2013 – Croatia’s Long, Hard Winter by Douglas Cavanaugh

As with many European countries and most other places in the northern hemisphere, Croatia is a pretty uneventful place during the late winter months. Yet the urge to write keeps calling me, so I’ll write an article about a topic that is often discussed this time of year – the winter weather. Please continue on, it may be more interesting than you think.

The year 2013 got off to a rough start in Croatia weather-wise. Those of you who read my Christmas article may recall my mention of the record snowfall that blasted Gorski Kotar in mid-December. As it turned out, these kinds of snowstorms have plagued the region over the last three months. My city, Rijeka, was not exempt from the abundance of snow either. It caused havoc on the roads as many unprepared, ill-equipped, and inexperienced drivers attempted to venture out and brave the elements.

Feb. - March 2013 pics 002

Due to its location on the Adriatic coast, Rijeka is often spared the worst of winter’s wrath. However, the city’s surrounding suburbs, many of which are just a few kilometers uphill from the city center, often get blanketed with snow while less than a minute’s drive downhill, the same storm is only able to pour rain on the city dwellers. It is the slight difference in altitude that causes the biggest problem. The city’s inhabitants, well aware that snow falls very infrequently near sea level, often risk driving without having proper tires on their cars which is understandable until they are caught off guard and nature has its way with them. It often happens that the locals may be shopping or visiting the nearby hilltop suburbs when a snowstorm hits. If they head for home too late, their cars easily become stuck and leave them stranded at the roadside. It isn’t uncommon during one of these storms to see dozens of cars left abandoned along the narrow, winding roads. Fortunately, most snow that falls on Rijeka usually lasts for only a day or two before the temperature rises and the direction of the wind changes course. When warmer air blows in from the south, it usually brings rain which quickly melts the lingering snow and washes it away.

An altogether different climate exists in nearby Gorski Kotar, the mountainous region a mere twenty minute drive outside of Rijeka. This mountain range is similar to the dull ridges of the Appalachian Mountain chain found in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, compared to the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the western states of North America. This is not to detract anything from Gorski Kotar’s splendor, as it is a gorgeous region that is full of wildlife, beauty and fresh air. However, the crests simply don’t measure up with those found in the Alps of northern Slovenia, Colorado, or British Columbia. But when it comes to snowfall, its climate can match the best of them, and this year has been no exception.

As mentioned in previous articles, my wife’s family comes from a village named Ravna Gora near the highest point in elevation in Gorski Kotar. We spend a lot of our free time there as it is a short drive because of a modern, four-lane highway that links the capital city, Zagreb, and Rijeka, Croatia’s third largest city. Gorski Kotar receives two to three meters (six to ten feet) or more of annual snowfall, so a dedicated snow removal team works long hours keeping this thoroughfare clear of snow and ice.

Feb. - March 2013 pics 008

Over the last several years, various family members in Ravna Gora have proudly boasted of the heavy snowfall Ravna Gora receives each year. However, each winter when I’ve visited, the accumulation was never that much or had mostly melted by the time I arrived. And each year, I have mischievously teased them that they didn’t know what a lot of snow was, and that they should visit the U.S. Midwest some winter to see what a real blizzard looked like. But oddly enough, as the winters passed, and to everyone’s amazement, including my own, the heavy snows did not fall in Gorksi Kotar for a multi-year stretch, convincing many locals that global warming was a reality. I didn’t know what to think about that, but any questions I had of the regions snowfall potential were answered this past February.

Feb. - March 2013 pics 009

To date, I’ve heard reports that almost five meters (fifteen feet) of snow has fallen in Ravna Gora between December 9th, 2012 and March 2nd, 2013. February 2013 was a notably brutal month with one particularly intense snowstorm that lasted three consecutive days and nights. At one point, ten centimeters (four inches) of snow accumulated in an hour, and before long, the local homeowners who were trying to keep their driveways open could not keep pace with the pummeling and were soon overwhelmed. Many gave up and remained shut-in for days.

And those who did have the stamina to dig their way out soon ran out of space to throw the excess snow. Most houses in the village had snow piled to the roofs.

Feb. - March 2013 pics 011

During breaks in the snowstorm, crews with trucks would manage to come through occasionally to plow the streets before another front would pass through and the whole process would begin again. The village’s oldest resident, a razor sharp, ninety-year-old widow we know, could not recall a winter with as much snow as this winter. Thankfully, there has been a welcome respite over the last week and better weather is forecasted in the coming weeks. Yet the possibility of additional accumulation lasts into the month of May each year, so I expect the total accumulation to rise before summer begins.

Feb. - March 2013 pics 010

There was a six-day thaw last week so my family traveled to Gorski Kotar to visit the relatives over the weekend. Because of the unpredictable weather, we filled our car with clothes and supplies, put the tire chains in the trunk, and then headed uphill. What we found was much better than we expected. The village’s main road was open, and a lot of the rooftop snow had melted away. The major difficulties were finding a place to park our car and maintaining our balance on the frozen pathways leading to the houses.

Despite those minor inconveniences, the sun was shining and the temperature was above freezing, so we did what everyone else was doing and enjoyed the moment. The relatives brought out the sleds and inner tubes, and we all trudged over to the nearest hill for some fun in the snow.

Feb. - March 2013 pics 016Feb. - March 2013 pics 025

After several trips downhill, and while my first lesson in cross-country skiing was in process, the sun disappeared behind the surrounding mountaintops and the temperature nose-dived instantly.

Feb. - March 2013 pics 034

Slika 4 Cross-country skiing at dusk

We all made a break for home. Minutes later, we were safe and warm, sipping hot tea and enjoying the heat produced by the wood-burning stove.

All in all, it was a wonderful day. Just the same, we were in no hurry to repeat the experience and planned to wait until the weather breaks for our next visit. Other attractive options that are nearby will be competing for our free time, and the weather issue in Gorski Kotar is always a constant concern this time of year. Besides, just twenty minutes from Rijeka is the province of Istria where spring should be arriving any day now. Soon, I plan to visit Istria and this might be the subject of my next article.

Douglas Cavanaugh is the author of Into Hell’s Fire (www.into-hells-fire.com), an international spy novel set in Bosnia and Croatia in 1992.  He has lived in Croatia for seventeen years.

5.0 out of 5 stars Intense storyline, May 15, 2013
By
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

In addition to a good story the book contains a pretty good synopsis of the history surrounding the Balkan war. I read this while touring Croatia. This helped with my understanding of how this tragedy could have happened. Most of the book deals with Sarajevo in Bosnia.

Carnival in Rijeka by Douglas Cavanaugh

When I arrived in Rijeka several years ago, one of the first things I learned about the city was that it plays host to one of the largest carnival celebrations in all of Europe, if not in all of the world. While growing up in the Midwest of the U.S., I was aware that the carnival tradition is celebrated with vigor in New Orleans, LA, but other than there, the tradition seemed largely ignored by most Americans. So imagine my surprise back in the mid-1990s, when just a few days after my arrival, my hosts brought me to Rijeka’s center to participate in its grand event for a day I’ll never forget.

That particular day was cold and blustery, as the fickle, late-winter weather along Rijeka’s waterfront tends to be. The city’s main business district, the Korzo, was swarming with people. It seemed as though dozens of foreign languages were being shouted out in all directions. There was music blaring, and thousands of colorful banners and streamers were flapping in the wind.

At first, I watched with heightened interest as group after group of costumed participants paraded down the Korzo, each group dressed in different matching outfits that were sponsored by various clubs and organizations from communities around the region. I can remember asking my friends a few relevant questions about the history of the tradition and the process of the parade, but after a short time in the cold, the wine and beer started flowing, and they started dancing and singing. Before I knew it, the party was in full swing and the details of the tradition no longer seemed important. I knew at that moment I had been infected with the spirit of carnival.

Because carnival, per se, is directly related to the Catholic season of Lent, it is a tradition that is celebrated across most of Europe. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to sample a few carnival festivals in other places and found that the style of celebration differs among each but the spirit does not. Venice, Italy, is probably most renowned for its carnival tradition, and its carnival has a more reserved atmosphere than what is offered in Rijeka. Cities in Austria, Hungary, France, Germany, and Spain, among other countries, are well known for putting on fantastic carnival celebrations as well.

It should be mentioned that carnival is a season rather than a single event. Its length varies from year to year, depending on the Catholic Lenten season and which week and month Easter Sunday falls on. Some years the carnival season lasts for as few as three weeks, while other years it goes on for as long as six weeks. In any case, the main event that takes place in Rijeka is the grand finale of a multi-week party that is celebrated there and in all of the villages in the surrounding region. During the carnival season, these nearby communities open their sports halls and community centers each Saturday night and provide music, food, and spirits– everything needed to draw the costumed revelers for a night of incognito fun.

The fun, however, isn’t limited to disguised adults trying to put some spice into an otherwise uneventful time of year. The local authorities take care to include children in the festivities, and they support parades and celebrations in the larger communities for groups of children organized by schools, kindergartens, and other clubs and organizations.

 

opatija-rijeka carnival 2013 015

opatija-rijeka carnival 2013 018This year was the 30th anniversary of the grand carnival parade that takes place on Rijeka’s Korzo, which gave the atmosphere a dose of extra excitement. The 2013 season began on January 17th and ended on February 13th, Ash Wednesday, the traditional end to the carnival season.  Various sources I’ve read stated that between ten and twenty thousand masked people participated in the parade, and well over one hundred thousand people enjoyed the festivities from the sidelines. This year’s event was enhanced by nice weather, which was cold but sunny and clear for this time of year.

opatija-rijeka carnival 2013 120

Over the last seventeen years, the event has grown and improved considerably in scope and organization. In my opinion, it has become more spectator-friendly.  Food stalls are more plentiful, face-painting and souvenir stands are commonplace, and cafés, restaurants, and local shops have become better staffed and prepared for the influx of business.

 

opatija-rijeka carnival 2013 096

On the negative side, suitable parking and lodging in Rijeka remains difficult to find, pickpockets have been known to work the crowds, and the noise level can be deafening. So if you are planning to join the party in the future, book your lodging well in advance, arrive early in the Rijeka center to find adequate parking, leave all unnecessary documents and valuables in your hotel, and bring a pair of earplugs to protect against the constant, blaring decibel levels.

Another suggestion that readers who are considering paying a visit to next year’s carnival might value is to plan an extended trip of at least a few weeks to experience the carnival season in different settings. Anyone staying in Rijeka or Opatija can easily book an organized day trip to Venice (three hours by bus – usually every Saturday during the carnival season) from most travel agencies to sample a taste of two carnivals on one trip.

As I finish this article, the carnival season is officially drawing to a close. In fact, the Zvončari club from the village where I am writing this is marching down the street a short distance away.

opatija-rijeka carnival 2013 116

opatija-rijeka carnival 2013 112

The Zvončari tradition developed from pagan rituals of centuries past to scare away evil spirits and to stimulate new life in springtime. Nearly each village has its own Zvončari club which consists of men and boys wearing striped shirts, sheepskin capes, extremely large cowbells that make a deafening racket, and animal-head masks that are evil-looking enough to fascinate most adults and terrify most small children. Only minutes from now, the locals will burn the ‘Pust,’ a man-shaped puppet that has been hanging in the village center over the last several weeks. The Pust, who facetiously represents a local politician or prominent citizen, is blamed for all the disasters the community suffered during the previous year. At the proper time, charges against him are read by the local authorities before the puppet is set ablaze for his sins, thus bringing the carnival season to a close.

In conversations with many local Croats over the years, I have decided that carnival season isn’t enjoyed by all with equal enthusiasm. Like everything else, there are people who scorn the noise and inconvenience of it all and others who look forward to the season with great joy. If you are one of the latter, then plan a visit to Rijeka, Croatia, one year in February or March. It would be worth the trip at least once in a lifetime. Below is the official link for the Rijeka carnival. Anyone thinking of coming in the future would be wise to reference it before planning their trip.

www.rijecki-karneval.hr

Douglas Cavanaugh is a hobbyist writer who has lived in Croatia for seventeen years. He is the author of an international spy novel, Into Hell’s Fire (www.into-hells-fire.com), which is set in Croatia and Bosnia in 1992.  The book is available in both paperback and eBook formats.  More information about his book and other great books and music related to Croatia that he recommends can be seen in the bookstore and music shop on the site:        www.into-hells-fire.com

Here is a review by an anonymous reader of Into Hell’s Fire listed on Amazon.com:

4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Yarn

By doctor coffee

Format:Kindle Edition

Douglas portrays accurately the pain, beauty, history and politics of the former Yugoslavia.

We are shown the greed, duplicity and military aggression of Serbia and Croatia.

The portrayal of events in Sarajevo is particularly well written. The reader feels as if he is there dodging the bullets. Douglas has told it the way I believe it really happened. There is far more reality here than can be found in the novel Goodbye Sarajevo.

Also well written are the action paragraphs of the novel. These I found to be very readable.

A good yarn. Well researched and a great first book by this author. What will he write next, I wonder?

BANNER1

Winter Holidays in Croatia by Douglas Cavanaugh

As with most Europeans, it should be no surprise that Croats are fond of both summer and winter vacations. The work and school schedules of both parents and their children are the main factors which determine the type, duration, and distance of the vacations. And, like most families everywhere, the financial situation of the Croatian family is an important consideration that often determines the type of vacation.

In Croatia, a winter vacation is most commonly taken right after the New Year, before the children have finished their two week Christmas break and return to school. Since my arrival in Croatia many years ago, I have found that there are traditionally two styles of winter vacations that are most popular, and the final choice often depends on each family’s attraction or repulsion to snow and the cold, winter air. More specifically, I am referring to ski vacations, which are regarded by many Croats to be almost a sacred ritual. In fact, there are several Croats I know who, given the choice, would forego their summer vacations so they could spend an extra week in the mountains skiing on the slopes and frolicking in the snow. Skiing is so ingrained in these people’s souls that they train and shop for their upcoming ski vacation for weeks, even months, before the snow starts falling.

Unfortunately, Croatia isn’t as famous for its world-class skiing as much as it is for its world-class skiers. Nonetheless, there are a few places for the local ski aficionados to go to polish their skills on weekends, one place near Zagreb (Slijeme), and another near Ogulin (Bijelolaščica), which hasn’t opened the past few years because of lack of funding and snow. On a positive note, there are several top-rated ski slopes within a few hours’ drive from most parts of Croatia, and I see plenty of tour buses full of Croatian skiers headed for the famous resorts in the Austrian and Slovenian Alps, the Italian Dolomites, and even the French Alps.

For those Croats who do not enjoy snow and the winter weather, and there are many, another option for a winter vacation is to take a short plane ride to a warmer destination in the Mediterranean region. In past years, frequent vacation packages with short flights and affordable prices could be found to such exotic destinations as Tunisia, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, Cyprus, and Turkey. However, the current political instability in many of these destinations and the continuing European financial crisis have made these trips less popular for the winter holidays.

An alternative to ski and plane trip winter holidays has become quite popular.  Hotels built near hot springs (Toplice), offering packages targeting a families’ winter vacation budget, have done an excellent job of establishing a foothold in this market. Weekend specials, weekly deals, and some much longer, can be found at good prices on the internet. The packages usually offer a hotel room and unlimited access to indoor, outdoor, and thermal pools. Most deals also include both breakfast and dinner buffets, leaving plenty of time for swimming, massages, saunas, and healing in the thermal water.

Several of these hot spring resorts have been around for a long time such as Istarske Toplice near Buzet and Varaždinske Toplice near Varaždin and are renowned as physical therapy centers for invalids, retirees, and patients requiring rehabilitation for various injuries. But more recently, newer resorts have opened that target families wanting to relax, swim, and get away from the stress of everyday life. These resorts can be found scattered around the country, but the majority of them can be found near the Slovenian-Croatian border in the regions north and west of Zagreb.

Early this January, my family had the chance to enjoy a three-day weekend at one of these resorts. The experience was highly recommended by some of our friends and we had an excellent time. The resort offered most things necessary to make the experience a truly family outing. Besides the well-kept, heated indoor and outdoor adult and baby pools, the spa offered an extra warm, sulfur-saturated thermal pool and multiple Jacuzzis.

bazen #2 011Slika 1 Toplica – heated, indoor swimming pool and Jacuzzis

 

Slika 2 Toplica – heated, outdoor thermal pool

 

Slika 3 – Toplica – indoor thermal pool

This complex also offered saunas, several types of massages, and other types of health and beauty pampering. An organized event schedule included various types of exercise, hiking, aerobics, and a well-equipped children’s playroom. In the summer months, it offers another large outdoor pool with waterslides for the children, and a modern, nine-hole golf course with driving range for golf enthusiasts. A fitness path and bicycle trail is also available for hikers and bikers.

 

Slika 4 Toplica – fitness trail

This resort’s service was excellent, the facility was modern and clean, and the food hit the spot after a full day of swimming and hiking. All in all, it was a very good experience and a relaxing weekend. No cooking, no cleaning, and no cell phones.

It should be mentioned, of course, that not all hot spring hotels are the same, and some offer amenities targeting different types of customers. Researching the various resorts on the internet would serve a person well before booking the relaxing package he or she is seeking.

Fortunately for Croatia and Croats, these types of resorts are becoming more common in many more locations, which should offer even more variety and keep the prices reasonable. Both sides of the Slovenian-Croatian borders are dotted with these hot spring hotel resorts, and most offer good value for the money. In fact, I already have a good idea of how we’ll be spending our winter break next January.

 

If any readers would like to know the name and location of the hotel (Toplica) specifically referred to in this article or have any other questions concerning the subject this article covers, I can be contacted at the ‘General Inquiries’ email address given on the contact page of my web site: www.into-hells-fire.com.

 

Douglas Cavanaugh is a hobbyist writer who has lived in Croatia for sixteen years. His most recent book, Into Hell’s Fire, is an international spy-thriller that is set in Bosnia and Croatia during 1992.

Here is a recent review about his book from an English reader on www.Amazon.co.uk:

 

4.0 out of 5 stars Promising debut 2 Jan 2013

By AlanKS

Format:Paperback

A promising debut from Douglas.Particularly liked how the History aspect behind the Balkan conflict was handled.By use of the hero reviewing an earlier intelligence report, the background was delivered in bite sized chunks and at no time did you feel that you were being lectured.Good atmospheric scene setting that captures a real feel for the region and time. Fast moving,action packed read that was thoroughly enjoyable.Look forward to any further product from this new talent.Highly recommended!

 

You can find out more about his book and other great books and music related to Croatia that Douglas recommends on his site’s bookstore and music shop at: www.into-hells-fire.com

BANNER1

Christmas in Rijeka by Douglas Cavanaugh

December 24, 2012

As the Republic of Croatia is a predominantly Catholic country, religious holidays are celebrated frequently and enthusiastically. The two most important Catholic holidays, Christmas and Easter, are held in great regard and are enjoyed with extra fervor.

Since it is now the Christmas season, I’d like to describe to the American-Croatian readers what Christmas is like in my home city of Rijeka, Croatia.

The main Christmas season in Croatia begins around the first of December. Rijeka and most other nearby municipalities begin decorating the streets and main business districts with lights and decorations while the weather is still accommodating. An important date is December sixth, which is the day of St. Nicholas (Sv. Nikolas), more commonly known as St. Nick. This is a special day when the children have their stockings filled with candy and toys if they were good during the year. Also, Christmas music appears on the radio and in the shopping centers at about this time.  After this date, decorations are put on display in most other businesses, too. After the second week of the month, shopping centers begin their Christmas season selling campaigns. By mid-December (considerably later than in the U.S.), things begin to look quite like the United States, but scaled down considerably.

The season does entice the entrepreneurial spirit in many Croatians. On the Korzo, Rijeka’s main shopping district, a huge Christmas tree is erected and decorated while small stands, or huts, surround it with local merchants selling their seasonal merchandise.

dec. 28, 2012 026

Slika 1 The Korzo, Rijeka – Christmas Eve Day, 2012

The goods vary from homemade foods and crafts to toys imported from China. Examples of what some stands offer for sale are: homemade (domači) sweets like candies, cookies, chocolates and figs, and other food products like sausages (kulen and kobasice), honey products, olives and cheese. Some stands sell bottles of locally produced wines and brandies (rakija, travarica, and medica).

Other stands sell clothing (socks, stockings, scarves, gloves and hats), Christmas lights and decorations, and toys for children of all ages. Another seasonal favorite that can be found on the Korzo this time of year are the small grills where vendors sell roasted chestnuts and popcorn, which adds an aromatic dimension to the Christmas atmosphere.

dec. 28, 2012 025

Slika 2 Vendor selling Christmas candies on the Korzo, December 24, 2012

dec. 28, 2012 024

Slika 3 Vendor selling sausages on the Korzo – December 24, 2012

dec. 28, 2012 017

Slika 4 Vendor selling locally-produced spirits

dec. 28, 2012 027

Slika 5 Roasting chestnuts on the Korzo – December 24, 2012

 

 

By December fifteenth, salespeople are out at many locations selling freshly-cut Christmas trees.  Though artificial trees can be found in almost every store, real trees are far more popular, and it is quite common to see a car drive past with a Christmas tree fastened to its roof. Many Croatians feel that ‘nothing compares to the smell of a freshly-cut pine tree in the home at Christmas time,’ but I also suspect that having to keep a plastic tree in a large box each year in an apartment that has little storage space deters the locals from owning artificial trees.

Over the last several years, my wife’s family has started a Christmas tree plantation (www.bozicna-drvca.com.hr) in their mountain village, Ravna Gora, in Gorski Kotar.

Image00005

Slika 6  Plantaža Pino – Ravna Gora, December 07, 2012

In retrospect, I think this was a good idea, since no one can dispute that Gorski Kotar has an ideal climate for growing pine trees.  On the other hand, it also produces a lot of snow, and this year’s harvest was undertaken in knee-deep drifts.

And that job was finished only a day before the biggest snowstorm in decades hit the area. Nonetheless, all the orders got filled, the distributors received their products, and I now see small pine trees strapped to car roofs every day. A disaster was averted, and Christmas was saved!

As Christmas day nears, business and offices parties become frequent. Throughout the week before the holiday, it becomes difficult to find seats at many restaurants which are booked well-in-advance with large groups of organized company parties.

Image00010

Slika 7  Harvesting Christmas trees in the snow – 2012

The season reaches its climax with the celebration of a mid-night mass on Christmas Eve or a morning mass on Christmas day. Afterward, it is common for families to gather for a Christmas dinner. This may include lots of ruckus from children playing with additional toys brought by Santa Claus.

While the Christmas season in Croatia is significantly smaller in scale than Christmas festivities that take place in the U.S., it is celebrated with great affection and is a day all Croats look forward to.

Wishing you all health and happiness,

Douglas Cavanaugh

Douglas Cavanaugh is an American who has lived in Croatia since 1996. He is the author of the spy novel, Into Hell’s Fire, which is set in Bosnia and Croatia in 1992. His book, and his personal recommendations for other great books and music related to Croatia, can be found on his web site: www.into-hells-fire.com

Home-butchering the Kolinja; A Croatian Tradition by Douglas Cavanaugh

December 05, 2012

It seemed like a good pig, as far as dead pigs go, though it was difficult to be certain since it had been sawed in half from top to bottom. It had also been disemboweled, cleaned, and put through an extensive hair removal process. But those details are beyond the scope of this article. The point is that there was a dead pig stretched out in the backseat of my car, and I was trying to begin this narrative on a positive angle.

Every so often, as I was making the forty-five minute drive from Rijeka to the mountain village named, Ravna Gora, in Gorski Kotar, I caught myself glancing back to see if the carcass had changed positions. I wondered about how I might explain this situation, using my adequate, though far from perfect Croatian language skills to any police officer who might stop my car. I also thought about how I might describe this event to my friends back in the States, or if they’d even believe me if I told them about it. Even though I am originally from Iowa, a state where pigs and hog farms are abundant, the fact is that I am basically a ‘city boy’ who doesn’t ever recall anyone back home telling about how they drove almost an hour with a dead pig in the backseat of their car. But that is exactly what I did, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve done it. In fact, this time was the eighth consecutive year I’ve been involved in such a project. “What project is that,” I’ve been asked. “Butchering the winter pig, or Kolinja, in rural Croatia,” I answer.

With the abundance of modern grocery stores that have appeared in Croatia over the last fifteen years, I suspect butchering a pig at home is now done more out of tradition rather than necessity. There is definitely a substantial cost savings in home-butchering, especially if one lives in a village and raises his own pig from the onset. Yet the tradition remains so strong because Croatians appreciate the homegrown quality of their meat, and the security of knowing exactly what and how the pig was fed. They also like the flexibility of preparing and flavoring the sausages to their individual tastes, and the firsthand knowledge of what was put into those sausages, as opposed to the sausages bought in a grocery store or butcher shop. Moreover, they like the freedom of cutting the portions of the pig to their liking. But perhaps more than anything, I think they enjoy the amount of quality time spent with family and friends during the butchering process. This can last two or three days, or maybe longer, depending on the number of pigs that get butchered.

In Croatia, butchering the Kolinja is performed within a four week period in late autumn, depending on the location, climate and temperatures of the specific regions in the country. As a result of colder temperatures in the Lika and Gorski Kotar regions, the first butchering usually occurs in those areas sometime in the latter part of November. Soon after, Slavonia, Medjumorje and Zagorije follow with their butchering traditions. People in Dalmatia and Istria usually butcher their pigs in mid-December, but there is no fixed schedule for this.

This year, my wife’s family and I butchered our pigs on the 23rd and 24th of November. The entire process began by preparing the barn for the hectic job that would follow. Now that my wife’s family stopped raising their own pigs several years ago, a common way of acquiring a pig is to buy it prepped from someone who raises them, which is paid for by the kilogram. This year, that duty was given to me. While I was picking the pig up in Grobnik (near Rijeka), and delivering it to Ravna Gora, the family members were preparing the work benches, sharpening the knives, and firing up the wood-burning stove. After my arrival, things erupted in a frenzy of activity that lasted well into the night.

Image00052

All in all, we butchered three pig halves this year, a little more than half of the customary five halves we had been butchering annually till now. Hard at work inside the barn, no fewer than ten relatives were helping out at any one time, four men and six ladies, ranging in age from my wife’s ninety-year-old grandmother to her sixteen-year-old nephew. Two of my wife’s aunts, four of her cousins, my mother-in-law, two close friends of the family and I completed the butchering team. Each assumed different roles in the process, and everyone chipped in when the others needed a break.

The first tools used were hammers, hatchets, and sharp knives. The pigs get cut into smaller portions, which are quickly sorted and stacked into separate piles. Highly-coveted cuts, such as pork chops (kotleti) and tender loins (ombolo) are quickly set aside, packed, and frozen, while other pieces like rib cages are hung to be dried (sušeno meso). Almost nothing gets wasted during the process. Excess fat is removed and placed in a tub for future use; some of it to be used for cooking tallow, and some of it to be used to make čvarsi, a type of deep fried, pork rind. Other tubs were filled with scrap meat, which was ground, spiced, and made into sausages (kobasice). Even vital organs and blood were used to make the delicious ‘blood sausages,’ or ‘black pudding,’ known here as krvavice, a delicacy my parents savor whenever they come to visit. Both can recall eating this dish as children on their respective Iowa farms, and they enjoy it immensely. The blood sausage recipe is a complicated process that is strictly supervised by my wife’s ninety-year-old grandmother, Baka Antonija. Baka Antonija eagerly comes prepared for this yearly event dressed in traditional black garments and matching head scarf, and directs the show after first tying aprons on all of the participants.

Image00048

After all the sharp knives have been put aside, a bottle of Grappa (rakija) gets opened and several full shot glasses are distributed before the meat grinder is put to use. After grinding the meat, it is spiced to taste using varying amounts of salt, black pepper, garlic juice, and finely ground, spicy red pepper. The final mix is then inserted into a press and forced through a piece of intestine that will serve to hold the sausage’s shape as it hangs to dry.

Image00056

After the final sausage has been hung, more spirits are opened, this time white wine and mineral water (gassed). Then, the final cleanup operation is undertaken. As soon as the heaviest lifting has been completed, the men retreat to the kitchen table, wine glasses in hand, to sample the tastiest cuts of pork, fresh sauerkraut (kiselo kupus), boiled potatoes, and other delights from the recent garden harvest while the women finish the lighter cleaning. Before long, the women join the party and after some good conversation, several more glasses of wine, and a lot of laughter at the dinner table, a short rest follows before everybody goes their separate ways. Is it any wonder why I love this time of year in Croatia?

Douglas Cavanaugh has lived in Croatia for sixteen years. He is a hobbyist writer and the author of the spy novel, Into Hell’s Fire, which is set in war-time Bosnia and Croatia in 1992. More about him and his book can be seen at: www.into-hells-fire.com . Included on the web site is a bookstore containing recommended books related to Croatia and written in English. There is also a music shop where wonderful music related to Croatia can be found.