The secret is out: Croatia is not ‘undiscovered’

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The guidebooks say there’s still an “undiscovered” quality about Croatia.

Those guidebooks are not talking about July and August in the seaside towns along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. It’s peak tourist season here, and Sarge is cursing the tourist drivers as if he were a local.

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The boys and I have taken in some sights, even if we have been elbow-to-elbow with people walking the streets of Old Town Zadar or gazing at waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s a wonder we didn’t see anyone in the Plitvice crowd pushed off the park’s boardwalks on the water’s edge. But I guess they have railings where it really counts. (The park is stunning, by the way).

Croatia was undiscovered, at least to me, before we moved here. It was under my radar, and I had to look up Zadar on a map when we found out we had the opportunity to move here. Sarge says all the convincing it took was for me to look at Croatia’s proximity to Italy on a map. I was ready to move as soon as he said, “Go!”

Italy has a place in my heart because I’m part Italian on my mother’s side, and my grandfather used walk around his house in Kentucky singing songs like, “’O Sole Mio.” That was one of his favorites. I heard that song here and imagined the singer to be my late grandfather.

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Italian flavor of many of the towns here. I had no idea that Pula, on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, has a well-preserved Roman colosseum that rivals the one in Rome. Or that the fishing port of Rovinj is “the most Italian town in Croatia” and is officially bilingual (Italian and Croatian). The flavor extends to the foods. I’ve had the best cheese and prosciutto here I’ve ever tasted. And the wine isn’t bad, either.

My preconceived notions of Croatia were that it would have lots of Communist-era architecture and be pockmarked from the war of the early 1990s. There is some of that. But there is lots of beauty beyond those scars.

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I’m struck by the old windows and doors here that function despite their age – and the old people here who function despite their age, making it up steep streets of cobbled stone, walking the stairs to their apartments and leaning out their windows with brightly colored shutters to hang their laundry.

I’ve heard people say that parts of Croatia are “what Italy used to be.” I’m sure the crowds here don’t rival the summer crowds across the Adriatic in Italy. But the charm of Croatia is no longer a part of secret Dalmatia. The word is out. I’m just another American discovering what Eastern Europeans have known for decades. It’s a pretty good time to be here, even if I have to bump elbows with other tourists.

May Day Holiday at Krka National Park

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Today is a holiday in Croatia. It’s May Day. Since this is a mostly Catholic country, I thought it would be a religious celebration. When I was growing up in Catholic school, we always celebrated May Crowning at the beginning of May. It was a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we would carry flowers to the Mary grotto. One lucky student would get the honor of placing a crown of flowers on the Mary statue’s head.

When I lived in Hawaii, May Day was Lei Day, and it was a way to celebrate island culture and wear beautifully scented flowers.

Here, May Day is a public holiday more like Labor Day. It’s International Workers’ Day, and most businesses are closed. It also marks a feast day in the Catholic faith of St. Joseph, Mary’s husband, a carpenter and the patron saint of workers.

Sarge had the day off, the kids were off school, and I’m still on vacation from my job that is going to let me work remotely. So we decided to mark the holiday with a trip to Croatia’s Krka National Park, known for its seven waterfalls.

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We drove for about an hour along the coast, and the view was stunning. Croatia has more than a thousand islands dotting the Adriatic Sea. We saw billboards for the “Island of Love,” shaped like a heart. Aside from the beauty of the landscape, it also warmed my heart to see so many elderly people out in the towns walking around. These are some hearty people. I think I’ve seen only one wheelchair since we’ve been here and no electric scooters in the stores. Either older people are healthier than Americans, or those who can’t get around just stay home.

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Today, it looked like everyone was out with their whole families. The national park was packed. We saw lots of strollers and selfie sticks, grandparents out with their kin and even a group of nuns. Two older Italian women tried to ask me where I got a bottle of pear seltzer water. I wasn’t sure how to answer since they didn’t speak English. Sarge said I should have just said: “Supernova.” They have everything at the Supernova.

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But I’m pretty sure the Supernova and the vegetable markets are closed today, and we have nothing in the fridge for dinner. So it looks like we’re going out. We saw and smelled some pit-roasted pork stands on the way back from the park. We’re going to venture back out and follow our noses.

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