This story originally appeared in the July 2012 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine.
With aviator sunglasses, a customised 4WD and a stash of Cuban cigars in his tasting room, Bruno Trapan says that he’s recently been dubbed the ‘rock star of Croatian winemaking’. Bruno’s curiosity led him – a party animal turned horticulture student – to build a DIY winery in his garage after inheriting a vineyard from his grandfather. A few years and a cabinet full of awards later, Bruno is among the most acclaimed producers in his native Istria – a tooth-shaped peninsula at the western corner of Croatia.
‘This isn’t marketing bullshit’ says Bruno, glugging on a glass of cabernet sauvignon. ‘We’re at the end of a peninsula, so we’re exposed to winds from the east and the west. This is good for the vines, and makes for great wine’.
Wine production is old news in the region. The Romans once considered these vintages among the best in the empire – one empress was said to have lived to the age of 86 after insisting on only drinking Istrian wine every day. Even today, scraps of smashed up Roman wine containers are periodically found in the earth, relics of messy nights out a few millennia ago. Ever since, Istria has been synonymous with Epicurean living: plentiful seafood and fine wine, late nights and mid-afternoon naps.
It’s become one of Croatia’s classic seaside destinations – a miniature Côte d’Azur on the Adriatic, with grand hotels interspersing fishing villages along the coast, and local trawlers competing for moorings with oligarchs’ yachts. Holidaymakers may come and go, but Istria’s gastronomic traditions have endured. To the north, the town of Buje claims the world’s biggest white truffles – hunted, until recently, with pigs on leashes. To the south, centuries-old olive groves are still harvested by hand – their branches rattled by generation after generation of the same family.
Bruno takes me across the Istrian countryside to his vineyard. It feels like a place where life goes on in slow motion – with sluggish creeks meandering through the biscuit-coloured earth and tall cypress trees swaying in the breeze. We arrive and Bruno wanders up and down rows of vines like a schoolteacher inspecting his class. He shows me a chunk of vine, recently mangled by an intruder.
‘Sometimes wild boar get into the vineyard and start nibbling at the grapes, so we have hunters come here to shoot them for us.’
It seems the boar are turned into sausages for their sins – so they, like Bruno’s wines, inevitably wind up on Istria’s dinner tables.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
The Plitvice Lakes National Park is a place of such otherworldly beauty, you get the feeling that a CGI artist would be proud of it. Spread over a green valley in the Croatian interior, a series of waterfalls tumble down from one spectacular cascade to the next, pausing in the occasional turquoise lake before slipping down a sheer karst canyon and out of sight.
As geology goes, Plitvice is still breaking news. These lakes took shape only 12,000 years back – mere moments ago in geological terms – when subterranean rivers flowed out of the hills and began depositing limestone to form natural dams. Even today, Plitvice’s landscape is one of Mother Nature’s ongoing construction sites. Watercourses regularly switch about: as one waterfall dries up, another roaring cataract will spring up unannounced nearby, like a burst water main.
‘It’s a bit like your friends,’ explains park ranger Ante Bionda. ‘Sometimes you lose them, sometimes you gain them. Sometimes an old friend goes away, but you know that they’ll be back.’
An easygoing man with a furious looking stuffed bear growling outside his office, Ante Bionda has spent most of his adult life working as a ranger in the park. We take a walk and Ante points to waterfalls past and present. Overhead is the king of them all, the appropriately named Veliki Slap – shooting over a cliff edge and slapping noisily on the valley floor below. Meanwhile, tiny streams babble about beneath our feet, running into small ponds where shoals of rainbow trout flit about in the shallows. These aren’t Plitvice’s only residents: Ante shows me nestholes from which kingfishers emerge to dive bomb the ponds, and an anthill at which a black bear recently took a swipe in search of a snack.
‘When you work here for a while, you begin to notice the seasons changing,’ he tells me. ‘And now, it’s school trip season.’
Confronted with an incoming party of teenagers, Ante veers off the path and treads through a small copse. He soon approaches the crest of a waterfall that spills into one of Plitvice’s Upper Lakes, glowing electric blue in the afternoon sunshine.
‘This is where I come to think sometimes.’ he says wistfully. ‘I’ve worked here for 25 years, so maybe I should think about working somewhere else. The problem is, I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world that’s quite so beautiful.’
Paklenica National Park
A region of deep canyons and scrubby badlands, Paklenica National Park almost looks like it’s been involved in some geographical mix-up – a chunk of the American West accidentally transplanted to the Balkan Peninsula. In fact, it counts among Croatia’s wildest corners – a remote stretch of the Velebit mountain range home to bears, wolves and wildcats, and a place whose remotest reaches were known only to roving shepherds until roads reached here in the 1950s.
The air turns hotter and the terrain becomes harsher on the walk down Velika Paklenica, the jagged canyon that cuts squarely through the middle of the park. Sunbeams reach across its sheer limestone walls and the path ahead wobbles in the heat haze. Lizards scamper fitfully about the rocks, and if you glance up, you might be lucky enough to spot a golden eagle wheeling overhead, like some ominous outtake from a Sergio Leone movie.
Paklenica once had a career moonlighting as a lookalike for the Wild West, serving as the location for one of the most successful Western movie series of all time, albeit one little heard of in the English-speaking world. The German Winnetou movies of the 1960s saw steam trains, frontier towns and Indian camps all imported to what was then Communist-era Yugoslavia, with local comrades enlisted as cowboy extras. Fifty years on, coaches full of German tourists periodically turn up at Paklenica dressed in Wild West costumes to relive the shoot-outs of their childhood: estate agents playing outlaws, bank managers turned braves.
The frontier spirit has never quite left Paklenica. Rangers strut about the park entrance relating anecdotes about the park’s dangerous wildlife with well practised indifference, warning visitors to be wary of branches where horned vipers are particularly fond of sunbathing.
Recent years, however, have seen a new set of pioneers come to the park. High up above, Spiderman-like climbers shimmy up the cliffs, scaling walls of rock that lean forwards at baffling angles. Each route is named by the first person to ascend it, and it seems that much of Paklenica was conquered by a Fleetwood Mac fan; Black Magic Woman and Albatross both look equally impossible. ‘You don’t get scared’ says Marta Gozdz, a Polish doctor preparing to scale a cliff-face with the dimensions of a minor skyscraper. ‘You feel that the rock is looking after you, and that it won’t let anything happen to you. Sometimes you feel you aren’t even climbing, just dancing with the rock.’
It is just after lunchtime on Mljet island, and most of its residents seem to be fast asleep – or if not asleep, at least in advanced stages of dozing. Window shutters are fastened closed, and empty rowing boats jostle about their moorings in the quays. Cats and dogs are engaged in a permanent state of siesta – those human residents who do venture out into the midday sun do so largely to shuffle from one shady doorway to another.
Few places can induce a state of happy torpor like Mljet. One of the southernmost and the most beautiful of Croatia’s islands, it is a grand finale to the succession of mighty headlands, sweeping blue bays and meandering inlets that stretch south from Split along the Dalmatian coast. Less than an hour by ferry from the mainland, Mljet is an island of just a few hundred souls, a dozen villages, two tidal lakes and one solitary road that scrambles its way across the thickly wooded hills of the interior.
It is a place where the pace of life seldom nudges above the lower end of the speedometer; where fishing, eating and napping have been priorities for as long as anyone can remember, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Mljet’s capacity to lull visitors into a state of idle contentment is nothing new. Local legend has it that Odysseus loitered here for seven years before he decided he really ought to be getting back to his family on Ithaca. Back in the 12th century, Benedictine monks from Italy decided they liked it so much, they built a grand Romanesque monastery in the middle of one of the island’s lakes. It’s still standing today; visitors can see where monks could have cast fishing lines out of their windows without so much as getting out of bed.
Yet of all tales of visitors to the island, one story in particular stands out – a yarn worthy of a Dan Brown novel.
‘When I first discovered these ruins, I felt a mixture of happiness and fear,’ Baldo Kraly tells me, squinting at a pile of stones in the afternoon sunshine. ‘You weren’t supposed to discover these things during communist times.’
A local fisherman, Baldo Kraly is Mljet’s answer to Indiana Jones, though he wouldn’t admit it. Just over 20 years ago, Baldo discovered the foundations of an early Christian church in the undergrowth near his home. Investigations followed, and Baldo’s discovery gave credence to a legend passed down by generations of pious islanders – that Mljet is modern-day Melita, the place named in the Bible as the site of St Paul’s shipwreck on his journey from the Holy Land. The saintly connection has long provoked head scratching within Croatia’s religious establishment. The Vatican accepts Malta as the site of St Paul’s shipwreck, but local theologians have championed Mljet’s case since the 18th century.
Baldo heads to the rocks where he suspects St Paul’s ship may have run aground. We climb into a small fishing boat, and the sound of chirping crickets gives way to the splashing and gulping of the Adriatic beneath the hull. Looking back to land, its not hard to see how inviting this virgin island must have seemed after weeks adrift at sea. Shady forests of juniper and Aleppo pine spill down to the shore – trees that lean over the aquamarine-blue waters as if they are about to dive in.
In the event, St Paul would have set sail for Rome soon after arriving on Mljet. It’s a small wonder he didn’t stay forever.
Night is drawing in, and a bura – a cool, northerly wind – is blowing through Dubrovnik, dipping down the alleyways of the old city, rattling the laundry lines and threatening to carry pairs of pants and socks over the battlements before setting them adrift on the Adriatic. By degrees, the streets empty of their crowds, and the city’s majesty quietly reveals itself. The creaking of moored boats and the slosh of the tide sounds around the old harbour, while statues of saints, warriors and cherubs glower down on the marble streets, still warm from the day’s sunshine.
Dubrovnik is perhaps the most beautiful town on the Mediterranean – encircled by fortifications, battlements and towers stacked on top of each other with the silliness of a massive sandcastle. Twenty years ago, however, the Yugoslav Army besieged the city, killing almost a hundred civilians and destroying historic buildings in the process. As a Unesco-listed town of little strategic value, Dubrovnik was an unexpected target – as unlikely a scenario as the United Kingdom suddenly splitting up and Wales bombarding the city of Bath.
Two decades on, Dubrovnik closely resembles its former self – the Renaissance city-state once renowned across the Mediterranean for its democratic principles, rich culture and philosophy. Churches, palaces and townhouses that were blown apart by shells have been patched up and restored, and today host concerts and exhibitions. Tourists have returned to the town in droves, but traces of old city life survive: the surge of customers to cafés after Sunday mass; the food stalls that set up shop in the town square on weekday mornings.
Even now however, many locals are reluctant to talk about the siege. Those who do relate the experience with a gritty black humour – you might hear the tale of a parrot that learned to mimic the whistle of an incoming shell, unwittingly sending people diving for cover. But of all accounts of heroism from this time, the story of Đelo Jusic, a man introduced as the ‘Croatian John Lennon’, surely counts among the most remarkable. ‘The air is full of rock music in Dubrovnik,’ he says, sitting in a café in the Old Town.
‘High in the sky above Dubrovnik, I believe there is a kind of garden, and every time I write a melody I am picking flowers from that garden.’
A rock musician turned classical composer, Đelo is a man of many talents – he performed for Pope John Paul II and even represented Yugoslavia in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, competing with Cliff Richard singing Congratulations. Perhaps his proudest achievement, however, was during the siege. While the city was cut off from the outside world, Đelo dared to organise a schedule of children’s choir rehearsals and recitals, practising everywhere from apartments to inside Dubrovnik’s medieval towers. He recounts holding secret rehearsals in empty theatres – the frescoes above the choir illuminated by candlelight – and conducting string quartets as Yugoslav Army propaganda speakers blared out from the slopes above the city.
‘We defended ourselves with music,’ he tells me solemnly. ‘It was the only way we knew how in Dubrovnik.’
Music still runs through Dubrovnik’s DNA. Strolling the city’s streets after dark, I hear the splash of a piano chord from an upstairs window and the strains of jazz music from a distant café, carried along by the gusts of the bura.