Monday, 9 November 2015

The True Warmth of the Adriatic: Croatian and Montenegrin Hospitality

There are so many reasons why I fell head over heels in love with Croatia and Montenegro. The fantastic grilled meats, the wine, the abundance of cats hanging out everywhere, the stunningly awesome beaches (less so in Montenegro) and the historically rich towns. But even though I am a foodie and an avid beach-goer, the top reason for me was how friendly and hospitable the people who live there are. In this post, I'll go more in-depth with the stories I only touched on in my journal blog posts. 
The first 'apartment' we ever rented was in Pula, where we were initially worried as there was no one around and no one answered the doorbell, but once we phoned her, the owner hurried down the stairs and we were welcomed warmly. She professed not to know English very well, but was actually very proficient. She told us all the food in the apartment was free, which we had a hard time believing once we explored the kitchen: two packets of crisps, an array of muesli bars in many flavours, yoghurts, peach juice and a large pack of delicious tea biscuits called Domaćica. She really didn't need to provide that much food! It was amazing. 

But let's fast forward to our trip to Zadar, where we had booked an apartment about thirty minutes drive from the centre in the spirit of frugality. We were met by a lovely and charming woman who greeted us with "Yes, come in, how are you?" and to Yannick "Are these your two wives?". She was full of good humour and generosity. 
She brought us inside where wine, fresh fruit from their property and pastries had been laid out for our arrival. (I have to say that I found all this unusual and so wonderful that part of me thought it must be some kind of trap. It was too good to be true, surely! It felt like some kind of Greek myth in which weary travellers are offered food, drink and maybe even prozzies and then in the night their valuables are stolen or they're turned into pigs.)
Not only did we have a well-equipped apartment at our disposal, but then she showed us our very own terrace. We ate all our breakfasts and dinners out there. 
To top it all off we found there was cold sparkling water in the refrigerator! The only downside was that the wifi didn't really work, but when we went over to inquire about it she was very empathetic (and she called up the Internet company every day to complain - eventually they told her it was the same in the whole area and it might improve in two years). She told us that she liked us and if we wanted we could stay another night for a discounted rate. The place was so nice, we took her up on her offer. 
Each day more fresh fruit was brought to our table. On the last morning, after we had paid and were about to set off, one of the family members appeared carrying two types of homemade liqueurs. Speaking Croatian to us the whole time, he filled our shot glasses and sipped cheerfully at the strong liquid with us. We thanked him profusely ("Hvala, hvala", the only word we knew), and when he walked away he left the liqueurs for us to have as much as we liked. (At least that is what I believe based on his hand gestures and expressions of 'do have some more'.) I had a refill of the delicious grape one. It was the best day ever. 

On the island of Hvar we showed up to another apartment and the owner gravely informed us that there had been a double booking through a glitch on booking.com and hadn't we received her message? We hadn't been able to connect to wifi all day, so we didn't get that message. Instead of leaving us to fend for ourselves, she and her husband suggested a couple of alternatives and let us use their wifi to reserve another place, all the while bringing us homemade wine (white and red) and showing us a tourism book about the island. They were so nice, and didn't have to go out of their way like that, but they genuinely wanted to help us. 

In that alternative accommodation, Villa Welcome in Vrboska, the owner gave us a variety of useful information such as what to see around the island and where we could park in towns for free. She wished us good luck, and gave us each a lavender parcel. Mine is making my backpack smell nice and flowery - you don't get to wash your clothes as much as you'd like when camping. 

When looking for a place to eat lunch in Stari Grad on Hvar, we were standing outside craning to read Restaurant Eremitaž's selections when the owner spotted that a few bikes were parked between us and the menu, and moved each of them, lamenting that people did this all the time. 
Once we had been seated, he gave excellent recommendations on wine and told us that he likes to have a drip of olive oil with his Dalmatian smoked ham - advice I have heartily taken on board and apply to every strip of prosciutto I get my grubby hands on. 

On the island of Korčula, we stayed at a Lumbarda apartment where the owner tended to his own vineyards and olive groves. He provided advice for local beaches, and said to let him know if we had any questions. We inquired about where to purchase locally grown olive oil and then were completely blown away when we woke up the next morning to find three little bottles of his homemade 2013 batch on our terrace table!
It was such a generous gesture that we spent quite a long time in deep discussion about what to write in our return note. We wanted it to sound as appreciative as we felt, and included a toblerone as that's all we could really give back as thanks (though I did consider a bag of almonds and a packet of Haribo Happy Cola sweets). 
We've been very sparing with this special gift, but always eat it when we purchase Dalmatian ham. It goes so well together!

Near the town of Korčula on the same island we lunched at Konoba Meslina, where a huge bowl of fried bread things was free, as were the three shots of liqueur. 
Though the owner couldn't divulge his secret for perfectly grilled chicken, he informed us where to find specialty biscuits in the town. 

We unfortunately didn't spend much time in Montenegro, otherwise I'm sure this part would be longer, but I do have one story. Upon arriving at our apartment in Kotor, we were greeted by the owner's wife and mother who spoke no English but mimed fluently. They somehow conveyed that he would be home shortly, and then brought us fresh homemade juice and ripe plums from their trees. We played with their crazy uglycute dog Ba who liked to chomp down on her own tail. 
When the owner arrived he sat down and chatted with us about life in Montenegro. They have one cow and one pig, and everything they grow on their property is organic and pesticide free. Introducing us to his young daughter, he explained that the apartments were named after her. She said "ciao" to us a lot. Once our plum cravings were slaked and the juice pitcher empty, he showed us where we could pick grapes from the vines and invited us to eat as much as we liked. His mother also brought us a large chunk of homemade cheese! It was very strong, but tasty. I chowed down like a cheese demon, while Yannick couldn't handle it. 

Of course there were apartment hosts who did not ply us with a cornucopia of fresh fruits and take time out of their day to discuss local sights, but I'd go back to the Adriatic coast in a second for how lovely the people are (and the beaches and the food, let's be honest). I've said this before, but I want to retire there as these are the kinds of people who I would love to befriend and get to know well. Don't ever change!