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The town of Perušić was big enough to be included on a map of Croatia but too small for guidebooks to mention. I had no idea what to expect when my partner, Melinda, and I pulled off the highway and followed the signs to the birthplace of my great-grandfather. When the roads narrowed to single lanes, compact cars gave way to tractors, and concrete turned back into cobblestone, we found Perušić. The farming village spread across the rolling green and golden hills of the Eastern European countryside looked somewhat similar to the place my ancestors emigrated to in Iowa, settled, and never left.

“A kokoš!” I cried, as a rooster ran into the road. A real one. As far back as I could remember, Grandma’s called out, “Who’s my kokoš?”

“Me!” I’ve cawed my entire life. Perhaps my childhood nickname piqued my curiosity about our Croatian heritage. Maybe it was because I looked the most Croatian—of all my third-generation American ethnicities—with olive eyes, hair the color of dark honey, and Mediterranean skin. Or it could have been that once I discovered Croatia’s landscape included over a thousand islands bobbing in the crisp Adriatic Sea along the country’s craggy 3,000-mile shoreline, I couldn’t wait to go there.

When my trip was booked, Grandma sent a stack of dusty airmail envelopes from her old-country cousin in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb. They dated back four decades. Most were Easter greetings between two devout Catholics. There were a couple of long, laboriously translated letters explaining our ever-expanding relations. And three photos. Running my fingers along the typewriter ink that over the years had blurred into a fuzzy gray font like Grandma’s hair, I traced my roots. Actually, I Google-mapped them across the heartland of Croatia.

Melinda and I landed in Zagreb on a Sunday to find the capital almost entirely closed. Over 90 percent of Croatians professed to be Christians, nearly all of them Catholic. I planned to visit the monastery at the return address listed on the nun’s letters but thought better of dropping in on the Sabbath. We bided our time exploring Zagreb–a treasure map of outdoor sculptures, brightly tiled rooftops, and gardens ranging from an enchanted beer garden on top of a funicular to a botanical garden in full July bloom.

The next morning we pulled up to a coral church at Mošćenička 3. Inside the atrium, I tried to explain myself in the halting Hrvatski I’d been practicing in Teach Yourself Croatian on my iPod for months. I knew how to request a room with a view or white wine, but “I believe I’m related to a nun who lives here—if she’s still alive” was never covered. Eventually between Melinda’s Spanish and the nun’s knowledge of Italian from Vatican prayers, they cobbled together the explanation: Madre de la Madre. Escribe. Esta aya. The mother of the mother write this girl.

Ah yes! The nun escorted us into a visiting room that had clearly been decorated with care where a gaggle of nuns greeted us from behind a locked gate in the far wall.

“She’s upstairs sleeping,” they explained, lifting their jubilant faces heavenward. Melinda and I cheered. We yelped and laughed at the luck. We almost kissed out of habit but pulled back for a prolonged high-five hug. Until they got the priest, who explained in perfect, projected pulpit-like English that my cousin was really upstairs, really, really sleeping.

“The nun you are looking for…” he said, “is dead.”

There was no time to mourn. Miraculously, one of the three photos I carried was of the nun’s niece, my distant cousin, Anica. She belonged to the parish and lived nearby.

“What does ‘just up the hill’ mean?” Melinda asked.

“We’ll see,” I said, turning the hand-drawn map upside down or right side up or sideways. After a couple of wrong turns and knocking on a deserted house with the same address number on a different road, we rounded a corner and saw them. Three generations of family on the lookout from every level of their two-story home. Grandma hung half out of the upstairs’ picture window. Mom and Dad surveyed the streets from the second floor balcony. And the three teenage daughters spread out oldest to youngest from the front door to the end of the yard. They were all shouting in different levels of accent and belief: “From America?!”

They welcomed us in and despite being separated by time, countries, religion, and language, they felt like relatives and their hospitality, a homecoming. My cousin, Anica, taught me how to pronounce Grandma’s maiden name, Marinac, Marine-natz instead of Mare-rin-nack. I drew our family tree, showed them Iowa on a map, and Facebook friended the three daughters. Anica challenged the love story my great-grandparents had passed down on our side of the Atlantic Ocean. We heard that Grandpa emigrated, made good, and then sent for Grandma. According to my cousins, they met on the boat. Two independent travelers on their way to the new world, which sounded like my stock.

They sent us on our way with raspberries from their garden and boxes of hazelnut cookies. “Eat lamb in Perušić,” they shouted by way of goodbye.

Driving through my great-grandfather’s birthplace, there were plenty of sheep braying through pastures but no restaurants. Short of knocking on someone’s one-story stone home door and joining them for lunch we were out of luck. After ten-minute laps from one end of town to the other, we turned toward a pink church on the hill. I was drawn to it even though I’ve steered away from religion for most of my adult life.

The lovingly maintained medieval gothic church was the pride of the town as well as the surrounding region of Lika. I imagined my great-grandfather walked this very way for services, weddings, funerals, and potlucks. I found it surprisingly meaningful to stand where my ancestors surely stood. I took in the country breeze, fresh scent of growing corn, and blue sky on the kind of day that inspires picnics. Wildflowers bloomed along the path interspersed with puffy granddaddy dandelions just waiting for a strong wind to carry their seeds to faraway places.

“Ready?” Melinda asked, taking my hand. We were only driving through. There were no hotels in Perušić, nor was it the place for tourists.

Days later, while lounging on the sun-soaked island of Hvar where lavender grows like grass and the sea is the color of emeralds wrapped in Tiffany blue, I was beach-reading Croatia: A Nation Forged in War by Marcus Tanner. I was nearing the end of the 18th century in his expansive thousand-year overview of the nation’s history when Tanner mentioned Perušić. He quoted an Italian traveler and scribe, Alberto Fortis, who witnessed a same-sex union between two women at the church in Perušić and recorded it in his Travels into Dalmatia (1778), saying: “The satisfaction that sparkled in their eyes when the ceremony was performed gave a convincing proof that delicacy of sentiments is found in minds not formed, nor rather not corrupted, by society.”

“Lesbians got married at that pink church in Perušić,” I gasped. “We were there! That’s where I come from,” I said in awe.

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In the meantime, spy my recommended itinerary for indulging in Croatia’s world-class luxury, spectacular scenery, and inclusive hospitality.

St. Mark’s Square in Zagreb

Fly to Zagreb on Air France (Affaires class offers unlimited champagne). Check in to the centrally located, five-star Regent Esplanade Hotel and delight in the luxurious 1920s charm with modern amenities. After savoring štrukli, a specialty noodle ricotta dish, that will make your waiter’s face light up upon ordering, meander though Zagreb’s gardens hosting sculptures by renowned artist Ivan Meštrović, and others, including the life-sized silver bust of poet Anton Gustav Matos on a hillside bench gazing over the capital cityscape. Rent a car when you’re ready to move on. Yes. Drive.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Plitvice Lakes National Park in the heartland region of Lika. Stay at the private home Sobe San Korana in the bordering village. After marveling all morning at countless emerald waterfalls cascading into sixteen interconnected lakes from the park’s dusty, wooden pathways, the owner, infamously known as “Boris’ Dad,” will show you a solitary swimming spot.

Trogir

Island hopping is a must in Croatia, and Split is a gateway port for ferries. However, I recommend staying a 30-minute drive up the road in the UNESCO town of Trogir at the Trogir Palace where you can park the car and wander over the footbridge into the old city. Cobblestones guide the way to architectural wonders. Carved doorways lead to fresh whole fish dinners. A medieval castle hosts concerts, raves, and football matches.

Hvar

If you must pick one island, choose Hvar. The dazzling sun soaked island is pure pleasure-seeking bliss. Rejuvenate at Hotel Podstine, an unpretentious four-star nestled on a limestone cliff. Reinvigorate your five senses at their holistic AMO spa where couple treatments use local lavender, grapes, olive oil, and salt. After a sunning on the private beach, don designer nauticalwear and walk fifteen minutes seaside to Hvar Town. Kickoff the nightlife—likely to include yacht-hopping with bottles of  local white wine—by dining at Maconda, a seafood restaurant to relish.

Dubrovnik

Affectionately referred to as the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” the Dubrovnik Old Town is constructed almost entirely of marble and perpetually polished by visitors shuffling along its surrounding 10th century walls for elevated vistas. Follow the weather-beaten wooden signs Cold Drinks with the Most Beautiful View to Buza Bar. Be sure to let the five-star Hotel Villa Dubrovnik whisk you away from the baking, stone streets in a Venetian speedboat. There you may overlook the Adriatic Sea from a chic suite with a jacuzzi balcony or dive in from a tiered sundeck over the rocky shoreline. The Skybar sunsets live up to their promise of “Romance Forever.”

That’s me floating there.

I’m leaving for Croatia tonight. I’ve been yearning to go for nearly ten years. I almost moved to Croatia instead of New York. Back when I was 22 and trying to get lost so I could find myself sorta thing.

I am Croatian—on my Mom’s side. For years, Grandma kept in touch with her cousin, a nun, who lived in a monastery outside the capital city of Zagreb. From her letters, I learned where my great-grandfather was born. (And I’m going there on Wednesday!) If I tried, I could probably find living relatives in the northwest corner of the country. Maybe next time, because, really, what is there to say to a cousin four, five times removed by generations, countries, and religions? Are we honestly anymore related than an office colleague sitting next to me?

But this time I am going to the monastery to see if the nun is still there, alive. She’d be 86. Grandma hasn’t heard from her since the war. Her last letter arrived in 1992 and spoke of a new niece that she hadn’t met yet and incessant bombings.

From there, we’re driving to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Where we’re staying in a B&B next to a waterfall that we are welcome to swim in. Next we’re heading to the treasured UNESCO town of Trogir and from there (via Split) the island of Hvar. Our friends, Alice and Dan, just returned from Croatia and recommended that for Hvar we pack with the intention of getting our pretentious on. Marvelous! And finally, Melinda and I are spending a week in Dubrovik. Where I am so excited to see the ancient city center built entirely of marble…and then simply sit on beaches, balconies, and boardwalks to stare at the Adriatic Sea.

It’s almost time. The car is coming at 8:45. The very first step on this spectacular itinerary that Melinda created for us, for me, to live an experience I’ve only dreamed about.

I’m almost finished stuffing the backpack that I haven’t used since the last time I actually trekked (vs. drove) around Europe. My new straw hat sits on top of it, tipped expectantly. I bought it for this trip, knowing I’d need a good one, from my friend Orlando’s shop, Worth & Worth. I left with my hatbox elated, because as he says, “Romance is always in the air whenever you purchase a new hat.”

I’m feeling it now, as well as the thrill, humility, and gratitude for all of the known and unknown people in my life who have contributed in the past or continue now to graciously help make me—me.

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