By Ana Božičević
I recently visited my homeland Croatia for a series of readings and public talks, and a stay at a literary residency on the Istrian coast —the country’s northernmost riviera. Lonely Planet describes Croatia as a “rare blend of glamour and old-fashioned authenticity,” and its coastline offers an unparalleled range of sights and activities to fit any visitor’s taste. Game of Thrones aficionados flock to Dubrovnik, which doubles as the fantasy kingdom’s capital King’s Landing, while music and film festivals — such as the famed Motovun Film Festival — make for great destinations for those who like creativity and casual togetherness in their summer.
The food is fresh and “slow,” most enjoyable in an island tavern by the sea and, perhaps best of all, in your own kitchen: a simple salad of local tomatoes, Croatian olive oil and sea salt is a gourmand’s delight. When you go (since you must) and run into Bill Gates, Prince Harry and Morgan Freeman —who complimented the gorgeousness of local womenfolk — tell them I said Hi. Or, perhaps, you’d prefer another option: to forget about all the things you should see, hit up, experience and imbibe, and approach your visit to Croatia the way one comes to those most memorable trips that turn tourists into travelers: as a chance to find and lose yourself in a place of great beauty.
Along the way, keep in mind that the cost of beauty is high. Croatia, a fresh entrant into the European Union, has historically and very recently suffered great strife over its cities, landscapes and resources. The country is undergoing an economic and cultural transformation. For example, before my reading and conversation with the poet and literary critic Darija 2ilie in the convivial book café Dnevni Boravak (“Living Room”) in the town of Rijeka, a journalist asked me to speak about LGBTQ rights, because on that very day Croatia passed a law legalizing same-sex partnership. This country is inhabited by proud, intelligent and gentle people, who will open their homes to you and treat you like one of their own if you show respect and genuine interest in their land and lives. Travel permits us to leave some of whom we think we are behind; try to forget about what you imagine your trip should be like, and give yourself instead to the impressions and encounters it offers up.
I traveled to Croatia with my girlfriend, poet and artist Sophia Le Fraga, for whom this was the first trip to my homeland. On our first night in the Bells and Pomegranates literary residency in the small town of Liinjan, we met the novelist Tomica Slavina, in whose new book a mysterious genius experiments on his yacht with a forgotten invention of Nikola Tesla’s. With 6avina’s partner, the animal activist rapper IFEEL — who sounds a lot like an enlightened Eminem — we piled into a car and drove to the Istrian village of Kringa. We had no idea what to expect of our new friends and the adventure they invited us to join in. Our destination, as it turns out, was the café-bar Vampire; Kringa is famous as the home of Jure Grando, a 17th century peasant who was the first real person described as a vampire in historical records. At Vampire, we were treated to a discussion on local fantasy fiction and a range of “bloody” cocktails. We drove home through an epic thundershower. As usual, Croatia delivered exactly the unexpected.
As you travel Croatia, remember also that “glamour and authenticity” in their best incarnations are auras that can be neither sold nor bought. Treat artists, locals and locales as “color” to enhance your experience all while eyeing the stock ticker on your phone, and you’ll be sure to remain just a tourist. To get a bit mystical, to vacation is also quite literally to vacate ourselves and relax into the place and moment we’ve traveled so far to find, letting it expand and take us beyond what we could plan and envision. Of course the tried-and-true charms of the sandy beaches of Brad and Kora’ula should be experienced, but you will find their armies of Germans, Italians, Norwegians, Americans… with the same idea. Instead of taking refuge in a resort, why not pick a remote island among the thousand that dot the Adriatic and find a ship that will take you there? Abandon the hotspots, rent a car and drive down a dirt road to a rocky beach whose translucent seawater will remind you that you are a traveller in more than the material sense.
This summer, I have tried to follow what I preach. Of course, on this occasion I visited Croatia as a writer with the somewhat daunting mission to present my poetry there for the first time and see as many friends and family members as two weeks would hold. With a group of old pals I closed down the soul food restaurant Krga in Croatia’s capital Zagreb; and the most fun and startling moments were the unplanned ones, as when an aimless walk through Zagreb’s old town led to the Museum of Broken Relationships, where each exhibited object comes with a story of hope and heartbreak. After the Zadar reading and conversation with writer Zelimir Perig, I dared two art historians to guess the age of the striking pre-Romanesque church of St. Donatus and hopped around the Roman ruins with a backpack full of poetry books. I saw the famous Zadar sunset from a ferry and got a good look from the sunset’s perspective at the peaceful and inspired crowd gathered to enjoy the sight by the sea organ, which you must hear to believe. I hope you do; and perhaps we’ll run into each other in Croatia next summer — totally unplanned, of course. Don’t tell me which island you’re going to, and I won’t tell you mine.
Ana Božičević, born in Croatia in 1977, is the author of Stars of the Night Commute (2009) and Rise in the fall, a 2013 Lambda Literary Award Winner and Publishers Weekly‘s top five in poetry for 2013. She is the recipient of the 40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism award from the Feminist Press, and the PEN American Center/ NYSCA grant for translating It Was Easy to Set the Snow on Fire by Zvonko Karanovi6, forthcoming. Ana Boii6evi6 studies poetics in the PhD Program in English at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She teaches at Baruch College and is the 2014-15 Writing Fellow at Kingsborough Community College. Ana has taught at Naropa University, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, the San Francisco State University Poetry Center, Harvard University, and elsewhere. With Sophia Le Fraga, she performs and creates multimedia work as not I.