I have a friend who was born in Croatia, his mother in Yugoslavia, his grandfather in Italy and his great-grandparents in Austria — all without ever leaving their home village. That seesaw history tells you everything you need to know about what to expect of the culture on vacation in Croatia today. The Croatian people’s roots may run deep, but all of that serial disruption has freed them to reinvent themselves and their traditions. Especially cool things have happened here in the 25 years since the country split from Yugoslavia.
Dubrovnik, possibly the least changed major city in Europe, had its latest 15 minutes of fame as the avatar for King’s Landing on the series “Game of Thrones.” The harbor-side town of Hvar on the Peljesac Peninsula has a culinary scene. (Goat carpaccio? Yes!) Cavtat to Kolocep, you find on-the-edge art galleries and boutiques that somehow never clash with the tile-roofed vibe of these Dalmatian villages. The new and the old live side by side, and they play with each other in interesting ways.
Our friend Sandi Chiavalon is off the top of the hip-artisan scale. This guy lives and breathes olive oil. At the age of just 23, his oil was named one of the 15 best in the world, and his packaging has won international design awards. When he tells you his oil has “harmonic tones of wild chicory, artichoke and dried fruits, as well as rich balsamic tones of mint, rosemary and sage,” he seriously means it. He’ll have you sipping oil from a glass — clenching your teeth, smiling big and inhaling sharply all at once — the noisy, authentic way to taste the oil. If some of his trees are 400 years old, Sandi’s passion for the art and science of olive oil is totally 21st century. (Tip of the Day: If you have a wine fridge, store your olive oil there. It’s the perfect temperature.)
The historic-but-hip parallel is at its best in Rovinj, a jewel of a town that fills the pearl-shaped tip of a peninsula in the Adriatic. It’s gorgeous — perfect for a quiet walk on 15th century streets. But just a few steps outside the city walls, there’s a treasure of contemporary architecture — the award-winning 5-star Lone Hotel. It has the sleek, pared-down silhouette of one of the billionaires’ yachts that ply the coast. Inside, the aesthetic is what I’d call modern urban. Set against a minimalist canvas of wood and natural stone, the sculptural furniture pops with color and flows through walls of glass onto terraces that overlook a private forest or the sea. We love staying there just for the chance to pass so easily between the worlds on both sides of this time warp.
Another super example is at the nearby Kozlovic Winery, owned by our friends Franco and Antonella. Historically, the Istrian Peninsula is one of the great wine-growing regions. The Malvasia grapes are the signature varietals. In their white, rosé, red and dessert forms, you can try them in any number of tasting rooms. But the Kozlovics have taken the aesthetics to a completely different level. Much of the structure tucks back into a hillside; grass and native plants camouflage its surfaces. The tasting room is slate and wood and bold graphics. The way Antonella and Franco channel their amazing enthusiasm into this traditional craft is so much fun.
I’ve had many a vacation in Croatia and have said many times that Croatia is the country where I’d most like to live. It’s because the people are some of the happiest I’ve ever met. Against a backdrop of history and with tons of respect for tradition, they live in the now and have a great time doing it. How cool is that?