• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

A Kiwi finds her Croatian connection on the Dalmatian Coast

Split, the largest city on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Photo/Getty Images

“Dallies”, as the settlers from Croatia were called, have made a mark in all areas of New Zealand life.

Everywhere I turn, I see Croatia. Its national football team, selected from a population of only 4.17 million, got to the final of the Fifa World Cup, defeating England along the way. Its glamorous president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, dressed in the red-and-white team jersey, watched them play in the early games from the stands before Russian President Vladimir Putin invited her into the VIP box for the final. After the disappointing result, she shook the hand of every member of both teams and became a byword for “good sport”.

Well known as one of the stunning Game of Thrones locations, Croatia has now hit the big screen as the setting for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, out this week to rave reviews. And if that’s not enough, UK tabloid readers learnt the whole Beckham family holidayed this month on a Croatian island.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

For a country that was created only in 1991, Croatia has come a long way. Visitor numbers are predicted to hit 20 million this year, and tourism now brings in more than €8 billion  ($13.77 billion) a year. In the past five years, it has featured widely in travel magazines’ lists of the hottest European spots to trot off to.

So, last summer, we joined the crowd – without huge expectations. I grew up spending summers at Bethells Beach (Te Henga) on Auckland’s west coast and tripping around the Coromandel and Northland, and have often found the Mediterranean disappointing for a beach break. Italy has sun, culture and great food, but many of its beaches are rocky. In Spain and France, unless you’re ready to get off the beaten track, the beaches are lined with loungers, and hundreds of people stand knee-deep in the water clinging to their mobiles. Hawkers selling tat along the shore are a constant bother.

Croatia, though, is different. With 1000-plus islands, it has stunning beaches of all sorts. There are long stretches of sometimes white sand, delightful bays with deep inlets fringed with trees and beaches of white stones. The water is not just crystal clear but the colour of sapphire or turquoise – almost like the Caribbean. And the sun shines much more reliably than in Italy or the South of France.

Hvar harbour. Photo/Getty Images

During a week in Croatia, we moved between Split, the country’s second-biggest city, and the islands of Hvar and Korčula, stumbling over loveliness almost everywhere we went. At one stop, we stayed in a cheap Airbnb apartment a 10-minute walk from a small, pretty beach with calm, clear water that was perfect for children.

But the sea outside our harbourside accommodation was, to us, equally appealing. You could go out the front door, cross the road and dive from the harbour wall into the water, which, despite the coming and going of fishing boats, appeared utterly pure. The edges of the harbour were lined with concrete and stone ledges on which families perched on plastic sun chairs and watched the day go by. It was here that I started to feel my own Croatian connection, as if I already knew these people quite well.

Growing up in a Catholic family in New Zealand, you mixed with the diasporas of many lands. My Catholic side had come via my paternal grandmother’s family from County Clare, and many of my classmates had deep Irish roots. But the parents of pupils at the convent school I attended at Otahuhu in South Auckland came from all over the world: Poland, Italy, Mauritius, Singapore, and what was then called Yugoslavia. My Yugoslavia-descended mates were called Dallies, because they came from the Dalmatian Coast, the part of Croatia where we were holidaying.

The men from these parts are well built, with dark hair, heavy beards and a swaggering machismo; the women, often blonde, are blessed with Slavic high cheekbones that reminded me of my primary-school best friend, Robyn, whose parents ran the local fish-and-chip shop. They may not come across quite so vibrantly as the Italians on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, but they have tons of attitude and an intriguing look-at-me style of dressing.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. Photo/Getty

Croatian names, too, rang bells, though when they came to New Zealand, it was common for the new arrivals to change them: from Matić to Matich, from Urlić to Urlich.

Croatia was settled at different times by the Romans and Venetians; won by Napoleon; then wrapped into the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1867. New Zealand’s first settlers from the Dalmatian Coast, who arrived during that era, were recorded as being soldiers from the Austrian army.

At times, life in Croatia was very hard, especially for large families. Fishermen, grape growers and farmers lived on the islands and mainland of the Dalmatian Coast and when the economy or political situation deteriorated, the idea of starting again in a country free of the problems of Europe was attractive.

Migration to New Zealand picked up in the 1880s as many Croatians were attracted to the gumfields. A large number of the 100,000 New Zealanders who claim Croatian ancestry have a kauri gum digger in their past, former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick and architect Ivan Mercep among them. The flow of migrants continued into the 20th century.

While on the unusually green, tree-covered island of Korčula, we passed through the small town of Lumbarda. After my holiday, I discovered this was where Nikola Nobilo grew up. In 1937, as the threat of war rose in Europe, his family decided to send him and his wife to New Zealand. For the first six years, he farmed at Huapai, and then began growing grapes and using the 300-year-old family lore to make wine. He was one of many Croatians who set the course for the New Zealand wine industry.

My memories of Dally classmates and friends was that they were often louder and more passionate than their Anglo-Saxon peers. My friend Robyn would go to “kolo” club during weekends and learn to sing and dance traditional Croatian songs, though in those days we called her ancestral country Yugoslavia. I worked as a sales assistant for a chic Dally businesswoman whose mother washed her sheets by hand. When I pointed out that washing machines did the job pretty well, she answered that it was much better for bed linen to be treated with loving care in the European tradition than the bish-bash-bosh of New Zealand efficiency.

Those memories came back to me during our Croatian holiday. In cafes, restaurants and on beaches, the locals made great hosts. Only in Split, which was heaving with tourists in early August, did you feel that their patience with the foreign hordes was wearing thin. By the waterfront, among the bustling outdoor eateries, was a stage on which a chorus of young women in traditional costumes sang Croatian folk songs. The foreign crowd may not have loved it, but it’s part of the Croatian way of life, not just put on as a tourist show.

Zitna bay, Korčula. Photo/Getty Images

An irony of the country’s recent popularity is its connection to the smash US TV show Game of Thrones. Dubrovnik, down the coast from Split, stands in for King’s Landing and Qarth. In Split, Diocletians Palace, built in the fourth century, is the setting for Daenerys’ throne room, where she trained her dragons. I wasn’t tempted to join the fans following tour leaders down every alleyway with hoisted GoT flags. We spent a night at the charming Hotel Peristil, built within the palace walls, which was homage enough for me.

On the islands, life is quieter, though there are some party spots. According to London’s Sunday Times, Hvar town, a couple of hours by ferry from Split, is “Bardot-era St Tropez meets Ibiza”, with clubs rocking on till 3am. We stayed in a much quieter part of the island at Hotel Skalinada, on a pebbly beach, with a flower-filled garden sloping up to the rooms. It’s the kind of place families go back to year after year even though the trip involves passing through an unlined mile-long, one-way tunnel that feels like a mineshaft.

The hotel owner, Tonči Antičević, is the son of a hotelkeeper. He and his German wife, Sabine, opened their own hotel in 1990, which must have been a challenge. Josip Tito, the communist leader who had brought the area together as Yugoslavia, had died 10 years before, and in the summer of 1991 Croatia declared independence. War broke out between Serbs and Croats and what is now Croatia was embroiled in fighting, with some ceasefires, until US-brokered talks in 1994, and the Dayton Accords in 1995, which confirmed Croatia’s borders. It’s estimated that 20,000 people died in the Croatian part of the Yugoslav conflict; a total of 140,000 died during Yugoslavia’s disintegration, mostly in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Antičević is the only Croatian I try to talk to about what are called the Home Wars. Even on the Dalmatian Coast, where little violence was seen, it’s a sensitive topic. But in the years since, Croatia has been doing well economically, and it is now a member of the European Union and Nato. Serbia is awaiting EU-membership, and Kosovo is still contested. For all the beauty and welcome of the land, it’s sobering to remember that not so long ago, this area was known for ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity.

But the Balkans has a long history of conflict. It was in Sarajevo, 240km from Split, on June 28, 1914, that Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb who wanted a unified Yugoslavia free from Austro-Hungarian rule, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, setting off the chain of events that started World War I.

Although I didn’t say so to my hotel host, I could see that for all the beauty and serenity of his island home on Hvar, a winemaker or fisherman might find the prospect of a settled and prosperous future in New Zealand rather appealing. Now that peace really has broken out, they can always come back for a holiday.

Lorde and Dame Mira Szászy. Photo/Getty Images, left, and the Listener

Croatians down under

Since the first Dalmatian settlers arrived 160 years ago, New Zealanders of Croatian descent have been making telling contributions across the spectrum of business, academia, education, the arts and sport.

Croatians were integral to the establishment of the wine industry in West Auckland, launching brands including Babich, Selaks and Kumeu River. One of our most successful wine firms, Villa Maria, was established in Mangere in 1961 by Sir George Fistonich.

In the north, early immigrants found common ground on the gumfields with Māori, and descendants of inter-marriage to rise to prominence include Dame Mira Szászy, the first Māori woman graduate at the University of Auckland. Historian James Belich made his name with his revisionist interpretations of the effects of colonisation.

Prominent sporting stars include Onny Parun and Marina Erakovic in tennis, Paul Radisich in motor racing and Frano Botica in rugby.

More recently, 21-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor has made a name on the international stage – as singer-songwriter Lorde.

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.