Two groomsmen duck into the courtyard for a smoke. I watch them from the restaurant doorway, taking in their black tuxedos, champagne grins, and stumbly ease with one another. The serene, magnolia darkness offers a much-needed break from the heated conversation at our table.
I'm dining with two other foreign journalists and a group of locals at Okrugljak, an eatery just outside Zagreb. We had all met for the first time a few hours earlier in the lobby of the Regent Esplanade hotel, but any awkwardness at dinner is soon soothed by the relaxed chatter and laughter of the families filling the dining room - not to mention the bevanda, a traditional Croatian mixture of red wine and water.
In fact, we feel so at ease that our uncensored chit-chat reveals cultural differences. For instance, the New Yorker in our entourage can't understand why requesting a doggie bag for my dessert might be a faux-pas. "You've heard of fast food? This is slow food," says our hostess Amelia Tomasevic, graciously looking us each in the eye, as Croats do.
The evening was the first of many that would highlight the contrast between North America's rat race and Croatia's laid-back lifestyle. A decade removed from civil war, the union of Old World warmth and modern sophistication - everyone, for instance, seems to own fancy cellphones - is one reason Croatia is regaining its A-list status among jet setters and discriminating European travellers. Actors Sean Connery, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Cruise have been spotted vacationing (separately) on the Dalmatian Coast. Princess Caroline of Monaco is reportedly buying one of the 1,185 islands in the region, and Robert e Niro, Clint Eastwood and Sharon Stone are also rumoured to be eyeing real-estate along Croatia's 1,778-kilometre Adriatic coastline.
Many influential publications - from GQ and Condé Nast Traveler magazines to National Geographic and the New York Times - are dubbing this Adriatic country "the new Riviera," equating Croatia with what Western Europe once was, before the onset of commercialism and gaudiness. The Dalmatian Coast - notably lavender-skinned Hvar Island and the ancient resort town of Split - is being referred to as "the new Côte d'Azur." Dubrovnik, the thousand-year-old seaside city of marble streets and stone walls that poet Lord Byron called "the pearl of the Adriatic," is "the new St-Tropez." Inland, the green hills and wineries of Istria make up "the new Tuscany."
Despite the recent hype, Croatia remains refreshingly inexpensive compared with such Mediterranean destinations as Italy, France and Spain. Main courses of grilled sea bass and roasted lamb in the finest restaurants, for example, usually remain well below the $20 mark.
Wine with dinner is also quite inexpensive ($10 to $20 for a bottle of Istria's white malmsey or red teran), but a round of cocktails in a popular club may yield a Toronto-esque tab. Of course, prices in Zagreb and the country's popular coastal towns jump drastically during the crowded summer months, but during the off-season - September through May - are well below Western European levels.
Croatia's position between Eastern and Western Europe has allowed Italian, German, Hungarian, Mediterranean, Balkan and Slavic customs to surface in its art, food, architecture, and society. The latter is noticeable in the hospitable and strikingly attractive population. Visitors hoping men will measure up to Croatian actor Goran Visnjic - sexy Dr. Luka Kovac on TV's ER - won't be disappointed.
Which brings me back to the tipsy groomsmen, who had been part of a wedding taking place in a banquet hall adjoining the restaurant. Theirs was the seventh ceremony I had come across earlier that day, strolling through the city's medieval Upper Town. (The Lower Town, meanwhile, is home to most of the city's 50 museums and galleries, as well as countless parks, shops, cafés, and trendy nightclubs like Boogalo, Sokol, Saloon, and Gap club.) Weaving my way through the Upper Town's cobblestone laneways, wedding parties spilled into the streets, drawing me into flurries of flashbulbs and satin, then spitting me out the other side. Truth be told, walking through moments of other people's happiness made me feel like the ultimate tourist. I realized I was a stranger not only to this country, but to the ease with which Croats interact and rejoice.
But life in Croatia isn't all easygoing dinners and wedded bliss. The other side of this kuna (Croatia's currency) is rampant unemployment, relatively low wages, corruption, and declining standards of living. Some of these problems stem from the civil war and transition from a socialist-communist economy. But nobody talks about the past. At least, not to me. Things they do talk about: Whether or not to join the European Union. Art, music, movies, sex, sports.
Leisure is certainly important here, and most Croats love to sit with their coffee. In Zagreb, I did just that at the elegant Regent Esplanade, a five-star, art-deco hotel built in 1925 for passengers of the Orient Express. (The train station is still across the street).
For handicrafts, housewares, and fresh fruit and vegetables, don't miss Zagreb's outdoor Dolac market, nor the beautiful Mirogoj cemetery, which is also a flower-filled park and houses an outdoor sculpture gallery. For people-watching and café culture, Trg Jelacic is the bustling town square linking the city's upper and lower halves.
Leaving the capital with Nino, our driver, at the wheel of a rented car, our dinner group heads north into Istria after two days in Zagreb. This region is so close to Italy that it feels Italian - its population includes a 10-per-cent minority of ethnic Italians. Asparagus grow like dandelions in Istria's hilly green interior, where other culinary specialties include cheese and truffles.
A pair of villages - each perched on a mountaintop, separated like estranged cousins - have witnessed the region's slow evolution since medieval times. Motovun, which local legend says was once inhabited by giants, was fortified by the Venetians in the 14th century. Every July during the Motovun Film Festival, fans of independent cinema overrun the town and pitch tents in the surrounding foothills (a practise that has yielded the nickname "Film Woodstock").
The other village is Groznjan, less famous, but in my mind just as alluring. Walled in the 12th century, this artist colony emanates stillness, as if the forces of modernism can't make it up the hill (I wasn't sure our car would, either). I fantasize about living there, just to write.
I'm in good company. In 1904, James Joyce moved from Trieste, Italy, to Pula, the Istrian port town where Roman ruins stand beside busy, modern shops. (He lived there for a year with his partner Nora Barnacle, writing and teaching English to Austro-Hungarian officers.)
In the town centre near the majestic Arch of Sergius (erected in 27 BC) and Temple of Augustus (2 BC to AD 12), we happen upon a brass band performing on a side street near the town square; a gastronomical festival; even an archeological dig beside the temple, where a woman in a red suit barks directions at archeologists who, just five days earlier, had uncovered the original pavement of the town's Roman forum. Pula's main attraction - its first-century Roman amphitheatre - is now used as a concert venue for big rock shows.
The next day we drive to Opatija, a lovely seaside resort town in the neighbouring Kvarner region that was once the preferred playground of the Austro-Hungarian elite. Its 12-kilometre-long waterfront promenade offers great views of Cres, Croatia's largest island.
Accessible by ferry, Cres is a rocky landscape of ancient towns and sandy beaches. Cres Town evokes an Italian fishing village, while northern Cres is home to the Eco-Centre Caput Insulae, a sanctuary for griffon vultures. An "outdoor museum" of walking trails leads us through forests, medieval ruins and stone sculptures inscribed with ancient Glagolitic script.
Back in Opatija, the freshest of fish is served at Mali Raj, a family-owned seafood restaurant nestled into the coastline. For dessert, we sip sorbetta, a marvellous concoction of lime sorbet whipped with vodka. Our host is Ante Stampalija, a jolly, robust gentleman from a long line of fisherman who personified the Mediterranean way of life I am beginning to covet. "We say fish three times swim," he jokes. "First in the sea, second in olive oil, and third in wine - when you drink it."
During the next day's four-hour drive to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a World Heritage Site of 16 lakes connected by waterfalls, Nino suggests we stop for espresso at a roadside bar. This break in the action reminds me of my favourite moment of the trip: Of that first night in Zagreb when I stood outside, smelled the flowers, and watched two guys share a cigarette.
Suddenly, I understand what people miss when they reminisce about the old days: a simple appreciation of life and love that requires no analysis - a sensibility Croatia continues to embrace.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Although Air Canada doesn't fly to Croatia, fellow Star Alliance member Lufthansa ( www.lufthansa.com) operates flights to Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik from various airports in Western Europe. National carrier Croatia Airlines ( www.croatiaairlines.hr) also operates flights to European hubs.
WHERE TO STAY
Regent Esplanade: Mihanoviceva 1, Zagreb; 1-800-545-4000; www.regenthotels.com. Built in 1925 for passengers of the Orient Express, this five-star property combines traditional elegance and contemporary chic. Rooms start at $200 a night.
Hotel Kastel: Trg Andrea Antico 7, Motovun; 385 (1) 5268 1607; www.hotel-kastel-motovun.hr. Located in the town square of this ancient hilltop village. Rooms start at $55.
Hotel Bristol: Lica Marsala Tita 108, Opatija; 385 (1) 5170 6300; hotel-bristol.hr. Newly renovated, this seaside four-star has retained its architectural highlights dating back to 1906. Rooms start at $100.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Okrugljak: Mlinovi 28, Zagreb; 385 (1) 467 4112; www.okrugljak.hr . A splendid traditional family restaurant with an adjoining banquet hall.
Mali Raj: Opatija; 385 (1) 5170 4074. With a name that translates to "Little Paradise," this restaurant and pension specializes in seafood fresh from the Adriatic it overlooks.
THINGS TO DO
Motovun Film Festival: www.motovunfilmfestival.com. Annual festival takes over the village from July 24 to 28.
Eco-Centre Caput Insulae: Beli 4, Island of Cres; 385 (5) 184 0525; www.caput-insulae.com. This private non-profit organization houses a sanctuary for endangered griffon vultures, as well as an "outdoor museum" of walking trails.