Suspended – Faust Vrančić and Prvić Luka

First you see the church and then a ghostly figure of an expressionless doll suspended between heaven and earth. This is the island of Prvić Luka where the body of Faust Vrančić rests in peace and his spirit treads the ground of his summer vacation spot. The latter is actually in Šepurine, on the other side of the island about a 10-minute walk from Prvić Luka, while the former is buried at his bequest in the aforementioned St. Mary’s Church.

The creepy looking parachute doll - from a design by Faust Vrančić
The creepy looking parachute doll – from a design by Faust Vrančić

Born in 1551, no doubt into a well-heeled family in Šibenik, where your ferry journey begins, this young man had many opportunities in life beginning with an education in Venice and later at Padua University where his majors included mathematics and engineering. And here’s where the eerie doll features. In a book published by himself in Latin, Italian, Spanish, French and German (did I mention he was a polyglot?) called Machinae Novae, sketches of his Homo Volans appear as one of the first attempts at parachute invention. Imagine running free on that pristine island surrounded by waters changing from green to teal to blue to turquoise, where the sky meets the sea and the two are almost indistinguishable? Floating, suspended, flying all come to mind. Vrančić’s daydreaming had no limits. The earliest drawings of bridges hanging from steel cables in many forms and shapes are also in the book as are his mills and wind turbines. A visionary by all accounts. His 17thC inventions proved to be sound and with the advance of technology, many of his discoveries were realised a century later. The eponymous Memorial Centre in his honour, right next to the puppet, documents his story in a delightful way showing his family tree, his ‘machines’ as well as some hands-on games for younger visitors.

Faust Vrančić occupying his rightful place in the delightful Memorial Centre
Faust Vrančić occupying his rightful place in the delightful Memorial Centre
Engineering orchestrated in the 17thC, realised a century later
Engineering orchestrated in the 17thC, realised a century later

With all this heady stuff churning around in your brain, it’s time to test the waters where Faust himself must have cooled down regularly. It’s hot and clear coolness hoodwinks you to take a dip and freshen up your thinking. And what follows is also quite natural – a deep thirst and a hollow feeling in the stomach. Where to satisfy these urges?

The drawing wall at a gallery on Prvić Luka
The drawing wall at a gallery on Prvić Luka
Stone buildings and their quaint occupants
Stone buildings and their quaint occupants

In amongst the stone buildings and their charming occupants, we find Stara Makina and eyeball the newly lit fire in the grill, right on the waterfront. This’ll do nicely, thank you very much. It takes a while to get a menu, island time you know, but when our mixed salad and mixed grill finally arrive, it’s worth the wait. The chicken kebab is succulent, the ćevapi (a type of skinless sausage made of minced meat) nicely spiced, the beefsteak tender and the lamb tasting of island shrubs and herbs. Served with crispy, thinly sliced oven-baked potatoes, it hits the spot together with the local red wine to wash it all down. The professionally presented dishes are served with a smile from both the waitress and the chef slaving away in this heat. To top it all, your stomach does the groaning not your head when the bill arrives.

A hearty, delicious meal at Stara Makina
A hearty, delicious meal at Stara Makina

Another swim in the glitter of diamonds that sparkle around you, and then locally made ice cream finishes off a day of a little bit of culture, a little bit of indulgence and a lot of fine feelings of time well spent. And this, my friends, is how you drift between heaven and earth with reality being put off for a later date.

Surround yourself with diamonds
Surround yourself with diamonds

Links:

Prvić Luka

From Šibenik to Prvić Luka takes 45 minutes on the Jadrolinija ferry

Faust Vrančić

Faust Vrančić Memorial Centre

Konoba Stara Makina (restaurant)

 

 

Nth Reasons to Visit Šibenik

After a month in this pearl of a city, my time here is coming to an end. Leaving without paying tribute would be a crime.

The People

… the factor that makes it possible to live in a strange city for a month and never feel lonely. Whether it’s Luciana and Toni at Niko’s Café and Bar at the open air market, Seida at Argola Restaurant on the seaside promenade, Vanja the local guide and expert on the history past and present or Nino Nimac and Danijela Prpic, duo extraordinaire, their positive demeanour, excellent service, talent and open-heartedness is enough to draw you back.

Beautiful Luciana at Niko's Bar
Sassy Luciana at Niko’s Bar

The Old Town

… is the colour of a pearl, nestled neatly on the hillside overlooking the ageless channel that flows in from the Adriatic. St. James Cathedral is the most important Renaissance architectural monument in the whole of Croatia and the Baptistry will imprint itself on your memory forever for its beauty. St. Nicholas Fortress affords spectacular views over the city and the water. Catch a concert there if you can, the atmosphere is majestic. The Medieval Herb Garden of St. Lawrence maintained by pupils from the local high school is refreshing and fragrant in the summer heat, consisting of both culinary and medicinal plants. Strolling through the narrow, slippery (be careful!) alleys, frankly all you need to do is look up at the mix of Gothic, Romanesque, Medieval and Renaissance styles of the numerous churches and buildings. And if hunger pangs hit you or a thirst develops after climbing those stairs, there are plenty of food and drink spots around every corner.

Herb garden of St. Lawrence
Herb garden of St. Lawrence

The Food

… is local, produced close by and mostly a no-nonsense affair. Tinel in the Old Town uses only organic veg and their octopus salad is tender and juicy. Just out of town there’s an array of choices. The peka lamb is baked for hours under a lid at Torcida Restaurant in Vrpolje (10 minutes by car), the variety of mussels and clams is simmered in a unforgettable white wine sauce at Zlatna Riberica in Brodarica about 20 minutes by bus, and the olive-oil/garlic/parlsey drenched catch of the day is worth the wait at Konoba Kapelica on Krapanj Island, a swim away from Broderica but there is a ferry. Getting back to the city, there’s the real locals place called Buffet Simune on a side street very close to the open air market where the fried sardines and ćevapčići (mixed meat on a skewer) is served up in large portions at laughable prices.

Small portions at Torcida
Small portions at Torcida

The Wine and Other Stuff

While a cold Ožujsko or Karlovačko beer is just the thing after a swim in the sea, a glass of the Dalmatian white blend of Debit and Maraština is herbaceous and even ever so slightly salty and goes extremely well with seafood dishes. Babić is the red varietal of this area and this full, big-bodied wine is a must when eating pršut, the Croatian’s soft, non-stringy answer to Italian proscuitto. And don’t leave without giving rakije a go. It’s firewater but the local herbal blend Travarica is slightly green in colour and palatable. Psst, Vinoplod Winery on the outskirts of town as you enter from Split, has a wine shop at the gate where you can get all of these products except the beer of course, at a discount.

Big Babić
Big Babić

The Bars

So I’ve already mentioned Niko’s where the coffee is creamy and the froth is sprinkled with chocolate (€1,10/8 kuna). Even though there are plenty of bars to choose from down on the shoreline and in the Old Town, the place to be is Bono’s named after the U2 star of course, the owner being a huge fan. This joint is so unique that they’ve declared it a Republic with its own flag and its own mix of great music, none of this canned stuff, all CD’s hand chosen. And there’s live music every Friday.

And on my way home, there’s always Kula Bar  in Baldekin to drop into for a night cap of the famous rakije, called Travarice, a grassy, herbal hooch with a heady blend of 15 herbs.

The Size

…. is navigable, manageable and even at a slow plod you can walk from this side to the other side reaching Banj Beach in 30 minutes. Downtown becomes your town in a matter of less than a day. It’s all there, supermarkets, the open-air market, banks, boutiques, pharmacies and even cobblers in a shoe emergency. It’s got a cosy feel and I do believe this is attributable to its size.

The Proximity

…. to everywhere means that you never need to be bored. Krka National Park is a half an hour away even by bus, the islands are short ferry rides and even the furthest one in the archipelago Žirje is only 1 hour and 40 minutes away. Buses abound and you can get to Split Airport by taking a 1 hour bus ride to Trogir and then another one for around 15 minutes. Easy peasy. Zagreb, Split, Pula, Dubrovnik, you name it they’re all accessible.

Rushing waters at Skradin Buk, Krka National Park
Rushing waters at Skradin Buk, Krka National Park

The Islands and Beaches

… are all within a ferry ride or bike ride or bus ride away. So easy to reach. See my blog for details: Getting In and Around Šibenik.

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Next Bike 

Just ’cause you’re feeling lazy or just for fun, this is an excellent way of getting around the city and works like a charm. Enter your telephone number, credit card details and your personalised pin code and you’re all set. From then on it’s a breeze and at this point I have to say that the motorists are more than considerate. No hooting, no impatience, veering around you to make sure that you don’t damage their cars. Next Bike

The Diving

… impossible to beat for visibility – 25 m and more is what you’ll find in these turquoise waters and besides, the Dive Master is handsome. Mediteraneo operates from Hotel Spongiola on Krapanj Island, 20 minutes by bus to Brodarica and a short ferry ride from there.

Emil's the one on the right
Emil’s the one on the right, mind you the one on the left isn’t bad at all

 

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“Sponge Bob Found” on Krapanj Island

So I think when I’ve seen one, I’ve seen them all and then it dawns on me, I couldn’t be more wrong. Every island is distinctive, has its own little industry and it’s not only tourism. Stepping off the ferry at Krapanj, you leave the worries of the world behind you.

Little stone man-made coves to moor the boat on Krapanj Island
Little stone man-made coves to moor the boat on Krapanj Island

Besides the fact that it has an industry of underwater sponges that scuba divers have to dive for and that have purportedly been used in NASA space shuttles due to its inability to burn, it’s just plain charming. The little museum with the enthusiastic lady behind the counter gives you a chance to bump up your sponge knowledge and perhaps buy one. The little stone harbours surrounding the mooring spot of the boats provide shelter from stormy seas and perhaps even serve as private little swimming pools for kids to play in. Service at family-run Konoba Kapelica is slow but the food is so tasty and prepared with such heart, it really just puts you into the island-time frame of mind. Try the octopus risotto with ink and what seems to be like barley in stead of rice. It’s smoky and creamy. The wine is a heady blend of Debit, Posip and Marastina, a little rough around the edges but so good with the food of the region.

A little sponge number
A little sponge number

And then there’s the Spongiola Hotel, a four-star gem with every bit of luxury and a good dose of friendly service thrown in.

Emil's the one on the right
Emil’s the one on the right

But the real reason I am here is for the diving. I remembered these guys from when I was here in 2013 and had performed a disastrous dive, ok give me a break it was only my 9th dive and under filming pressure at that. I needed to ‘get over it’ as they say and so I got into the gear again and plunged into the Adriatic determined to prove to myself that I can do this! The visibility was 25 to 30 m, the fish weren’t big but small and colourful, the wrecks ghostly. Mediterraneo Dive Centre is situated in the Spongiola Hotel building and charges reasonable rates for the experience (€50 for on, €70 for two dives). Besides, Emil Lemac is patient and professional, not to mention really good looking. Dive instructors, ski instructors, they seem to have this thing in common.

DSC03845 DSC03912

But even if you’re not diving, here’s an island that’ll slow your step, nourish you soul and stomach well and even gives you a wilder, natural part to explore, just round the back.

Links:

Krapanj Island

Images of the tiny Sponge Museum

Konoba Kapelica – average price around 50 kuna (€6 – €10) for a main, wine and beer – cheap as chips.

Spongiola Hotel – half-board/person (not room!) high season €90.

Mediteraneo Dive Centre – Cost for full gear and dives: €50 for one, €70 for two dives.

How to get there – Bus number 5 from the open air market in Šibenik to Brodarica. Tickets from ticket office. Time: 20 minutes max. Cost: 24 kuna return. Then take the ferry that runs every 30 minutes from in front of the Konzum where the bus stops. Time: 5 minutes max. Cost: 12 kuna (€1,75)

 

 

In Praise of Pelinkovac

This time I had to share the limelight. To be honest, I was nervous. There’s no script and the camera’s on you. And to add to my anxiety, my co-star was mute! By my side was a bottle of booze that had stood the test of time and was still being produced today after 150 years. Ladies and gents, let me introduce you to Pelinkovac, a herbal liquor that has undergone few changes since it was first invented in 1862.

IMG_9417
Franjo Pokorny aka Damjen in front of Esplanade Hotel Zagreb in our carriage

What could be more fitting than a horse and carriage to drive Franjo Pokorny, founder of the original liquor company and I through the streets of Zagreb. Franjo was speaking from the grave through the mouth of Damjen Simić, the actor who turned out to be an excellent tour guide. Details of Art Nouveau architecture were pointed out even in buildings that could have used a lick of paint decades ago, stories of gardens and fountains in inner courtyards were told and people through the ages discussed. The spirit of the man was alive and well in his stomping ground and beyond. Pokorny had none of the airs and graces of the royalty who had fallen in love with his Pelinkovac. He liked delivering his precious liquid personally perhaps to meet the intriguing types who liked to drink it or perhaps because he understood the meaning of the phrase ‘personalised service’ long before it was even coined.

Pelinkovac
Delivering the hooch by hand

Pokorny’s company underwent many changes and collaborations and is now the state-owned Badel 1862, the biggest manufacturer of spirits and wine in Croatia. Within the walls of the original headquarters, the floorboards creak, that glorious smell of ‘old’ envelops one and the safe where the secret recipe once was kept, is still in place. The secret is still intact and is kept secure in a bank vault. The people that work at Badel are a happy bunch maybe due to the nature of the business, or just because they’re well taken care of? One thing’s sure however, they’re professionals and what Master Blender Vesna doesn’t know about distilling is not worth knowing.

 

Badel 1862 Pelinkovac
Badel 1862 headquarters in Zagreb

The plant nowadays is in an industrial area on the outskirts of Zagreb. Here we learn that 30 different herbs are used in to make Pelinkovac, the major one being wormwood or absinthe. The fumes that escape the sacks of dried herbs are enough to make me hallucinate! It is carefully measured and then mixed with ethyl alcohol in stainless steel tanks where it stays for some weeks before entering the ‘holy of holies’, the old copper stills lined with the sediment and flavours of many a former batch. No preservatives, colourants or chemicals are added. Tasting the unfinished product is a hairy experience, ultra-bitter and not at all what I expected. Before bottling, sugar is added, thankfully!

Pelinkovac Antique
Pelinkovac Antique

But the proof is in the pudding and the fun part comes at Supercaffé in Zagreb when all three versions of Pelinkovac are on the table. The bartender is handsome and deft in his execution of pouring this prestigious drink into the appropriate glasses. Pelinkovac Antique holds 35% alcohol and is the sweetest of the three. Pelinkovac Orange, you guessed it, has an orange twist while Pelinkovac Bitter has, you guessed it again, the least amount of sugar added. Again I am anxious since I’m not a lover of herbal liquors and the counterparts of this product that we know so well from other parts of Europe, are just plain medicine as far as I’m concerned. I’d hate to insult my hosts and happily, phew, I really like it! All three of them have layers of taste and every sip is a surprise when you try and guess what herb is hiding behind the last one you tasted. It’s a smooth drink with perhaps only the bitter one that has any real throat hit at all and then hardly. My personal favourite? Pelinkovac Bitter.

Pouring Pelinkovac at Supercaffe, Zagreb
Pouring Pelinkovac at Supercaffe, Zagreb

Next on my agenda is to make sure that I never need to be without it. I’m eternally grateful to Pokorny and Badel for teaching this old bitch new tricks. Watch out unsuspecting importers, here I come with samples tucked under my arm!

Links:

Badel 1862 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badel_1862

Supercaffé – https://www.facebook.com/supercaffe

Pelinkovac – http://badel1862.com.mk/pelinkovats-edukatsija/?lang=en

Wormwood – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artemisia_absinthium

 

You’ll Never Be Hungry – Croatian cuisine

… in Croatia!

I don’t know about you but to me, one of the great pleasures of traveling is sampling local cuisine. Did I say sampling? It sounds a bit like small portions and that’s definitely not what you might come across in Croatia. Go on a diet before you arrive ‘cause you’re gonna need it.

The hundreds of ancient cook books at Staro Puntijar has been fully utilised by the owners of this restaurant in Zagreb. Here’s a sample (sic!):

Štrukjli soup – a blob of cottage cheese wrapped in a kind of pastry sitting in the middle of a broth.

Pletenica – rich, and meaty braided pork and bacon

“Birling” steak – veal coated in egg and pine with a lemon sauce

Mixed salad – ubiquitous throughout Croatia consisting of several vegetables, some fresh, some pickled and eaten with the main course

Apple dumpling stuffed with a gooey mixture of nuts and cinnamon doused in a red wine sauce.

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             “Birling” steak

Samobor is just outside Zagreb and picture-postcard pretty. Here you’ll find:

Kremsnite – a custard cake that sits precariously on a the lightest of light pastry, served warm. (Between you and me, the Zagrebians like to claim it too but they serve it cold – unacceptable by Samobor standards!)

Sparsely inhabited Lika County sports national and nature parks and prides itself on the fact that it has the cleanest river in Croatia called the Gacka, richly inhabited by trout. Pre Krasno Retreat makes sure that we taste it in all its shapes and forms – carpaccio, risotto, plainly grilled with olive oil, the best of them all. Throw in sweated swiss chard and potatoes and you’re in for a treat.

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Local, local, local – we’re in Gospič at Zlatna Potkova, a real country restaurant.

Salted potatoes with the skin on, all puffy and fluffy

Sir – fresh, light sour creamy type stuff

Sheep’s milk cheese – delicate and nutty

Barbecued organic lamb and believe me, you can taste the difference

Pita – scrumptuous Cottage cheese filled pastries for afters

ls7-DezdtvInEliiWK_m-opQH8FB5umOv36IqKCw1r4=w636-h477-no             Štrukjli soup

We leave the farmland behind and head for the Dalmatian coast.

Burin, little brother of the mighty bura wind that leaves destruction in its wake, lifts your spirits and keeps you cool in this scorching part of the world. Restaurant Burin is a fresh breath of air.

Owner Zvonko has roped in the whole family to run this little joint.

Octopus salad is for some reason or another, not the rubbery offering you so often have to crunch your teeth into, but tender and moist and perfectly delectable.

Kuvač – monkfish starter retains every bit of this tasty fish’s flavour.

Pasticada – slices of meat marinated for 2 days and smothered in a sauce made up of blended vegetables and other yummy things but it’s the homemade pasta that pulls this dish together.

If you possibly have room, the cheesecake melts in your mouth and teeth become redundant.

DSC01475 copy                                                         Octopus salad

Bukara Restaurant in Drvenik is the pride and joy of internationally acclaimed chef Niška who takes me into a back garden, makes a hole in the heap of beach pebbles, flings in two octopi, covers them up with same stones, makes a fire on top and leaves it there for 1,5 hours. In the meanwhile, we clean fresh fish together, crank up a cuttle fish stew with bacon, stock and white wine and have a sip of Dalmatian banana rakije, the local hooch. It turns into a celebration of food if ever there was one.

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                           Octopus fresh from the coal-topped hole in the ground

Croatia’s full of it. They have their own ecological version of Fleur du Sel made on the beach at Zivogošće, the methods of cooking are old, tested and tried, the ingredients couldn’t be fresher or more local, and the finished product is kept plain and simple. No butter, no cream, just plenty of delicious, locally-made olive oil – good for the heart and soul.