Croatia: History, beauty and the elusive cherry liqueur – Maraschino
By Thecla Vis
What do you fantasize or dream about when you’re planning a vacation? For many people, it might be sun, azure-colored water or spectacular scenery. For others it might be art, architecture, local culture, or adventures in food and wine. I was fortunate to have found all of these in abundance in Croatia. There was the beauty of the countryside, exquisite medieval architecture, a gorgeous coastline and thousands of dreamy islands; plus, the freshest seafood imaginable. I also embarked on a love affair…with the Maraschino liqueur.
Croatia is becoming more and more popular since its independence. The news might lead us to think of Croatia as a war-torn wasteland, but that is not at all the reality. On the contrary, everywhere, from the beautiful mountains of the interior to the pristine shores of the Mediterranean, I found beauty and warm, welcoming people…
Fitting in all the hot spots in a week’s time was going to be a challenge, but I did manage to see four of Croatia’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These seven sites have been designated and protected because of their unique value not only in the local context but to the whole world:
- Old City of Dubrovnik
- Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian
- Plitviče Lakes National Park
- Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica in the Historic Center of Porec
- Historic City of Trogir
- The Cathedral of St. James in Sibenik
- Stari Grad Plain
I think it’s a shame that the town of Zadar, home of the Maraschino liqueur has not yet been recognized by UNESCO for its contribution to the world…and to my choice of aperitif. Croatia also has the highest number of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Elements of any European country, such as lace making, gingerbread craft, regional singing styles, wooden toy carving, and various festivals and processions.
I spent my first day in Split, at Le Meridien Spa hotel, a sprawling property with a marina and beachfront location. After settling in, I hiked up to the top of Marjan Hill, a pine-covered prominence in the center of the city. It has been a favorite place for recreation since the 3rd century, when the local citizenry started using it as a town park. Jet-lagged, I stoically dragged myself up the many, many stone steps to the top of the hill, where I was rewarded by a spectacular panoramic view of Split. But this was only day one of what was going to be a week of enchantment.
My itinerary actually included only three of the UNESCO sites—the fourth, Plitviče Lakes was not included but this is a place any nature lover just simply has to see. Plitviče National Park is a lush forest interspersed with a system of 16 interconnecting lakes and waterfalls. The waterfalls are renowned for their distinctive colors, ranging from turquoise to mint green to gray and emerald blue. The limestone plants are a feature that makes Plitviče particularly amazing. The spray from the waterfalls coats the nearby plants in a mist that is filled with dissolved limestone. As the water evaporates, the limestone is left on the plants, eventually solidifying and turning the plants to stone sculptures. An amazing sight! This national park is home to 1,267 species of plants, 161 species of birds, 321 species of butterflies and an array of additional wildlife, including the brown bear.
Plitviče was to the north of the rest of my itinerary, so I rented a car and drove the three hours up and back in a day. Although it was raining, and heavily at times, I was on a mission and would not be stopped! Even in gloomy weather, the drive to Plitviče was through an enchanted countryside that you might expect to find in a Tolkien novel; fields, farms and mountains where I almost expected to see a hobbit! The scenery was beautiful, but it was nonetheless a long way to drive alone. “How do I keep myself amused?” I wondered. Before I left Split, I had learned a little bit about the Croatian language. In Croatian, each letter is almost always pronounced the same in all words; it is a very phonetic language. So, as I drove through villages, I tried to pronounce the names on the signposts. Well, I could manage a few, but Prijeboj, Bjelopolje were a little challenging. The tunnel of Sveti Rok made me giggle because all I could think of was a “sweaty rock.”
After three hours of driving, I finally arrived. The rain was pounding down but I would not let this dampen my spirits. I trudged through puddles, trying not to slip and fall. I had to buy a rain poncho to keep my raincoat from getting saturated and also to protect my camera. Although I would have loved to hike the miles of trails, the weather did not permit it. For me it was a quick glance, but an entire trip could be built around this destination. Plitviče is truly beautiful beyond words; therefore I will just share these photographs. Seeing this magnificence made the hardships worthwhile.
After returning to Split, I was treated to dinner in a lovely small restaurant called The Varos Tavern, known for its traditional Dalmatian specialties. It was warm with golden lighting and overflowing with ambiance. I had joined Lejla Peric, owner of Inspiration Croatia and another travel consultant, when I was offered an aperitif of Maraschino liqueur. Suddenly, I knew I was in trouble and in heaven at the same time. This exquisite liqueur is only from the city of Zadar on the coast of Dalmatia. The Marasca cherries imbue this distinctive cordial with a unique taste and aroma. Bursting with cherry flavor, it was so good and easy to imbibe. It took all of my willpower to limit myself to one small drink. If you ever have the opportunity to try this liqueur, I encourage you to do so. You will thank me.
The next morning the three of us visited the Ivan Mestrovič Gallery. I had never heard of this sculptor, but I was deeply moved by his art. His attention to detail in the human body was captivating and appeared soft and almost fluid. He is truly one of the artistic masters of the 20th Century who captured human emotion in bronze and stone. Although his works can be seen around the world, this museum in his home overlooking the Adriatic is not to be missed.
I should mention a little bit about the history of this amazing city. Split is over 1700 years old and rich in history and architecture. Most notable is the Diocletian Palace. Built around 300 AD for the Roman emperor, it is actually a complex of buildings and walkways, surrounded by crumbling fortress-like walls. In contemporary Split, the structures that once housed pagan temples and ancient Christian meeting places are now house shops, cafes and taverns. The locals have done a remarkable job blending one of the greatest Roman ruins in Europe with modern retail and residential space without detracting from its historical character.
Among the thousand islands off the Croatian coast is Hvar, the sunniest island in Europe with an average of 2,718 hours of sunlight a year. Considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world, it has a cultural and historic heritage that dates back to prehistoric times. Modern Hvar is home to multiple vineyards, olive groves and lavender fields. I breathed in the rich aromas of rosemary and lavender and appreciated the lush hues of native fruits and flowers. Hvar town is colorful and quaint, featuring 13th century walls, marble stone streets, Gothic palaces, stunning churches and an imposing old fortress high on the hill. Hvar is also known for its vibrant nightlife and is a popular destination for vacationers, including celebrities. After a delicious lunch at the Menego Tavern, I had the delightful experience of sampling the wares at the Tomić Winery. This family-owned winery does not export their wine so their products are a true local treasure and are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Next, we made our way south to Dubrovnik. We were privileged to stay at the luxurious Villa Dubrovnik, a gorgeous boutique hotel perched on the cliffs just minutes from the Old City. As I sat on my oceanfront balcony, I could see the old fortress in the distance to my right, while straight in front of me was a “pirate” ship making its way back to the marina. I then understood why this city was picked as the filming location for The Game of Thrones.
About 37 miles south of Dubrovnik is a lovely little town called Ston, famous for its very well preserved town walls, its salt works and its oysters. Second in length only to the Great Wall of China, Ston’s walls are hundreds of years old and the longest complete fortress system around a town in Europe. How has no one heard of this town?! The salt works in Ston were established as far back as the 13th century and contributed to the wealth of the Republic of Dubrovnik. The salt works are still active, and the harvesting is still done in the traditional manner. This salt is known as the purest salt in the Mediterranean. If you want to try a working holiday, you can sign up for the salt harvesting and make a vacation out of the experience. (This might be something for me in the future, as I am a serious salt addict). We had lunch on the water in Mali Ston at the Kapetanova Kuca, overlooking rows and rows of oyster beds as far as the eye can see. I savored the most tender and delicious calamari (with tentacles) and a large plate of some of the tastiest oysters in the world. Let’s not forget the Maraschino liqueur, of course!
The best known city in Croatia is Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic. Once a rich and powerful state, today it is almost like a living history museum. Enclosed within fortress walls, the city has numerous Baroque churches. Marble streets open only to pedestrians allow visitors to explore its alleys and stroll on the parapets safely on foot. It’s a chic place, a compact and walkable city with lots of laid-back cafes, sophisticated bars and trendy restaurants, their outdoor tables sheltered by umbrellas and awnings. Crowds gather to purchase many flavors of gelato, and two spring-fed fountains in the wider avenues provide clean, cold water to refill tourists’ water bottles.
Aside from the many shops and eating places, we toured the historic church, clock tower and Rector’s Palace with the help of our informative guide. The beautiful and ornate palace houses outstanding period art and furnishings as well as Europe’s oldest working pharmacy from the year 1317. We climbed to the top of the fortress walls and walked their perimeter, giving us a sweeping view of the city and its surroundings. An even more spectacular prospect of the region is afforded by the cable car that runs to the top of the mountain overlooking Dubrovnik, the surrounding countryside and coast. Our final night, we ate at the Proto restaurant, known for its traditional fish recipes and drank a toast of Maraschino liqueur, a fond farewell to a fantastic holiday.
Interesting bit of trivia: The modern-day necktie originated in Croatia. The unit of currency is the kuna, a Croatian word for the marten, a ferret-like animal once prized for its fur. But the reason to visit Croatia is the extraordinary blend of natural beauty and human cultural history. The colors, the aromas, the flavors and the sounds make it a complete sensory experience that is sure to relax, stimulate and delight. I wish to give sincere thanks to Lejla Peric, owner of Inspiration Croatia for being my gracious host on this sensational trip. I have only seen a glimpse of this gorgeous country, but must return, for there is actually an island waiting for me out there with the name of VIS.