– three things I love to do. Come with!
At the moment, I feel like writing about Croatia, where Christie and I spent the last couple days. Why isn’t Croatia more prominent on Americans’ list of places to visit in Europe? From what we saw, Croatia is a beautiful country with interesting (though also complicated) history, incredibly cheap prices, refreshingly cool water, and welcoming, friendly people. It could be a different story in Zagreb, but the Istrian Peninsula, in the northwest corner of the country, is paradise on the Adriatic.
A comfortable three hour ferry ride from Venice, the Istrian peninsula is the smaller, less well-known (perhaps less publicized, thus I hadn’t heard of it…) northern sister of the Dalmatian coast. Given that we only had a few days, we chose Istria, the coast closest to Venice. We stayed in Rovinj (Rovigno) which is the second largest city in Istria, after the Roman ruin city of Pula. During the height of the Venetian republic, Istria and Dalmatia were conquered and ruled under the Doge’s authority, and the Italian language has remained centuries later. Though many people do speak a little English, Italian is really the second language after Croatian.
We booked our stay in Rovinj at the Apartmani Celestina, easily found on hostelworld.com. After a ten minute walk out of the old town center, we found our host Celestina to be as charming and welcoming as her apartments, priced at 45€ a night (about 350 kuna). Apartmani Celestina is located in a residential neighborhood, away from the tourist restaurants that line the marina. Christie and I relished the opportunity to see Rovinj and her residents in their daily routines. We bought groceries at the local corner store, where tough looking Croatian men drank tall bottles of beer at all hours of the day. There was a man with one leg who frequently (and by frequently, I mean every time we walked by in three days, he was there) rode is Honda Four-Wheeler ATV to the shop and could be seen chain-smoking and drinking and chatting with his compatriots. The sheer number of bottle caps on the ground indicated this wasn’t an isolated incident. I couldn’t help but wonder if the one-legged man was involved in the Balkan wars and had lost a leg to a land mine.
While Rovinj isn’t scarred in any visible way from those wars, that’s probably because it is the opposite end of the country from Bosnia. However, a few short conversations revealed that the people of Rovinj certainly have connections with that conflict. We chose to dine at Restaurant Pineta, located in our less-touristy neighborhood. Our server was named Pavle, Bosnian by ethnicity. He said his family came to Rovinj when he was very little “because of the war, you know?” Christie and I thought to ourselves yes, of course, the war. Doesn’t everyone move when they’re young because of wars?
Midway through our first dinner there, Pavle loosened up a little and began joking with us. We asked him to recommend a typical Croatian dish; he responded that everything on the menu was Croatian. Further questioning revealed that his favorites included cevapĉici (I think that’s how it’s spelled). He then admitted that cevapĉici are actually a Sarajevo specialty, ten thumb-sized ground beef sausages, served with a sweet red pepper and garlic sauce that only looks like Sriracha.
We started with two salads, one of dandelion and radicchio that turned out too bitter for our palates. However, I’m glad to say we tried a dandelion salad; how often do you see that on even the most inventive menus? The other appetizer was a delicious salad of pickled cucumber, tomato, olives and a fresh, salty cheese- which Christie aptly described as a cross between feta and goat cheese. We followed the salad with the cevapĉici and Istrian sausage, a smaller, sweeter version of bratwurst, with vegetable rice.
Though the sausages were delicious, the highlight of this first dinner was definitely the pickled cucumber and fresh cheese salad. We had never experienced a cheese of this flavor and consistency, and the cucumber was a refreshing foil to the salt of the cheese. Perhaps Pavle noted that we loved the salad, because the second night the dish arrived nearly twice as large.
For our second dinner at Pineta, Pavle directed us to a pasta dish with slow-stewed beef. The pasta wasn’t quite the consistency of gnocchi, but it was slightly chewy. After several mimed demonstrations from our obliging server, we discerned that the pasta is made similar to gnocchi, but with less potato. The little balls are rolled between your fingers until they resemble your pinky.
These skinny, knuckled dumplings must be the Croatian equivalent of macaroni and cheese- essentially, everything you could ask for in a comfort food. The beef broth is salty enough to hit the spot, the noodle dumplings are perfectly chewy; the whole dish is simply satisfying. It seemed like the kind of dish a Croatian mother fixes for her sick son, or her famished husband after an especially hard day of work. Christie and I had spent the day laying on the beach, suntanning and swimming on the Adriatic, so it’s not exactly like we earned it. But that’s what vacation is for- you can eat out of context, just for the taste experience.
Another gastronomic gem we found in our residential neighborhood was a little bakery with sweet and savory pastries and crusty loaves. The bread reminded me of a slightly heartier baguette- not quite as airy as the French original, but then it was better to suited to the peppered Croatian charcuterie and cheese we grabbed for our beach picnic.
The bakery specialized in burek, a heavier pastry that can be described as a cheese- or mince- filled pretzel, as though they had taken flat sheets of phyllo dough, wrapped them around filling and then wound the rope in the shape of a sweet palmier. It was a little too greasy for my taste, because the pastry was already pretty buttery. The cheese left the pastry’s paper wrapping visibly saturated. Obviously, we only ordered burek again at 3 a.m. on our last night there, after four too-many glasses of grappa and honey.
Their sweet pastries, however, were out of this world. A Nutella-filled brioche started my morning off with the perfect sugar shot, while Christie opted for a strudel filled with walnut paste. Croissants dusted with powdered sugar, braided rolls topped with sesame seeds- we tried it all. I think over our three days in Rovinj, we visited the bakery seven times. Luckily for us, it was open twenty four hours, so we could grab a little breakfast at 5:45 a.m., before our ferry back to Venice. Given the aforementioned excess with grappa and honey shots, the pastries were lifesavers, to say the least.
As I write, I am noticing that I frequently describe food items in comparison to something else, something I already know. Perhaps with more writing experience and more culinary knowledge, I’ll be able to describe dishes or particular foods in their own right. Or perhaps the comparisons are useful in that they provide a richer image and mental taste point for my reader.