A well-trained traveller fortunate enough to see the world several times over creates a shortlist in their mind of places that have truly touched their heart.
For me, that shortlist has been genetically engrained since conception and it includes only one country – Croatia.
Having held the top spot for over two decades, I’m returning for my second visit in less than three years but this time I’m bringing familiar company.
It’s an exciting affair for my mother, who was born in Europe, because she last boarded an international flight in the 1980s.
While nostalgia is on Mum’s mind, we almost forget the reason why we’re going on this trip. A belated 60th birthday celebration for Mum, my sister and I are joining her on a summer vacation to Europe, our first family holiday.
The four-week voyage begins in Murter, Croatia – the village where my grandfather Marko lives.
Marko is known to us as ‘Didi’.
A small fishing island in North Dalmatia with a population of 5000 people, Murter is about an hour and a half’s drive from popular tourist destination, Split.
Our journey from Split to Murter is made comfortable by Tomislav Đikić, an informative and friendly driver who was born and raised in Split. We discovered Tomislav on a frantic Google search during our stop-over in Zagreb and, upon meeting him, he tells us he only offers transport services during summer when they’re in high demand.
The Republic of Croatia has seen a rise in tourism over the past decade, so much so that locals like Tomislav refuse to live amongst the chaos of peak season.
His air-conditioned vehicle distracts us from our travel exhaustion momentarily, but our moods are ultimately settled by the incredible car window views of the blue Adriatic, lush greenery and never-ending hillsides.
I relish the time to think about how these roadside panoramas have the capacity to erase the unwanted memory of our 24-hour flight. Just before my eyes drift off into slumber, we arrive in Murter.
Known for its picturesque beaches and seafood culture, the island greets us with 33-degree heat so foreign our skin instantly feels sun-kissed.
My sister and I are pleased to learn that Didi’s house is a five-minute walk from Slanica, Murter’s main beach.
It’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon and I’m immediately overcome by an enigmatic feeling of relaxation.
Either every person on this seaside has mastered the art of disguising stress or perhaps fast-moving Westerners aren’t accustomed to the carefree attitude worn by the Europeans on Slanicia’s shore.
I can’t help but notice a middle-aged Croatian woman lying naked beneath the Murter sunlight with a cigarette dangling from her fingers.
When she isn’t inhaling tar, she’s eating grapes – occasionally heading out for a swim. Her confidence is almost as blinding as the light emitted from the sun’s rays.
Children keep to themselves, splashing in the shallow nooks of the crystal clear water, turning their heads toward their parents every so often bearing a cheeky grin.
We hear a father yelling “idi, idi!” to his son who’s refusing to get in the ocean and cool down.
Didi’s ashamed to learn of how long it takes us to realise idi means go.
Though it couldn’t be more obvious that we’re not local to the area, this beach is undeniably the perfect destination for people-perving.
TIP: Always choose restaurants that aren’t in the main street of the town. Eateries in hidden places usually have the best local produce on offer.
The menu is filled with traditional Dalmatian dishes, the majority featuring seafood as the hero.
I’m game enough to order the cuttlefish risotto which is more like a stew. Made from squid ink, the meal arrives and its black colouring doesn’t frighten me.
The outlining of my lips darkens with each bite and I begin to feel embarrassed by the sight of my mouth.
While I’m feeling self-conscious, my attention is drawn to Didi who is ungraciously sucking the dear life out of the prawn heads in his dish. A weirdly comforting sight, I continue eating without wiping my face.
Though the food is reason enough to visit Murter, its close proximity to major Croatian attractions is an added bonus.
About a 40-minute drive from Murter is Krka National Park – one of Croatia’s oldest preserved ecosystems – and to describe it as breathtaking is a serious disservice to its beauty.
Featuring a series of seven waterfalls, Krka is a paradise full of natural wonder and Croatian history. It’s been a while since Didi visited Krka – 64 years in fact – but he believes it’s even more impressive than his ‘old man’ memory can recall.
There are two transport options to get to Krka. Visitors have the luxury of choosing either a boat trip down the river (which is included in a ticket) or a hike up the hill.
Given we’re travelling with an elderly and stubborn man who wears pants in blistering heat, we decide to journey by boat. Our tickets cost about 150 HRK per person, roughly $A30. Oddly enough, Didi walks Krka’s trail faster than the three of us put together.
We stop for an ice chilled Karlovačko – Croatia’s signature beer – at a little café hidden in the park to cool down.
The next day, I experience Didi’s special tour of The Church of St. Rocco. Built in the mid 17th century, the church was constructed in celebration of St.Rocco, the protector of civilians who became ill from leprosy, cholera and other widespread diseases.
What’s significant about the location of this church is its sweeping view of Murter and its neighbouring town, Betina. For some reason, there’s a rivalry between the two villages. From the top, this feud is unnoticeable.
While there’s so much to see and do in Murter, I do not recommend visiting the Kornati Islands. Sucked in by a local tourism company, my family and I spent the day travelling by boat to see a whole lot of well … nothing.
When we return home, Didi laughs and says in what he calls ‘woggy language’ – “I tell you, Kornati is only stone and sea – that’s it.”
He summed it up better than I could in plain English.
Though it’s a small country, Croatia has a lot of soul.
Friendly locals, magnificent food and an exciting culture – ah sweet Croatia, you’ve done it again.