This response was the only affirmative I received to my Facebook post, seeking at least four more adventurous people in order to meet the minimum of eight participants required by the tour company that we had signed up with for their May hiking trip in Croatia. The query came from Mary Jane and Glen Treacy, an Australian couple we met last year while cruising the wild Kimberly Coast of their country. Since the tour company never reached the minimum needed to proceed, they cancelled the trip. However, given our strong desire to see some of the best parts of Croatia on foot, the four of us decided to use the tour company's itinerary as a template, find an experienced guide to lead us, follow some suggestions by travel maven Rick Steves, and do the trip ourselves.
One of my husband's many talents is constructing a trip in which no stones are left unturned. First he found Ante Batarelo, an English-speaking guide, who is both Croatian by heritage and Australian by birth. Then Bruce booked overnight accommodations in lovely boutique hotels in the cities, and agriturismos out in the countryside. In places like Dubrovnik, Korcula, and Split, he reserved small rental apartments, which are quite common in Croatia, since tourism is growing there. These units gave us the ability to sit outside on our terrace in the evening and enjoy wine and nibbles, something we often called dinner because we usually pigged out at lunch.
|Ante Batarelo, our excellent guide|
|Bruce, Glen, Pam & Mary Jane enjoying wine and nibbles|
The four of us arranged to meet in Dubrovnik to begin our trip. Prior to that, Mary Jane and Glen traveled for two weeks in Austria and Italy, while Bruce and I explored beautiful Slovenia for eight days, about which I have already written.
Our First Croatian Highlight:
After getting our passports stamped at the Croatian border, our reliable GPS led us to the small mountain village of Gracac, where Bruce had made a reservation at Apartman Ada. When we pulled into the driveway, a lovely woman with a big smile came out to greet us. While much smaller in size than either of us, she quickly grabbed our hand luggage and assured us that her husband would be home shortly to help us with our other bags. With enthusiasm and warmth, she welcomed us into her home, and introduced herself as Gordana. Her husband, Boris, arrived a few minutes later and the two of them showed us to our room upstairs. We had no idea what to expect when Bruce booked Apartman Ada, but when we arrived, we felt like we were staying in someone's home because of the personal hospitality. For some people this may not be ideal, but since we prefer the authentic over commercial, Apartman Ada was perfect.
|Boris and Gordana Gugic|
Boris and Gordana seemed very excited to meet us. "I asked myself who is this Bruce Berger," Boris said. "Is he old, young? Will he come by car, motorcycle or bike? I have no idea. I only have a name, but I wait with excitement to see you." They invited us to sit with them in a room attached to the main house, a kind of entertainment room that Boris built himself. With walls of old brick, the room served as a combination dining area and kitchen with an open barbecue where they could serve meals and entertain their guests.
After drinking some of their smooth home-made grappa, an easy conversation flowed among us. Boris's English was slightly better than Gordana's, but she understood everything that was said, and she giggled effusively when Boris told us how he learned English. "I learn by watching American movies on TV." Rick Steves mentions in his Croatia guidebook that this method is quite common among older Croatians, since none of the American movies are dubbed, only subtitled. "I watch Rambo 1, Rambo 2, Rambo 3," Boris said with a big grin, "but I don't speak Sylvester Stalone."
After Boris poured us a second shot, we talked for hours until we learned that Gordana had to take the 6:30 a.m. bus 50 kilometers to work the next morning. "She work for judge," Boris explained, as he fluttered his fingers pretending to type . Gordana was a court reporter, and Boris worked for the railroad. They alternated shifts so that someone was home to greet their overnight guests. They were determined that this was the way to make a future for their family, so their four sons would not have to log trees and hurt their backs like Boris did. He knew education was key, so his oldest son, Milan, age 22, was in college in Dubrovnik studying marine engineering, Ledan, age 18, boarded at a private high school, and their two youngest Potjeh, age 12, and Ognjen, age 9, were still in the local school in Gracac. It didn't take long for Boris and Gordana to find a permanent place in our hearts especially since they reminded me so much of my own mom and dad, who worked 24/7 to make sure their kids got the education they never had.
|Ognjen, age 9|
Politics, taxes, and the old Yugoslavia versus new Croatia were some of the topics we discussed. Boris explained the challenges of keeping his head above water financially, noting that he already failed in one business venture and was now starting another. "My priority--after the kids' education--is to build the future with Apartman Ada," he said. When we inquired about wi-fi, he said repairing his computer was too costly, especially since he could do his apartment bookings on his smart phone instead. He thought investing in better roadside signage was important, but this too required money that took time to accumulate. It was clear that it was a slow struggle for him financially.
Although Boris's English had some gaps, there were no language barriers between us when discussing life, family, and the importance of investing in the future. He understood big words like innovation and entrepreneurship, and although he had no training in hotel management, he knew his family's life would improve by hard work and taking risks. Just hearing these words reminded me of my Dad who took a big risk to build Perkins Motel, a concept that was totally new in the 1950s. Boris's goal was to create a place where guests could stay overnight and sample Croatian hospitality in a warm and personal environment. There was no doubt in our minds that he was well on his way, but it was a slow struggle.
When Bruce and I went to bed that night, we discussed how lucky we were to live a comfortable life, and how grateful we were for the opportunity to meet a couple as special as Gordana and Boris. That's when we talked about how we might help.
The next morning when Boris served freshly baked bread and Turkish coffee, I told him how my Dad taught me to make Turkish coffee by bringing the coffee to a rolling boil three times. I also told him we wanted to make an investment in his family's future, and I handed him several large dollar bills. Boris lowered his head and stared down at the table. It was obvious he was stunned. "I don't believe this. I don't know what to say." And that's when he started to cry. "This is too much money," he said, although he didn't really know how much there was since I folded the money in such a way that only a one hundred dollar bill was visible. I can't tell you exactly what happened after that because Boris was very emotional and couldn't say much except thank you, and I was overwhelmed by his reaction to a gift that didn't make a dent in our lives but obviously meant a great deal in his. We told him we didn't care how he used the money, but we wanted it to go towards his business. He could apply it towards a new computer or use it to have more signs made. The only words he could say over and over were I don't believe this, I can't explain how I feel, and I will never forget you.
|Boris, Gordana, Pam & Bruce|
After much hugging and picture taking, we said our good-byes, promising to stop at their home again when we and the Treacy's drove through Gracac on our way to Plitvice Lakes 12 days later. I think if we hadn't made that arrangement, he would never have let us go. That's how emotional and grateful he was.
When we arrived with Mary Jane and Glen for the promised return visit, Gordana and Boris greeted us like we were family coming home from a long trip. Gordana made a beautiful lunch of chicken noodle soup, roast chicken, fried chicken, roasted potatoes and a green salad with lettuce just picked from their garden. For dessert she served delicious custard-filled cream puffs which she called princess donuts. Boris served us Turkish coffee that he brought to a boil three times.
After lunch, Boris proudly brought out the new Apartman Ada road signs that were made during the time we were traveling. He beamed with pride as he thanked us for making this happen. Boris and Gordana also made a strong personal connection with the Treacy's (who tucked a Euro bill inside the small stuffed Koala bear they brought as a gift). As we said our final good-byes and waved farewell, we left feeling that while we had made a difference in their lives, they also made a big difference in ours.
|Gordana, Mary Jane, Boris and Pam|
Stay tuned. The adventure continues............