ibenik’s coastline was vast, the sea flowing through inlets and channels around dozens of tiny islands in the distance. Even from the 1000-year-old fort atop the hill in the old town, I was unsure if I could see open water on the horizon or if another layer of islands lay beyond.
Sparse vegetation scattered jagged mounds of beige rock like threads of hair atop a balding man’s head. In some parts of the world, slabs of limestone like these have eroded into fantastic spires sculpted by wind and water, but here the stone was rough and freshly exposed from the belly of the Earth.
I imagine that from the sky Šibenik’s coast looks like Jackson Pollock laid an ocean canvas on the floor and splattered it with limestone paint. The semi-barren rocky terrain where desert meets forest reminded me of Santa Fe, only if the valleys were flooded with ocean and each mountaintop was an island.
In the 5th century A.D., the Venetians imported massive quantities of wood and limestone from Croatia to build their city. Some Croatian limestone is especially smooth and shiny, like marble, and was an excellent material to construct the foundation of the floating city with because of the stone’s abnormally high water resistance.
These thriving export markets caused deforestation, which left the soil vulnerable to erosion. Before man, forests of cypress, oak, and pine blanketed the countryside, but now only hearty shrubs can survive. Yellow dandelions and cornflowers sprouted from drainage ditches where scarce soil collects.
The beaches were composed of smooth, flaky pebbles rather than sand, which made for great skipping rocks. I suspect this is one of the reasons the water was so clear. We loved taking Skutull to swim in the ocean because he came out cleaner than he went in—there was no sand burrowed into his fur.
We unwittingly scheduled our time in Croatia during the early weeks of “off season.” Like much of Croatia, Šibenik’s economy is tourist-driven, and tourism is seasonal, starting in late spring and lasting through early fall.
Most of the stores and restaurants were closed—some physically boarded up with brown paper taped to the inside of every window. When I walked by one of the few open restaurants, pop music played to grids of empty tables. The only shops that were reliably open were cafes and lingerie stores, the latter of which were oddly numerous. In fact, I think there was a higher density of lingerie stores in Šibenik than there are coffee shops in New York City. I never saw a single person shopping inside any of them.
Skutull’s routine potty spot was a gravel area just outside of the old town near a pavilion where outdoor speakers blasted an eclectic mix of 60s and 70s hits 24 hours per day, from The Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash, to Cheeseburger in Paradise by Jimmy Buffett, to soundtracks from famous Western films. Sometimes we’d walk home through the pedestrian-only old town without seeing a single other person. I felt like I was living in a ghost town. When we did pass somebody, it was usually an old man wearing a cracked leather jacket hobbling through the streets with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
One of my nomadic rituals is to find a bakery in each city, which didn’t take long in Šibenik. Most of their pastries used dough that was laminated and buttery like puff pastry, but each layer had a more bread-like, spongy texture. Sometimes the dough was thick and only folded over once with sweet fruit filling in the center; other times they rolled it thin into a long tube, filled the tube with savory meat, and then spun the stuffed tube into a spiral.
A family owned the bakery—a mom, dad, son, and daughter—but it was mostly the son I interacted with. We became friends and talked for a few minutes each morning. If ever I entered the door and the dad was behind the counter, he’d spring to his feet smiling and fetch his son.
“I like your pastries because they’re not too sweet,” I told the son. He was about my age and had short blonde hair and many tattoos, including the word “LOVE” inked onto the knuckles of his left hand.
“It is not like this in America?” he asked.
“No, most pastries are very sweet compared to these. A lot of the time they have frosting or glaze on top, too.”
“Yes, I have seen this in television,” he replied, “Is this why people there are so fat?”
I chuckled. “That’s part of it,” I told him, “American culture is also centered on cars. We drive everywhere and people get upset if you can’t park right in front of every store.”
“Uh, I could not live like this. I need to walk to do my errands,” he said, “helps me think.”
Every two or three days, he’d wrap my food up and throw in a couple free desserts. One of those occasions was on a Croatian holiday called Remembrance Day.
“It’s from my mom,” he said, nudging his eyes toward a tall, thin woman with short, spikey blonde hair rolling out dough, “she’s the boss.”
“Today is a holiday in Croatia?” I asked.
“Yes, but it is not a happy one. Many people died.”
“I’ve been watching a documentary on the war.”
“Yes, the Serbs attacked us. My father fought in this war,” he declared proudly.
Shelby, Skutull, and I spent a long weekend in Dubrovnik, which was a day’s journey from Šibenik down the coast. I was surprised to learn that Croatia is not a single, continuous piece of land. We had to cross the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina on our way to Dubrovnik, then cross back into Croatia a few miles later.
As we approached Dubrovnik, the vegetation along the coast increased in size and density. The ground was less rocky and massive trees scattered steep slopes that fell into the sea. We were now further south than the deforestation caused by Venetian lumber demand, and it showed. The islands and hills here were forested in places. I imagine this is what most of the Croatian coast looked like before humans.
I think there may have been more cats in Dubrovnik than people. One night we wandered through the narrow streets, touring a few of the Game of Thrones filming locations, including the “shame” staircase. At the bottom of the stairs, we turned down a dimly lit street and saw a cat scurry across the road. Then another ran by. Then two more. We passed at least a dozen cats who meowed and licked their paws, watching Skutull zig zag back and forth in panic.
“This is a cat city,” a young woman with red hair told us. She was standing outside her shop on a coffee break and approached us to pet Skutull. “He’s so cute!”
The cats kept mostly to themselves, but cat poop littered the streets. I saw multiple people in city uniforms picking up poop during our short stay, but there were so many cats, I suspect it’s impossible to keep the streets from becoming minefields.
A fortified wall encircles Dubrovnik, bordering cliffs that fall into the ocean on the coastal side. We walked along the wall and enjoyed views of both the sprawling town below and the sea beyond. Hundreds of buildings peeked through the skyline, each with a unique shape and orientation. It was the opposite of the cookie-cutter neighborhoods that are ubiquitous in the USA.
Old cannons armed the walls facing the sea where the water was especially blue and clear. I had an unexpected urge to pretend I was fighting in the Battle of Blackwater and fire a cannon into the empty sea.
There wasn't a sandy beach below the wall, but a series of ladders and steps carved into the cliff that descended directly into open water. Two girls swam just beyond the ledge. I’d guess that during summer the rocks and ledges are crowded with people, but on this day, these girls had the ocean to themselves.
In terms of medieval cities, Dubrovnik is large—it took us two hours to circumnavigate the entire wall. We saw only two other people the entire time. I asked one of the employees if this was normal. He told me that it might be a little less than normal because of Covid, but that during the off season they typically only have a couple hundred people walk the wall each day. Since the end of the 2021 peak season, they’d averaged 50-100 people per day.
“How many people walk it during the busy season?” I asked him.
“On our busiest day this summer, over 11,000.”
So while we suffered several disappointing discoveries when we tried to eat at restaurants and gelatorias that were closed for the off season, we also had the privilege of enjoying popular parts of the city nearly to ourselves.
We passed through Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina on our way back to Šibenik. The morning after we returned, Skutull and I stopped by the bakery for breakfast. My friend asked me about our trip as he packed and weighed my pastries. I told him about the city wall and counted out coins to pay, then set them on the counter. He picked them up, then looked up at me with a smile.
“You go to Bosnia?” he asked.
I realized I must have accidentally given him some of my Bosnia coins.
“Ah, sorry,” I said, searching my wallet for Croatian Kuna while avoiding Bosnian BEM and Euros.
“My mother is from Bosnia,” he hollered jovially. She waved at me as she rolled out a sheet of laminated dough.
“We went to Mostar,” I told him.
“Yes, the bridge is very nice. You know all of these pastries are Bosnian. They’re not Croatian.”
“Really?” I replied.
“It has roots from the Ottomans.”
On our last morning in Šibenik, I stopped at the bakery for one final serving of my favorite apple pastry and told my friend I was leaving.
“Oh, well you have to come back!”
“We will,” I told him, “Because of our visa as Americans, we can only be in the EU three months at a time.”
“Next time come in the summer. There are many beautiful women at the beaches in the summer.”
Our travels turned north to the Istrian region of Croatia. The coastline there was no longer barren, but forested. A dense burnt crimson canopy poked its head in and out of the haze, which partially obscured mountains colliding with the sea. If autumn Appalachian mountains descended abruptly into the Mediterranean Sea, I think they’d look similar to the Istrian coastline.
We lived in the city of Motovun, which was about 30 minutes inland. It sat atop a steep hill with old city walls fortifying the high ground. Our apartment was a renovated room in the city wall. The space was quite snug and had a staircase as steep as a ladder, but with slightly wider steps. Skutull managed going up on his own, but he always waited at the top for Shelby or I to spot him on his way down.
We settled into our apartment just before twilight and watched the sun set from our window. The landscape undulated into the distance, though I’m not sure if I should describe the undulations as hills or mountains. If they were mountains, they were small; if they were hills, they were large. As daylight dimmed, the sky turned darker shades of purple and fog gradually settled into the valleys. With each passing moment, the sun ducked further below the horizon and a layer of distant mountains disappeared into the thickening haze. At the moment just before darkness, when the sky is nearly black and only the brightest stars are visible, we were completely socked in by fog, it’s gaseous tendrils whisping across the windows.
The next morning, we drove down the hill to go on a truffle hunt. Shelby pulled our car up to a house with a large, cobblestone driveway. Two dogs barked constantly in their outdoor kennels. After greeting our guide, we geared up to venture into the woods in search of both black and white winter truffles. The guide freed his dogs from their cages. They barked and spun in circles with excitement, then obediently jumped into the trunk of his car.
Skutull was accepted into the truffle hunting pack. He roamed around with the truffle dogs, unsure of what they were doing, but having a great time. One was a young black lab and the other was an older beagle.
“She can be very good if she’s in the mood,” the owner told us of the beagle's truffle hunting skills, “but some days she doesn’t listen.”
The beagle mostly did her own thing, but Skutull and the lab were fast friends. They chased each other and took turns frolicking up and down the trail with sticks. Then the black lab halted near a tree and started digging. Our guide jogged toward her, yelling commands in Croatian. He bent over the hole she dug and pulled out a small black truffle. We passed the truffle around to smell and inspect. It was fragrant and Skutull was very interested. I let him sniff the mushroom, but held it tight incase he mistook it for a treat. Meanwhile, the two truffle dogs jumped and clawed at the owners thighs. He pulled out a piece of bread and dropped it into the lab’s mouth, “She gets a treat, but the other doesn’t and she is upset,” he told us. The beagle barked and dug her dew claws into the man’s khaki pants, climbing frantically toward his pocket.
The guide held the truffle in his hands, which were clasped behind his back as we continued back down the trail. Skutull trailed him with his nose glued a few inches from the man’s hands. When the guide noticed, he bent down and showed Skutull the truffle. I could see Skutull’s nose furiously shifting left and right as he investigated the smelly stick (or maybe it was food?) that his friend dug from the ground. The guide broke off a small piece and gave it to Skutull as a treat, “Once they taste and smell it, they can find them,” he said. Skutull immediately spit the truffle out onto the ground, but resumed sniffing it intently.
Down the trail, the beagle started digging and the guide bolted toward her, yelling more commands I didn’t understand. “No! No!” he shouted as he approached, “...She ate the truffle! That was about one hundred euros.”
By the end of our hunt, we found one black truffle and three white truffles (plus the truffle in the beagle’s tummy). The guide and his wife served us scrambled eggs and chocolate cake with fresh truffle shaved on top. A framed newspaper clipping hung on their wall showcasing our guide holding a giant truffle.
“Last year we had the biggest truffle,” the woman said, pointing at the picture.
“Istria has the best truffles in the world,” the man added, “Everyone knows Alba in Italy, but Istria produces more truffle per year and many times the merchants will sell a truffle and say it’s from Alba, but it’s actually from Istria.”
“How long do truffles stay fresh?” I asked.
“A couple days they will stay perfect. Maybe a week if you refrigerate, but fresh is always best. During the season, I drive two hours each way to Venice every day to sell truffles. I hunt with the dogs for six hour in the mornings, even in rain. Some days they are not in the mood and won’t hunt.”
“By the end of the season, we don’t want to see another truffle,” his wife added