Wwoofing in Croatia

When my bike rolled onto the baggage reclaim at Zadar I whooped for joy. We spent the night in the city and the next day were picked up by our host, Goran, and driven to his mountain retreat.

The place was like a grown man’s equivalent of the pillow fort, built of scavenged limestone on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere. The nearest shop was a 20km cycle away.

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Between digging holes and carrying water we played the delightful dogs, the hell-spawn kitten and had a go at a traditional game that’s like a cross between jousting and darts that’s adapted to the wheelbarrow. The sunsets were beautiful and there was a blood moon one night, presumably seen all over the hemisphere.

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The week we spent working there was sandwiched by two weekends of local festivals. Before one Goran had his extended family over for lunch, which we helped to prepare. Oblivious, I was lead into a basement and confronted by a skinned goat hanging on a meathook. He handed me a long metal stake and I embarrassed myself figuring out what to do with it. The goat was eventually wrestled into his open wood oven, complete with machinery inside the wall for rotating the spit, and a few hours hacked up with a cleaver and ready to eat the traditional way; with your hands and a hunk of bread. No salad here!

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The festivals themselves were at a church and an abandoned school and consisted of drinking, singing, silly hats and eating more meat. There was even an entire cow on a spit! When the crowd is merry enough they play games such as releasing a tethered goat and scrambling to catch it or charging around on horses. They were a fun-loving bunch. On a serious note, it was nice to see how these villages, mostly abandoned since the war, still held a strong sence of community and held a pull that brought people back from Zadar and further afield for these events.

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Goran was in the Croatian army for nine years and fought as a soldier during the Serbo-Croatian war of 1991 to 1995. Soon out of Zadar the countryside was filled with destroyed houses and he pointed out the villages that when the war broke out were taken over by either their Serbian or their Croatian residents (many Serbians lived in the region). If the Croats took control the Serbians were sent home; if the Serbians took control then the Croats were massacred, he said. The Serbians could not now come home. The Croats in the region were soon all pushed back to Zadar, however, which was held under seige for three years without electricity or running water. The 20th aniversary of Operation Storm, by which Croatia regained it’s territory and won the war, was celebrated just a few weeks ago. By contrast, in Serbia it is still a national day of mourning.

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Another reminder of the conflict are the minefields remaining today. Laying landmines was a quick and easy was to strengthen defensive positions but records of their whereabouts were not kept and today more than 60,000 are estimated to remain despite the government’s efforts to clear them. Dangerous areas have been identified however, and surrounded by warning signs.

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Before leaving and heading back to Zadar we visited his parents’ farm – the real deal with 1000 sheep and 3000 goats.

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