Return to Croatia
by Theresa Agovino
Wine maker and inn-keeper Zlatan Plenkovic was concerned. If we dallied after disappearing into our rooms to change before dinner, the freshly caught fish he was barbecuing could have been ruined. He enticed us to forgo freshening up by leading us to the expansive patio of his home-turned-hotel on the Croatian island of Hvar, where the sun was setting over the Adriatic, and pouring us glasses of his delicious red wine.
After a glimpse and a sip, I was hooked. I remained stationary for about five hours as food, wine and conversation flowed in a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere.
No one knew what the flaky white fish was called in English. No matter. Smothered in garlic and spices, it was very tasty, as were the green beans and tomatoes plucked from the Plenkovic garden right before the meal. The food, like the secluded hotel, was simple. But each benefited from the rustic setting.
Lounging and hiking around the Plenkovic House would be reason enough to return to Croatia. But the country offers much more, from the majesty of the port town of Dubrovnik to the natural beauty of the island of Mjlet.
"You're going where? Are you sure it is safe there?" my nervous mother asked when I told her I was traveling to Croatia, part of the war-torn former Yugoslavia. Although fighting in Croatia actually stopped in 1993--and was always limited to small parts of the country--images of the conflict from the evening news still remain vivid in most people's minds.
But today, Croatia is completely safe for a visit. The civil war ended in the country as a whole in 1995. Not only is there no residual, war-related violence, but crimes such as assaults and robberies are rare. Tourism is booming. About 4.3 million tourists--mostly from Italy, Germany, and Austria--visited the country in the first eight months of 1997, almost double the 2.6 million who arrived during all of 1996. Of those vacationers, fewer than 40,000 Americans arrive annually.
The only major tourist attraction in Croatia that sustained major damage was the best known--Dubrovnik. Although the city was severely shelled from late 1991 to mid-1992, reconstruction began during the siege and is now almost complete. Restoration was paid for by the Croatian government and the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund, a non-profit foundation of travel executives and concerned citizens, who raised money for the city.
The Fund and Atlas Travel, a Croatian tour operator, organized the tour I took through the country in September 1997, along with several donors, writers and travel agents. We found that life had returned to normal in Croatia. People were window shopping while eating ice cream cones, haggling with street vendors, commuting to work and attending Mass. Best of all, prices are still reasonable because tourism still hasn't reached pre-war levels.
The first stop on our journey showed just how eager the people of Croatia are to rebuild tourism in their country. Near Dubrovnik, in the small town of Cilipi, volunteers perform folk dances for visitors every Sunday. I usually only attend folk performances given by national companies, because I've been to too many hokey festivals where listless teenagers dance to please their parents.
However, the Cilipi show was fun. The dancers seemed genuinely to enjoy themselves as they swirled and stomped in their bright costumes. The stocky gray-haired leader who looked about 65 but had the energy of a 17-year-old was especially enthusiastic.
Of course, the dancing is a draw to get visitors to buy local handicrafts. But the embroidery is lovely. A travel companion bought a lovely framed piece of embroidery for $40. I saw a similar piece in Dubrovnik for $60.
We stayed in the small town of Cavtat in the Hotel Croatia, a modern establishment with a lovely pool overlooking the Adriatic. I spent the afternoon walking the delightful neighborhoods. Palm, fig and lime trees, grape arbors and wisteria peeked from stone courtyards guarded by pots of geraniums, wooden doors, and stray cats. Weaving through the streets, I discovered a few small, simple chapels, all loaded with fresh flowers.
But the most beautiful flower show was the most poignantly unexpected--at the pretty, yellow mausoleum on the hill in the center of town. Most of the graves were covered with carefully appointed arrangements that looked as if they were done professionally. But as I watched one family fuss over one array, I knew that wasn't the case. Of the 50 or so graves, I noticed that two dated from the recent war.
The next day we set out for the walled city of Dubrovnik, known as "the jewel of the Adriatic." The moniker is fitting: the seventh-century city positively gleams. Dubrovnik's main streets, as well as the store and church facades, are all made of limestone that shines like pearls.
No signs of war are evident, even though 52 shells hit the main street, leaving behind a trail of huge craters. Efforts to match the shades of limestone on the street were an absolute success.
Dubrovnik certainly has its share of impressive churches and monasteries. But to really appreciate its beauty, witness the Balkan lifestyle, and see some lingering effects of the war, a walk around the walls surrounding the city is a must.
The walls offer the best views of the red-tile roofs that are one of Dubrovnik's signatures. A donor on my trip made a contribution to the Rebuild Dubrovnik Fund, because as a child she had a jigsaw puzzle that depicted the roofs interspersed with shiny cathedral domes and stone bell towers. The field of terra-cotta shingles provides a bewitching contrast to the deep-blue Adriatic.
Along the route, I watched people repair the few homes that have yet to be renovated. I winced as I saw two rather heavy-set men scrambling around what remained of a roof, because it didn't seem to me there was enough tile to support them. They appeared unfazed by the flimsy structure, and waved to tourists passing by.
The walk also overlooks the maze-like, cobblestoned side streets of Dubrovnik. Although the town's main streets offer classic beauty, the back alleys are pure Balkan.
I've traveled frequently in the region, and have always appreciated how families and friends still manage to find time to sit around laughing and drinking coffee, even though both the war and the rebuilding of an economy have been so difficult. These affectionate encounters take place in backyards visible from the wall, as well as from windows across streets so narrow that neighbors can practically touch.
We traveled from Dubrovnik to the island of Mljet, one of Croatia's seven national parks. An oasis of lush greenery, Mljet offers miles of hiking trails beneath pine and oak trees along a craggy coast. An idyllic lake with a small island in its center houses an abandoned Benedictine monastery.
A haven for nature lovers, the island of Hvar has quaint towns where one can buy lavender in varying forms--the hills are blanketed with the plants. Seafood restaurants abound. We dined at lovely placed called Junior's, where I had some of the best fried calamari and garlic spinach I've ever tasted.
But I really enjoyed my stay at Plenkovic House, just a few minutes away from challenging hikes, secluded coves, and sandy beaches. In particular, I relished the five-hour hike I took in the vineyards with three other guests.
We never found the caves we were looking for, and I had huge scratches on my legs for a month from the bushes along the route. However, the vistas of the island and the Adriatic were spectacular. Plus, when I returned, I jumped right into the sea, and dried off over a glass of wine.
Atlas Travel Agency offers a wide variety of tours to Croatia, from wine tasting to sea kayaking. For more information: 1804 Riggs Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; Phone: (800) 738-4537; Fax: (202) 462-7160; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web-site: http://www.atlas-croatia.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Croatia."