9. Dine on Croatia’s finest seafood
Scampi found in the Kvarner Bay are considered to be the best in Croatia. Although available all year round, they are said to be finest when fished between May and July, at night during a full moon, when this member of the lobster family leaves its silt in search of food. In restaurants – in Istria as well as Kvarner – you’ll find it boiled, grilled, prepared in sauce, marinated, breaded, wrapped in Istrian ham, spit-roasted and even raw, embellished by a few drops of first-class Istrian olive oil. Croatian oysters have a more intense taste than their Atlantic counterpart. The most renowned varieties come from Ston on Pelješac, Dalmatia, and the Limski kanal in Istria. Ston oysters, served at the most prestigious tables of Dubrovnik, are best enjoyed straight from the sea at Mali Ston or at the Oyster Festival held for the Feast of St Joseph every March. They are also sold by the side of the road. In Istria, seek out Emil Sošič’s hut at the mouth of the Limski kanal, site of his Istrida oyster farm. Dentex, known as zubatac to Croatians, is not a fish that’s familiar to British dining tables – although it can be found in the waters of the Eastern Atlantic, as well as the Black Sea. Their exquisite taste means that they are a popular choice in Croatian restaurants. Look out too for red mullet, trilje, considered perfect for grilling highly prized by Ancient Greek and Roman alike.
10. Take a wine tour of Pelješac
Jutting out just to the north west of Dubrovnik, the Pelješac peninsula is slim – so you’re never far from a sea view – and studded with vineyards and winemakers. Some areas, like Dingač, are so steep that vines are planted on 60/degree slopes, and grape pickers have to harness themselves on to ropes and effectively abseil down to gather the crop. You can either drive around the peninsula yourself and stop in at wineries on spec, or organise a tailor-made wine-lovers’ tour through 1001 Delicija. It’s worth factoring in some time on the island of Korčula too, which lies off the tip of the peninsula, and is home to a beautiful, ancient main town and some great restaurants and wines. Two wineries stand out. The first is Frano Miloš, just outside Ston, one of the few Croatian winemakers to have gained an international reputation. As soon as Croatia gained its independence and private enterprise was allowed, he bought some land from the collectivised state wineries and started making his delicious ‘Stagnum’ range of wines, which you can sip over a laidback afternoon in his sunlit tasting room built into a rocky mountain side.
11. Try the famous Slavonian kulen sausage
Slavonian kulen sausage is made by hand from special cuts of top-quality pork sourced from mature pigs, and takes nine months to cure naturally. It’s dry, spicy and when sliced has the same saturated colour and distinctive texture throughout – the only additives are salt, garlic and red paprika. At summer’s kulen festivals, kulenijada, notably at Požega and Vinkovci, the previous year’s batch reaches perfection.
To try real Croatian prosciutto ham in its home setting, head to Konavle in Dalmatia and the traditional pršut-producing village of Duba, where the deserted karst hills and the dry winter Bura wind create the perfect conditions for production. The finest hams come from small family estates and cost between 100kn and 140kn a kilo. Only certain restaurants serve them, such as the recommended Konavoski Komin in Velji dol near Cavtat, where portions runs to 100kn. Try it with semi-hard cheese and preserved cherries, a combination inherited from the Ragusa days.
The flavours of the Pag dinner table are influenced by the arid, saline environment – don’t hesitate to pull off the road anywhere you see a restaurant sign next to a lamb spinning on a spit. Inhabited by more sheep than humans, Pag produces lamb deeply flavoured with the aromatic herbs sheep consume, as is the trademark Pag cheese. Accompanied by local Sutica dry white wine and a digestif of travarica herb brandy, the Pag culinary experience is complete.
12. Experience the Blue Cave of Biševo
Set on the east coast of Vis, the Blue Cave (Modra šplija) is accessible by sea from Komiža. Boats leave Komiža harbour at 9am, as the time to arrive is from about 11am. With the sun gaining height, it shines through the waters of a submerged side entrance and the cave is bathed in a fabulous blue light. At this point, many dive in, although the high volume can make this tricky in July or August. Agencies in Komiza arrange day tours, at around 90kn per head, including lunch and an afternoon at a beach near Biševo.
13. Taste Neretva cuisine
The Neretva Delta is synonymous with tangerine orchards, picturesque spots by the river – and frogs’ legs and eels. Most restaurants and taverns by the river offer frog’s legs and eel dishes but the one most known is the Neretva frog-and-eel stew. It’s renowned for its strong taste and red pepper that, together with Mediterranean herbs and bay leaves, give the dish its recognisable colour and characteristic flavour. You should also try grilled eels or eel kebab and frogs’ legs wrapped in Dalmatian prosciutto ham. Popular restaurants such as the Villa Neretva in Metković also number wild water hen, fresh scampi in spicy sauce, kale with eels, shellfish and the renowned local frog risotto among its specialities.
14. Get rustic in Istria
For first-hand experience of Istria’s lifestyle and culture, Agrotourism is the way to go, with small-scale inexpensive restaurants and lodgings. To be denominated as an Agrotourist establishment, owners must sell solely home-grown food and wines. One excellent example is found in Karoca in the village of Sovinjak, between Buzet and Istarske Toplice. Everything on the menu, including the bread, is made on the premises. The garden surveys rolling hills, dotted with other vineyards and tiny villages. There’s another stunning view from the big table at Stefanić (www.agroturizam-stefanic.hr), at Kaldir, near Motovun – plus outstanding veal.
15. Gawp at Plitvice
About a million visitors a year make it to what is arguably Croatia’s great natural attraction, Plitvice – no small boast in a country blessed with an abundance of unspoilt beauty. And the Plitvice Lakes absorb such numbers without problems – there is so much to see that the occasional crowds crossing on the many bridges and walkways hardly matter. This natural wonder is just off the main highway between Zagreb and Split, within easy distance of Zadar. It is home to more than 1,000 species of plants, 140 types of birds and 40 mammals: lynx, wild cats, deer and brown bears among them. Most of all, though, people flock here for the series of 16 continually changing, cascading, crystal-clear lakes. Boardwalks follow the contours of and criss-cross over the beautiful turquoise water. Set among beech, spruce and fir forests, they give you a fish-eye view of the lakes and falls. Regular trams also travel the length of the most visited section of the park, from the 12 upper lakes to the four lower ones, and the Veliki slap, or Big Waterfall. If you start early you can easily see the main sights in a day.
16. Tour Krka
Krka features the 800-metre-long waterfall of Skradinski buk, the main draw in this most interesting of Croatia’s eight national parks. The waterfall comprises a 17-step series of cascades but there’s much more to see than that. By the beautiful town of Skradin, near Šibenik in central Dalmatia, the Krka National Park is named after the 75-km long Krka river it practically encompasses. Krka is awash with natural beauty – just take the four-hour riverboat tour to the Roški slap waterfall, backdropped by three riverbank towns.
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