Europe’s Best Kept Secret 

By Lead Travel Writer, Renee Fontaine

“Some secrets are too delicious not to share.”
—Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

DSCN1037I love a “good” secret — like expecting surprises or hidden treasures. Some secrets we encounter without intention such as receiving surreptitious news from a good friend. Others, we stumble across in our path through life when we least expect to find them.

Some secrets are to be kept at the holder’s request, shared when the time is right. Others are too delicious not to share. I recently discovered such a secret that I will share with you now.

Without Expectations.

“Secrets could never be rushed. They had to come of their own accord,
on their own schedule. That way, when they came, they offered themselves as a gift.”
— Donna Jo Napoli, Boun

Experiencing life without expectations is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. Discoveries made without preconceived ideas bring the greatest joy and excitement while eluding disappointment. Whenever I visit a new city, go to a movie, seek a new restaurant, or experience a new friendship, I try to do so without much anticipation. The experience becomes even richer and more alive than any preconceived ideas i could have conjured. Using this approach, I set out to discover Croatia.

The sun was setting toward the horizon as I peered from the airplane window. Islands along the coastline, more than I could count, were scattered like jewels in the crystal clear, blue water. In the distance I saw a mountain range. Situated at its base was an ancient city with a harbor — the town of Split.

A warm and welcoming greeting was waiting for me when I passed through customs at the airport. Gordon, the property manager, along with his brother, Sasa, and my good friend and business colleague, Deborah, were waiting for me with big smiles. After introductions, we were on our way to Luxury Villa Split.

The secrets of Croatia slowly started to unfold during the short drive from the airport. Gordon and Sasa explained how Croatia is located at the crossroads of Central Europe, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean. The capital city, Zagreb, is located inland. Split is located on the Adriatic Coast and is the oldest city within the Country. Croatia’s Adriatic Sea Coast comprises more than twelve hundred islands — truly a yachtsmen and beach lover’s paradise!

Gordon, with his warm smile and colorful sense of humor, made a joke referencing the “Dalmatian.” At first I thought he was referring to a person’s temperament as it relates to the popular canine breed. Soon, I realized that the people of the region of Split are known as Dalmatians. I laughed to myself at my own confusion. I learned that this region stretches from Istria in the north to Albania in the south and originally was the Roman province of Dalmatia. Coincidentally, the Dalmatian dog breed received its name from Dalmatia!

I knew on that first day, as the secrets of this magical place started to unfold, that this Croatian experience would be a gift I would cherish for years to come.

Historical Icon

“Some secrets are not meant to be known — but once known you can never forget them.”
—Pseudonymous Bosch, The Name of This Book Is Secret

As I stepped inside Luxury Villa Split, I knew without a doubt that this was a home that held great history: a home I would never forget. Built in 1925, this seafront mansion has been masterfully restored to its original Art Deco interior design. Art Deco is known for an eclectic style that combines traditional craft motifs with Machine Age imagery. During the heydays of the 1920s and 1930s, this style represented luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress.

These qualities shine through in each fine detail. Colors, textures, and styles unite in perfect Art Deco symmetry — The early 1900 style is emphasized with fine grain leathe sofas and chairs, richly polished woodwork, authentic curved dining chairs, colorful and uniquely shaped chandeliers, and a stainless steel kitchen, and original pieces.

I was introduced to Vibor, the owner, who is the embodiment of Eastern European style with his motorcycle helmet, leather jacket, big smile, and strong Slavic accent. While giving me a tour of the home, he shared some history of the property. The mansion was built by the Feric family as their principal residence. During Post World War II, the home was taken over by the government, as were many properties. This happened in response to a bill written by Josip Broz Tito that established a cooperative, independent socialist state. The home was later returned to private ownership and renovated. As Vibor spoke, I felt the price and enthusiasm in his voice. He is proud of his property and rightfully so — truly a historical landmark and work of art!

DSCN0937As I meandered from room to room, I marveled at every detail. The grand entrance foyer with original parquet floors, fine chandelier, marble fireplace, and grand winding staircase is a showpiece. A large bouquet of flowers was centrally placed on the entry table. To the right of the entry, I found a cozy office with stylish wooden desk and bookshelves. Looking through the Croatian books, on the shelves and the photos on the walls, I wondered what happy family secrets this room and home might hold.

The spacious living and dining rooms offer breathtaking sea views. Glass doors lead to the expansive terrace that overlooks the meticulously landscaped grounds, swimming pool, and sea.To the rear of the home, I discovered the state-of-art kitchen with such fine features as stainless steel counters and appliances plus a built-in Miele Espresso maker. A beautiful bouquet of irises, my favorite springtime flower, adorned the window-side table.

I ascended the grand staircase and found a stunning second floor foyer with matching parquet flooring and centrally placed table. Four spacious en-suite bedrooms are accessed from the second story foyer, each with its own unique design and colors in perfect Art Deco style. The master suite is a haven in its own right. The modern low frame bed is strategically angled to face the beautiful sea view. The spacious master bath has an elegant deep soaking tub with polished wood trim and fine marble.

As I finished my tour, two other treasures were found. The lower level is an independent apartment with full kitchen and private living room in the same meticulous Art Deco style. Just off the main entry is a private gym and sauna. This is truly a home never to be forgotten!

A City of History and Magic

“What good is a secret if it remains a secret … Secrets are meant to be discovered…”
— Jocelyn Murray, The Gilded Mirror: Constantinople

Comfortably settled in the home, Gordon and Sasa escorted Deborah and I on a tour to discover the ancient secrets of Split. As we walked along the boardwalk, a live band played typical Slavic music that reminded me of the polkas my father plays on the accordion. Large and small sailboats floated effortlessly in the crystal clear blue water of the port.

We came to a narrow passage way lined with small shops that led into an open square, which is the center of the remains of Diocletian Palace. Built from lustrous white stone from the islandof Brac, the beauty of the ancient architecture is breathtaking — towering marble arched columns extend toward the sky; two Egyptian black sphinxes sit majestically watching over the square; accompanied by the lofty bell sounds from the tower of this ancient city.

We stopped at Luxor Café in the center of the square. As we sat on the steps that frame the square sipping espressos, Sasa and Gordon shared the history of the palace. The Diocletian Palace was built in 305 AD by the Roman emperor Diocletian in preparation for his retirement. In fact, the palace contains the world’s most complete remains of its kind. Today the palace grounds have been converted to shops, cafes, small hotels, and apartments.

We continued weaving our way through the narrow alleyways. Around each turn was a new treasure to be discovered. At the end of Kraj Sveti Ivana, we found the Temple of Jupiter which was later converted to a baptistery. The temple dates back to the fifth century and is guarded by a headless, black granite sphinx. Just outside the back wall of the palace we found a huge metal statue of what appeared to be a wizard. We learned that the statue is of Gregory of Nin who was a tenth century Bishop who opposed the Pope and introduced the Croatian language into the services of the Church. Rubbing the statue’s toe is said to bring good luck. In true Dalmatian spirit, I rubbed the toe and made a wish.

Treasure Troves Abound

“Sometimes it’s the smallest secrets that hold the most hope, the most fun, the most danger.”
— Suzanne Palmieri (Hayes), The Witch of Little Italy

The following morning at Luxury Villa Split, I awoke to the breathtaking view of the Adriatic Sea from the master bedroom windows. I dressed quickly, eager to explore the area’s secrets that were still left to be revealed.

As I left through the back gate, I found steps that lead down to the path that borders the sea. The path to the left led me past the Marina and into the town center. Just past the Diocletian Palace, I discovered an open-air market selling all the finest produce and products of Croatia. As I passed each stand, I bought a little bit of each wonderful treasure; I found fresh cherries, flavored honey, crisp vegetables, local olive oil, and fine soaps. Soon my backpack was filled to the brim and weighing heavy on my back. I returned to the mansion. Using the fresh vegetables from the market, I prepared a large salad which I enjoyed on the back terrace. The fresh sea breeze was refreshing!

Some days I enjoyed just relaxing by the pool with a book. Other days, I returned to town to meander through the various alleyways of the Diocletian Palace. Sometimes I would climb the stairs of the bell tower to gaze upon the view. Each time, I stopped at the Luxor Café to sit and admire the beauty of the ancient ruins.

One day, Gordon brought me to one of the marinas outside of town. Here, he docks one of the yachts that he has available for his guests to rent. The spacious interior is elegant and luxuriously. He shared his love for the sea, yachting, and fishing; which is not surprising given the many islands and clear waters of the Croatian coastline. Some days, he takes his clients on fishing excursions to the various offshore islands. Other days, he enjoys spending time on the yacht with his wife and children.

One evening, I came across Gordon in the old City. He invited me to join him and some of his friends at the Pizzeria Galija, located within a small square of the palace grounds. I enjoyed a delicious dinner of salad and pizza with Gordon, Proprietor Dario Marijan, and a few of their friends. I sat back and soaked in the cultural experience as I listened to them compare fishing stories and discuss their passion for the sea.

Another day, while strolling through the streets of the Diocletian Palace, I stumbled across the Ethnographic Museum. Inside, I found a photo of an ancient dwelling built into the side of a rocky cave mountain wall. Next to the photo was a rock carving of an elderly shepherd inside the dwelling reading a book. Enchanted by these items, I asked the curator if the place exists and, if so, where. He explained that the cave dwelling is located at the park of Marjan on the peninsula that overlooks the City.

The following day, I set out on my mission to find the cave dwelling. With only a sketchy map in Croatian, I climbed the road that leads to the park at the edge of town. As I reached the top, a bit out of breath, I stopped and admired the stunning view of Split from this vantage point. — The ancient city walls, boats bobbing on the crystal clear water, and the backdrop of a massive mountain wall breathtaking!

I spotted the path that leads deeper into the park and started my trek. After walking uphill for quite some distance, I found myself in the middle of a pristine landscape with mesmerizing views of the sea and islands below. Asking a passersby, I confirmed I was traveling the right direction. After several more twists and turns, I came upon the cave dwelling. Perfectly preserved, it appeared just as it did in the photo at the museum. In my mind’s eye, I could see the shepherd reading earnestly while a breeze from the sea blew through the narrow windows. I wondered what his life must have been like and what other secretes this mountain park holds.

Enriching to the End

“What good is a secret if it remains a secret … Secrets are meant to be discovered
— Jocelyn Murray, The Gilded Mirror: Constantinople

DSCN0899I had come to Croatia not knowing what I would find or discover. Holding no expectations. little did I know what secrets would unfold. I found an experience richer and more alive than anything I could have ever imagined. I discovered a sea more beautiful than all the seashores I have seen throughout Europe, a city rich in history, charm, and endless discoveries. And, best of all, I found a new friend whose kindness, humor, and genuine goodwill defines Dalmatian hospitality. Croatia is truly, Europe’s best kept secret!

For reservations at Luxury Villa Split, call Lauren Berger at (888) 522-1099, (239) 671-2920 or (646) 629-9669 or Gordon Svalina at 385 (0)21 223 396 or 385915600457.

Category Placement

This property was chosen for the Ultra Luxurious Vacation Rental category because of the superior quality, design, location and décor of the mansion. This property is also well suited for the categories of Outstandingly Located, Unusually Unique, Family Focused, Beach Area and Super Romantic Vacation Rentals.

Comments Welcome: Make a comment below (our writers work hard…give them some love!) on any of our Live Reviews by Travel Writer Cindy White, Liz Manduca, Emily Yurgesen, Deborah Nelson, or Renee Fontaine, and get a FREE Digital version of The Vacation Rental Travel Guide when it is hot off the press!

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