The Dalmatian Coast with the Rosé Mafia

A family road trip from Dubrovnik to Split

The Communist era check-in did not hold much promise. Arriving in Dubrovnik after nightfall, our first encounter with Croatia was a brusque welcome in the austere lobby of our hotel. Yet, opening our shutters the following morning the view outside was mesmerising: turquoise waters framed by limestone villas and bougainvilleas. Positioned in a bay just outside Dubrovnik, small sailing boats bobbed off finger wharfs. As the sea glistening in the early morning sun, Mum and I found the lure of a swim too strong to resist. Diving into the sea just in front of the hotel, the water was deep and clear. Even fifteen metres off the shore, we could still see the mosaic of grey rocks beneath us. Any cold first impressions were quickly forgotten, immersed in Croatia’s natural beauty.  

Over ten days, we ventured en famille along the Dalmatian Coast, from Dubrovnik to Split. The majority of our trip was spent in Orebić with a single day in Dubrovnik and Split respectively, on our way in and out of Croatia. 

As a starting point, Dubrovnik showcased the country’s architectural beauty. From our small town, we approached the old fortified city by boat. Sitting proudly upon a peninsula, the city’s stone buildings were tightly packed within the huge defensive wall. Each roof was tiled with the same red terracotta tiles, all the walls were built from identical limestone blocks. Unified in this style, the overall impression of Dubrovnik was majestic and imposing. In the late afternoon sun, we walked along the perimeter of the city wall. From the high vantage point, we soaked in panoramic views of the ocean and peered down into the pristine cobbled streets below. As the sun set, we drank beers and gins by the wharf, eyeing up all the beautiful wooden yachts. 

 

 

 

The following day, we jumped in our 10-person bus and headed two hours north to Orebić. The roads wrapped tightly around the coastline, with limestone peaks on one side and sheer drops on the other, which plunged into the sparkling sea below. At times, the roads snaked into hairpin bends, a challenge for our little bus. Mum cursed in horror as Dad negotiated the corners with millimetres to spare. After a lunch-stop, we arrived at Villa Agnes, an old sea captain’s mansion and our home for the next week. Furnished in traditional Croatian furniture, it was full of charm and uncomfortable mattresses. With a cute plunge pool and beautiful views, the bed situation was almost forgivable – almost. From here, we settled into a daily routine of swimming, reading, bar-hopping and eating. 

Croatian food is very similar to Italian – lots of pizza, pasta and bread – yet it also features simple seafood dishes, especially with fresh squid and octopus. There are always grilled veggies (think eggplant, capsicum and zucchini), and often a distinctive potato salad with wilted kale. My top food discovery was squid ink risotto, a subtle, salty rice dish in the richest shade of black. Breakfast isn’t a big deal in Croatia. In fact it’s near impossible to find a morsel of food other than a croissant or bread roll before midday, so we often ate a brekkie by our pool each morning. Given that the supermarkets were very basic, we simply bought bread, jams, hams, fruit and veg from the roadside stalls. The dried figs were especially remarkable. 

Coffee was hit and miss (unless you favoured a very, very fluffy cappuccino). Mercifully, Dad and I rediscovered the pleasures of home-brewed filter coffee (how nice is simple black coffee?). One day, feeling brave, I ordered an espresso over ice after lunch. I got a pipping espresso with an blob of melting ice cream. So near but yet so far…

 

Despite being late summer, the temperatures were warm. We spent our week in Orebić hopping from beach to beach either by car or, one day, by boat, charted by a man named Mario. Almost every beach had a small bar. After a couple of hours baking in the sun, we usually found ourselves with drinks in hand. One G&T, a couple of lager tops and a bottle of rosé became the repeat order around lunchtime. Returning to one restaurant for a second day in a row, one of the waiters welcomed us back with a knowing smile: ‘it’s the rosé mafia’. A bottle and three glasses was brought straight to the table, along with the standard order. Our steady drink flow seemed in keeping with the local spirit. It wasn’t uncommon to see a local uncapping a beer before 10am, with most waterfront bar well populated throughout the day. My grandfather, Hugh, couldn’t have been happier, often disappearing only to be found a few minutes later holding a lager.

After sleepy afternoons, we would venture out for a late dinner. Twice, we ferried across the water to Korcula, the alleged birthplace of Marco Polo. Like Dubrovnik, the town of Korcula had beautiful cobbled streets and gleaming limestone buildings. Above the church, we found the Lion of St Marks, just like in Venice, a symbol of the Venetian Empire left by conquerors on their voyage East towards the Silk Road.

One of the most curious experiences in Orebić was an encounter with local man named Ivan. After meeting Chloe on the street, Ivan insisted upon giving us a guided tour of his family villa, a huge four-storey mansion set back from the seafront. Inside, all of the walls were painted with eighteenth-century Italian frescoes, as were the ceilings. These paintings were as remarkable, as they were gaudy. Rich with family history, each bedroom told a story, from victorious ship captains to star-crossed lovers and suicidal romantics. It quickly became apparent that the purpose of our tour was to try and sell us the house, as each of us were shown a room which we might like the claim as our own. The most beautiful part of the house was the garden. Whilst I could never imagine myself living in such an ostentatious mansion, I would love to have had the garden. Full of fruit trees and herbs, it was a little Eden. At the end of the night, Ivan tried to seal the deal with a bottle of sweet wine from his vineyard – talk about sickly (and borderline undrinkable)!

 

After ten days in Croatia I felt perfectly lulled into a lazy pace, having devoured two and a half books. Supposedly during the height of summer, the streets of Croatia pulsate with the volume of European sun-seekers. I can’t vouch strongly enough for a late summer escape to Croatia. We often found ourselves with the turquoise seas to ourselves. Northern Croatia now sits very high on my bucket list with the waterfalls of Krka firmly in my sights and, further north still, the whole of Slovenia to discover. I very much hope to find myself back in this part of the world very soon…

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