The Adriatic: From Dalmatia to the Istrian Peninsula
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
A famous Croatian writer once called the blue Adriatic "a sea of propinquity and intimacy." Ask anyone who has journeyed up this coastline and you will get a similar reaction. A finger of the Mediterranean that laps Italy on one side and several Balkan lands on the other, it is famed for warm waters where one can linger for hours, long enough to feel totally reborn. Portions of the sea bottom are covered with smooth round pebbles that keep the water perfectly clear, and the salt of the sea mingles with fresh mountain runoff and plant nutrients that sustain the world's most spectacular oyster beds and nearly 400 species of fish. "Many Croatian childhoods are marked by endless summers at this magical seashore," says our enthusiastic tour director, Jelena, as our bus winds north out of Dubrovnik, speeding past the Peljesac Peninsula, the Maraska Riviera and dozens of wooded islets, each with a character all its own.

"We're heading to Split," Jelena continues, "where we will catch a boat that makes the short crossing to Hvar. It's a delightful island that is hugely popular with both locals and international tourists for its variety of beaches, non-stop night life, trendy restaurants, wines, and, of course, its world famous lavender fields. But there's more," she adds. "Hvar also has a storied past dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Tomorrow morning we will be touring the island and we'll visit its oldest settlement, Stari Grad." "Won't it be fun to add another island to our long list," I remark to my husband at the thought of exploring a Croatian island and comparing it to some of our favorite Greek islands.

Hvar town sits at the end of a deep bay fronting its central piazza and a grand cathedral.

The turnover time in Split is a mere half hour. We board a Jadrolinija catamaran that zooms toward Hvar town, approaching its port in less than 60 minutes. Looming high above the waterfront bay is a dramatic Spanish fortress built centuries ago to protect the town from Turkish marauders and pirate attacks. Numerous luxury yachts are lined up at the water's edge. Cascades of houses spill down from limestone and dolomite hilltops. Nearby, Hvar's elegant theater dating form 1612 still sets the tone for the town's popular summer music festival and winter Carnival celebrations.

"Our hotel is just steps away," says Jelena as we disembark and head toward the Adriana, a boutique property renowned for its dramatic harbor views. "Take a few minutes to soak up the seaside atmosphere, then take a dip in the hotel's fabulous indoor pool followed by a nap," she suggests. "We'll reconvene in the lobby at six." "The hotel can wait," I declare as I make a beeline for a crowded kiosk displaying an enormous cache of lavender products-from soaps, sachets, and lotions to dry bouquets and seed packets. "If you put lavender under your pillow, you will sleep better," she recommends with an approving smile as I select an assortment of sachets, oils and soaps for family and friends back home.

The island of Hvar is renowned for its spectacular lavender fields and products such as soaps. sachets and aromatic oils.

We check into the Adriana and head directly to its rooftop bar for drinks and a commanding vista of the entire harbor. "Did you see the picture book on the coffee table in our room?" I query my husband. "This property is included in an exclusive list of Best Small Hotels of the World." Refreshed and dressed for dinner, our group strolls toward Hvar's elegant piazza, where Hanibal Restaurant, just steps from the cathedral, has readied our welcome dinner. It's a perfect introduction to the Italianate cuisine of the coast, beginning with a tangy soup, followed by asparagus risotto, sea bass filet in wine sauce, and lavender ice cream for dessert. We linger on the piazza, soaking up the ambience. Nearly every table in sight has been commandeered by rowdy Euro youths ready for another night of non-stop carousing. "Happening Hvar is the ultimate party town," I proclaim, visualizing similar scenes at overcrowded clubs and bars located at outlying beaches and wondering when and if the younger set ever goes to bed.

"We're on our way north to Stari Grad this morning, one of Europe's oldest towns," announces Jelena as she introduces our local guide, twinkly-eyed Anna Maria, a business graduate who moved to Hvar from Zagreb when she married a local boy whose family operates a lavender farm. "When lavender farming is off season, I fill my time with small accounting jobs and tour guiding," Anna Maria reveals with a shy smile. "Now let's board the bus." The translucent Adriatic glints in the morning sun as we trace the steep, indented coast toward Stari Grad. Without warning, our bus driver swerves off the road so we can view an enormous lavender field, its bushes bulging with new growth. "Lavender picking officially begins in late June," Anna Maria explains, "so the season is still nearly two months off. Imagine how intoxicating the scent is when you are working in a field. Being there gives you a wonderful sense of well-being!"

Stari Grad was once a celebrated Greek settlement. Today's harbor encloses a deep bay lined with fishing skiffs.

Stari Grad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, exudes the intimacy that Hvar Town lacks. Its compact harbor encloses a deep bay lined with fishing skiffs, reminding me of our many beloved Greek islands. "The Greeks arrived here around 384 BC," Anna Maria explains. "When the Romans conquered the island, its Greek name, Faros (lighthouse) became Faria, eventually evolving to Stari Grad (old place). The Greeks minted their own money and planted crops in the adjoining fertile plain that you can still see today. It is considered the best-preserved example of how the ancients farmed in the Mediterranean. The Slavs conquered the town in the 8th century, and by the 13th it became a vassal of the Venetian Republic, affording the locals better protection from relentless pirate attacks. The town changed hands repeatedly thereafter, eventually falling under Napoleonic control, and then the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire," Anna Maria elaborates. "Tragically, in the 19th century when phylloxera nearly wiped out all of Hvar's grape vines, many of its residents were forced to move away. "Thank goodness for tourism," I whisper to my husband. We stroll toward Biankini, a grand mansion with a garden that houses the Stari Grad Museum. The Franciscan Monastery at the water's edge boasts an impressive cache of old master paintings and rare books and coins. At the church of St. Rocco, the town's patron saint, his statue commands a prime spot near the main altar. "Too bad we can't spend more time here," I sigh, loving the smaller scale and authenticity of the town.

"What do you recommend for this afternoon?" I ask Jelena when we return to Hvar, noting that we have several free hours available. "How about a wine tour!" she suggests. "My favorite is Tomic Winery, located in the coastal area of Jelsa. Their facilities are fantastic as are their wines." A phone call secures us a spot on their afternoon tour. Our taxi winds through miles of walled vineyards and olive orchards, many originally laid out by local Greeks 2400 years earlier. I had read that Croatia produces about 40 native wines and is the birthplace of Zinfandel. Andro Tomic ranks as one of Hvar's best known winemakers. Coming from a family dedicated to viticulture, he is known to explain in minute detail the differences between sparkling Prosecco and their own dessert wine, Prosek. The winery is a tribute to his passion and imagination. Customers sample wines in a subterranean gallery with stone arches that evoke an ancient Roman triclinium where patrons could recline as they feasted and sipped their wines. Two staff members lead us down to the travertine-pillared room where tables laden with crusty village bread, olive oil, prosciutto and tangy cheeses are ready for winetasting. Their marketing director holds up several bottles of select Tomic wines. "Today we will be sampling some barrel-aged Tomic Plavac and Tomic Caplar Barrique which is more full bodied," she announces. "We will end with Prosek, the original Dalmatian dessert wine." The tour does not disappoint. We depart convinced that the Tomic family has exploited the full potential of their indigenous grapes.

Tomic Winery's Marketing Director extols the virtues of its sought after Plavac Mali Barrique.
Hours later at Divino, an elegant establishment located at the edge of the harbor and considered one of the finest restaurants in Croatia, it's another chance to feast. A stone's throw from Hvar's twinkling lights, the deserted beaches of the Pakleni Islands gleam under moonlight. It is our grand finale in Hvar and I have no doubt that it will be a meal to remember. "Yes, I know, it's been a lot of indulging in one day," I reassure my husband, "but we are on vacation, after all." After much deliberation, we select smoky grilled octopus for starters, followed by house-made lobster pasta and their famous chocolate panna cotta to share for dessert. Just as we had expected, this is Dalmatian cooking at its finest, with attentive service to match. On our leisurely stroll back to the Adriana, it finally sinks in why Hvar ranks as Croatia's ultimate party island!

Split is world famous for Diocletian's massive palace-fortress, still serving as the city's hub after more than 16 centuries.
From the deck of the Jadrolinija, the Split waterfront looks quite impressive. "No other place in Croatia has such a long and distinguished lineage," Jelena boasts. Diocletian's busy Dalmatian city has prospered for more than 16 centuries, filling us with both admiration and curiosity. "How is it that this ancient structure continues to function as the heart of the city?" I wonder out loud. "We'll find out soon enough," my husband replies. We trail behind Jelena through a crowded outdoor market that fronts the Palace. Just ahead, Rosalia, a local guide, is waving a Croatian flag to catch our attention. "Please follow me," she directs us, heading toward the subterranean structure of the palace, the largest and most complete of its type in the Roman world, built on a peninsula at the turn of the fourth century AD. "You will notice that more than a palace, it is actually a huge fortress," Rosalia explains. "To this very day it is very much in use and comprises about half of Split's old town." The structure is sited atop an ancient temple to Jupiter and is mostly built of riverbed tufa and local bricks. You can still spot many of those original Roman bricks today. "During the 7th century, invasions of Slavs and Avars forced the local population to seek shelter inside the formidable walls of the palace," she adds. The rest is history. The four-gated complex remains the world's most complete Roman palace and has served the needs of Split's residents for centuries, guaranteeing their safety and survival, even allowing them develop useful occupations. Today it is filled with numerous shops, residences and the magnificent Cathedral of St. Domnius whose campanile has become the symbol of the city. "By the way," Rosalia adds excitedly, "I just received word that several scenes from the fourth season of 'Game of Thrones' have been scheduled to be filmed here!" "How appropriate," says my husband, eyes fixated on a group of high energy locals who are running in several directions. "When you leave the palace, check out our nearby cafes. They are all excellent and feature popular local specialties," Rosalia suggests. "I sincerely hope that this brief glimpse of the Palace will entice you to come back for a longer visit!"

A scale model of Diocletian's Palace depicts its four gates and the cathedral of St. Domnius whose campanile is the city's symbol.
A light fog is creeping in, nearly obscuring our next stop, the five-star Atrium Hotel overlooking Split and the sea beyond. Geared for tour groups and business travelers, the hotel is chock full of every conceivable amenity for a comfortable stay. But I am most impressed by the special dinner that the kitchen has prepared for our group. The feast begins with rizot, a blackened squid risotto redolent with herbs, followed by a rustic seafood stew loaded with whitefish, clams, mussels and scallops. If that weren't enough, next to arrive is a platter of tender, aromatic beef with root vegetables stewed in Prosek. Known throughout Croatia as pasticada, it is exuding an intoxicating aroma. Selected Bogdanusa and Prosek wines and crusty artisan bread from the city's popular Krusac Bakery complement the feast. "Thank goodness we all skipped lunch," my husband smiles at two couples across him who are chuckling in agreement.

Zadar's magnificent triple gate dates from its centuries-long Venetian era.

"We have an ideal morning to visit beautiful Zadar," Jelena speaks into the mike after we board our bus. "It is a fascinating city with long stints of both Roman and Venetian control." Ahead of us, Zadar juts into the azure Adriatic, an imposing peninsula in a coveted location that held political importance in Dalmatia. We stop just outside the city's triple gate, built by the Venetians to protect the citizenry from frequent Ottoman attacks. The wide center gate was once a portal for chariots and wagons, with side doors designated for pedestrians, a practice adapted to modern traffic movement today. Just ahead, Sandra, reportedly Zadar's most experienced guide, is motioning us to join her. "You are about to walk through 3,000 years of history," she begins. "When Zadar became dominant under Roman control long ago, it was renowned for its magnificent Forum which to this day remains the largest of its type in Croatia. But let's begin at the seashore so you can experience our recently completed sea organ." We follow her to the water's edge where a series of eerie musical tonalities known as "greetings of the sun" are emanating from a network of tubes hidden in a series of stairs that are continuously drenched by sea waves. "Wow," several members of our group express their utter amazement. "Architect Nikola Basic won many awards for creating the world's very first musical pipe organ played by the sea." Sandra brags. "Kind of eerie, isn't it? Believe it or not, this sea organ was specifically designed to evoke the complex harmonies of klapa music," she explains as we continue toward the Forum.

Within minutes we are standing next to a couple skeletal columns, vestiges of the fabled Decumanus Maximus, the East-West road of the city. "Unfortunately, not much remains of our Roman structures," Sandra apologizes. "Nearly every stone was repurposed in the construction of churches and other buildings in the centuries that followed. On that note, let's continue to Zadar's three most important holy sites." For me, the massive 12th Century St. Anastasia Cathedral, the largest religious building in Dalmatia, is easily upstaged by the pre-Romanesque St. Donatus. But our focus is going to be St. Mary's convent, built in 11th century and belonging to an order of Benedictine nuns. Inside, a trove of religious reliquaries shield limbs of various saints and an enormous stash of ritual vessels are called "the gold and silver of Zadar." "Now I want you to have a taste of the people's city," says Sandra. She leads us to the crowded municipal market filled with colorful stalls of produce, fresh fish and olive products, past tables piled with locally made lace, to Bibich Wine Shop, where some of us sample their famous Maraschino liqueur, a great apértif to precede our scheduled lunch at Michelin-rated Fosa. The airy restaurant is a stone's throw from the city's Land Gate, overlooking a secluded harbor. Fosa is renowned for fresh seafood specialties, and we can't resist their gnocchi filled with shrimp and mussels, followed by grilled sea bass, the house specialty.

Leaving Dalmatia behind, I glance at my fellow travelers as our bus speeds north toward the Opatija Peninsula. Several are sound asleep, probably in a food coma induced by our grandiose lunch. My guidebook is open to the pages describing Opatija, Croatia's original resort town, the epicenter of the multicultural Istrian Peninsula that developed in the 19th century and became fashionable almost overnight. Situated on Kvarner Gulf, 18 kilometers southwest of Rijeka, Opatija was launched by Austro-Hungarian elites who came to summer on its beautiful gulf. It is renowned for its Belle Epoque architecture and a 12-kilometer coastal promenade that winds between Opatija and Volosko. Here, the bay water is so translucent that one can often count the very pebbles on the sea floor. At the Milenij Hotel Agava, a former villa dating from the turn-of-the-century, we happen to land one of its largest rooms, complete with a small balcony overlooking the sea. "I'm so glad we're not driving," my husband remarks on our late afternoon stroll. "There is not a parking spot to be had anywhere." We are quickly drawn to a popular spot on its Lungomare Promenade. Here, as if rising from sea spray, Opatija's most famous statue, the iconic "Madonna del Mare," is a memorial to tragic death. Today's statue is a duplicate of the original, but outfitted with reflectors to keep wayward sailboats away during storms. Two young lovers seated on a bench overlooking the scene are staring intently at the Madonna. Overcome by her power, they turn to each other and lock in a passionate embrace, oblivious to all the smiling tourists around them.

Two young lovers gaze at Opatija's magnificent bay known for its crystalline water.
Under thick morning clouds, our group heads out by bus to explore the Istrian Peninsula, renowned worldwide as a foodie's paradise. Here, several superb regional wines have garnered international prizes and wineries such as Benazic and Coronica offer winetasting experiences. "However, the jewels of Istrian regional cuisine are our high quality black and white truffles," Jelena brags. "They are highly prized throughout Italy and the Balkan region and easily rival the truffles of Alba and Piedmont in Italy. One such giant truffle weighing in at 1.31 kilograms was found in a forest under an aged oak in the city of Motovun. It is now the part of the Guinness Book of Records." Indeed, the black diamond of Istria is renowned throughout the world. Seasoned truffle hunters use specially trained canines to sniff out the "black treasure" in the Mima River Valley. "As you would expect Istrians are very proud of their wondrous truffles and every October a multiday Tuberfest is celebrated in Motovon," Jelena adds.

Pula's well-preserved, 4th century Roman amphitheater is the jewel of the Istrian Peninsula and a popular venue for pop concerts.
But the Peninsula's best known treasure is a 4th century Roman amphitheater, located on its southern coastline in Pula. Built during the reign of Emperor Vespasian, the oval structure once hosted violent gladiator games and could hold up to 23,000 spectators. I stand in the middle of the evocative stone arena, amazed by its current condition and use as a venue for concerts, film festivals and civic gatherings. It is especially suited for pop and jazz evenings featuring renowned artists such as Elton John, Sting and Zucchero. We follow Jelena to the arena's enormous underground passages where a fascinating exhibit on olive processing and viticulture is exemplified by ancient presses and piles of amphorae. Just as we are about to exit Pula, our bus suddenly pulls into a crowded commercial center and Jelena rushes toward a tiny local bakery. She returns with a cardboard box holding Makovnjaca, a dense, bittersweet poppy seed cake, similar to a strudel. "This is my favorite traditional Croatian dessert," she brags, cutting small slices for each of us to taste. The buttery yeast dough is exquisite, as is the filling. "You can also make it with minced chestnuts or walnuts," Jelena adds, licking every stray crumb off her lips.

Picture postcard Rovinj, a former fishing village, is crowned by the hilltop church of St. Euphemia.
Rovinj is our final stop on the peninsula. This centuries-old former fishing village exudes Italian-style charm. Winding cobbled lanes are lined with trendy boutiques, art galleries and iconic eateries. At the summit rises the hilltop Church of St. Euphemia, crowned by a steeple that spikes high into the sky. The view from the church grounds is breathtaking and we take our time on our descent to the port on its widest street, pausing by several boutiques and an enticing hole-in-the-wall pizzeria. "We can only have a teeny-tiny bite," my husband insists. "Tonight we are going to a local restaurant near the hotel and I am sure a multi-course feast has been planned." At the foot of the town, a crowded outdoor market is packed with heaps of produce and displays of Istrian honey, regional olive oil, liqueurs and wines. Commandeering scarce shelf space is a lineup of truffle products with ample opportunities for tastings. "You must try my truffles, I insist," hawks one persuasive vendor. "They are incredibly delicious. You will see!" A few hours later at a cozy konoba (tavern) near our hotel, two Istrian truffle sauces are the highlight of the evening. House-made triangular fuzi pasta is topped with a choice of black or white truffle cream sauce, extraordinary tastes guaranteed to linger in one's culinary memory for a lifetime. "Whoever planned this feast gets three gold stars," says a fellow traveler on my right. An entrée of grilled sole glazed with lemon sauce is accompanied by steamed asparagus and puffy Istrian dinner rolls. "Our proximity to Italy is definitely reflected in the food, don't you think," says Jelena, watching us devour our regional meal down to the last bite.

Opatija's recently restored Kvarner hotel was once a favorite summer getaway for Austria's Emperor Franz Jozef.
It's our last day in Croatia and a final chance soak up more Istrian culture before heading for Venice. At Angiolina Park, we gather around Anton, a local guide who is well versed in the storied past of Opatija. He points to an enormous Belle Epoque yellow building ahead: "This is Hotel Kvarner, the very first luxury hotel to be built on the peninsula. Emperor Franz Jozef loved to summer here as did countless other notables from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It has recently been restored from top to bottom and staying here is the experience of a lifetime." He moves to the garden's iconic "wall of fame" surrounded by magnificent flower beds. On the wall likenesses of famous celebrities who frequented Opatija are depicted: Robert DeNiro, Kirk Douglas, James Joyce, Albert Einstein and many more. There is an evocative statue of the great modern dancer Isadora Duncan and another of the renowned Croatian violinist Jan Kubelik. "And how about these gardens!" Anton exclaims as he departs. "They contain over 150 species of plants, some very rare and exotic." Our group scatters to soak up the atmosphere. Just ahead, a cluster of young musicians await their turn to perform. Costumed locals add a punch of color to the scene. Ice cream vendors are besieged by long waiting lines and outdoor tables at name restaurants are packed. "Every day is party day in Opatija!" I blurt out loud.

In Opatija's Angiolina Park, the world's most celebrated modern dancer, Isadora Duncan, is memorialized in bronze.

For a final outing we head toward Moscenicka, a remote mountain village where time has stood still. We are the sole vehicle on the narrow winding road that leads toward our destination. Making good time, the bus suddenly pulls into an empty field opposite the town. We follow Jelena single file on twisting back streets to be warmly greeted at every turn by locals sitting on their stoops. At least a dozen sleeping cats are soaking up the afternoon sun. Well-tended potted plants are bursting with spring bloom. We're heading to the local folk museum, the pride and joy of the community. Here, displays of vintage kitchen and farm implements exemplify yesteryear's rustic lifestyle and a rickety but still functioning olive press in an adjoining building echoes the one we experienced in Dubrovnik. As a final gesture, tastes of at least half a dozen flavors of grappa are passed around, guaranteeing that many of us will be sound asleep on our return ride to Opatija.

The bus stops suddenly just outside the town, giving those who are awake and curious an opportunity to explore Opatija and grab a bite. To commemorate our last night in Croatia, we repeat a favorite meal from Zagreb: char-grilled lamb cevapi with a side of fries and icy beer. "Tomorrow we're leaving extra early," my husband reminds me. "We'll be passing through Slovenia before crossing into Italy toward Venice." "This sure has been one sensational trip," I sigh, delighted that my Croatian dance friend turned us on to her remarkable ancestral country!