Senses By The Sea
There were many pleasant surprises for Ker & Downey’s Stephanie Click and Tess Koptiuch on a life-changing and mouthwatering trip to Croatia. As told to Rina Chandarana
Smells, Sights, and Sounds
Croatia’s quiet towns and mesmerizingly blue seas were hard for Stephanie to resist when she visited the country’s many corners.
White awnings popped against the ballet slipper-pink walls of a quaint cafe. The soft chatter of friends leisurely enjoying a cup of coffee poured into miniature-size white mugs mingled with the gentle sounds of a musician strumming his guitar. This is everyday life in Pula, a seafront city at the southern tip of the Istria Peninsula in Croatia. It was all so different from the fast-paced, anxiety-riddled life I am accustomed to back home. I wasn’t sure what to expect before arriving, but I ended up feeling captivated by its blend of modern conveniences and old-world charm.
The Istria Peninsula’s climate, geographic proximity, historic links, and language (Italian is spoken around here) were reminiscent of Italy. But most visible was the preserved Venetian architecture — its beauty further enhanced by the hot pink blooms of bushy oleanders and deep-green, waxy palms soaring into the remarkably blue sky, all set against the backdrop of the turquoise Adriatic Sea. The Italian influence thankfully didn’t stop there. I felt almost dizzy as I spun around surveying the four walls of Pula’s massive amphitheater where gladiators once took center stage in front of roaring crowds — suggestive of Rome.
Instead of being the recipient of a faded postcard in the mail, I was looking at the real thing. There wasn’t a bad view anywhere in mainland Croatia. I've heard the view is just as good from any of the more than 1,000 coastal islands.
Thoughts about the stresses of my daily life were interrupted by my over-heightened senses: the tumbling fields of lavender on Hvar Island — their heavenly scent I inhaled from the dried flower satchels and heady oils sold on town corners — and the mouthwatering aroma of basil, oregano, and garlic likely stewed in a pot of tomatoes then ladled onto freshly cut fuzi pasta.
Dubrovnik’s dreamy address by the sea and stunning red-roofed vistas were also captivating, but it was really Split and Rovinj that had my heart.
Time travel seemed easy in Split with intact ancient city walls and the Roman Diocletian’s Palace sitting side by side with lively boutiques and restaurants.
Cobblestone lanes gently sloped up a hill leading to Rovinj’s Baroque Church of St. Euphemia, where views of the Adriatic unfolded before me in endless pleasure. My eyes took delight at Porec’s Byzantine sixth-century Euphrasian Basilica, where our guide pointed out an inspiring mosaic of Jesus shining in the nave.
Croatia is small in size but seemed to encompass a little bit of everything (food, history, culture, adventure) for everyone. What I felt drawn to the most was its ethereal coast. I could imagine feeling the sand and wave-worn pebbles between my toes everyday and listening to the calming lull of the surf for hours on end. I could picture myself having a life in Croatia.
Tess recalls the culinary discoveries she made while eating her way through Croatia.
As I bit into pasta with mussels lightly coated in a white wine and butter sauce, I thought of all the cultures that have influenced Croatia’s cuisine. In the verdant countryside there’s the Austrian, Hungarian, and Turkish presence which meant lots of lamb, veal, chicken, and beef with vegetables. On the sparkling coast, the Italian and Greeks left the country with risotto, smoked hams, pizzas, cheeses, gelato, and olive oils. With so much coastline, seafood is plentiful with sea bass, scallops, and shrimp.
The captain greeted us with a strong shot of rakia (Croatia’s version of grappa), candied orange peels, and almonds as we boarded a private boat at sunset. He showed us a harvest of oysters and mussels in the inlet, pulled them straight from the briny sea, shucked them before our eyes, and squeezed lemon and olive oil on top.
Back on land, it was hard not to fall in love with Istria’s rolling, forested hills and rivers — and its truffles, delicately shaved onto fresh pastas.
A glass of Croatian wine was the perfect complement to the local cuisine. At the Dubokovic Winery on the picturesque island of Hvar, we sampled rose, white, and reds poured from bottles with handwritten labels. I couldn’t resist taking home a bottle of their olive oil infused with basil.
Cherries as red as blood seeped sweetly from flaky layers of phyllo dough — savijaca pastries dusted with powdered sugar — were the perfect snack on a walking tour of Split.
My taste buds were constantly pleased with so many fresh flavors. The food was not only delicious, but interesting. The cuisine reminded me so much of my Italian grandmother; she rarely followed recipes, but just like the Croatians, she transformed simple ingredients into flavorful meals.
Pro Tip! "Beat the crowds and the heat in the summer months by traveling in April, May, September and October instead." - Tess Koptiuch, Designer