"Wow, these tomatoes actually taste like something." The vibrant produce grown in gardens mere steps from where we dine during our Backroads trips through Croatia often garners this reaction. Leaders often jokingly respond, "Because it's grown with love," but, in all seriousness, that's the simple truth. After leading Backroads trips here for the past two years, I've been lucky enough to dine on some of the most delicious, fresh and original meals in all of Croatia, in some of the most undiscovered places. More than just great meals in the homes of our local hosts, these are experiences that offer a window to the genuine culture, passions and real day-to-day world of the people who call this place home.
If you walk down a dimly lit unmarked road just beyond the twinkling lights of the famous seaside town of Hvar, you'll find Mate and Michaela Tudor's restaurant, Konoba Lambik. It's a secret oasis in the night--a house and restaurant built of stone with wooden tables on the patio and soft orange lights nestled in the branches of olive trees. The family serendipitously agreed to cook for Backroads groups when a lost Trip Leader stumbled upon their beautiful abode over a decade ago.
Since then, their home has gradually transformed into a reservation-based restaurant, cooking for a very limited number of patrons who are lucky enough to catch wind of the magic they create. On the table, there's an impressive spread to behold: platters of seafood caught by Mate, vegetables and herbs from their garden a few steps away, olive oil made from the olives in the branches above our heads, fresh bread to ensure no olive oil is left on a plate, and carafes of homemade wine. Our hosts proudly explain the story of their home, their family history and the love they have for their life in this small slice of paradise. More than just a meal, this is one of those truly special experiences that travelers so often seek yet rarely find. Dinner at Mate and Michaela's feels like you're simply enjoying dinner in an old friend's home.
Further down the coast--and a day later on our Backroads trip--a favorite reprieve from the summer heat is found at Panorama, the family-run restaurant of Marija Jurkovic on the Pelješac Peninsula. Her peaceful home overlooks Korčula Island and the Dalmatian Coast, offering hikers a scenic spot to sip homemade lemonade and take in tantalizing scents from the kitchen. Marija cooks dishes that elude the average tourist in Croatia, like her delicious beef stew, which she marinates for days.
Perhaps the most intoxicating smell wafting up from the table is Marija's black truffle pasta. Marija is famous in the region for her ability to dig up truffles using her intuition and a spade she keeps handy in her pocket. During the season, she gathers several pounds of black truffles and, although she could sell her findings for thousands of dollars, she instead shares them with love on the pasta she serves to her guests and friends. Marija and her family not only treat us to an unforgettable meal, they also make us Backroads leaders and guests feel like family.
Yet another of my favorite places to dine, just a bit further down the coast, is the historic home of Tony and Nika, Mato and Juliana, and the rest of the three generations of the Brautović family living in Močići. Here, everything is--surprise, surprise--homemade, as well as award-winning! Strolling through the expansive backyard garden, it's not uncommon to see wine being made or figs drying in the Mediterranean sun. And the cherry on top is the lavender cake for dessert!
The Brautović's house, along with the rest of the village, was burned down twice--once in 1806 and again during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991. As Backroads guests wander through the house and see pictures from the war, they gain a deeper understanding for the trials and history of this family, this community, and the people of Croatia. Recognizing the family's resilience adds an incredible element of depth to the meals served on the Brautović's table and an appreciation for the people sitting around it.
I feel so fortunate to have spent these past years leading trips in Croatia and witnessing the relationships that bond the people here, the pride they take in the meals they prepare and the friendships they form with the people who they welcome into their homes. It's clear that, here in Croatia, it's not just what's on the table that offers insight into a culture, it's who's around the table with you that reveals the true magic of a place.