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Croatia

By Lavender March 10, 2011

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In Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, I’m trailing my tour guide, a woman of a certain age in purple knickers with spectacles to match, as we tour the history museum. “Old stuff,” she offers by way of explanation. But when we alight on the main square, buzzing with people, her observations become more precise: “Where you meet up here says who you are: By the statue, the upper crust. Under the clock, the trendy crowd. By the bookstore, the intellectuals.”

She greets a local jazz idol, points out a potent politician, hails a film star, and waves to a noted journalist. Here, in Zagreb’s epicenter of everything that matters, it’s all about where you stand and who you know—forget the dusty artifacts of former glory days. The troubling times before Croatia’s independence in 1991 are forgotten in the face of more pressing matters, such as how to dress. Thus, the purple knickers.

Zagreb’s Daily Market. Photos by Carla Waldemar

Hiding the jeans and sneakers in the bottom of my suitcase, I slipped into a little black something better suited to the Regent Esplanade, a hotel as grand as the White House (no, grander), and found a seat in its stylish restaurant, Zinfandels. Asking why it was named after a Hungarian grape, I quickly was informed that the world had got it all wrong: “It’s from Croatia,” the sommelier declared.

Instead, he poured me a glass of golden Malvasia, the country’s most distinctive wine, and cried, “Madam! The stuckli is coming!” Welcome to an enormous raviolo oozing melting cheese—classic peasant fare redefined by a talented chef. Love at first bite. He also goes crazy with creations all his own, such as pork belly paired with octopus. With it, I sip a luscious red Teran from the vintner I’ll visit tomorrow.

So, blend right in with the locals: Eat, drink, and be merry. With that in mind, at dawn, I make my way to the city’s vast open market, just up the steps from the Guy on a Horse statue anchoring the square. On one side looms the city’s grand neo-Gothic Cathedral, and on the other an avenue (one of many) blooming with folks sipping coffee at umbrella-topped tables. “Starbucks failed here,” I’m told, “because we don’t drink coffee in a paper cup on the way to the office. We sit for hours at a table with friends.”

Nobody works here? Not by the body count on the “green horseshoe,” the necklace of voluptuous parks and promenades that collars the city, bordering both the Art Deco belles of the New Town, all sleek and pastel, and the Old Town’s Baroque matriarchs lining the cobbled streets. Eat, drink, and be merry, indeed!

Pursuing that mantra, we head out along the Plesivica wine road, a 30-kilometer ribbon through vineyards of 32 small producers such as Korak, family-run for going on 250 years. Here, folks can sample supple Sauvignon Blanc; crisp Riesling; and Chardonnay smoothed by oak barrels—as well as the elegant Pinot Noir that accompanied the roast duck Velimir Korak’s wife, now folding napkins at another table, had prepared. “There are not many good Pinot Noir regions in the world,” he informs, then flashes his hundred-watt smile. “But this,” he declares, “is one of them!”

Next stop: tiny, Medieval Samobor, the weekend-getaway town for Zagreb’s urbanites—named “the Venice of Croatia” for the graceful bridges looping its twisting river. “Relax! Time has no power over us,” a sign instructs at the café on King Tomislav Square, where we stopped to sample kremsnite, the town’s famed cream pastry, with a ruby glass of Bermet, the local digestif.

More of the same tomorrow. Toeing our “Be Merry” theme, we strolled the main street of Opatjia (named Marshall Tito, for the deceased leader of Communist Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a part). Opatjia is a seaside playground frosting the sweet Adriatic waters of the Istria peninsula with plump villas-turned-hotels, onetime haunts of the Austro-Hungarian elite, along with hedonists Isadora Duncan and James Joyce.

Wafting a dolce vita that’s almost Italian (which, indeed, it was until 1954), palms shade an oceanside promenade peopled with kids licking ice cream cones; romantics nibbling roasted chestnuts; and grannies walking their manicured dogs past statues honoring local poets, artists, and—oh, yeah—soccer players. Nobody’s in a hurry.

Except me, the next morning. We’re heading to Livadia for its annual truffle festival. Purveyor stalls boast pyramids of the world’s most costly fungus. Truffles flavor honey, butter, pasta, cheese, prosciutto, and even grappa.

The air is rich with the unmistakable scent as we storm Restaurant Zigante for lunch. It’s not just your average cosmo restaurant. As if that weren’t enough, it’s run by the (self-crowned) King of Truffles, who shaves the costly delicacy with abandon over every single course, from carpaccio to homemade pasta, from duck breast to ice cream (yes, truffle ice cream, my new favorite flavor). Mr. Zigante expounds as he shaves away, “There are only three truffle regions in the world—France, Italy, and Croatia—and the Italians sneak our truffles over the border, and market them as theirs!”

What to drink with All Things Truffle? The fine wines of Digrassi and Koslovic, which we’d visit next—leaders of the many winemakers dotting this sunny peninsula. “Istria has become a trendy getaway,” according to Moreno Digrassi, who has had a big hand in this trend with his new style of winemaking. Pride of place goes to his fresh and floral Malvasia; his delicate, citrusy Muscat, swell with desserts; and his intensely ruby Teran Terre Rosse, bearing a blackberry-cherry bouquet.

The Koslovics have pressed grapes from their 42 acres since 1906. But Franco Koslovic’s wine is vastly different from his Dad’s, thanks to his devotion to modern thoughts and technology. “New temperatures, more knowledge, thus wines with more personality” is how he sums up his achievements. Result: a fresh, light Malvasia, and its Riserva sister, boasting even more structure and elegance. But he’s not called the King of Muscat for nothing. “It’s a delicate grape, not easy to produce,” he says. His is sweet and floral on the palate—thus, perfect with, or for, dessert.

One last meal, and one last bottle of Malvasia to match seafood grilled over an open fire at Astarea, a nearby rustic café in the hands of genial, grandfatherly Nino, who pulls up a chair to extol what’s fresh today (no written menu—no need for one). Starters, ranging from shrimp to octopus to anchovies, then a squid-ink risotto, followed by a whole, ever-so-tender, white-fleshed corvina, accompanied by bowls of salad, potatoes, and TLC.

To see, sip, and taste for yourself, contact the Croatian National Tourist Office at www.croatia.hr.

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