Many, many years ago I remember appearing on a national TV program about bloggers in Croatia, and that was the first time that Sarah-Jane Begonja appeared on my radar. Since those early fresh faced days Begonja has blossomed into one of the most influential bloggers in the region. Chasing the Donkey is the benchmark for blogs in Croatia as this humorous and straight-talking Aussie shots from the hip and brings travel advice, life in Croatia guidance and a whole host of interesting articles.
She moved to Croatia from here native Australia and set up home in the Dalmatian city of Zadar, with her roots firmly planted she has a gorgeous young family and is looking to expand her successful blog into other directions. We caught up with the most famous donkey in Croatia (no offence Sarah) to discover her inspirations, her tips for success and just why she calls Croatia home.
Chasing the Donkey all over Croatia
Have you found the donkey yet? Why did you decide to name your blog Chasing the Donkey? Do you actually have a donkey?
I am still chasing the elusive donkey! The blog name came about by accident, and really is just a metaphor for chasing life in Croatia. After seeing donkeys on Dugi Otok back in 2000, I became obsessed with them. Then when I told all of my friends about wanting to move to Croatia, one of them said ‘Oh you are just chasing that donkey.’ And, there you have it, the blog name was born. I really do want a donkey, but honestly with the blog, running a business and two kids - who has time to look after one? Maybe one day I’ll get a miniature one and name him ‘blogger.’
Your blog on Croatia is one of the most popular about the region. What made you start the blog and what were your expectations when you began?
Chasing the Donkey, all started with a way for me to mentally prepare for my new adventure of leaving Australia and served as a way to communicate in a ‘dear diary’ style with those back in Australia. But then, because our house took so long to get approval and to start building, we started traveling and exploring Croatia more and more and so I began writing about travel. Readers began emailing me, asking me advice about where to go and what to do in Croatia, I just thought ‘okay, I can maybe make this my job’. I started jotting down more and more posts down about travel, and it took off from there. Having the blog has been a way to connect with other expats, people planning to move here, travellers and also many Croatians who are curious about our life here.
My blog has become like a third child, it requires a lot of time (and money to keep traveling), and I’ve been very proud to see it get bigger each year. As far as I know, I have been told that Chasing the Donkey is the most read travel blog about Croatia in the world. (If I am wrong do let me know!).
We’ve surpassed 9.1 million page views since 2014, and Chasing the Donkey has been read by more people than we have people living in Croatia. So far 4.5 million readers have come to check out the site - including 2 million readers from North America! Those Americans and Canadians love the blog! This year Lonely Planet added our blog to their Croatia Guides books as a recommended website - I am immensely proud of that, given I fund all my own travels, and I stay up very late each night after the kids are asleep to keep up with producing the content.
Chasing the Donkey features on Lonely Planet
After living in Croatia for some time now what would be your top three recommendations to people thinking of moving here?
Oh gosh, yes, there are so many things that people need to think about before moving to Croatia. I have been living here permanently since 2013, and have been coming here since 2000 - and I still do not feel like I have it all worked out. Before anyone moves to Croatia, I always give out this advice:
1- You REALLY need to be prepared to see Croatia’s other side. Come for at least six months, and try it out, and do not come when its summer, sunny and everyone has pockets full of tourist cash. Come between November and April when the tourism, and apartment money has been spent, and the weather is less than outstanding. Keep your eyes open, and be honest with yourself. I feel that staying in Croatia during a cold winter, really will show you a different side of life than you experienced on your summer vacation. During that time, go to the MUP, get your Visa, and see if you fit the type of place Croatia is.
2 - Ask, ask, ask. Ask people who live here about life here. If you are planning to move to Croatia, do not take advice from anyone who does not live in Croatia 24/7 - 365 days a year - and has done for at least a full year. Anything less than a year (even better if they’ve lived in Croatia for two or three years) they are too fresh to really know. When I read the forums, and see the advice people give who just come just in the summer months to people planning to live here, I cringe. Life is not all sunsets and beaches in Croatia. If the person who is giving advice does not live in Croatia, 365 days a year, they have a skewed view of REAL life here.
3 - Be prepared to take it slow. It’s one of the absolute best and equally frustrating things about living in Croatia - the slow pace. Sure I love two-hour coffee meetings, and far less traffic than Sydney, but I sure as hell don’t like when I can't complete administrative tasks - and have to go from office to office day after day to collect stamps and get signatures. Just know that things take time - learn the phrase ‘pomalo.’
I wrote this very detailed post about my experiences after five years, and I did not hold back - it bares all when it comes to the complexities of living in this beautiful landscape. I encourage everyone to read it, and think about what I say - it’s imperative to your long-term success here. (Also read the comment section, those back up what I say!)
Through your blog you do a lot to promote tourism in Croatia - is that all done on your own? What changes have you seen during your time here and where would you like the future to take us?
Yes, I do a lot to promote tourism in Croatia - far more than I ever dreamed I would when starting the blog, and it’s been a very eye-opening experience. I continue to dream about getting some kind of ongoing cooperation with the National Tourism board, but sadly they have told me that won’t happen. So instead, I work with some local tourism boards when possible, though most of them tell me that they are too busy and can’t help me or just direct me to their website for information. The ones who I do work with, are fantastic, and I have produced content that ranks on the first page of Google, and I can see that those pages are very popular on my site.
Regarding changes, I have seen prices rise dramatically. The amount of travel I can do now versus what I did a few years ago is much less, as the nightly rate of accommodations has risen as have toll costs and the cost to eat out.
That said, I have also seen so much more variety than I did five years ago. The quality of choices available on Airbnb is very impressive. We stayed in one recently in Motovun, and the owner gave us so many extras, like fresh goat milk and produce from his garden all for less than staying at the nearest hotel. I am also dazzled by the choices of top-end hotels on offer, especially your way in Dubrovnik - my readers are always telling me about great places down south.
I am worried though about the mass tourism our ministries are targeting - I can’t see that being a long-lasting model for Croatia. Though, so far I have chosen not to say much publicly about the CNTB or MINT as it could be said that given they do not support my endeavours, I could be perceived as bitter. So instead, I just focus on doing my part to keep writing about great little-hidden gems, such as the wine tour and cooking class I recently did in the Zadar Region, and continue to discover and promote the little festivals is small villages like the chestnut festival in Opatija.
The future of Croatia is in the hands of the youth, so whenever a young tourism entrepreneur asks me for help, I give it. I will blog about their tourism offer, promote it on my social media or exchange in emails about how they can do better. Recently one such person asked me to go on her new tour - and now I have told so many people about it, mostly as I am excited to see a 20-something-year-old running her own business trying to make an independent living - and not leaving to go abroad.
If anyone who is reading this would like to reach me for cooperation, please do. Obviously, I can’t say yes to them all, but I am committed to helping others make Croatia an even more excellent place to live and show the world all we have to offer.
It's a family affair
Social media plays a strong role in promoting your blog and communicating your messages. What tips do you have for up and coming bloggers looking to find their space in the crowded social media world?
Social media used to be very crucial for me, though sadly over the last two years of raising my second son and starting a new business, I have lost a lot of engagement on my social media. I need to work toward correcting that, but between raising kids, the blog and our business, I just lack the time required!
That said, social media is where my superfans are - lots have been with me since 2013, and know my children's names, and we write to each other just as you would family. I have many readers who come back each year, and tick off things on their to-do list based on my suggestions - isn’t that crazy?!
For newbies, I would say the best tips for success are to be authentic and have a personality. There are literally dozens, maybe hundreds of Instagram accounts that all looks the same - the same type of photos - the same sounding account names - yawn. I get way fewer likes per photo on my Instagram, but I show all kinds of pictures - not just sunsets, Plitvice and Zlatni rat beach!
For bloggers, just stick with it, write about your travels the way you experience it - as there is always someone who resonates with your style of travel and most of all, be consistent. Each year I see new bloggers start a blog, and then after a few months, they never add new material. You have to write regularly, in order to grow.
If any new blogger has any questions, I will always do my best to help them, as I know how hard it is to get started, because unless you have your ‘connections’, you’ll not get any support for your blog, so be prepared to spend a lot of money traveling to keep on writing! But, it’s the best job, I have ever had, and I will keep at it as long as I can.
How do you decide on what topics and themes to cover in your blog?
Mostly I just go with what I feel like seeing or at the suggestions of my readers - they give me a lot of good ideas and share with me where they went.
I have a massive travel bucket-list that never stops growing, and my eldest son continually adds to it! Each year I try to plan trips to a variety of places so to have a broad of a reach as possible.
I also will take suggestions from companies or local tourist boards. My travel calendar has scattered plans on it all the way till next August. I can’t stop traveling; it’s an addiction.
How difficult has it been to adjust to life in Croatia and what do you miss from home?
Hmm, yes it’s been hard in some ways, yet easy in others. Overall the adjustments were around the way the administration, businesses and politics function - or does not function. But the quality of life I have here with my husband and kids is more than I ever dreamed of, so when I have bad days (and I do have them), they are far outweighed by the good days where I love my choices of living in Croatia.
I rarely miss Australia, and I do not call it ‘home.’ Croatia is my home now. I do however miss my family - oh gosh, I had no idea how hard that part would be. And, it got worse as my family grew.
Where do you see your blog, and your donkey, going in the future?
In the last 18 months, we used the blog to launch the private transfers business, and as that is still in its infancy, it requires lots of work. After that, I’d like to start some kind of ‘Chasing the Donkey Tours.’ I have toyed with the idea for a long time, but just so far have not found the time to get it going as there are permits that we need to obtain and they require a lot of time and training.
I am loving writing about Croatia (and beyond) and sharing this part of the globe with people, so I’ll just keep banging away at my keyboard till I feel like I can’t keep going anymore.
Keep following Sarah with her popular blog Chasing the Donkey