As we exited the plane and made our way to the baggage claim area to collect our things, my heart was full of excitement and nervousness. This trip to Croatia was one I had been anticipating for many years. I grew up in Canada as a first-generation Canadian. My parents immigrated in the 60’s, escaping a life of hardship and uncertainty from what was then known as Yugoslavia.
As a young Canadian I had been told many stories about the old country. Some stories described hardships, winters without shoes or warm jackets. Other accounts described a land where the hills and valleys rolled endlessly and the sea was a turquoise blue, calling out to you, to come get lost in its waves.
It felt as though a lifetime had passed since my first visit to Croatia. It had been my first trip overseas, I was young and naïve. My cousins took us out to all the happening spots that teenagers visit, we were free and foolish. I had the best time! It was a summer spent learning a little about my roots and what life was like for the family that stayed behind.
On this return trip to Croatia I would learn a little more about my family’s history. Our trip was exactly what I was hoping for and more than I expected. It was an opportunity to introduce my children to a part of their heritage that I struggled to describe in words. You see, one must experience Croatia to understand what it’s like to be Croatian. It is difficult to explain why it means so much [to a mother] to bring her children back to her parent’s homeland, to the country she was taught to love even though she hadn’t grow up there.
As we exited the airconditioned interior of the airport, the hot, humid air surrounded us and brought a smile to my face. It was happening, it was real, we were here. The kids would finally experience and begin to understand a whole new world that was already familiar to me, one that I had longed to reacquaint myself with.
From the Zagreb International Airport, we headed southwest into the rolling hills of the countryside. The air was heavy, a haze hung over the city, the product of a recent heatwave. I rolled down the window and let the warm air hit my face, an attempt to stay awake. The flight from Canada was long, and I was tired, I didn’t want to fall asleep. I was afraid I would miss something. I wanted to take it all in, to remember every hill, every turn along the drive to my aunt’s place in Vrškovac.
We spent several days in the countryside, exploring Ozalj and the small villages surrounding Vrškovac, in a region they call Vivodina. We ate and drank far too much while reminiscing. We chuckled at our past innocence and youthful antics. One of the things I enjoy the most about traveling is connecting with the local culture and making friends with strangers. I had an advantage on this trip, drawing upon my childhood memories. Everything had a strong sense of familiarity, yet subtle distinctions offered new perspectives on life in Croatia.
Celebrations and festivals are a regular occurrence in Croatia throughout the year, but during the summer months they seem to occur every few days. To really experience a location, one must seek out these unique celebrations the locals enjoy. These are the festivals where you will find food prepared the traditional way and wine served in jugs. The musical entertainment will have a local flare that will inspire you to get out of your seat and dance a polka.
The countryside in the Karlovac region of Croatia, like much of the terrain in the interior, is full of hills and gorges. The topography is best suited for grape growing, and that is exactly what it’s used for. When you look out over the hillside, you will be presented with one of the most beautiful valley views. Gazing past the small clusters of homes, over each hilltop you will see vineyard upon vineyard.
Most are owned by the locals, who grow to produce small batch wines for private cellars. Prior to independence, when Croatia was still under communist rule, private wine production was discouraged and mostly prohibited. However, over the past two decades, private vineyards have begun to flourish. If you’re lucky enough to get an invitation to try some wine and have a bite to eat, do not pass it up! In many cases the wine quality will be far more superior than any homemade hooch you’ve tried back in North America. The grapes are picked and squeezed of their juice within hours of harvest. If you are lucky enough to befriend a winemaker who’s perfected a formula that does not add sugar or water to the [grape] juice, you will have found the nectar of the gods!
Life out in the countryside moves at a different pace. It is a peaceful way of life with its own set of order. Religious days of observance set the schedule and farm work and harvests fill the gaps. Neighbours know each other personally and gather at dusk to discuss the day’s work while sampling wine. Everyone works together, children play outside until dusk. It’s life as it was meant to be, as it once was, tranquil and lovely, this I am grateful for. I will forever treasure this moment and am glad I was able to offer my children an opportunity to meet their cousins and experience a little bit of life in Croatia.