Natarsha Brown discovers the twin towns of Ston and Mali Ston in Croatia, where travellers can walk atop mighty stone walls, absorbing dramatic views and a fascinating history, before indulging in some of the world’s best seafood.
With the windows down and the Croatian sea breeze in our hair, we wind along the shore-hugging road of the Dalmatian Coast – seemingly world’s away from the cruise liner hotspots of Split and Dubrovnik. The journey passes quickly as the scenery alternates between sweeping valleys of apricot and plum trees, quaint fishing villages and imposing grey cliffs with craggy peaks reaching toward the blue sky. On the horizon, a vast shape comes slowly into focus and I feel a gasp escape me as it comes into full view: ‘The Great Wall of Croatia’.
Home to less than 2,500 people collectively, you could be forgiven for missing the sleepy twin towns of Ston and Mali Ston – the latter’s name translating literally to ‘Little Ston’ – if not for their playing host to the longest fortress system in Europe.
In 1333, the towns strategically built a fortified city wall between them to protect their coveted salt pans, yielding a resource which was, at the time, more valuable than gold. The walls’ construction was a massive feat of architecture and design, involving the work of some of the most skilled artisans of the period: Michelozzo, Bernardino Gatti of Parma and Giorgio da Sebenico (known as Juraj Dalmatinac in Croatian). Of the original 7-kilometres of stone walls constructed, about 5.5-kilometres are still standing, as are many of the original three fortresses, 41 towers and seven bastions. These mighty stone barricades – covering a stretch twice as long as the walls of Dubrovnik – today, provide a panoramic walking trail for tourists with views of the historic town centre as well as the stunning coastline and surrounding countryside.
Food fit for royalty
Over the past few years, Croatia has attracted an ever-increasing number of tourists with its promise of sun-drenched island hopping and, most recently, regular tours of Game of Thrones filming locations. But for food and history aficionados, the Peljesac Peninsula holds the key to a truly special experience of this beautiful country with its unforgettable gastronomical experiences and atmosphere bathed in medieval splendour.
The region has been renowned for its briny oysters, plucked straight from its turquoise waters, since Roman times. Local rumour claims that Austrian emperor, Franz Josef, had cases of these oysters shipped to Vienna every month to feed his court. Today, they are acclaimed internationally as being some of the most delicious oysters on the planet due to the naturally-occurring blend of nutrients in Mali Ston Bay. We are met at the marina by local fisherman and restauranteur, Denis, who is waiting to take us on a tour of the marine farms.
As we glide over the gleaming waters of the bay in our small boat, our host explains how oyster farming has changed throughout its centuries-long history in the region: ”Instead of net and twigs, we now use rope, and instead of eggs and stone, we now have cement,” he explains very matter-of-factly.
One thing that has not changed, however, is that every part of the process is still done by hand. “Every oyster is touched five to eight times before it ever reaches a plate,” Denis tells us as we listen intently. To demonstrate, he reaches a hand into the water and begins plucking oysters directly from the rope and gathering them in a bucket as we look on in awe. He then makes a turn and ferries us back to shore for lunch.
We take our seats in the waterfront gardens of Ostrog, on a small private island. We are the only guests, the restaurant consisting of a few elegantly arranged dining tables scattered beneath towering pine trees and a rustic open-air fire stove. To start, the fisherman and his daughter serve us homemade red wine, grappa and a pot full of mussels cooked simply in white wine, garlic, olive oil and parsley.
This delicious appetiser is soon followed by the main event – the oysters (known as ostrea edulis or European flat oysters) are served sea-to-table and garnished with nothing but lemon. Denis says that this is the only way to enjoy oysters of such fine quality, eschewing toppings such as cream or vinegar: “You want them to taste brassy,” he insists. After pausing and looking each of us in the eye, he continues dramatically: “You want them to taste like the sea.”
*This day trip was an optional post-cruise tour with Katarina Line