Celeb-free south – While walking the steep and winding streets of Sibenik the following day, I discovered that the Japanese come to Croatia on film trips too, lured by an anime film about a flying red pig. “He’s called Porco Rosso,” a tourist called Masako told me as we visited the magnificent baroque vault in St James’s Cathedral, “and he’s a 1920s flying ace who lives in the Croatian islands somewhere near Split. We are all big fans.” I watched Porco Rosso later that night on YouTube. The astonishing beauty of the scenes spurred me to see more of southern Dalmatia, so the next day I left Zadar and took a two-hour bus ride south to Split. Split is a bigger city, clambering from a sparkling harbour into the foothills of the Dinaric Alps in neat 17th-century terracotta rows and ugly 20th-century concrete. Like Zadar it’s an ideal base for excursions, with cheap accommodation, and a string of bus connections to the hills and ferry links to the islands.
I spent a day walking the woodland trails at Krka, another national park nestled in the mountains, where the beautiful Krka River cascades into an Adriatic fjord. And I visited the island of Hvar and its eponymous hub town, a satellite city of Venice built in honey-coloured stone around a handsome waterfront piazza. Yachts crowd here in the summer. Tom Cruise visits. Beyonce is said to have named her daughter after the blue ivy that creeps across the walls of the imposing fort. However, out of season the sun still shines but the town is a peaceful, local place, apparently unaffected by the Celebrity Age. Without a yacht in sight, wooden fishing boats ruled the harbour. Old men gathered on the street comers to gossip and while away the time.
Let’s drink to that – My final day was spent on Brac island. I arrived on the morning ferry from Split in time to catch the island bus. I took potluck and hopped on, seeing where it would take me. Weclimbed, and soon the tiny port of Supetar was left behind in miniature – a huddle of terracotta on an emerald cove. Brae became rugged slopes divided by dry stone. Goat herds and groves of withered olive trees speckled the hillsides. We reached a village perched on a ridge-top under the gaze of a huge windmill, houses clustered around a sleepy church.
I decided to stop here and after a wander through the scattering of streets chanced on a little winery and its affable owner, Sasha Senjkovic. Sasha used to play on the wing for Hajduk Split, one of Croatia’s top football teams, before retiring to spend his money on his first loves -wine and family. He modernised his grandfather’s ancient vineyards and turned them into an award-winning winery. I bought a bottle of Bosso from him and climbed back on the bus. It continued through the hills before dropping steeply towards the coast at the town of Selca.
Natasa, a local that I met on the journey, was a guide and offered to show me around. Selca is known for its stone-carving and the town is filled with beautiful statues and bas reliefs. The most startling is a bronze of Christ cast by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mcstrovic from thousands of spent Second World War shell cases, collected from the hills. “We turned weapons into a symbol of peace,” Natasa told me. That evening Natasa invited me to dine out with her friends in a tavern set by the waterside in the neighbouring village of Povlja. The fish was fresh; the olives and potatoes were from the owner’s own fields.
We washed them down with Bosso wine – rich, fruity and full of character. The bill was the price of a UK cafe snack. After dinner we took a walk around the harbour. Fishermen were sitting in the warm yellow light of a bar, laughing and downing schnapps. The sky was filled with stars and lit by a low, large moon. The scene was Croatia in miniature: nature and culture in harmony; intimate, welcoming, timeless. People pay a fortune scouring Provence and Tuscany for the Mediterranean as it used to be. I’d found it, perfectly preserved and free of tourists, at a bargain price.