With Croatia poised to join the European Union, this breakaway country is set to hit the big time
“Within the palace, you can see Egyptian columns from Luxor, Roman arches, Gothic palaces and 18th century Baroque balconies,” explains our guide, Mislav Luketin, a wiry fellow with the indefatigable energy of a Jack Russell terrier. “When I see a satellite dish on a Roman wall . . .” he kisses his fingertips to express his appreciation. “What I love is that life goes on.”
To experience a slightly slower pace of life, we take a 50-minute ferry ride from Split to the island of Brac, best known for the pebbled beach of Zlatni Rat and the quarry that produced the bright white limestone used to build the White House.
But the most memorable part of our visit is a lengthy lunch at Konoba Toni, where three generations of men, each with the lantern-jawed good looks of a movie star, serve us heaped portions of lamb and fresh seafood, washed down with copious amounts of house wine.
Our moveable feast continues on our drive towards Dubrovnik, a Unesco world heritage site and arguably Croatia’s most famous tourist destination.
On the way, we pause for a wine tasting in Trstenik at the birthplace of Mike Grgic, who opened this offshoot of his California-based Grgich Hills Estate winery in 1996, and lunch on oysters and mussels plucked directly from the sea at Bota Sare in Ston.
Physically, I’m satiated, but I’m thirsting for my first view of Dubrovnik, which George Bernard Shaw once proclaimed “Paradise on Earth.”
From atop its medieval walls, which stretch for more than a mile, I’m rewarded with views of the Adriatic to the south, the harbour to the east, and red-tiled roofs and domed churches inland. It might look familiar to fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which adopted Dubrovnik as a stand-in for King’s Landing in the second season.
During the 1990s, the world watched in horror as this splendid city was shelled by Serbian and Montenegrin forces from the Yugoslav army. Tea Batinic, a local gallery owner A&K arranges for us to meet, describes those dark days.
Her attic was hit by five shells, buildings were burning all around town, and the city was without power or water. But the only time this strong, feisty woman comes close to tears is when she describes seeing a shell strike the Gundelic Square fountain, which she recollects “from childhood, before I could even touch the bowl”.
Today, the fountain is fully repaired, and the buzzing square is filled with vendors hawking fresh produce, tourists sipping pale pints of beer, and pigeons – awaiting a man who feeds them every day at noon.
The city has been restored to its glory, with only a few shrapnel pockmarks on its walls and pavements, if you know where to look. Under the skin, scars may always remain for those who remember the war, but, as they say, life does indeed go on.