Thursday, May 19, 2022

Bound For Croatia, Once Again

With the Dalmatians, Slavs or Slavonians, red wine is much like coffee or tea to Americans. They drink it for breakfast, lunch and supper, if they can afford it. It is nearly always on the family table, …”
--Tacoma Daily Ledger (WA), December 19, 1915  

In 2019, when I first visited Croatia, it was a record year for tourism, with over 20 million tourists, from all over the world, traveling to Croatia. That's approximately five times the population of Croatia, which has only about 4 million people. In comparison, Massachusetts has a population of about 6.9 Million and in 2019, had about 29 Million tourists, only about 2.5 Million from outside of the U.S. 

During 2019, about 617,000 tourists from the U.S. travelled to Croatia, constituting only about 3% of the total tourists that went to Croatia. During 2019, the top three most popular travel destinations for U.S. tourists were Mexico (39M tourists), Canada (15M), and the UK (4M). However, in the period from 2014-2019, U.S. tourism to Croatia increased by 135%, the country with the fifth largest increase during that period. So, Croatia is becoming a more popular vacation destination for Americans, although it's still a niche destination.  

Obviously, when the pandemic struck in early 2020, tourism declined, and Croatia hopes to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023. In 2021, there were still nearly 14 million visitors to Croatia and preliminary statistics for the first few months of 2022 look very positive. Only about 284,000 people from the U.S. traveled to Croatia in 2021, with Dubrovnik and Split being the two most popular destinations, visited by about 170,000 Americans. Only about 19,000 Americans visited the region of Istria and a mere 1200 visited the region of Slavonia

For a time, it seemed that everywhere you looked, Croatia was being showcased as a hot new tourist destination. The hugely popular TV series, Game of Thrones, which ended on May 19, 2019, contributed to this popularity as a variety of scenes were shot in numerous locations in Croatia. Dubrovinik became a central spot for tourists, especially for cruiseships, to explore these locations from that famed series. Three years later, a new sequel series, House of the Dragon, is set to debut this August, and some scenes were also filmed in Croatia, which should bring more attention to this country.  

Especially during the summers, numerous celebrities vacationed in Croatia, basking on the beaches in Dalmatia, touring the islands in the Adriatic, or just relaxing on their yachts. For example, in the summer of 2021, a few of the visiting celebrities included Michael Jordan, Demi Moore, Harrison Ford, and Gordon Ramsey. The publicity of their visits helped to introduce people to the beauty of Croatia, motivating some to also visit. 

With world travel reopening, it's likely you'll see attention once more given to Croatia as a travel destination. It has much to offer, from its pristine beaches to its ancient history, from its diverse cuisine to its historic wine industry. It's a beautiful country, with so much to offer, and I certainly relished my prior visit, often recommending it to others. 

If you want a more active vacation, from water sports to hiking, Croatia can meet your needs. If you want a quieter time, you can spend your hours on the Croatian beaches. There are plenty of museums to visit, shops to peruse, and historic attractions to check out. There is much sheer beauty in its nature as well, from incredible waterfalls to impressive mountains. Whatever your preferences, Croatia is likely to be able to cater to them. Based on my prior trip, Croatia was also a relatively inexpensive destination, although some of that may have changed due to the pandemic and inflation. I'll know more soon.

The Croats seem able to imbibe any quantity of alcohol without injurious consequences, and they rarely quarrel when out for enjoyment. One seldom sees a Croatian in a dangerous and nasty temper except when politics are under discussion,…
--The Edinburgh Review, October 1914 

Croatian wines are getting more visibility and attention in the U.S., and people are more curious about the country of their origin. Consumers are also intrigued to visit Croatian vineyards and wineries, to seek out a new vinous destination, different from the usual they know. Locally, Croatian Premium Wine Imports is now importing over 70 Croatian wines, and they also ship to most other states. So, almost no matter where you live in the U.S., you probably have access to a significant number of Croatian wines. 

I work part-time at Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet in Melrose and we have been selling several Croatian wines. Customers have been eager to try these unique wines, to experience indigenous Croatian grapes that are new to them. And they have been returning to buy these wines again and again as they very much enjoyed their taste. 

Croatian wines are definitely on the rise but when will Rakija, Croatian brandy, get the spotlight tt deserves? Rakija can be made from about any type of fruit, though plums (šljivovica) and grapes (lozovača) are the most common. Some Rakija may also have the additions of honey, herbs and spices, such as Travarica, which contains a blend of wild herbs, though the exact blend will vary from producer to producer. It's an intriguing and delicious spirit which also is worthy of more attention. 

Later today, I'll board a plane and fly off to Zagreb, the first stop on my new exploration of the Republic of Croatia. I'll be accompanying a small group of writers and wine lovers as we trek across this fascinating country, visiting numerous wineries, dining on the local cuisine, immersing ourselves in its culture, and delving into its historic past. Much of my trip will be in the regions of Slavonia and Istria, where few Americans currently visit. I'll add that both regions, in general, receive far less tourists from the rest of the world too. Dalmatia is by far the most popular tourist destination within Croatia. 

Our plans include visits to Zagreb (the capital of Croatia), Slavonia (the "breadbasket of Crotia"), and Istria (known to the Romans as "Terra Magica"). We'll attend at couple of wine festivals, including Pink Day (dedicated to Croatian Rosé wine) and the Grasevina Festival (dedicated to the Grasevina grape). We'll meet Croatian winemakers, sommeliers and chefs. I'll be in Croatia for about two weeks and my itinerary is filled with so many interesting elements.

I'm obviously very excited to visit this country once again, and have spent time researching more about Croatia, from truffles to oysters. I've mentioned before that Croatia was the birthplace of the oldest documented European vampire, Jure Grando, who lived in the village of Kringa in the region of Istria. On this trip, I might get to make a stop in Kringa to get a touch of that history. The region of Istria has numerous other ancient legends as well, from the fairies who allegedly built the Pula Arena to giants who allegedly constructed some of the fortified cities of the region.  

How has Croatia changed since the start of the pandemic? That's one of the major questions I'll be pondering when I visit the country this time. I'm sure there have been changes, like everywhere else, so I'm curious how the country differs from my previous visit. 

This press trip is being sponsored by the Croatian Tourism Board, Vina Croatia, Graševina Croatica Wine (in Slavonia), Vinistra (in Istria), and Croatian Premium Wine ImportsI'll also be flying to Croatia on Turkish Airlines. Mirena Bagur (who is Croatian) and Win Burke, of the Boston-based Croatian Premium Wine Imports, will be our primary guides throughout our visit to Croatia. They are great people, who led my first trip there as well, and we're sure to have a fun and exciting journey.

In addition, a number of the Croatian wines that I'll write about, upon my return from Croatia, may also be available in Massachusetts now or will be in the future. Some Croatian wines have been previously imported by other companies, but they have remained relatively rare in wine shops and on restaurant lists. Mirena and Win have been working hard to make Croatian wines more available to local consumers, and they have also been leading a number of local tastings of Croatian wines. It's such passion which is needed to persuade consumers to taste and purchase Croatian wine.

I'm sure I'll have some free time during my two weeks in Croatia, and I won't be using that time to take a nap. I'll be exploring the area on my own, seeking out intriguing spots, from restaurants to bars, shops to historic sites. In Zagreb, I'm already planning to stop by Cahunan 80+ year old hat shop which still makes some hats by hand. I bought a great fedora on my previous trip and I hope to get another hat this time. Maybe I'll also check out the Zagreb Zoo, or at least the Cat Caffe, the first in Croatia. 

I'm also intrigued by the L'Erotic Gin Bar, which features Croatian gins along with local foods, as well as Bota Šare, which features Sushi, Mali Ston Oysters and seafood. I'm craving those Mali Ston Oysters and hope to have them multiple times while I'm in Croatia. I'm also eager to taste Boskarin, the famed Istrian cattle whose meat has become a culinary wonder. It will be fun to attend a couple wine festivals too, one dedicated to Croatian Rosé wines and the other to wines made from the Graševina grape.

I look forward to everything I'll experience in Croatia, and then I'll enjoy sharing my stories with my readers. 

As they say in Croatia, Živjeli! ("Cheers")