Balkan Beauty

Oh, you guys are good. I figured a few of you might get it, but so many? Well, I hope there was at least a little head-scratching required. Greece was certainly a good guess, but according to Wikipedia only shares land borders with four countries, not five. Also, I sneakily added that last clue about never having eaten the country’s cuisine before, which you’d know isn’t the case for Greece if you’d read this story I posted last September about our brush with death in the Samaria Gorge on Crete. ;)

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Anyway, where were we… oh yes, Croatia!

Croatia had never made it very high on our to-visit list, but then a couple of months ago when we were planning a late-April getaway and agonizing between Istanbul, Palermo and Barcelona, I stumbled upon some cheap flights to Split on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. I quickly ticked off the things in Croatia’s favor – not too far to fly, Mediterranean (and thus definitely warm in April, right?), sleepy islands and picturesque villages, unfamiliar cuisine. Culturally I pictured a fusion of, say, Greece and Italy, with maybe a touch of Portugal’s delightful time warp. I even figured we’d have a leg up on communicating since Manuel is fluent in Bulgarian and hey, they’re practically neighbors so it must be pretty close, right? Also, some friends of ours went sailing there the summer before last and absolutely loved it. At any rate, it sounded pretty much perfect, so without another thought we bought the flights, booked apartments on the islands of Korčula, Hvar and Vis, and set off, expecting to find sun, seafood and plenty of blue, blue sea (which the internet assured me would still be far too cold for swimming in April, but I figured what is cold by Mediterranean standards is probably quite comfortable by Scottish ones.)

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Well, Croatia had a few surprises in store. The first clue that things might not be exactly what we were expecting was at the airport, where everything was – get ready for it – clean, modern, and efficient. Where were the chain-smoking immigration officers and the broken baggage carousels? Why did every public toilet, telephone booth and ATM looked like it has been installed last week? Why was the public transportation so incredibly punctual? This wasn’t the Mediterranean I knew, particularly once we left the airport and realized it wasn’t just a facade to lure recently-arrived tourists into a false sense of security. But we only digested this shock until the next one came, namely that despite the fact that neither did Manuel understand any spoken Croatian nor did they understand his Bulgarian, none of it mattered because everyone spoke English. And by everyone I mean everyone. Had we somehow taken a wrong turn and ended up in Sweden?

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The biggest surprise, though, was the weather. Let’s just say that one thing you should definitely do when inquiring about rental apartments on the coast of Croatia in April is ask whether they have a heater. Built as houses in this part of the world are with thick stone or concrete walls to keep out the heat, even the few days that did break the 18-degree-mark (that’s 65 in American) didn’t manage to warm up the temperature inside our dwellings to much above that of a refrigerator. Imagine having to move your breakfast table from the beautiful spot by the window to smack in front of the oven, so you might thaw your hands in a bit of residual heat after warming up the bread. And do you even have any idea how cold clay floor tiles are in the middle of the night when you have to get out of bed to go to the bathroom? Moral of the story: bring sweaters. And slippers. Oh, and a raincoat too: we had violent and torrential rains on, oh, at least half the days we were there; some of it even affected our travel plans as the uncharacteristically stormy seas forced inter-island ferry cancellations.

But oh dear, this is starting to sound a lot like complaining, isn’t it? Well, it’s not meant to, really – I mean sure, we could have done without the rain and with a few more heaters, but in return we got to experience three absolutely stunning islands at off-season prices and without having to fight any other tourists for the best camera angles. And stunning those islands truly were.

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The Venetians controlled most of Dalmatia from 1420 to 1797, and everywhere you turn along this coast you find their enchanting architecture. Korčula town, capital of the island of the same name a two-hour ferry ride from Split, is one of the best examples, a majestic jumble of red roofs and pale towers jutting out on its own little peninsula, its narrow streets laid out like the veins of a leaf to minimize the effects of the notorious Bora wind. Hvar town with its stylish boutiques and cosmopolitan cafes, and Vis town with its quiet village feel were different but equally beautiful, stretched out around their respective deep harbors, their wide seaside promenades giving way to twisting tangles of houses, shops and restaurants, their alleyways fragrant with lavender, orange blossoms and the sharp scent of the pine-forested hills rising steeply behind them.

Strangely, though, leave aside the architecture and the vegetation, and the signs you’re in a Mediterranean country are few. Who knows if it’s a legacy of the country’s (comparatively) recent emergence from socialism, or it’s (comparatively) recent civil war, but I was missing some intangible je ne sais quoi that seems to exist nearly everywhere else along the Mediterranean, some sense of the kind of relaxed, easygoing, life lived on the streets that you get in places like Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The Croatians we met seemed to be quiet, private people, reserved in a way that seemed much more northern European than southern. Streets were silent at night, bars and cafes closed early – heck, we found ourselves in bed by eleven most nights, though that probably had just as much to do with our desire to stay warm as with the lack of nocturnal stimuli. It wasn’t unpleasant by any means, it was just…different.

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And the food? Well, it was full of surprises too. Above all, Dalmatian food struck me as a simple, hearty fusion of Italian and Eastern European. Pizzerias, for example, were cheap and plentiful, and served up Neapolitan-style (i.e. thin-crust) pizzas that were not only remarkably authentic, but delicious without exception (really, try as we might we couldn’t find a bad one!). Konobas were more traditional, rustic restaurants where you could get a plate of simply grilled fish, a dish of risotto or spaghetti, or a hearty plate of meat accompanied by plenty of fried potatoes and ajvar (pictured above), the eggplant-pepper relish ubiquitous throughout Croatia. Most restaurants also offered local specialties like pršut, the local prosciutto-like ham (which, however, is smoked in addition to being cured), and various kinds of pungent sheep’s-milk cheeses that could rival the best Italian pecorinos. A Dalmatian delicacy I had read about and made sure not to miss was pašticada, a heavy, winey beef stew that I would liken it to a cross between goulash and daube provençal; though I wasn’t really blown away by the dish itself, I was more than intrigued to hear about the three-day (!) process of making it.

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Seafood, including an incredible array of fish, octopus, squid and shrimp, was of course everywhere, and almost without fail achingly fresh and expertly-prepared. Unfortunately, however, it was also shockingly expensive, which I suppose we have overfishing to blame; a kilo of premium fish like grouper or bream (pre-grill, whole-fish weight) clocked in at as much as 350 kuna ($75/£37) in even modest restaurants! Since we couldn’t not enjoy the seafood, though, we had to compensate elsewhere, and luckily there was no shortage of cheap street food when our wallets started to feel light; my favorites were čevapi, small grilled sausages stuffed inside a large soft roll and slathered with ajvar, and burek (pictured next to the ajvar, above), large wedges of a kind of phyllo pie filled with a soft, mildly salty cheese, sold in bakeries. Croatian bakeries were fascinating places, in fact, chock-full of reminders of the region’s Austro-Hungarian heritage in the form of more varieties of pastries and strudels than you could shake a stick at – my favorite, I decided after much sampling, was anything filled with sour cherry preserves. And speaking of preserves, I developed a fierce addiction to this strange kind of jam that, believe it or not, I didn’t correctly identify until we got home; called šipak, I assumed it was some kind of plum, but it turns out it’s made from rosehips. Who knew?
 

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So yes, Croatia may not have been exactly what we were expecting, but the real question, I’m sure you’ll agree, is whether we would go back. For my part the answer is an unqualified yes – I loved the place, spotless bathrooms and all, though next time I would probably go later in the year, when I can actually jump into the tempting turquoise sea instead of just staring at it longingly. It’s really no exaggeration that Croatia has some of the most beautiful coastline in the entire Mediterranean, and what’s more it’s a clean, safe, efficient, easy country to travel in. And when it comes down to it I wouldn’t even counsel you against going in April, since from what people told us, we were pretty phenomenally unlucky with the weather this year – last year people were indeed swimming at this time. And anyway, as you can see from the photos the sun did make a couple of appearances, and like the foolhardy northern dwellers we are, as soon as it did we prostrated ourselves beneath it until we were burnt to a painful, crackling crisp – which, discomfort aside, ended up being just what the psyche ordered.

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Some Places to Eat

…on Korcula:
Doris
This was a great tip from the woman who rented us our apartment. It’s cheap, cheerful, full of locals, and everything it serves is really good. Try their pizzas, smoked ham (pršut), cheese sampler and meat platters with potatoes and ajvar.
Location: Opposite the bus station, tucked into a narrow lane
(inexpensive)
 
…on Hvar
Konoba Menego
This cozy restaurant is dedicated to showcasing Croatian products at their finest. Their menu is made up of a selection of mostly cold dishes from which you’re supposed to select as many as you feel like eating – kind of like Croatian tapas. Try the various hams and salamis, paški cheese, octopus and chickpea salad, and stuffed bread. For dessert don’t miss their booze-soaked figs accompanied by a glass of prošek, a raisiny dessert wine.
Location: Hvar old town, on the main stairway connecting the square and fortress
(moderate)

Alviž
Wood-fired pizzas with amazing, chewy, bubbly crusts and huge, delicious salads at half the price of restaurants on the main square. In the off-season it’s only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
Location: Behind the main square, across from the bus station
(inexpensive)
 
…on Vis
Restaurant Pojoda
Holy cow, some of the best seafood I’ve ever had. Whatever you do, do not miss the spaghetti con frutti di mare. Transcendental. Their grilled fish and squid is also excellent, but be prepared to pay for it. Oh, and their house red was the best Croatian wine we tasted, hands down.
Location: In Kut (the eastern part of Vis town), behind Restaurant Val
(moderate to expensive)

 

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31 thoughts on “Balkan Beauty

  1. Wow! I have a Croatian friend who has been campaigning for me to go visit, but I couldn’t picture it very well. But wow, you’re sure making a case for it! What lovely pictures. Sounds like a terrific trip, despite the chill.

  2. Wow, great pictures!! I love Croatia – can’t wait to go again! Next time you have to vistit Dubrovnik, Plitvice NP and Istria…

  3. Wow! I had no idea Croatia was so beautiful. I’ll probably visit Istanbul this year but I’m thinking of making a little tour and I might add Croatia to the list. It’s such a shame the seafood is so expensive. I agree, it’s probably the overfishing.

  4. Amazing photos as usual. I’d love to go there sometime but first need to persuade the other half.

  5. I’m sorry for the bad weather, but I’m so pleased to read your beautiful post about my country. I’m born in Split and you made me proud, but you also made me think that sometimes we locals are way too critical about our own country. Hope that you’ll visit Croatia again because there so much more to see, not only in Dalmatia, but also in continental par that is completely different form coastal! I think that that is the best thing about Croatia: so much diversity in such a small country!And, once again, thanks for such a nice post!Sanja

  6. Your blog is beautiful. And you really makes me want to visit Croatia. I am an American artist living in Germany and everyone here keeps telling me how wonderful Croatia is… your photos and descriptions, however, have truly captured my interest. Thanks!

  7. Croatia is a beautiful country, indeed. It is however, different from other Mediterranean countries, as you also mentioned… It is more a country for relax, family holidays and quiet getaways. I live in Hungary, so Croatia for us is really close… Definitely a place to see (just like Hungary :-)) Love your blog!!!

  8. I always find it interesting reading other people’s accounts of familiar places, seeing familiar places through someone else’s eyes. I’m Croatian, so I found your account very interesting. Your photos are amazing, btw! They made me crave burek! Btw, you can find ajvar in the UK, mainly in ethnic shops. My favourite brand I can find here is Droga (a Slovenian company). Homemade stuff is a world of its own though! :) If you want to try to make it, I have a recipe for it on my blog. As Sanja says above, there is a lot of regional diversity in our small country, and the islands are a story for themselves. They are expensive, and people there are different from the people on the mainland. A lot of these islands have a lot of old population, because the young people had to go to the mainland looking for jobs. There is definitely more of the Mediterranean feel in the coastal cities of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, and the islands do liven up considerably during the summer, when their populations doubles or triples, not just because of the tourists, but also because of the people who live on the mainland during the winter and return to the islands during the summer. I do hope you will visit the coastal cities, too! I’d say you’ve had a chance to see only one part of the picture, as is indeed the case with many places. You really did have very bad luck with the weather. I have been known to go swimming in mid-April/beginning of May, and I’m not one of those hardy types that brave the cold sea. :)

  9. Beautiful, beautiful photos… I have been hearing for a while now that Craotia is the place to visit. I would love to… your photos are stunning (and I’d love to have some of that ice cream…irresistible).

  10. Wow ! Stunning photos and such an informative post – only one thing to do now…head off to find out for ourselves..!Thanks for your generosity in sharing so much :)

  11. Gorgeous! You take such stunning pictures. I can totally relate on the no heater thing, too….here in the Canaries I freeze to death in the "winter" when it only gets to 15-17ºC. :) Welcome back!

  12. lovely post – great pictures too. I’m visiting Bulgaria in June and this post has only whetted my appetite for the undiscovered, underrated Balkans.

  13. I was so shocked to read this, it made me sooo happy!!I am from Split, but I am in NY studying baking and pastry arts at the moment. I am actually half from Split half from Korčula. I wish I was there when you visited so I could show you around, especially our olive grove! :))Beautiful pictures, glad you had a good time and hope to see you there one time!You can take a look at my blog : http://teacia.blog.hr/And just so you know, Edinburgh was one of my favorite places I’ve visited!Tea

  14. Thanks, guys, for all your lovely comments! Sanja – Don’t worry, you won’t need to twist my arm to convince me to go back! If anything, I’m more curious about Croatia now than I was before, and yes, next time we’ll definitely have to head inland as well. Maninas – Your recipe for ajvar is bookmarked! :) My only concern is sourcing a cheap source for peppers when they come into season, since at the places I shop they never seem to go down in price. :( And yes, I will definitely have to revisit pasticada. I would tackle it myself, but three days sounds a little ambitious even for me… Canarygirl – Oh, that makes me feel so much better! I wondered how on earth, living in Scotland normally, I could be so cold at those temperatures… Leigh – I agree the the Balkans are way underrated, and yes, Bulgaria should be fascinating. I’ve still never been, though I almost feel like I have through all of Manuel’s stories. Lindy – Oh, I’m blushing madly! Thank you. And I loved that lady – she was there for over an hour, as happy to see the sun finally break through the clouds as we were!Tea – Oh that is too bad! I certainly would have loved a tour of your olive grove, but even without it Korcula was absolutely lovely. You’re awfully lucky to be able to call such a beautiful place home!

  15. Croatia is so lovely. I visited the country in September 2007 and your post brought back splendid memories.

  16. LOVE this post and LOVE Ajvar – I had it for the first time about 6 years ago when I lived next to a girl from Macedonia. It’s delicious!! And I loved reading this since I’ve been wanting to visit Croatia for so long!I’ll definitely be dipping into your archives!PS: Michelle from Bleeding Espresso tipped me off to your blog!

  17. I’m also proud Croatian from Split living in Zagreb (Croatian capital). I’m glad our cuisine is starting to be recognized. Thank you for such great words.

  18. Found your blog through Chez Pim. Nice account of what our country has to offer (apart from Pojoda – that’s the best place out there. However, next time you come, please get in touch and we will go to places and restaurants that actually give a good overview of Croatian cuisine (or get in touch anyway :)). Some things (like cevapi and burek) are actually not Croatian at all (Turkish influence) and some (pasticada) are a bit overratred. We, the locals, do not feel Croatia is overrated. Actually we would like less people around, so there’s more good stuff left for us :)Love the photos!Keep up the good work!PS My own blog attached, although in Croatian :)

  19. It was really interesting to read what you wrote about my country… So I just wanted to say hello and recomend you to visit the continental part of Croatia which has it’s special enchantment. The capital (Zagreb) and the baroque city Varazdin at the north-west will be a another experience for you, especially in august/september when you can enjoy in GREAT festival of street walkers, traditional food and old handicrafts called Spancirfest. So, if you ever come to Croatia again, before jumping into sea, take time to visit that small corner of my country… Best wishes!

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