In Dol, a town named for the Croatian word for “valley,” we followed a dirt path to Marnel’s friend Jimmy’s house. Jimmy smiled shyly and grabbed the collar of his zippy black mutt while we climbed up to the rooftop patio.
Jimmy’s roommates were sprawled on a blanket smoking cigarettes. One of them, an Asian man named Taku, greeted me in English, and then began talking to Marnel in fast Croatian.
“How…how does Taku know Croatian?” I asked Marnel when the housemates disappeared to fetch glasses and — of course — booze.
“He lives here,” Marnel said. “Taku is here now three years. He actually is the one who own the house.”
The boys reappeared with five glasses, a clear glass bottle filled with wine, and another, larger bottle with a fat cork.
“What’s that?” I asked. Everyone grinned.
“You haven’t had rakija yet?” Jimmy poured me a tall glass, about two shots.
I’d heard of this stuff — a Balkan specialty, often fermented from the skins and stems left over from wine making. It tastes about as good as it sounds.
“Urgh,” I managed after taking a swallow. Marnel laughed.
Tips: Buying and drinking rakija
- Rakija (also spelled “rakia”) is a popular drink throughout the Balkans, with each country and ethnic group claiming its own recipes and specialties.
- In Dalmatia, rakija is usually made from grapes and resembles the Italian grappa. In northern Croatia, it’s often made with honey. Travarica is a popular Croatian rakija, infused with herbs. Elsewhere in the Balkans, rakija is usually made from plums or apricots, and sometimes peaches, apples, pears, cherries, figs, or a mixture of fruits.
- You can buy rakija at liquor stores throughout Croatia, but Croatians say the best rakija is homemade. Look for smaller vendors selling from carts at open-air markets or in the central square.
- And watch out — rakija is at least 40% ABV. Homemade varieties can reach 60%.
Taku wasn’t the only ex-pat living in Dol. Jimmy told me half the people in the village were American or British.
As I gingerly sipped the rakija, a neighbor from Seattle, Annie, joined us on the roof. She had dyed red hair, was somewhere past 60, and had lived in Croatia for 6 years, mostly as a part-time English teacher.
An hour passed, then two. The sun came out. The men rolled cigarettes. We all sipped rakija. Annie practiced her Croatian. Jimmy talked about buying land; he showed us, the next day, the plots on the Stari Grad Plain he planned to buy. Taku laughed about the time his parents came to visit from Japan. “They come to see, what is going on, what is he doing there?”
“What do you guys do here?” I asked.
They laughed. “This,” they said, gesturing to the sunshine and bottles.
It was the booziest I’d ever felt on a hiking trip, but it was also the fastest I’d ever gotten to know a place, walking in an hour from hidden wine shops to the Greek-era fields where the wine was grown. And feeling everywhere that pervading sense of solitude: I still couldn’t see anyone out and about, walking the streets or driving into town or tending gardens.
“You know, I think I’ve seen only one other person since we left town,” I told Taku.
“I am surprised if you tell me you saw anyone,” Taku said. “Too early in the season.”
Guess Split missed the memo, I thought.
“Yes, I just fixed up the roof,” Annie was telling Marnel. “Would you like to come see?” Noticing me peering at them over my glass, she stood and gestured. “Come. Come see my house.”
It looked like it had been built by the Lost Boys, if they had been armed with a sense of style and an arts and crafts store. The rooms and patios making up Annie’s house were joined by ladders and landings, instead of hallways and stairwells.
A Rube Goldberg system of pipes crisscrossed the roof, collecting rainwater and funneling it into a stone cistern where Annie used it to wash dishes. The living room and bedroom were fused into one space, with the bed and nightstand lofted above a ring of sofa chairs and stacks of books. In the kitchen, Annie impressed us with the multi-colored mats she had woven from plastic bags.
“Come see my new flowers,” she said, leading us up a wooden ladder to her rooftop. Pale violet blossoms burst from a long trough of plants. Leafy vines climbed an overhead trellis; I could see tiny grape buds.
“Look, up there, that is where we are hiking today,” Marnel said to me, pointing to the crown of the island a few miles away.
“That’s right, you guys probably have to get going,” Annie said. “You are lucky to have Marnel as a guide, Chelsea. He’s here a lot. He knows this island pretty well.”
“I can tell,” I said.
Tips: Hiking Hvar
- Hvar has dozens of hiking trails, and many of its back roads are so rarely used by traffic that they make for a pleasant trek as well. Though the island has about 11,000 residents, three-quarters live in the towns of Hvar, Stari Grad, or Jelsa, leaving much of the interior island green, rugged, and sparsely populated.
- The island is 42 miles from east to west, but just 6.5 miles across at its widest. Its dominant feature for hikers is the east-west ridge that rises up to half a mile high, the apex crowded by a shrine to St. Nicholas.
- There’s a large cave between Mount Sveta Nikola (Mt. St. Nicholas) and the village of Sveta Nedjelja on the south shore. It’s often used as a resting place by overnight hikers since it not only provides shelter, but also a well with clean water. There are a few signs pointing out the cave if you approach from the south (grotte in Croatian), but be very careful — it’s hard to find, and best searched for with an experienced guide.
- The full route Marnel and I took:
- Begin at the Stari Grad ferry, follow footpath into town, hike east onto the Stari Grad Plain, head southeast towards Dol, which is about 2 miles away. (There’s not a well-marked trail across the plain — just point yourself towards Dol and start walking between the fields.)
- Emerge from the plain onto the main road cutting southeast across the island and follow signs to Dol.
- Leaving Dol, hike south up a well-marked trail leading to the highest point on the island, Mt. Sv. Nikola, about 2-3 miles from Dol. The top is marked by a shrine to St. Nicholas (and there’s also a guestbook).
- Continue south towards the opposite shore. We spent the night outside the large cave just north of Sv. Nedjelja. In the morning, hike to the village of Sv. Nedjelja, then head east along the coast. Paths are sparse and not well-marked, so for an easier route, head slightly north to catch the main road. Head east towards Jagodna.
- There are several paths cutting over the east-west ridge that can put you back on the north side of the island. For an adventure, get a ride through the Pitve Tunnel. Don’t walk, because it’s 1.4km long and just wide enough for one car. (This gets interesting when two cars enter from opposite ends at the same time.) I’m a big fan of the way we got back: by calling Jimmy and having him pick us up.
Find your own local guide. See which Matador members are currently in Croatia and hit them up with your questions.