Into Hell's Fire

Interview with Rijeka-based author Douglas Cavanaugh on life in Croatia

We’ve been in touch with Rijeka-based writer Douglas Cavanaugh for a number of years now, thanks to his book “Into Hell’s Fire“. Published in 2012, the must-read book is set during the 1992 siege of Sarajevo and takes places in several locations in Bosnia and Croatia. In 2020, Douglas published his second book, “The Long Way Around“; set in rural Iowa, it is full of action and adventure and thrills readers as they follow the main character’s personal journey.

Into Hell's Fire - Douglas Cavanaugh
The Long Way Around - Douglas Cavanaugh

A resident of Croatia (in the northern coastal city of Rijeka) since the 1990s, Douglas has very kindly answered some questions on moving to Croatia from the U.S., the differences he’s found living in the country versus visiting it, and his future plans for exploring Croatia. Douglas also talks about his writing, and has also given us a little preview into what future written works he has planned!

1. What first brought you to Croatia?

Back in the early 1990s, when I was much younger and single, I had the good fortune to travel abroad a few times, and as a result, a permanent wanderlust overcame me. By then, I had visited southeast Asia and the U.K. and Ireland on business, and I had been lucky enough to have combined some sight-seeing on each journey. I absolutely loved it. I had been living in rural Iowa for the previous six years and I dreamed about working full-time in a foreign country on a long-term basis. When the contract in which I had been committed expired in late 1995, I was at a crossroads professionally. The night before I was scheduled to meet a banker to finance a new clinic, my touch-tone telephone rang. The ensuing conversation changed my life forever. On the line was a former classmate who had relocated to Italy after graduation. Somewhere along the way, he had found a job in the city of Rijeka in the newly formed Republic of Croatia. This friend had recently relocated to Zagreb and was calling on behalf of a medical doctor from Rijeka who was interested in adding a chiropractor to his clinic staff. Ten days later I was on a jet airplane heading to a country in which I had no knowledge in terms of history or culture. 

Douglas Cavanaugh in the Plitvice Lakes National Park
Douglas in the Plitvice Lakes National Park

2. What made you stay in Croatia? 

As stated, my arrival to Croatia was more of a spontaneous experiment than a fixed plan that had developed over time. Originally, I thought I might stay for six months and return to Iowa when the excitement waned. That soon became a year, then two, and so on. The relaxed pace of life in Croatia gradually grew on me, and the stressful thoughts of running an office in the States became less appealing. But the main reason I have stayed is one of the oldest in the books. Love! I met my future wife, a Hrvatica from Rijeka, and we built a life together in her home city. People in Croatia have a saying, “You are from where your wife is from,” and in my case, it certainly rings true.

Korzo in Rijeka
The Korzo, the main pedestrianised thoroughfare in Rijeka – visible is the famous clocktower

3. Did you have any misconceptions about the country before moving to Croatia?

When my colleague called me about the original job prospect, I was reluctant to pursue the offer. This was the result of the nightly news reports covering the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia I’d seen on television over the previous few years. I seriously considered what I would be getting into, and I wondered if I would be entering an active war zone. After a prolonged reassurance from my friend that Rijeka had not been touched by the fighting, and that the war in the region had effectively ended, I decided to ponder the possibility for a couple of days. By the third day, my sense of adventure dominated my decision-making process and I decided to accept the offer. I felt certain I would have regretted not going later in life if I declined the offer. In retrospect, I was correct. I have no regrets.

 Of course, additional misconceptions would have come to light prior to moving to Croatia except for, at that moment, I had so little knowledge about where I was going that there was little for me with which to misconceive. But sometimes ignorance is bliss, and I arrived in Croatia without expectations or pre-determined prejudices. I simply appeared in my new country, suitcase in hand, and began the learning process of how things work from scratch. Ironically, I learned I was an anomaly, a sort of a reverse immigrant compared to what many Croats had experienced over the previous century.

4. What differences do you think a resident of Croatia experiences compared to someone who is simply visiting?

As mentioned, I have traveled to many different countries as a tourist. Each destination filled my senses with interesting sights, exotic smells, and different tastes that left lasting impressions about my visit. While exploring any country as a tourist, the change of scenery and culture all appear so enticing. But I have found it isn’t until you’ve lived in any particular place for six months, more or less, before the subtle realities seep into your consciousness, and then progressively begin to amplify. In that regard, Croatia is no different. 

Like any place else, there is a learning phase involved about how things work in Croatia compared to an expat’s country of origin. Life in Croatia presents unnecessary delays and undesired distractions, and conversely, unexpected delights. The sooner you learn how the game is played, the better off you are. The level of difficulty required to adjust depends a lot upon a newcomer’s willingness to accept a different lifestyle and mentality. Upon first arrival from other western countries, you might feel right at home, but that sense of familiarity can be deceiving. As stated in a line from the character Morton Riggs in my first novel, ‘Into Hell’s Fire’, “These people look like us but they don’t act like us, think like us, or resemble us in any other way.” Often, the differences are slight, almost microscopic. Other traits are more obvious and stand out like a sore thumb. Such traits might include work ethic, workmanship, logic, time management, deadlines, and more. This, however, is a generality, and does not apply to everyone and every situation equally.

Some expats I have known never manage to adapt to the Croatian way of life and they resist acceptance of the lifestyle. Many of them have left for other domiciles. Others, including myself, manage better but struggle during the transition. I chose to use the term undesired distractions above rather than outright problems because most of the obstacles always seem to be resolved over time. Usually, an expat will wonder why most of these needless troubles occur in the first place. Yet, they do happen, and more often than expected. But with patience and determination, each challenge is usually overcome. Living in Croatia can be stressful at times. One need not take it personally. These unappreciated hindrances happen to everyone whenever you are a stranger in a strange land. In fact, they even happen to the locals.

5. Are there any discoveries you have made while living in Croatia that are missed by most travellers? What are your favorite ‘off the beaten path’ spots?

Absolutely! In fact, there are ‘hotspots’ of which even native Croats, let alone a veteran expat like me, are unaware. A major difference between being an expat and a tourist is that most tourists are time constrained. They want to see the major sights in the shortest amount of time possible, maybe a week, two, or three during a summer holiday. This restricts their ability to find those out-of-the-way gems that are not on most pre-planned itineraries. Expats, on the other hand, may be limited timewise also as most have full time jobs and family obligations. Yet, by living ‘in-country,’ it is easier for them to establish a network of locals who can recommend points of interest and inform about the best deals and food at local restaurants. 

My recommendations are limited to the areas where I’ve spent the most time. As I live in Rijeka, I have not visited Slavonia or Dalmatia enough to consider myself any sort of an expert. In fact, I would still consider myself a common tourist while visiting these regions. I primarily spend my free time in the Kvarner region or on the Istrian Peninsula. I do not know Zagreb that well either, yet I have visited the major sights in the capital city over the years. I would recommend visiting Zagreb during the Advent season in December. The city is brilliant and alive at that time, and I’ve enjoyed the event the last three Decembers. 

After touring Zagreb’s sights, many visitors impatiently leave the capital headed to other distant destinations on their itinerary. By doing this, they miss out on a favorite spot of mine. I try to make it a point to spend a short time in nearby Samobor, a growing village just a short drive west of Zagreb.  It is worth taking a stroll through the center and along the Riverwalk, and then having a coffee or beer at one of the many café bars. On the outskirts of Samobor, in the foothills along the Slovenian border, there are several guesthouses and restaurants to choose from where one can dine on fresh trout or pork cutlets and drink fantastic regional wine. It is an excellent atmosphere to share an afternoon with friends. 

Another short day trip from Zagreb is the Baroque city named Varaždin. It has a beautiful city center which can be explored in a few hours. On the return to Zagreb, it would be worth searching out the impressive Trakošćan Castle. Even for tourists who are not castle enthusiasts, I can vouch for the impressiveness of this one. An hour-long walk around the nearby lake offers terrific scenery with some spectacular views of the castle. 

Closer to Rijeka, another ‘under the radar’ recommendation is the romantic hill village named Kastav. A fantastic view of Opatija and the Adriatic Sea awaits visitors, and more restaurants and café bars are present in which to spend a casual afternoon or summer evening.

My final suggestion rests in the heart of Istria where small, cozy restaurants, known as konobas dot the landscape. There are too many to mention by name, but every local has their favorite, so it is easy to ask around to get a recommendation and directions. The menus are nearly the same at each, and the quality and value does not vary much from one to another either. For me, ambiance is key. Which konoba has the best is a matter of opinion. Many konobas are classified as Agrotourism, and their owners grow, produce, and network with other local producers to serve fresh homegrown products on their menu.

6. How has living in Croatia influenced and inspired your writing?

Living in Croatia has inspired my writing enormously. The idea of writing a novel began swirling around in my mind a few years before my arrival in Croatia when I was living in rural Iowa. However, life in a small town left me uninspired for a storyline or plot, so I ushered the idea to the back of my mind. 

Things changed rapidly after I had been in Croatia for a couple years. My parents came for a visit and I arranged for us to take the overnight ferry from Rijeka to Dubrovnik. At the time, there were still many foreign peacekeepers and U.N. officials in the area. On deck during the ferry ride one afternoon, I remember sharing a beer with my father and watching the coastline. Behind us, leaning on a deck rail, a middle-age man dressed in black was talking into a cumbersome, early model cell phone. He paced impatiently and conversed in multiple languages. Who was this man, I thought? A government agent? A foreign spy? In fact, he may have been a travel agent or a local on his way home for all I knew, but I let my imagination run wild and the genesis of my first novel, Into Hell’s Fire, was born. Readers of the novel will see a parallel to this scenario somewhere while reading the book.  Eight years later, Into Hell’s Fire was complete!

In hindsight, Into Hell’s Fire was a remarkable success for a first-time author. It was prominently featured in the Balkan War section of the nonfiction book entitled, Docu-Fictions of War, written by Dr. Tatiana Prorokova, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Vienna. 

In 2019, Into Hell’s Fire was awarded by the Croatian publisher VF Libris to be translated, published, and distributed for the Croatian market. The title of the translated version is ‘Kroz Vatre Paklene,’ and it can be ordered at any Hoću-knjigu bookstore in Croatia. 

Based on my first book’s success, I decided to change genres and topics for my second effort. This novel, The Long Way Around, was completed in early 2020. It is an action/adventure, family drama which, ironically, is set in my home state. Based on the information provided earlier in this interview, readers of The Long Way Around may see similarities to my experience of living in rural Iowa. Yet, my Croatian life was included in the story, too, and many readers with Croatian heritage will be delighted to meet the character Tomislav Novak, a proud member of the Croatian diaspora hailing from Louisiana.

7. You live in Rijeka, having settled there for personal reasons. Rijeka was the European Capital of Culture for 2020, although obviously that was greatly overshadowed by the pandemic. (Poor Rijeka!) What highlights of the city would you suggest to any visitor?

The sites I would recommend are likely not those which gained Rijeka the distinction as being the European Capital of Culture for 2020. Yet, in my opinion, my suggestions are worth seeing, Each are inexpensive, or even free, and none of them require a lot of time. 

The first suggestion is the tunnel beneath the city which opened for tourists within the last few years. This tunnel was built in the years prior World War II. It extends from the famous St. Vitus Cathedral to the Italian primary school named Dolac. Walking through the tunnel is an excellent way to beat the summer heat while touring the city center. Admission to enter the tunnel is free.

Rijeka Tunnel
The tunnel in Rijeka
Rijeka Market
The open air market

The second interesting site to see in Rijeka is the open vegetable and fish market. To the locals, shopping at the outdoor market is a routine way of life. However, for the visitors I have hosted from the USA and the U.K, the hustle and bustle of the vegetable stands, and the sight and stench of the adjoining fish market are always a big hit. 

While you are in the vicinity, you can take a 1.7 km walk on the harbor wall promenade called the Molo Longo. Take your camera because the view towards the city is memorable.

Another recommendation is the Trsat Castle overlooking the city. Access to the castle requires a car or bus if one is not physically fit. A staircase of well over five hundred steps leads uphill to the castle from the city center if one’s heart, lungs, knees, and spirit are up to the challenge. Once there, the castle offers a fantastic panoramic view of not only Rijeka, but the entire Kvarner Bay and the city of Opatija. From the castle, plenty of café bars and a few restaurants line the path to Trsat where one can sit and visit with the locals. While your near, be sure to walk across the street and tour the Our Lady of Trsat Church and the grounds.

Trsat Castle
Trsat Castle

8. Is there any region of Croatia that you don’t know so well that you think – “I’ve really got to explore more of it!” Where would you like to visit next?

The part of Croatia which has been most elusive for me to visit is the eastern-most region known as Slavonia. A quick glance at a map will easily explain why. Time and distance. I have spent a day in Požega while attending my daughter’s choir competition and I enjoyed the city and experience. We hope to spend more time visiting Osijek and other sites in the area next year. 

9. You said you had the idea of writing a novel for a few years before you came to Croatia. Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Writing was an interest that came to me later in life. I realize now that I enjoyed the pursuit during my youth but only for personal and recreational reasons (writing letters) and not for assignments required in school. I always liked the ‘zone’ writing puts my mind in, collecting and organizing my thoughts, choosing ideal words and phrases to express myself in the best possible manner. Back in those days, I never dreamed I would write an entire novel, much less a second. Like most things in life, once started, you get the hang of it, and in many ways, it becomes easier. Things just flow and it is sometimes hard to stop. That is where editing and revising enters the picture.

10. Do you have any more books in the pipeline?

I have a few ideas swirling around in my mind. I have decided to write a book of fictional short stories based on real accounts people have shared with me regarding their experiences growing up during World War II. At the same time, I will be helping my daughter with a children’s book she has outlined in preparation to start Chapter one. And finally, I have been considering writing a sequel to my first novel, the Lucas Martin spy-thriller called Into Hell’s Fire. The plot is almost outlined.

Thank you very much for answering these questions, Douglas!

About Author Douglas Cavanaugh

An American expat who has lived in Rijeka, Croatia for more than twenty years, Douglas Cavanaugh is a graduate of the esteemed Palmer Chiropractic College (Davenport, IA). He is also one of the early pioneers of the chiropractic profession in the Republic of Croatia.

Douglas’s two books – Into Hell’s Fire and The Long Way Around are available in bookshops around the work through IngramSpark. You can also purchase these two books online via Amazon (links above go to the Amazon UK store) with both books available in paperback or on Kindle.

Take a look at a trailer for his most recent book, The Long Way Around, below:

Culture Smart Guide to Croatia

Review: Culture Smart! Guide to Croatia

Although visitors to Croatia are now spoilt by the number of guidebooks there are on the country – many of which are now on their fourth or fifth editions – it’s always interesting to be offered something a little extra. The Culture Smart! series of books go this extra mile, offering up information on customs and cultures of many countries around the world. At present count, almost 100 guides exist in the series, on countries as diverse as Belarus to Bolivia, Ghana to Guatemala, and Oman to Trinidad and Tobago. And there’s of course a guide to Croatia, so we delved into it recently to see what Culture Smart! had to say about the country.

Culture Smart Guide to Croatia
Culture Smart

The Culture Smart guide to Croatia is a handy little book that doesn’t take long to read from cover to cover – but really does provide plenty of useful information on every day life in Croatia, covering topics such as family, work, education, religion, business and much more. Many times I found myself nodding as I read, thinking “Yup – that’s certainly true!”, with some of the text (intentionally!) also raising a smile or two. I personally found that it put into words more than adequately some of what may be considered slightly touchier subjects – such as differences amongst the generations, or locals’ thoughts on politics, the Homeland War, and the former Yugoslavia. The book is certainly packed with information and covers a good amount of ground on the country and its peoples, customs and traditions. Sure, you wouldn’t get this book as your only guide if you were visiting the country, but it’s a great companion book to help you understand the country a little better. If you’re planning on spending a considerable amount of time in Croatia, or see yourself socialising a fair deal with Croats (perhaps you’re planning an extended stay in the country), then I think this book would be invaluable. But there’s also plenty for short-term visitors to learn – in particular, the sections on eating out and entertainment, health and safety and media and communications. But most of all, the book goes some way to helping understand what Croats are like, and what everyday life is like for them. I’d certainly recommend picking up a copy of Culture Smart! Croatia if you have even just a passing interest in the country and its people. The book is available from Amazon, in paperback and Kindle versions. Culture Smart! Essential Guides are published by Kuperard and you can find all of the Culture Smart titles at or via Amazon.