Daily Wanderlust: Island paradise in Croatia

Croatia is one of those countries that holds a very special spot in my heart. It’s the place where I opened my mind to others and was enlightened; was witness to the kindness of strangers; met one of the most remarkable women in the world; and was where I learned about love, life and loss when my grandmother passed away.

It is also home to the Adriatic Sea. This crystal, clear sea and I have spent many, many weeks together. I’ve relaxed on warm rocks along the coast. Bopped along on a little boat through the flat surface. I’ve even gone skinny dipping in the inky black waters at night. The sea, to me, is one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever had the opportunity to dip my toes in, and one I dream of returning to regularly.

When my grandmother died, I took a stone from the sea to bring back to America and place at her grave, that’s how special this country is to me.

This photo is along the shore of Solta, a tiny technicolor island that is largely untouched by tourists.

Destinations

The woman who stole my heart

Danica Listes.

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.

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Fishing the world

“Touch your finger in this water and you touch the world,” Danica said, stretching her body over the side of the little boat we were in and sticking her fingers into the cool, clear water of the Adriatic.

Katie, David and I did the same, leaning over the sides of the boat and dipping our fingers in the water.

It took me a second to understand the heaviness of the statement Danica made, and then it hit me.

This water has been everywhere. It has flowed through the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Pacific … this water has touched the world, and now, there I was, sitting on a little boat in the sea, looking out at the marvelous country of Croatia, and I was now a part of that water.

A tiny little piece of something so much grander.

Our day had started out relaxing, me and my roommates woke up, had food, wandered to the water, rested and then we had boarded the boat along with Danica to go and fish.

We got on the boat and looked around.

No fishing rods.

Danica had brought down some little plastic boxes and opened them, producing pieces of styrofoam wrapped with fishing line once we had navigated out of Solta’s harbor.

We were fishing by hand.

After handing out our “rods,” Danica opened one of the plastic boxes and took out fresh squid, a cutting board and a knife and began chopping up the creatures.

“The fish love to eat this,” she said, slicing the knife blade through the heads of the squid.

I’ve fished. I’ve hooked worms. I’ve caught fish, released them. But, this was different. This was fishing like I have never experienced.

I’m not a vegetarian. I love some good squid. I love fish. For some reason, to be a part of the action was a different experience from me.

“I’m going to watch,” I announced, feeling a little sick to my stomach, as Katie and David began to unwind their line and put it into the water.

I sat there, watching, as the three of them began to catch fish.

I  can’t do it.

When Danica caught her first fish within minutes, I expected her to ply the hook from its mouth and drop it back into the water.

Instead, she dropped it into another plastic box.

Oh my god. She’s keeping the fish.

Then, David caught a fish. And that fish went into the bucket too, but not without a little bloody mess from the hook.

You are on the Adriatic fishing. Why can you not drop a line in and catch fish. This is real life. You love to eat fish and really? Really? NOW you want to get righteous, D?

“Um,” I spoke up. “Can I have a line too?”

I was handed a piece of styrofoam wrapped in wire and began to fish to.

This isn’t so bad. This is life. The circle of life. We catch fish and we eat them. I can do this.

I didn’t catch any fish, but I tried.

Katie had started to get seasick, so we motored over to a cove where David and I had been to earlier in the day and dropped her off, then Danica took out a net.

“We will put this into the water and leave it here, then tomorrow morning, we will go and get it,” Danica said as she began to pull out the large rope apparatus.

For 30 minutes, we went back and forth, laying out the next, dropping large milk cartons into the water to mark where it was, and readjusting the net.

Then, we motored back in to the harbor.

“I will stay here and clean the fish and close the boat,” Danica said. “Then, tomorrow we will have lunch together. I will make lunch for us with whatever we have caught and will catch tomorrow when we go and pull the net.”

She knew how to clean fish? I don’t know how to clean fish. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone who knows how to clean fish. What an amazing woman.

David and I got off the boat and walked to the store, buying some wine and beer and food, then headed back up to our apartment to see Katie.

I reheated my amazing seafood pasta from dinner the night before at Ooh-La-La, the best restaurant in town, and sat down to dinner with David while Katie ran down to the little town and grabbed dinner.

He and I sat outside, eating and drinking and talking until Katie came back.

We talked about our lives and we talked about our experience here, how amazing it was that Danica had let us into her life, had taken us fishing, and how amazing she was — widowed and stronger than most women we had ever met.

When Katie got back, the three of us spent the evening talking outside about life as travelers.

Finally, the alcohol hit me.

“Guys, I’m wrecked,” I announced, stumbling off of the bench I was sitting on. “I gotta go to bed.”

I crawled into bed, feeling my body still rocking gently from the boat, and closed my eyes.

The next morning, David was up at 7 a.m. to go pull the net.

“D,” he whispered, walking into my sleeping area, “You getting up?”

“Nope,” I mumbled. “Gonna sleep. See you when you get back.”

Then, he was off to go and grab the rest of our lunch with Danica.

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Living in technicolor

Growing up, I loved to watch “The Wizard of Oz.” Not just because of the story, but because of the colors. Each hue popped from the screen to my eyes, creating a world of colors that nearly existed in real life.

Then, I went to Solta, Croatia.

After an amazing night in Split, Katie and I checked out of CroParadise and headed back to the port to meet David and board the ferry to Solta, an island no one seemed to know about.

Solta was non-existent in our Lonely Planet books, locals looked at us funny when we asked … but from across the port in Split, we could see the mass of land jutting out of the Adriatic.

Of course, we wanted to go there. It sounded perfect.

While we were in Brela, Katie had done some research on the island and had found a Web site that listed apartment rentals. She and I sat crowded around her laptop analyzing the prospects for our Island Adventure.

We saw one apartment, 30 meters from the beach, and decided to give the owner a ring. It was the first interaction we had with Danica.

We sat on Skype with her, laptop held to Katie’s mouth so Danica could just make out what she was saying, and arranged our time there.

“Four days?” Katie asked, turning to me.

I nodded my head.

Four days on an island no tourists had really heard of? Sounded perfect.

Danica agreed to pick us up at the ferry, and then the plans were set.

We had bound back to David, who was still at our beach apartment and informed him of our plans.

“Sounds wicked,” he had said, smiling.

Two days later, Katie, David and I sat at a cafe, waiting to board our boat.

After an hour, we headed to the last boat at the port, a large car ferry, and climbed the metal stairs to the seating area.

Within minutes, we were off, the boat cutting deep into the clear blue water as we headed west towards the little island that grew larger and larger as we headed closer.

I walked out to the deck.

Fresh Adriatic air.

Outside, the wind whipped my hair as I marveled at the beauty surrounding me.

Intense beauty.

When the trip was nearly over, I walked back inside.

“We’re here!” I announced, peaking out the window to look at the island that would be our home.

After unloading the boat, the three of us stood outside at the line of parked cars.

“Which one do you think is Danica?” Katie asked as we surveyed the crowd of people.

To our left stood a woman with short deep reddish hair, wearing a summer dress and standing next to a red car.

“There,” I said.

On a guess, we raised our hands in the hair to say hello and she smiled.

Danica.

Quickly, we went to her car, threw our bags in the trunk and packed ourselves into her little vehicle.

Immediately, we loved Danica.

A woman in her 60s, she radiated love and kindness.

As we wound our way around the island, she informed us what we were looking at.

“There, that’s Vis … and there, that’s Hvar … and there, Brac.”

The Dalmatian Coast is packed with islands, and we were at the front lines of holiday paradise.

All around us, the colors popped. Bright blue sky. Emerald green leaves on pine trees. Bluegreen sea. Gray rocks. Red tile roofs.

Each turn produced more and more vivid color. More and more vivid beauty.

Life in technicolor.

David, who sat in the front seat, turned to Katie and I and whispered a string of excited expletives, conveying his own appreciation for everything he was seeing.

We drove for 20 minutes, passing tiny towns with old stone churches, fields of olive trees, an olive oil factory … and then we drove down a mountain to another town. Danica’s town. The main road went right and left around the little harbor, lined with restaurants.

And, then we were there. At Danica’s. A gorgeous stone home with two apartments attached — one above with a large terrace overlooking the sea, and one behind.

We grabbed our bags and walked through the ivy-covered gate to her home.

“This is Shima,” she said, scooping up her little black and white shitzu mix.

A house dog!

“And this,” she said, leading us up the stairs to the large terrace, “is your apartment.”

We walked in and our jaws dropped.

“I was going to give you the smaller apartment, but I have another family coming in on Sunday, and then you would have to move. This is easier. And, it’s bigger.”

Through the front door, which included a wall of strings (like the beads people can hang in doorways) was a kitchen, then to the left was a dining room and two couches. Down the hall were two bedrooms and a bathroom with a washer.

David grabbed my shoulders.

Katie smiled wide.

“This is ours?” we asked.

“Yes.”

For 30 Euros a night.

We lucked out.

“Enjoy,” Danica said, taking our passports and heading down to file our names with the tourist board.

The three of us immediately went to lunch, a delicious pizza place with the best olive oil I had ever had.

Before we could head to the beach, I needed to find an internet cafe to check e-mail and make sure everything was OK at home.

There was no cafe.

But, there was a woman who ran the tourist agency who was in town for another five minutes before she went to Split for the weekend.

I ran over there, told my family I would not be online but if they needed me to call David, and then started my four days of internet-free life. Taking a step back from my blog, from my connection to the rest of the world, riddled me with anxiety.

“D, you don’t need to always do stuff,” Katie said. “Just enjoy your time!”

She was right.

The three of us went to the water to take in the sun and water. The rocks were sharp in our backs, and the water freezing, but we sat there for a good while, talking, relaxing and enjoying a nearly people-free beach.

In the evening, Katie and I went to dinner and then brought wine home with us, spending the night outside on the terrace listening to music and getting to know each other even better.

On our way back to our apartment, we saw Danica.

When we were looking at apartments, her ad had said something about renting a boat. Well, the three of us really wanted to do that.

We asked her about renting the boat. We wanted to go motor over to Brac and have lunch on the island.

“Well, I was thinking of going fishing tomorrow,” she said, Shima in her arms. “I can take you and we can all go fish during the day.”

Fishing. On the Adriatic. It wasn’t island hopping. It was even cooler.

We didn’t even need to think about it. The plan was set — fishing around 5 p.m. the next day.

David, who had slept through dinner, would have something exciting to wake up to the next day.

So we could each enjoy a few days of private sleep, I took the couch in the living room.

That night, I went to sleep with a smile on my face and anticipating the next three days of technicolor living.

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