The great thing about social media when you get to my age is that one no longer has to rely on one's memory to remember where one was. Life is so busy these days that trying to remember what one had for breakfast (or even if there was any breakfast to be had) is no sure thing, but with the tools of the modern age, most things are recorded with cast iron timeframes.
I know that 2016 was a fantastic year for the Total Project, and that I got to meet great people and see incredible things. But ask me to make a list? Let's head instead for my photo gallery, which keeps a much more reliable record.
The year started - as it ended - with a party, a nice gathering of some of the TCN writers to celebrate the first six months of the website. The event, which was held at Paradox Wine and Cheese Bar in Split, got good national media coverage.
Reporting on the news means getting involved. There is a lot of youthful energy in Croatia, as well as winter tourism to support. Hvar NGO Sustainable Island's project to plant the indigenous Dalmatian Pine high above the island's coast had me visiting new parts of the island. Apart from breathtaking views and January t-shirt weather, the work was pretty hard - an insight to the tough life for the average Dalmatia in generations gone by. Learn more about Sustainable Island here.
In addition to expanding in Croatia, the Total Project is also starting up in Germany, and the Total Munich project is a longer term goal, one which requires some fun research, such as the Starkbierfest above. You can follow Total Munich here.
Several of our stories in 2015 made the national Croatian media headlines, but the conversation about Jelsa's Communist star went on and on. So much so that when the Jelsa Carnival took place in February, there was a rather strong resemblance to this writer in the assembled characters on the float with Kolinda, Bozo and Zoki.
Similar indeed, after I had been shamed by a pink star upon arrival on the square.
One of the main themes of the year was a joking relationship with older male members of the local community about a bastion of Dalmatian culture - The Bench. A seat at the bench is strictly by invitation only, men only. No cigarettes or alcohol are consumed, but plenty of pearls of wisdom are imparted. Known locally as 'the Original Google' and 'the Dalmatian Wikipedia', The Bench is sometimes invaded by tourists, who do not understand its local significance. Above, one of my favourite photos of the year, taken at 08:00 on Good Friday, after exhaused pilgrims who had walked the 22km through the night of the UNESCO Za Krizen Easter Procession caught up with their sleep, while regulars swapped the latest olive picking news...
With the Easter procession still fresh in the mind, I headed to Ozalj with the team from Gastronaut to discover the culinary delights and heritage of this delightful little town just outside Karlovac. One more gem in a country filled with so many stories and treasures that it would take five lifetimes to discover them all. And the highlight was in no doubt - a nine-course lamb fest, called appropriately Her Majesty the Lamb - take a course by course journey here. To discover that the restaurant had also made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the world's longest strudel (1.4km) confirmed that I had found a special place.
2016 was a year of surprises and opportunities. Not having been on a bicycle for over 25 years, I was somewhat surprised to find myself as a speaker (my first public speech for 14 years) at the National Association of Croatian Travel Agents in April, where circumstances led me into the rather unusual position of unveiling the first national portal for cycling in Croatia, Total Croatia Cycling.
Very supportively, the Varazdin County Tourist Board invited me to see the best of their country (and the best is VERY good), starting with an ambush of cyclists just outside Novi Marof, where I found myself riding a (ok electric) bike for the first time in as long as I can remember. Must buy some lycra...
Four idyllic days in Varazdin County with outstanding hospitality. It was to prove a decisive trip for other reasons, but the lake by Trakoscan Castle is surely one of the lesser visited A-list attractions in Croatia. Divine.
Croatian tourism is as varied as the country itself, and one of the pleasures of being an independent TCN writer is picking and choosing the topics of interest, and even getting involved. The innovative DMC group Intours invited me to Zadar in April to play Alfred Hitchcock for an incoming FAM trip, reliving the famous director's famous musing that Zadar had the most beautiful sunset in the world.
I am sure it does, but it was not in evidence the night I had to talk about it - see video above.
From a Hitchcock sunset to Croatia's healthiest cocktail, the Varazdin Margarita, which comprises warm springwater, a dose of lemon and sugar rim. Healthy for sure...
Meanwhile on Croatia's eastern border with Serbia, a young upstart from Prague had declared his own country on 7km of marshland on the Croatian side of the Danube. A self-proclaimed Free State of Liberland, based on the law of terra nullius was declared in April 2015 by Vit Jedlicka, a story that continues to intrigue me, so much so that I felt obliged to attend the first anniversary conference. It was one of the most surreal weekends of my life, as well as a great honour to meet Mr. President on the Serbian side of the Danube, complete with a bottle of his country's official tipple, Liberal Ale.
The non-Liberland highlight of the weekend was also the finest meal of the year prepared by my good friend Mario Romulic at his home on the edge of Kopacki Rit Nature Park. I am told he takes a good photograph too.
Departure from Liberland was via Osijek, as a spare seat on Air Liberland (yes, there is such an airline) put me in the front seat of a four-seater Cessna, which is not a flight I want to relive, but did end with a night at the Temple of Hajduk, U Fleku, and an evening with one of my tourism heroes, Jelena Bilic, Croatian National Tourist Board director in Prague.
In addition to running the Total Project (sadly a labour of love rather than financial reward), the bills have to be paid, and I am blessed to have some very cool private blogging clients, among whom I have a very soft spot for the team at Aminess Hotels and Campsites in Novigrad. They kindly invited me to their branding party in June, and anyone wanting to know how it should be done should study the Aminess model. Here is their branding video:
As TCN grew, so the invitations and introductions got more plentiful and interesting. A definite highlight of the year was taking part in the excellent Nikola Tesla electric car rally from Porec to Zagreb, a truly fabulous way to experience Croatia. It was an honour to meet Mate Rimac of course, as well as to interview the buyer of the first man to buy a Croatian-made car, for a cool million dollar price tag. Meet the first buyer of Concept One here.
It had been four years since the first Total product, the guidebook, Hvar, An Insider's Guide was last published. Four years is a long time even on a small island such as Hvar. Finally the 2016 beast was written and released on Amazon, with one firm resolution - never again!
After many years living on the next island, 2016 was the year I finally exlored Vis, again at the invitation of Intours. Not only a fascinating island, but an even more fascinating experience with the right guide. One of the best days of the year.
But The Bench would not leave me. And then one day, just after I shook the hand of an important business contact for the first time in front of The Bench, the moment I thought would never happen - an invitation to sit on The Bench! I had to explain to my bemused business contact, who gamely took the photo above. Only 13 years in the waiting...
The real (and the best stories) of course take place far from the main tourist spots, and a visit to Virovitica for the Fra Ma Fu festival involved a kidnapping. One day I will learn that a Croatian invitation to 'come for ten minutes to try my wine' means I can write off the rest of the day, but in this case, not only was the worth the drive, but te ensuing tamburasi performance in the vineyard to mark the erection of a wooden scarecrow (klopetec) was raw, unseen Croatia at its best. If you are going to be kidnapped, do it like this.
With Total Croatia Cycling going well, the realisation that another sector of Croatian life and tourism had no national website led to another expansion in the Total Project - Total Croatia Wine, an ambitious project to bring the winemakers, wine bars, tours, grape varieties and wine-related businesses under one roof and a collection of maps. A work in progress, you can follow the wine site here.
Varazdin was once more calling. I had heard much about the great street festival called Spancirfest, but had never seen it live. The opening night more than exceeded my expectations - a city truly alive at every corner. An overview of the opening night.
A personal highlight of Spancirfest was making the President laugh, as I fell over while trying to take her photo. Not my finest hour.
There was plenty happening on Hvar to report on as well, some really innovative things for 2016, my favourite being the live snake exhibition in Stari Grad, a total hit with the visiting nephews.
And while food was plentiful throughout the year, some restaurants were more sympathetic than others about the fate of my favourite football team after a miserable season. Thank you, Me and mrs Jones in Jelsa.
A key theme of the year - and one of the best projects for Croatian tourism - kept dominating the news in 2016. The seaplanes of European Coastal Airlines. As an adopted islander, this project has been a lifesaver since its inception in August 2014, after a mere 2014 years of fighting Croatian bureaucracy. Sadly, the year was saddled with seaplane problems, causing the airline to cease operations, at least until next year, although legal action against the Civil Aviation Authority will probably put that target in doubt.
There was plenty of international travel - Italy and Germany the main destinations - as well as the first visit to London in 8 years on a Hvar promotion project. No report of that here, just the memory of a particularly fine brew on the trip.
A return trip to Munich to push Total Munich along coincided with the 50th wedding anniversary of two lifelong friends - congratulations John and Carol!
Getting back to the business of reporting all things Croatian, a visit to the Jan Spider organic tea factory near Virovitica - Croatia really does have pockets of excellence all over the country. If only the world knew...
But the 2016 star was destined to be The Bench. An email from Sydney brought a Bench fanatic all the way to Jelsa, simply to sit on The Bench. The concept of Bench tourism was starting to stir in my mind, especially as when, a month later, a band from San Francisco called Cellar Doors performed live on The Bench. A new tourism star had been born.
Next stop the intriguing northern region of Medjimurje, about which I knew almost nothing, and boy was this one full of surprises, not least meeting the last surviving gold panner of the river Drava. A sprightly 94, Mate Horvat gave a fascinating account of his craft.
The continent was calling. While Croatian tourism is unsurprisingly focused on the coast, the potential of its year-round continental and rural tourism is untapped and very exciting. A Total opportunity, perhaps? At any rate, reason enough to drive my first tractor in life.
For an introduction into rural tourism in Croatia, there was no better guide than the lovely Alexandra from the Croatian Rural Tourism Association, who took me from Medjimurje to Baranja and back, via Lonjsko Polje, Ivanic Grad and Krizevci, as well as a memorable stay at Otrovanec.
Life as it once was.
Life in Dalmatia has several constants, one of which is the olive harvest. A reflective few days in the family field in good company, and more than 200 litres to show for it.
Total Croatia Wine brought with it more invitations and the chance to explore new parts of Croatia. Never having experienced the St. Martin celebrations before, I was keen to do so, and the hospitality from the Kutjevo team was outstanding.
By Autumn, the decision was made. In order to better service the TCN project, Jelsa was increasingly difficult logistically as a home base. We decided to move north. After 13 years, the final cold one at The Office, aka Caffe Splendid in Jelsa.
There was still time for traditional celebrations - one of the more curious institutions on Hvar - a very Scottish Christmas dinner in Vrbanj every year, complete with mandatory haggis.
And so, after 14 lovely years on Hvar, time for a new challenge - goodbye Jelsa and hello Varazdin!
And any thoughts of homesickness were soon dispelled - for there it was, opposite my new front door. My very own Bench!
2016 has been an exceptional year for the Total Project, and I am extremely grateful to all the team for the parts they have played. Next year promises to be even busier, with the launch of Total Zagreb in the new year. Stay tuned.
And the year ended as it began, with party, comprising the very talented members of the Total team. Thanks to one and all.
Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy 2017 to one and all. It promises to be an exciting one!