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A Croatian Cleanse

It’s the summer after our first year in college, our first year away from home; a year of reinvention: of meeting new people and making new lives. New, separate, lives. We’d both been working at home, and in August my best friend and I decided to get away for a few days, just the two of us. We pick Croatia, where her father has roots, and a few weeks before the trip we book everything and leave to discover the most romantic, dreamy country we’d ever visited.

The bus ride down to Dubrovnik from the airport was already beautiful, with endless views of blue ocean and luscious trees surrounding it. We get off at Pile Gate and enter the fortress that is the Old Town. The floor is a collection of smooth white stones that make me want to walk barefoot. The main street is crowded with tourist shops built into the stone walls and the paths leading off of it are narrow, some with rows of tables where passerby’s stop to have a drink or a quick bite, and others with steep stairs that lead up to hidden restaurants or residential apartments. Our room is in one of these. We climb up, past a man showcasing his paintings while having a drink with a neighbor, past tables set up outside for dinner at Rozario.

Stradun leads to the port where small boats sit in the clear turquoise water. Tables and tables and tables are lined up in front of the sea looking towards the eternal blue horizon, which is interrupted in the middle by a forested island that was once cursed. On the left, houses with orange roofs are lined up on the hills, and the pier wraps around, unveiling sunbathers jumping off jagged edges into the serene water. We sit with our backs to the stone town and our toes reaching out. The sun hits hard as boys set up a net and play all day long, hitting a ball against the indestructible walls. We walk all day, our eyes wide open, not knowing where to look but trying to memorize every detail.

When the sun goes down, we walk by the port with our ice cream cones, and as we reenter the Old Town, we hear a different musician around every corner. While the town is constantly in movement, it is most alive at night. The cafes and bars are packed with their chairs turned to face out towards the street. We get lost in the back alleys that are cramped with couples, families, and friends having dinner. We walk in the warm night and visit small galleries and artisan boutiques, talking to local artists and marveling at their work. We sit on the steps of St Ignatius Church and have dinner overlooking the square below. There is a band playing, and we stand in the crowd, dancing to the music under the fading light of the sky.

After two days in Dubrovnik, we take a bus to Split. The ride is all along the coast, and the sea follows us the whole way. We find our hostel in the dark and then head into the Old Town. The Peristil, the main square of Diocletian’s Palace, is framed by people sipping wine on cushions watching couples dancing to music played by a band in the middle. Everyone is everywhere, and although the walls are made of stone and from the third century, the modern city is really built into it. Narrow streets open up into vast plazas, and we explore, getting lost in the Roman ruins. We spent our time in Split walking along the Riva eating Burek, rubbing Gregorius of Nin’s big toe for good luck, and seeing the sites, watching and learning about the past. Split is much larger than Dubrovnik, and it’s amazing to see the vestibule where Emperor Diocletian greeted his guests, the basements under the city where the people lived, and the Cathedral of St Dominus, which is one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals still in use.

At night we go to a club by the beach, and drunk people are dancing to the techno music with their feet in the water. The next day I meet up with some friends from school who are backpacking, and we spend the morning sitting on the beach, gazing at clear blue skies and old women sunbathing.

In the afternoon we take a short ferry to Hvar, an island right off the coast. The sun is setting when we arrive, and I’m immediately struck by the contrast between the pale stone, the blue water, and the lush vegetation. Our room has a glorious little balcony, and we sit there for a while, observing the clear green spots of the sea and the stone beaches. The next day we explore, walking up hills into forests with crickets so loud we can’t hear ourselves think. We find a 16th-century fort and look onto views of the green leaves in the foreground with endless blue in the background, and I can’t imagine how these two can coexist and be so beautiful. The boardwalk is lined with white rocks where people have made docks and put lounge chairs. When you go inside it, the water seems cleansing and cleaner than the ocean, as if there weren’t any sand in it. I wake up before anyone else and walk all around the edge of the island. It’s very empty, but the wind moves the boats and makes the waves come alive.

We go to the main town square that is crowded with restaurants and cafés. We walk up some stairs to a huge balcony area where we are alone overlooking the plaza and people sitting below us. We start to pour drops of water from our bottle onto people’s heads and hide; we’re laughing, and the poor people are so confused, looking up at the sky and wondering how the water materialized from the sunny heavens. One big drop falls straight onto a boy’s lap, and we’re laughing so hard but don’t realize that his parents are sitting across from him and saw us with the water bottle until they smile and point us out to their son. Our stomachs ache from laughing, and we can’t show our faces.

Later on, we meet some Swedish boys who are staying at our hotel and hide from a huge summer storm in their room. When it passes we go out and dance until the sun comes up again. We are dying from lack of sleep and in the line to buy our ferry ticket we meet a lone American backpacker and spend the morning talking to him under the sun. Then it’s time to say goodbye.

Our last stop is Vela Luka on the island of Korcula. We are staying with a friend of my friend’s father in the most charming home that’s hidden behind flowers and vines. She is so kind to us and fills us with homemade Croatian feasts and glorious sights. She drives us up a mountain in her little white car to see beautiful views of the island from above, and the next morning we take a boat to her favorite beach in the whole world. We walk through trees, and then it finally opens up to a stone slope that goes down and meets with water that is so transparent I can see the bottom from the top of the hill. We stay in between the waves for hours.

On another day we hike, singing, telling stories and quickly getting lost among the green. We visit her childhood home, and she takes us up a big hill, and at the top is a tiny church. We make a wish before taking our last swim in Croatia, and I wish to come back. Hvala, Croatia!

+Meet Victoria

Victoria Campa sees the world through a 50mm lens. Growing up in a bicultural family, she has a never-ending thirst for travel and for learning through new experiences. She enjoys reading, Ilford HP5 film, and the Spanish guitar.

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