SINGAPORE (Dec 9): Croatia, more famously known as a stunning backdrop for filmmakers, also offers a heady mix of heritage, gastronomy and the riviera lifestyle

Our taxi driver snorts, incredulous. “You come to Croatia to see fake kings and queens? When we have so much history?” We can barely hear him above the Balkan rap blaring out from the radio. But as we clamber out to join a Game of Thrones boat cruise and city tour, we assure him we are also in Dubrovnik to soak up its centuries-old heritage.

The two-hour sunset cruise and walking tour offers just that. In between visits to parts of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, where scenes of King’s Landing and the Red Keep were filmed, our guide points out medieval heirlooms, such as the Large Fountain of Onofrio, and weaves in snippets of history: The fountain was, sadly, a casualty of a massive earthquake in 1667 and has largely been restored.

In the parallel universe of film entertainment, Croatia has found fame as the backdrop to the popular HBO fantasy series, Game of Thrones, as well as films such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Mamma Mia 2. Yet, the country, which sits at the crossroads of central and southern Europe and is home to no less than 10 Unesco World Heritage Sites, is much more than an exotic filming locale.

With the Adriatic Sea on one side and mountains on the other, its 1,800km shoreline is dotted with idyllic islands that are easy to sail to, waterfront promenades where you can feast on food or watch people parading by, and towns with an architectural legacy that dates back to Roman times. The most intact and imposing of these is Diocletian’s Palace in Split, about three hours north of Dubrovnik. Ringed by fortified walls and towers, it was built as a retirement residence for the Roman emperor Diocletian. Today, its cobblestone alleys are alive with konobas (taverns), boutique hotels and the homes of locals.

We embark on a walking tour with Jakov, a Split native and history teacher, who also happened to have a tiny role as a Meereen slave in Season 4 of Game of Thrones. He takes us to Diocletian’s mausoleum, which is the largest existing Roman temple outside of the Pantheon in Rome and points out with irony how the tomb of Rome’s brutal persecutor of Christians is now a cathedral. We are also led through the palace’s basements. Once sewers, they are now jammed with tourists browsing through stalls selling trinkets. They were also where dungeon scenes for Game of Thrones were shot.

Split is where we discover how under the radar Croatia’s gastronomy is. At Bajamonti restaurant in the town’s Venetian-inspired square, we dine on grilled crayfish and sea bass so fresh and flavourful it needs nothing beyond a sprinkling of sea salt. The Adriatic Sea is one of the cleanest bodies of water in Europe, thanks to little industrialisation along its eastern shore. That gives it a distinctive cobalt colour, above-average salinity and a bounty of marine life.

In Trogir, a town close to Split, in the shadow of the glorious Renaissance-era Cathedral of St Lawrence, we savour more of Croatia’s seafood. The marinated fresh sardines are tangy, the octopus salad crunchy and the jet-black squid ink risotto creamy. On the island of Hvar, we take an Offroad Tour with Secret Hvar, where our driver navigates bumpy dirt roads through lavender fields decimated by global warming to a konoba, which specialises in peka. This is a local dish of meat (in our case, lamb and octopus) cooked with olive oil and herbs under a bell-like dome in a charcoal oven.

Hvar is also where we learn about Croatia’s underrated wines. At the immensely atmospheric underground stone cellars at Tomich winery, we sip permutations of the region’s primary red grape, plavac mali. An offspring of the Zinfandel grape, it has been shaped by Croatia’s limestone-heavy geolo gy and is spicier, fruitier and higher in both alcohol and tannins. The rich red wine pairs well with pršut, which is Croatia’s version of prosciutto, and Pag cheese. This is the country’s most lauded cheese and it comes from a windy, arid island in the north famed for its sea salt. Croatia’s north, specifically Istria, is also home to white truffles, less well known than those from Italy, but just as aromatic.

Tomic Winery’s atmospheric tasting cellar in Hvar

All this imbibing must be balanced out with the requisite 10,000 steps a day. In Dubrovnik, we join the hordes trooping the 2km along the city walls. Encircling the Old Town, these thick ramparts offer an unbeatable view of the city’s tightly packed terracotta rooftops as well as the cerulean waters that forged Croatia’s greatest medieval city. There is little trace of the Balkan conflict that ripped through Croatia in the early 1990s after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Almost everywhere we go, the service has been off the charts and the people affable.

The next day, we take a boat out to Lokrum Island. Just 15 minutes away, it is a verdant reserve, its tranquility punctured only by the random shrieks of the island’s many peacocks. At night, we dine at Restaurant 360, which has an al fresco terrace on the city’s port-facing walls. Dubrovnik’s enduring monuments are incandescently lit up. Yachts bob quietly on the dark waters. People float in and out of cafés. Where soldiers once stood, we sit down for a serving of chef Marijo Curiü’s Michelin-starred Mediterranean cuisine — and a slideshow of Croatia’s riviera lifestyle.

Croatia does seafood with Mediterranean flair

 

Sunita Sue Leng is a former associate editor of The Edge Singapore