The human mind is a strange thing. At one moment it can be the most impressive creation in the history of the world, completing countless tasks and being a genuine marvel of nature. Then it can be an anchor, weighing us down in thoughts of negativity and inflexible misconceptions. We all deal with the duality of the brain and I experienced it recently before a trip to Croatia when, in spite of everything I knew, the first thought I had was of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
And I know I’m not alone, my traveling companion experienced the same thing when friends asked her if traveling through Croatia is safe. Now, looking back at that question it seems impossibly silly, but I do understand its origins.
In the early 1990s I was in high school and as an avid news junkie remember well the wars that plagued Croatia, the violence perpetrated by the Serbians and the eventual entry of the US and NATO forces. I remember the stories of atrocities, bombardments and human misery on a frightening scale. That was my first introduction to the former country of Yugoslavia, just as it was for many of my countrymen, and because of that those images remain as the only information we have on this part of the world.
And that’s what Croatia is up against. Think about it for a moment. When someone mentions the word Ethiopia to you, do you think of its impressive history or of the famine in the 1980s. I’m willing to bet it’s We Are The World and the famine, something that took place (and ended) 30 years ago. The Yugoslav Wars ended 20 years ago and yet here we still are, thinking about them and letting them color our perception of what is in my opinion one of the most beautiful and engaging countries I’ve ever visited, Croatia.
I thought Croatia would be dark at times, full of Communist era buildings, dour people with no humor and so on. None of this proved to be true. Walking around Zagreb, the capital, I saw some Communist style buildings but more often I saw architecture from far earlier periods, marvelous eras when design clearly shined. I also learned that no one likes the ugly block buildings and gradually they are disappearing one by one.
I learned that the Croatians not only have a sense of humor, but they thrive on a keen sense of sarcasm. Having gotten into trouble more than once with entire countries full of people who don’t understand my sarcastic nature, I fit right in while visiting Croatia. Not only were they funny, they were warm, friendly and incredibly generous. The little moments of simple gestures of good will are too many to name, but they transformed my trip into something amazing.
I was in Croatia in partnership with Croatian Tourism to show the true face of the country, to show people around the world what traveling there is really like and what a first time visitor should try to experience. I’ve visited a lot of places but Croatia made a special impact. Its diversity in natural beauty, grand cities and effusive people made my travel experience there joyful in every way.
I left the country incredibly grateful for the opportunity not just to visit some nice new places, but for the experience itself. In less than a week my entire perception of Central Europe and the Balkans shifted dramatically and I gained new respect for Croatia and her people. They have some problems, no doubt there. They’re dealing with a bad economy, high unemployment, post-Communist capitalism and of course the horrible scars of their War of Independence. I am confident though that these crosses to bear will only make them stronger as they intuit their way to a new future and I can’t wait to visit again and again and watch this transformation for myself.
In short, I thought Croatia would have physical beauty but little else to offer. I was wrong. Horribly wrong. I loved the country, her people and everything I saw and did. I can’t wait to share with you everything that makes the country special, but more importantly like me I hope you will avoid prejudging a country before you visit. As I’ve learned, there’s something good, and sometimes many things great, about almost every nook and cranny on this beautiful planet.