My highschool social studies project predicted the Yugoslavian civil war (known here as the Homeland War – Domovinski rat). And my college roommate was an ethnic Albanian from what is now Kosovo. He left home in the early 90’s at 16 when the war started and we lived together in 95 near the end when things were really heating up in Serbia. So I got to hear from an insider what things were like. The divisions are old. Really old. When the Roman Empire split in the great schism of 1054, it split right through the heart of the region. Eventually evolving into a Catholic side (Croatia) and an Eastern Orthodox side (Serbia), and it’s pretty much been that way ever since. This is the place where east meets west and I won’t attempt to sum up the long history here.
I know about the conflict. And I know a little about the history. But what I didn’t know were the people, the land, the food, the heart and soul of the region. They don’t talk about this region much in the United States. It’s long and complex history is too complicated to easily pin down and stereotype. It wasn’t included in the eurocentric world history books dedicated primarily to “western Europe”. And even now I knew little about what to expect or where to start. I hope to get a better understanding of this fascinating place over the next few months.
And I’m starting in Croatia in the city of Split. Croatia is west of the Balkan peninsula so it’s not accurate to say it’s in the Balkans. The city considers itself western Europe. It’s part of the EU. And they don’t like being called eastern Europe. The tribes in the region now called Dalmatia were conquered by the Romans. Diocletian (a Roman emperor for 20 years born in the region) built his palace here in 305 AD creating the city. Since then it was conquered by the Venetians, and then later by the Austrians, followed by the French, then Austria again, it was independent, part of 2 different confederations (socialist, sort of), and declared it’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1990 sparking the Croatian War of Independence. Which succeeded obviously and now they’re a part of the EU and NATO.
All of this history brings with it a unique mix of food and people. The dishes seem somewhere between Prague’s hearty stews and bread dumplings, Italy’s pasta and gnocchi (njokima) with truffles, German sausages, and ham on French baguettes. And all of it is delicious. I’ll try to pin down some signature local dishes as my guide along the way.
Diocletian was the first Roman emperor to abdicate his position. And when he did, he retired to the Dalmatian coast near where he grew up. His palace was built in 10 years and he lived there until his death. The town of Split grew up around the palace and melded with it, now comprising half of old town and it’s hard to tell sometimes where the palace begins and ends. It’s the oldest continuously occupied dwelling and still houses a variety of families as well as shops, bars, and hotels. The city actually ran off a functioning aqueduct built for the palace until the 1930’s.
This place is really cool but it’s a double edged sword as it’s close to the cruise ship docks and at regular intervals old town is flooded with a deluge of gawking fussy tourists of all nationalities. It’s the fasted growing tourist country in Europe and it’s easy to feign traveler snobbishness and say its lost to commercialization. But it doesn’t take much work at all to venture a little further out, do a little research, explore a few passageways, and you’ll find the town itself alive and well hidden out of easy reach.
Old Town and the surrounding city
Outside of the palace the town spreads from the coast to the hills with winding narrow roads and ancient houses jengaed together. The town was quite small until after the world war when it became an industrial center and the population grew six times. Beyond old town the quaint charm is replaced with massive housing structures in the typical communist brutalist style with all the design nuance of an 80’s Plymouth Reliant. Meaning they’re ugly and even a bit menacing. I didn’t get a chance to explore these parts of town.
Park Šuma Marjan
Exploring a side street, Katy and I began walking uphill and just didn’t stop. Eventually we encountered Park Suma Marjan, a massive park encompassing the entire peninsula extending beyond the city with steep stone trails leading up to an impressive view. This was the most I’ve walked since breaking my toes and the foot did quite well. If you’re not afraid of uphill walks, I recommend it.
About a half hour outside of town lies a strategic ridge between the two dominant mountains on which Klis Fortress is built. Whoever controls the fortress, it is said, controls the region. So of course this structure has a long history of wars and invasions. It runs down a stone ridge like the spine of a dragon. I can’t imagine trying to breach it.
This fortress served as the external location for the city of Meereen in Game of Thrones. They added the pyramid in post, but otherwise it looks just like the scenes.
On the prowl for traditional local cuisine
I’ve never been to Croatia so I was excited to find some unique dishes that spoke to the region, its food and history. The influences are complex so much of the food you might associate with other regions but I found a few specialties to get me started and researched restaurants that specialized in that dish and wouldn’t break the bank. Typically Croatian food is inexpensive but the places in old town were charge three times the rate you can find the same thing for a few blocks away.
Note: culturally Croatian waiters aren’t quite as friendly or responsive as other countries. It takes a while to get service and you probably won’t get fake smiles or greetings. So come relaxed and don’t take it personally. I’ve had some outstanding waiters who were very helpful and some places we just walked out of because we were being overtly ignored. I found this especially problematic in small bars where the waitress preferred to sit at a table drinking and on her phone instead of tending to patrons.
Konoba Hvaranin (Pasticada with gnocchi)
Pasticada (Dalmatinska pašticada) is a dish reserved for special occasions like weddings. It takes some time to make. First, the meat is pierced and stuffed with garlic, cloves, carrot and bacon, then salted and marinated in vinegar overnight. The marinated beef is then roasted and cooked with roasted bacon, onions, parsley root, nutmeg, prunes, tomato paste, water and prošek up to five hours, depending on meat. After cooking, the vegetables are blended into a sauce. It is usually served with gnocchi or homemade pasta.
Konoba Hvaranin came highly recommended so I chose this as the place to try it. Katy got the also delicious goulash (gulaš) and we started the meal with a salad of anchovies and shrimp. And excellent meal and good prices. I would definitely return.
Konoba Varos (Peka)
Peka consists of a meat with vegetables covered with an iron bell, covered in hot coals, and slow cooked until delicious. It’s a slow dish that takes time to cook so you usually have to reserve it a day in advance or as little as three hours in some places. The portion is large too so it’s usually reserved for parties of 4 or more and you can only get it in places with wood fired ovens. So needless to say I didn’t actually get my Peka yet. But Knonoba Varos is supposed to make a really good one. Usually made with beef, lamb, octopus, or squid.
Since I was in a wood fire place I went with the fire roasted meat sampler (Mijesano meso) with svinjski kotlet (pork cutlet), teleca jetra (calf liver), raznjic (pork skewers), cevapcici i kobasica (little serbian sausages on a kabob), and another smoked sausage. Katy went with the seafood risotto.
Fife (Goulash, beans with smoked meat, fish soup)
Fife is a gem! It’s right on the coast but it’s at the far edge of Old Town. The food is great specializing in traditional dalmatian dishes and the prices are the lowest I’ve found with such good food. Katy and I had two entrees, salads, a side dish and drinks for $30. And the atmosphere is great as well. We went back here twice and I’d happily go again if given the chance.
For our first meal I got the traditional fish soup which is a light broth with some rice. The veal tongue which even Katy liked (she’s not usually a tongue person). And Katy got the chicken kabobs with pomfrits (french fries) and the chard cooked with potatoes and butter (excellent).
For the second meal we split two dishes, the goulash with gnocchi and beans with smoked meat. Both were fantastic. The smoked meat was a huge slab or pork that was falling apart with rich smokey beans. The salads were plain but tasty and we added the chard again.
Villa Spiza (Fish brojet with scorpion fish)
I’ve heard the fish brojet (brudet, brodet or brodeto) is something not to miss. It’s a fish stew using a mix of fishes stewed with spices and red wine. I heard from someone in the know that it must contain scorpion fish to achieve the right texture and taste. If it doesn’t have it, it’s not worth ordering. So I asked the waiter and he assured me it did. He made sure I got a whole scorpion fish head in my serving. Which turned out to be a bit of work; scorpion fish have a lot of bones, but it was quite yummy. Villa Spiza was a bit pricey for what you got but the food was good and the location was charming. All in all I was very satisfied. And the waiter was awesome, I really liked him. So it made the experience unforgettable.
Ćevapi (or ćevapčići)
I love ćevapi! I couldn’t get enough of these little things. They’re these little grilled Serbian sausages of unknown providence. Tasty but not spicy like an Italian sausage. Just meaty and yummy. They’re either served straight up as kabobs or more common on lepinja bread which is somewhere between a hamburger bun and a pita (fluffy inside but a bit more texture on the outside) with some bright red pepper sauce (not spicy) and sometimes with diced onions which I prefer but Katy does not. I searched the market for a local joint for my first one but ended up ordering it several more times at little shops as a booze mop for my tummy. It’s like the Split answer to a hotdog.
Caffe Snack Bar Key
If you’re walking up Ul. bana Josipa Jelačića on the left edge of Old Town, hang a left at Ba!Će up Križeva and you’ll run across a little street side coffeeshop that I was fond of. Great coffee, fun staff. The waiter made my cappuccino look exactly like him. Impressive. The only downside is a massive kit of pigeons that all seemed hell bent to poop on me. One by one they’d perch on the wire closest to the tables and strain their asses out as far as they could and take a dump with a shiver. I swear it was like a game to these weirdos.
I wanted to include this place because it was the cheapest place I found to buy local snacks. It’s mostly a ćevapi joint, just a food counter, but the prices are as low as it gets and you an buy single buns and sausages if you’re really trying to make it stretch. The 5 sausage sandwich (typical size) is only $3.60 and the single sausages are only about $.50. It’s at the top left corner of Old Town on Ul. bana Josipa Jelačića.
Caffe Bar Trece Poluvrijeme
If you’re looking for a locals only coffee shop in a quiet square far away from the tourists I found this fantastic throw back to what it must have been like before the hoards descended on Split. Very chill and a cappuccino was only $1.50. Lean in to the typically slow service. I went inside to pay my bill.