After hearing about the Rijeka Carneval while studying Czech literature in Prague, Ana Sandoval Ferrera, from Mexico, took a wild hair trip to Croatia. Once in the country, Zagreb was a must, so with the spirit of adventure guiding her, Ana couch-surfed her way to the apartment of a boy named Ivan, a Zagreb local. And what was a whimsical trip to a nearby country became a new life in the capital of Croatia.
Today Ana and Ivan live together, in Zagreb. They work together, too, as co-founders of Ameyali – Flor y Canto, an association promoting Mexican culture in Croatia. Ana also works as a part time Spanish teacher in Zagreb’s Instituto Espanol, but her full-time job is at The Learning Tree, an international kindergarten with globe-trotting tots from as many as 17 different countries in Zagreb. She’s in charge of the two-year old group, and she absolutely loves it.
Read what Ana has to say about her favorite, and not-so-favorite, things about Croatia in our interview below.
What are some of your favorite things about Croatia?
There are several things I love about Croatia – the nature of the architecture, the views, the landscapes. The islands have stone beaches, not sand – for me that’s so strange, but very beautiful. And Dalmatian architecture – wow. Wherever you go, it’s so pretty…Another thing I love – I know this is not just Croatia but all of Europe, but it’s an experience from me because I’m from Mexico – I love the seasons, the smells of the city. You can really see that spring starts in March, because from one week to the next, everything blossoms.
The pink trees, I still can’t get over how beautiful the pink trees are… The smells in autumn…the smell of chestnuts. Then winter – it’s beautiful, the snow, the landscape. And in spring, everything is so pink. Summer in Zagreb I don’t like so much because it’s way too hot, but the coast is beautiful.
I would say the views – everything is so beautiful and it always amazes me, so many colors…And the people…Croatian people are very warm and nice and always ready to help you. The food I like, although I can’t eat a lot of it because I’m vegetarian.
Was there anything that shocked or surprised you about Croatia that you discovered after moving here?
I didn’t expect it to be such a religious country. And I come from Mexico. I thought Mexicans were extremely religious. Oof, until I saw Croatians I had no idea what I was talking about…. In a way they’re still behind – I can’t believe all the problems Split has with the gay community. I know it’s not just religion, but gay marriage isn’t legal, abortion isn’t legal…
The church dominates too much here. For me it’s unbelievable that a public school has religion classes… Also, let’s say on Sundays – nothing is open. People work all day all week, and then when you want to go buy something on Sunday…the stores are call closed! It’s dead!
What are some destinations you’d recommend that aren’t overly popular?
In Dalmatia, there’s a village near Split where my boyfriend’s father is from called Ogorje. All those little village around there. There’s objectively nothing to do, but I can appreciate the different things and the landscapes. It’s a great place to go hiking. I definitely really like that area… Also, I’d tell people to go to Cigoc, to go see the storks. I loved it… I’d recommend you get lost somewhere and hike, because once you start hiking you find rivers and lakes, and these water springs, and see the water here, with its green-blue-ish color…
Rasotoke, I’d recommend that too. I think it’s the most beautiful little town ever, built on mills and waterfalls. It’s on your way to Plitvice, and you can go to Plitvice as well, but Rastoke is so small and so charming. It’s touristy but not that touristy – you can find moments when it’s empty. You can take a walk and have a coffee and then go. It’s such a wonderful place. I think it’s one of the top things I’d recommend.
Why would you tell your friends in Mexico they should come visit Croatia?
For people from Mexico I’d tell them you have to come here in autumn. You can eat chestnuts for free if you go for a walk. You have to hike to the mountain and gather chestnuts… And you have to see the stone beaches. Because we have the ocean, you have the see. Our beaches are way different. You have some sand beaches as well, they’re always crowded, but you have stone beaches.
It’s so strange for me because honestly it’s like a big pool. But because there’s no sand the water is so crystal clear and pure and you can see all the way to the bottom. I’d tell them to come to the coastline to see the sea, definitely.
And for the food. I am vegetarian so there are a lot of things I don’t eat but I see how others react to foods, like pasticada. And strukli, I like strukli. And I’d tell them to eat cevapi. Ajvar – oof! To try food, if my friends weren’t vegetarians I’d tell them, come try the food.
What gifts do you take back to your friends and family in Mexico?
You bring the Licitarsko srce [traditional gingerbread heart]. I brought ajvar to my family… People found it very unusual – but I brought mustard, because you have such good mustard here. My family loved it. I brought them domestic products – we have an apricot tree in our garden and made a lot of jam… but that’s something we produced….
Cipka [lace] – on Hvar, it’s made by nuns, made of agave. That’s a plant from Mexico and [the agave lace] is only made by the nuns from this convent on Hvar. It’s so expensive, also tiny, and so delicate you have to keep them in glass… It’s protected by UNESCO.
Griotte, that’s my favorite product. Everybody talks about Bajadere but Griotte is the best, that’s the best chocolate with the cherry I’ve tried ever… Those are things I bring.