The Dalmatian Coast and Croatian Islands in Winter
Celebrity mega-yachts grace the marinas of Hvar, Dubrovnik and Trogir in summer, but winter in Dalmatia is different, where olive and grape harvests rule
Peak season in Croatia is a glitzy affair, with the harbours, restaurants and hotels fully occupied, as an ever-increasing number of tourists come to experience the magic of the Croatian coast with its 1185 islands. The marketing slogan of the National Tourist Board - the Mediterranean As It Once Was - captures some of the magic of Croatia, with its turquoise sea, impressive stone-walled towns, outstanding cuisine, award-winning wines and delightful hospitality. In season, every local seems to have about five jobs including, more often than not, renting some accommodation. Tourism is a huge sector in Croatia, account for about a quarter of its GDP, and locals are not slow to maximise their tourist revenues to see them through the longer winter. So what is winter like in this idyllic paradise, once the tourists have departed with their expensive boats?
Croatian Wine and the Grape Harvest
Croatia has a strong agricultural heritage and the bond to the land is a strong one. The grape harvest in September is a serious affair, with company directors in Zagreb, who are of island stock, summoned by the land to play their part in the grape gathering. With a few exceptions, the wine culture is not very industrialised, and it is a quaint sight to see smallholders driving the country lanes on ancient mechanised vehicles, the family harvest in the trailer behind. Tourists are often roped in to pick by families pleased for the extra help, and they are usually rewarded with a sumptuous feast of grilled fish or meat, washed down with a litre or so of a previous vintage.
Wine has always played a major part in Croatian life and the decimation its vineyards from phylloxera at the beginning of the century precipitated mass emigration (only Ireland has a bigger per capita emigration rate per capita in Europe). Powered by the indigenous mali plavac variety, Croatian wines are once more making a name for themselves, picking up seven medals this year at the annual awards for industry magazine, Decanter.
The Olive Harvest
Another mainstay of the Dalmatian economy is olive, and the quality of the olive oil is exceptional. From pruning strategies to the timing and method of picking, everyone is an expert on olives and the debate rages in the cafes in winters, not outside on the pretty Dalmatian squares, for the fierce northern wind, known as the bura, ensures that discussions are shifted inside. As with the grapes, olive picking is a serious business, with families taking their haul to local communal presses in makeshift trailers. Picking methods range from shaking the trees to the individual pick, and numerous variations inbetween, and if conversation is lacking in a crowded bar, an innocent question on best picking practices should stoke up debate.
Weather in Croatia in winter
The weather in Croatia in winter is variable. When the bura blows, it can be colder than Siberia. The Croatian islands, so dependent on the excellent state ferry company,Jadrolinija, can find them temporarily cut off from the mainland. Locals move quickly from house to cafe in thick layers of clothing, and the picturesque squares, teeming with tourists awash with cappuccinos and ice-cream in summer, become ghost towns to be traversed at speed into the warmth indoors.
And yet, one of the stunning byproducts after the bura is crystal clear skies, bright sunshine and a chill in the air, but enough for the cafes to put out the chairs. A post-bura Sunday morning is a particular delight, as local residents pour out of the church in their Sunday best to catch up with neighbours and friends over an espresso and cherry strudel, while the children run around the square in a carefree manner long since lost in some parts of Western Europe, the older children looking after the younger. The elder statement of the village will assemble on a particular bench or wall and murmur about how things used to be.
The weeks pass and then suddenly the new tourist season approaches - farming implements and building tools are downed and exchanged for waiter uniforms and chefs hats. Such is the cyclic nature of life on the Dalmatian coast.