It’s a warm, blue-skied morning on Croatia’s PeljeŠac Peninsula and I’m holding a plate of oysters in one hand and a glass of chilled white wine in the other. The wooden pontoon I’m standing on wavers a little as the aquamarine waters of the Bay of Mali Ston shimmy in the sunlight. The oysters on my plate are freshly shucked. A gargantuan man with a broad smile has pried open several dozen in front of my eyes in mere minutes. He motions to me that I should try one, so I cradle the wine in the crook of my arm and slurp one down: it’s creamy, salty and delicious. Immediately, I devour another. It seems only sensible to follow with a sip of wine.
I’ve discovered this place not through serious research or stumbling upon it with the happily haphazard kismet that sometimes comes with independent travel; instead, it’s one of several experiences lined up for me and 15 co-travellers on a Luxury Gold (luxurygoldvacations.com) bus tour of the Balkans. I’m on the company’s inaugural trip to Croatia and Montenegro, an itinerary that includes Dubrovnik, the Bay of Kotor, seaside Split, the bucolic Istrian peninsula and Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, with its Baroque architecture.
In the interests of transparency, I initially blanched at the idea of a coach tour. The last time I went anywhere on a bus was more than 20 years ago; one of those 12-cities-in-12-days affairs, geared towards large groups of backpackers and university students. My fellow passengers today (seven Australians, seven Americans and one Canadian – all baby boomers) are, however, seasoned bus tourers. The appeal, they tell me, is multifaceted: luxury coach, sophisticated hotels, relaxed itinerary, ease. And they’re right; this is a different experience altogether.
Which brings me back to those oysters. Croatia, I had no idea.
A similar feeling of awe comes over me as I walk along the city walls of Dubrovnik, the picturesque Croatian seaport. We’ve taken a tour of the city on foot and, in the afternoon, a few of us peel off to explore the stone ramparts that once protected the Old Town from invaders. There’s a throng of people (yes, Dubrovnik has become a serious tourist magnet thanks to Game of Thrones) on the elevated two-kilometre structure and when we come to the sea-facing side, about halfway around the circuit, I peer over the edge: the sheer walls are perched on steep, craggy rocks that plunge into the shifting sea. Someone near me says with astonishment, “I honestly did not know a place like this existed.”
Three days later, climbing a different set of walls, there’s another surge of joy. Kotor is a medieval town tucked into the eastern arm of the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. I tackle this steep climb alone, ascending the 1350 stone steps to the Fortress of St John with doggedness, every now and then pausing to catch my breath and curse my boots: leather-shod rather than a hiking sole and not really appropriate. But the views! A swathe of terracotta roofs set against a sea of green. It’s not just the bay, which has an iridescent, mirrored quality from up high, but also the precipitous surrounding mountains, with their dark vegetation. Petra Campa, our travelling concierge and guide, tells me they are the reason this country is called Montenegro: monte negro means “black mountain” in the Italian spoken by the Venetians in the Middle Ages, when they were conquering and ruling much of this Balkan coastline.
“We have a very turbulent history,” muses Campa. Over the coach’s loudspeaker as we travel, she paints a rich picture of a complex past. Outlining a region once in flux, invaded and dominated in turn by Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians and Habsburgs. She touches, too, on recent times; the war in this region in the 1990s, which seems to have remained more vivid in travellers’ minds than the locals’. To be frank – despite having heard of its beauty – it’s one of the reasons I hadn’t visited. Campa says that after the conflict, people stayed away for many years, “Everybody was too afraid to come.” Now, tourism is blossoming again. She says her charges are surprised not only by how clean and developed it is but also how safe. “They feel comfortable.”
Campa doesn’t dwell on the dark side. Whether on daytrips, evening outings or long days on the bus, her sense of humour infuses our travels, as does her steadfast care. She presents us with small delicacies to take home: Croatian chocolate and rakija, a kind of local brandy; she treats us to gelato on our city tours. “It makes you feel special,” says one of my travelling companions.
And pleasant surprises are becoming a habit on this trip: not only were those oysters a revelation, the cuisine has also been an unexpected boon. At the end of the day, when we break into small clusters – threes, fours and fives – and head into town for dinner, we can’t help but compare notes on the homemade pasta served with truffle, tender stuffed squid or mussels and clams soused in garlic and white wine.
But not everything in this part of the world is perfect and picturesque – the excellent wines and food, the historic towns and Venetian buildings all tick the boxes – but the newer architecture is less, ahem, pleasing to the eye. “It doesn’t look really appealing,” agrees Campa as we drive through a town in Montenegro with a mashup of socialist-era and modern structures. “There are no strict laws on construction, no one unique architectural style,” she explains with a wry smile. “We say sometimes it looks uniquely ugly and that’s it.” Everyone laughs and, in a way, it’s a relief: nothing can be beautiful all of the time, with perhaps one exception – the Adriatic.
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