My love affair with Southern Europe started when I was about a year old. My parents, true adventurers, took me to spend a year on the incredible island of Ithaka in Greece. I think it was this early experience of arid landscape, cerulean skies and hot air scented with Rosemary, Sage and Lavender, which has seen me drawn to similar landscapes all my life. Whether the Greek islands, the most Southern tip of Spain where the Sahara winds blow or the Southern Croatian hills where I find myself today, it is this dry, hot climate which really allows me to exhale.
The place I have landed now is called Mlini- is a gem of a place and is one of the most Southern villages on the Croatian coast. It lies almost on the border of Montenegro and has a wild and natural feel to it that many places have lost due to the ever expanding tourism industry. The pretty fishing village which is built on the historic harbour is only a 35 minute boat ride away from the old port of Dubrovnik and is an incredibly green and lush oasis in what is otherwise quite an arid area. The reason for this opulence is that the village holds many ancient water mills which channel the water from the hills above. Though no longer in use now they do assure that the village and directly surrounding landscape is a stunningly green place full of private and public foliage.
The planting here is a wonderful mix of native and ornamentals from all over the world. The Phoenix canariensis which is also known as the Canary island date palm, is a staple here and the long feathery fronds are part of most Croatian coastal schemes. More native to the area we have the recognizable spires of the native Cupresses sempervirens, also known as the Italian Cypress or pencil cypress. As in Italy these deep green spires rise out of the vegetation all along the coast and give the Croatian countryside a very elegant and almost Italian feel. I adore these trees and love to see them growing in their native habitat, framed by the blue sky.
Here in the locality there is real evidence of many talented plants-people. Everywhere you look there are parks and lush gardens abundant with fruit trees, colourful climbing vines and even vegetable crops. Mlini itself with its gorgeous light stone buildings has plenty of sights to admire when it comes to garden lovers. The stunning hundred year old plane tree stands with its roots happily at the gushing river which is directed artfully through a series of channels and streams down from the mountains where it eventually meets the sea.
The most interesting thing here is how nature renews itself where humans have made their mark. Fig trees grow in every crevice- even a tiny 30cm high one was carrying fruit! Magenta pink Snap dragons grow on the vertical sand-coloured walls and succulents cover stones.
Our home for the 10 day trip was the wonderful Villa Carmen Guesthouse, a small gem at the heart of Mlini. Our gracious host Doris comes from generations of passionate gardeners and tells me how the family had to transplant large specimens of orange and lemon trees to make way for the pool. No easy task!
The guest rooms here are set on terraced gardens right on the seafront which are lovingly planted in a distinctly Croatian style. Palms, evergreens and Lemon trees create height and drama and the many climbers such as Wisteria, Wine with grapes hanging in clusters and pink Bougainvillea give plenty of shade where needed. What I really love here is how the planting is also naturally terraced. Under the dense canopy of trees and climbers there are many smaller shrubs and plants. I am surprised to find lush shade loving ferns and even intensely green Hydrangeas, native to Asia, which look so at home here.
There are may fascinating garden destinations to explore here and I love how the modern Croatian landscape is a wonderful example of how native planting can be made stronger and better with additions from all over the world.
Croatian inspired planting gems
The Croatian landscape is a wonderful mix of Mediterranean flair and unique native mix. Taking walks around the landscape is a fascinating adventure. On one walk alone I came across too many native plants to even describe. Some of these beauties were wild Thyme and sword-leaved Sage, Euphorbia, Salvia, wild Calendula and many more. Here are some more plants that have that really Croatian feel.
Croatian Flag Iris
The national plant of Croatia is the Iris croatica, the Croatian flag Iris and the flower grows predominantly in woods of Downy Oak and Hophornbeam. It is very rare now and can only be found in the mountainous regions of continental Croatia. To get the look in your own garden I would advise using the lovely Siberian flag Iris and some grasses to get that wild dry meadow look. They also look fabulous with the light coloured limestone which is native to this region so if you have a light stone like, say Sand stone in your garden, then generous groups of irregularly planted Iris would really stand out.
The Mediterranean Cypress tree is so incredibly visual. Anyone who has seen this wonderful tree in its native habitat knows that our attempts to replicate the feel of the tree at home have nothing on the real thing. The elegant and tall spires of the evergreen tree shoot into the sky-often up to 12 metres in height and 4 metres in spread. A world away from the humble size of the Juniper ‘Skyrocket’ which has the same feel in shape yet is more hardy here in Ireland. To try and get closer to the feel of the spires I would recommend planting a series of the Skyrocket trees in an irregular pattern and better again, if you have some terraces, scatter them across the levels as they would grow in the wild and add masses of Creeping Rosemary and Thyme.
In many shops in Croatia you can find a delicious sweet called Arancini. This is not the rice recipe from Italy, but rather takes the rinds of the orange and candies them to become a native delicacy. These can be found everywhere in Dubrovnik and make a delicious sweet treat out of something that would otherwise be thrown away. The same thing can be done with the rinds of the massive Ponderosa Lemon which grow in the garden right in front of the pool in Villa Carmen. About five times larger than your average large Lemon, the fruits of this lovely tree are seriously sour and also harder to use for cooking. The thick rind and internal white skin take a while to prepare and are quite sour in taste. The tree itself is very beautiful and is a lovely evergreen hybrid of a lemon and a Citron and grows fruit all year long, making it very useful when many other fruits are out of season. If you want to grow citrus in your own garden then you will need to keep it in a container and bring it indoors during the Winter months as they like it warm…like me!
Where to stay/Leonie Loves
Villa Carmen in Mlini
Among the beautiful ornamental planting of Mlini there are many edible ones that the locals use to create recipes throughout the year. Figs are used to make cakes and preserves and everything from Kiwis to Lemons are used to make preserves, drinks and desserts. Doris, the owner of our beautiful Guesthouse showed me her grandmother’s recipe book, old with age and use and scented with lavender. The handwritten book (pictured here) holds recipes for many native fruits and delicacies. Even now the family uses the Ponderosa Lemons to make Arancini, Roses for Rose syrup, Juice, Liquor and Turkish Delight, Fresh Mint for Syrup and the breakfast table at our guesthouse often has three different homemade jams on offer.
If you want to stay in Mlini there are plenty of choices but none as welcoming and natural as Doris’ accommodation. It is at the heart of everything yet feels like you are in paradise alone. For more go to: Villa Carmen Rooms & Apartments on Booking.com or Airbnb.
or contact Carmen and Doris on www.vivado.hr
To see the recipe for Doris’s Rose syrup go to the EAT section of my website.
Here is a recipe from Doris to make your very own Rose Syrup.
Doris’s recipe for Rose Syrup
What you need:
5 L water
100g of citric acid
4kg of castor sugar
250g Rose blossoms -Doris uses blossoms from the Rose centifolia
How to make the Syrup:
Put your water into a jar and add the sugar and the citric acid. Stir well and add the washed Rose blossoms. Cover and leave for about five days-preferably in the sunshine but if you don’t have Croatian sun at hand then on a window cill is fine too. Stir daily and after the five days use a sterile gauze to filter out any impurities. Do this a second time to make it even more clear and then decant into bottles and refrigerate. Using even a little of this tasty syrup in a bit of water is so refreshing and seriously delicious.
Lokrum-the magical Island Nature Reserve
Though Mlini in itself is well worth exploring and has many walks and picturesque sights, there is plenty of other worthwhile trips. From the harbour you can take boat trips to almost anywhere including Dubrovnik, the nearby Cavtat and the fabulous island of Lokrum which is a stunning nature reserve. This island which is a nature and forest reserve has a beautiful partially restored Fransciscan Monastery-straight out of Game of Thrones, and a lovely Botanic Garden. The real surprise here is that the island is covered in beautiful Peacocks and bunnies, a delight for children and adults. There are small restaurants and bars but the feel of the place is untouched and ancient. The highlight is the hidden salt water lake set into an internal cliff with stunning green water. Interestingly there is a local folklore legend that says if you stay on this island overnight you never return! So don’t miss the last boat!
Getting to Mlini is super easy and makes it a wonderful destination to get away to for a spur of the moment trip. Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Dubrovnik 5 days a week on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and cost about €300 return per person. The flight time is just over three hours and once you arrive at the airport you can simply jump in a taxi which takes about 15 minutes to Mlini. Almost everything after that can be done by boat which is definitely the most scenic way to enjoy the area.
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