This was a hard post to write, much harder than it was last year actually. I’ve been privileged to have traveled a fair amount this year and like always, I loved almost every new adventure. Some trips and experiences stand out from others though; some make more of an impact on our soul than others. That was the case this year when I visited Croatia for the first time.
So why did I pick Croatia over destinations like Antarctica and South Africa? Well, it was for the totality of the experience. Antarctica was an amazing trip, but it lacks certain components like culture, food and language. South Africa was my pick for 2012, so I wanted to instead opt for a country where I was a first time visitor. More than anything, I think Croatia was my favorite destination because it surprised me so very much.
Like all tourists, I entered the country with certain preconceptions on what to expect. Never have I been so wrong about a place though; almost everything I thought to be true was in fact wrong.
I had heard of Plitvice Lakes National Park and expected it to be beautiful, as it was. But I never knew that most of Croatia is indeed a remarkably beautiful place. Inland there are plenty of mountains, lakes and rivers, offering not only something nice to look at but a bounty of adventure activities as well. The coast is where things get really good though, seaside towns like Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik are stunning in their own right, but the islands just beyond are true natural works of art. There are hundreds of small islands along the coast, each offering something a little different, but always fulfilling the promise of a beautiful landscape.
This is where I got into trouble. For some reason I expected bad, boiled and bland food in Croatia, but in fact the cuisine is now one of my favorites anywhere in the world. Inland you’ll find hearty dishes like stews, red meat and game dishes. Along the coastal areas though you’ll find a much more Mediterranean and Italian influence to the cuisine. It’s common before most meals to enjoy some bread, cheese and olive oil – all made in Croatia of course, along with some stunning Croatian wines. We in the West don’t know a lot about Croatian wines because they just aren’t widely distributed yet. But wine making in this country goes back to the Greeks, and they definitely have some outstanding varietals on offer. My favorite experience though was the truly excellent, Italian inspired dishes I enjoyed. Located opposite the Adriatic Sea from Italy, the two countries have had a long and complicated past, but one of the great results of this history is the culinary influence. Without exaggeration, some of the best Italian meals I’ve ever enjoyed weren’t found in Italy, but in Croatia. (Don’t tell the Italians, they’ll get mad.)
Just like in food, travel has a special hidden sense that I call umami. It’s when the totality of everything far exceeds its components and a very unique experience and feeling is created. This happened to me in Croatia. I don’t know if it was the mind bogglingly beautiful sunsets, the wine or too much Pag cheese, but I was supremely happy and content throughout my time in Croatia. The memories I have are almost all happy and warm, a rare occurrence if you think about it. It’s a country I came to know in a very short amount of time and one I want to revisit and get to know even better. It’s this feeling of umami that ultimately drives us all to travel I think; to experience even fleetingly that moment of travel joy.
Croatia is a place that just has to be visited in order to appreciate, and I hope you’ll make plans to add it to your travel bucket list.