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)