Hello, Croatia!

My arrival in Zagreb for my third visit ever to Croatia got off to a dubious start thanks to a flight cancellation back in the U.S. which caused me to miss my Zagreb connection in London.

My arrival in Zagreb for my third visit ever to Croatia got off to a dubious start thanks to a flight cancellation back in the U.S. which caused me to miss my Zagreb connection in London. One night in London and a late arrival the next day into Zagreb meant I had to join up with my TouristarTV group two days late.

Jet-lagged and late to the party, I met my fellow travelers in the Dalmatian coast town of Šibenik after a five-hour bus ride from the capital. From there, I was whisked away to see my first legend of Croatia: the story of a mermaid and the lonely fisherman she seduced from the sea.

This story was followed by another legend of love, this one concerning a man who was walking home from a pub one night but was seduced by fairies and never came home for a year. A mermaid is one thing – we all know how lonely fisherman can get on the sea for long stretches, and tales of seductive mermaids have been around a long time.

However, the tale of a man being seduced by fairies was a new one for me, and personally, the man’s tale lost some steam in my eyes when I heard he was coming back from a pub when he had his alleged fairy encounter. I’ve seen a number of things in my time after one too many drinks, but never had I been accosted by a marauding gang of fairies. Sure, I had my hopes up, but never did it even come close.

The “hero” of the story also disappeared for a year before coming back with this yarn. And get this: the fairies all had horse legs. Sorry my friend, I can get on board with running away with fairies who fulfill your every need for a year, but the backside of a horse might be a deal breaker in my fantasy department. But then again, if he told a credible story, would we still be mentioning it today? Of course not, and that’s why we call them legends.

All these legends are performed in short skits by local actors, many of whom have been surprisingly good in their roles, although the young lady playing the mermaid refused to get wet, much to my chagrin. Legends are common in every country of course, but in a culture as old and proud as Croatia, these tales are everywhere. There are tales of bravery in the battlefields and many about love, marriage and consequences of infidelity.

One of the most memorable concerned the legend of a mother of a son who took a lover. The mother was meeting with her paramour and was discovered by her son, who was understandably upset. The boy quickly tried to run away back to the town and alert his father and the townsfolk of his mother’s transgressions. The mother grabbed the child, a tussle ensued, and the boy fell backward into a pit. On the way down, he grabbed his mother’s hair and pulled her down into the pit with him.

Now that is not the happiest of  tales, to be sure, but the moral is clear – do not cheat on your husband. Either that or if you are going to cheat, have a short haircut and keep away from giant holes in the ground for your dalliances. Both theories are packed with sound advice.

I have been joined on this journey with a motley crew of fellow bloggers, all of whom I’ve gotten along with quite nicel thus far. Igor is our local Croatian journalist, who treated us all to drinks and food at his lovely home my first night on the tour. There I learned his wife makes terrific food and his 12-year-old-son is bright enough to one day run the country.

Another blogger representing the local point of view is Englishman-turned-Croatian resident Paul. Who married a Dalmatian woman and has lived in Hvar for 16 years or so. Paul has been to over 90 countries and has lived throughout eastern Europe. He is a fountain of knowledge about the country and is a great help when we need translating. He is practically a native Croatian, albeit one whose pale English skin is ill-suited for the sunny coastal climate.

Also representing England is Joanna, an adventurous woman who when she is not investigating a cave, climbing a rickety ladder, or scaling the side of a mountain, is constantly trying to steal away for a swim in any standing body of water. I think Joann would be happier if we swam our way down the coast for the remainder of the tour rather than drove.

Not to be outnumbered by Brits, joining me as an American representative is the on-camera star of this whole enterprise, host Ashley Colburn. Ashley is my friend back home and is the reason I found out about this whole trip in the first place. She has enough energy for the lot of us, which is key for standing in front of a camera after lengthy flights and van rides.

Joining us just today in Split is another well-traveled Englishman named Alex, who has tipped the group slightly in the Brits favor in case there is ever a voting situation on national lines. I pray there won’t be.

Our hard working crew is led by producer Lea, who manages to handle all of us as well as a crew of  four. She also arranges all the interviews, books the travel, deals with the varying tourist boards, wrangles the actors, and shoots video and photos all along the way. That’s a lot of work for one person, and I think she is going to want a lengthy vacation of her own when this is all finished. The locals may write a legend about her one day!

While a lot of the legends that we have seen are ancient tales featuring witches, dragons, fairies and tragic love, some are factual tales from the recent past. These are my favorite. One of the highlights thus far for me on the trip was the legend of Drazen Petrovic.

Aha! Here was a name I recognized. As a big NBA basketball fan in the ‘90’s, one of the first foreign superstars in the league was a sharp-shooting guard from a far away land named Drazen Petrovic. Croatia was a new country back then coming off the war, and Petrovic was it’s best player. Sadly, he died tragically in a car accident in the prime of his career, and Croatia still mourns him.

We got to visit the basketball stadium of his former club team in Šibenik, and I stood on the court and shot baskets on the very floor where he honed his game so well. We interviewed a former teammate of his who said such great things about Drazen. The only down side to the whole visit was my woeful shooting display when the cameras were rolling. I hadn’t played basketball in a while, and boy it showed. I think Ashley scored more buckets than I did, which was a bruise to this man’s ego, to be sure.

Another recent legend I enjoyed was the Legend of the Casanova from Šibenik. Apparently in the 1950’s-‘70’s there was a local lothario named Johnny who proved to be quite a charmer of the ladies and a con man to boot. Our guide Vanya told tales of his many exploits, of living off the generosity of kind women and the various scams he pulled around town. One would think that as his legend grew, his reputation would make people see through his chicanery, or at least get him thrown in jail, but one got the feeling that the locals liked the entertainment of it all. That’s the sign of a good con man- the victims of your crimes enjoy the ride enough to let you keep doing it. Legendary indeed.

I also enjoy a good castle or fortress, and my favorite of these so far was the Fortress of Knin. A massive structure consisting of five separate castles, the fortress is strategically located on the top of a mountain with spectacular views.

We arrived at sunset to Knin, where dozens of actors portrayed the legend of a a beautiful maid who was set to marry a prince before a dragon took human form to lure her away. The dragon was killed and is said to dwell under the fortress. While the play was acted in Croatian, we could follow the narration with scripts in English. I was more smitten with the actress playing the beautiful maid to follow along with the story too closely. I did make a point to meet her and get a photo with her after the play was finished though!

Dragons keep recurring often in our legends, which makes the fact that my favorite TV show Game of Thrones shoots in much of Croatia. I keep hoping to see locations I recognize from the show, or maybe a cast member, but no such luck as of yet. The week is young, however, and I have not given up hope.

I am always struck by the beauty of Croatia’s coastline every time I come here. It truly is a magical place worthy of the legends and tales it inspires.