The first time I saw the Croatian coast on the Adriatic Sea was from the window of a bus going from the capital Zagreb to Dubrovnik. My immediate reaction upon witnessing that stunning view was, “How come I have never been here before?”
But I actually knew why. From the end of World War II until the 1990’s, what we now call Croatia was part of a country called Yugoslavia, a federation of six semi-autonomous republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia) that were forcibly held together along ethnic lines under the iron fist of Communist ruler Josip Tito (1892-1980). Although Communism in Yugoslavia was more liberal than that of the Soviet Union – people were allowed to travel and work abroad – it was only with Tito’s death and a Declaration of Independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 that Croatia became an independent country again. But the road to independence wasn’t easy.
Some of us still remember the war that erupted between Croatia and Serbia in 1991 – the Independence War – during the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Croatia’s determination to break away from the old block was met with strong opposition from its neighbor Serbia and its controversial ruler Slobodan Milosevic. To complicate things, Serbian minorities living in some parts of Croatia declared their allegiance to Serbia, and pledged an unofficial autonomy from Croatia. That act of defiance sparked a bloody conflict that included ethnic cleansing on both sides and only ended in 1995, when Croatians liberated the last of the lands occupied by Serbs in their territory. Thousands died on both sides, and hundreds of thousands had to flee their homes and were displaced.
Croatia won the war. Finally free of Communism and of Serbian control, it joined NATO and the European Unit as a parliamentary democracy in 1995. But the path to economic recovery has been hard and slow: the 2008 financial crisis led to mass unemployment and a high rate of emigration, something still occurring today on a smaller scale. Some elders complain that life was better under Tito, others – mostly the young – say that they want a free-market economy but with more jobs.
So, answering my own initial question of why I had not seen Croatia until 2021: first, there was no independent Croatia until 1995; second, it was part of a Communist country with many entry restrictions to foreigners. Last, but not least, Croatia was a country at war until recently, and attracting foreign tourists was probably not the number one priority of the new government. Now that is changing.
After hours on the bus, awestruck by the Adriatic Coast – with a deep blue color to the sea that I had never seen before, and so many islands near the shore – I arrived in Dubrovnik at the end of the day. The sun was setting over the sea and lights were being lit along the coast. From a hotel room just outside the Old Town I watched it all, looking out on the ancient port that has been controlled by Greeks, Romans, Venetians and many other powers throughout the last two thousand years. It was incredible!
The next morning I was eager to explore Dubrovnik. Croatia’s major tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Old Town looks so unchanged from medieval times that it was chosen as the location for the HBO series Game of Thrones, where it was called King’s Landing. But that’s the least of its attractions.
So that is how I started my three months in Croatia last summer, to do research for a book. I went from the south of the country, near Montenegro, to the north, the border with Slovenia. I can now say that Croatia is one of the cleanest, safest and most interesting countries I have ever seen. The people are friendly and welcoming, and its natural beauty has no match that I know of – when I thought I had seen it all, the next place would be even more impressive. I made friends in Croatia, and many times fantasized about owning a small stone house by the water on one of its more than twelve hundred islands. I still do.
I think I can say that I saw most of Croatia. But my love affair with it started right in Dubrovnik…
To be continued…
For more on my Croatian trip go to my Instagram page thewriterontheroad