When we were trying to decide where in Europe to go, Croatia kept popping up as a suggestion. Croatia has recently been steadily increasing in popularity as a travel destination for Americans. While just a few years ago, people had lingering concerns about whether Croatia was safe after its war of independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s (perhaps from watching too many ER episodes about Dr. Kovac), now many wonder whether Croatia is overrun by tour groups and cruise ships. With many seaside cities with quaint stone and marble old towns, a long coastline on the Adriatic sea, and the supposed charm of Italy without the prices, Croatia has seen an influx of travelers in the last decade.
We opted to forgo a guidebook for our time in Croatian (more on that later), and did very little other research into Croatia. So when we showed up in Rovinj, a town picked somewhat randomly because it had a good bus connection from Slovenia, we were surprised to not see many hotels or any pensions (simple, budget accommodations prevalent in Europe). After walking around for a while, our backpacks heavy on our backs, we stopped in a travel agency/money exchange type of place and asked the man working there if he knew of any hotels.
He directed us to what seemed like the only hotel in walking distance from the old town and told us to come back if it was too expensive. Upon learning that the rather simple looking hotel was $160 euros a night – over $200 – we returned and rented a room from the man for $57 euros. The man instructed us to make a couple of turns and look for a house with an elderly woman leaning out of the window. The woman did not speak a word of English. The room we rented was just that – a room on the third floor of the house, grandmotherly décor, and a religious photo over the bed.
At a café with wifi later that night, we did a little more digging and learned that while Croatia has some five star hotels in various cities, the mid-level hotels and budget hostels or pensions have not found their way to Croatia. It has been decades since the fall of communism, so I can only assume there is some reason that I am not aware of that prevents opportunity seeking capitalists to fill this void. (If anyone knows the answer, I’d love to hear it. I couldn’t find a good answer anywhere).
In the meantime, the private residents of Croatia are stepping up to gain some extra income and provide lodging to Croatia’s many tourists. All private rooms must be licensed. The rooms are all different. Some are modern; some are very outdated; all are simple. Some have private ensuite bathrooms; others do not. Some are apartments, with a private entrance; others are simply rooms in someone’s house.
Even after research telling us that private accommodation was the way to go, I still hesitated when we were greeted at our next stop in Pula by an elderly woman with hair growing out of her moles, who was telling us Come with me. My room, it is very cheap. I talked Sean into staying into staying at one of the few hotels in Pula instead. At 96 euros a night (about $121), it was our second most expensive place on this trip so far, and it was nothing to write home about.
The next day, I succumbed to the reality that if we wanted to stay in Croatia, we would have to go with the Grannies. Anyone who travels to Croatia by any form of public transport will meet the Grannies. Many of the Grannies were not actually grannies at all. Some were younger; some were male. But because our first experience was with a woman who was at least 85, they will forever be known as Grannies. At each stop during our ten hour bus ride from Pula to Split, the Grannies swarmed around us, calling out Sobe? Camere? Room? Zimmer? They didn’t always speak anything other than Croatian, but they threw out the name for room in every language. Even telling them that we were just stepping of the bus to go to the bathroom sometimes didn’t stop them from shouting after us. I suppose they thought they might be able to convince us to get off the bus and stay in their town.
While you can book private accommodations in advance from the savvy owners who have set up websites or listed their properties on sites like Hostelbookers, searching for private accommodations this way is very time consuming. We found it was much easier to subject ourselves to the mercy of the Grannies at the bus stations and ferry stops. As long as you were not picky (a very difficult concept for me to grasp), you could be lead directly to a room or apartment by a Granny after finding one where the price was right. The best we could do is try to learn important facts, like how close the apartment or room was to the old town (always, very close, very close – until you press further and find out that very close means a 15 minute bus ride to town).
It was hard to choose a Granny. With the exception of a less populated island we visited, each time we stepped off a bus or a ferry in a new place, the Grannies were waiting. Some Grannies took the approach of shouting at you before you even walked down the ferry ramp.
Other Grannies rushed up to you the second you stepped on land, each of them looking at you with expectant and hopeful eyes. Still other Grannies stood back, and patiently waited for you to come to them.
The savviest Grannies had pictures of their rooms on their signs, like Maria in Hvar Town. Upon stepping off the bus in Korcula, we were drawn to Vela’s sign like a moth to a flame when we spotted the words “Free Wifi” in big black letters. (Internet access was a rare commodity in Croatia’s private accommodations. I was starting to the shakes).
While not all of our private rooms or apartments had private bathrooms, and some of them probably have not been updated in forty or fifty years, all of the rooms or apartments were clean. Some had balconies overlooking the Adriatic Sea, and most were centrally located. They ranged in price from $38 a night to $75 a night. Those willing to spend more could probably find more modern and luxurious private apartments.
Of course, the best part about staying in private accommodation is that we get to know some Croatian people a little bit better, and experience their hospitality. Nada, in Split, recommended a tasty Croatian restaurant for dinner. Vela, on Korcula Island, always stopped to chat when she saw us. When we asked if we could use the outdoor drying rack to hang laundry, she not only said yes, she offered to do a load of laundry for us for free. Valentina, on Lastovo Island, picked us up and dropped us off at the bus stop several miles away. And Maria, on Hvar Island, invited us to her birthday gathering on her patio with her family.
We ate prosciutto and cheese, drank homemade wine from Hvar grapes, and sang Maria happy birthday as she blew out the candles on her cake (which, fortunately for us, but unfortunately for her, was made by her!) While Maria spoke somewhat broken English, we got to chat with her brother and sister, both of whom spoke nearly perfect English. We met Mae and Margaret, two friends from Norway staying at one of Maria’s apartments, who brought homemade Norwegian pancakes and sang Maria a Norwegian birthday song.
For our part, we brought guacamole and salsa, made from ingredients we collected at the island’s farmer’s market. We actually were able to track down tortilla chips at the island’s grocery store, which is no small feat in Europe. The crowd chuckled at our choice of Mexican, given America’s lack of a national food. We explained that as a nation of immigrants, most American foods borrow the best of world – a diversity I rather enjoy. It was funny watching some of the guests try to figure out what to make of the guacamole and salsa. Most ate them off their plates without tortilla chips. Their confusion didn’t prevent them from polishing off both bowls.
All in all, while commodities like beers and food were more expensive than we anticipated for a country who has not adopted the euro, it is not hard to keep costs down by moving around by bus or ferry and by staying with the Grannies.