There are worse ways to celebrate your 40th birthday, than by taking your holidays in Croatia. I’m lounging on the grassy bank of a little river with an ice-cold beer in my hand, chatting to a German couple about motorcycles, history and our various adventures around the world. The dog who lives in the hotel I’m currently staying in lies at my feet, basking in the sun and the adoration of the humans around her, while gentle clouds of smoke waft across from where a group of locals is happily barbecuing a huge and delicious-smelling selection of meat for their lunch.
I’ve been helping to sell holidays to Croatia for a decade or so, but until now I’ve not had the time to visit. I’m glad I finally did. North to South, and East to West, Croatia is a patchwork landscape of wooded hills, winding lanes and little villages where church spires rise above the hilltop trees. Along the coast, ancient ports still retain their faded Venetian elegance and mighty medieval walls, while tiny islands hide the treasures of a thousand secluded coves from all but the luckiest visitors.
But even so, for me, it’s not the enchanting cobbled courtyards and ancient colonnades of Split and Trogir, the sunshine and sea air of resorts like Porec, Pula and Dubrovnik, or even the astonishingly clear and astonishingly blue waters and waterfalls of the Plitvice Lakes (top tip: If you have the choice take the train to the topmost lakes and work your way down from there, the opposite way from the route most visitors follow – it’s a lot less crowded), that have really captured my heart. It’s the relaxed, genuine friendliness that I found everywhere I went.
Ivan, who owns the hotel, cheerily encourages us to “eat as much as we can” at breakfast on our first morning. Igor, our guide, is a laugh-a-minute-character with addictions to Only Fools And Horses re-runs and base-jumping. Cycling through the countryside, we’re greeted with cheery waves and cries of “dobar dan” whenever we (not literally) run into other people. At dinner one evening, the lady waiting our table arches a wry eyebrow at Igor’s request for a shot of blueberry brandy to go on his vanilla ice cream, then smiling brings enough for everyone without bothering to charge us.
My colleagues will tell you I’m a curmudgeonly sort; happier digging around in data and correcting other people’s spelling than holding anything resembling an actual conversation. But in Croatia, I find myself unexpectedly released and reimagined as a social butterfly. Maybe it’s the sunshine. Maybe it’s the beer. (It’s probably both. Karlovacko Rezano certainly comes with my hearty recommendation.)
And if Croatia can do that for someone as relentlessly misanthropic as me, imagine what it can do for someone more normally balanced. Someone like you.
Oli Roberts is Newmarket’s Commercial Projects Executive. He likes science fiction, peanut butter M&Ms and bicycles. His inability to engage in conversation with other humans may have been exaggerated for effect.