The Split Welcoming Committee – Making Friends Croatian Style

I have been abandoned in Split.  Claudia and I kidnapped a young Australian girl named Steph who we met on our walking tour of Diocletian’s Palace.  At the end of the tour, I am surprised when Claudia turns to Steph and asks “Would you like to join us for lunch?”  Claudia’s simple gesture of hospitality is one that we have seen repeated by Croatians and fellow tourists throughout our trip.

Croatians Unplug

It is ironic that although I learn the language of the country before I travel, we usually spend our international vacations talking to waiters and shopkeepers.  However, this trip to Croatia is different.  Croatians are warm, friendly people.  Their desire to connect with each other can be seen in their eyes and their smiles as they sit at outdoor tables sipping drinks and watching the crowd stroll by.

On our third day, as I sit sipping a glass of wine in an outdoor lounge, it finally dawns on me what is missing from Croatian coffee shops; electronics.  Croatians are not hunched over, doubled chinned, staring at their phones.  They do not look like androids with white wires connecting their ears to their laptop.  Their phones are not on the table standing sentry to their social interactions.  Their eyes do not nervously, continually glance at its screen in case some important Facebook, snapchat, Instagram, twitter, text notification might go unnoticed and unanswered for more than ten seconds.   The eyes of the Croatians in their gathering places are on each other, not on their hand held devices.   All you have to do is smile and say “Dobar Dan” or “Bok” and you will find an enthusiastic participant for an enjoyable conversation.

The tourists traveling in Croatia also get caught up in this social butterfly behavior.  Everywhere we go, we strike up conversations.  We meet a Josh from St. Louis who is traveling before graduate school as we paddle our way to Lokrum.  We meet a dancer from London at a smoothie cafe who recommends dance classes for me in the West End.  And now, we meet Steph, a young woman from Australia traveling on a budget.  She is staying at a hostel in Split.  Now Claudia, Steph and two other girls from the hostel are heading to the disco for the night.

Croatian Taxi Etiquette

Before I continue my story, let me give you some tips about taxis in Croatia.  Do not hail a taxi by sticking your arm out and whistling like you do in New York.  Not only will you not be successful, but you will immediately be charged a dumb tourist premium if a driver does take pity on you and stops.  The best way to get a taxi in Croatia is to find a taxi stand.  When the ride is done, take the nice taxi driver’s card when he tells you “call me if you need a ride.”  In Split, the smartest thing I do is take Ivan, the taxi driver’s, card.

We meet Ivan by chance when we arrive in Split.  Claudia and I drag our bags across the street from the Catamaran stop to the taxi stand.  It is late because Split is the last stop on the Dubrovnik to Split ferry line.  Ivan is cheerful.  I greet him “Dobra večer. Mi ćemo u hotel Dujam. Znate li gdje je to?” (Good evening. We are going to Hotel Dujam.  Do you know where it is?)  I have now been in Croatia for a week, so this phrase slips off my tongue without hesitation.  He smiles and responds in Croatian.  We are able to have a small talk conversation where I explain that Claudia is my daughter and that we are Americans.  He tells me that he does not believe me, he thinks I am really Croatian and that I am pulling his leg.  He is a shameless flatterer.  I like Ivan.  When we arrive, he hands me his card.  “Call me if you need a taxi while you are here.” I look at his card and see that his name is Ivan.  I laugh.  Everyone one here is named Ivan.

Diocletian’s Palace

Split is the second largest city in Croatia.  The old town is centered on the Roman ruins of the Diocletian’s Palace, Emperor Diocletian’s retirement home.  On our first morning in Split, we sign up for a walking tour of the palace.  As we wait for the tour to start, Emperor Diocletian shows up with his wife at the palace gate preceded by several Roman soldiers in full armor and bronze helmets.  This theatrical display is thoroughly entertaining, although Diocletian looks very young to be in his retirement.

Sunčana is our guide.  Her name means sunshine in Croatian.  She proudly tells us that Diocletian was the son of a liberated slave born near Split.   The palace was constructed between 295 and 305 BC in anticipation of Diocletian’s retirement.  The palace is a walled city with sixteen towers.  Twelve sphinx from Egypt were installed in the original palace.  The main street is referred to as “Cardo” or heart.  It leads from the Golden Gate to the main courtyard.  The wide road that runs through the palace is the decumanus meaning ten men.  The road was so named because ten soldiers could walk shoulder to shoulder the entire length of the street.

Diocletian was also one of the biggest persecutors of Christians in the early 4th Century.  This history makes for mixed feelings in our guide.  Croatia is a predominately Catholic county.  In the mausoleum of the palace rest the remains of two Christian martyrs, a gesture of penance for its persecuting past.

The baths of the palace had floor and wall heat via lead pipes filled with steam.  My favorite room was the vomitorium.  According to Sunčana, guests at Diocletian’s thirty entree feast could slip into this side room to empty their stomach if they found themselves too full to continue.   If the guest had a difficult time vomiting on their own, a slave would tickle their inner ear with a feather in order to induce the up-chuck reflex.  When the guest did feast in the main feasting hall, their would do so reclined on a table.

Sunčana as tells us that Split has the only fish market free of flies.  This phenomenon is due to the sulfur smell from a hidden sulfur spring.  The market is located near the silver gates of the palace.  The palace is also constructed of travertine stone from the nearby island of Brac.  This stone is unique in its ability to absorb moisture, thus the surface does not get slippery and the rooms are drained of humidity.  These travertine stones from Brac are the same stone that were used to construct the White House in Washington, D.C.

Just outside the golden gate is a giant statue of Grgur Ninski, the Medieval Croatian Bishop who convinced the Pope to allow him to give Mass in Croatian rather than Latin.  The locals believe that if you rub his toe, your wish will come true.

The Best Family Run Kanoba in Split

After our tour, we take own new friend Steph to lunch at Kod Sfinge Vaneuropski Zviri, a family run restaurant in the heart of split.  Kod Sfinge is off the main square and hard to find in the heart of Split’s old town.  We stop several times and ask before we find it hidden in a side alley.  It has a lovely outdoor courtyard.  As we peruse the menu, if see a familiar panic in Steph’s eyes as she sees the prices.  I remember that look from my starving student days.  The prices seem immensely reasonable to me from a San Francisco price point perspective. However, Steph is a student traveling on a tight budget, staying in hostels.  I reach over and touch her arm, “let me treat you to lunch.”  She seems genuinely surprised and accepts.

We order truffles in everything.  Truffles, or tartuf in Croatian, are  cheap and plentiful in Croatia.  I love the strong, unique taste.  We eat goat cheese with truffles as an appetizer.  For dessert, we gorge on palachinke, a Croatian crepe, filled with white and black chocolate mixed with truffles.  The restaurant even sells small jars of truffles to take home.

After lunch, we retrace the history of the Palace in Spit’s small museum.  In the courtyard, we taste wines from Winery Kovač, a local vineyard.  The Putalj is a delicate rosé named after the small church in Anton Kovač’s home town.

Ivan’s Card

That evening, Claudia convinces me to allow her to go to the disco in Split with Steph and her friends from the hostel.  We leave the hotel to head back to the Riva, the long pedestrian walkway that follows the harbor in Split.  Along the Riva are palm trees, convenient meeting points for young people in Split.  Claudia is to meet Steph and her friends under a pre-designated tree.

We leave our hotel to look for a cab back to town.  I do not see any nearby taxi stands nor are there taxis waiting outside the hotel lobby.  Then I remember Ivan’s card that I have stowed away in my purse.  A nice man who is shutting down his bike rental shop kindly allows me to use his phone to call Ivan.  I laugh when I learn his name is Ivan too.  Within a few minutes, my new friend Ivan the taxi driver pulls up beside us, his wide face beams with a friendly smile.

Klapa Music

At the Riva, I am abandoned by Claudia and her new friends who are now headed to the pulsating music and flashing lights of the disco at the end of the pier.  I do not have a plan.  I walk along the Riva, past outdoor tables filled with patrons having drinks and dinner.

I come upon a stage.  On the stage, a group of men sing in beautiful harmony accompanied only by a guitar.  They are dressed in white blouses and black pants with red scarves tied around their waists.  Their voices are clear and pure in the night air.  This is Klapa music.  Klapa is translated as “group of friends” in Croatian.  Their voices evoke a timeless feeling deep in my heart that sends my soul drifting backs to old legends of lost loves and homeland pride.  When the show ends, I linger, mesmerized by the music, still under its spell.  I only turn to leave then I see workers start to pack away the sound system.

The Shoe Maker, the Boat Maker and the Trouble Maker

After the show, I wander into the square in front of La Bodega.  The endless loop plays the same few songs.  The song “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”  drifts into the air, its woeful lyrics fill the night.  “You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster and be all alone…”  The young women stroll by in high heels and short skirts, gliding effortlessly across the cobble stones in the square.  The women look like fashion models.  The boys wear t-shirts and shorts, under-dressed compared to their elegant companions.

I sit, ignore, three decades older that the strolling crowd.  The night is beautiful, perfect, not too hot, not too cold.  “Never knowing who to trust like this, You don’t wanna be stuck up on that stage singing
Stuck up on that stage singing, All I know, are sad songs, sad songs….”  I sip the cool wine and write in my journal.

A waitress walks towards me with a glass of wine on her tray.  She leans forward, “This is from them.”  She gestures toward a group sitting on the opposite side of the square.   I take the wine, smile in their direction and lift my glass.   I hesitate for a moment, “why not?” I pick up my things and walk toward the group.

I meet a boat maker, a shoe maker and a trouble maker.  The shoe maker is Ivan Ledenko.  Maestro Lendenko is a an artistic genius in the crafting of “cipele,” or shoes in Croatian.  Ivan shows me his gallery of handcrafted shoes from his Facebook page.  His creations are beautiful.  I squeal in delight.  The trouble maker, a restaurant owner with crooked teeth, is annoyed that I find the shoes so impressive.  He keeps trying to tell me dirty jokes in Croatian that the boat maker apologetically translates.

We are soon joined by Ivana, a political journalist from Vis.  She tells me the story of her homeland.  Soon, the workers at the tavern are picking up the chairs and clearing the square.  I realize it is already 1:30 in the morning.  I head quickly back to the hotel, realizing that I have the only key to the room.

Ivan’s Card to the Rescue Again.

As I enter the lobby, I walk into the middle of a loud argument.  Steph and two young woman are yelling at a chubby, red-faced Croatian man.  “We did not throw up in your taxi.  We will not pay you.  How dare you kick young woman out of your taxi,” the young women protest.  “I am going to call the police,” says the red-faced taxi driver. The man at the front desk looks alarmed.  As I enter, Steph sees me.  “What is wrong, where is Claudia?” I ask.  “She is upstairs,” says Steph.  She looks at me “did you come from upstairs or did you just get home?”  “I just got home,” I laugh.  She looks at me and says “well done,” with admiration

I approach the angry driver.  In my best Croatian I say “U čemu je problem?” (What is the problem).  He angrily explains that the girls threw up in his taxi and are now refusing to pay him.  The girls protest that they did not throw up in his taxi and that he kicked them out for no reason.  Now they are stranded without a ride back to the hostel and they will not pay him out of principle.  The angry man says that if they do not pay him, he will call the police. I pay him, thank him and wish him a good night.  I then find Ivan’s card.  I ask the man at the front desk to call Ivan the taxi man so that these young women can get back to the hostel.  Within a few minutes, Ivan is back with his taxi and smiling face, to rescue the stranded ladies.

I find Claudia, slumped over like a rag doll waiting for me in front of the door of our hotel room.  “And when I finally got sober, felt ten years older…..”  Suddenly being three decades older made me feel infinitely wiser.

Life is an adventure, not a destination.  Eat well, drink wine, make friends and always take the taxi man’s card.

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