Cover photo: Daniel Ercsey

While I was in Lviv, today part of the Ukraine, I also visited Drohobych, where one of the most important 20th-century Polish Jewish writers, Bruno Schulz, worked until he was shot dead by a Gestapo officer. In his most important work, The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz remembers the Galician city and his own childhood where Dalmatian wine was offered for sale in a shop opening onto a hot and dusty street. I would like to believe that the dense, spicy, almost black wine came from the Omiš area in the Republic of Polijica…

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

Dalmatia, with its endless coastline certainly puts you to the test, whether it be the length of the journey or the stories. Ever since the motorway all the way to Bosnia was completed, everyone just turns off to the shore when they are approaching their destination. Thus, although you save time, you also miss out on impressions, stories, landscapes, moments, flavours and smells, all those things you don’t actually spend money on, but after twenty years might be your only important memory, if you let it be.

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

Have you been to Omiš, for example? Even if you had not originally set out to go there, but for some reason or other, you decided not to speed south on the motorway, you would find this small town, proud and self-aware, to the south of Split, where the road suddenly crosses a river that rushes out towards the sea from a rocky cliff. It’s a spectacular sight and the majority of tourists, even though they are eager to get to their apartments, still slow down on the bridge to admire the view. It’s an involuntary action, the locals honk their horns, let’s say they always do this, the queue just gets longer, but finally everyone slows down in the middle of the bridge, they simply can’t help themselves. Omiš is mesmerising. A sombre fortress on a rocky cliff guards the strait, right by the river and above the small seaside town. The Cetina river means everything here. The town was built on its sediment, and today, girls in bikinis play volleyball and tanned elderly gentlemen in white suits sip their frappé there. The sea could also be seen from here in the 12th century by Count Miroslav of the Kačić family, whose ancestors and descendants include countless Byzantine pirate captains. Omiš was also capital of the Neretvans, a people of sea pirates, from the time the Slavic tribes invaded and destroyed Oneum, the settlement founded by the Romans.

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

The house of the happy man

What makes somebody happy? Success in business life? Some consider them beautiful? Success with women? Rich and confident? Has had many children and grandchildren? Nikša Mimica is certainly lucky as he has a beautiful daughter and talented son, plus three hectares of vines around Omiš, where he produces wonderful wines to the great satisfaction of everyone. The name of the winery, “the house of the happy man”, of course does not only mean that he feels fortunate, it is more a tribute to a citizen of Omiš, presumably Ivan Primojević, who acted as the Venetian ambassador to the town in the 16th century and whose Latin inscription, “Thank you Lord, for allowing me to live in this world“ says he was certainly satisfied with his life.

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

Today, the house is known as the house of the happy man, hence the name of the winery, which gives birth to deep, dark Pribidrags and cinnamon-scented Rose Muscats reminiscent of oriental spice (under the name Omiš Rose). Not exactly light summer drinks, but they can be wonderful mementos of your holiday when you open the bottles you brought home in winter by the fireplace. And so, what is Pripidrag? More commonly known as Zinfandel, Tribidag, Primitivo or maybe Crljenak Kaštelansk, it is an undeservedly forgotten ancient Dalmatian variety, which was reborn in California and went on to conquer the world from there.

Nikša Mimica the winemaker and her daughter Petra (photo: Daniel Ercsey)

A tiny republic in the mountains

The aforementioned pirates of Omiš, who mostly plundered papal galleys, to such an extent that Pope Honorius III led a crusade against them, would not have succeeded without their hinterland, in this case, the Republic of Poljica. The small state’s success was due to its geographical location. It is protected from above by the barren mountain ranges of the mainland as well as from the sea, as if it were a high valley running parallel to the sea with only one exit, the previously mentioned Cetina river, which cuts a rocky passage through to the sea. The strait was guarded by Omiš and the pirates, the highlands were guarded by the warlike Poljicans, who meanwhile pursued a clever double political game between the Kingdom of Hungary, Venice and later the Austrians.

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

The only ones who did not compromise were the Turks. They defended their independence in countless bloody clashes, sometimes at the cost of heroic self-sacrifice, such as that of a young girl, Mila Gojsalić, who ingratiated herself with the leader of the 10,000 strong attacking Turkish army, killed the pasha and blew up the Turkish ammunition. However, during the hell of the Second World War, nothing could save the population. In the Gata massacre, 96 innocent villagers were massacred on the command of the Chetnik Momčilo Đujić. The Republic of Poljica no longer existed to protect its citizens.

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

Dalmatian gastronomy on the streets of Venice

Have you heard of Predrag Matvejević, the old man who died a few years ago, who was born in Mostar to a Russian father from Odessa and a Croatian mother from Herzegovina? In his magical essay on the Mediterranean, he writes:

”But in the meantime, I came to know – and even tasted – the ‘stone soup’, I saw and recorded how it was made in a poor coastal village: in a suitable place, they take two or three stones from the sea, neither too big nor too small, that have been darkened on the seabed; it’s good if the stones are porous; they are boiled in rainwater from the cistern until all that they contain has come out; then they add a bay leaf and a sprig of thyme, followed by a couple of spoons of olive oil and wine vinegar; and if they have chosen a stone which has been lying in the sea for a long time and has been well penetrated by the sea, it doesn’t need any salt. This soup, which is widespread on the rocky islands of the Aegean, Ionian and Adriatic seas, was also made by the Greeks, Liburns and Shiukulas, and probably by the Phoenicians, Etruscans and Pelagians before them. ‘Stone soup’ is at least as ancient as poverty itself in the Mediterranean.”

But don’t worry, stone soup is not offered to tourists nowadays on the streets of Omiš, although based on its description, I’d love to taste it, especially if I could taste a nice Debit (also a Dalmatian grape variety) from Allen Bibich with it. However, there are all kinds of fish, shellfish, prawns and octopus as well as pizza and spaghetti for the kids.

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

Beyond the beach, under the spell of outdoor sports

Omiš’s beach is one of the few sandy beaches on the Croatian coast. The Cetina river, on the other hand, is a paradise for whitewater rafters, with countless easy and more difficult stretches to choose from, with inflatable rubber boats and kayaks, white wildwater and only fast-flowing turquoise sections throughout the former Republic of Poljica. High up above the left bank of the river, a multitude of ropeways connect the distant cliffs, guaranteeing a self-forgetful rush to the brave who are not afraid of the depths. Those who are after something more extreme can choose from the many rock climbing routes on the outskirts of the town or sail in the permanently windy Omiš Bay.

Photo: Daniel Ercsey

Finally, I would suggest that everyone, besides spending at least a week in Omiš, sipping Pripidrag and nibbling on octopus salad, read a lot about the history of the region, from Croatian writers like Miljenko Jergović, who in his novel The Walnut Mansion, humorously depicted the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe:

“By the way, is it not uncommon that these children from Eastern Europe, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece or Albania, are all the seeds of people with the craziest of biographies - spies, magicians, royal executors and false seal bearers - and none of them come from a normal family like all the French, Dutch or Swiss students in Paris?”

So, let’s recognise what is loveably weird in each other, listen to each other’s stories, taste each other’s wines, in Omiš or elsewhere. The point is to listen to each other, because it’s worth it…