Croatia - A sanctuary of serenity
'Stop the car," I blurt. My driver has been filling me in on Croatia's tourist industry and the image the country was moulding for itself after recent dark days. We're up on the winding road overlooking the old city of Dubrovnik. The citadel is an orange-tiled tapestry from up here, but something else is hogging my attention. And there aren't many things that could distract you from 'the Pearl of the Adriatic' and one of Europe's most prized UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Or even two things. We pull over and I hop out. The rain clouds of morning have retreated out over the Adriatic, and one particularly gloomy street of cumulus is now growing two huge fangs out of its underbelly. These eventually form a pair of waterspouts, ocean-going tornados large enough to be seen from miles away on the horizon.
"We get those this time of year," the driver shrugs with Balkan coolness.
More visual wonders manifest from then on. The old city itself, its cobbled streets and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, sparkle from a distance and proximity isn't dimming the effect. The sun blasts back off the pale limestone of buildings and streets so clean you could dine off them. Those rooftops gleam amber while the surrounding waters shimmer like a carpet of shattered crystal.
It's regrettably busy today, something that there will be little let-up in until after the summer. Coach and cruiser-loads of bumbags and cameras prowl the compact lanes and alleys. I eat an early lunch of flawless pizza that alludes to Croatia's neighbours across the water and head out for a wander when the sea of crowds has retreated to dine.
Steps and walkways lead me up the sides of the city's bowl, past blossoming private backyard oases and to the inner edge of the city wall. I happen across a small doorway, one-person wide, and walk through, enticed by the coastal sheen the other side. Out from shade and away from restaurants and foreign exchange, I meet an Adriatic so blue it hurts my eyes. Little steps lead down to the legendary cliff-top terrace bar known as Café Bar Buza.
It's as magnetic a view as you're ever likely to have sipping a beer. Boats wobble past along peaky waves. The swell barges into the cliffs and boulders which rise up around the terrace bar before melting into the uniformity of Dubrovnik's omnipresent fort wall. Swifts swoop out from there, their squeals cutting through vacationing sighs of pleasure.
When day is done and dusk is putting a peachy blush on the Dalmatian coastline, we take the ferry nine nautical miles from the nearby port of Gruz out to Lopud, our destination for the weekend.
It is hard to imagine Dubrovnik having quite the same aura without the presence of the nearby Elaphites archipelago. The cluster of islands just northwest of the city have provided the region with solitude and serenity for centuries.
Once the sanctuary of holidaying noblemen, agricultural communities and religious orders, the Elaphites (in particular Lopud, Sipan and Kolocep) are now verdant gardens of well-being where the air is clean and the land unspoiled.
Just 4.5km in length, Lopud has an ornate edge to it that harks back to days of nobility and prestige, but also a vaguely tropical air, thanks to date palms and some of the only sandy beaches in Croatia.
The four-star hotel Villa Vilina has rightful pride of place, perched as it is above the small harbour at which we disembark. Its boutique rooms are spotless, cool and quiet, with views over the bay. Breakfast is enjoyed on the sunny front terrace where a bar sits to the side should it suddenly turn "beer o'clock". To the rear sits a small orchard while church bells clang lazily from the nearby Franciscan monastery nestled in the Cyprus trees. It's an ethereal HQ for the weekend.
At the other end of both the promenade and the architectural spectrum sits the proud white bosom of the Lafodia, a huge hotel that caters to the more resort-seeking holidaymaker. The kilometre or so between is just the place to take the sun and soothe the cerebrum with a dip in the water. If it gets too hot, there's always Mayneri Park, a botanic oasis of aloe, date palms, citrus trees and crumbling gothic decoration.
The universal laws of laidback island life are obeyed on the pedestrian island by residents and visitors alike. Like Croatia as a whole, however, tourism is the leading economy, and standards of service and hospitality are taken very seriously indeed.
Pestering staff at either bar counter or hotel reception is only ever accompanied by a good-natured smile, excellent English and a surprisingly Irish nose for humour.
Despite this gentle but efficient demeanour, Lopud is as developed as the Elaphites get. An even slower gear is visible on the larger Sipan, where two communities watch over different ends of the island. Sudurad is waking up when we take a speedboat over, the only fast movements being the sanding of fishing boats and a harbour-side cat grooming itself.
Around the other side, we find Sipanska Luka, the glossier end of the island, where holiday homes dot the hillsides and nautical crafts rule the curve of the inlet. It's also the home of the Konoba Kod Marka, a culinary institution that lures food-lovers out to sample its wares. Over six courses, it makes a strong case for Croatian cuisine.
Pride accompanies every dish. Sweet seafood tartared in local lemon juice, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Smoked tuna on peppery rocket, and grilled plaice that falls off the bone. Crunchy octopus glistening with more lemon juice in between mouthfuls of shellfish risotto. Croatian sauvignon blanc and sunshine do the rest.
Back on Lopud that evening, the setting sun is a blur of blood orange. The beachside Caffe Bar Sidro makes a great place to watch it shrink into the horizon and observe a slight increase in the island's pulse.
Faced with national libations and the general letting-down of local hair, there's nothing for it but to help the good people of Croatia be as thorough about their downtime as they are with everything else that matters in life.
For further information visit www.croatia.hr Rooms at the Villa Vilina Hotel start from €165 per night based on two people sharing a double room with a sea view on a bed and breakfast basis. please visit www.villa-vilina.hr