I NEVER use people’s full names when writing in order to protect their privacy. However, this woman is the rare exception. I want people to know about her. Who she is. Where she is. And then, I want people to go to Solta, Croatia and stay at her apartment in Stomroska, her little enclave of peaceful seaside. She’s THAT amazing. And beautiful. And wonderful. And soulful. Yeah, I pretty much love her.
When Katie, David and I met Danica, we immediately liked her. She stood by her car at the ferry and waved to us from a distance. I guess it’s not too hard to recognize three scruffy backpackers emerging from the bowels of a boat and looking around, bewildered and excited at the same moment.
Actually, let me back that up. We liked her before we even met her. When Katie had called her two days earlier from Brela, she and I were both taken with her. Not only did she give us the ferry times, but she also offered to pick us up from the ferry — which is pretty much the best thing to offer backpackers who have been traveling. Those bags, hauling them, going from place to place … it gets old.
Once we arrived to Solta and her home, she immediately made us feel welcome, giving us a tour of the apartment, letting us pick up her adorable little pup, Shima and upgrading our digs at no extra cost. She told us where to go, narrating our drive from the ferry to her town.
Then, she took us on her boat just because.
By the third full day of our stay in Solta, the three of us were pretty much enamored with her. Every moment we spent with her, she became more fascinating.
On the boat, we began to learn more about her. She was widowed, as most women who run sobes in Croatia tend to be. She had children in Split. She had lived on the island since before the war. Her husband used to play rugby. She could fish without a rod. She could clean fish. Hell, she could take that little motor boat out all by herself.
Danica was an inspiration. A strong woman who could hold her own.
Then, the next morning, when she and David went to get the net, I heard more stories about how wonderful she was.
A few hours after David returned, we were greeted with delicious smells wafting through our open door.
I went outside and looked down from our terrace, and there Danica stood. Standing over a grill set in beautiful sand-colored stone, cooking the bounty of fish we had caught. And grilling vegetables. And later, making bread inside.
She brought a feast to our terrace that afternoon. Fresh, grilled fish. Beautiful salad. Grilled squash speckled with feta. Potatoes. But, better than all of the food she brought, she also brought stories of her life.
Over our lunch, Danica spoke of her husband and his days of playing rugby, their love and their children.
The three of us were smitten.
“We would really like it if you could come up tomorrow night so we can make dinner for you,” we told her. She agreed.
We spent a lot of that night, the three of us, talking about how in awe we were of this woman.
The next day, we went down to the grocery and purchased tomatoes, cucumbers, chicken, wine and pasta and the three of us went to work preparing Danica’s dinner.
It was our last night on the island, which was bittersweet. The experience there had been so peaceful, so relaxing. It allowed me to get away from the world for a few days and have an actual vacation from backpacking. It also allowed me to quietly think about my grandma and what was happening back home. David had not received any calls from my parents, so I knew everything was as OK as it was going to be.
At dinner that night, we savored every bite and clung to Danica’s every word as the wine flowed and stories were told.
The apartments, the entire property, was Danica and her late husband’s additional child. They had gone to the beach and picked up each stone that covered the exterior walls of the homes. They had labored over placing every stone on the wall. Her husband had made the benches we were sitting on … and made one longer so people could lay outside and enjoy the beautiful Solta weather. He had also made the couches inside. And the paintings adorning the walls? They were his.
She brought up a photo album that was dedicated to her husband’s post-rugby career as an artist. Page after page featured his beautiful work, depicting Croatia landscapes and more. And, page after page reminded me of the love the two had.
Then, Danica brought up a rugby yearbook. She had marked with tiny sheets of paper each page her husband appeared, along with a letter she wrote to the club about being the wife of a rugby player.
As she went through the pages, my mind flitted back to Pennsylvania, where my grandmother was in a nursing home … and my grandfather was living in their apartment a few miles away. I thought of the love they had. The beauty of their relationship. Often times during Danica’s stories I found my eyes brimming with tears, with love for her and sadness for her loss … and the sadness and loss I knew was imminent in my life.
Every word she spoke was laced with her love for life and the beauty, the promise life holds.
The next morning, we loaded our packs into Danica’s car and the four of us, along with Shima, boarded the ferry back to Split.
Saying goodbye to Danica was one of the most difficult “see you soons” of my entire trip.