Written by Cody McClain Brown
A trip to the Dalmatian Coast is like taking a step out of time. Built by Romans, ruled by Venetians, defended by Habsburgs, and bordered by Ottomans, the past is preserved by the region’s enduring culture.
Last year, Croatia received 9.82 million tourists in July and August alone. The bulk of those visitors came to the country’s scenic Dalmatian Coast. Wedged between the royal blue of the Adriatic Sea and the towering peaks of the Dinaric Alps, Dalmatia has been proclaimed the ‘new French Riviera’. We’ve all seen the photos. (There are probably some next to this article. Look! Right there!) Yes, it is beautiful, pristine, ideal, and a bunch of other adjectives that all mean ‘pretty’. Yet, to me, Dalmatia’s real allure is the timelessness of its environs, people, and culture. While in many countries people are always racing for that new horizon, that tomorrow just beyond the dawn, in Dalmatia the race has already been run. Guess what? Tomorrow lost. Here the past continues to be a part of the present. Look at Diocletian’s Palace in the centre of Split.
Unlike in Italy, where the country’s Roman ruins are easily eclipsed by the noise, crowds, and traffic of modern Rome (or Egypt – did you know there is a KFC across from the Sphinx?), the palace in Split is not just a dead relic: rather it is an active, living monument.
The cultural and social heart of Split is filled with high-end hotels, restaurants, cafés, and clothing boutiques. In Zadar and elsewhere, Roman columns still stand in the town squares; marbled arches straddle cafés where tourists lunch, drink, and snap photos on their iPhones.
Even with today’s modern encroachments, Dalmatia is still adorned with a patina of antiquity. On the coasts islands, the residents way of life is not much different from what it might have been 100, 200, or 500 years ago. Most locals care for and tend to their own olive groves, and then come autumn produce their own olive oil, a staple in all the region’s cooking. One such delight is crni rizot, a rice-based meal consisting of cuttlefish sautéed first in olive oil and then steeped in its own ink.
Another traditional dish is lamb peka: that is, lamb and vegetables slathered in home-produced olive oil and cooked slowly under an iron dome. Litre and half-litre bottles of olive oil serve as a way of paying friends and family who come to help with the harvest. While the islands and towns are visually ensconced in the 17th century, the renowned destinations, such as Hvar, Korcula, Split, Zadar, and Dubrovnik, provide all the splendour and modern conveniences a traveller needs.
All have luxury spas and accommodation, and plenty of spaces to tie up your yacht as the setting sun darkens the cobalt harbours. It’s not too unlikely that bobbing alongside your boat will be crafts belonging to Bill Gates, Giorgio Armani, or Beyoncé.
For me these surroundings are really just the backdrop to the coast’s timelessness. The languid ease with which the locals drift through their day suggests that, in Dalmatia, time may not actually exist at all.
Take coffee, for example. You are sure to notice the abundance of cafés, which are full no matter the time of day. In seaside towns it seems like having coffee is the regional pastime. On the coast a coffee can last for more than three hours! Coffee in Dalmatia is a social function, usually had with friends, colleagues, or even business clients.
The espresso in the various cafés recalls Venice and Vienna, homes of empires that once lorded over the coast.
However, in their homes Croatians are more likely to serve Turkish coffee from a dzezva, conjuring images of mosques and minarets in neighbouring Bosnia. At home or out, coffee is never rushed, but conducted with the tender patience of a ritual. In some ways Dalmatia is where traditions, fading in the rest of Croatia, are still preserved.
Traditionally lunch was the biggest meal of the day; however, Croatia’s transition to a market economy and the shift to a 9–5 workday has left most of Croatia eating a larger evening meal instead. On the coast though, lunch is still reserved as the day’s main meal, clearing the way for swimming in the evening and nights that last until the early morning hours.
Walk along a neighbourhood street around noon and through the open windows you’ll hear, like an orchestra tuning, the cluttered preparations for lunch. Walk up a flight of stairs and each passing floor is filled with the varied fragrances of the midday meal.
At night everyone comes out, young and old alike. In Split people mingle on the riva. In Dubrovnik, they walk along the city’s medieval walls. In other towns and villages there is always a seaside quay or central square where the residents congregate.
While the night’s revelry may come in the form of bass-driven dance music from the regions numerous nightclubs, the evening can easily be graced with the sounds of klapa, Dalmatia’s traditional form of a cappella singing. Though the costumed, professional klapa singers are hard to miss, it is not uncommon to stumble upon an accompaniment of three or four teenagers singing just for the fun of it.
In those instances, amid the spontaneity of a traditional song sung in a timeless place, you capture the secret of Dalmatia: an ageless essence that provides a fleeting haven from the worlds modern turbulence.
Rumoured to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, Korcula (Koorch-ul-a) is one of Dalmatia’s most scenic islands. The island is especially known for the traditional moreska sword dance. Dating back to medieval times, and exclusively performed on Korcula, the dance tells the story of the veiled heroine, Bula, who, after being captured by the black king, Moro, is rescued by the white king, Osman. In summer, the moreska is performed weekly.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only Roman residence to be continually occupied since its construction, Diocletian’s Palace is located in the very centre of Split. Built as the Emperor’s retirement home, the palace is over 1,700 years old. Filled with narrow corridors and courtyards, a leisurely stroll uncovers little charms like the Temple of Jupiter, stone sphinxes taken from Ancient Egypt, and a narrow street that’s actually called: Please, let me pass. A visit to the palace’s expansive basement reveals the structure’s original layout when first built by the Romans. Most of Split’s best hotels, restaurants, and cafés are located in the palace, as are several museums.
By the numbers
Croatians love coffee. They spend 22.5 million hours a year having coffee. Thats in a country with only 4.2 million people.
Croatia claims to have around 1,246 islands, but no one knows for sure how many there actually are.
The island of Hvar receives an average of 2,715 hours of sunshine a year. Compare that to Londons 1,481 or even Croatias own capital Zagrebs 1,889.