He carried a porcelain plate in one hand, a black leather-cased menu in the other. Using the menu as a shield, he successfully carried flickering candle unnoticed. Stopping across the table, he glanced at me and I at him. We both surveyed the rest of our group and took a mighty breath in. On the exhale, our voices sang out, joined by my brother and step-dad.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you….”

Mom looked up, her face instantly coming alive. Her eyes skimmed the scene, stopping briefly at each of us to send a little ray of light. Coming to a rest on the slice of chocolate heaven being held above her shoulder, they grew wide with excitement.

Around us, tables were filled with other tourists being tended to by waitstaff who appeared to have just stepped out of a Gucci advertisement. Diners seated nearby joined in the singing, leaving their meals for a moment to be a part of her celebration. To one side, The Walls of Dubrovnik stood their ground, lit partially by florescent lights while remaining dark with the night’s presence in unreachable crevices of stone. To another side, the Adriatic Sea crashed wildly from eastward winds.

It was our sixth night together, an appropriate celebration not only of Mom’s birthday, but also of the final evening of our Croatian adventure.

 

REUNITING IN ZAGREB

We’d met in the capital city Zagreb the previous Friday. Ben flew in from his home in France, Mom and Dale arrived from Ohio by way of London, and I had taken a bus from Slovenia. That night, we celebrated our reunion with a single bottle of beer. Croatia’s own Ožujsko.

At first, Dale refused, “One bottle? No no. You guys enjoy” he said with unmasked disappointment. They’d arrived on nearly empty stomachs, having traveled all day and not finding a decent bite along the way.

I walked to our AirBNB’s mini fridge and pulled out Ožujsko, setting it on the table next to him.

“Go ahead, you can have it,” I said reluctantly. It was awful heavy and met the table with a ‘thud’. Mom and Dale took one look and instantly started laughing. The Balkans don’t do small beers. This baby was a full 1.5 liters large. Big enough for the four of us.

What a welcoming!

The next morning we walked through Zagreb’s tram-lined old town, stopping to admire tiny dancers dressed in traditional costumes. After, we found the city’s Academy of Music, a large building brimming with geometric patterns. Nearby, Park Tito’s vibrant flowers blooming in lavender, fuchsia and gold were as attractive to me as to the buzzing bees skimming their surface.

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RELAXING IN RIJEKA

That afternoon, we drove to Rijeka. A city resembling Trieste, Italy, its pastel facades with ornate decorations would have welcomed us to walk amongst them had the rain not decided otherwise. Instead, we skipped past puddles quickly filling from ever-increasing rains and found our way to a little bar and restaurant where we could escape from the outside’s chills while still enjoying a view of the harbor.

“Ah yep. Just sitting on the Adriatic. Sipping on an ice cold beer. This. Is. The Life,” Dale repeated in a relaxed yet singsongy voice.

 

PULA’S PERFECT AMPHITHEATER

Our third day together brought us to Pula. A city first inhabited in 10th century B.C., we were captivated by the preservation of its Roman Amphitheater. To me, a more impressive site than Rome’s Colosseum. It sits in near perfect completeness, a full circle with few missing stones. The few tourists who’d ventured to the tip of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula allowed us to see the site as it really was. Nearby to the amphitheater is a Roman Forum, its form resembling that of Greece’s.

It was as if we’d traveled three countries in one afternoon instead of one. To celebrate? A stop at Captain Jack candy shop, where we each picked a piece from one of the wooden barrels scattered throughout. I chose a marshmallow strawberry large enough to serve as the day’s lunch. We left there with smiles larger than the Amphitheater itself and a sugar rush which kept us going the rest of the trip.

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SNOWFALL AND WATERFALLS IN PLITVICE

From Pula and Rijeka, we left the Istrian Peninsula and traveled back east, stopping just short of the Bosnian border. We found Plitvice National Park by way of truly the most scenic route any of us had ever seen. The road led us past farmhouses surrounded by vast open fields, up green and gray cliffs with textbook definition hairpin turns and past arid landscapes which reminded us of the New Mexican desert.

As we watched the dramatic changes of landscape pass us by, we noticed a striking change of weather as well. Sunny skies turned gray. Gray skies sprinkled drops on the windshield. And sprinkles turned to flakes.

Snow flakes. Flakes of snow. Snow! This was Croatia for heaven’s sake. We were in southern Europe. We were supposed to be “Just sitting on the Adriatic. Sipping on an ice cold beer.” not “Just locked up in a hut. Sipping on a steaming hot tea.” But here it was, and it met us for hours on end. The fields were quickly covered in a white blanket, as were rooftops and mountaintops. By the time we’d reached the park the clouds had emptied, and during most of our hike around the waterfalls of Plitvice they remained silent. Only once, as we crossed the lake in a small ferry boat led by a small paddling of Mallards, did the snow return. By the time we’d reached the other side, it’d already passed and we were left in a cold sunshine perfect for snapping those ideals shots of waterfalls and the turquoise-blue glistening lakes they ran into.

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ZADAR’S SEA ORGAN AT SUNSET
The race was on after leaving Plitvice. Cranking the heat to max force, we zipped through the mountain passes once more and found ourselves in Zadar just before sunset. This was a crucial moment of time, as one of the trip’s highlights (oh, there were so many!) was to watch the sun set while listening to Zadar’s Sea Organ play. Some of us sprinted from the car while others sauntered, and we all ended up being able see sun light up in fluorescent oranges and pinks. It touched down just behind an island, the refracted rays causing a scene brilliant enough to hold us to it until its final moments of light. We remained captivated as nature created a dramatic soundtrack in the hollow pathway under our feet. As waves entered underneath, pressurized air was able to escape through a series of holes cut into it the walk. Zadar’s Sea Organ played a  soothing melody of deep notes which met the sunset with a grand applause.

Afterward, we let out our own claps of delight as we noshed on the most superb mix of Croatian food and I lured Ben into joining me with a ‘sipping shot’ of Rakija: the drink of the Balkans.

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ISLAND LIFE IN TROGIR

Split, Croatia is well known for its seaside old town and beautiful harbor. Trogir, its lesser-known neighbor just to the west is equally as romantic and more intimate than the first. One of our agreed-upon “musts” of the trip was to visit an island, and in a roundabout way this satisfied our hunger for that island lifestyle. Trogir’s Medieval city is reachable from the mainland by only one pass. A small bridge connects Old Town to ‘New Town” on one side, and to a large mainly uninhabited island on the other. In the middle, Old Town provides polished stone streets to walk upon, grand tan buildings crafted with straight edges and clay red roofs. Dark green moss grows from the cracks between bricks, and an occasional yellow or purple snapdragon peeps out in the most unexpected of places. A blog I admire “Chasing the Donkey”  had suggested visiting Trogir on the way to Split, so I followed their advices and booked a lovely AirBNB apartment on the large island just south of Old Town. Our apartment sat right next to the harbor separating us from Old Town and allowed us to access coastal cafes in under a ten minute’s walk. Staying for two nights, we took the opportunity to travel to Split as well. On our way to Split, the side roads allowed for a stop along the way in one of seven small towns called Kaštela, each with its own seaside castle: moat and all.

Our second morning in Trogir, we woke up and the four of us walked to a local Pekara (bakery) where we found breakfast. Croatian cherries are superb, so we each picked out the exact same treat: a rectangular phyllo dough shell stuffed with cherries and cherry juices. It was time for a celebration! The cause? Mom’s Birthday! Finally the day had come! We decorated the table in a plastic cloth saying “Buon Compleanno” (Happy Birthday in Italian – I’d picked it up along the way), complete with matching plates and a “Happy Birthday” banner (this time, in English). Let it be known that the lady who raised us, gave us everything she had, and still encourages us daily to chase our dreams deserves far more than paper plates and cherry pastries. She deserves the sun and the stars and everything they touch.

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DINING IN DUBROVNIK

That day, we tried our best to give them to her – the sunshine leading us down Croatia’s long coastline all the way to Dubrovnik. She had a world class view the entire trip, and for lunch even got to taste one of the finest delicacies known to man. That’s right, her birthday lunch was a hot dog. Not only that, it was a hot dog enjoyed while seated on a guard rail in the middle of nowhere surrounded by her three favorite people (or so we like to think!). That’s what happens when you travel during low season – options can be limited. But tasty nevertheless.

Passing quickly through the only slice of Bosnia that touches the Adriatic, we continued to Dubrovnik to find our apartment and walked downhill to Old Town. Stops were made along the way as I pointed out “Game of Thrones” locations which had been brought to my attention during my last visit. Ben was aware of the various scenes, and was able to pick out a few places on his own. The rest of us pretended they meant something to us and took photos of each, making it to our destination thirty minutes later. The walled city of Old Town Dubrovnik was bustling with tourists. Selfie sticks, bartering, umbrellas, group shots, “special prices” for you and you and you. Everything was ready for tourist season, including the gelato stands. Of course we stopped and enjoyed a couple scoops. If Momma says it’s okay to have dessert before dinner, than it’s okay to have dessert before dinner! As Dale would say, “Ah yep. Just sitting on the Adriatic. Enjoying a good-ole ice cream cone. This. Is. The Life.”

Dinner came late that night, when we sat just outside the city gates at a pleasantly warm restaurant catering to all us out-of-towners wanting a taste of Croatia. We celebrated the day until its final moments, ending with the mighty exhale of a song known all over the world:
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you….”

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Ah yep. Just sitting on the Adriatic. Celebrating the birthday of the most wonderful woman in the world. This. Is. The Life.

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