DUBROVNIK — Not long before Mateo Vicelic was born, the winemakers of Croatia’s Peljesac peninsula were still doing things the hard way. Valiant farmers would steer their donkeys, with their burden of grapes, up the treacherous peaks of Dingac village and deliver their harvest to the towns in the valley below. When the tiny community voted to dig their own tunnel through the precipice in 1973, locals finally opened their doors to the world beyond — and the occasional tourist.
I had met Vicelic, a boutique vintner, by that very tunnel while on a culinary tour of Dubrovnik’s hinterland. “I figured you’d have trouble finding us beyond here,” he joked, emerging from his pickup to greet me. With his homeland beyond the hills not even charted on my maps, he had a point.
We drove in convoy through the short, cavernous tunnel, the light at the end coming from the shimmering Adriatic below a plunging cliff face of vines. “Welcome to my office,” Vicelic said, as we pulled up to his open-air gazebo tasting bay. The Croatian son of a sailor, he grew up in both Kenya and Dubrovnik before settling back on his grandfather’s farm in 2010. “It’s been in the family about 300 years,” he said as he surveyed his land and greeted the workers pruning the vines below.
His vintages lived up to the story. As I drifted on a hammock swing, sipping on a deliciously plummy Dingac red (an ancient ancestor to zinfandel), I realized I had stumbled upon the most organic of wine-tasting experiences. “We try to put all of this setting into a bottle,” Vicelic added.
Known as Croatia’s Napa Valley, Peljesac pairs its wine scene with artisanal foodie finds. In the harbor village of Ston, stalls of fresh figs, wines, and oysters lured passing picnickers while at Restaurant Kapetanova Kuca, waiters served bubbling bowls of buzara (mussel stew) to al fresco diners. Vicelic, however, had tipped me off to a place on the opposite end of the peninsula: Restoran Plavi in the sleepy village of Trpanj.
Mediterranean magnificence flanked me en route: wine lands dotted with crumbling stone cottages and poppy fields and wild, lavender-lined scrublands where golden jackals lurked and wild boars foraged. Set in a revamped shipyard with seating spilling onto a deserted strand, Restoran Plavi operated on a refreshingly novel ethos. “We don’t do menus,” said the affable Zagreb chef Tadej Kovac Andric , as he greeted me at my table. “We go with five or six dishes a day, based on what comes in off the boats.” It sounded promising. My starter of bonito carpaccio with baby greens drizzled in local olive oil was followed by tarragon-infused sea bass and a dessert of dark chocolate torta with salty caramel and a crème anglaise. Accompanied by a glass of local white (the unpronounceable Grk), the fare had all the finesse of the upmarket trattorias across the Adriatic.
Rather than venturing farther north up the Dalmatian coast, my jaunt continued with a Balkan border hop to Croatia’s southern neighbor, Montenegro. The remote mountain state is one of the newest nations in the world since seceding from Serbia in 2006. Even for the most seasoned of European vacationers, it is considered something of a hidden gem.
Less than an hour south of Dubrovnik, Montenegro’s 60-mile coast centers around the terracotta-topped town of Kotor and the buzzing Budva Riviera. The latter was packed with a montage of Slavic scenes: Teenagers grinding to Montenegrin hip-hop; fishermen perched on piers hoping for biting sea bass; Porsche Carreras cruising the streets, steered by the country’s nouveau riche. Unlike Croatia, Montenegro has not yet joined the European Union fold but has adopted the euro since independence, and deflation is down and fortunes are up.
“During the war, we would get paid on a Thursday and by the following morning, our salaries would be worthless,” said Milica Racanovic from the local tourist office. “Life has certainly become more material but at least people have money,” she added.
With some local tips from Racanovic, I ambled Budva’s labyrinthine lanes and the sandy beaches of Mogren before sampling some konobas, the traditional family-run taverns. In Demizana, just outside the city gate, delicious entrees of amberjack with spinach and crni rizot (black risotto) set the bar high.
Kotor proved perhaps even more a Balkan beauty: a terra-cotta-topped, UNESCO-listed old town where magnificent Venetian fortifications fold perilously up along the mountainsides. The weekend markets, held along the yacht-lined bay, were in full swing when I arrived. Cheesemongers and florists draped in traditional black shawls and bonnets sold their produce between bustling stalls selling fragrant flowers and herbs. I had come to source the true pride of Montenegrin cuisine: Njeguski prsut.
The ham, said to be Montenegro’s charcuterie answer to prosciutto di Parma or Germany’s Schwarzwaldschinken, hails from the eponymous Njegusi, a village lofted in the mist-shrouded peaks of the Lovcen Pass. The serpentine road was a gear-cranking ascent through 25 hairpin bends, yielding to the whims of bell-clinking cattle along the way. At the summit, a plateau of lush meadows and wildflowers peppered with folk architecture and tiny chapels folded out. This wasn’t Alpine mountain perfection however: Shuttered homes were humble, the village a little ram-shackle. However, there was a calming sense of an authentic life here in one of Europe’s most untouched landscapes.
My journey’s end was Kod Pera, a local prsut-producing inn. Inside I was welcomed by owner Branko Milosevic , an elder in a peaked cap who greeted me with a lively “Zdravo!” While the tiny kafana with its sepia photographs and mix-and-match furniture might have the air of a funky hipster pop-up cafe in Somerville, son Djuro informed me that his family has been wearing the toque here for almost 150 years. “That’s my great-grandfather there,” he said, pointing to a moustachioed gent in an oil painting. “He was actually given the work permit to open here by Nikola I,” referring to Montenegro’s first (and last) king, who was born in the village.
There was a pride of history and heritage within the walls here and as Milosevic rustled up my order, Djuro invited me for a peek at the smokehouse upstairs. Hefty hocks of ham hung from the dusky rafters above us, the smoke of beech wood cinders wafting around us. “We get the pork from our cousins, my mother makes our bread, and the cheese [known as sir] is local,” he added.
Down on the terrace, the lone patron overlooking a verdant valley pierced with poplar trees, I was served a lunch feast of family produce. “It’s the mountain breeze and sea air which gives the ham the unique flavor,” Djuro said. It seemed after enjoying Croatia in a bottle, now it was time to savor Montenegro on a plate.