Croatia Calling

Terraced beach on the Dalmatian coast near Dubrovnik

 Last September I had the good fortune to accompany my friend Karen to her apartment on the Croatian island of Milna.  She insisted on doing all the driving, about 1,200 kilometres or 750 miles. I felt like chauffeured royalty.

Port at Milna

 En route we detoured to Varenna along Lake Como in northern Italy for a two-day break.  (See a previous post, “Bellissimo Lago di Como,” with many photos of the stunning area.) 

Serenity on the Dalmatian coast

The island of Mljet. There is a National Park on the western part of the island.

The journey from Varenna to Milna was long. We waited in a line of cars for almost two hours to cross the border from Slovenia into Croatia. When we reached Split after a day and half of driving from Varenna, my dedicated driver finally had a rest. We boarded our first ferry for the trip to her island. 

Sunset on the Adriatic

Ferries, all sizes,  are the mode of transport  among the Croatian islands. The country claims more than 1,000 islands, but most are small and uninhabited. Some ferries transport cars and people. Some are for passengers only.  Backpackers, families with kids and dogs in tow, old and young – all aboard.  We rode many during our week’s stay.

Karen’s apartment sits atop a hill not far from the ferry stop in Milna.  This was her last visit. She had recently sold the apartment which she had owned for 13 years.  The long trips to reach Milna were getting to be too much.

During our stay we visited other islands, swam in sparkling waters at idyllic beaches, and ate very well. Croatia is paradise for fish and seafood lovers.  We savored  monk fish with truffle sauce, black risotto with shrimp, fettucine with seafood, mussels, calamari, and scrumptious seafood platters. 

I was keen to visit Dubrovnik where I had been many, many  years ago on assignment for the newspaper Stars and Stripes. I remembered those monumental city walls.

Le Stradun, main artery in the old city of Dubrovnik

Instead of staying in the city, we splurged on a luxurious  coastal hotel.    A bus took us to town where we joined numerous other visitors to walk atop the walls which are considered one of the best-preserved medieval fortification systems in Europe. Wall statistics:  1,940 meters long encompassing five forts, 16 towers and bastions. And steps: 1,080.

A Dubrovnik must: A walk/climb on the ancient walls around the town
Get your exercise climbing 1,080 steps on Dubrovnik’s walls.

More steps, a grand total of 4,343, are within the city perimeter. And cats.  Everywhere. As a  cat lover, I was thrilled and spent too much time trying to get the perfect feline photo.  The kitties  are accustomed to all the attention and seem to pose for photos as they lounge in the middle of plazas, take a cat nap on restaurant chairs, curl up in flower pots, saunter through cobbled alleys.

Dubrovnik cats are considered its oldest citizens.  Their ancestors helped fight the bubonic plague carried by rats.  The plague ravaged the city in the 14th century when Dubrovnik, known as Ragusa, was a main trading hub between Europe and the Ottoman Empire.  Trading boats, coming from all around the Mediterranean,  brought goods to the city, ship cats who disembarked — and the plague.   The cats were welcomed and treated well for their help in fighting the disease.

12th century cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor

Even more cats wander freely in Kotor, a coastal town in neighboring Montenegro.  I had read about the country’s spectacular coast and wanted to visit since it was so close  We set off to Kotor with scenery photo opps the entire way. Those travel articles did not exaggerate.  Kotor, like Dubrovnik, has a medieval old town, lively squares and twisty streets.

A stop for a stroll in Perast on the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

The Kotor cat is a symbol of good luck.  As in Dubrovnik, cats originally arrived via ships. They helped control the rat population, as well as snakes and other nasty critters from  nearby mountains. Today the cat also contributes to the Kotor economy.   Cat shops selling feline souvenirs and cat paraphernalia are popular.  There is a cat museum. As one blogger wrote, Kotor is for “cat-o-holics” (me).

Before we returned to Milna, we spent a day lounging at our hotel, marveling at the beauty of the surroundings, swimming in the clear water, and taking too many photos.  We did not want to leave.

I loved swimming in these waters, but was too chicken to jump from the rocks.

Croatia rates three Michelin stars plus – definitely “worth  a visit.” Croatians are friendly folk, and English is widely spoken.

 Thank you, Karen, guide extraordinaire, for sharing your  swansong journey with me.

More photos follow.

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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Croatia is a Mecca for sailors and their boats. In Milna we met a Texan with his boat.
Blissful beach in Montenegro
Primosten, a village and municipality on the Adriatic coast

Celebrating in Croatia

Another wedding.  This time in Nasice, Croatia.  Zrinka Habuda, 29, the daughter of husband Bob’s second cousin, Dubi, married Slobodan “Bocko” Licinic, 35, on March 5.

It was a rollicking event.  Mountains of food. Ample quantities of wine and slivovica (plum brandy, the potent national beverage). Non-stop music.  Spirited song.  Lively dance.  For hours… and hours …. and hours. 

For us, festivities got under way at the bride’s home at about 1 p.m.  Close friends and family of the bride gathered to savor platters of smoked meat, a variety of pastries, glasses of wine and/or that wicked brandy, while a five-piece band belted out tunes that everyone knew.  As guests arrived, Marija, Zrinka’s sister, pinned most with a swig of rosemary decorated with a tiny ribbon of Croatia’s national colors. A tradition, she told me. Close family members and those in the wedding party got small corsages. 

As the crowd mushroomed and the liquid refreshment flowed, the party heated up.  Most everyone sang – loud, hearty voices.   Song after song, mainly jaunty ethnic tunes, and they knew the words to all.  They danced, linking arms, making a circle, always in motion. 

Several hours later the groom and his family arrived. They had been celebrating in a similar fashion at his home.  Another tradition got underway.  Instead of his bride-to-be, Bocko was presented with a fake bride, one of Zrinka’s friends, head covered with a white cloth. 

The small apartment was crowded, but the celebrants still found room to dance.  The merry-making continued until it was time to move on to the church, about 5 p.m.  Before departing, Pavle, Zrinka’s father, gave a moving speech to his daughter which brought tears to some. 

Zrinka had a maid of honor and Bocko, a best man.  Zrinka also had two bridesmaids, but, unlike in the U.S., they wore street clothes instead of matching formal attire. The momentous event was well documented – two video photographers, and another for still shots.  

Candles provided a romantic, if not mystical, atmosphere in the old world Catholic  church.  The ceremony was short, and at the end the bride and groom stepped to the altar to sign numerous documents to make it all official. 

Long, long tables stretched across a vast room of a hotel in a town about 20 minutes away where the reception was held. The same band, now wearing matching white “folk costume” shirts, wasted no time to get on with the show. And, the guests were quick to move to the dance floor. 

Some 120 guests, a small wedding by Croatian standards, were treated to a wedding meal – more precisely meals.  Bottles of wine, juice, cola and vials of slivovica, as well as another type of brandy, sat on the long tables.   

The first course was the “obligatory” wedding soup (chicken noodle) which is always served at Croatian weddings.  Then bowls of tender boiled beef and carrots.  Next came stuffed cabbage in  broth.  After that, cole slaw and tomatoes.  Then, enormous platters with big chunks of pork, lamb, and breaded schnitzel, surrounded by potatoes and mixed vegetables. Wedding cake would not be served until after midnight, so trays of pastries appeared after this over-the-top meal. 

“We need lots of food for energy.  We dance a lot,” one guest explained when I expressed astonishment as the food kept coming.  As the night wore on, the music and dance were equally as astonishing.  The band never took a break.   Nor did many of the dancers.  Song after song, they kept up the pace. The music was part ballroom, part folk, but always energetic.  

At midnight, a several-tiered wedding cake arrived.  The cutting ceremony was much like that in the U.S., but it was followed by a procession of all the guests who stepped up one by one to greet the happy couple and present their gifts. Most put an envelope with money in a basket held by sister Marija.  

In addition to the wedding cake, some seven or eight lavishly decorated cakes covered a table. It’s a tradition that each bridesmaid, as well as any others who wish to display their baking skills, bring a cake.  “It’s more like showing off,” Marija said. 

Even after all that food, I had to try a few small bites of these delicacies.  The wedding cake, layered with fruit and custard, was the clear winner. 

I was growing weary, but not the other guests. Maybe if Bob and I were better dancers, we would have been more in the spirit.  But, we failed dancing lessons we took years ago when we lived in Germany.  So, we sat and watched the joyous revelers. 

We were told we had to stay for the traditional goulash served at 2 a.m. Yes, more food, but it was delicious Croatian fare.  And, we noticed a few people leaving after goulash, so we, too, said our farewells. 

We were back in the same room the next day at 1 p.m. for a luncheon, mainly tasty leftovers from the night before.  No music.  No song and dance.  The party goers, including the bridal couple now wearing jeans, were clearly weary.  No wonder. Marija said the dancing went on until 4:30 a.m. 

See recipe for “Palachinka” (Croatian crepes) in far column – my husband’s favorite.