Green Belts Shelter

A mature oak tree has from 100,000 to 250,000 leaves in any given year. During their lives leaves diligently convert sunlight into sugars, filter carbon and oxygenate air while sending  nutrients to branches and trunks down into the earth—which is then made cooler and stronger.  At the end of their lifespan they enrich and create new earth. This is all done efficiently as each leaf responds to signals from their tree and the forest community—without a single word spoken. Since trees inspire so many words it is a wonder they are not more appreciated and protected for the everyday miracles they perform. 

On March 21 winners of the European Tree of the Year competition will be announced. This competition generates appreciation for the cultural, environmental and social benefits of trees. Winners are selected by public voting taking place online in February.

Croatia’s 2023 entry is a many centuries old oak. Though most trees nominated for the competition have a name this one doesn’t. It is one of the many oaks that grow in the Drežnica karst field near Ogulin. This field becomes a lake in the spring and fall so that water rises to cover significant portions of tree trunks. Forested areas around villages, towns and cities create green belts that shelter stressed out species.

March 21 is the UN International Day of Forests and first day of Spring.

Maksimir Forest Park is one of EU’s oldest public parks.  Prior to the park’s opening in 1798 the area was a dense forest of hornbeam and oak. This forest was felled to create the 1,005 acre park located about 20 minutes north of Zagreb’s city center. Maksimir’s impressive green canopy shades peaceful walking and hiking paths, a promenade, gardens, zoo, pavilions and five man-made lakes. In recent years Maksimir has become a tourist attraction for visitors to Zagreb. Trails have been upgraded with markers to help Croatian and foreign tourists wayfind. The International Scientific Journal Turizam published research in 2012 using SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunities, threats) surveys to analyze the value of Makismir’s resources. Researchers supported by the faculty of Tourism and Hospitality Management in Opatija surveyed 120 park visitors.

Nearby Maksimir is Medvednica Nature Park, sited on Zagreb’s north border. The park’s most striking feature is Medvednica Mountain which is in plain view from Zagreb’s upper town. Also called ‘Bear mountain (Medved means bear), the name refers to the area’s former brown bear inhabitants/residents. Forested trails leading up to Slijeme—the peak of Medvednica Mountain have been popular with hikers for over a century. Beech trees are the hallmark of this forest. In the 1980s extreme winters damaged Medvednica’s beech forests.  To mediate the impact of climate change today Medvednica is one of Croatia’s 400 areas designated to protect bio-diversity. Forest Park Tuškanac is a another peaceful forest park tucked into the foothills of Mount Medvednica. Nestled among trees are historic summer villas and an open-air stage.  Anthropologist and award winning author Andra Pisac’s 2023 insider piece shows ways to enjoy Medvednica’s many pleasures.

According to countless sources (UN, World Bank, FISE – Forest Information System for Europe, Global Forest Watch) about 35% of Croatia is forested. (In March 2022 Croatia’s Ministry of Agriculture reported that forests and forest land cover 2.76 million hectares or 48.7% of Croatia’s land area.) Complex forest ecosystems cover about third of the earth’s surface

To assess the health of forests, Croatian ecologists and forest researchers have been using satellite captures and ground data collection. Recent studies promote philosophies of harmonious, right relationships between humans and forests. A 3 year study of Zagreb’s green canopy cites restorative aspects of mutual dependencies echoed in Forest Management and Ecology research coming done by Croatian and Slovenian Universities. 

Monitoring and restoration efforts are more effective when they combine technology to create positive interactions between people and the earth. The BORANKA project was developed and implemented with the Scouts under the supervision of Dan Spičer help address drought induced forest fires that devastated the area around Split in the 2000s.  Seed scattering drones help replant trees, but hands-on field work especially with youth makes these projects work.

Epiphanies are defined as a moment in a person’s life when their path becomes clear. Filmmaker Dalibor Platenik A Man and a Tree document’s Vladimir Joda’s epiphany in 1985  when he was inspired to plant trees in Zagreb’s city parks—without permission from the local authorities. He mostly plants, waters and tends trees in the dark or very early in the morning. In recent years Vladimir wears city service workers uniforms to maintain his invisiblity. He visits his trees regularly and is proud of his actions, taking his authority from a higher power.

Vladimir Joda lives in an apartment that overlooks a park. Birdsong is his summer 4:30am morning wake up alarm.  Vladimir moves about the city with 5  to 10 gallon plastic containers he uses to water drought affected trees. Vladimir connects caring for trees to caring for all life forms—he began planting trees when his own children were young. For many years Vladimir worked in a raliroad shunting yard where, after hours he planted 146 trees. He purchases young trees selected specifically for each site at one of several local garden centers, budgeting $30 -$40 per seedling and some type soil enrichment out of his own pocket. As of 2019 Vladimir planted 450 trees.

How can humans better fit into landscapes? Create healthy relationships with trees, forests and more than human life? Hrvatske Šume was founded in 1991 to help protect bio-diversity of Croatian forests and forested land along with networked European Institutes including the Croatian Forest Institute which seeks to integrate sometimes competing agendas and interests. and

A series of interviews with Vladimir’s long-time friends reveals the strength of his beliefs. He organizes planting parties but does not elaborate—maybe to protect those involved. He isn’t interested in being an influencer, his purpose is to fulfill his responsibility to the earth. At nearly 70 years old the work is becoming more difficult for him but Vladimir is determined to continue and to spread his philosophy. Vladimir’s work improves the lives of many, but can his solo endeavors compensate for careless public behavior and negligence?

 CO2MPENSATING BY PLANTING is a new program specifically designed to compensate for CO2 emissions by planting trees. Organised with the Croatian Scouts Association, Croatian Forests HEARTH  and the new high school Šumoborci (Forest Fighters) these are innovative responses to the consequences of climate change. CO2MPENSATING is the first program of its kind in Croatia, but also in the entire  EU region. It promotes intergenerational engagement and follows in the footsteps of the BORANKA project’s success. Many of the initiatives and right actions are supported under the umbrella of Natura 2000, a network of 27,800 sites in 28 countries. Natura 2000’s purpose is to protect valuable, threatened species and habitats. It is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. 


This post is inspired youth volunteers, Vladimir Joda’s story and research done by Andrija Krtalić (University of Zagreb, Geodesy) , Dario Linardić (Geodetic Institute, Rijeka) and Renata Pernar  (University of Zagreb, Forestry) ‘Framework for Spatial and Temporal Monitoring of Urban Forest and Vegetation Conditions: Case Study Zagreb, Croatia,’ published 27 May 2021 in Sustainabilty Journal, and ‘Evaluation of Forest Edge Structure and Stability in Peri-Urban Forests’ by David Hladnik, Andrej Kobler and Janez Pirnat, Forests, 18 March 2020 Slovenian Forestry Institute, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia.


‘Croatia’s seed-scattering drones replant forests hurt by fire,’ Reuters, 11/21


Natura 2000

Douglas W. Tallamy, Nature’s Best Hope, a New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, 2020 Timber Press, Portland, OR

Quercus Rober Oak leaf, Wikimedia

250 year old Oak Tree in Drženica Polje near Ogulin, the birthplace of the Croatian fairytale author Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić and partisan stronghold during WW2.  

Maksimir Forest Park in 1920, Total Croatia News

Medvednica Nature Park, Andrea Pisac

Corine Map, European Environment Agency

Vladimir Dimić Joda, A Man and A Tree by filmmaker Dalibor Platenik


Vera and Paola Eledda oko božićnog drvca

This photograph of twins Vera and Paolo Eledda was taken in 1956. They are my first cousins once removed–the children of my great aunt, Darinka Martinčić Eledda. Since shortly after World War II they lived in Sardinia. I never met them but we recently corresponded. Relatives who are from the same branch of the Martinčić family on my maternal grandparents ancestral line influenced me in so many ways. Family and Christmas are foundations of Croatian culture. Familial roles and and religious traditions (mostly Roman Catholic) are well-defined if not always similarly practiced. In a country of 3.9 million it can seem like everyone is related to everyone else. Families are close-knit and spend a lot of time together especially during the Christmas holidays.

Map of the Croatians around the world. Darker areas show where there is a significant Croatian population.
Wikimedia Commons August 2022

Diaspora is a hallmark of our time. The largest Croatian disaspora is in the United States. Dr. Tado Jurić at Catholic University of Croatia writes passionately about reasons that more people with Croatian heritage reside outside of the Republic of Croatia–between 7 and 8 million scattered worldwide. The number of Croatians emigrating has steadily increased in the past 50 years. Even after gaining EU membership in 2013 Croatians continue to seek jobs and and build lives far from home. Last year in an attempt to draw people to live and stay in Croatia, the town of Legrad near the Hungarian border was offering to subsidize homes that cost 16 cents in return for buyers 15 year commitment to live there.

Family poses in ancestral home in Moščenićka Draga, c. 1950s. Mary Martinčić Scatena

Far flung family. Decreasing population. Increasing secularism. Mass tourism displacing locals. What does that mean for Croatia? Croatia’s diverse, beautiful biomes–mountains, sea, waterways, high meadows, wetlands and islands includes karst formations. Throughout Europe karst regions are protected by national governments. In a study of the Krka National Park and surroundings funded by Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, geographers Telbisz, Radeljak Kauffman and Bočić ask, How do natural settings influence population dynamics? Using a variety of methods they explore how karst formations impact demographics. Telbisz, Radeljak Kauffman and Bočić determine that elevation and proximity to water are two prominent factors linking karst, demographics and depopulation. Unlike historians such as Jurić who cite political corruption and the after effects of the war decade (1991-2001) as primary reasons for de-population, scientific research sheds light on the dynamics between inland and coastal areas as prime tourist destinations, and how National Park management may help stimulate economic and population growth while preserving delicate ecosystems.

 Bol, island of Brac (Dieter_G, Pixabay)

Islands are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. An academic who lives and works in Chicago and Zagreb sums up the dilemma, ‘Those islands are under so much pressure to preserve heritage and to preserve nature. But also to be open to building up the economy. They’re talking about opening an airport on Hvar or Brač. It’s so horrible for the ecology. And do you really want more people? But there’s nothing else much there so do you let it happen? Gosh, that’s such a stressful thing for them. I guess they have to balance development with the reason people come, which is lack of development.’

For the past thirty years economic support, cross-cultural education, and environmental concerns have been the focus of Snažniji Zajedno-Stronger Together, an embassy-to- embassy program that coordinates efforts between the United States and Croatian. The diaspora has undoubtably contributed to the success of Snažniji-Zajedno and the leadership development programs though the U.S. Croatia Forum Initiative.

Last year in November 2021 Vukovar Water Tower became a member of the World Federation of Great Towers–a prestigious group of iconic towers including the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building. As ‘A symbol of Croatian unity’ the renovated Vukovar Water Tower retains bullet holes that tell the history of the turbulent 1990s. In 1988 historian Peter Alter visited the former Yugoslavia as a college undergraduate. Alter reminisced,  ‘Tito was definitely on the mind as a history major at the time. So I definitely remember that…It was definitely top-level consciousness.  But at the same time I had no inkling that there would be a multi-sided war.’ Peter went on to become a professional historian whose specialities are US cities and southeast Europe.

So the first time I went to Croatia I was five years old and it was 1996. So this was right after the war. We always went in the summer and my birthday is in September, so I was almost six years old. We flew into Germany and drove from Germany into Croatia—me, my dad, my mom and my brother who is five and a half years older. I have such vivid memories of that trip, specifically of us driving into Zagreb first. You know, this is a year after the war.  The war was still very fresh. As a young kid you don’t understand what’s going on, but I remember that in the hotel we stayed at in Zagreb I couldn’t sleep because I thought there was a dead soldier in the closet of the hotel room. 

Daniela Rogulj

In the area of sports, it has been said many times that Croatia ‘punches above its’ weight class.’ For such a small country to consistently produce sports superstars points to cohesiveness and sense of purpose that Croatian sportsmen and women, their coaches and families embody. During the World Cup in Qatar in November journalist Daniela Rogulj reported for several global news outlets. The excitement in Daniela’s voice reflects her background as a soccer player growing up in California and her love of Croatia. In the past ten years Daniela and her parents have returned to live in Dalmatia. Daniela’s behind the scenes insights gave examples of how supportive networks fuel success.

A sense of belonging is what binds us together–through birth families, communities we live in, national and global affiliations, relationships with animals and plants–our earth family. My wish for 2023 is that we recognize and appreciate our family wherever they may be in a rapidly changing world.

Selected Citations

Telbisz T, Radeljak Kaufmann P, Bočić N (2022) Inland-coastal demographic transformations in a karst area: a case study of the surroundings of Krka National Park (Croatia). Journal of Mountain Science 19(2).

Vukovar Water Tower: From Functionless Facility to World Class Attraction 13 November 2021 Croatia Week

Interviews with Peter Alter 25 October 2022 and Daniela Rogulj 1 August 2022 and Anonymous Academic 24 June 2022, Marie Scatena interviewer

Architectural Digest Jessica Cherner 15 July 2021 This Beautiful Croatian Town is Selling Homes for 16 cents Each

Colonization of Croatia and EU Member States? Visegrad Post 11 May 2020 Dr. Tado Jurić

A Deeper Knowing

Photo by Jaxson Bryden

People who move around the world for pleasure, to participate in an event, to relax in a pretty setting or to visit family don’t usually think about making a distinction between travel and tourism. Most definitions of tourism describe an experience of going to a place for vacation to relax and have fun for specific length of time.  Travel is often described as a journey of exploration where unfamiliar places are discovered in meandering, spontaneous ways–and may or may not lead the travelers back to the place they started either physically or psychologically. In 2010 the World Tourism Organization of the UN explained the maxim that all tourism is travel, but not all travel is tourism. Whether it’s called tourism or travel, memories of trips are intangible souvenirs that become part of the traveler’s life story.


1977 Berlitz Travel Guide

Why do people travel? Travel advisor, journalist and author Seth Kugel explains links between travel and tourism in  Re-Discovering Travel: A Guide for The Globally Curious  Kugel aggregates and interprets historical sources, current data and his own widely traveled life to muse about human wandering.  He authoritatively cites anthropologist Dean MacCannell who examines authenticity at popular destinations, and philosopher Roman Krznaric’s founder of the traveling Empathy Museum and Walk a Mile in My Shoes podcast. Among the 20c travel writers Kugel cites are Paul Bowles and Mark Twain who tell stories that reach across and through time.

“Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.” 

Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad: Travel Book, 1952

Mom in Venice 1952

Until I visited Croatia I thought my grandparents home villages of Mošćenička Draga and Poljane were in Istria.  I assumed an Italian affiliation (Istria sounds like Italy!) because the towns were located on the Istrian peninsula, because my dad’s parents were immigrants from Tuscany—(Luchesi, like many Chicagoans), because during my youth (in the 1970s) Italy was a tourist hotspot and Istria was promoted in the US as the next best (and cheaper) alternative to Italian destinations. Back then Istria, Kvarner and all of Croatia were part of country that no longer exists called Yugoslavia. Croatia’s strikingly diverse beauty and easy access to the rest of Europe was gift for the tourist industry which thrives there.*

1977 Berlitz Travel Guide
* Josef Broz Tito, President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945-1980 famously created policies that gave Yugoslav tourism everything it needed to flourish in spite of contentious politics and economic policies in Eastern Europe. Even after Tito died and Yugoslavia fell apart amid civil wars, the Croatian coast experienced economic and social benefits of tourism.

My mother visited Croatia just once with her parents and brother when she was 21 years old. Five years before international air travel became available for ordinary people, my mother, grandparents and uncle crossed the Atlantic on the USS Constitution. They stayed the spring and summer of 1952 in my paternal great grandparents home on the Kvarner coast near Opatija. Although most of the time they were in the former Yugoslavia, they took a few side junkets to Italy. Their trip was motivated by a family event—my mother’s paternal grandparents who lived there were celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary.

Mom and her parents in Venice

Mom is seated beside her grandmother Jakomina Kernetić Martinčić.
50th wedding anniversary party in Mošćenička Draga, 1952

Mom’s adventures were mostly limited to family gatherings with one exception—my mother liked to swim so far out into the Adriatic she couldn’t see the shore. No sharks bothered her although she admitted that was just luck. Saltwater and sun bleached her hair.  While her parents visited relatives and went sight-seeing she stayed with her grandparents to look after her much younger brother Jim.  Mom remembered how being an American with basic Croatian language skills and practical, Midwestern sensibilities separated her from locals—she particularly remembered how her ‘doma’ way of speaking gave her relatives a good laugh. Mom’s Croatian heritage shaped her youth and is a springboard for my research today.

Page in a scrapbook made by my great Aunt Jelka Baruška who stayed in Lovran, for my grandmother Mariča Ivanić Martinčić who immigrated to the US.

For some people the after-story is the most gratifying aspect of travel. Photos and videos are the most popular way to validate and/or valorize the trip. Symbolic objects like sea shells or ticket stubs help commemorate and narrate the experience for the traveler. Local artisanal goods like textiles are viewed by many as sustainable alternatives to mass produced merchandise like miniature Eiffel Tower souvenirs which comprise an impressive chunk of the tourism industry’s revenue. Would be travelers can purchase these goods with accompanying stories online at outlets such as Obakki, Novica and The Palmist–without actually taking a vacation. But for those who get on the plane, boat, or bike, travel memories are shared by wearing the t-shirt or are literally etched on. 

Trending Tattoos, Mountains-Beach in Yin-Yang

When I was nineteen I took my first overseas trip. My grandmother pressed money into my hand as my mother sewed a small American flag embroidered decal on my backpack. After many years of listening (never closely enough!) to my parents and grandparents stories their memories now are in my care.

Mom on deck of the USS Constitution in 1952
Mary Martinčić Scatena

In Real Time

Zadar, Reddit, Europe

The internet is a place and a destination.  During coronavirus lockdowns, image-laden websites fed armchair travelers’ wanderlust.  With a few clicks potential travelers experienced interweb versions of  a places they weren’t able to visit in person. Many of us developed favorite travel sites authored by insider, outsider and in-between (digital nomad) bloggers who endorsed attractions and accommodations with photos and stories of their own travels. 

The Begonja Family, Chasing the Donkey

There are many Croatian travel blogs with significant followings. Three comprehensive standouts are the Begonja family’s Chasing the Donkey, Cultural Anthropologist Andrea Pisac’s Croatia Honestly and Ivan and Sarah Cošić’s Royal Croatian Tours. These blogs make travel meaningful by making it personal and based on relationships. The authors are welcoming hosts whose insider perspectives emphasize core Croatian values about family, cultural heritage and natural wonders.

Radovica Beach, Kamenjak National Park, Istria , unknown

Once a place becomes recognized as a travel destination what happens to the local economies?  Ecosystems? Culture?  How does this manifest on the internet?  The 90s were a pivotal time in the internet’s history and in Croatia’s history.  Croatian national identity was being formed as the country gained independence in 1991 amid a devastating war. Tourism played an important role in Croatia’s economic recovery. An active national tourist board displayed stunning images of Croatia’s sunny coast and later developed digital platforms promoting Croatian holidays. In the past 10-15 years drone imagery of protected areas and heritage sites seemed to take on lives of their own.

Images play a huge role in determining the desirability of a place—and its money making potential.  The power of Croatian images come not only from striking natural beauty captured by talented photographers Timotej Gošev but from existing ideas, mythologies and popular cultural driven by social media.  But internet reality can be deceptive. Do images authentically represent a place? Anthropologist Owe Ronstrom evaluates sustainable practices and the meanings of travel images. His studies show how images create feedback loops resulting in path dependence which turns real places into commodities—and internet images the real destination.

Lungomare near Moščenićka Draga, Scatena

Breath-taking images can reveal disconnects between the needs and priorities of local communities and those of tourists. Some of the most glaring tensions between tourism, cultural heritage and ecosystem health are related to the ideas about sustainability.  If not scrutinized, website images and testimonials can escalate social dislocation (no natives live here—its more profitable to rent your apartment!) and ecological damage (selfie vandalism) making the destination a victim of their own success. The Croatian National Tourism Board has a long history of research and development of sustainable practices which address and monitor the impacts of tourism.

Opatija, The Museum of Tourism postcard collection

In 1980 the UN designated September 27 as World Tourism Day. These efforts to encourage global travel worked. Since 1950 the  United Nations World Travel Organization documented the increase in international travel, from 25 million annual tourists  in 1950 to 1.4 billion in 2018. The next year, 2019 saw the highest number of tourist overnight stays in Croatia.

Dubrovnik, The Dubrovnik Times Mark Thomas January, 2019

How many people can visit a place during a season or of a year without causing damage? There are differing perspectives. Author and poet Miki Bratanić discusses how negative perceptions of tourists add an unnecessary layer of complication to the relationship between guest, host and sustainability. In a 5 June 2020 article titled  Tko se boji turizma još /Who is still afraid of tourists? Bratanić counters anti-tourist sentiments.

‘Often in our media we can come across comments like: “tourism will destroy everything” or the one I especially like “because of tourism we will become servants”…We are not destroyed by tourism. But catastrophe forces re-invention, SO how might the pandemic open up possilbiities in tourism?

Miki Bratanić
Riječki Karneval 2019, Scatena

The recent phenomenon of posting travel experiences in real time and sharing via social media is attested to by the number travel and lifestyle bloggers and vloggers. A longstanding complaint about travelers who filter their entire trip through a camera lens and now social media is that by doing so they make the documentation as important as direct, physical experience.  Riječki Karneval’s month long celebration gives visitors many opportunities to participate. Rooted in centuries old tradition that is adapted to changing circumstances, this year’s karneval parade did not take place during Lent–it will be held in the summer.  Karneval pro Sandi Pribanić is taking over the leadership role that Mestar Tony held for 40 years.

Sandi Pribanić is the leader of Draške Maškare

Journalists, photographers, bloggers and authors cited here are thoughtful advocates for Croatia.  Their work is worth exploring further.  It is more important than ever to ask ourselves when, why and how we will visit dream destinations.

Winter Sun

Rovinj’s Lungomare

Croatia enjoys almost 300 days of sunshine each year.  During the summer months tourism thrives as people flock to idyllic beaches. Last year the coronavirus pandemic slowed tourism but photographer and journalist Darko Bandic’s August 2021 AP article tells another story.  Bandic quotes Dubrovnik (Croatia’s most popular destination) tour guide Josip Crnčević  “…it’s almost like 2020 never happened.”

Zadar’s Marketplace, December 2021
TimeOut Croatia

Even if Crnčević’s  assertion is exaggerated Croatian tourism continues to have a lot to celebrate.  In 2019  Croatia experienced a record high of 21 millions visitors.  In a recent DW video opinion piece Croatia’s hinterland: A dream destination in the pandemic,  holiday home owners Nina and Zlatko Novinić and Zagreb Tourist Board CEO Martina Bienenfeld give alternative views about agrotourism in Croatia’s northern green belt. 

So what happens in Croatia after tourist season? 

Pula’s Advent Market December 2021
TimeOut Croatia

The idea of tourist seasons are fading in Croatia and globally. Tireless marketing (tourism accounts for at least 20% of Croatia’s GNP) conicides with and feeds a growing desire to preserve traditions which have cultural, historical and spiritual meaning. As the effects of climate change destabilize seasonal weather differences, the demand for authentic, traditional Christmas experiences seem to have increased. 90% of Croatians identify as Catholics and keep Christmas customs, which begin in early December/Advent/Pojava and ends 6 January/Feast of the Three Kings/Sveta Tri Kralja,

Skating rink in Zagreb’s green horseshoe during December 2021 Christmas Market
TimeOut Croatia

Recently Zagreb’s Christmas Market was named the number one in European Christmas markets for three consecutive years. Drawing impressively large crowds the success of Zagreb’s Advent celebrations and Dubrovnik’s Winter Festival encouraged towns and cities throughout Croatia to expand Christmas tourist offerings. Croatian Christmas Markets and Winter Festivals merge Advent,  Christmas/Božić with Pagan Winter Solstice/suncostaj traditions. 

Starting on the feast day of St. Lucia, 13 December, wheat/ pšcenia is eaten each day until Christmas. Another version of this custom places seeds in a bowl of water which grow until Christmas and are used to decorate the table on Christmas. Sprouting wheat shoots © Ivica Galovic/PIXSELL

Croatians are rightly proud of their food (sarma! fritule! bakalar!) Like many European cuisines, Christmas is time when Croatian sweet tables shine.  A favourite Christmas dessert called orahnjača is a cake roll filled with ground walnuts/orasi. Orahnjača is featured on the cover of cultural anthropologist and author Andrea Pisac’s cookbook Croatian Desserts– 50 Authentic Recipes to Make at Home. 

An ancient folk tradition that begins early on Christmas Eve morning is called badnjak. The father or another male of the household (not sure how this translates today) goes into the forest to chop a log, ideally from an oak tree—which is sacred in Croatian myth. Before the log or tree is cut prayers are said to honor the tree and forest. The badnjak log or logs (some customs burn three logs representing the Christian Trinity) burn through the night. Staying awake all night on Christmas Eve to await the birth of Jesus, midnight Mass, gift giving and feasting until dawn are all Croatian badnjak traditions. The word badnjak comes from an old Slavic word related to the modern verbs bdjeti or biti budan which mean “to be awake.” 

In Istria the badnjak log is sprinkled with wine or rakija followed by a toast for luck in the coming year –Drink to your health/Pij u tvoje zdravlje!

Trsat Castle in Rijeka December 2021
TimeOut Croatia

Koledarenje or kolendari are winter solstice songs. They are a type of Slavic Christmas carol sung all over Eastern Europe. In Croatia kolendari are sung in Primorje, Istria, Lika, and Dalmatia from 21 December/Winter Solstice/Zimski Stolsticiji (also St. Thomas Day) until Christmas morning. In some regions kolendari are sung throughout Advent until the Three Kings Day on 6 January. Two beautiful interpretations of Croatian Christmas songs are Klapa Intrades Rejoice, People/Radjute se, Narodi and a 2021 release of Our Baby Was Born/Djetešce nam se rodilo sung by children.

Apart from spinning tourist gold what do Croatian winter traditions bring to our understanding of culture?  A maxim about tourism says that it is the only industry that does not own or produce the resources it sells. This season encourages to take the time to reflect on winter wisdom traditions, and what they can teach us about appreciating and caring for our shared inheritance.

Plitvice Lake by Budapest based photographer Tamas Toth

Hiking Changes Everything

Sometimes you get exactly what you need even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.  That is one of Nikola Horvat-Tesla’s core narratives. Nikola ‘Tesla’ is a long distance or thru-hiking veteran.  He creates films and videos telling stories that describe and advocate for thru-hiking in the US and Croatia. In his award-winning, lyrical short film Why (Do I Hike) Nikola documents his experiences and that of fellow hikers on the Colorado Trail and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail/PCT. Nikola was the first Croatian to finish the 2,650 mile/4265 kilometer PCT which he completed in 163 days. This hike coincided with a personal crises told in Baring Epitaph: Surviving Divorce on the Pacific Crest Trail, and in Pacific Crest Trail: Tesla – Year of the Beginning which he filmed, wrote, edited and produced.  Since hiking the PCT in 2016 Nikola has created a comprehensive on-line presence.

Nikola is an intrepid hiker, artist, filmmaker and philosopher. His work brings freshness and authenticity to the genre of hiking memoir. Emotionally cracking on the trail—no problem.

In 2019 Nikola established the Croatian Long Distance National Scenic Trail/CLDT by hiking/bushwhacking/trail-blazing with friend and fellow PCT hiker Matt Bisenius and others. The CLDT circumambulates Croatia’s 1,310 mile/2,109 kilometer perimeter. It is divided into 3 sections crossing diverse terrain and ecosystems.  Inspired by Nikola’s PCT hike, the inaugural CLDT hike was funded by family, friends, and the Croatian Long Distance Trail Association. Nikola and collaborator, the videographer Tin Borovčak used Go-Pro, DSLR cameras and a drone to create a breath-taking documentary that allows viewers to be immersed in ground level and bird’s eye views of earth and sky.  Accompanied by plaintive, twangy music, the tracks reflect Nikola’s often furrowed brow while underscoring the grueling, sublime work hiking is. 

In The Old Ways, A Journey On Foot  James MacFarlane echoes Nikola’s messages about re-connecting our bodies and spirits with ‘strong landscapes.’ MacFarlane has  ‘long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscapes…’  He encourages his readers to ask these questions— ’What do I know in this place that I can know nowhere else?’ and ‘What does this place know of me that I can’t know of myself?’

Nikola often meditates on individual and collective loss. He portrays hiking as an antidote and cure for the damage we have caused to the earth and to ourselves. Hiking in Montenegro and Serbia he hints at what happens when wild places become tourist destinations. As climate emergencies accelerate these messages are poignant and powerful.  Hiker Maxim Poselov’s video of his 6-day  Tour Du Mont Blanc solo hike parallels Nikola’s story and style, but signs off with a grim reminder about coronavirus. 

Thru-hiking is a lifestyle. Hikers give up jobs, possessions and sometimes relationships. Two of Nikola’s mantras are ‘he lives to  move’ with the intention ‘to inspire others to do the same.’ While pointing out that thru-hiker’s careers are short lived, several of his hiking companions (including Matt Bisenius and Granny Baddass Motherfucker) are not young. Their presence is a testimony to how hiking communities embrace difference. A moment in the CLDT film sees Nikola with head hanging down as he expresses concern about Matt’s physical and mental well-being on a difficult trail. In Why (Do I Hike) testimonies add to a substantial body of research which prescribes hiking as an antidote to depression. The field of ecopsychology would support  Nikola’s observations about what happens to a person persevering on long, strenuous hikes—struggles on the trail lead to self-discovery.

….nature is not someting that is separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.’  

~Andy Goldsworthy English scupltor, environmentalist and land artist contributed to Slama International Land Art Festival 2012, held in Slavonia. (Section A of the CLDT)

Planning and preparation are crucial for safe thru hiking.  Nikola shares lessons learned the hard way about hiking in how-to videos full of useful information for novice hikers and adventure filmmakers. His hikes are not supported by the Big Agnes tents or Adidas Terrex gear he endorses—his Patreon and GoFundMe pages successfully help fund thru-hikes which cost between $4,000 and $8,000.  (Adidas Terrex sponsors films) Recently thru hiking is being promoted as a type of low trace, green tourism. In a country with spectacular trails such as the Via Adriatica the consequence of this promotion will likely lead to profound changes for hikers and to places visited. Plogging or pliking—picking up litter while on trails mitigates some of the negative impacts on wilderness areas.

Rattlesnake Ledge Trail Summit
Washington State, USA 2019

In Pacific Crest Trail: Tesla – Year of the Beginning, documentary Nikola describes falling in love with thru-hiking in Croatia on a 500km hike in 2003.   Nikola’s hiking films in Croatia weave together his love of nature and his biological family. This year he filmed his solo hike of the Camino Krk, a winter hike in Istria with his brother, and a summer adventure with his son Ruđer.

Nikola and Ruđer slog through drenching rain on Dinara.  With his wet face poking out from under a blue poncho Nikola lightens up the situation with a quote from the film Forrest Gump.  How many people have Gump as their trail name?  Trail names are part of thru-hiking culture. Hikers either adopt or are given trail names by hiking companions. These names help to express what Nikola calls ‘the elixir of experience.’  PCT Trail Angels are members of the thru hiking community. For hikers, trail angels are magical—they appear seemingly out of nowhere with water, hot chocolate and shelter.  Croatian Trail Angels are organizing. They can be contracted through their Facebook page 

Trail Angels Scout and Frodo (center) in their home hosting PCT hikers

Howling winds and thunderclaps serenade Nikola and Ruđer as they huddle inside a tent during rough weather.  Instead of being alarming, this nighttime storm in the Dinaric Alps shows how nature exposes vulnerability—a hallmark of Nikola’s stories. How does our modern obsession with safety and security keep us from fully relating to life on earth?  Why(Do I Hike) responds—‘we are nature.’

Paradise Found

Maiden with the Seagull, Opatija c. 1955 Marica Martinčić

Postcards from Dalmatia was filmed in the former Yugoslavia between 1958 and 1960 to promote tourism along the coasts of what are now Croatia and Montenegro.  Postcards was created in cooperation with the Yugoslav National Tourist Board (then located in London) as part of a BBC Passport series.  Today AR and IMAX make it hard to imagine the potency of this film genre especially since short travelogues were mostly relegated to filling in gaps between feature films.  This twenty-two minute documentary is emblematic of Josef Broz Tito’s open door policy which helped position Yugoslavia as an international tourist destination. Focusing on the coast, Postcards branded and marketed the Croatian beach vacation. The film to follow is archived at Periscope Films LLC headquartered in Los Angeles.

Postcards from Dalmatia is narrated by Scottish actor and educational and documentary film narrator James MacKechnie. MacKechnie  is known for his role in the 1943 satire and homage to 19c and 20c  Britishness, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  Rotten Tomatoes review here    Several British actors read awestruck, giddy sounding postcards they sent to loved ones back home.  Postcards follows in the footsteps of pioneering tour company founder Thomas Cook (Thomas Cook & Son, Ltd, 1872) for inserting a few elite 19c Grand Tour attitudes into ordinary 20c mass tourism. TripSaavy Vacation Like a Pro morphed the idea to a newer iteration. Postcards like most travel writing to this region of the world, is indebted to Dame Rebecca  West (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, 1941).  It may have inspired the influential travel website Total Croatia News (TNC).  Croatia has been the passion and home of Manchester born journalist and TCN’s CEO Paul Bradbury since 2003.  This year Bradbury became involved in a lawsuit with The Croatian National Tourist Board. Bathing Station changing rooms are in the upper left hand image.

Postcards from Dalmatia is quaint, charming and peppered with some maddening commentary. Narrator MacKechnie characterizes Ivan Meštrović and Diocletian as ‘local boys who made good’ while camera and narrator admire their hometown, Split–‘once the center of the world.’ The film relentlessly objectifies women in bikinis and in traditional dress. Female voices pine for their romantic partners and complain about smelly changing rooms on Opatija’s ‘bathing station’ (long since removed during renovation). Male voices poke fun at themselves and brag about newly acquired worldliness by stereotyping women tourists according to their nationality. This awkward mix of social commentary, snarky humor and historical facts is works in part because of  BAFTA-winning cinematographer Arthur Wooster’s beautiful camerawork. His closeups of Croatians and tourists are sensual–they seem to embody a languid summer day. Although its hard to compete with gorgeous 4K aerial shots, Wooster captured the Adriatic’s sparkle and sun-mellowed architecture in Split, Sibenik, Dubrovnik and Budva, Montenegro.  I wished for footage of Pula and Zadar.  

Holiday makers and fishermen in Opatija c.late 1950s Jelka Martinčić Baruška

Postcards from Dalmatia is a snapshot of time and place that now exists only in memory. Low res images–and the inclusion of Montenegro– help to impart a wistful, Yugonostalgic feel to the film.  The narrator’s animated reading of the postcard’s flip side draws viewers into moments of discovery that tourists love to document and share. 

Abbazzia (now Opatija) early 1900s Croatian Museum of Tourism, Opatija

Postcards are a popular media and art form connected to travel and the postal service. ‘Wish you were here’ and ‘Greetings from…’ are ubiquitous postcard messages usually sent from places that are vetted to be relaxing, invigorating, exciting, educational. They are staples in exhibitions displayed at The Croatian Museum of Tourism, and the subject of a recent book by postcard collector Igor Goleš. Postcards are personal, hand selected artifacts/souvenirs which tell the receiver that the sender is genuinely thinking of them while they are experiencing something important. As a historical document that time travels well, Postcards from Dalmatia convincingly presents tourists having a ‘nearest to heaven’ summer holiday that many people would wish for today.

A Song and A Prayer for Mothers

1942 Mother and Child, Zagreb

For the first half of the 20c Ivan Meštrović was a cultural force to be reckoned with. His sculptures are monumental–in scale, influence and number. Over the course of his 79 years Meštrović created 3000 sculptures. Many of these public art works are found in US and European cities and in galleries devoted to his work in Zagreb, near Otavice, in Split, and at Notre Dame and Syracuse Universities where he taught from the time he immigrated to the US in 1947 until his death in 1962.

Meštrović consistently was inspired by motherhood. Immigrant Mother, installed in 1960 in Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square Park reflects the close relationship he had with his mother, Marta Kurobasa, and his compassion for the plight of refugees. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee rededicated Immigrant Mother in 2017.

During WWII Meštrović refused to cooperate with Hitler and the Nazis. Vatican intervention rescued him from incarceration and imminent execution by fascists. After immigrating to the US Meštrović returned to his homeland just once to visit an imprisoned Cardinal Stepanić, to meet with leader Josef Broz Tito, and to sign off his estate including 400 sculptures to the Croatian people.

Small in stature, Meštrović was born in 1883 in Vrpolje, Slavonia but spent his childhood in Dalmatia. His talent was recognized at 16 when he apprenticed as a stonecutter in Split. From there he was accepted to a prestigious art school in Vienna. Almost immediately his work drew attention. In 1905 The Well of Life fountain was praised by artist Auguste Rodin, who called Meštrović ‘the greatest phenomenon among sculptors.’ Meštrović was part of the Secession Group of Vienna which included Gustav Klimt. Meštrović’s bold, often heroic figures possess emotional, poetic qualities found in Croatian folklore and music.

This 1925 bronze of Olga Meštrović feeding Tvrtko idealizes motherhood and family life. Olga Kesterčanek was Meštrović’s second wife and the mother of their four children, Marta, Mate, Maria and Tvrtko. His first wife, Ruža Klein nurtured his early career but could not bear children. She lived near Olga and Ivan until her death. In 2019 blogger Ed McDevit comments on possible economic motives regarding Meštrović’s Chicago commissions and on his complicated family life.

1932 History of Croats, Zagreb

The History of Croats pays tribute to Meštrović’s mother and to Croatian culture. His mother was the model and her dress inspired by Dalmatian folk costume. This figure is holding a book with Glagolitic script, and is seated in signature, triangular shape possibly symbolizing the Christian Trinity. At this point in his life Meštrović status as an immigrant and refugee may have enhanced his world wide reputation. A solo exhibition of his work in 1947 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was the first of its kind. He was sought after as an artist-in-residence and professor. Meštrović and his family settled in Syracuse where he taught from 1947 to 1955. His sculpture of Persephone on Syracuse University’s campus celebrates the female form and myth. He became a US citizen in 1954 in a ceremony presided over by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Meštrović spent from 1955 to 1962 teaching and working at Notre Dame University where the Snite Museum of Art has a gallery devoted to his work and his Pieta in the Basilica of Our Lady is recognized as a seminal interpretation.

1925, My Mother, Art Institute of Chicago

Mother and Child is sited in front of a health center in Drniš, near to Otavice where Meštrović grew up. Drniš residents suffered greatly the 1990s war which pitted Serbs against Croats. Although Meštrović was committed to Croatian nationalism, he was an admirer of Serbian culture and history. Examples of his sculpture and architecture can be found in Belgrade and other places in Serbia and Kosovo.

“My art is expressed in hard wood and stone, but that which is in art is not in wood or stone, it is outside time and space. Art is a song and a prayer at the same time.” 

Ivan Meštrović, About My Art, 1933

Mother Teaching Her Child To Pray was displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in a solo exhibition in the 1910s. This bronze is dated 1925/26. It is a testimony to the enduring appeal of spiritual and humanistic themes Meštrović rendered over his lifetime, and to continued interest in his work.

1928 The Bowman and The Spearman, Chicago

Today Meštrović is being re-evaluated as part of The Chicago Monuments Project. The Bowman and The Spearman was commissioned by lumber merchant Benjamin F. Ferguson’s Foundation(they also funded Laredo Taft’s Fountain of Time and Fountain of the Great Lakes) and sponsored by Art Institute of Chicago to mark the entrance to Grant Park. Meštrović sculpted and cast these monuments in Zagreb. They were transported via trains and ships in pieces to Chicago where they were reassembled and set on pedestals designed by Holabird and Roche. Intended to invite a skyward gaze, Meštrović removed weapons from Indians hands against the advice of his patrons. An expert analysis of Meštrović’s historical significance–and of the current controversy is explained by art historian Roko Rumora .

Like Meštrović, artist Dessa Kirk creates compelling works which blend history and myth. This piece created from old Cadillac parts is titled Magdalene. It was installed in 2004 between The Bowman and The Spearman as part of the city’s Art in Garden Project. It evokes Chicago’s motto City in a Garden/Urbs in Horto (c 1830s) and may suggest new stories that mottos and monuments tell.


Mother and Child

Immigrant Mother

Photograph of Meštrović

Olga Meštrović feeding Tvrtkoštrović_Atelier,_Zagreb_08.jpg

History of Croats

My Mother

Mother and Child

Mother Teaching Her Child to Pray

The Bowman and The Spearman, Marie Scatena


Ivan’s World

Ivan’s World, Ivan Rabuzin 1962

Dreamy, pastoral, surreal, fantastical, utopian. These describe the landscapes of artist Ivan Rabuzin.  He was born on March 27, 1921 in a village called Ključ near the town of Novi Marof in Varaždin County.  Today just under 15,000 residents live in Novi Marof where the Kulturni Centar Ivan Rabuzin is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

During World War II Rabuzin attended carpentry school in Zagreb. He achieved master carpenter status, and in 1947 he returned to Novi Marof to work in a joinery there. Rabuzin painted on the side and briefly practiced at an evening art school for workers.  He held his first exhibition in 1956 and by 1963 he was a recognized Croatian Naive artist linked to the tradition of painters from the Hlebine School. Hlebine is a town south of Novi Marof also near the Hungarian border—the region where Croatian Naive Art emerged and continues to flourish.  

Croatian Naive Art Gallery in Hlebine/Galerija Naivne Umjetnost Hlebine founded in 1968

Hlebine naive artists were peasants and working people, mostly self-taught, mostly men. The Hlebine School was founded by artist Krsto Hegedušić in 1930, comprised of artists who lived in the same area and practiced the same painting method. Often farmers, Hlebine artists followed the rhythm of the seasons painting during their free time. They used a complex, reverse technique with oil paints on glass. They were known use old window panes to create visual narratives of everyday life, hidden natural wonders and childhood. Sometimes paintings had multiple artists who worked in turn. Another Ivan, Ivan Generalić (1914-1992) is a leading figure of the Hlebine school. Ivan Rabuzin’s work reflects independence, some formal training and broader European influences. He was active in politics serving as a member of The Croatian Parliament and advocating for cultural heritage preservation in the Croatian Dragon Fraternity. 

My Homeland, Ivan Rabuzin 1961

Rabuzin did not paint on glass. He did not paint figures but used light, bright colors, and spherical shapes with exaggerated proportions. Semi-abstracted flowers, trees and clouds dwarf built environments. His landscapes are curiously devoid of animal/human life. The Croatian Museum of Naive Art in Zagreb displays Rabuzin’s work from their permanent collection in physical and online galleries–and hosts public programs with art historians. His work is exhibited all over the world—in Paris, London, at the Smithsonian, in Milwaukee and Chicago.

Rabuzin designs can be found on theater curtains in Kyoto and Toyko, Japan (where his work is displayed in permanent and temporary museum exhibitions), and on Rosenthal porcelain seen here on a teapot titled Suomi.

Rabuzin’s work celebrates nature. It is a little mysterious and often decribed as lyrical. Trees and forests are signature themes. Razubin’s art may be categorized as outsider or folk, but for me this definition is limiting. His talent and vision are unique, timeless and timely.

On the Hills-rainforest/Na bregovima – prašuma,  Ivan Rabuzin 1960
also titled Primeval Forest

In the tradition of Croatian Naive Art The Chicago Tree Project features installations by trained and self-taught artists whose work literally grows out of the landscape and is infused with its spirit

In Stribor’s Forest

Enchanted Forest No.1 ArthiAravind Art

Stribor’s Forest can be found in not one but in many places—dreamed, remembered, real.  It is the title of a Croatian fairytale (hrvatska bajka) interpreted countless times since Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić wrote it in 1916. She was born in 1874 to a distinguished Croatian family, home schooled and married at 19 in an arranged marriage. Stribor’s Forest is one of 6 (or 8 after 1926) stories in Brlić-Mažuranić’s collection, Croatian Tales of Long Ago (Priče iz davnine). She first wrote these stories for her own six children. A digital version of the 1922 publication with original illustrations by Valdimir Kirin can be found here

Stribor is the lord of a forest likely inspired by forests near the town of Ogulin where Ivana was born. Ogulin is located in a valley in Karlovac County where Slavonian Oaks live. It is easy to imagine this fairytale setting inspiring storytelling. The Dobra river flows through the town into an ominious sounding pit called Đula’s Abyss. An imposing Frankopan castle and Klek mountain guard the town’s center and peripheries.  In recent years guided and self-guided tourist experiences on A Fairytale Route and at fable festivals in Ogulin are based on Brlić-Mažuranić’s stories.  

Domagoj Blažević

Across Croatia there are a remarkable number references to Croatian Tales of Long Agoforested areas, parks, schools, streets, hiking trails, restaurants, a dining experience, festivals, films, performances, myriad tourist attractions and Ivana’s House of Fairy Tales are named for Brlič-Mažuranić and her stories. To commemorate the hundred year anniversary of Croatian Tales of Long Ago, multimedia artist Helena Buljaja led an international team from eight countries to create award-winning animated and interactive films released from 2002-2006. Brlić-Mažuranić’s folktales weave old Croatian mythology into modern narratives to teach children ethical values and to preserve Croatia’s cultural heritage.  Brlić-Mažuranić’s literary invention earned comparisons to Hans Christian Anderson and Tolkien. 

Like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Croatian Tales from Long Ago are about journeys—through forests and hardships.  Stribor demands those who find themselves in his forest to explain who they are and why they are there.  Anyone entering this community cannot take belonging for granted.  In the forest, looking and listening carefully are important skills that can change everything.  

Susan du Plessis, July 2017

The magic of Stribor’s Forest can be good or bad depending on the intentions of the person calling on it. Towards the end of Stribor’s Forest, an old woman travels to seek Stribor’s advice. While in the forest Stribor tempts her to trade her current troubles and memories of her son for a life of eternal youth and happiness. When Stribor objects to  her decision to take his offer, she chooses her life as it is.  A quote widely attributed to Brlić-Mažuranić speaks to this decision, ‘Draža je meni moja nesreća od sve sreće ovoga svijeta/ I prefer my misfortune to all the happiness of this world.’  Brlić-Mažuranić’s heroes and heroines accept responsibility for their lives. They refuse to deny who they are and who they love for personal gain.  In Stribor’s Forest  those who enter learn to recognize goodness and their true selves.

Children at Goldsmith’s College International School in 2019 performing Stribor’s Forest