Instead of visiting the popular Croatian coast area as we’d planned (or, more precisely, casually envisioned), we spent a day on the opposite side of the country. The east of Croatia reaches the Danube River and features broad flat plains of agricultural land.
We arrived in this part of the world via Viking River Cruise’s “Passage to Eastern Europe.” Viking, to its credit, provides well-considered tours off the boat, and in Croatia, that included a home visit near the town of Osijek. Osijek is about as far from the Adriatic coastal parks and scenery of Croatia as you can get, and we felt lucky to be among its visitors.
Our boat was docked in Vukovar, south of Budapest, Hungary, where the Danube doubles as the border between Croatia and Serbia. Our bus ride out of Vukovar gave us a crash course in the lay of the land, and the hardships of its residents.
Ninety percent of Vukovar was destroyed in the war of 1991 when Croatia fought for independence at the break-up of Yugoslavia. News images you might recall of the Serbs battling against Croatian independence were probably filmed here.
About 35 kilometers (22 miles) into the farming area outside of Vukovar is Osijek, and six kilometers (4 miles) further is where we met Nada. Hers was one of four homes that had arranged to host small groups from the Viking cruise, and where Nada lives with her husband. In exchange for room and board, they care for the owner and her B&B business in the same home. The owner, whom we didn’t meet, is an invalid at age 64. From war injuries she is missing a leg and arm, she's suffered a heart attack, and is battling lupus and diabetes.
As is customary in these parts, Nada offered us homemade pastries, coffee, and homemade brandy. Before she opened up her story, we learned that this was her birthday, that she’d married in January, and that she is now three months pregnant. So there were toasts.
Nada was eleven years old in 1991, when the war found her living with her mother, sister, and 3-year-old niece. They were joined by about 90 others seeking shelter from the fighting. All lived together in the basement of a building next to the hospital, where her mother worked in the hospital lab.
Nada's father and three others were killed one day when they left the basement in order to get water for those in the basement. The shelling started up while they were outside.
Nada remembers sometimes soldiers would come down to the basement, point to several individuals, and ask them to step outside. Most didn’t return. She recalls that her Shepard dog would bark or growl at the soldiers. Eventually it was just her family left, just the four of them. Her mother would still run out to work in the lab. Finally, someone came to ask, who is there? Is anyone there? Nada’s mother wanted to remain silent so they wouldn’t be found. But the dog wasn’t barking, and Nada urged her mother to trust these people.
It turned out they were a friendly force. The family was taken from the basement and helped to another sister’s home in Serbia. After a month or so there, they ended up with a grandmother in Bosnia. There Nada lived until she was an adult. She met her husband-to-be in Bosnia, and clarified for us that he is a Christian Bosnian.
Now Nada’s husband is unemployed with little hope of getting work. He worked for a time in Qatar, so they became engaged via a long-distance proposal. Although they are together now, he will not be allowed to work in Croatia until he’s lived there for five years. They are understandably grateful for their current living arrangements.
Croatia is number three in unemployment in the EU, after Greece and Spain. Smaller villages are dying off as the young move to cities or out of the country. National pride, meanwhile, is wrapped up in the churches, music, and tourism. We were reminded that prices and the cost of living in this Eastern area are about half of those in Dubrovnik and along the touristic coast.
In the town of Osijek, we were treated to a piano and voice recital by Martina, a teen-aged resident. Listen to an excerpt here, while you consider visiting this area.
Tourists might consider the bike trail that runs from Osijek all the way to the Black Sea. If you stay in the area, be sure to say hello to Nada. Here’s the B&B info, via booking.com:
Bed & Breakfast Čingi-Lingi
Tina Ujevica 17
31327 Bilje (6 km from Osijek), Croatia
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28 thoughts on “The Other Side of Croatia”
So impoverished–but love conquers all. I hope hoards of TRAVEL PAST 50 readers rush to reserve rooms and give gifts to the baby!
We did the cruise on the Danube. Do not think it was the Viking. We did not have the insight or energy to explore the culture as you have. Thank you for a very personal insight. We are so lucky to have the life and culture we take for granted.
And here our friends think we just sit on the boat and drink wine. (Well, we did quite a bit of that, too). We ARE so lucky!
My thoughts exactly, Janet. Thanks (as always) for reading.
What a very moving story! What Croatia suffered then is what Syria is suffering now. The two Syrian refugee teenagers living here with me have a very similar story. Why do we still allow this to happen?
Thanks, Rachel. I hope we can read more about the situation with your Syrian friends, and about your experiences with an expanded household.
Good to read honest insights into living conditions away from the coast and the realities of many citizens in Croatia. Our in-laws have family there and they speak of much poverty and limited opportunity. Good for Viking Cruises for creating this experience for guests and bringing attention ( and hopefully some business) to the region.
Yes to bringing more business and visitors to the area. I was enthralled by the bike trail to the Black Sea!
What a story to share. We take so much for granted in our lives, don’t we? Travel opens our minds and gives us gifts such as meeting and talking with Nada. I’m guessing she is someone who will stay in your hearts for years to come.
Yes, this sort of meeting is what keeps us traveling…and listening.
Very interesting story. You got a glimpse into a side of Croatia many tourists don’t see. Seeing the personal impact of events on ordinary people really brings it home. That statue on the cross is very powerful.
I should have mentioned that the crucifix was in the Holy Cross Church courtyard, where we heard the piano recital. Thanks, Donna.
Your post was fascinating. Love how you shared their story. I guess I’ve really only “seen” Croatia from the glossy photos of the seaside and resorts. I have never been there and always wanted to. I was surprised that it was #3 in unemployment. I think it’s wonderful that you took this interesting excursion. What an eye opener.
Maybe there is a 10K or marathon in the area? Wouldn’t that be a great way to see inside Croatia!
Hmmmm….I’ll have to look into that!
What a worthwhile excursion from Viking as a cruise operator! We hear so little about Croatia away from the touristic regions, and your story from Osijek is one that needs to be told. Thanks for a glimpse into the other side of Croatia!
We were fortunate to be hosted by Viking on this leg of our trip. We’re hoping to return to visit other areas of Croatia.
Wow – what hard lives people have and this couple at least isn’t trying to escape to countries who don’t want them. I was in then-Yugoslavia in 1989 and back to Croatia in about 2010 and could see the toll the war had taken on the people and the landscape (many of the forests were gone because the wood was burned for fuel). A side trip like that is what really brings a place alive.
I’d love to hear more about your two trips to Croatia, especially about the earlier, 1989, trip. Must compare notes…soon!
Croatia is still on my bucket list. I want at some point in the near future to organize a slow trip trough this country and discover as much as possible of this great country.
Yes, agreed. It would be great to rent a place for a couple months, and see much more.
Wow, what a different scene than the Croatian coast. I visited Croatia for the first time in June and loved it. While the stories on the coast can’t compare to this one, I still learned an awful lot about the terrible Yugoslav war that was previous unknown to me. Such tragedy in such a beautiful country.
Thanks, Patti! I liked the sound of that trip you took to the Dalmatian Islands! But, yes, it seems the further I travel into Balkan countries, the further back the warring stories go. It the price, perhaps, of being at the crossroads of various power centers.
This is a terrible thing to say, but the more I travel, the more I despair for the human race—which, of course, is reinforced by watching the news every night. OTOH, when I’m feeling less hopeless, sometimes travel reveals the resiliency of the human race. I guess we’re just dichotomous beings—sort of like that two faced mask image. I better stop now. I’m getting too heavy even for myself. Nice post. Makes me want to get off the beaten path more.
I share your mixed feelings. Now that I’m seeing fortified churches in Romania, I can’t help but think how positively medieval the whole idea of fences and walls at borders is. Sheesh, have we learned nothing in the past thousand years? Now I’m going to dump some boiling oil out the window.
What a beautiful and sad story. Part of what makes travel so interesting is the people you meet along the way. Thank you for telling Nada’s story, we all need to hear and learn more. My heart breaks for her and their uncertain future.
What a story! I’m impressed that Viking is setting up experiences for you to talk to locals. I think that speaks highly for them. We wish Nada good fortune!
I was excited to read your article about Croatia and your Viking River Cruise experience. Both are on my 2016 calendar! Thank you for the great information and glorious photos!