The Days of Hvar Cuisine festival opens at Restaurant Saran in Belgrade, making Croatia's premier island's culinary and tourist attractions accessible to Serb tourists.
Seventeen years ago, they were at war and yet, as the diners sang their hearts out to the traditional Dalmatian tunes by the visiting band, it was hard to tell who was a Serb and who a Dalmatian, as the Days of Hvar Cuisine festival opened on a star-studded first night at Restaurant Saran in Belgrade on January 23, 2012, an event which is being covered by Digital Journal.
Serbian tourism to Hvar
The relationship between Croatia's premier island - named by Lonely Planet as its number 5 destination for 2012 - and the Serbian capital has always been strong, and Serbian tourists were among Hvar's most important visitors in the golden years of tourism in former Yugoslavia, before regional conflict interrupted that relationship twenty years ago.
The tourism landscape has changed significantly in the interim period, with package tourism offers to destinations such as Egypt and Turkey replacing the traditional Serbian trip to the Adriatic, while Hvar has successfully reinvented itself as an exclusive destination, with an international appeal, based on its sun, beaches, nightlife, heritage and celebrity draw. According to official statistics, the largest number of 2011 visitors came from EU countries, with Italy, Germany, Slovenia and France the top four visitors, and the United States the only non-EU country in the top ten.
Despite the regional conflict, the bonds between Hvar and Belgrade have remained strong, as an older generation remembers the Adriatic summers of the 1980s, and a younger generation grew up listening to stories of the golden era.
First visit to Belgrade
"This is my first time in Belgrade," Ivan Gospodnetic told Digital Journal over a glass of Plancic Bogdanusa in the kitchen of Restaurant Saran, as 14 of Hvar's chefs produced a memorable five-course gastronomic extravaganza of Dalmatian specialities. "I was telling the taxi driver that I had never been before, because of the war. The driver, who was about my age, talked in glowing terms of an island he had never visited, for the same reason."
Gospodnetic is 30, one of Hvar's most successful businessmen, and owner of Restaurant Gariful, whose diners include Prince Harry, Giorgio Armani, Roman Abramovich and Paul Allen. His childhood memories of pre-war tourism on Hvar are understandably vague.
"I grew up hearing stories from my family about how great the tourism was with our friends from Serbia. It was a golden age, and I thought I would never experience it, but tonight... this is a fantastic experience and I can sense how it must have been."
The show put on at Saran last night was indeed an impressive affair, as the restaurant opened its doors to a select guest list of Serbian dignitaries and media (including Digital Journal), and various other representatives from Hvar.
The arrival of Gospodnetic - who interrupted a family holiday to be there - was significant, and is a sign of how seriously the island values its relationship with its Serbian visitors, and he was also joined by Hvar Mayor Pjerino Bebic, with both of them appearing live on Serbian television this morning (see video below). Bebic has been a tireless promoter of the island, both nationally and internationally, a fact that was recognised with his nomination as the best mayor in the Days of Tourism Awards in 2011.
There were several famous names among the Serbian guests, including Zeljko Mitrovic, owner of Pink TV, actor and director Dragan Bjelogrlic, and Lotto girl Suzana Mancic.
Jurica Tomicic of Kod Kapetana
The real star of the evening, however, was Jurica Tomicic, owner of leading Hvar restaurant, Kod Kapetana, and the instigator and driving force of the annual festival, which will this year last a record three weeks. The relationship with Restaurant Saran is now in its eighth year, as Tomicic brings all his ingredients from the island, from the salt for the fish to the wines of long-time festival supporter, Antun Plancic.
Dressed in dark jacket and white Hvar promotional t-shirt, Tomicic worked the room, greeting his Serbian regulars, and was visibly proud of arranging such a successful evening, an event he has worked hard at over the years with little support or media coverage. That is changing, as the billboards around town and the interview below demonstrate.
While food is at the centre of the three-week stay at Saran, the event is very much a promotional effort for all aspects of Hvar tourism, and Hvar TV will be showing some promotional films about the island on subsequent evenings. The aim of the festival is to bring a hint of the Mediterranean into the long Serbian winter, affording locals the opportunity to see, touch and taste the magic of Hvar, and to encourage a new generation of Serbian tourist to experience the island that was once a second home for many Belgrade residents.
Days of Hvar Cuisine runs from January 23 - February 12, 2012 at Restaurant Saran in Belgrade.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com