by Maria Kristic
Chair, ACB International Relations Committee
“Reach up with your right hand,” my mom said as we exited the apartment. I stopped and did what she suggested, feeling a tree and the long pod which grew on it. I didn’t think it was a pea plant, but had no idea what else it could be. “What is it?” “Carob,” she replied. “Carob!” I practically squealed in surprise and delight — this ingredient which I had been using as a chocolate substitute in homemade treats for my guide dog, and which I had only seen in powder or chip form, was growing fresh literally feet from where I was staying!
I immigrated to the United States with my parents and brother from Bosnia in 1993 during the war there. With the nearly identical language in neighboring Croatia and the fact that we are ethnically Croat, several of my family members had relocated there during that time. While I have made several trips, only recently, during my visits in the summers of 2016 and 2021, have I really begun to appreciate this country. My paternal aunt’s property in the city of Split on the Dalmatian coast includes olive and caper groves, and the olive oil, with its strong, sharp, fresh taste is just divine! Speaking of Split, Diocletian’s Palace, a complex built in the 4th century CE for the Roman emperor, was a standout for me. The complex is a bustling hive of activity today with restaurants, shops, and residents going about their day on its narrow, waterfront streets. The sounds of music from the restaurants and the chatter of people fill the air. However, walking the empty basements of the palace structure itself, where one entrance came straight from the harbor to facilitate the unloading and storage of goods, was such a haunting experience. As my footsteps echoed, I felt awe knowing that I was walking a path which has existed for thousands of years, and I pictured servants manually carrying in barrels of wine and oils.
I have spent much time in Makarska, a town also on the Dalmatian coast and located about 40 miles south of Split, as my parents recently purchased an apartment there — the apartment near the carob trees. Those are not the only trees around town; olive, fig, and pomegranate trees, along with their blooming fruits, can also be touched as one walks around. My most recent trip in 2021 was my first time staying in the apartment. Having our own place to stay instead of moving between different family members’ homes, as we had done before, meant I could explore with my family in a more leisurely way. I swam in the Adriatic Sea, usually in the mornings or afternoons when the sun was not as strong, marveling at how clean the water felt! I am told the cleanliness produces beautiful colors visually and allows viewers to see the bottom of the sea. Even my guide dog, a Lab who loves to swim, got to take a couple of happy dips, though I only allowed it because there was an outdoor shower mere feet away with which I could clean the salt off her immediately afterward. Various beach activities are offered, from diving to kayaking to jet skiing to water activities for children and beyond. While the waves are usually gentle, sudden winds are known to come — the northern bura and southern jugo (pronounced yugo) — and indeed, a jugo derailed my brother’s and my plan to try paragliding one morning.
On most evenings, we would walk along the Riva, or waterfront promenade, the smell of sea salt and seafood in the air. On one side would be the sound of gentle waves, while music from the myriad outdoor cafes on the shore could be heard on the other. Sometimes, music could also be heard from boats on the sea side, as these vessels, which offered excursions to Croatian islands during the day, became docked “restaurants” for seafood dinners in the evening. I have eaten a delicious fish called skuša (pronounced skoosha), a type of mackerel native to Croatia, on one such evening dinner, to the sounds of classic Croatian music hits and seagulls circling and crying out overhead, waiting for a tasty morsel to drop in the water. This being the coast, there were plenty of seafood dishes to try. I had a shrimp buzara (meaning sautéed in olive oil, parsley, garlic, and white wine), and I noticed that the shrimp was more meaty and chewy than what I have eaten in the United States. I also ate a lobster brudet (a stew with seafood, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, white wine, olive oil, parsley, black pepper, and saffron). I was not brave enough to try shark! Elsewhere in town, I have also traveled on some cobblestoned, pedestrian-only town streets which were so narrow that I could spread my arms wide and touch the buildings on each side!
As I explored Makarska with my family, I noticed that the structure of curbs was slightly different from those in the U.S. — rather than a sharp-edged curb and curb cut ramp, they tended to be all-in-one, curb-like structures but with rounded edges, somewhere between a curb and a ramp. Also, instead of outdoor stairs being made accessible with a pure ramp, the structure tended to be a ramp overall but with intermittent, rounded protrusions, almost like small speed bumps. These took some getting used to, and between the structure change and the new environment, I did initially have to do some repetition work with my dog to ensure that she understood what these elevation changes were. I did encounter one accessible pedestrian signal. While people I encountered in businesses did not generally visually recognize the guide dog harness, I had surprisingly few access issues, and if I did, most times, explaining that she was a guide dog sparked some recognition of the term and resolved the issue. My maternal aunt, who lives there, tells me there is a guide dog user resident, so I imagine that she and the guide dog school in Croatia have done some of the advocacy to make this level of awareness possible. I did have two consecutive access denials at hotels in Split in 2016 when we unexpectedly found ourselves needing a hotel for one night, with the owners telling me they did not care about the law; realizing that I would not win those battles at that moment, I tried other hotels and finally had a wonderful experience with the third location.
I visited with my dad and brother Sveti Jure (pronounced Yureh) (St. George), the second highest peak in Croatia, although counting the satellite, radar, and other observational antennas which are stationed there, it is the tallest point at 5,780 feet above sea level. As my dad drove up the narrow and twisty road, with the windows open, the sweet and woodsy aroma of trees filled my nostrils as the temperature noticeably cooled. We passed wild horses and goats grazing. We had to hike over some rocks the last few feet to the peak. Standing there, with the sounds of birds and leaves and almost no cars, I felt such serenity, peace, and connectedness with nature.
I’ve had other experiences, too. On the island of Pag, I got to taste the deliciously salty and flavorful native cheese, made so by the bura blowing salt from the Adriatic onto the island grass on which the sheep graze. My dog was very interested in the group of swans in a small lake which we passed several times on our visit; I wished I could have pet one! I’ve visited Plitvice Lakes National Park, hiking with my guide dog carefully on trails with no rails or safety signs, taking a boat ride on one of its lakes, and hearing the rush of its waterfalls, though I am told they are even more active in other months of the year. A poignant moment came when we were leaving the park, and a cute stray dog, seeing mine, started following us to our car; I wished I could have taken it home! I’ve listened to the otherworldly sound of the Zadar Sea Organ, a musical instrument created in the sea using marble steps with tubes placed under them, such that the sea waves create music. In the historic town of Mali Ston, I heard morning church bells from a medieval era church which have been ringing every morning for the past 700 years, felt lemons on their trees, ate figs and apricots fresh from their trees, and touched one of the loaded salt wagons which bring the mineral to the town.
Even with all this, I have so much more to visit on my next trips — the islands, the capital, Zagreb, Pula with its Roman amphitheater, Dubrovnik with its rich history and status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Sinjska Alka knight’s tournament spectacle which has been happening since 1715 to commemorate a Croatian victory over Ottoman invaders. Have I enticed you to visit yet, or at least do some research?
Croatia is only the first stop of your virtual vacation curated by ACB’s International Relations Committee for this month’s E-Forum. Enjoy the journey!