An hour into the drive, I slowly closed my eyes. The moment my lids shut—boom! I opened my eyes to see a small white car flipping over and spinning around just outside my window.
The bus pulled over, and there was silence. We all started alternatively looking at each other and out the window. The bus driver and his deputy gathered the necessary documentation, grabbed their cells, and left the bus. Fortunately, they left the air running on the bus. With temps in the high 90s, I was hoping we wouldn’t have to wait outside.
Soon, conversations started. Croatian. French. English. Swedish. Other languages. Riders started to move around and get off the bus for a better look. The bus drivers didn’t speak English and there were no official announcements, but a couple passengers who knew Croatian and English translated what little they learned for everyone. The most important information was that no one was in the car and no one was hurt.
Thirty minutes later, another bus en route stopped to take more than half the passengers to local stops. Those of us going to Zagreb waited.
More than two hours after the crash, we were on a new bus. Of course, this was after the police interviewed witnesses and recorded everyone’s information.
Fortunately, most of my Croatian trip was a lot smoother than that bus ride. But I still had many other surprises.
I found world class wine. My friend Kati had encouraged me to visit the Pelješac Peninsula while in Croatia. It didn’t work out because of logistics, but I was able to try a number of wines produced there. As always, Kati was right, and my love for Dingač was born. A wine labeled Dingač must be from the eponymous area on the Pelješac Peninsula and made from the grape Plavac Mali, meaning “little blue.” The wine is red, full-bodied, and bold with dark fruits and lots of character.
I found lots of mountains. I didn’t realize Croatia is such a mountainous country. It also has a strikingly beautiful coastline.
I found a very different vibe in each place I visited. Zagreb is the newest to tourism, so I felt like people were a little questioning or suspicious of tourists (or maybe just a single, redheaded, female traveler). In Dubrovnik, tourists are a necessary evil. Split had the most balanced feel. People are more used to tourism than Zagreb, and the things to see are more spread out than Dubrovnik.
I also found friendly people everywhere. Even if the overall vibe was one of suspicion or tolerance, once I connected with individuals, they were friendly and fun. I even remain connected with one of the bartenders at D’vino Wine Bar in Dubrovnik via LinkedIn.
I found lots of history. For Zagreb, highlights include the Lotrščak Tower with its cannon that has been fired at noon every day for the last 100+ years. I also have to mention the gorgeous roof tiles of St. Mark’s Church and the unexpectedly poignant Museum of Broken Relationships.
The Old City of Dubrovnik, a late-medieval walled city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Split, the Diocletian’s Palace, from the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I found two additional countries. Dubrovnik and Split are loaded with travel agencies offering a full spectrum of excursions, ranging from cultural to adventure. I was hesitant at first, but once I saw that they were the norm there—with positive reviews—I signed up for two day trips.
While based in Dubrovnik, I visited Kotor and Budva in Montenegro. Independent since 2006, the country has quite a history—experiencing 40 wars in 200 years. The coast and the areas around Boka Bay are spectacular, and the people are friendly. Both cities we visited have charming old town sections encircled in walls and filled with narrow passageways. Kotor’s streets don’t even have names; only the squares do. When I asked how people give directions, the guide replied that people give the square and the name of a nearby store for reference points.
The country has three main ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. (They also have three presidents. I asked my former intern, Dragana, who is from there, how anything gets done. Her answer: “It doesn’t.”) They are also split religiously, with the bridge area having one Muslim side and one Christian side.
Our local guide said people live in a tenuous peaceful state…except when the soccer teams representing each side play one another, which is twice a year. Each time, fighting ensues. But it’s not about soccer. It’s the underlying political differences that are given air during these games. Most people stay inside their homes during these games because they know violence will occur.
I found so much more on my Croatian trip than I ever expected. And that kind of surprise is the best kind.