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(E) In Croatia, a New Riviera Beckons YOU will cry when you see it
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  07/18/2005 | Tourism | Unrated
(E) In Croatia, a New Riviera Beckons YOU will cry when you see it


In Croatia, a New Riviera Beckons 

YOU will cry when you see it


Stephen Crowley/The New York TimesThe harbor of Hvar, mountainous and lavender-scented, in the foreground. 
 

July 17, 2005
In Croatia, a New Riviera Beckons
By STEVE DOUGHERTY
"YOU will cry when you see it. Bring tissues. You will
need them." 

We are finishing a marathon meal at Macondo, a seafood
restaurant on a nameless back alley in Hvar. My dinner
companion, a local painter, writer and actor named
Niksa Barisic, was talking about a historic theater
built in 1612 during the Dalmatian Renaissance and
still in use half a millennium later. But he could
just as well have been describing his feelings for
Hvar itself, a mountainous, lavender-scented isle set
in the blue, sun-blasted Adriatic Sea off the
Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

For centuries, the island has lured visitors and
inspired poets. "I know paradise now, I know Hvar," a
lyric local saying goes. Now, 10 years after the end
of a bloody civil war that devastated much of Croatia,
it still struggles as it sees hope for its future in
ancient tourist meccas like Hvar, sister islands like
Korcula and Mljet, and Dubrovnik - Croatia's, and,
arguably, Europe's, most beautiful city.

Recently rediscovered as an off-the-radar haven by the
international celebrity set and their media-camp
followers, Dubrovnik and Dalmatia's many romantic
islands and hidden coves provided backdrops for lavish
photo layouts in magazines like GQ, which this year
proclaimed the Croatia "the Next Riviera, " and Sports
Illustrated. In May, Croatia, a scythe-shaped country
that sits astride the star-crossed, blood-drenched
Balkans, was named the world's hottest travel
destination in the new edition of the Lonely Planet
guide to Croatia, which cited its "rich diversity of
attractions," accessibility and "relative
affordability" (its currency, the kuna, is far
friendlier to the dollar than the euro is) as well as
its "stunning beaches and islands" and "magnificent
food."


Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Some reach the Croatian island of Hvar, in the Adriatic, by yacht. 


That's a surprising turnaround for a country that saw
its most fabled city, Dubrovnik, nearly destroyed by
artillery bombardments during a months-long siege in
the 1991-95 war. With eight million visitors expected
in Croatia this summer, the government-run national
tourist board has begun a campaign to restore tourism
to its prewar levels, when upward of 10 million
visitors annually flocked to the beaches of Dalmatia
and Istria, the neighboring coastal province to the
north. Back then, the tourist industry accounted for a
full third of Croatia's national income. Tourism
officials say that the number of visitors has grown 6
to 10 percent in each of the past several years.

Nowhere is the tourist board's touted "Magical
Croatia" brand more fitting than on Hvar, where they
give names to the wind but not the streets, where
children are said to fly and the richest man in the
world has to wait for his latte during fjaka, when the
island tucks in for its afternoon siesta. 

Holding court at Macondo, Mr. Barisic, a burly,
bearded cross between Jerry Garcia and Zorba the
Greek, is quick to cackle at his own stories and eager
to share his knowledge and love for Hvar and its
bounty. "You must be careful," he cautioned as he
poured me a glass of the rich local red, strong as it
is delicious. "One glass you won't feel; have two, you
won't feel a thing." 

Describing Hvar (awkward in English, it's pronounced
hwahr) as a "hideaway for the creative poor and the
very rich," Mr. Barisic said, "Celebrities like to
come here because they're left alone. Bill Gates sails
in on his yacht and no one pays any attention. No one
cares. There are no paparazzi, no fans, no autographs.
I was in a cafe with my daughter and a lady sat down
at the next table. My daughter said, 'Dad, that's the
lady from "Shakespeare in Love." ' "

Gwyneth Paltrow is among the many red-carpet faces
seen blending in with the crowds in recent summers.
"It gets to be like 42nd Street around here in July
and August," Mr. Barisic said the next afternoon as he
sipped a whiskey-laced coffee in one of Hvar's outdoor
cafes. "No one sleeps during the season. Everyone is
jumping around, singing and roaming the streets until
dawn."

The scene is hard to imagine during a visit in late
March, when the sun-drenched square, a wide piazza
from the 13th century paved with polished white stone
mined on Hvar and its sister island, Brac (the same
stone was used in Split to build the palace of the
Roman emperor Diocletian and, 16 centuries later, the
White House) is deserted during fjaka.

Toddlers chase pigeons across the square, squealing
with delight. Elderly men smoke in the cool shadows
cast by the bell tower of the 16th-century Cathedral
of St. Stephen, which forms the picturesque west face
of the square. 

A three-legged dog, a red scarf tied at its neck,
trots as best it can behind its master who, like most
dog owners here, carries a leash but seldom has use
for it. Dogs here are a well-trained lot who obey
voice commands and stroll in and out of the open-air
cafes as they please. Their owners don't bother
scooping up after them. That work is left to
professionals, street cleaners who do an excellent job
keeping tourists' Manolo sandals unsoiled during the
raucous high season.

My friend Buga Novak, a Hvar-born translator and
interpreter who lives in Zagreb, took me on a walking
tour of Hvar town. Strolling the riva, the long
waterfront promenade that winds around the harbor, she
pointed out a hilltop fortress and the remains of city
walls that were built in the 13th century to defend
against Turkish pirates. Far above, another fortress,
built by Napoleon, one in a long list of invaders,
today bristles not with cannon but with instruments to
record seismological and meteorological data. 

On summer nights, when the fortifications above are
illuminated and fishing boats bob at anchor in the
harbor, films are shown in an open-air theater where
audiences sit at tables, drinks are served and, Ms.
Novak says, the chatter and action off screen can be
as entertaining as the film.

In front of the Hotel Palace, children play at the
base of the Pillar of Shame, where in the Middle Ages
sinners were tied up for display, jeered at and spat
upon. Nearby, water taxis line up along the riva to
ferry summer hordes of beer-cooler toting "naturists"
- the guidebook euphemism for those who like to
perform their sun worshiping naked - to the island's
highly popular offshore nudist beaches.

"The ancient Greeks and the Romans were growing grapes
and producing wine on Hvar 300 years before Christ,"
said Andro Tomic, a local vintner, as he toured his
vineyards high on the windward face of the near
vertical mountain ridge that runs the length of Hvar.
Mr. Tomic was one of only a handful of Croatians I met
who did not speak English. 

With Ms. Novak translating, Mr. Tomic said that Hvar's
abundance of sun and strong winds - which he called
"ideal conditions for producing the highest quality
grapes" - had kept the vineyards insect and disease
free. Those same winds blow with such force off the
Adriatic that workers tending the vines have to be
tethered by ropes to prevent them from being swept
from the mountainside and cast out to sea, Mr. Tomic
said. 

Mythologized by islanders' ancestors, the winds are
known by name throughout Dalmatia, explained Ms.
Novak, who swears her Hvar-born mother "flew" as a
child, lifted off her feet by a gust and blown the
length of her family's backyard. "Bura, the good north
wind, blows clouds and bad weather away," she said.
"It is said that the evil south wind, Jugo, awakens
the existing demons within you."

From the Iron Age to the Iron Curtain and beyond, war
has been a fact of life in a country that sits at the
bloody crossroads between Europe and Asia Minor. Ten
years after fighting ceased in the latest installment
- the five-year civil war that left more than 10,000
dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, caused more
than $20 billion in damages and left much of the
country in ruin - the scars are not often visible, but
the effects remain profoundly felt. 

In the Dalmatian port city of Split, physical damage
suffered during the war has long since been repaired.
But the city, with its terraced homes and its
Lido-like riva of outdoor cafes, is awash in
unemployment, drugs and crime that arose in the
aftermath of the war. Good hotels are few. Many more
are in disrepair, having only recently been vacated by
thousands of homeless war refugees who were given
temporary housing in the city. One such is run by a
skeleton staff and is embarked on a dubious campaign
to attract tourists by hyping its casino and American
Go Go Club, featuring 36 dancers and a "Lesbian Sex
Show."

Split is home to the enormous, fortresslike marble
palace where the Emperor Diocletian, known for his
persecution of Christians, retired in the early fourth
century. The place still teems with life; residents
live in its apartments, and many restaurants and pubs
allow visitors to dance, at least figuratively, on the
emperor's grave. 

With a 1,700-year-old interactive theme park like that
in its midst, Split may well regain its standing as a
leading tourist destination. Now, however, the city
serves primarily as a jumping-off place for tourists
catching ferries to the offshore islands or heading
south on the Adriatic Highway, the spectacular,
150-mile coast road to Dubrovnik that offers a drive
every bit as eye-popping as California's Highway 1,
only without the fog shrouding the view. 

Well-paved if serpentine and heavily trafficked, the
highway hugs the mountainous coastline, offering
vertigo-inducing views of the Adriatic at every turn.
As it winds along the Makarska Riviera, the roadway is
carved from the limestone cliff face of a snowcapped
mountain ridge. Small towns with their clusters of
orange-tile-roofed homes nestle around coves far
below. The spires of churches and cypress trees reach
heavenward, toward us. 

South of Makarska, the highway crosses a wide, fertile
flood plain, where farmers at roadside stands sell
oranges and honey and tall, slender bottles of olive
or lavender oils. 

In unsettling counterpoint to that peaceful scene, an
ugly black scrawl of graffiti is spray-painted on a
billboard in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the highway
passes through a 10-mile-wide strip in Dalmatia that
gives Croatia's neighbor access to the sea), with the
words "I Love ..." in English followed by a swastika.
The graffiti markings are a chilling reminder that old
hatreds die hard in the Balkans. So are the dozens of
white ribbons of cloth tied to roadside bushes and
fence posts we see when we take a long detour across
the mountains and into Krajina. 

Most guidebooks warn visitors away from Krajina, a
former Serbian enclave that was the scene of bloody
sectarian violence during the war. The cloth strips,
Ms. Novak said, were tied to mark the location of land
mines planted during the war and yet to be removed by
the Croatian military. 

Around a bend, we see a large color photo poster of a
fugitive Croatian army general, Ante Gotovina, wanted
by the Hague war crimes tribunal. The general, like
some Serbian counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Croatia's primary foe in the 1991-95 war, stands
accused of committing atrocities during that conflict.

Most Croatians I spoke with say they are looking west
in the hope of gaining admission to the European
Union, which they believe would bring security to the
volatile, war-torn Balkan region, reduce trade
restrictions and enable the country's ancient wine and
olive industries to flourish anew. The general, whose
whereabouts are unknown, is the focus of new debate.
During my visit it was announced that Croatia's
invitation to join the union was contingent in part
upon his arrest or surrender, actions strongly opposed
by the country's loud rightist minority. Beneath the
poster's portrait of the warrior in uniform, his
supporters wrote the words "Hero, Not Criminal."

War and its terrors are not readily conjured today in
Dubrovnik, the Croatian city hardest hit in the war.
The long-prosperous and proudly neutral city state
that survived for centuries as a beacon of
international cooperation while mightier powers
arrayed around it battled and bled, Dubrovnik is a
walled seaside town of orange tiled roofs, marble
streets and lyrically placed turrets and towers that
make it look like a sculpture, exquisite from any
angle.

Like many of Dubrovnik's architectural treasures, the
elegant Hotel Imperial, severely damaged and in flames
after an artillery bombardment in 1991, has been
painstakingly restored to its prewar glory. Painted a
bright Hapsburg yellow, with filigreed wrought-iron
balconies adorning its facade, the hotel reopened in
spring under its new owners, the Hilton Hotel chain,
one of many United States and European companies and
private individuals who see gold in this beautiful but
tragedy-stalked city and country.

Just as foreign investors, who have been buying
seaside homes and condominiums in Dalmatia, are
betting on a lasting peace, some Croatians I talked
with are wary. 

"Every generation has its war," said Ms. Novak's
85-year-old grandfather, Bozidar Novak, who as a
teenage partisan leader during World War II fought
Fascists in the mountains of Hvar. His son, Srdjan,
now a professor of physics at the University of
Zagreb, nodded in agreement. "It isn't something you
think about," said Srdjan, a civil war veteran, "when
it's your home you're fighting for."

Even Mr. Barisic, the self-described "free artist" of
Hvar whom everyone calls Art, found himself joining
the battle. "All my life I hated uniforms," he said.
"I am Art, not war. But when war happens, you live it.
It is not something you fear or avoid.

"Now," however, Mr. Barisic said, "I am finished with
war. That's the last one. It's over. Ours is the last
generation to fight in a war."

"I would be drunk with happiness if it was so," said
Zdravko Bazdan, a University of Dubrovnik economics
professor who survived near daily bombardments during
the siege of the city. "But this being the Balkans,"
he said, "you never know." 

Along the Dalmatian Coast, Many Spots Worth a Visit

The Croatian National Tourist Office, (800) 829-4416,
www.croatia.hr, is a useful source for information.

Getting There

Though there are no direct flights from the United
States, connecting flights from the New York area to
Dubrovnik can be booked through most major European
cities. Croatia Travel, (800) 662-7628,
croatiatravel.com, arranges connections through
Croatia Airlines, www.croatiaairlines.hr, on a number
of airlines. In early July, a round-trip American
Airlines flight from New York to Dubrovnik in late
August (transferring in Manchester, England, to
British Airways) was $1,065. 

While regular rail service to Croatia is available
from most Western European countries, the going can be
slow and even slower within Croatia. Bus service is
more reliable, with daily service from Germany, Italy
and Austria (www.eurolines.com) and an extensive
network of domestic routes (www.akz.hr).

Car ferries operate daily during the summer (less
frequently off season) between Italy and the Dalmatian
coast, crossing the Adriatic from Ancona to Hvar, in
10 hours (berths from $40, cars $70, at $1.22 to the
euro) on Croatia's largest ferry company, Jadrolinija,
www.jadrolinija.hr.

Where to Stay

With hotel rooms at a premium along the coast during
July and August, enterprising locals rent space in
their homes by posting signs in town or on line.
Private accommodations can be found on the Web at
sites like www.findcroatia.com and www.hvar.hr. Hotel
prices here are for high season, and include
breakfast.

HVAR Hotel Amfora, (385-21) 741-202;
www.suncanihvar.hr. If the private beach is too
crowded, try the big pool (scuba and snorkeling
lessons available) or enjoy the view of the small cove
and winding riva from the balcony of the spacious
fourth-floor lobby. Double rooms start at about $100,
at 6.3 kuna to the dollar. 

Hotel Palace, (385-21) 741-966; www.suncanihvar.hr.
Facing Hvar's small but active harbor, the century-old
hotel was built on the site of a Venetian palace that
once housed the local parliament. Doubles from $180. 

DUBROVNIK Hotel Excelsior, Frana Supila 12,;(385-20)
353-353; www.hotel-excelsior.hr. A recently renovated
luxury hotel offering five-star accommodation and
service. The view from the Excelsior's terraces and
balconies as the sun sets behind Dubrovnik is
unsurpassed. Doubles from $255. 

Pucic Palace, Od Puca, (385-20) 326-222;
www.thepucicpalace.com. In the heart of Dubrovnik's
walled old town, the four-story stone Palace, once a
nobleman's opulent home, catered to visiting
merchants, aristocrats and dignitaries during
Dubrovnik's days as an international trading center.
Today's guests enjoy in-room DVD players and art
treasures on loan from the city's leading museums.
Doubles from $584.

Where to Eat

HVAR A cozy, candlelight-and-artwork-filled seafood
restaurant located in a narrow, nameless alleyway a
few stone steps from the town square, Macondo,
(385-21) 742-850 (named after the town in "One Hundred
Years of Solitude"), offers fresh seafood and
shellfish and wonderful local wines (the white
Bogdanusa - "God's given grape" - and the red Ploski
Plovac, 14 percent alcohol, are superb). Dinner for
two, with wine, about $90. 

MALI STON This tiny town was built with 14th-century
walls and fortifications on the Peljesac Peninsula,
some of which still stand. Mali Ston, in southern
Dalmatia, and its sister town, Ston, are renowned for
the fresh oysters and mussels harvested from shellfish
farms in the waters of the surrounding fjords.
Kapetanova Kuca, (385-20) 754-264, a patio restaurant,
with an array of pastas and succulent shellfish, is a
popular stop for travelers on the Dalmatian highway.
Oysters, an entree and wine cost about $80 for two

DUBROVNIK Lora Rudnjak, the owner of Ragusa 2, Prijeko
30, (385-20) 321-203, a seafood restaurant and
sidewalk cafe in the old town, took the name in turn
from the original Ragusa (the name of Dubrovnik when
it was an independent city-state), which her family
started in Dubrovnik in 1929. Featured along with
seafood, pastas and risotto are large platters of
Croatian cheeses, thinly sliced Dalmatian smoked ham,
octopus salad, oysters, mussels and clams. Dinner for
two with wine, about $55.

STEVE DOUGHERTY wrote about night life in Reykjavik,
Iceland, for the Travel section in December.

 

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