Our family house on Hektorovićeva ulica was – and still is - blessed with several advantages. Apart from being well-built and having a large, beautiful garden, it was very close to the beaches at Firule and Bačvice, and Split’s main tennis club; it was quiet, but only a short walk from the old centre of town, the harbour, bus terminal and train station; and it gave easy access to one of the main roads leading out of town towards the rest of Dalmatia, Croatia and the world.
A prime asset for us was its proximity to one of the best restaurants in Split (so far as I’m concerned): Kod Bobana (at Boban’s). Hektorovićeva ulica is a very long road, so the walk to the restaurant at its other end sharpened the appetite, while the walk back helped the digestion and salved the conscience after what was invariably a wonderful feast. In my early years of going there, the restaurant consisted of a leafy outdoor space and an unpretentious indoor area, with the kitchen open to inspection on many sides to all comers. My uncle Kolja Carević, who was a health inspector, once visited unannounced when he and a group of friends were planning a reunion dinner there. He told me later that the kitchen was run to the highest standards of hygiene – always reassuring to know.
Much later on, responding to the more sophisticated tastes of modern Split diners, the restaurant was revamped with a stylish modern décor. But its most important assets, the good fresh food, fine cooking, and high standards of hygiene, remained unchanged, as did the warm welcome and the courteous, ever-helpful, unobtrusive service. When its owners dine there, quietly enjoying local specialties such as tripice (tripe), they are served without apparent special favour.
So Boban’s was the obvious choice when my sister Marija and I were planning a lunch celebrating what would have been our late mother’s 100th birthday, on 23rd June 2010. We were joined by our long-standing friends Davor, Vera and their son Hrvoje. It was a beautiful day, sunny, not too hot, perfect for sitting out under the trees over a leisurely meal. When I say leisurely, that’s not to say we were ever kept waiting, the service was timed to perfection to our needs.
At my suggestion, ever-loyal to Hvar, a bottle of Andro Tomić’s fine Plavac barrique was ordered from the wine list. I suffered a moment of doubt, surely it needed to breathe to be at its best. I shouldn’t have worried: our waiter did a fine job of decanting and aerating the wine so that it came out to perfection after a fascinating display of expert care. It’s a rare treat to find a true sommelier in a family-run restaurant, so we were well pleased and settled in to our chat, fuelled by family memories.
Our mother was a renowned beauty in her day, and indeed remained strikingly attractive well into her older age. Born in 1910 in Sušak, now part of Rijeka, she was formally christened Aurelia as ethnic names were not allowed at the time, but she was known all her life by her Croatian name, Zlata. Rijeka was then Hungary’s main port, but the majority language was Italian, so Mother’s birth certificate was written in Italian. The downside of this was that the document had to have an official translation for any bureaucratic dealings concerning property or passports in each new political permutation for the region. Born under Austro-Hungarian rule, Mother lived through the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats Slovenes (1918-1929), royalist Yugoslavia (1929-1945), the wartime Italian and German occupations of Dalmatia, the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1963), the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1963-1991), surviving to see Croatia emerge into its current era as an independent Republic. If ever I’m tempted to explain the politics of our region to the uninitiated, I think of the political waves and upheavals which were the background to Mother’s life and I desist.
The upside of all those changes was that Mother was an expert linguist, as many Dalmatians are to this day. In her eighties, she was hospitalized in London, and I was surprised when her Italian doctor was translating the events of a ward round to her. He was surprised to find she could speak English fluently, if with a strong accent. “But her Italian is so good, I thought she couldn’t possibly know English as well!” Mother eyed me slightly sheepishly, but a defiant gleam denoted she’d enjoyed a fine piece of mischief leading her Italian friend up a garden path.
Mother’s best languages were her native Croatian and Brač dialect, followed by flawless German and Italian. She only learned to speak English when she escaped from then-Yugoslavia to London, aged 37, and her written English was stylish and close to perfect. She also had a good knowledge of French. She was a lady of many talents, a good pianist, strong swimmer and fearless water-skier.
Indeed, Mother was exceptionally courageous, and sometimes (often) reckless. Davor, whose own mother Gracijela was a lifelong best friend to ours, regaled us with some of his childhood memories from the Second World War. Mother and Gracijela’s sister Dora would defiantly hammer out a duet version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on her boudoir grand piano, while our oldest brother Saša would rush round the house fastening the shutters to prevent the Nazi soldiers billeted nearby from recognizing the BBC call-sign (the first five notes represented the Morse code for V - for Victory). Aged all of ten, Saša was much more aware of danger and potential untoward consequences than Mother ever was in the course of her long life.
As our celebration lunch progressed, our minds drifted over the halcyon days of the period between the world wars. Aurelia and Zlata mean ‘golden girl’, and Mother was born with a golden spoon in her mouth, her father and his brothers having gone from poverty to wealth through producing and trading wine and investing in property. Then in 1933 Zlata married Nenad, the man from the Grisogono ‘golden family’ – the original version of the surname was Greek: ‘Chrysogonos’. They and their friends had a charmed existence for those few years. Our father Nenad had his own yacht, ‘Morska Lastavica’ (‘Sea Swallow’), so sailing was a big part of their leisure time. Zlata had her super-sized powerful speedboat, ‘Torpedo’, behind which she or he water-skied with aplomb. While Nenad revelled in the skills of yacht racing, the speedboat was sometimes put to the test against the ferry between Split and Supetar: family legend has it that the ferry captain would gallantly slow down at the end to let Mother’s speedboat enter the harbour first.
The Split tennis clubs, (of which the present-day Firule club is not far from Boban’s restaurant), also featured large in their tales, and we recalled the time Father’s friend Ženi (Eugen) Šoštarić tried to impress our aunt Ksanta, Nenad’s sister, another renowned beauty, by flying a little airplane low over the courts where she was playing. But he’d forgotten he was trailing a drag-rope, which in those days stopped the plane on landing. It duly hooked the net up, fortunately causing no harm other than Ženi’s injured pride.
Our lunch gradually wound to a close with a sense of complete satisfaction on every count. The fun and wealth our parents had enjoyed ended with the Second World War. After that they faced a completely different lifestyle, which demanded – and brought out - new depths of personality and courage. Sitting in Boban’s on that early summer afternoon, enveloped in the welcoming, contented atmosphere, it was not hard to believe that the wheel had turned full circle, and our late parents were willing us to enjoy our homeland with our lifelong friends in the peace and harmony which are the region’s rightful inheritance.