Troy Hightower

You’ll never taste better fish in your life” claimed our Italian seatmate on the short flight from Rome to Split, on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Several impeccably fresh and astonishingly delicious meals later, we would heartily agree with him. In towns from Split to Hvar on its eponymous island, to glorious Dubrovnik we would feast on a variety of delights from the sea, accompanied by quite excellent local wines.

Croatia was ravaged and economically devastated by the early-90’s war with the Serbs, but has been making a slow and steady recovery for the last 10 years, and is back in the swing and close to ready for prime-time. The Dalmatian coast offers stunning natural beauty; imposing craggy mountains dropping directly into the sapphire Adriatic Sea, a baroque pearl-string of nubbly, green islands reminiscent of the San Juans harboring scenic sleepy fishing villages; charming stone-housed towns tumbling down the steep hillsides; friendly and welcoming people; in Dubrovnik, its crown jewel, a traffic-free white stone medieval city quite evocative of Venice (save of course for the lack of canals); and, of course, all that delectable seafood.

The old city of Split is centered in and around Diocletian’s palace, built in 239 ad by that Roman emperor in just 10 years as his summer palace/retirement home (he was the first emperor after a line of 23 to retire rather than be murdered).
The perimeter stone walls of local Brac limestone remain intact, pretty much in their original configuration, while the interior has been modified over the centuries as the palace became town, with narrow winding streets paved also in gleaming limestone, lined with gothic, renaissance and baroque buildings. Our hotel, the Consul, is a short 10 minute walk from the old city, and an inquiry of the desk clerk about a restaurant for dinner elicits a prideful boast about the freshness and succulence of the fish and crustaceans in the hotel’s terrace restaurant. What can we say? An order for caviar to start brings two generous scoops of red and black fish roe—small crunchy beads sea-redolent and briny—not quite the richness of Russian or Iranian, but very fresh and delicious. The large, friendly, boisterous and proud waiter (“Croatian food the best in world”) next flourishes a large silver platter brimming with morning-fresh fish and shellfish from which to select. Our shellfish eater fair leaps at giant russet scampi, and I choose a spiny, red Skrpena rockfish. Both arrive grilled and charred, drizzled in lemon and olive oil, salty and perfumed with local herbs—impeccably fresh, perfectly cooked and delicious. Knowing nothing yet of Croatian wines, we follow the waiter’s advice to try a bottle of Vugava, a dry, crisp slightly flinty white from the nearby island of Vis, which pairs our seafood perfectly.

Old Split is ancient, historic, romantic and charming, and good for about a half-day’s visit, for which it’s well worth it to hire a guide. Božena Prce, a young woman just finishing college meets us at the hotel, and for the morning helps bring the historic town to life for us. The center of the palace was the Peristyle, which gave access to Diocletian's Mausoleum on the east, and to three Roman temples on the west. Here, Roman architecture intersects with later Renaissance, Baroque and Byzantine on the four sides of the square. Diocletian’s octagonal mausoleum on the east side was converted into St Dominus’ Cathedral in the 12th century, and the colonnaded peristyle fronting the emperor’s audience chamber has been incorporated into the later façade. A band of handsome young troubadours, clad in black trousers, white shirts and red sash sing ballads and folk songs whose beautiful four-part harmony echoes off the historic stone walls. The palace south edifice, with its Bronze gate originally dropped directly into the sea, but now fronts the Riva esplanade (after hundreds of years of fill). Through the east wall’s Silver gate is the Pazar daily market, with local smallholders offering piles of tomatoes, cucumbers, multi-hued peppers, beans, papery garlic, maroon eggplant, mushrooms and green almonds. Other stalls offer sheep’s cheese from Pag island, locally famous; prsut—smoked Dalmatian ham, similar to proscuitto, dried in the local wind is known as the Bora; big rounds of crusty bread; mounds of multi-colored dried fruits and riots of fresh flowers. West, through the Iron gate stands the glistening flagged People’s Square, also known as Pjaca, with its Venetian Renaissance town hall, crowded with townfolk and canopies in vivid colors.

Boban, recommended to us as the best restaurant in Split, rambles across a palm-shaded and vine-shrouded terrace. An Adriatic dusk is purpling up as we sit to peruse menus and sip crisp, apple-y Posip Cara—a white wine from the lovely nearby island of Korcula. Wanting a non-fishy starter, we share an ethereal and silky house-made fettuccine with cream and Croatian truffles. After reviewing the brimming platter of sea-fresh fish, we select the Zubatac (Dentex, or Dentice in Italian) collar (the succulent meat just behind the gill), which soon arrives perfectly browned over coals, salted and oil-drizzled, and accompanied by grilled zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms and peppers, all with the amazing intensity of flavor that comes with farm-fresh produce. The maitre d’ offers a digestif of Travarica—a fiery golden-green grape brandy infused with herbs grown in the rough Dalmatian countryside—to complete a superb meal.

The Island of Hvar, verdant, ridge-backed and sun-bathed in a pristine aqua sea has attracted vacationers for centuries. The Jadrolinija Ferry from Split takes just an hour following a craggy, forested coastline to reach the eponymous harbor town of Hvar. A broad stone quay leads to the spacious harbor-fronted main square with its Venetian gothic arched windows, anchored by the cream stone Venetian Renaissance Katedral St Stephen, with its slightly left-leaning 17th c. bell tower. Small stone alleys wind up the hill from the square, the center of life and activity, and wander behind the harbor. Hvar displays Roman and Byzantine influence, and many marks of the 500-year Venetian rule, which lasted through 1780. Currently a hot destination—the “new St Tropez”—the charming stone fishing village attracts the mega yachts in the summer of the likes of Bill Gates, tennis star Goran Ivanisevic and Italian magnate Luciano Benetton, who anchor out in the harbor and dinghy in to sit at quay-side cafes and partake of the several excellent restaurants in town. In counter-point to the natural beauty, history and serenity of Hvar is a proliferation of beat-blasting cafes and hordes of holiday-goers in season. Quiet at night is not on offer.

At the east end of town lies the 15th century Franciscan monastery, which sports a small, simple cloister, where open-air concerts are frequently held, and a compact museum containing a small but valuable collection of old masters, manuscripts and liturgical ornaments.

Strolling back from the monastery, we spot a whole lamb twisting and browning on a spit in an oven niche in the wall, and then see the sign “fresh spit-roast mountain lamb every day at 7 pm” outside the terraced restaurant Galituna. We reserve a table for 8:30 pm, and likewise, an order of lamb—“it will surely be sold out by then” claims the waiter taking our reservation. We return in the crepuscular dusk to a delicious dinner of juicy, falling-apart lamb, fragrant with mountain sage and thyme, more fresh grilled vegetables, and a perfectly charred and deeply beefy-flavorful steak. A rich, deep berry-red Plenkovic Barrique from Zlatan Plavac winery on the island is intense and somewhat overly alcoholic at 14.5%, so we do as we have seen the Croatians do, and add a splash of water. The evening is soft and silky, with the glowing Venetian fortress on the hilltop providing a dramatic background to the gently lapping waves and bell-tinkling of rigging in sailboat masts in the harbor.

We have rented a VW Passat to make the 4-hour drive along the spine of the island, cross by ferry, and motor south to Dubrovnik. Hvar is a long, narrow, ridge-backed island with forest-covered flanks. Spreading lavender fields, edged in low stone walls, groves of silvery olives, and swaths of yellow broom fill the high central plateau, surrounded by rocky hillsides dotted with garrigue and wild thyme, rosemary and sage. Agriculture dates to Greek land parceling (the first "centuriation" of public land in history). Forests of pine climb the hillsides over and around the jumbled rocks and outcroppings to the ridgeline. Vineyards, olives and fruit trees are all painstakingly stone-terraced down the steeper hillsides, giving way in the distance to chalky red-white cliffs of limestone and breccia plunging into the azure bays and fjords.

The short ferry ride from Sucuraj to Drvenik on the mainland provides a dramatic view of the mid-Dalmatian coast—sharp, barren, rocky coastal ridge, plunging through tree line and straight into the moody sea. The day is still overcast, and shreds of mist and cloud drift and cling among the crags. Seaward, the low, long spine-backed islands of Hvar and Korcula stretch westward in parallel. Simply breathtaking coastal vistas—some writers have compared it to the Cote d’ Azure, but it seems to us that R W Appel was right when he likened it more closely to the coast of Maine.

The drive 120 km south to Dubrovnik, also reminiscent of Coastal Highway 1 in California, winds along the flank of this ridge, across the broad Neretva River, curves around wide swaths of reclaimed delta intensely farmed in a patchwork of produce, in and out of two borders and across 5 miles of Bosnia-Herzegovina that extends to the sea at Neum, all with a continuous view of the stunning archipelago of islands strung off the coast. Civilization appears increasingly on both sides of the road, and then around a bend out jumps the grey walled city of Dubrovnik, completely surrounded by its crenellated defense fortification.

We wind down to the Ploce Gate, and (having called ahead) are met by Arem, the day porter from the Pucic Palace Hotel in the walking center of town. Arem, tall, ruddy and rugby-chested, escorts us and luggage the few winding blocks to the hotel, situated on Gundulic Square, named for Ivan Gundulic, a Dubrovnik-born poet of the 17th century. The palace home of one of Dubrovnik’s noble families for centuries, the Pucic Palace was renovated into an exquisite small historic hotel three years ago—the only hotel within the old city walls (who paid off whom for that privilege?!) High wood-beamed rooms, wrought-iron balustrades, Venetian plaster walls, marble mosaic bathrooms, tasteful furnishings and beautiful arched stone hallways floored in lustrous verde antique marble with walls hung with original art on loan from city museums all combine to make it a serene gem (with prices to match). Our second-floor corner room looks directly onto the square, and the daily open-air market, where smallholders come in the dark pre-dawn hours and hand-cart their wares to offer local olive oil, lavender essence, smoked ham, fresh cow’s cheese, dried figs and homemade herb brandies as well as the usual produce basics from 7 am to noon every day, save Sunday.

The walled city of Dubrovnik, dubbed “the Pearl of the Adriatic” by Lord Byron, has been likened to Venice, with good reason—both are isolated, pedestrian-only cities whose lack of autos evoke a quite old-world feel. It’s a compact town completely surrounded by fortified walls over 2 kilometers in circumference, and 80 feet high, dotted with 16 towers. From a circumnavigation of the wall top one experiences a stunning vista of domes and steeples poking out of the crazy jumble of red-tile roofs; the grandeur of the fortification walls themselves dropping into the crashing waves of the azure Adriatic, and the pine forests marching up the steep limestone crags to the north.

The city was bombarded by the Serbs from the overlooking heights for 6 months in the 1991 Balkan war, and sustained tremendous damage. Maps at both city gates detail shell craters, roof penetrations, and fires with different icons, and the maps are literally crammed with the dots. Two thousand shells fell on the city, seventy percent of Dubrovnik's buildings suffered hits, and hundreds of historic buildings were seriously harmed, some blown apart, with only an estimated 200 or so people killed. What is most astonishing is that the damage has been completely repaired in the scant 10 years since the war’s end by a heroic Unesco-led international effort.

Any decent guidebook can detail the major city sites—we’ll stick just to impressions garnered over a short stay: gleaming, foot-polished flagged streets; walls and buildings of buff limestone; gothic arches and Venetian Renaissance stone detailing through narrow pedestrian walkways; little hidden back squares, with a spreading fig or a few orange trees; grape arbors shading tiny hidden cafes; a clock tower and a bell tower, one slightly leaning, and many Lilliputian chapels; spouting and bubbling stone fountains; a rococo colonnade; and café after restaurant spilling onto the flagstones of the main street, Stradun, topped with forests of umbrellas.

Like Venice, Dubrovnik is a great city for strolling, wandering aimlessly looking around and up at scores of neat details like the city’s patron Saint Blaise carved in a niche high in the walls, the crazy zigzag of narrow steps up a tiny alley, the ranks of stone corbelled rain-gutters marching into the distance down one of the few straight streets, lacy carved stone Venetian gothic windows. And, too, a great town for stopping and sitting in a café or wine bar sipping a pivo (beer) or vermouth and watching the crazy kaleidoscopic passing parade of people.

The downside is the thousands and millions of others who love Dubrovnik too, and the tourist hordes can be overpowering. The solutions are to go off or shoulder season, or if that’s not possible, to walk the streets and wall-top early in the day, or late in the afternoon when the worst day-trip crowds are gone. And dusk in Dubrovnik is magical—iron braziers flickering with oil-light, wandering costumed minstrels singing, and the evening passagiata of the locals all create a very medieval atmosphere.

Seafood is king here, but traditional Croatian dishes are excellent too. There are spicy gulash, thumb-sized skinless sausages called Cevapcici, Raznjici—grilled kabobs of pork or veal, spit-roasted lamb, and, occasionally, kid-goat, raised on and flavored from the herb-packed hillsides. Grilled vegetables, sautéed chard, salt-roast potatoes and simple, fresh salads are uniformly good.

Club Nautica, set 100 yards out of the old city and looking back on the south walls, and Proto, located in mid-town are sister restaurants and acknowledged the best in Dubrovnik. Our visit to Nautica comes on a cold June evening when the day was singularly wet, stormy and cold. This has the dual effect of moving us off the view terrace and into the small, warm, clubby wood-paneled dining room, and limiting the availability of fresh fish. I had hoped for gilthead bream, that king of Adriatic fish, but must settle for Skrpena, called locally snapper. We order a 2003 Posip Cara to sip, and it comes accompanied by small rounds of monkfish pate scattered with shards of pink smoked salmon and warm toasts. The Skrpena emerges perfectly charred and moist, drizzled with extra virgin Korcula olive oil. Our other traveler opts for skewers of scampi, which arrive as effortless shelled tails, hence minus the pleasure of crunching and sucking, served on a toothsome saffron risotto. An elegant mother and son couple near us seem to enjoy rosy Chateaubriand and grilled lamb chops from the meat side of the menu.

The Croatian wine industry has greatly improved in recent years, with the charge led by Mike Grgich, a noted Napa Valley winemaker, Croatian by birth, who emigrated to the states in ’58 and climbed his way to the peak of the California wine industry. At Chateau Montelena in Calistoga he made the prototypical chardonnay that set the French on their ear by winning a blind tasting against the best French white Burgundies in 1973. I well remember, in another life, tank-tasting chardonnay and riesling with Mike at Montelena in that era.

He went on to found Grgich-Hills Winery with Austin Hills (of coffee brothers fame and fortune) which he still operates and where he produces award-winning wines, and has begun to embrace biodynamic farming. Several years ago he came back to Croatia to establish his Grgic brand, and makes a white Posip from the Peljasac Peninsula and a red Plavac Mali from Hvar—both considered best in class. The Posip is bigger than most, showing a rounder California-esque style, with a bit of oak. The Plavac Mali is dry and softly tannic with a deep blackberry aroma.

Generally, Dalmatian wines are good or very good, but not yet great. In whites, the Posip from Korcula Island, Vugava from Vis Island, and Prc from Hvar all please—generally dry, crisp, slightly minerally with medium fruit. In reds, we enjoy the Plavac Mali described, Dingac from the Peljesac Peninsula—dry, berry fruity and slightly leathery—a bit like Zinfandel, and big, chewy Zlatan Plavac Barrique from Plenkovic, bursting with cherry fruit and backed by soft tannins.

Dubrovnik is a musical town, too—there are chamber music concerts many nights in one of the tiny chapels, the rectory or palace courtyard. We enjoy a live jazz combo playing one night into the wee hours in an alleyway café at the back of the cathedral—piano, bass, drum, conga—and a bongo player who’s a magician. Wandering troubadours—groups of young men in white shirts and red sashes sing Croatian traditional songs a cappella under arcades and in colonnades. A leather-vested band of gypsies sings haunting folk tunes and play accordion, guitar and mandolin.

Our last night we reserve tickets for a 9:30 performance of the Dubrovinik Symphony in the Revelin Fort, just inside the Ploce Gate. Nikola Debelic leads the orchestra in Sorkocevic, Beethoven and the inaugural performance of a local composer P. Sisa’s “Lamento for my Mother” for orchestra and piano, with the composer at the piano. A smashing debut. The quality of the musicians and the fort’s arched stone ceilings make for a stunning concert.

After the concert, we hustle into the back alleys to the tiny 10x12 hole in the wall Taj Mahal, still packed at midnight with locals, for hot, delicious Cevapi—slightly larger spicy beef and lamb sausages, served on fresh, chewy pita bread with tangy farmers cheese and chopped sweet onion. With a beer and a glass of wine, a better midnight supper could not be found. Alem, our porter, and the Pucic Palace restaurant manager wander in and exclaim “what are you doing here—this is for us locals!” Local or not, the traditional dishes and spectacular fresh seafood have us hooked on Dalmatian cuisine—maybe not truly overall “best food in world” as our first waiter claimed, but our plane-mate at the trip’s beginning was proven right—Croatia does have some of the best fish we’ve ever tasted.