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Ancient art of idling

Special to The Times

FROM somewhere nearby come the voices of angels. I think it’s my imagination, but I see my mother has stopped to listen as well.

We make our way through the night to a tiny plaza and church. Above us, windows are thrust open, and from the warm light inside the voices of choral singers fill the air with song. We sit for an hour absorbing the music until we can no longer hold our heads up. Then we make our way back through town and up the 156 steps to our beds, where we dream peacefully amid the scent of gardenias and orange blossoms.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 30, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Dalmatian Coast: In a map accompanying an article about Hvar, Croatia, in the April 23 Travel section, Dalmatian was spelled incorrectly as Dalmation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 30, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Dalmatian Coast: In a map accompanying an article about Hvar, Croatia, in the April 23 Travel section, Dalmatian was spelled incorrectly as Dalmation.

We’re on the island of Hvar, fondly referred to as the “Croatian Madeira.” Instead of traveling to Italy, where the Americans run in packs and the euro’s strength has made inexpensive travel prohibitive, we chose in May 2004 to visit the Mediterranean-like Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Dalmatia is the region along the Adriatic Sea that lies mostly in Croatia.

Amid Hvar’s tranquillity, it’s hard to believe that a brutal ethnic war ravaged much of Croatia a little more than 10 years ago. More than 200,000 people were killed in the conflict over ethnic, economic, territorial and political issues.

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In Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, we bought bus tickets to the coastal city of Split. From there, it’s only a short ferry ride to the island of Hvar.

On the bus, I serendipitously took a seat beside Vibor, a Croatian rock musician and keyboardist for the band Soul Finger. We talked about rock ‘n’ roll before I started grilling him on Dalmatia.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous there but more expensive than other parts of Croatia,” Vibor said.

“But isn’t Italy more expensive?” I asked.

“Yes, but at least in Italy you get service,” he said, laughing. “In Dalmatia, all they’re selling you is the air and the sea.”

In the town of Hvar (pronounced Huhwar), we step off the ferry into a small swarm of elderly women, who, like many others throughout Croatia, hope to rent us one of their private rooms. In the 80-degree midmorning heat, they are all dressed alike: long black stockings, thick cotton skirts and dark cardigan sweaters.

Mom (who’s not yet 60) and I gingerly navigate our backpacks through the group of look-alikes. They call out to us in thick Slavic accents. “You need prrivate rroom? Verry nice. Verry clean. Gud vew.... Kom!”

We guiltily walk through the mob shaking our heads, “Ne hvala. No, thank you. Sorry,” and head toward a young man named Sasha. His family’s private rooms were recommended to us by a friend in Split.

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We follow Sasha up those 156 steps through winding passageways, beneath balconies brimming with strawberry-colored geranium blossoms, between lines of fresh laundry hanging out to dry and past women bent over tending sun-kissed tomato plants.

Our room is above Sasha’s aunt’s house, and he hands us a large brass key that unlocks shuttered French doors on our balcony.

Stretching below us is Hvar’s medieval harbor, a miniature Venice, where sailboats are lined up from the far corners of Europe. Beyond is a breathtaking view of the Adriatic. The water ruffles in the wind and the scent of saltwater rises to meet us.

My mother grabs my hand and squeezes it. “I think I could stay here for a while,” she says softly.

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*

No hustle, little bustle

VIBOR the rock star was right. The Dalmatians know how to take it easy. The same trait of languidness that makes them poor business owners also makes their culture an ideal one for vacationing visitors.

In the five days of our stay, we never meet the owners of our room. Many of the stores we visit in Hvar Town curiously are closed from noon to 5 p.m. Despite their posted hours, some don’t open at all. At others, employees are flat-out annoyed that we would bother them with our business in the first place. But most of Hvar’s residents are helpful and relaxed. That relaxed attitude is one we come to adopt.

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Although we could visit other parts of the island -- the towns of Stari Grad and Jelsa, the fishing village of Sucaraj and the fields of lavender, a major cash crop here -- we make a classic Dalmatian decision: to stay in Hvar Town, to do less and savor each moment more. Hvar is teaching us to take things more slowly and, because the high tourist season hasn’t kicked in yet, it feels like we and the town’s 4,000 or so residents have it to ourselves. Within weeks, Hvar’s population will swell with travelers from Croatia and elsewhere in Europe.

Along the seaside promenade sits a row of swaying sailboats, each filled with groups of golden-tanned sailors and their international guests smoking cigars and drinking wine. It could be a Saturday or a Monday. No one seems to care. We are all on vacation here.

We delight in exploring the town’s circuitous marble streets, where autos are prohibited and life continues much as it has for centuries. We cross an expansive plaza where pigeons fly past like a rain cloud. At 48,000 square feet, St. Stephen’s Square (Trg Sveti Stjepana, in Croatian) is one of the largest of its kind in Dalmatia.

In the last 1,500 years, the island has been ruled by the Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Slavs, Venetians, Austrians and French. Surprisingly, despite the ravages of invaders and war, the Dalmatians have managed to absorb the best of these cultures into their architecture and cuisine. Hvar was a prominent port for the Venetian republic, and the Italians trained Hvar’s residents in stone carving, which they have used to ornament the town’s buildings to extraordinary effect.

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Vestiges of the past abound here: the 16th century loggia in front of the Palace Hotel, the 16th-to-17th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral at the eastern end of the plaza, and a 17th century arsenal along the waterfront, which was once used as a repairing and refitting station for Venetian ships. Adjoining it is one of the oldest public theaters in Europe, built in 1612, where plays are still performed to small audiences.

Before sunset, we climb the steep, short path to the Fortress Spanjol, a 16th century citadel constructed by the Venetians on the site of a medieval castle originally built to withstand attacks by the Turks. From the citadel is an extraordinary view of Hvar Town and the Pakleni archipelago, a chain of 11 wooded islands strung across the Adriatic Sea.

As we descend, it’s no surprise to find along the path a Dalmatian man selling bags of dried lavender, scented soap and tiny vials of scented oil. The island is reputed to have some of the best lavender fields in Dalmatia, and the town is lined with vendors selling it. But it is a surprise that instead of soliciting our business, the man presents us with a gift: several postcards of Hvar.

His name is Matko. His teeth are crooked, his hair is ruffled and dry from the saltwater, and his face is prematurely wrinkled by years spent as a fisherman.

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“I lived in Northern Europe for many years,” Matko says. “And I think, ‘Why?’ ” gesturing down the mountain toward the town, “I live in paradise. I come back here and say, ‘Never again.’ I tear my passport into 16 pieces and say, ‘Never again will I leave!’ ”

We like him immediately, and, before we part, we hire him to take us by boat to the Pakleni Islands the next day.

As the moon rises into a violet-washed sky, we make our way down the steep marble staircases that wind through the oldest part of Hvar Town. A few tables have materialized along the passageways, and young couples sit by candlelight laughing over glasses of wine. We hear a man shouting in German, Italian, then English.

“Pleaz, you must come inside!”

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We turn to see a curly-haired man in a red apron with a sock cap on his head. “You must come visit a typical Dalmatian wine cellar! Don’t worry, just take a look,” he gestures down a dim walkway.

We follow him into a cozy room where four thick wooden tables with benches sit beneath simple wicker lamps. The lighting is dim and the sound of recorded Croatian chanting fills the small space.

Giant slabs of prosciutto and cutting tools hang from the ceiling. A few black-and-white photos of a family from the early 1900s are scattered across the walls. The ambrosia-like scent of baking bread drifts from an open kitchen.

Another man emerges from the kitchen. He has short, dark hair and wears a gauzy, puffy poet’s shirt and a long red-and-white jester’s cap. We later learn it is the Hvar garb.

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“Welcome to a typical Dalmatian cellar,” says our host, Dinko, gesturing to the photos. “This wine cellar has belonged to my family for many generations now.”

The menu, written in German, Italian, Croatian and English, is simple. Most dishes are based on a few fresh ingredients.

We feast on eggplant, sweet zucchini and bell peppers marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar and herbs, and we dip crusty bits of homemade bread in rosemary-infused olive oil. I order a sampler of fresh goat, cow and sheep cheeses complemented by spiced olives. Mom enjoys the traditional Dalmatian bread, stuffed with seasoned anchovies, onions and tomatoes. For dessert, we have pinwheel cookies layered with ground hazelnuts and cinnamon and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

We’re so delighted, we decide that we must return the next night, and as we leave, we grab Dinko’s attention and tell him what a special place he has.

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“You feel the magic, don’t you?” he whispers with a smile.

*

A hike, and dinner

THE next morning, Matko takes us to the nearest of the Pakleni islands, Jerolim. As Mom luxuriates in the sun, I explore the island. When we return to the boat feeling fully relaxed, we find Matko asleep, hat pulled down over his eyes.

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For lunch, we ask Matko to take us to St. Clement Island, where Dinko’s in-laws run a vineyard and Restaurant Dionis near a town called Vlaka.

We pull up to Vlaka but the dock looks abandoned. There are no signs of human habitation save for broken beer bottles, a winding dirt path and signs advertising two restaurants, one of which announces “Restaurant Dionis,” but which doesn’t include directions. So we set off in search of it.

After a while, we see a veranda overlooking an unkempt field of grapevines and a donkey cart filled with hay. There are no signs, doors or menus. The only clue that this is a restaurant is a group of Irish and English tourists clinking glasses of wine. We take a seat at one of the tables by a row of geranium plants.

A tall man with shiny black shoes floats toward us. He clasps his hands neatly and stands before us, his thin dark hair hanging over one eye.

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“Do you have food?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Could we see a menu?”

He gives us a blank look, then his face lights up. “We do not. I am the menu.” He straightens up even taller.

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“OK. What do you have?”

“Do you like artichokes?” he asks.

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, then, I recommend the artichokes fresh from our farm.”

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“OK. Do you have anything else?”

“Maybe you like octopus salad?”

My mother perks up.

“Good then,” he says and disappears.

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He returns with our food and a pitcher of tart, fresh lemonade. He must have decided that we are thirsty and need lemonade.

I enjoy a casserole dish of baked artichokes in a creamy garlic fava bean sauce. Mom and Matko share a bowl of octopus salad mixed with apple slices, chickpeas, onions, tomatoes and fresh garlic and olive oil.

After lunch, Matko takes us between more islands and, at one point, kills the engine. We sit in the silence, swaying with the wind and listening to the lapping water.

“What do you think the secret to happiness is, Matko?” I ask, breaking the silence.

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He smiles and is silent, although his face reveals that he has already pondered the answer to this question.

“There are two secrets to happiness: The first is health and the second is peace. This is where I am happy,” he gestures to the islands and sea. “I live in paradise!”

And although we are only visitors, we can’t help but feel its magic too.

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Croatia, an Adriatic beauty

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Lufthansa has connecting service (change of plane to Croatia Airlines) to Split. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,408 until May 25, increasing to $1,660 from May 26 to June 25 and dropping to $1,576 from June 26 to Sept. 5.

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From Split, a one-hour passenger ferry runs daily to Hvar Town. Tickets cost about $4 per person one way and can be bought in the Jadrolinija office along Split’s harbor; 011-385-21-338-333.

ESSENTIALS:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 385 (country code for Croatia) and the local number.

Croatia’s currency is the kuna. One dollar was equal to 5.96 kunas at the Travel section’s deadline Tuesday. Exchange rates fluctuate daily, and travelers generally get less favorable rates when changing cash at hotels, banks and currency exchange offices.

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TOURS:

Atlas Travel Agency, on the harbor front, www.atlas-croatia.com/index.html, runs all-day island tours and boat tours of the Pakleni archipelago.

WHERE TO STAY:

For budget accommodation, try a sobe, or private room, in the homes of local women. Many rooms include ocean views, mini-fridges and private bathrooms. Doubles start at $34, with a 30% surcharge for stays less than three nights (rates rise in July and August). Prices are negotiable. Ask to see the room before accepting.

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Jagoda & Ante Bracanovic’s Guesthouse, 21-741-416, www.geocities.com/virgilye/hvar-jagoda.html, features private rooms with balconies and bathrooms, a communal kitchen and satellite TV room. Rates $18 per person.

Palace Hotel, on Hvar’s waterfront; 21-741-966, www.suncanihvar.hr. Doubles from $130-$200. Air conditioning and indoor swimming pool.

WHERE TO EAT:

Tavern Menego, 21450 Groda bb, along the Hvar stairway leading to the fortress, www.menego.hr, serves local wines and cold Dalmatian specialties: fresh cheeses, smoked meats, marinated vegetables and Dalmatian stuffed bread. Entrees $4-$15.

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Restaurant Dionis, Vloka, www.menego.hr, on St. Clement Island, specializes in local seasonal favorites such as baked artichoke in garlic and fava beans, fresh breads and octopus salads. To get there, hire a water taxi to take you to the Vloka dock on St. Clement Island. From the dock, it’s a five-minute walk to the left. Entrees about $10.

Macondo, across from the Benedictine Monastery, 21-742-850, is a local favorite, which has romantic outdoor seating and features cold plates as well as in fish. Fish dishes from $56.

TO LEARN MORE:

Croatian National Tourist Office, (800) 829-4416, www.croatia.hr.

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-- Rachel S. Thurston


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