Since we sauntered into the Czech Republic all those months ago, we’ve got very used to being offered a choice of pizza or schnitzel pretty much everywhere we’ve been. The schnitzel wins hands down; beaten to the thickness of an atom, coated in the crispiest of crumbs, and fried in less than a nano-second, it is delicious. But as we approached the coast of Croatia, the food suddenly changed. Now it was cheese with everything, and that ‘everything’ quite often turned out to be honey. Seriously? I’m not big on cheese, anyway.
In Zadar we had a burger that was honestly a bit grim, but the wifi password there was ‘David Bowie is alive’, which kinda made up for it. At our campsite near Split, the lovely girl at the onsite restaurant recommended a Croatian speciality called Cevapcici. I said ok as I always like to try the regional food. Apart from anything else, it gives me a clue as to what I can cook with the local (and usually only) produce in the shops. The cafe had sea-views and black squirrels jumping in the trees overheard, so I felt that compensation was plentiful if the meal was shite.
But Cevapcici is brilliant – little spiced sausages, a bit like kofta. At the supermarket I found sachets of Cevapcici spice mix for about 60 cents, so I bought six packets. Used the last one a week ago and wish I’d bought more.
So I was pretty optimistic when we went into Split, armed with the name of a good restaurant from my friend’s website, Unravel Travel. The restaurant had a queue outside (as expected) – but it was raining. Consequently, the owner said that he wasn’t gonna serve any more people after the couple in front of us, and would close for the day. Oh, ok. Never mind. There are other places, such as Marta’s Fusion, a vegetarian restaurant that we’d passed, just around the corner. It looked nice, and it was raining, and we were hungry. You get the picture.
For those of you who are my age, you’ll remember a time when vegetarian food had a bad rap. It was considered to be dry and tasteless and mostly lentils. Worthy is the word that sprung to mind. But then times changed and things moved on wonderfully in the veggie world. However, someone forgot to tell Marta.
We both ordered the black-bean burger, which was our first mistake. If we’d chosen different things, then we’d have increased our chances of having something edible. The lukewarm burger arrived – with no bun, and covered in cold ketchup of the vividly scarlet sort that usually squirts out of a plastic tomato. It was tasteless, had no seasoning, and a dry, suck-all-the-moisture-out-of-your-mouth texture. It wasn’t even worthy: it was miserable. I felt sorry for the beans. I got the giggles and then I felt sick. Steve tried to give them some feedback, but I had to excuse myself and rush outside in case I marched into the kitchen, grabbed a pan and said, ‘look, it’s not that hard, here’s how to make falafel. And use some effing salt!’
SPLIT, IN SIX LINES
But Split itself was great. Apart from the Diocletian Palace (which I’ve mentioned before) there was a rather fabulous statue of the Croatian hero, Gregory of Nin. Local folklore states that Gregory will grant your wish if you rub his big toe. Consequently, said toe is now massively shiny. I rubbed it, course I did.
But it’s quite possible that some tourists only know of the superstition, and not the actual whereabouts of the statue, because I noticed a lot of other statues in Split had shiny toes too.
Wanting a day in the countryside, Steve read about a place called Vrana. To be honest I wasn’t really listening when he told me the history of the place: something about two famous sculptors, or authors, or something. Plus the usual – a medieval town, a place of great political and religious significance, monasteries, and Knight’s Templars, yah dee yah dee yah. Sometimes I just like to go with the flow cos that’s how I roll.
Anyway, we set off and although I didn’t have a clear idea on what to expect, I certainly envisioned something more than the crappily run-down little village we drove into and, moments later, out the other side. Was that it? Apparently so. Where were the plaques and history and interesting stuff? I personally don’t think that locals staring at the two puzzled-looking idiots driving backwards and forwards in their Smart car count as ‘stuff’.
But I’d spotted a place on the outskirts that had a menu up outside. Yay, coffee time. Coffee sweetens many an abortive trip out, and if there are cakes, then it’s a spree! So we parked up, walked in and got slapped in the face with history. In 1644, the commander of the Turkish Fleet started building his summer palace here, and the ruins of it have been newly restored and renovated.The Maskovic Han, as it is called, is now a lovely hotel with very nice coffee.
As we left, the waitress asked if we’d seen the ninth century ruin over the road? Oh, so there‘s more stuff here? Great. We pootled over the road to what, at first glance, appeared to be a field with a lot of fallen down stone walls. But then, after climbing up and down some dips and navigating gaps in the overgrowth, we found ourselves inside the remains of what were once impressive buildings.
It was totally silent, apart from the occasional chirps of birdsong. The sun was beaming down, the air trembling with butterflies and it felt completely peaceful. Like a secret garden that had been carefully avoiding Monty Don.
I heard some rustling in the bushes (which I hoped wasn’t a snake), then I got distracted into pursuing a big, bright-yellow butterfly with black spots, that I’d never seen before. Which is why I almost trod on this little sweetie as it wandered onto the path in front of me.
A tortoise! A genuine wild tortoise! My ignorance again, but I had no idea that they lived here. That pretty much made my week, let alone my day.
We’ve had some surprisingly wonderful meals in shopping malls, of all places, including a terrific curry and some great Chinese food (I worry what tourists in Britain think when they rock up and are faced with a choice of Burger King or KFC). So I was happily encouraged by the sight of Soparnik under the counter of the cafe we ended up at a few days later. Soparnik is a Croatian speciality, and is basically a flat pie made from flaky filo-like pastry with a filling of chard and a white cheese. I like chard. We’d often been served chard and potatoes, the spuds being boiled, but golden and the chard, rich and iron-y. So a chard pie, with some cheese – how wrong can you go with that?
Now, perhaps I should have been worried when I heard the microwave ping. Hands up who’s over-microwaved pastry before now, and turned it into an un-chewable, rock-hard slice of sweaty brown stuff? I think you know what I’m saying.
But it was the cheese. The cheese! I don’t know what animal’s milk that had been made from, but I’m guessing a really pissed-off Tasmanian Devil or a dead Yak. It left a taste in my mouth that was beyond-words-awful, really rank. And then I realised what it reminded me of. You know that taste that is left in your mouth just after you’ve just thrown up? Bingo. Now, I discovered Parmesan when I was in my late teens and remember being surprised that it smelt of vomit but tasted of cheese. This one smelt of cheese but tasted of vomit. Steve was hungry and chomping it down so I thought it best not to expand on this theory at the time.
ON TO DUBROVNIK
Driving down through Croatia is certainly an experience. For a start, my knowledge of geography is so poor, that I genuinely had no idea that to get to Dubrovnik from Split you pass through a bit of Bosnia. I just hadn’t zoomed in that much on Google maps. So it was a bit of a shock when we fetched up at a checkpoint. I imagined that Deirdre the sat-nav slut had taken us down a wrong road again, and just followed Steve into Bosnia assuming he’d sort it out.
After a while we approached another checkpoint and I got my passport ready to show. But, to my surprise, Steve just drove straight on to the last kiosk and was then waved through by a chap standing outside it. Strange, I thought, but oh well – I’ll just do the same. I couldn’t see anyone in the first kiosk anyway. And so it was that I drove mindlessly past the lady with the out-stretched hand in kiosk number two, didn’t show my passport to anybody, and just sailed past the confused-looking man standing outside. When I realised what I’d done I frantically called Steve on the walkie-talkie. Don’t worry, he said, if there’s a problem they’ll just send the police after you. Thanks mate.
The Croatians like simple campsite names, such as Camp Martin, Susie, Petar or Antonio – which to choose? Not Camp Bozo, I think, or (given that a ‘j’ is pronounced as a ‘y’) the untrustworthy sounding Camp Dunja. We settled for Camping Kate. On arrival we were told that it was due to close in a couple of days, but if we wanted to stay longer, then they’d stay open longer too. Fantastic. We suggested a week, and they said that was fine.
It was nestled on a hilltop amongst olive, orange and persimmon trees. There was a tiny chapel overlooking the sea, and stairs that took you down the hill to the beach at a sweet little place called Mlini. Bit of a climb back up, but so worth it.
AND YET MORE FOOD
The nice lady at Camping Kate suggested that we go over the road to a restaurant called Flamingo’s if we wanted a decent meal. It was fairly unpretentious and a little bit basic looking inside, but we’ve learnt never to judge by appearances. We ordered The Flamingo Platter, which was a sharing plate for two, and stopped us having to spend ages thinking about what we wanted and get down to the wine.
In the corner, three guys started playing an Argentine tango on a guitar, a double bass, and an accordion. When they sang, their voices were rich, melodic and harmonious; they had clearly been performing together for a long time. They finished their set and then moved over to the first table.
‘Where do you come from?’
No problem. They launched into several songs that the chaps at the table could sing along to, and so on around the room. Then they reached us.
‘Where do you come from?’
You’ve heard of London, maybe?’
Then they got in a huddle, had a little chat, smiled, and launched into What shall we do with the drunken sailor, followed by a Scottish reel, and Fly me to the moon.
Bit surreal, but then the food arrived and it was humungous. The plate (which was larger than my bathroom sink) had roast chicken, steaks, two sorts of kebabs, chips and potatoes and a vegetable rice, roast Mediterranean vegetables, chard mixed with some other veg, and fried breaded cheese. Plus eight homemade bread rolls, and a soup bowl full of mushroom and cream sauce. We took a lot of it home in a doggy bag and it lasted us for three days.
We were now within reach of Dubrovnik, aka, Kings Landing from Game of Thrones. That’s a whole blog on its own, so until next time, thanks for reading. Ciao xx