Why Croatia?

Why Croatia?
by Croatian genealogist Robert Jerin

Even though there are about 50,000 Ohioans who either came from Croatia or are descended from Croatian immigrants, I often am asked; "where is Croatia", "Isn't that part of Whateverslavia", or "isn't that one of those new countries."

Or some will say "oh my aren't they having a war", or "is it safe there"?

Well Croatia is over 1100 years old! And no there is no war, the war that was waged on Croatia by a neighboring country was over in 1995. And Croatia has a much lower crime rate than Ohio and Cleveland!

That said I would like to share some things about Croatia, the Land of My Ancestors.

Map of Croatia

Why visit Croatia and why now? A fresh air has come over Croatia since its tough road to in 1992. Infrastructure, such as roads, rail lines and hotels have seen a marked improvement, so much so that even the finicky northern European tourists flock to Croatia for vacations.

Croatian towns and cities have a sense of serenity yet just beneath that serenity is a surging vitality. Croatia is where West meets East, where the old world meets the new. Croatia has modern tourist facilities, hotels, restaurants and shops. Croatia still has and old world feel which is long gone in most Europe. And Croatia is a travel bargain.

Zagreb, the capital, has two parts the Upper Town (Gornji Grad) with its cobblestone streets and old red-tiled roofs dates to the 11th century, while the Lower Town (Donji Grad) came into being in the 19th century. Here you will find shoppers with buying Fossil watches and Hugo Boss apparel.

Yet Zagreb's pedestrian only main Jelacic Square has street vendors selling all sorts of items, performers singing, miming or playing musical instruments. Just off the main square is the centuries old farmers market the Dolac.

The Dolac, which National Geographic called the "cleanest market in all of Europe", has fresh produce stands run by village ladies, heads donned by babushkas.

And one is never hard pressed to find a sidewalk vendor or café selling the popular Espresso coffee or the small grilled sausages called cevapcici (we call them chevapee for short), which one may want to wash down with one of the many local beers.

While in Zagreb you must stop at the the Croata necktie shop. Fashion experts claim the necktie came from Croatia. In the 1600s a group of Croatian soldiers in France inspired the fashion conscious French with the Croatian's red neckerchiefs.

The French thought so highly of this adornment that French men began wearing them referring to this early form of the necktie as ala Kravat, thus the kravat or necktie was born. This shop offers a broad line of fine men's silk neckties and ladies silk scarves, many with old Croatian patterns on them.

Zagreb has always been a cultural center, even during the dark days when Croatia was held captive in a communist Yugoslavia. Today Zagreb has over 50 museums as well as numerous galleries. The ethnographic museum, which feature old Croatia folk culture with exhibits of the myriad of folk dress found in each village.

The Mimara Art Museum has a very nice collection of artwork. The National Theater is home to many operas and plays. The entertainment scene finds discos playing the current pop music for the younger set, jazz for those who find that music to their liking and Croatian village folk groups.

Getting around in Zagreb is easy, as there is a well-developed streetcar system, they even have a funicular (inclined plane) to take people from the lower city to the older upper city. And it is never a problem to walk, as Croatia is a pedestrian friendly city, with many trees and parks.

Zagreb has many hotels, to suit all tastes and budgets, from the top hotels such as Esplande and Intercontinental to the moderate priced. The Esplande was built as a stop on the Orient Express, which traveled through Croatia.

One hotel, which is convenient to the main square, The Dubrovnik is owned by a group of Clevelanders and has recently undergone renovation.

Leaving Zagreb we pass through the pastoral countryside, where ladies have roadside stands selling homemade cheeses as well as fruit flavored liquors. We may pass through the village of Smiljan in the Dinaric Alp highlands, which is the birthplace of Croatian-American inventor Nikola Tesla.

It was Tesla who is responsible for discovering AC electricity, while Thomas Edison promoted DC electricity. If it were not for Tesla we would have many more polluting electric generating plants than we have now. The US Supreme Court ruled that it was Tesla and not Marconi who invented the radio.

If you visit Niagara Falls, NY you may have seen the statue of Tesla at the museum there. Heading toward the Adriatic coastline, to a region called Dalmatia (yes that is where the Dalmatian dog is said to have originated) we will pass the birthplace of Ivan Mestrovic, who taught art at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

Next time you visit Chicago's Grant Park take a look at Mestrovic's statue of an American Indian on horseback, it is called The Bowsman.

And if the city is not to your taste, Croatia's Adriatic coastline is said to be the most spectacular in Europe. Over 1,000 islands dot the coastline.

Perhaps the most famous is Korcula, the birthplace of Marco Polo. With many fine beaches and crystal clear water Croatia is attracting many beach lovers. There are even beaches for the "naturist" set!

Croatia's Adriatic towns and villages have seen a long succession of rulers; Rome, Venice, Napoleon' French Empire, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia and finally the Croatians. Thus the towns are fantastically rich in architecture and history.

In Pula you will find a Roman coliseum, which is better preserved than the one in Rome. In Split you can walk in the retirement palace of the Roman Emperor, Diocecia, as the Croatians built their town within the old palace walls.

Trogir a medieval town, is a UN protected Cultural Heritage Site. And the 14th century walled city of Dubrovnik (once called Ragusa Republic) was the very first country to recognize the independence of the United States.

Croatia has a burgeoning wine industry. Vineyards are found in all parts of the country, however the Adriatic region, with its hot dry summers and mild short winters may be best suited for wine grape growing. Recently wine historians have found that the Mali Plavac (Little Blue) grape from Croatia is the ancestor of the popular Zinfandel grape.

Of course many Croatians from the Adriatic region settled in California in the mid 1800s bringing with them their wine and plant growing skills. Today several large vegetable growers in California, such as Boskovich Lettuce, are descended from those early settlers. More recently Mike Grgich settled in California, first as vintner for Mondavi and eventually as a partner in Grgich Hills Wine.

And any visit to Croatia would not be complete without mentioning the spectacular Plitvice National Park. This park consisting of the last primeval forest in Europe has much wildlife, including bear, fox, wolves and lynx. But the unique feature is certainly the chain of lakes connected by a many cascading waterfalls. Cleveland TV Channel 26 (PBS) recently aired a program about this spectacular natural wonder, entitled Land of the Falling Lakes.

If you are interested in Croatia and have any questions regarding the country, its history or if you are interested in joining us on our tour please feel free to contact me at

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