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The destiny of the Pelješac Peninsula has always been linked to its position. Sprawling out towards the sun of the Adriatic and the central Dalmatian islands, some 30 miles north west of Dubrovnik, it was for its Illyrian, Roman and Slavic masters a link between the Balkan hinterland and Korčula and Hvar.
Later on, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it was important for the French troops for the same reason. Apart from bequeathing it the still-existing Napoleon Road, which runs along sheltered areas from the isthmus to Orebić, they left it the secret of producing Pelješac champagne, an excellent sparkling wine bottled in old siphons. Before that, the people of Dubrovnik had endowed it with stone-girt cities and skill in farming shellfish, the people of Zahumlje with ancient little chapels, and the Greeks and Romans with the viticulture, the production of wine and sea salt, urbanity and a cultivated estate lifestyle. And yet, in spite of the rich history and pristine beauty, Pelješac is one of the least known facets of the Croatian coastline.
The peninsula is divided into several regions each with their own distinctive features. The eastern part includes Ston, Ponikve and Crna gora, together with the Ston plain, the ancient cardo and decumanus of which are still to be seen.
Driving along the Adriatic coast road from Dubrovnik to Pelješac, not far from the peninsula, the first thing to grab your attention is the defensive walls on the steep slopes that join Ston and Mali Ston, two fortified medieval towns on the isthmus. The oldest stratum of the walls was built in the 14th century as defence against both Venice and the previous owners of the peninsula, who had sold it to Dubrovnik in 1333. Building it cost the people of Dubrovnik a lot, but it served its purpose many a time. Later on the walls and forts were extended several times, and it is thought to be among the longest structures of its kind in Europe.
Under its wing, Ston, as part of the Dubrovnik Republic, developed into the administrative, economic and ecclesiastical centre of the peninsula. The earthquake that in the 17th century almost razed Dubrovnik to the ground spared the little town, and today its streets and houses are more ancient-looking than those in Dubrovnik. The original appearance has been to an extent defaced by a recent earthquake, the consequences of which have not yet been completely made good.
Ston wears its years peacefully. You sense the quiet pulse of this life as you drink an espresso in the main square, walk along the cloister of the Franciscans that was founded in the Middle Ages by friars coming from Sardinia and England, or when after a tour of the walls you settle down to the local cuisine and a good glass of wine in Bakus, the B&B of the Barović family, where the ordinary people go to eat like demigods for a moderate price.
Among the delicacies of Ston, the best known are oysters, usually eaten raw, with just a drop of lemon and a morsel of bread. It’s a good idea to try them straight from the sea with the Maškarić family, which has been farming them for generations, or in some restaurant of nearby Mali Ston, the cradle of the Pelješac hospitality industry. It’s said that they are best in March around St Joseph’s day, when gourmets from the whole area arrive at the fete to assess their taste.
A bit further from Ston to the west is Ponikve, village that was placed on the wine map of Croatia some 15 years ago by winemaker and poet Frano Miloš. His Stagnum is the first cult wine of Pelješac, produced from the indigenous variety Plavac Mali, ancient kin of Zinfandel. Wines made from Plavac have an incomparable bouquet, they are deep, full bodied and sensual; the prices of well-aged bottles are in excess of €50. This is the consequence of the demanding, laborious manner of production, and the limited supply, because of which they seldom come on to the world market.
The Miloš winery, like most of those on the peninsula, is open to visitors for informal visits and tasting. You can reach it via the main Pelješac road or striding from Ston through Ston plain, and the serpentines of the Napoleon Road over the Crnjava Pass, from which there is an unforgettable view of the sea, Ston and the salt pans, the vineyards and the beach in Prapratno Bay. If your path takes you to Ponikve, don’t miss trying the Miloš Stagnum, awarded a Decanter medal, and the Mali Stagnum made from dried berries, with a bouquet and strength reminiscent of Port.
Close by, facing onto the sea, are the vineyards of Miho Rozić, whose Plavac Mali and dessert wine Plavac Elihu are – even on Pelješac, a region that created the best Croatian reds – in a category of their own. Their secret lies in the outstanding position of the Rozić vineyards, his unstinting commitment and the honesty of his approach.
Further to the west from Prapratno and Ponikve, close to the central part of the peninsula, you come to the picturesque backwaters of the Janjina area, and then the central and most densely populated part of the peninsula, with its well-developed agriculture. Here the main villages are Kuna, Oskorušno, Potomje, Pijavičino and Donja Banda as well as Trpanj and Trstenik, a colourful little harbour with a nice beach.
Trstenik is home to the winery of Mike Grgich, a charismatic Croatian-American winemaker, which made its name in 1976 with a winning Chardonnay at the legendary Paris Tasting, the first great European triumph of Californian wines. The Plavac Mali Dingač and Pošip that are produced here are excellent.
A bit further off, in Kuna, birthplace of a great Croatian landscape painter, Celestin Medović, the best meat dishes on the peninsula are prepared in the tavern of the Antunović family. Almost everything that the Antunovićes offer is their own home product, from their herbal grappa and dried figs, usually given as a starter, to prosciutto and smoked pork fillet (the local name iskuica), and lamb from the baking bell, grilled meat or boiled capon. The prices haven’t changed for years, and range at around €25 for lunch or dinner, including wine.
Along the main Pelješac road, after Kuna, you come to Potomje, a village entirely given over to vines and wines. Among the winemakers in Potomje, in recent years Niko Bura has made a particular name for himself: with his sister Mare Mrgudić he has created an outstanding Plavac Mali Dingač simply called Bura, and a Plavac Mali Postup named Mare. Plavac from the Dingač area has a different bouquet from the others, and the characteristic ruby red has taken on shades of deeper brown here.
The Dingač and St Heels Rosé of the Saints Hills winery of entrepreneur Ernest Tolj created a true sensation on the Croatian wine scene recently. A team led by French oenologist Michel Rolland created wines that successfuly meld the character of Plavac with the features of contemporary wines of the highest class, giving the most convincing answer to date to the question whether world-renowned wine could be produced on Pelješac. A small but bold group of winemakers, which includes the Americans Jeff Reed and Robert Benmosche, is ready for a positive answer.
This part of the peninsula is followed by the coastline of Orebić, Viganj and Lovište, where seaside tourism has been most vigorously developed. The sandy beaches around Viganj are a favourite destination for yachtsmen, scuba divers and wind surfers, and a good time in the beach bars is guaranteed.
On the mountain rearing up behind Orebić is a Franciscan monastery, with its Church of the Assumption, which can be reached on foot in ten minutes or so. From the little look-out in front of the monastery there is a view of the Riviera and the white towers of Korčula on the other side of the Pelješac channel. At the time of the Dubrovnik Republic the monastery was an observation post from which events at sea were watched and danger signalled, while today the view is disrupted only by the play of the dolphins that occasionally appear in the channel.
The guardian, Fra Ivan, is a kind host, a connoisseur of wine and an expert in Croatian history. Thanks to his efforts, the monastery museum has become a thesaurus of the seafaring traditions of the local people and the rich history of Orebić.
On Pelješac the most far-off places are oases of guerrilla hospitality, well known only to sailors. The sea between the island of Hvar and the peninsula has not been fished out, and every year around Lovište a special kind of mullet comes to spawn. Their dried roe, called butarga, costs more than prosciutto, lamb, kuica, lobster and the finest white fish – in short, all the good things of the area – and cannot be found on the market. If you have the luck to get some local people to reveal where you can try it, you’ll find yourselves at a table on the terrace of one of the little fishermen’s houses by the sea, in the solitude of some hidden cove, where the rules of commercial gastronomy do not apply.
In such places, in the cool of the pergola, a summer lunch can last until twilight, and stay in the memory for ever. Courses of shellfish, butarga, crab cocktail, buzara or mussels in white wine and tomato, risotto, fish stew, fisherman’s pie and grilled fish follow slowly upon each others’ heels in the slowness of the summer day. For the true gourmet, leaving here is like being expelled from Eden.