It was so clear I could see cars winding down the mountain roads on the distant mainland. After an hour’s walk I chanced upon a little village that sat next to a road as tiny as a Cornish lane. It was home to Sirana Gligora, a cheese shop that advertised itself as the home of Taski sir -award-winning sheep’s milk cheese’. I addressed the smiling man at the counter. “Do you speak any English?” I asked him, hoping to learn more about the very British-looking rosettes displayed prominently in the shop, but expecting little more than a puzzled look.
“A little bit, mate,” he said with a broad Manchester accent and a cheeky grin. “In a past life I was a social worker in Stockport.” So how did he come to be selling cheese in a tiny village in the Adriatic? “My wife’s Croatian, that’s why I moved here. But I don’t regret it for a moment. I have a great life. It’s a whole world away from what I was used to. The weather’s warm. The people are warm. The food is great.” He handed me a slice of yellow cheese. It melted in my mouth. Creamy. Delicious. “Best cheese in the world,” he said, “officially.” He explained that Sirana Gligora had beaten more than 2,600 other cheeses to win gold at the Nantwich International Cheese Awards. I bought a chunk, a bunch of tomatoes and some crusty bread. Then I picked a dozen sprigs of wild asparagus in the fields and lunched by the wayside. In the late afternoon I caught the ferry back to Zadar.
Movie mountains – Further inland they crease the continent into a fold of jagged limestone peaks called the Dinaric Alps – a subsidiary chain of the Balkan Mountains. Broken into cliffs and cut by plunging valleys, these were the battleground of the Yugoslav war and, as such, are far less-visited than the Croatian coast. But their forests and rivers are some of the wildest in southern Europe. Over the next two days I took short bus rides from Zadar into their wild heart. I spent the first day mountain-biking around the Vransko Jezero lake, narrowly avoiding horned vipers and soaking up the magnificent views.
On the following day I took a hike in Paklenica National Park. Paklenica is one of Europe’s climbing and hiking hotspots. Rivers cut the mountains into a series of ravines and gouge the limestone into caves and kilometre-deep sinkholes. I spent the morning walking along the banks of a rushing, clear-water stream past meadows of daisies and buttercups, and through pine-fresh forests stretching high to distant peaks. My guide, Marin, looked up at one of the highest, a looming grey bulk dominating the skyline. “Wolves and bears still hunt on the upper slopes,’’ he said. “And here in the forest, European lynx are still a relatively common sight in the early mornings.” We lunched on olives, cheese and warm bread next to a vast canyon, cut by a winding green river.
“Do you think it looks like the Colorado?” Marin asked. I nodded. “Winnetou died just over there,” he said, pointing to a distant spur. “In the summer, busloads of German women come here to cry.” I looked puzzled. “Winnetou?” “Yeah, Winnetou the Apache.” I was bemused: an Apache in the Balkans that makes Germans sob? Marin also looked surprised; Winnetou is a legend, how could I not have heard of him? Back at the hostel in Zadar, I Googled ‘Winnetou’ and discovered a whole movie sub-genre: the sauerkraut Western. German directed and penned, these movies used Paklenica’s wilderness to stand in for the Wild West, and featured minor Hollywood stars. Winnetou is the sauerkraut Fistful of Dollars – with romance and idealism replacing style and cynicism; it’s a German paean to the virtues of Native Americans and their love of the land. Tarantino is apparently a huge fan.