As an American living in Dubrovnik, I’m often asked, “Why Croatia?” Not only am I asked this by some Americans, whose idea of Europe encompasses France and Italy, but I’m also asked this by many Croatians.
Yes, Croatia is a petite country in both geographic size and population. Just over 4 million people live in a country smaller than the state of West Virginia. The country itself officially became independent under 30 years ago. Yet, Croatia’s geographic position and identity have helped shape much of the Western World without many of us even realizing it.
The petite country is home to some of the oldest towns in the world, blending historic influences from the Austrians to the Ottomans. Croatia has a long list of discoveries throughout time, from electricity to the neck tie. The country’s unique position in the Mediterranean makes it rich with biodiversity, yielding award-winning wine, olive oil, and cuisine. Croatia’s strong cultural heritage can be seen through both musical and sports traditions.
There’s a lot that make this little slice of paradise historically and currently relevant, beyond Game of Thrones. Although right now I am in quarantine back home in Minnesota, I am anxiously waiting to return home to my seaside village near Dubrovnik.
With the help of my partner, Domeniko Hajdic, we came up with a list of Croatia facts and cultural tidbits of why exactly this small country so unique.
Croatia facts : A to Z
Pin it for a future trip:
A – Arancini
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Arancini is a sugar-coated orange peel that is a popular, homemade candy in Croatia. Typically you’ll find this desert on the table with other sweets or finger foods, and it is especially common along the coast of Croatia. You can also bring these back as a souvenir, as many shops carry them as well.
B – Badnjak
Badnjak refers to Christmas Eve in Croatia, which is a day-long celebration filled with drinking, eating, and singing in formal attire with friends and family. This tradition is celebrated slightly different throughout Croatia.
In Dubrovnik for example, locals spend the day in the old town, and then go house to house singing “Kolenda” style with all their friends. Usually men wear suits and women wear a nice dress with tights, or dress pants and a blouse.
C – Cravata
Also known as the bow tie, the origins of the “Cravata” date back to the Thirty Year War in 1618. Fighting under the French Flag, Croats wore the flag around their neck and tied it in front. The French soon noticed this innovation, and soon the “Cravata” fashion became popular across Europe, and eventually the rest of the world.
Č – Čobanac
This famous Slavonian meal originates from the East of Croatia. It’s a stew made of meat and vegetables with a hint of spicy pepper, all prepared in a kettle above a fire. It wouldn’t be a true Čobanac meal without sharing among friends and family with a bottle of wine or Rakija, of course.
Ć – Ćevapčići
“Cevapi” for short, is a skinless sausage that is popular both in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Usually this sausage is a blend of beef, lamb, and sometimes pork. Typically you’ll find Cevapi served at a barbecue with other meats and vegetables, but you can also order it in a restaurant with fries or potatoes.
D – Dalmatians Dogs
Did you know that the famous 101 Dalmatians come from Dalmatia? I guess the name makes sense now. This breed came from Egypt to Croatia, where the Dubrovnik Republic traded them with the rest of Europe. Soon enough Dalmatians were given the name from the Croatian region of “Dalmatia”. In 1993, the FCI (Federation Cynologique Internationale) officially declared that this breed has Croatian origins.
DŽ – Džem
Džem is known as a Croatian fruit jam, and every fridge in Croatia has at least a couple! Croatia’s Mediterranean climate makes the soil suitable for growing several a variety of fruits, including plumbs, figs, tangerines, apricots, and oranges. Since many people in Croatia never want food to go to waste, they make them into homemade jam.
Đ – Đakovo
Often overlooked by tourists, Đakovo is one of the oldest towns in Croatia, and in the region. Archeological evidence shows this town was inhabited here since 5500 years B.C. This town is also home to the famous breed of Lipizzan Horses.
E – Eduard Slavoljub Penkala
Believe it or not but the world’s first pen came from Croatia. Eduard Slavoljub Penkala was a Croatian chemist and inventor known in Europe in the early 1900s. In 1914 he invented the fountain pen and mechanical pencil, naming it after his last name “Penkala”.
Chances are you’ll find a fig tree almost anywhere in coastal Croatia. Originating from South East Asia, this fruit grows naturally now throughout the Mediterranean climate and requires little maintenance. You can eat figs right off the tree during summer and fall, and it is also common to have them dried in the winter. Make sure to try the fig liquor in Croatia as a digestive!
G – Gemišt
Gemišt is essentially a cheap take on sparkling wine, which most Croats drink like water in the summer. This refreshing drink combined mineral water with white wine. Typically this is served on a hot summer day, to give yourself a nice buzz while also staying hydrated. It’s also popular to order while going out to eat with a group of friends in a traditional “konoba” restaurant.
Photo taken via Flickr
With only 30 inhabitants, this Istrian village is technically the smallest town in the world, under the Guiness World Record. Hum dates back to the 11th century and sit perched on a hill overlooking vineyards of Istria. Walking the narrow, cobble-stoned streets is like traveling back in time.
I – Invented quarantine
Long before it was known as a Game of Thrones vacation destination, the Dubrovnik republic was known for inventing the concept of quarantine. This former city state maintained it’s independence through maritime trade with many other countries. In 1377, the council decided incoming merchants would have to to go into quarantine for 40 days (based on the Italian word quaranta, which means 40).
Initially the city built quarantine on surrounding islands, but by the 17th century they decided to build a base closer to the Old Town. Named Lazareti by the Dubrovnik Republic, today this building is partly a museum, with the underground portion turned into a popular nightclub.
J – Janica Kostelić
Janica Kostelić is arguably the most successful Croatian female athletes in history, and one of the most successful alpine skiers in the world. By the time she was 24 she won 6 olympic medals and 5 world championships. She had to end her career in her mid-20s due to health conditions and various injuries, but she still leaves an important legacy for women’s sports in Croatia.
K – Klapa
Literally translating to a “group of friends”, Klapa is a traditional form of music and the lifeblood of the Dalmatian culture. A typical Klapa group consist of at least four singers, and usually a guitar and mandolin. The songs are known for having an uplifting, relaxing melody with lyrics that celebrate love, nature, sea, and heritage.
Though there are several professional Klapa groups, Croatians love to sing these songs with friends during weddings, holidays, birthdays, and really any chance to drink and sing with friends. For this reason, UNESCO included Klapa singing as an “intangible cultural heritage” in 2012.
L – Luka Modrić
You remember when Croatia went to the semi-finals during the 2018 football (soccer) world cup, right? Well, much of this success was thanks to Luka Modrić. As the team captain of Croatia’s national team, he lead Croatia to win a silver medal, and is now one of the most popular athletes in the world. He still plays a a mid-fielder for Real Madrid, and is considered the most successful football player in Croatian history.
M – Maslina (Olive)
Croatia is known for it’s olive oil, and has won several awards for the best olive oil in the world. Olive trees grow abundantly along the Dalmatian Coast, and many families make their own olive oil. This is why olive oil is the main ingredient in Croatian cooking! Croatians also use olive use for various health products and creams. Even many Klapa songs express love and gratitude for olive trees.
N – Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla is one of the world’s most prominent inventors, known for creating the Tesla coil, AC electricity, and the rotating magnetic field. Tesla is considered to be Serbian, though his mother was Croatian and he was born in the Croatian village of Smiljan.
He later moved to the U.S. with nothing but the clothes on his back and the knowledge in his head. He worked shortly under Thomas Edison before working solo for most of his life. His tireless work as a scientist helped pave the way for the electricity we have today.
NJ – Njuskalo
Njuskalo is the most popular website in Croatia for selling a variety of goods, similar to Ebay or Craig’s List. Here you will find anything from homes or land for sale, clothes, boats, and even jobs.
O – Oliver Dragojević
Oliver Dragojević is quite possible the most beloved Croatian singer and cultural icon of all time. His creativity with blending Klapa melodies with jazz motifs is why he had a successful recording career for nearly five decades.
Unfortunately, he passed away in 2018 due to lung cancer at 70 years old. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral in Split, joining in song and tears to remember his legacy.
P – Parachute
Although the first drawing of a parachute was made by Leonardo da Vinci, it was just an imaginative idea without a strong strategy that could turn it into reality. It wasn’t until Faust Vrančić jumped from a tower in Venice that the parachute was put to the test! He is now known as one of the first to draw the blueprint for a functional parachute.
R – Rakija
Rakija is to Croatia as Tequila is to Mexico. This strong aperitive is known for it’s healing properties, which Croatians swear by. It’s known for healing stomach pain, curing a toothache, and disinfecting wounds even.
Rakija is also drank on special occasions, and comes in a variety of flavors. The most common ones are: Lozovača (made out of grapes), Šljivovica (made out of plumbs), and Kruškovac (made out of pear).
S – Sumamed
As a part of Croatian pharmacy company called “PLIVA”, a team of Croatian experts discovered a chemical compound formula of azitromicine. This turned out to be efficient antibiotic for bacteria infection. Today, Sumamed (azitromicine) is one of the most commonly used antibiotics worldwide.
Š – Šokačko Kolo
Šokačko Kolo is a form of traditional dance coming from the Northern regions of Slavonija and Baranja. Most commonly, this type of dance is performed with a Tambura band. The two combined creates a classical performance of dancing in circles with traditional Croatian clothing. This type of dance is often performed at festivals, weddings, and events for tourists.
T – Tartufi (Truffles)
(Cheese plate in Istria sprinkled with Truffles. )
If you’re a truffle lover like myself, then you need to head to the Istria region of Croatia. This peninsula is filled with both white and black truffles, which are harvested in the fall. his worldwide popular delicacy is one of the most important features that helped grew the popularity of Istria Region. “White Istrian Truffle“ are one of the most respected and expensive truffles in the world. One kilo of Istrian White Truffle can cost anywhere between 500 and 5000 Euro.
U – Učka Nature Park
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
This National Park is outside Rijeka and has the highest Istrian mountain. Učka is home to more than 1300 different plants, trees, wild animals and birds. From the highest peak of “Vojak“, you’ll find a breathtaking view overlooking the Northern Croatian coast and mountain range.
V – Velebit
(Photo via Flickr)
Known as the coastal mountain, Velebit is the 3rd biggest Croatian mountain in Croatia. The Northern region of the mountain range is where you’ll find Velebit National Park. This area is rich in domestic flora and fauna, mountain meadows, and views overlooking the coast. From the highest peak “Vaganski Vrh“ the one can enjoy a breathtaking view over the coastal area of Zadar.
Z – Zinfandel
For decades the famed Zinfandel was thought to be an “All-American” red wine. Then when it was later revealed that its origins were actually from Europe, most vinos assumed it was from France or Italy. Finally the respected grape geneticist, Carole Meredith, discovered that this variety actually comes from Croatia. With the help of her team and Croatian geneticist Ivan Pejić, Meredith revealed that the Zinfandel wine is a direct DNA match to to the Tribidrag variety found in Dalmatia.
Today over 10 percent of vineyards in California produce Zinfandel wine. However, we’d like to argue that coming to the source here in Croatia you’ll get the best quality of Zinfandel, Plavac Mali, and many more!
Ž – Živjeli
Pronounced GE-VA-LI, this is the catch-all phrase for any cheers or toast you make in Croatia. It translates to “to life!” or “long live all!” You can also use this as a phrase to say “see you later” or “bye”.