Croatia: Freak storm no match for tradition

By Jim Eagles

In the rocky Croatian hills, Jim Eagles enjoys the comfort of fiery spirits and food.

A guided walk reveals the long history of the Dalmation coast, from fishing villages to centuries-old villas and churches.  Photo / Supplied
A guided walk reveals the long history of the Dalmation coast, from fishing villages to centuries-old villas and churches. Photo / Supplied

Two charming Croatian traditions saved me from pneumonia after we were caught in a spectacular thunderstorm while walking in the rugged hills.

The first, as our walking group sheltered under the stone veranda of an ancient farmhouse, was the glass of travarica - a fiery spirit flavoured with sage, lemon and wormwood - that our host assured us should be drunk before any meal as an aperitif.

The second was the chance to huddle into a stone building and watch our lunch of lamb, potato and onions being cooked in traditional style under a huge flat bell (called a peka) covered with red-hot charcoal.

By the time that was over, my insides were glowing, my shirt was dry again and I was able to watch the great stones of hail bouncing off the old terracotta-tiled roofs and the water cascading down the worn stone steps without shivering.

It had all been so different when this leg of our guided walk, along the beautiful Dalmatian coast, began that morning at the old fishing village of Cavtat.

The sun was shining out of a clear sky, the waters of the Adriatic were a brilliant blue and the air was so warm that I thought seriously of leaving my parka behind to reduce the weight in my backpack.

As we strolled round the peninsula, at the foot of which the village sits, we wandered past sunbathers, fishermen, children in dinghies and women embroidering tablecloths, all enjoying the fine weather.

Along the way we also came across numerous reminders of this coast's long history: the remains of a 2000-year-old Roman villa, the lovely monastery church of our Lady of the Snows, built in 1484, and a huge mausoleum for the wealthy Racic family decorated by Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.

The town itself now relies on tourism rather than the fishing that was once its mainstay, and its waterfront area is a mass of cafes and souvenir shops.

The 500-year-old Church of St Nicholas, regarded here as the patron saint of sailors, now looks down benignly on rows of luxury yachts rather than fishy craft.

From this idyllic seaside setting we headed up into the harsh Croatian hills, where things immediately began to look more ominous.

The narrow valleys we passed through were mostly verdant with grapevines, gardens and patches of pasture, and dotted with picturesque stone cottages. But the peaks above were bare and rocky, the few buildings looked to have been abandoned long ago, and above them dark clouds were starting to gather.

We were due to walk the Ronald Brown Pathway, named after a United States Secretary of Commerce killed here in a plane crash in 1996, but our guide Sanya warned that the weather was looking threatening.

"Do you still want to do this?"

Of course we did. After all, it might not rain and if it did we could always take shelter somewhere.

So off we headed, up the stony track, away from the warmth of the valleys, past another cluster of abandoned buildings and along a ridgeline.

Needless to say, as soon as we had gone too far to turn back and high enough to be above any sheltering trees or cottages, the storm broke: not just wind and torrential rain but hailstones the size of marbles, crashing thunder and spectacular blasts of lightning.

And, just to add to the spectacle, we could see from our storm-lashed vantage point that down on the coast the terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik, where we had stayed last night, were still bathed in bright sunshine.

So heavy was the rain that we were soon soaked to the skin. Sanya, who had been leading the way, went back to check on the tail-enders and I trudged on, head down into the rain, boots splashing through the water running down the track.

Suddenly, as I stomped past a lovely old stone farmhouse, I saw people waving at me. What could they want? Ah. This must be the famous Kanavoski Komin, a famous traditional restaurant, where we were supposed to have lunch.

As we straggled in, the family who runs the restaurant produced lots of warm dry coats we could wear, glasses of travarica appeared like magic, food was served, and cunning walkers like me gathered in the cookhouse.

Soon we were warm, dry and chattering happily about our experience.

"I've never seen it like that," said Sanja. "It was a bit frightening."

Oh no, we hadn't been scared by the lightning flashing all around. It had been great fun, an exciting adventure.

The lamb was now being served along with a few bottles of wine. And in the afternoon we'd get to explore the marvels of sun-kissed Dubrovnik. Nazdravlje!

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers special fares to the Croatian cities of Zagreb, Split or Dubrovnik in conjunction with Croatia Airlines via Rome, Frankfurt, London, Paris or Amsterdam. Contact 0800 800 454.
For more on Croatia Airlines call 0800 CROATIA or (09) 837 9897.
Getting around: Headwater's Delights is a guided walking tour which includes Split, Dubrovnik and Trogir. Available through Adventure World, 0800 465 432.

Jim Eagles walked the Dalmatian coast with help from Cathay Pacific Airways, Croatian Airlines and Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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