Calamari, Climbs, and Cliffs: A Croatian Peregrination
At this time, Croatia, a Mediterranean country renowned for its emerald islands and cobalt-colored waters, a honeymooner’s dream, has begun welcoming visitors from all parts of the world – including the United States. (Please note: all travelers must bring along a negative coronavirus test not older than 48 hours.) A beach lover and active person’s haven, this friendly country carries a culturally rich legacy, with influences from the Romans to the Venetians.
“Rocks. So many rocks,” says one of my hiking companions, a lawyer from Canada, well versed in understatement. Indeed, Croatia’s third largest island, Brac, does boast a plentitude of chalky limestone. As we ascend a steep hill, we pass by a dusty quarry where stout men extract stone from the earth. Unusual, this stone has a milky color that looks familiar.
Our hiking guide solves the mystery. “Of course you recognize it,” she says, then turning to lead us in the struggle up a brutally steep hill, a frightening sprint past a place where a viper rustles the tall grass, and – at last – to a safe, high spot where we can see the sea, as well as a good portion of rocky Brac. Catching my breath, I question her again. “This is the same quarry that yielded the white stone for Diocletian’s Palace,” she says, with the zeal of a game show host delivering the correct answer. She gestures across the cerulean waters to a mirage of hazy buildings which must be Split on the faraway mainland of the Dalmatian Coast.
This perplexes me all the more as I have not yet visited Split; nor have I set eyes on the palace that Roman Emperor Diocletian began building in 295. The palace – more of a city within a city – is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Our itinerary shows our hike will end there. Yet, that stone reminds me of something. From our vantage point, I gaze across the Adriatic and squint to make out Split – perhaps even the palace itself. From here, it doesn’t look very white. “How did they get the stone across the sea?” I ask. “Boats,” she says shrugging, as if hauling snow-colored hunks of rock up viper filled, trails and back down to the sea were the easiest task in the world. She starts hiking – and so does the rest of our group – while I stand for a minute and marvel. Suddenly, she stops, swivels around, and delivers the zinger. “They also used this stone to build your White House.”
Such are the reasons we travel. It takes going all the way to Croatia to discover that the stone used to build the White House came from the Dalmatian Coast. Immersed in such meditative thoughts, I join my husband and the rest of the group as we stumble along boulder strewn paths while the Croatian heat bakes down upon our backs. At this moment, we couldn’t be metaphorically further from the ice-cold clarity of the now unseen Adriatic Sea. Parched, we hike like furies up into the sweltering rays of the sun, knowing that once up, we have no option left but to march down – down into the frigid arms of the water. Thirst drives us. Visions of cooling off encourage us, and we stop only to gaze at an ancient church, marvel at a village lost in time, and chat via body language, with a black-clad, old woman and her despondent donkey.
Once we begin our descent, Brac looks less desolate and more like a Garden of Eden. Centuries old shepherd paths, lined with stacked rocks direct us. Bleating and bellowing beasts of every sort gambol about, lemons dangle seductively from branches, while olive groves, vineyards and Cyprus forests embellish the landscape. We hike along cliff trails so tightly pressed to the mountain that they bind the sheer drops to the sea like a tight ribbon. When the trails widen, as in a Seurat painting, lavender and broom dot the expanses in hues of purple and gold. Finally, the trail flattens out and a solitary beach appears – magic. So still and solid looking it might be made of some gelatinous substance, the water barely jiggles as we jump joyfully in. I swear I see the steam rising from our bodies.
The next day we begin again. Maybe hunger makes me hallucinate, but all I can think about is food. Days on the trails, feet weighed down by heavy hiking boots, sunburned skin and blisters can take its toll. My mouth begins to water as I look around me and the landscape transforms to some Surrealistic comestible-imbued dream. A golden sun bakes chunky scone-shaped limestone formations to an edible hue. The tops of balding mountains suggest fused salt and pepper. The houses have roofs the color of grilled shrimp tails. The sea beams a blue as bold as slightly mashed blueberries.
Of course, I am hungry. I have been wayfaring for days. All this exercise whets my appetite. We stoke the proverbial fire in our bellies with the Dalmatian’s Coast’s hearty fare, an amalgamation of surrounding (and conquering) cultures: Turkish, Venetian and Hungarian – for starters. Some days we even seem to celebrate the food more than the footpath. From Dubrovnik to Ston to Postira to the resort town of Bol, we enjoy every manner of grilled and roasted fresh fish –including a rather shocking amount of sweetly sautéed sardines. We lust over dishes like fish stew with polenta, stuffed cabbage leaves, jam filled pancakes and cuttlefish ink risotto. We let raw oysters slide down our gullets in preposterous quantities. (I eat so much Ajvar, a Hungarian influenced pepper relish, popular in the Balkans with myriad renditions, that my hiking mates poke fun at me.) We wash it all down with lusty, pint-sized glasses of Croatian beer and dry, almost bitter thimbles of red wine.
Perhaps my favorite meal is a long, lazy lunch in the sleepy seaside village of Sutivan. Bone tired after hiking all morning, we cram our group into a local taberna. Cool, dark, it’s the perfect antidote to so much sun. We sit back on rough-hewn tables and gaze out the open front door that frames a water scene of fishing boats and busy fishermen. After a few moments, some of them dry off their hands and join us in the bar. They give us that look: the one that questions our urge to hike their island, and the sanity of setting out to walk a long way just for the fun of it. We wonder if we might have taken their regular stools. Still, before long they embrace us – or at least accept us. Their toothless smiles make that clear. Bonded at last, we gather near an indoor grill to watch the bar’s owner cook our lunch. With an artist’s energy, he tosses whole calamari onto an indoor grill, slathers them with garlicky olive oil and waits. Soon, they pop and sputter. Then, he grabs something that hangs from the wall. Incredulously, we realize it’s a hairdryer – and before we can consider the potential consequences, he begins to fan the flames. They rev up, the calamari sputters again, and we can’t help but giggle. Suddenly the timeless spot seems very modern indeed.