When Croatia is the Only Option

Love in the time of COVID.

I used to think I was clever, coming up with that line. Now it feels not just not-clever, it’s a sad reminder of the relationship struggles all of us face.  I’ve had friends lose friends to the virus. I have had three friends lose parents this year, not being able to be there, either not being able to attend the funeral or being criticized for doing so.  They all have one remaining parent, and two still live far enough away that they struggle with the care of that declining parent.

None of my family lives near me.  I’m usually good with that, but with the uncertainty of the times, it just adds to the low level stress I’m learning slowly to live with. I wonder what’s going to happen, if I’ll get the chance to see any of them again, what it will look like if I do.  

I also rank among those in a long distance relationship–long, as in not even the same continent. I’d say it’s hard enough planning time together under the best of times, but we’ve not even had that.  Our goodbyes after our last trip now are filed under “If we’d only known.”  

If we’d only known the world was going to be locked down as long as it was. If we’d only known no one would be let out of Europe and no one from the US is welcome in. I had initially been relieved to make it back into the US before everything shut down, but as time went by, I wondered where I might be if I hadn’t.  Maybe one of those unlucky souls l 

There are a lot of us.  Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have run articles about the struggles. Of course, there are those who don’t believe there are any of us–if you don’t live I-don’t-know-how-close, then you’re not in a Real Relationship.

Whatever that is.

As a result of all this, Croatia is now the Paris of the long distance relationship world.  It is almost literally the only place Europeans and Americans can enter. Armenia too, but they’re kind of at war.  Of course, I’d heard of Croatia–there was a war, maybe two.  A friend or two have been there. But it’s never been on my bucket list.

Until it was. Which was when it became almost literally the only place both Olivier and I could enter.  Not without a few hurdles of course.  But it was possible. Maybe.

Booking the airfare was one of my happiest moments of my year. In a word, it was hope, something I didn’t realize was as lacking as it was. Outside of semi-periodically checking my 401K, I had absolutely no plans for the future.  Prior to this year, I always had at least one race planned.  

That was my norm and I had no idea how my life was enhanced by always having something to look forward to.  Runs with friends. Training. Road trips.  A reason to get out of bed that wasn’t a job that I truly don’t enjoy.

There were still hurdles to get through.  In July, Croatia revised the entry requirements to include a COVID PCR test to be taken no earlier than 48 hour before arriving at their border patrol.  This is an almost impossible requirement to fulfill. Even if the planes do arrive on time (and when do they ever, when you need them to), there was no lab that even advertised less than a 72 hour turnaround. I wasn’t confident.

Things were changing daily.  I checked all the websites way too often, expecting the worst, hoping the best.  Happily–and sadly–nothing changed.  Things weren’t getting worse, but they weren’t getting better.  I held my breath for the two weeks after Labor Day, and sure enough, numbers began to rise.  

My obsessiveness reached new levels. Along with checking embassy websites, I was checking all the lab’s turnaround times. Neither were changing.  I knew that the chances of having an allowable test result were slim to none. I had also done enough research to realize that it all really just came down to the border guard.  

Part of the good news was that, if you didn’t have the test results immediately, as long as  you had some kind of negative result, they would just have you quarantine until said test results arrived. Not so bad.  The rest of the good news was that there was no consistency in the test results and probably as often as not, just having some kind of negative result would suffice. 

So I had my plan.  78 hours before arrival, I tested at UCHealth, knowing there was a good chance I would get the results back faster than elsewhere, as UCHealth had their own labs.  In actuality, I had them within 48 hours, so next time, I would know to bank on them.  Within 48 hours, I took a rapid results test and another PCR test–the latter being the required test, but sure enough took more than 48 hours to deliver the results.

The final option was a PCR test at the Frankfurt airport.  That was the one change I had seen on scheduling.  Originally, you could pay 200 euro and get your results within 3 hours, but by then, the testing was so popular it was six hours. I had five. Assuming the flights were on time.

Now I just had to get there.  My direct flight home had already been cancelled and rescheduled. I had read that gate agents were taking it into their hands to verify passengers had their test results, which I didn’t really. 

And of course, Croatia could change its mind at any time.  

United had the usual passport check, no visa was required. First hurdle crossed. The flights were all mostly empty and therefore early. Second hurdle done.  I checked for my final test results at every airport, willing them to show up, but no such luck.  

As I walked towards border patrol in Zagreb, I had two expired test results–one not even the correct test type. There were two agents, both women, and one line.  I couldn’t even try to bet on the one that might be more lenient, painfully aware of the biases I would have to admit to if I had had a choice. 

I had everything printed out: the two test results and all the paperwork included with those; proof of my first night’s stay (Olivier had made the reservation, so in French), and the printout from registering online with Croatia’s travel site.  The agent asked only for the test results, which I had attempted to bury.  I took it as a good sign. I separated those ten pages from the rest and handed them to her.

I knew from experience and anecdote that acting natural never works, so I adopted “hapless traveler”, which I’m quite good at.  I looked at her apologetically and stammered, “I wasn’t sure what was needed, so I brought everything.”  She paged through the documents. She handed a few back to me. It wasn’t looking good.

She looked at me again.  She picked up the passport and a sheet of paper. She stamped the passport then handed both to me.  It was fortunate there was plexiglass between us. I might have hugged her.  As it was, it took everything I had not to sprint past her and into Croatia.

It was the first moment in over a month–quite possibly seven months–where I felt I could finally relax.  I took a photo of the “Welcome to Croatia” sign and sent it to a couple friends who asked me to keep them apprised.  I ordered a cup of coffee, sat down and simply enjoyed the moment.

Olivier arrived a couple of hours later.  We practically had the airport to ourselves, except for the poor man who mistook the parking ticket machine for an ATM. The seven months evaporated in the moments of our reunion.  The hour it took to get our rental car went by unnoticed.  

The hotel room that night was pretty much the only thing we had actually planned for those ten days. This was a new experience for me.  As I was flying into Zagreb, I tried to remember the last time I’d taken a vacation to do anything but run or climb mountains. I couldn’t.

Jet lag had me sleeping late the next morning. We enjoyed a solitary breakfast–being the only hotel guests ended up being one theme of the trip.  Tourist season, for what it was this year, was long past.  We never reserved a room until each evening,  always finding plenty of beautiful choices and even more beautiful prices.  

 Our adventure was a rough sketch, the details filling in each day.  There was a train station downtown that was featured in one of the James Bond films.  Olivier is a huge fan, so that was first on our list.  A couple of photos there, then we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring  downtown Zagreb.  

There were several open air markets and we wandered through, enjoying each other and the fact that this was merely day two.  I think we were both hoping the lack of plans would allow us to stay in the moment more, allowing the trip to at least feel longer.  We did appreciate each moment, but the days still flew by.

But I’m getting ahead.  We wandered the streets without any real direction, seeing whatever was in front of us.  A late, protein filled lunch completed our tour, and we wandered back to the car and drove off to our next destination: Plitvice Lakes National Park.

The hotel Olivier booked was just next to the park.  We basically rolled out of bed and into the park.  Like most of Europe–at least the parts I’ve visited–hikes are not measured in kilometers.  They’re measured in hours. Which makes a lot of sense, although I’m not sure it really solves the problem of people way underestimating the time it will take them to complete the hike.  But at least there’s the “I told you so” factor.

Our hike was estimated to take between six and eight hours, and we were well within that range. There are sixteen lakes in the park, terraced, with absolutely stunning waterfalls.  The vividness of the colors and the uniqueness of each lake had me grateful that cameras are digital and I had a lot of storage on mine. 

We took time to soak our feet and just enjoy the serenity. A lot like in the US, the majority of tourists are found in the first few miles, with miles of solitude following.  The trail stayed mostly by the lakes, but at one point, it climbed a couple hundred feet 

We took the electric boat back to the beginning and began the drive to our next destination: Starigrad.  We waited until close to our hotel to find a restaurant and were almost regretful.  Starigrad is a tourist location, so in October much of the town was empty.  Shortly before our hotel, though, we were rewarded with a local restaurant, seemingly open just for us. 

We hadn’t eaten since breakfast (except to snack on some of the chocolates that Olivier had brought from Belgium), so our opinion of the food may have been a bit biased.  It was amazing.  It was a theme for restaurants to have a Croatian dinner for two, filled with local fish and a side of potatoes and greens.  Anchovies, mussels, cuttlefish, calamari.  A beautiful red wine.  The kind owner was attentive to our wants, her smile enough to bridge the communication gap. 

We found our hotel and went to bed, full and happy.  

The hotel was right next to the ocean, which accentuated the storm that lit up a night that was otherwise uninterrupted by lights of any kind.  I don’t know how long I laid there, listening to the wind and rain, finally falling back into a deep, restful sleep.

Another hike was on the menu for the next day, at another national park.  Paklenica National Park is home to some spectacular climbing.  Had I known, I would have been tempted to hire a guide for a couple routes.  With COVID, though, it was better I didn’t know.  It would have been my luck to sustain a serious injury and take up a hospital bed that could have been better utilized. 

We started on the main trail out of the parking lot.  We had hoped to visit the one open cave, but with the COVID virus, it was closed that day.  We’d been given a map at the visitor’s center and I saw a small loop that went past the cave and looked to be maybe a quieter route.  Olivier was game so we strolled together past the “Hazardous Trail” sign.

I have an absolute fascination with trail warning signs.  Not a few weeks before this trip, I had taken a photo of a sign warning of the increased risk of going down a trail after climbing the Manitou Incline, a former train track that climbed over 2000 feet in just under a mile. My intention was to post a funny and cynical message on Facebook.

Three miles later, I found myself flat on my face, blood covering several body parts.

It was still a funny and cynical post, just not the one I had planned.

I didn’t take a photo of this sign.

The trail was climbed upwards. It was marked with what I’ve heard called “fried eggs”–painted red circles surrounded by white.  Soon we could see the Adriatic sea.  I’d almost forgotten it was so close.  Climbing the trail, I felt as if I was back in Colorado, back in my comfort zone.  Seeing the water reminded me this was an entirely new adventure. 

The trail did have some mild class 3 terrain–where using your hands is necessary–but each area had handrails to assist the traveler on her way.  We climbed up over rocks then back down the other side, the sea to our left and the mountains everywhere else.

A lightly treed meadow greeted us after the steep descent, the fried eggs guiding us forward.  There were light footprints in the muddier areas, but we did not see a soul until we came closer to the main trail. 

Also near the main trail were old–really, ancient–buildings, something else that reminded me of Colorado but also not.  Most buildings in the Colorado mountains are remnants of wooden mining operations, gold and silver luring the fortune seekers finally to the daunting peaks and weather of the region, dozens of years after the rest of the country saw its populations growing.  These buildings were built of stone, predating Colorado’s history by hundreds and, for a couple, thousands of years.

Near the entrance to the park is a small museum for the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, giving information about both the agency and how not to need them.  Their message is the same as mountain rescue teams the world over: be prepared.  

We arrived back at our car and after some tight maneuvering, were back on the road, headed to Zadar, the oldest, continually inhabited city in Croatia.   I’m sure given time, I would get used to just how old everything is; but it was going to take more than the week we were spending there. 

Cars were not allowed on the peninsula and I enjoyed the quiet as well as not needing to worry about staying out of the road, something I struggle with when I cannot tear my eyes away from everything new to see. We wandered the peninsula until just before sunset.  We found a place to sit by the sea organ, listening to the slightly creepy, oddly soothing music as the sun set somewhere past Italy. 

We found Hotel Nico nearby, and had the pleasure of meeting Nico the next morning. I never quite got if he was from Arizona or had resided there, but he proudly showed us a photo of himself with the formidable senator McCain.  Meeting the owners of the hotels was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.  I’m so used to Marriotts and Hyatts that I’m not even sure I realized that a hotel could be a small business.

Dinner that night was quite possibly the best of the trip.  We were once again the only people in the restaurant, which was right by the water and I’m sure was reservation-only in the high season sans COVID.  Olivier asked our waitress about the impact of the virus and she agreed that it had been hard. But in typical old world style, she shrugged it off with a smile, assuring us that they would be just fine.

I had one of the local delicacies–black risotto with cuttlefish, the color coming from the squid ink. Knowing that we were being served by the owners or probably a family member, I felt obligated to eat everything put in front of me.  Not that it was any great sacrifice–the food was amazing.  I don’t know if the squid ink made any difference in the flavor, but something about the dark color just added to the whole experience.

Another storm came through that night and we had the full glory of it as it came across the water. It fortunately only stayed the evening and we were greeted the next morning by another beautiful day. 

We continued our trek down the coast.  We made a brief stop in Murter, a small coastal town.  There was an interview going at the dock, possibly TV or radio, with the man who apparently was the proud owner of the first boat registered in Murter.  On the edge of the town was the cultural heritage site of Colentum, a Roman harbor dating back to the first century AD.  

I took off my sandals and stood on the stones, most submerged, the  water having risen several meters since those times. If there was a theme of this trip, it would have been me gaping, trying to wrap my head around the age of everything I was seeing.  And how little care was taken in preserving it, not because it wasn’t treated with respect, but because it was. A small sign was all that was needed to keep the area pristine.

After Murter, we drove to Sibenik. A late lunch was the first order of business and Olivier asked a passing stranger if there was someplace he could recommend.  We easily found the restaurant and ordered the Croatian special for two.  The stranger knew his restaurants. 

It was after 5 when we finished and the tourist areas were closed.  We walked along the water until the road ended then began climbing toward the fort. We wandered through the cemetery, long filled with the long deceased.  It was too cluttered to be considered elegant, and there was something mesmerizing about it. With all the photos and flowers and memorabilia, did the Croatians celebrate or at least recognize death more so than we Americans or was it simply the remnants of hundreds if not thousands of years of deaths?

I noticed there were wooden crosses placed on the existing plots, many dated this year.  I wondered where the bodies had been placed and what the significance was to having a marker in this vast cemetery.  Was it easier for those left behind to visit?  Did it help the deceased on their after-live travels?

It was soon dark and Olivier and I had again left finding the hotel until the last minute.  The hotel turned out to be right next to where we had our late lunch, up a couple flights of stairs.  Parking unfortunately was several blocks away.  There were two rooms for rent, the other being let to a young student for several weeks.  I again wondered at my life choices. Why not rent a room in a beautiful corner of the world to spend a few weeks?

The room itself was quite eclectic and full of character. The walls were just the wrong shade of blue and the lamps didn’t match much of anything. It was an open design, the door a staircase down, one bed a step up from the other, the bathroom the same odd step up.  I could see myself spending a summer there, writing, reading, drinking coffee and generally enjoying life.

There was a balcony overlooking the restaurant and the sea.  Olivier had brought a dessert from Belgium (along with the mandatory chocolates, our “first” tradition) and had gotten the owner to warm it.  We sat, watching nothing in particular, enjoying the sweets, the sights and the sounds.  

The next day found us in Split.  Outside of the hikes and general Idea of the cities we wanted to visit, a trip to the Blue Cave was the only plan we’d really made.  And much like the plans of mice and men, it now lays on the cutting room floor of life. 

The end of tourist season and some incoming weather had all tours cancelled for the next day. We tried several different agencies, but Friday was the earliest tour and we would be long gone by then.  One agency had a three island tour (happily not “three hour tour” for all you Gilligan fans) leaving in a couple hours, and we decided to cut our losses and join.  

The highlight of the tour was swimming in the Blue Lagoon.  Not having planned for the trip, neither one of us had our bathing suits, which did not slow down Olivier.  A combination of modesty and deep fear of hypothermia kept me from getting completely immersed, but I did manage to find a secluded area to enjoy wading around. 

I got back on the boat before everyone else, and our guide asked where I was from.  I told him and he grinned, saying he knew it–he recognized my accent.  I laughed at the reminder that in a foreign country, we all have an accent.   Even in the US, I’m told I have a mid-west accent.  I joked that he was the one with the accent, but I appreciated his knowledge of the English language. 

The other tourists included a couple–an American and a Brit–and what seemed to be a bachelor party of young men, possibly middle Eastern.  We really did not get a chance to talk.  That is the one downside to being coupled on a trip–you don’t get as much opportunity to connect with others. I found it a bit ironic that my introverted self missed that.  

The sun was setting as we made our way back to Split.  I put on the jacket I always have with me, as our guide dolled out jackets to the non-mountain rescuers on the boat.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on a boat, and I lost myself in the feel of the waves, the sound of the engine and the growing lights of the shore. 

The hotel was a bit of an adventure.  We hadn’t paid close enough attention to the details and missed that the hotel was in a residential district.  We drove in circles on the dark, narrow roads, frustration and colorful language mounting.  Olivier was finally able to pull over to get out his phone to call for directions.  On WhatsApp was a message from the hotel owner.  With directions to the parking lot that was several minutes from the hotel.  

The only vacations I’d taken where each night was in a new location, I realized, I had not been responsible for moving my luggage.  Carrying my ready-for-anything bag uphill for those interminable ten minutes gave me new resolve to relearn the art of packing.  Once in the hotel, I started my mental notes on everything I hadn’t used or worn that wasn’t “in case of emergency” gear. 

The hotel was newly renovated, just a few rooms on a couple floors.  Like each hotel before (and after) it that week, I wished we were staying a couple extra nights.  The bed was one of the few that was not a literal “double” bed–two twins pushed together, which made for obviously uncomfortable sleeping for two people in love. 

We woke late to the predicted rain.   Our normally slow routine lazed in the dreary weather and we checked out late. The hotel owner was still kind enough to carry an umbrella for us as we made the walk back to the car.  

We made a short stop in Makarska, where we saw quite a poignant statue.  To me, it says “tourists are the same the world over”.

Driving south means driving briefly through Bosnia.  Like many Americans I’m sure, I’m vaguely aware of the wars (“conflicts” being the anesthetized word usually used to describe the years of unrest) of the area, so it seemed eerie to drive through Bosnia.  I was hoping for a passport stamp at the border, but no such luck.  Olivier stopped for lunch at a spot that overlooked the oyster farms that made up part of our lunch.  I took a couple photos and we were on our way, crossing the other border minutes later.

Our next stop was Ston, the location of the second longest fortress system in the world, at 5km, the longest being the Great Wall of China, dating back to the 1300s.  I made a mental note of the marathon that is held there every September.  We were too late to tour the wall, instead stretching our legs walking through the village until it was too dark to see.  I even got to see my first wild boar. They’re not cute.  

We had only slightly better luck finding our hotel that night, driving past it only three times.  Google shared the blame for that, taking us down the wrong rabbit hole.  The owner was a large German, who seemed none too happy that Olivier was from Belgium and yet did not speak German.  Our room ended up being a suite, the decor a clash between American Seventies and I’m not sure what European.  We did discover that “kitschy” is a universal term. 

The room had a wall of windows that, the next morning, gave a spectacular view of the sea.  I was awake first (not many get up before me), and I sat on the balcony, just soaking it in, enjoying even the slight chill in the air.  The sun was back out, showing off the glittering blue dotted with small dark islands.

Given the choice, I would have preferred that COVID never make an appearance, but I also can appreciate there would have been no way I could have afforded that room in better times.  I felt like royalty at breakfast, a round table that could have easily fit ten, covered completely in homemade breads, pastries and jams, and an amazing assortment of fruits.  Eggs and toast made an appearance as well.

As we settled into the feast, the chef came out and gave Olivier a heartfelt “bon appetit”, hearing and recognizing his accent.  I loved how he took a small moment to make us feel welcome in his country.

On our way to the hotel, it seemed as though we’d passed hundreds of wineries.  Napa it was not, with its large scale vineyards.  These were small, family owned affairs.  We stopped at random at Madirazza. It was our good luck to be there for the grape harvest and we watched as they poured crate after crate into a machine.  Neighbors helped each other for the two weeks they had to finish the harvest. The grapes were separated by machine from the stems and skins. They then traveled off to spend years in vats and barrels (French and American), to become the future wine of what we sampled.  

Our Tour de Croatia concluded in Dubrovnik, the Walled City, familiar to all Game of Thrones fans.  Words truly fail me.  It’s old. Overwhelmingly so.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around how many hundreds (thousands?) of generations had walked the same stones before me.  

We saw the city from the city wall, which allows for a 360 degree tour from above.  It took a couple of hours to walk the just over one mile route.  It never became repetitive. The Adriatic sea on one side; the mountain of Srd on the other. 

The town was bombed in the early 1990s, and while most was rebuilt, part was left in rubble, giving a real sense of the destruction that occurred. It also allowed a glimpse into what the city was like before what modernization that had been allowed and possible had occurred.  

 Maybe halfway through the tour, we were walking almost in step with a young woman.  Seeing her cheap blue backpack, touristy clothes and shy manner, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my twenty something self. We stopped at a small bar on the south side afterwards, to relax with a local, lemony beer.  She came in a few minutes later, ordering a small fruit juice, hardly looking up from her phone to enjoy the setting sun.  

It brought up the eternal question of what I would tell my younger self given the chance.  “Be fearless” is the advice that always comes to mind for me. But would I say anything really? Would I risk missing anything that has happened to me over the years?  I’m not sure. I’m pretty in love with my life as it is.  Would some tweaks make it better?  Maybe? As pro-risk as I am, would I risk it? Probably not.

It was a long drive back to Zagreb, in distance and feelings.  Time seemed to unwind but tighten around my heart as we passed exits on the main highway of the places we’d stopped.  One final dinner, at the hotel near the airport.  

Then the airport. Where we’d flown into each other’s arms in a long anticipated reunion, we now clung tightly not knowing when we would again have the privilege and joy of the experience.  Another seven months? More? 

Love in the time of COVID.  It kind of sucks.

2 thoughts on “When Croatia is the Only Option

  1. Hello Lynda, I love reading about your travels
    You are a brave soul. We met at my Liquor store some years ago. I am an acquaintance of your Father. Be Fearless is my motto also. Happy and safe travels always.

    • So good to hear from you! Dad and I always stop by the liquor store for a bottle of wine when I’m in town. I won’t be there for Christmas but hopefully in January.

      Thanks so much for your words. They mean a lot to me. ❤️ I hope you and yours are well.

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