This is the fifth installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going. She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city. In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here: My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going. The second installment is here: Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here: Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border. The fourth is here: “A” to Zagreb. The most recent is here: Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns
The French have a word called terroir to describe the conditions in which a grape grows – conditions that subtly impact the aroma and flavor of the wine that grows in a particular region. While there are many definitions of terroir, the one that makes the most sense to me is “the place.” Nis the place the grapes are grown; everything about that place. The temperature, the rain, the wind, the soil type, the presence of other plants in the area, terrain (sloping hills vs. flat ground, elevation), the presence of trees or mountains that provide shelter from inclement weather. Beyond the natural elements, tradition and history can also be part of the terroir.
Having spent the last ten days or so in Croatia, we feel like there is a distinct “terroir” that makes up this place – not just for the grapes, but for the people who live here. Certainly, there is a distinct natural element that defines much of the Croatian experience – the sea, the rivers and lakes, the massive mountains, the rolling countryside. Adding to the terroir, though, are the history and traditions that contributed to the formation of the people who live in Croatia – their food, their daily routines, their culture. We have had so many wonderful experiences that it would take weeks to catalog them and chronicle them in our blog. We want to share them on a more real-time basis so we have divided our experiences into a few categories and we’ll lay them out as follows: Natural Beauty, Food & Wine, and the People.
1. Natural Beauty. In a previous blog (Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns) we shared our trip to Plitvice Lakes, a definite “bucket list” place to visit and one of the most impressive national parks we have been to on any continent. It would be a mistake, though, to think that Croatia’s natural beauty is confined to this one park. We drove literally the length and width of the country and its beauty is astounding. Between the large cities are large swaths of lush, green countryside intersected by, in some instances, rolling hills, and in others dissected by huge mountain ranges. There are also many rivers and lakes in Croatia and, accidentally or otherwise, the primary route from major city to major city follows closely along the rivers.
After our 5-hour trek through Plitvice Lakes we only needed a day of rest before our trek to another of Croatia’s famous parks, Krka National Park. Like Plitvice, Krka has some impressive waterfalls formed by the confluence of a number of creeks and the Krka River. Here is a brief video of the brilliant waterfall that greeted us as we started our hike around the park.
As we drove south towards Split, we also passed the lovely Cestina River, which was our companion as we traversed the mountainous region on the way to Split.
During the summer months the river would be full of paddlers and swimmers enjoying the refreshing relief from the hot summer sun. The region was much more tranquil for our visit, with most places closed for the season. We did stop for lunch, though, and had a very nice view of the river from our window table.
Rivers and lakes – what could be better? Well, how about hundreds of miles of the Dalmatian coast? Much of the north-south drive in Croatia runs along the cliffs overlooking the Dalmatian Sea, with breathtaking (and sometimes frightening) views. To recover from our national park treks, we scheduled stops in both Split and Dubrovnik, two coastal towns with picture-postcard views of the sea as well as the islands off of the coast. In Split, we found a hotel right on the water that had a very nice patio overlooking the marina, the Adriatic sea and, off to the right, the old town of Split.
During the “season” – which we understand runs most of the summer months – this view would have been priced way above our comfort level. For the period we were in Croatia, the room cost about as much as a Holiday Inn in the United States. When we went to Dubrovnik, we were again blown away by the beauty of the town, particularly its orientation to the Adriatic sea. As in Split, we stayed in a hotel with panoramic views of the sea, surrounding islands as well as the Old Town.
2. Food and Wine. The missus announced this morning that we are going to have to do some sort of detox when we get home. Optimist that I am …this must mean we have eaten very well. Certainly, we have eaten a great deal of food at every meal, starting with breakfast. In the United States, breakfast at a hotel or resort is generally the most boring meal of the day. It is almost guaranteed that breakfast will consist of some eggs, bacon, and fresh fruit. Our European vacation breakfasts have included so many different types of offerings: cheeses, meats, breads, eggs, seafood, shellfish, etc. As I have tried (and failed) to keep up with my no-carbs program, this is what a typical breakfast might look like. If you look closely, you can see the bread roll on the right.
Lunches and dinners have all been at traditional Croatian restaurants serving dishes with local and seasonal foods. We do not like to eat at restaurants similar to those at home, so we often research the best places for hours and walk around until we find the right one. In Croatia, fish and meat are prevalent in all dishes but the proximity to Italy has also contributed pasta dishes to the mix.
When we say we need a detox, the pictures above should provide some context for why we will need to recover when we get home. In addition to eating traditional food, we also prefer to drink the local wines when we are traveling. In Croatia, there are some fantastic wines made from grapes that only grow in this country. In total, there are dozens of indigenous grape varieties in Croatia. One of the most famous is Plavac Mali, a small dark berry that produces a high-tannin red wine. “Plavo” means blue in Croatian, and “mali” means small – so translated literally, “little blue” grape. It was once thought that Plavac Mali was the same as Zinfandel, but subsequent DNA testing has proven otherwise. Famous Napa Valley winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grigich, a native of Croatia, worked with a grape geneticist at U.C. Davis to perform DNA testing on the grape. What this testing determined is that Plavac Mali is a descendant of Zinfandel and another indigenous Croatian grape (Dobricic).
Everywhere we ate (or drank), we ordered Plavac Mali. To honor our favorite Napa winemaker, we also visited the Grgic winery on the Peljesac Peninsula, where the best Plavac Mali grapes are grown.
We have become huge fans of Plavac Mali and we now have so much wine to take home that the missus has decreed that we need another suitcase just for the wine. One bottle that I will make sure we take home (if we don’t drink it before we go) is perhaps my favorite because it is truly a local wine. After our visit to Grgic Vina, we went to the town of Trpanj to visit a new friend, Drazan, that I “met” through our WordPress blogs. Drazan invited us to come to his house right by the water in Trpanj and share some cheese and bread. And wine. Here is what we went home with …
When Drazan gave us the wine it was full to the top; you may notice that there is now some space at the top of the bottle. Yes, we had some. Yes it was very nice. There is really something special about drinking young wine straight from the barrel made by real local wine makers.
3. The People, History and Culture. At some point during our stay in Croatia, the missus said to me: “I think I could live here.” Thinking she was making a casual comment, I replied “sure, it’s a nice place.” “No,”she said, “I mean it. I would like to live here.” We had a long conversation about what it would take to live in Croatia some day – when we are retired. My ego was happy to hear this because it meant that I had chosen wisely with my choice of trip, and everything was going well (so far). More than that, however, I appreciated how much she appreciated the people and the place. The terroir, as it were.
It is impossible to understand the Croatian people without understanding the history of this part of the world over the past century or so. World War I started with a famous assassination in the Balkans. During WWII, Croatia was occupied first by the Italians and later by the Germans. Most recently, the Croatians were swept up in the Balkans War in which thousands were killed and many sacred buildings and monuments were destroyed. In fact, as we drove from Zagreb south, we passed numerous small villages that were completely empty, abandoned by their former residents and left to decay over the past 20 years since the end of the war. Even larger cities such as Dubrovnik were not spared as the Old Town, with buildings dating back to medieval times, was shelled from the sea and the land. We had a nice coffee in old town overlooking the clock tower.
Here is a view of that same clock tower during the 1991-1995 war.On the European continent, war is largely confined to the distant memories of grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In Croatia and the other Balkan countries, nearly everyone has a memory of war, destruction, deprivation and hostility. Despite the recency of the war, though, we were impressed with the character and the resolve of the Croatians we met. At the risk of over-generalizing, we found them to be modest people, stoic yet confident, resilient and with an appreciation for their country, their nature, their land …their terroir. In every city we visited, war damage was mostly repaired and life has continued normally.
We are leaving Croatia today, but our trip is not at an end yet. We have one more country to go – the missus is still in the dark about where we are going. We’ll have our final post in a day or so and then we will be home!
November 2, 2016