Croatia: The magic that enticed Game Of Thrones

PHOTO: The Star/ANN, Shutterstock

This visit to Croatia was part of a media trip which started in Bosnia.

Moving on from Mostar in Bosnia, we headed towards the port of Split. Local expert Damir Grgas led us through a labyrinth of streets and the historical building known as Diocletian's Palace, which is the heart of Split.

Our group - media members from around the world - was bowled over by the sheer size and complexity of this structure. This is no ordinary palace; it's more like an entire complex.

Due to time constraints, the vivacious Grgas took us on a whirlwind tour of the palace, taking 45 minutes instead of the usual one-and-a-half hours. He spoke so fast that it seemed as if he didn't pause for breaths. And he injected a great deal of humour into his talk, making his presentation very lively and interesting.

Past the north gate (aka the Golden Gate) of the palace and in the outdoors stands a towering figure of what resembles a wizard. Is it Merlin the magician, some wondered aloud.

Photo: Shutterstock

Tour Director Karin Kollarova pointed out that it was, in fact, Gregory of Nin, a 10th century bishop who promoted the Croatian language. The statue is a masterpiece of Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.

Apparently, touching or rubbing the statue's big toe brings good luck. Countless people must've done that because the toe looks very shiny.

When it was time to hit the road, we travelled southwards along the Dalmatian Coast to Ston. The breathtaking scenery, of deep blue waters and emerald islands, made us forget whatever tiredness we might have felt from hours of travelling. The sheer comfort of the wide, plush seats and business-class legroom in the customised Insight coach helped, too.

Eventually, the Great Wall of Croatia came into view. We also glimpsed Ston's well-known salt pans. Kollarova explained how salt was a precious and closely guarded commodity centuries ago, and saltworks were first built there in the 13th century.

At a 700-year-old oyster farm in Mali Ston, we saw how the shellfish in this area, famous since Roman times, were gathered and shucked. We were told that the oysters from Mali Ston Bay are reportedly the best in the world, as they are cultivated in optimal conditions.

Also, in all of Croatia, only the oysters found in this bay are the flat variety. They were much sought-after by emperors in times past, including Tito and Napoleon. People from all over the world still converge on this village to indulge in the superior taste of its oysters.

After a fresh seafood lunch, our journey continued, to Orebic. From there, we set sail for Korcula island. We went on the trail of the great historical merchant traveller, Marco Polo, who was supposedly born on the island.

We were quite excited to spot Marco Polo House. But, apparently, that wasn't his real home. The actual house, now in ruins, stands just opposite it.

As we explored the charming narrow streets, filled with hundreds of steps, we stopped to admire the beautiful churches (such as the Cathedral of St Mark, the island's patron saint) and museums in the medieval town, also called Korcula. Our guide Neda Farac said that "the walls have ears", pointing to the "holes" in the walls of the homes.

As our leisurely stroll continued along the quay, someone remarked how quiet and tranquil it was. Just then, a passer-by walked past and exclaimed, tongue in cheek, "It's boring!"

"Oh, he's a policeman, in plain clothes," Farac pointed out. Not much "action" on the peaceful island for their men in blue.

Gorgeous scenery from the stone wall of Dubrovnik's Old Town, Croatia. Everywhere along the wall, one can enjoy stunning views.

Dinner that evening was at Filippi restaurant. The meal was divine, not only because of the delectable dishes, but also because of the Daniel Craig lookalike who served us.

I had fish soup, followed by tender Rumpsteak Tagliata with Homemade Tris Gnocchi - it was exceptionally good.

I peered over and saw my neighbour's plate of seabass fillet on a bed of sauteed veggies with extra virgin olive oil from Korcula. Mmm, it looked tantalising, too.

When the desserts arrived, we were delighted at how lovely, light and guilt-free they were! We savoured every spoonful of the yoghurt mousse with raspberry sauce, and the lemon yoghurt mousse.

Two nights in Korcula, then it was time to move on again. We stopped at a winery in the Peljesac peninsula en route to Dubrovnik. Local vintner Dubravko Vukas enlightened us about Plavac mali grapes. This was followed by a wine-tasting session of some of their renowned, full-bodied wines. Their cheeses weren't too bad, either.

In Dubrovnik, nicknamed the Pearl of the Adriatic, we entered the Old City through the Pile Gate (which has a drawbridge) that dates back to the 15th century.

Walking past Onofrio's Fountain, we were on the Stradun, the main shopping street. The Franciscan Monastery (built in 1316) and the Rector's Palace, are situated along this street. Nearby are the baroque St Blaise Church and the Dominican monastery.

I caught sight of a bridal couple along the Stradun. This place is a unique and beautiful venue for wedding shots.

The Dubrovnik Tourist Board graciously held a welcome reception for us at the grand Renaissance-style Sponza Palace. In her speech, the Board's Sandra Milovcevic said that HBO's popular TV series Game Of Thrones was shot at the palace and other locations in Dubrovnik.

With its thick, imposing medieval walls, and the bright orange roofs of the houses within, the Old City is King's Landing in the series. Its fame has spread rapidly since, drawing tourists, especially fans of the series, from around the world.

Inside Sponza Palace in the Old Walled City of Dubrovnik, where HBO's hit series Game Of Thrones was filmed.

Incidentally, the series' filming was also done at Diocletian's Palace in Split.

For our Signature Dine Around Evening, we were divided into small groups, each one dining in a different restaurant within Dubrovnik's ancient walled city.

The air was crisp and cold that evening. And the lingering sunset cast a soft pinkish-orangey glow over the pier and surrounding area. What a pretty sight it was!

A man sat by the piano at the entrance of Poklisar restaurant, his fingers caressing the ivory and ebony keys, producing pleasant strains of music.

Inside the elegant restaurant, our group settled in for an evening of fine dining. We had meat carpaccio with Parmesan cheese; mussels with white wine and Dalmatian spices; skewered Adriatic shrimps on blue-veined cheese risotto; sea bass fillet with black truffle sauce; Pizza Piccante with ham, bacon and hot peppers; and Dalmatian vegetables with olive oil, garlic and rosemary.

After the main course, we thought we would brave the cold and have dessert on the patio. The restaurant staff provided us with fleece blankets to keep us warm. A few minutes into our desserts and drinks, though, we couldn't bear the cold any longer and had to move to a table closer in, out of the wind's direct path.

On our second day in this scenic city, my newfound friend Gerrie Summers from New York and I explored the ancient walled city. Considering the massive walls were built in the 10th century, they are still in good condition.

It takes about an hour to complete the loop, but Gerrie and I took about twice as much time, as we stopped ever so often to snap photos. The scenery changes at every turn.

Not only did we get to see the main attractions in the Old City, we also had a peek into the residents' daily lives. A little boy playing ball under his mother's watchful eye. A cat walking on a roof. Laundry flapping in the wind. Workmen doing some repair work. And we caught a whiff of aromatic cooking.

I wondered how the residents felt, sharing their space with tourists every day.

After such a long walk on a hot day, Gerrie and I were ready to indulge in some gelato - not one, but two, each.

There were so many tempting flavours to choose from, it was hard to make a choice. In the end, I opted for refreshing blueberry and tasty cinnamon.

One shop that drew our attention had an appealing window display of colourful papier mache masks, figurines and dolls, and John Green's teen novel Fault In Our Stars, in Croatian, presumably.

It wasn't too crowded during our visit in late April (springtime), and the weather was generally pleasant. The other good time to visit, said Kollarova, is in October (mid-autumn) when the place isn't swarming with large crowds of tourists.

Our memorable trip to the Balkans ended on another delicious note - with a Mediterranean Celebration dinner at a waterside restaurant, touted to be the best in town - after a relaxing harbour cruise.

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