The Croatian island of Hvar is renowned for its 2,800 hours of sunshine, intensely-blue water, luxury yachts, and summertime nightlife. Visiting there during an early spring weekend, however, Shawn and I encountered something quite different from the Hvar of postcards: refreshing rain showers, landscapes that appeared to be wearing a sepia filter because of clouds overhead, and quiet lanes via which to explore the paradisiacal island. After we’d had a picnic at the Hvar Fortress and spent countless hours aimlessly strolling Hvar Town and Stari Grad’s streets, we had the great fortune to mingle with a talented winemaker and his lifelong chums, who together with our friend from mainland Split, painted an idyllic picture of life on the real Hvar.
As our friend’s car propelled us up the jagged slopes of Kozjak Mountain in Croatia’s Dalmatia region, we struggled to steady our cameras enough to document the increasingly-magnificent view. Simultaneously fearing for the health of my friend’s tires which risked being ruptured on the rocky dirt road, I marveled at the panorama along this stretch of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. In the late-afternoon sunlight, the Adriatic Sea twinkled, and despite technically being wintertime, it called us to take a plunge. The limestone hills overlooking seaside Split and Kaštela wore a blend of foliage. Some trees sported withering, rust-colored leaves from the past season, and others prematurely exhibited pastel blooms and berries. As our Croatian friends had been telling us for weeks, the winter had been unusually warm, raising concern that the flora would be adversely impacted should another cold snap roll in. Given that so many locals dabble in the Mediterranean tradition of winemaking and olive oil production, this did not come as a surprise.
In a cozy country winery near the town of Trilj, where Croatia’s Continental and Mediterranean climates meet, winemaker Dražan Krolo of Vinarija Krolo is making magic with Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel grapes.
Together, with our friend, Srđan of the Art of Wine, we journeyed to the Krolo’s country home in the Dalmatian hinterland not far from coastal Split, to meet the Krolo family, taste their wonderful wine, Pašticada & Gnocchi (recipe below), fresh cheese, and catch a glimpse of life in the Croatian countryside.
For two thousand years, Croatia’s Klis Fortress has held a coveted position among Central Dalmatia‘s craggy landscape. Having been one of the filming locations for Season 4 of a Game of Thrones, as well as host to dramatic events over the millennia, the Klis Fortress appeals to Game of Thrones fans and history enthusiasts looking for things to do in Split.
Admittedly, I’ve never seen an episode of the popular television series, but during our three months in coastal Split, Croatia, we couldn’t escape the hype surrounding Game of Thrones filming locations in and around the area. From “my brother was an extra and met Daenerys” to “our friend acted as a slave girl” to “they filmed a scene on the cobbled street in front of our office” residents were excited and speculative about which Split scenes would make it into the upcoming episodes. Trailers helped them exercise their detective skills and pinpoint some Game of Thrones filming locations even before Season 4 debuted.
Jakša Bedalov’s earliest winemaking memory was when he was just five years old. Tasked with cleaning his family’s fermentation room near the coastal Croatian city of Split, Jakša remembers his father pushing him so that he could squeeze into the small space. It was a challenging feat since he was a broad-shouldered child.
“It was like being in the womb all over again,” he jokingly recalled during our recent cooking class in Kaštel Kambelovac, just minutes from Split.
The experience of being squished into a contorted position must not have been too traumatic, since today, winemaking is one of Jakša’s great loves. Another passion is creating traditional Croatian cuisine. More specifically, dishes from Jakša’s native Dalmatia. Dalmatia is a region of Croatia extending along the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea.
Lately, our Sunday afternoons have been overflowing with opportunities to learn about Croatian winemaking, thanks to our wine connoisseur friend, Srđan. Ever on the lookout for immersive travel opportunities, Shawn and I were introduced to a bottle of Zinfandel that had been aged under the Adriatic Sea for one year. How fitting given that Croatia is Zinfandel’s ancestral home and that these grapes, known locally as Crljenak Kaštelanski, have been grown in the area for more than 1,000 years!
In Croatia’s Dalmatia region, the people are warm, engaging, and generous with invitations to share a shot of rakia, a plate of pršut (dry-cured ham) or a hearty peka meal. Our Dalmatian friends are no different, and in the past weeks they’ve been keeping us entertained with things to do in Split. Let’s just say that Croatian food and wine have been featuring prominently on the agenda.
One Sunday afternoon, we met our friends, Srđan and Jakša, in a cluster of seven towns next to Split called Kaštela. Although it was late morning, a few fishermen were still out on the bay. Jakša’s friend had recently delivered a fresh catch of seafood to Jakša’s seaside home and business. We would grill the fish later in the afternoon at Jakša’s vineyard cottage, 400 meters above the steel-grey Adriatic Sea.
Life has a funny way of shaking things up and throwing in surprises that often lead to unexpectedly-delightful outcomes.
Let me introduce you to Dubrovnik restaurateurs Gildas and Ružica, who epitomize this idea. This couple visited Dubrovnik several years ago, intending to visit for a single day, however, upon arrival, they decided that the tourist mecca of Croatia would be a “great place to live and work.” Shortly afterwards, they made Dubrovnik their home.