant anywhere.
Croatia has many islands along its long Dalmatian Coast. This year, we ferried from Split to one of the largest. Brać had several attractions, including in the town of Pucišca where we were allowed into a school for stone carvers.
The island is known for a pure white limestone of a kind less porous than others. It was that stone that Diocletian commanded be used to build his palace and it may also have been used as the material of America’s White House. What we saw at the school were works in various stages of completion. Several were copies of decaying statues that needed replacement. Others, like carved window frames installed in the building itself were complete and very well done.
We were told that our next stop would be an abandoned village where were to have lunch. Intrigued, on arrival we found two long tables set for a meal and with a space between where our hostess placed a large, shallow roasting pan filled with pieces of lamb, sausages, potatoes, onions, and carrots. All had been cooked together and with their juices mingled they tasted wonderful. Pitchers of red and white wine and helpings of home-made corn bread accompanied the above. It was an excellent meal in a quiet, distinctive setting and a highlight of our conference week.
Our conference, the 47th, is held annually during the last two weeks of July usually in Europe. Due to the pandemic, the conferences of 2020 and 2021 were conducted on Zoom and did not meet in person. Thus, this coming together again after the long hiatus was a big deal. Unfortunately, a few days before Kay and I were to fly to Croatia on our first European trip since 2019, we were both diagnosed with Covid-19. I tested negative in time for me to attend the second week of the conference while Kay did not.
Our approach has been to extend our stay in the country either before the conference or after and do some sightseeing on our own. This was how one year we uncovered the pleasures of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital and largest city.
Another year, it was how we were able to spend a day in the wonderful Plitvice Lakes National Park. This year, we had intended to go together to Varaždin, a city in the far north of the country near the borders of Slovenia and Hungary. As it turned out, I went alone for four days at the end of the conference.
Varaždin is very old and was Croatia’s capital for twenty years until an 18th-century conflagration destroyed most of it. Its historic section has wide streets and an abundance of Baroque-era architecture. What it doesn’t have is an abundance of tourists; I saw almost none, a remarkable thing at a time of year when overtourism can make for hellish sightseeing.
There is much more to say about travel in Croatia, and I hope this will encourage discriminating travelers to discover it for themselves.