Travel to Trogir
A completely unexpectedly charming stop before going to Split is the town of Trogir. While best known as the town near the Split airport, it is worth a visit on its own.
The entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it contains the best-preserved architecture from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. I visited as the sun was setting and into the night, which made it even more magical.
Our guide took us to see the main sites, including the Cathedral of St Lawrence and its bell tower. Construction started in the 13th Century and continued for centuries, and she showed us how all of these architectural styles are represented. Had I been there during the day, I would have climbed to the top of the bell tower because I know the view of the town and the port would have been spectacular…but that will be a reason to return!
Of course, being that I was in Croatia to experience the wine and food, I sought out the perfect dinner. Seeing as Croatia is primarily on the coast, it is not a surprise that seafood dominates. One of the iconic dishes is squid ink risotto, studded with calamari. May not look so delicious in a photo, but you can taste the ocean and the freshness in every rich mouthful. Perfect with a glass of any locally produced wine, and for this meal, I chose a Merlot.
Although Trogir is only about 10 miles from Split, as the proverbial crow flies, it’s about a 45-minute drive because we’re not birds and can’t drive over the water. Split, which is the second-largest city in Croatia after the capital city of Zagreb, is a must-see if only to visit Diocletian's Palace, a 4th-century compound that takes up a significant portion of the historic center. Amazingly well preserved, the palace (which was built as a retirement home for the Roman emperor Diocletian and as a fortress to house military troops. Today, it’s probably best known as one of the locations used in Game of Thrones.
While I am always fascinated by ancient structures, it’s the human element that calls out to me. The more magnificent the structure is, the more I am overwhelmed by the genius of the people who designed and built it without any of the modern tools and technology that is used today in construction. So when I take photos underneath the vestibule with the sapphire sky gleaming above or stand by the arches, I realize that I am in the same spot that other people walked 1,700 years ago. That’s what takes my breath away, that this could even still exist. And even more surprising, people still live within the palace walls, in apartments that are only affordable if you are as rich as an emperor!
One possibility to become that wealthy is to make a wish while rubbing the golden toe of the statue of Grgur Ninski, who was archbishop of Split in the 10th century. He was a major opponent of the Pope and changed the language of the church services from Latin to Croatian so the people could understand. This statue is relatively new, constructed in 1929 by Ivan Meštrović, Croatia’s most prominent sculptor, writer, and artist of the 20th century. What’s remarkable about this enormous statue, besides the golden toe (which turned that color because of all the rubbing!) is that it was cut into 3 pieces and buried in tunnels during WWII so that the occupying forces wouldn’t destroy it. After the war, all 28 feet of it was resurrected and moved to the Golden Gate of the palace, where it remains today.
All of this amazement makes a person hungry and thirsty, so it was time to eat. Lunch was a multi-course affair that sampled the best of local cuisine. After the delicious fish stew called tećada followed by a veal dish known as pašticada, all served with the most decadent homemade bread, I couldn’t even fathom dessert and decided on a little retail therapy instead.
The island of Hvar
The next morning, I boarded a catamaran ferry to go to yet another glorious Croatia town, the island of Hvar. I had been to Hvar previously and remembered two things. The walk to the fortress towering over the city and the best calamari I had ever eaten.
Hvar was just as I remembered—a small picturesque port with a labyrinth of cobblestone streets. Since I’d “been there/done that” with the fortress, I felt no compunction to climb the steep stairs and pathways again, so I focused on the waterfront and little side streets.
Knowing that I would be returning to Hvar next April 2022 with the Harmony Cellars group, I was excited to see the hotel we’d be staying in—the Heritage Hotel Palace Elisabeth—overlooking the harbor. We could not get inside and for a very good reason. They were filming an episode of “The Bachelor” that day, no visitors allowed. I can only imagine how spectacular this hotel will be.
That said, we did stay at a lovely hotel “around the bend” in Hvar called the Adriana Spa Hotel. The views were great, the facilities were beautiful, but my favorite part was the black-and-white mosaic floors made of karst, a kind of limestone found in the nearby mountains.
After exploring, both with my group and on my own, I had to see if the seafood was as good as I remembered. I found a little place on the far side of the port, with a great panorama of the sea, and ordered my new favorite. Grilled calamari with blitva, a staple of Croatian food. So simple, it’s Swiss chard cooked with roasted potatoes in garlic and olive oil. It’s often served with fish, but I could eat it with almost anything, it’s that good. My memory was on target about the calamari. It was perfect.
Back to Dubrovnik 8 years later
The last stop of my whirlwind through Croatia was the iconic Dubrovnik. From Hvar, I got back on a “high speed” catamaran ferry for about 3 fortunately smooth hours to reach our destination. Dubrovnik was another town I’d visited previously, by cruise ship. When our ferry docked, nothing looked familiar and turns out I was correct. Since I visited about 8 or 9 years ago, Dubrovnik moved its port to a different location which was more spacious.
Despite how well known it is, Dubrovnik is actually a very small city with less than 43,000 people. Like the rest of Croatia, it had been ruled by many different regimes, starting with the Byzantines, and then spending centuries under Venetian rule. Later, it was briefly controlled by Napoleon and the French, before falling into Austrian hands and the Habsburg empire. When the Austro-Hungarian dynasty ended after WWI, Dubrovnik came under the new country of Yugoslavia until 1991, when that country was dismantled and it became part of the new Republic of Croatia, which remains today.
Undoubtedly the most popular activity in Dubrovnik is to walk 1.2 miles on the wall that encircles the city. Since this was another attraction I’d done previously, I chose to explore, both with a guide and on my own. I did re-visit the major sites, including the Old Port (which was the port I’d entered the city on my prior visit) and St. Blaise’s Church, which is a magnificent structure in the Baroque style. As I walked through the plaza in front of the church at sunset, I was able to get a photo of its beautiful stained-glass windows, which is probably my favorite and most inspirational element of any church I visit.
Being Jewish, I’m often drawn to find Jewish life in the places I visit, and Dubrovnik was no exception. During the Inquisition, many conversos (Jews who “converted” to Christianity in order to save themselves from death but continued to practice Judaism in secret) came from Spain and Portugal to Dubrovnik. A synagogue was built just off the main street in 1532 and remains today. Though the Jewish population in Croatia was never large, most either perished in the Holocaust or moved on to other places. I had to go see the synagogue, and even though it was Friday night, which is the Sabbath, no services were being held. A very old man and woman let me visit, told me that there are only 45 Jews remaining in Dubrovnik and that the rabbi from Zagreb comes to conduct services only rarely.!
After another incredible dinner of indigenous Croatian food, this time focused on meat (probably equally as popular as fish), it was time to return back to the US.
See you again in April 2022!
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