We were just about to go to dinner, when there was a knock at the door. It was a waitress at Villa Stella Mare – the bed and breakfast where we were staying on the Croatian island of Hvar.
“We’re waiting for you,” she said. My husband, Ken, and I exchanged puzzled glances. The previous evening, when ordering sea bream for dinner, we suggested that the head be removed before grilling, and used to make fish soup the following day. So that was what we were expecting to eat. And this being a country where it’s not unusual to start the meal at 8:00, we couldn’t imagine who might be inconvenienced by our absence as that hour approached.
Nor was the answer immediately apparent when we entered the outdoor dining area, and saw a banquet table with a meal in progress. It was April 29, the spring festival of St. Peter in Zavala, a hamlet on the south side of the island, and it is customary for families to observe it by hosting an open house. Until Matteo Grgicevic, the owners’ eldest son, motioned for us to sit beside him at the head of the table, we had no idea that we were among 24 invited guests.
Hvar was our second stop on a five-week journey that was to begin in Dubrovnik and end in Zagreb, the nation’s capital. And given a choice of islands in Central Dalmatia to explore, we selected Hvar because of its rich history, biodiversity and regular ferry service from the mainland city of Split, even in shoulder season, when we planned to visit. (The island’s name, pronounced HWAR, with the “h” sounding like a faint sigh, is derived from Faros, the Greek town founded on the island in the 4th century B.C.) Then we looked for accommodations far from Hvar Town, which draws celebrities, day-trippers and yacht owners attracted to its party scene. A web search led us to Stella Mare.
Following a cordial exchange of e-mails in February, with Teo Grgicevic, who owns the place with his wife, Nada, we made a reservation for ten days in an 800-square-foot apartment with a sunny terrace overlooking the Adriatic. One of 11 units, it was the only one with a full kitchen. And as is our custom during European travel, we planned to buy regional and seasonal ingredients and prepare most of our own meals.
Chemistry, rather than the physical plant, conspired against that. It began on the afternoon of our first full day there, as smells wafted up from the kitchen. Our dinner at a nearby restaurant the evening of our arrival had been costly and unmemorable. And finding the stove in our apartment out of gas, we had asked that a new propane tank be installed so we could cook. But somehow the scents and sea air were weakening our resolve. On our way back from an afternoon walk along the littoral promenade, we ran into Nada.
“I’ve been smelling your cooking all day, and it’s driving me crazy,” I told her. “Can we please make a reservation to eat dinner here tonight?” Her face lit up.
“Wait one minute,” she said. After some bustling and chopping out of view, she emerged with a leaf-shaped plate. On it were three scoops of her homemade fish paté on crusty bread, garnished with olives, baby arugula and tomatoes. “Take this to your balcony and enjoy it,” she said. The lemons she had used to prepare it came from the tree just beneath our balcony, the capers from a bush outside our apartment door. The oil drizzled on top was also their own – made from olive trees that thread through their property. This was just one of the items she had been cooking for the next day’s feast.
At the festival meal, fish paté was part of the appetizer course. Also on the table, as we took our seats, was what I identified as Russian salad, but, given the war in Ukraine, had been suddenly attributed to the French: boiled potatoes with peas, carrots, pickles and seasonings in a mayonnaise base. These were all accompaniments to the smoked meats – prosciutto, pancetta and Dalmatian ham – that had been privately sourced, from a pig the family had purchased and had cured on the mainland. They tasted sweeter, smokier and less salty than other similar products I have eaten, in Italy, France and Spain. I could hardly blame the others around the table for starting without us.
By then they all seemed to have heard about my initial reaction to the Pitve Tunnel, which is situated about one mile from Stella Mare and connects this part of the island with more populated areas to the north. Constructed in 1963 by the Yugoslav army, it is actually a rough-hewn, unlit cave that looks like something out of The Great Escape – Paul Brickhill’s book about Allied airmen who dug a tunnel in 1944 to break their way out of a prisoner-of-war camp. Coincidentally, the film version, starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, was released the same year that the Pitve Tunnel opened.
But while the tunnel of movie fame was only 111 yards, or about one and one-quarter city blocks long, the more obscure one on the island of Hvar extends for more than three-quarters of a mile. And since it consists of a single lane, traffic can pass through it in only one direction at a time. A sensor and a traffic light have replaced the flagmen who once controlled the flow.
A slight dip in the tunnel floor creates the illusion that the light at the end of it is closer than it actually is. Meanwhile, water drips from the ceiling onto the windshield, adding to the sensation of being in an amusement park spook house.
To get far from the madding crowd on the island of Hvar, this might be the road one must travel. But after taking a catamaran there from Split, renting a car in Hvar Town and charting a route to Zavala with Google Maps, coming upon this tunnel, just as we thought we had almost reached our destination, had posed a challenge. (All the more so since, in an unfamiliar vehicle, we didn’t yet know how to activate the bright lights.) “People who never before knew they had claustrophobia have developed it in Pitve Tunnel,” Matteo told us at the party.
Before I could ponder that possibility, Nada produced huge platters of the next course. This was a Dalmatian specialty called pasticada (pronounced pash-ti-TZA-da) – a sweet and sour, slow-cooked meat dish (in this case veal) that was reminiscent of the Jewish beef brisket we make, except that the meat is marinated for two days in red wine and vinegar before cooking. When I inquired about what else went into it, various guests chimed in with other ingredients, from onions and carrots to prosecco and prunes. It was surrounded on the platter by homemade gnocchi, sprinkled with freshly grated cheese.
Twice in history Hvar was part of the Republic of Venice (from 1278 to 1358 and again from 1420 to 1797, when Napoleon took control of Venice), and its influences are baked into both the cuisine and the language. Though everyone around the table addressed us in English, they spoke to one another in an island dialect that sounded a lot like Italian. And yet we never felt excluded from the conversation, because it always circled back to the subject that transcends the linguistic and cultural divide: food.
Between courses, the plates and cutlery were whisked away, replaced with clean ones, and just as I thought surely the meal was drawing to a close, there were more platters – these of grilled baby lamb. Spring is the season for this dish, and we had seen two such animals being unloaded as we got off the boat from Split.
That sight had struck us New Yorkers as something unusual, but it is apparently common in Hvar, especially at this time of the year. The lambs are raised on the island of Pag, where the topography contributes to what the French call terroir: Salt from the sea coats the moonscape surface and foliage, and flavors the meat and the milk of the animals that feed on sage, thyme and fennel.
Ordinarily, Matteo explained, the family would have roasted their own lamb, over an outdoor hearth called a kamin. Every home on Hvar has at least one, and the preferred fuel is pine from the forests on the north side of the island. But since the process takes three or four hours, and there was so much else to do, in this case the festival lamb, along with cut-up potatoes, had been taken to a grill master, who cooked them together, with the meat drippings flavoring the potatoes. And it turned out that Teo’s arrival at the dinner table was even later than ours because he had gone to pick up the lamb.
Other guests, who hailed from Slovenia, the continent and various parts of Hvar, had brought their favorite local white wines to share. And if not everyone around the table was a vintner or an oenophile, they certainly made a good showing of it, swirling and sniffing before tasting. One guest told me that Croatia has about 200 different types of grapes, 28 of which are indigenous; she had written a doctoral dissertation on cultivating drought-tolerant varieties.
As each new bottle was opened and poured, someone’s arm extended to replenish my glass. And though I insisted on just a taste, I could not drain it quickly enough to keep up. Observing that, Teo summoned Anya Klarich, the waitress, to bring more glasses, setting them in front of me as if I were at a wine tasting. “Later I want you to tell me which one you like best,” he said, now filling each glass with more than the splash I had requested.
These liquids were very pale, light and acidic, making them the type of beverage one could consume in ample quantities during Croatia’s scorching summers. The driest of them left a puckery sensation on the mouth, as one would experience after eating a lemon. Another was a deep gold color, smelled like pineapple, but tasted faintly of roses – the result of the intensely fruity posip grape vine entwining with a rose bush as it grows.
To wash down dessert, most guests switched to Coca-Cola, which seemed superfluous given what else was being served. Nada’s white chocolate cheesecake with a ground walnut crust was so light and fluffy, I reprieved it the next morning for breakfast. I had no room for the kremsnita – two layers of puff pastry, filled with custard cream and whipped cream, cut into cubes; those who had a second helping told me it was just milk and eggs (and cream and sugar). Nor could I manage a slice of the tiramisu roll dusted with cocoa.
At each end of the table were platters of cookies, most of them baked by Matteo’s mother-in-law, who sat opposite us at the table. Those called peach cakes – jam-filled concoctions that looked like dollhouse food – were eye-catching. But Nada had already spoiled us with lemon-drop cookies made with her home-grown fruit. And fortunately, there were enough of these left for several more days of snacks.
Following mediocre restaurant meals during foreign travel, we often postulate that the best cooking takes place at home, and in Nada’s kitchen we hit the mother lode. The fish we ate on subsequent evenings, grilled on the kamin and flavored with sage from the garden, was caught by a village fisherman who is a friend of the family. So were the ingredients for gregada, a hearty fish stew that was on the menu – on the days when there was a menu. But most often there wasn’t, and Nada just asked us what we wanted to eat.
One morning I asked whether that evening she could make me black risotto, a seasonal specialty prepared with cuttlefish and the inky liquid it releases (like squid). It’s a tricky dish to cook because the fish are notoriously rubbery and the risotto can easily get mushy. Not surprisingly, Nada’s send-up was perfect.
Breakfast, included in the room rate, was always abundant because, as Anya explained, Nada believed in filling both the plate and the table, turning it into a groaning board. Once we were familiar with the offerings, we made the case against food waste by asking for just one crepe, with a dab of Nada’s homemade orange marmalade, one egg and a slice of bacon, for example. The morning Anya arrived carrying a plate of thick-sliced French toast fried in olive oil, we surrendered with lifted forks. Then we headed down to the oceanside promenade to walk it off.
Along the way we passed several secluded, pebbly beaches, where we would have liked to swim in the clear, clean aquamarine Adriatic. But with water temperatures hovering around 62 degrees, that was out of the question without a wet suit. For the same reason, a speedboat tour from Hvar Town, to various bays and caves, was a tease. Though some of the ten tourists aboard with us took a dip at the various swim spots, the Croatian crew members wouldn’t have considered it; they wait until summer, when the water is almost 20 degrees warmer, and into September when it cools down, though not by much.
The trade-off of visiting in this season was the chance to explore the island before the crowds descend, reportedly creating one-hour backups in the morning and evening at the Pitve Tunnel. And much as I disliked this crude passageway, it had the benefit of slowing development on the south side of Hvar. Though there was a lot of construction in Zavala, just pouring concrete costs three times as much there as elsewhere, Matteo told us: Cement mixers, which can’t get through the tunnel, must travel a hilly overland route, and for that reason can carry only a fraction of their usual load.
A series of hairpin turns along the coastal road from Zavala took us seven miles west, to Sveta Nedjelja, a village of terraced vineyards. There we were the only people on the trail as we climbed up another mile, to an abandoned monastery in a cave. The view of the sprawling vineyards and the village below shifted at every turn. Just as dramatic was the display of spring wildflowers – brilliant red poppies, irises and many varieties of daisies.
The daily rhythms at Stella Mare tickled our senses. We were awakened each morning by the song of swallows, which fluttered about the terrace while we ate our breakfast. As evening approached, we could smell pine on the kamin, which must burn down to coals before food can be cooked. Even the rain that punctuated several days of our stay – on what is billed as one of the sunniest islands in Europe – was magical, soaking the thirsty vineyards and releasing the smell of rosemary the size of bushes. I contrasted it with the tiny plants that struggle to stay alive in my Brooklyn garden.
An unanticipated benefit of staying at this particular establishment was the warmth with which the hosts welcome guests into their family compound. When a couple from Oslo arrived with a fussy eight-month-old, Nada emerged from the kitchen and offered to take the baby off their hands. While the parents ate dinner, she paced the terrace with the crying child in her arms, cooing to her in Croatian and ultimately rocking her to sleep.
Nada, we later learned, was Serbian and had come to Hvar several decades ago to teach at a school for asthmatic children. There she met Teo, whose family had lived on Hvar for 300 years; through its stormy political history, Teo’s father, who was born in 1932, had at various times been a citizen of five different countries without ever moving from his longtime address. Both families initially opposed their 1991 marriage near the start of an incursion by Serbian and Montenegro forces. During what would become a four-year “homeland war,” Teo’s family accused him of “marrying the enemy.”
On both weekends during our visit, Matteo and his wife, Antonia, arrived by ferry from their home in Split, and by the second time they felt like old friends. Together, with two other sets of guests, we took off for a wine tasting at Vina Tomic – a winery in the village of Jelsa, about 15 minutes away by car. The wine tour there starts with some background about the plavac mali grape, which grows in the iron-rich soils on this side of the island and is used in the production of its full-bodied red wine. Next stop is an underground tasting room modeled after the ancient palace in Split that was built for the Roman emperor Diocletian. Glass sconces fashioned as grapes adorn the walls, and the table, spread with a white cloth and a candelabra anticipating our arrival, had been set with six glasses in each place.
The tasting, which cost 266 Croatian kuna per person (or about $37 at current conversion rates), progressed from a rosé with an alcohol content of 12.5% to a generous pour of a special edition 2011 plavac mali, whose 16% alcohol content left some at our table red-faced. It was my first sip of this complex wine, which tastes of plums, cherries and sage. And though I wouldn’t order it with a meal because it would overpower the food, I would have happily made it the only wine I sampled that day. As a bonus, there was one more offering after that – of Prosek, a sweet Dalmatian dessert wine that is a blend of several grape varieties (it varies by vintner) but tastes like raisins because it is made from fruit that have been dried in the sun.
Thoughtfully, Teo had arranged transportation by taxi, in a van large enough to hold the eight of us, for what for me would be one last round-trip through the Pitve Tunnel. I’m not sure which wine dulled my senses enough that this time I vaguely enjoyed the ride. Contained within the tunnel’s consistently cool depths were wine caves that we had not visited. These were owned by the Zlatan Otok winery, some of whose vineyards we had seen in Sveta Nedjelja, and whose premium wines I would later spot elsewhere in Croatia.
Their refreshing and inexpensive white cuvée (about $7.50 per bottle at Croatian supermarkets) was for me the ideal blend of the floral bogdanusa grape, which is indigenous to Hvar, and the intensely fruity posip, which is grown on Hvar but believed to be indigenous to the neighboring island of Korcula. This cuvée also happens to be Stella Mare’s table wine, and I’d been enjoying it with almost every meal since our arrival.
We declined Teo’s offer of a bottle for the road, but he wouldn’t let us leave Stella Mare empty-handed. As we departed, he pressed into our hands a bottle of their olive oil and a jar of Nada’s orange marmalade. Later, as we waited for the ferry to Split, I thought of our visit to Stari Grad, one of several villages on this side of the island situated around a marina. Its crown jewel is a villa built by the Renaissance poet Petar Hektorovic, who is considered one of the fathers of Croatian literature.
Constructed as a fortress, it has a fishpond in its center, in which seawater mixes with fresh spring water, drawing mullets just as it did in the 16th century. Inscribed on the fortress walls, and translated in a handout to visitors, are some of the poet’s aphorisms, and one, in particular, resonated: “Alas the days flow by like waves and do not return!”
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.