Day five of our cruise onboard Celebrity Constellation and I’m getting more and more confused as we sail along the Dalmatian Coast.
I’m not quite sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t the breathtaking beauty that greeted me each day. The quality of the food in each port leaves me confounded.
As we headed for Croatia to visit the towns of Split and Dubrovnik, I had visions of each city being slightly shabby and still war-torn ~ from both the 2nd world war and the civil war of former Yugoslavia. I envisioned a downcast population trudging along dusty, rubbish-strewn footpaths, heads down with scowls permanently planted on their faces. I imagined that all would harbour a desire to leave Croatia as soon as they could raise enough Kuna.
Sure, there are signs of wear and tear and the country is not wealthy, but once again my prejudice failed me. All the people we encountered were happy and content. Many talked about travelling to other countries, but none wanted to emigrate from Croatia. They saw it (finally) they said, as a country on the ascendency. I don’t know how much of this was “talk for the tourists” but it’s a country of such natural beauty that I wouldn’t be in a rush to leave.
Split doesn’t reveal much as you sail into her port. The standard limestone houses framed by mountains abound, but there are no great landmarks to define her. It’s not until you draw close that she begins to make herself known.
Whilst Celebrity Constellation offered a number of tours, we decided to do our own private tour, which took in the sights of Split and the nearby Marjan region. The scents of the impossibly clear ocean, Cyprus pine, overblown figs and Acacia all fight to be the dominant perfume along this part of the Dalmatian coastline. The cicadas are deafening, the bougainvillea vibrant and the lemons and early pomegranates beg to be picked. Oh, and did I tell you? The people smile endlessly.
We ended our tour smack bang in front of the Diocletian Palace. The Palace is an amazing structure. Built in 4AD for the Emperor Diocletian, it was intended as his place of retirement (he never got there), but it feels much more than a palace, more like a small, fortified city.
This might be because now, every inch of the original palace is stuffed full of contemporary boutiques, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s a clever mix. You can still see and feel the history of the place (particularly around the Peristyle) but it’s also a thriving modern retail and civic centre. Sadly, as is so often the case with places of historical significance it is also a complete tourist trap so make sure you arrive early to avoid the inevitable crowds. It pays to do a bit of forward planning if you are going to spend some time there and particularly if you are going to eat. Don’t forget that many places in Croatia will only accept the local currency ~ Kuna.
I chose Mazzgoon as our place for lunch. I’d taken a punt and not booked ahead but I’d recommend that you do so, particularly in the summer months. A funky, family run restaurant deep in the bowels of the Palace, it’s well worth seeking out. The food is a mix of modern Croatian alongside classic regional dishes such as Tecada (fish stew), Pasticada (slow-cooked beef) and the regional Dalmatian prosciutto, salami and pancetta. If you can, have someone at your table order the squid ink risotto. I had freshly grilled tuna with Jerusalem artichoke cream and olive oil powder. I’m still not quite sure what the latter is, but the tuna was genuinely the best piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. The Dingac, a local wine was a happy beverage, perfect for a casual lunch.
And then it was back to the ship via the strangest looking dog (I’m told he is a Komondor) and a quite extraordinary lolly shop. Dubrovnik tomorrow.
Until next time…