In this edition of “When in Rome”, it’s all about Croatia. Now usually I pick one city to focus on for like a 72 hour weekend of gout inducing food and drink. This time I’m exploring one of my favourite – and let’s face it – most beautiful countries in the world. I have travelled some really super parts of this country and I’d like to share just why I can’t wait to return.
I first fell in love with Croatia’s beauty at the age of 18. I had just completed my first year training to be a chef. I was working at the Clarence Hotel and studying at DIT… I think I told this story in a previous edition of my little travel thing. However, the story is the same – I was incredibly lucky to be allowed to take 8 weeks off during the college holiday and travel around Europe with two of my best friends.
Now, I would love to admit that I was drawn to Croatia by its stunning beauty (it is absolutely breathtaking), or its delicious cuisine (which is a fantastic mix of so many nations and empires). The simple fact was, we were following a bunch of fun girls who we had met in Vienna that invited us to meet them in Croatia. The ladies had departed for Croatia ahead of us and we thought.. “Let’s follow suit.. why not?”
The journey brought us over the Austrian alps, past the famous spot where Julie Andrews sang “The Hills are Alive” from The Sound of Music. That was pretty stunning to be fair. After a few hours, we arrived at Rijeka. Rijeka is a beautiful port city and I couldn’t wait to explore. The only problem was, we were at the wrong location. With just enough time to spare, we made the last train to Pula.
This is where my first Croatian adventure begins. Pula is situated at the tip of the Istrian peninsula. Jaw-dropping beauty is the only way to describe this place. This was a large Roman settlement, home to one of the largest amphitheatres in the world. Pula is a much quieter town to visit and the prices reflect that. Eating and drinking in Pula is far more reasonable than most of Croatia. Now, with the introduction of the Euro to the country, the value or lack of value is more transparent. You’re not going to get Michelin-star restaurants or world class cocktail bars here – just tasty, honest, home-cooked food and great BBQ Ćevapi (we’ll get to that in a bit), but if like myself and most people, you plan to travel to a few places whilst in the country, Pula is definitely a little bit of chill before you hit the likes of Dubrovnik and Hvar.
Where to Eat – Pula
You will inevitably smell this place about 3 minutes before you sit down. Simple, tasty grilled meats, and yes, the famous Ćevapi. Perfect for a bit of a carnivorous feed with loads of chips. A bit more pricey than the corner grill, but you get what you pay for.
Kantina is a slightly more up-market affair, but not greatly. This restaurant definitely leans towards its heritage and history with influences from the Venetians and the Austro-Hungarians. Simple and delicious, I’d like to think there was an army of Istrian grannies in the kitchen cooking dishes from their childhood. Thankfully, the grannies are just chilling in the main square of Pula, but they must have imparted something on to their grandchildren, because I really enjoyed the honest flavours.
One of my favourite influences to the Istrian dinner table comes from the Venetian and Pulan proximity to Italy, which has inevitably led to there being fantastic Italian food there. Bistro Alighieri offers simple but delicious pasta, and of course, this restaurant serves what turned out to be my first taste of the famous black rice. There will be a lot of black rice to come, and I mean a lot. This must be the dish of Croatia. If you haven’t had it because you are scared of the colour, I implore you to try it, you will absolutely love it. Some versions will be served with a mix of seafood but the true version will be just cuttle fish and I adore it! The vibe here is definitely chill, much like the town, but perfect for families, and the restaurant happily does small portions for children.
Where to Drink – Pula
The Shipyard Pub
The Shipyard is, as the name suggests, within spitting distance from the marina. This place did not exist on my first visit to Pula, but wow! It’s a huge, grand pub. More of a beer hall where locals and tourists can co-exist in perfect harmony. The bar has a massive beer list and more Cosmos than I could ever know what to do with. Perfect for sitting outside enjoying the atmosphere and listening to the live music and DJs.
Old City Bar Pula
You know that bar you find on any holiday where you go in for a pit stop, maybe a quick beer, to use the bathroom or just chill in for 15 minutes, but you invariably end up going to that bar every day? Well, that’s the Old City Bar. I’m not even sure it closes – I heard rumours it does, but I have never witnessed it. It’s more of a vibe than a hip spot. You’ll find cold beer here, and they serve food also, so when the blood sugar drops, a tasty Ćevapi is close at hand.
Dubrovnik is gorgeous – a UNESCO heritage site, and yes, you would be forgiven for confusing the city with a certain king’s landing. It’s no doubt the filming of Game of Thrones has changed Dubrovnik for the good and the bad. I will also admit, when I visited the city, I had never watched a single episode of the show and quite honestly had no idea why all these people were taking pictures of rocks and random doorways. I have since watched and now understand – it’s a super show. During the Croatian war of independence, the people of Dubrovnik were laid to siege; this lasted nearly 8 months. Over half of the city was damaged. It’s hard to see now, but extensive reconstruction and restoration has helped the city regain its historic beauty. The almost slippery marble streets are immaculate and are perfect to meander and get lost in.
Dubrovnik is not cheap but hey, I live in Dublin, so you know where I’m going with this. If you have a beer or a glass of wine in the main square, like most famous cities or towns, you will inevitably pay, ahem, a king’s ransom… sorry, last Game of Thrones reference. If you can get over the onslaught of Thrones’ fans, you will absolute adore Dubrovnik. Beautiful bars and restaurants are everywhere. It really is the perfect place for a long weekend or the venue for my wife’s hen do.
Where to Eat – Dubrovnik
OK this is a bit fancy. The proud holder of 1 Michelin star. The restaurant is literally built into the walls of the castle. The best seats in the house are on top of the wall with, well, 360 degree views of the city (hence the name). The menu is what you would expect from a starred restaurant – little snacks of creative and delicious creations. Ironically, I was served Irish Hereford prime beef for my main… come on Ireland! Sorry, I digress – the service was impeccable, and well, if it’s your first night of your holiday or the bank account is still intact, you will feel very special. It’s expensive but no more so than a non-starred great meal in any other major city.
Proto Fish Restaurant
Ciara and myself may have been lured to this restaurant in the hopes of spotting one of their famous clientele. Alas, not on this occasion. Every town has one of these restaurants – history and heritage, old school glamour, and a list of royal and Hollywood patrons. I feel as if this place had its day, but that did not stop myself and the Mrs from pretending our yacht was moored off the port and we were just popping in for some fresh fish and pasta because we needed a change from our private chef. The menu is fish heavy but offers loads of alternatives. I enjoyed a healthy bowl of pasta with beautiful fresh prawns and my first mouthful of Istrian truffles. This was also my first experience of quality Croatian wine. Its was pricey, but sure look, if it’s good enough for George Clooney it’s good enough for you.
As I said previously, the influence on Croatian cuisine by other cultures is truly amazing. The intertwining of Italian, Turkish and the Slavic nations makes for some seriously delicious food. Kopun, as the name translates, is Capon, which is a male chicken whose, well let’s just say, its bits and pieces have seen better days. A capon is traditionally slow roasted or stewed; they are delicious, but what brought me to this restaurant was that they specialise in Dalmatian cuisine.
Dalmatian cuisine uses spices, cinnamon and cloves, and dried fruits such as apricots and figs are widely used. Kopun Restaurant is also set next to the Jesuit stairs, which some of you may recognise from a certain HBO drama. The menu features other beautiful traditional dishes and super fresh pastas and seafood. I really enjoyed this as a little trip back a few hundred years and a style of cooking which is obviously routed in Persian origins. Finish your meal with a traditional Rozulin liquor (unless you hate rose water like me).
Where to Drink – Dubrovnik
Cave Bar More
Again, I love when places are named after their most obvious feature, and as the name suggests, this bar is located in a cave. Stop in for some silly, fun holiday cocktails. The one thing Dubrovnik is not short of is watering holes.
Located only a short walk from the centre of the old town, this place is the perfect beach bar with its own beautiful cove. Ice cold beer and chilled vibes, Dodo is the perfect place to spend a lazy day away from the lines of people following a stick with a flag on the top.
Buza bar is very cool. It may not have a toilet and it may be a bit dangerous with a few bevvies on board, but what a place to have a sun downer. Built onto the side of a cliff, you will, as I did, get lost and not find the hole in the wall (literally) entrance to this place. I came here within my first hour of being in Dubrovnik and it was a cerebral experience. Good for the soul. Have a margarita and just watch the sun go down.
The first thing I learned from the retired sea captain Air BnB host myself and Ciara were staying with was that Marco Polo was from Korcula (FYI). I will never debate that and nor should anyone. It makes sense, but just be prepared to hear stories of its favourite son from everyone. Korcula is a little beauty jutting into the sea. This island is a perfect place to charge the batteries for a few days. Amazing beaches are only a 10 minute walk away. The geography is like a running track, circular and filled with bars and restaurants perfect for doing, well, nothing – maybe playing gin rummy. Explore the interior and find even more bars and restaurants. The hospitality, much like its explorer son, is famous here.
Where to eat – Korcula
Konoba Adio Mare
This place was the recommendation of the sea captain, and if it’s his go-to, then we figured we were in good hands. Simple, fresh fish cooked over charcoal is the name of the game and we were not disappointed. Beautifully fresh and perfectly grilled. It’s located in a beautiful courtyard up some stairs. The mood is very romantic, so sit and stare lovingly at your loved one and soak it up.
Konoba Marco Polo
Did I mention Marco Polo is from Korcula… I did! Well, not only was he from Korcula, but macaroni pasta was also first made in Korcula, and don’t you forget it. I stupidly made the fatal error of enquiring to the grandmother and owner in this small but very nice old school restaurant why she cooks so much “Italian” macaroni pasta. Just a friendly tip, never ask about the origins of this long, hand rolled pasta in Korcula. In all seriousness, I was walking by this restaurant one evening to find an elderly woman, her husband, daughter and son, all working in this restaurant. The cooking is done on an open hearth of red burning embers. I enquired and was told they cut and produce their own charcoal. If anyone goes to that length and effort they deserve a go. Again, simple but full of flavour. We shared a delicious traditional Ragu with wild boar and hand rolled macaroni, then a platter of mouthwatering grilled meats and Ćevapi. What more could you want?
If you’re a Rick Stein fan, like me, you might have seen the show where he goes to Korcula, and well, you know he eats everywhere in his so charmingly Cornwall way. In the episode, he visits restaurant Maha. I will admit, I was influenced – we went. The restaurant is located about 8km in the hills, but driving through vineyards and staring into the Adriatic Sea isn’t so bad. The restaurant is run by Jaksa and Ivan Maha. Originally started by their father, the restaurant feels like you’re in someone’s home, albeit a very beautiful home. Stunning cocktails and beautiful meats cooked over fire. Trust Rick and myself, give it a lash.
Where to drink – Korcula
Caffe Bar Academia
The first time we came to this bar we were stuck in the middle of what felt like a hurricane/thunderstorm, so we got stuck in and had a few glasses of the local wine. The interior is tiny but what this place is famous for is the live musicians who perform during the summer months outside. So, we obviously had to return the next night, minus the hurricane. Great place to sit outside and just feel like you’re on holidays. Very family friendly and just great craic.
Massimo Cocktail Bar
This bar is a little silly. It’s on the top of an old fortified watch tower. You have to climb the tightest and steepest staircase and exit to the top through a tiny hole, but once you are there they will serve you the strongest cocktails I have ever tasted. What could possibly go wrong? A bit of an experience and a great view from the top, but please be careful up there.
Hvar, pronounced ‘wvar’, is a bit flashy. That’s OK, I get it. Being one of the sunniest places on earth with some of the lowest rainfall has its benefits. Expect loads of rich American tech bros just off the company yacht doing “Europe”. If I was the mayor of Hvar I would be delighted, keep them coming. However, during the summer months, this makes Hvar one of the busiest spots in Croatia. It’s beautiful… I feel I have used this adjective a bit too much but well, it’s outrageously beautiful.
Hotels are pricey, but again, Air BnB is a great alternative and way more affordable. The vibe is not quite Monaco but definitely sexier than say, Marbella. It’s fun and packed with beach clubs and beach bars. Swimming in the sea is a bit tricky, as most beaches are rocky, but if you’re willing to shell out a few euros, the beach clubs are the bit of glam we all need in our life.
Where to Eat – Hvar
Beach Club Hvar
I have put this beach club into the restaurant category for the simple reason that I had a cracking lunch here. It wasn’t exactly a cheap meal but in the context of being in an old Gatsby-esque 1920’s bathing club, it truly felt old-worldly. We did splash out to spend the day here. Was it worth the money? Absolutely not! Would I do it again? Probably not! But hey, once in a while you need to leave those tech bros behind.
Restaurant Park Hvar
I think this is the biggest restaurant in Hvar, I could be wrong. However, for a fun, big lively restaurant with super fresh grilled seafood and one of the best pastas (again, outside of Italy), I would highly recommend this place. You will just feel like you’re on holidays here. With a pretty well-stocked wine list of Croatian wines, this restaurant is a great box-ticker for even the pickiest of diners.
Alviž is located to the east of Hvar old town. The restaurant was recommended by a Croatian friend for its pizza and if I’m honest, one of the finest outside of Italy. Alviž feels like its a converted storage shed in the back with wooden benches but I loved the communal atmosphere, and the Ćevapi was excellent here also. For an ice cold beer and some seriously delicious food, this is the place.
Where to Drink – Hvar
Hula Hula Hvar – Beach Bar & Restaurant
Hula Hula is situated about 1km west from the main town. There is a lovely coastal path that runs from east to west along the seafront which makes for a nice walk or jog in the morning, in order to try and burn off some of that Ćevapi. I found this place one afternoon and we sat and drank cocktails and beers basking in the sun… glorious. They serve food but lower your expectations. Come here for the sun and craic.
This is my kind of place. Low-key beers on the street. Start a conversation with a stranger and just get stuck in. I guarantee you will either start or end your night here. There is a food menu but it is very much tourist oriented…I know I was a tourist here but you know what I mean. Stick to the super fresh fish and pastas elsewhere.
Split was the final leg of my previous Croatian adventure but by no means less packed with things to do and super food. I may have mentioned a Ćevapi. So what is this pocket of joy? Every nation in the world has some form of meat between bread. In this part of the world, the Ćevapi is king and queen. A mix of either pork and beef or beef and lamb. Either way, seasoned with sweet smokey paprika, garlic, baking powder and sparkling water in order to create a wonderful soft and springy texture. Here, it is served with Ajvar, which is a relish made from roasted red peppers and aubergine, garlicky and with the right amount of vinegar and spice. These things are everywhere, but the best I had was in Split. I was honestly taken aback by how intensely seasoned and smoky it was. It was served at a food stall at an open cinema. Magic!
Split is another one of Croatia’s great cities. Drenched in history, The Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian is another UNESCO heritage site like Dubrovnik. There is a slight industrial feeling to the sea front, the bars on the front are lovely but a bit touristy, however, metres into the interior you feel like any wrong turn and you’re lost. I love it. One of the most obvious things about Croatia is how clean every city and beach is, and Split is no different. Split is perfect for a long weekend or a night on the way somewhere.
Where to Eat – Split
It’s rare that I hadn’t picked the restaurant or even had any clue what I was in for. Dvor was a choice of Ciara’s and, not that I was surprised, as my wife has superb taste…maybe not in men, but definitely restaurants. Dvor is situated on a hill about 1km outside of town in a very Austro-Hungarian building surrounded by large pine trees, facing the Adriatic Sea.
As restaurants go, I was very jealous of the geographic location. The menu is slightly elevated versions of the Croatian classics. However, for me, the star was the black rice. Honestly, to put it in any rice dish category, this was a stunning plate of food. The smell of the wood fire pit to which the meats get a lick creates a fantastic atmosphere. The wine list at Dvor is a true love letter to the depth of Croatian wines and I, for one, really hope to see more in Ireland. It’s a bit of a treat meal but if you’re in Split you have to give it a go.
Oštarija U Vidjakovi
I was conveniently staying in an apartment a stone’s throw from this place. I got the feeling this was their version of ‘The Ivy’, as in, at any time, the president of Croatia might show up, or perhaps that lovely George Clooney, he’s everywhere.
It’s simple fare – I enjoyed my favourite fish, delicious red mullet, which was dredged in a light polenta flour and deep fried. After going to the fish market that morning I knew the fish would be immaculate, and I wasn’t wrong. There was bit of a queue for lunch but definitely worth waiting for the super fresh and no-messing, simple food. Cold beer and hot, crispy red mullet is my idea of heaven.
This is a more contemporary offering. Located about 50m from the sea front, Apetit is a real crowd pleaser. Dishes here are solid flavour bombs for the throngs of hungry tourists. Great pasta and meats. I enjoyed some really delicious tuna tartare…exactly what I needed after nearly two weeks of Ćevapi and pasta.
Where to Drink – Split
Academia Ghetto Club
Most travel guides that mention this place all say the same thing – “Bohemian, erotic undertones”. I personally just liked hanging out here. Hipsters as far as the eye can see isn’t very ‘erotic’ to me, but what do I know, great drinks and cool music do it for me. It’s your, “I’m not too tired to go home, sure I might have one more” kind of place.
Marvlvs Library Jazz Bar
I kind of loved this place. It is attached to a Venetian household museum. The Venetian influence on Split is very evident from the architecture and this cool bar, which is more of a day place, is a nice way of getting out of the heat and have a bit of a chin wag with the wife, or whoever. It is a library and there will be live and vinyl Jazz all day long.
Noor Bar Split
A well made cocktail is not as easy as it seems – I have been to some of the best in world and have seen even the simplest of drinks fail. Noor Bar is just a great cocktail bar, located deep into the old town. The classics are classics for a reason, and doing them correctly is a discipline and an art form. Bravo Noor Bar, you did it right. Cool, dark vibes and professional bartenders make for a great way to start or finish the night.
Croatia has so much to offer as a holiday, the options are great. Perfect for a long weekend or like I did, make it a two week trip. Island hop, bar hop and restaurant hop. The weather is fantastic. The people are incredible. The best way to get around is to take the ferries – they run very regularly and are affordable and comfortable. For me, the best part of Croatia is the hospitality and incredibly delicious food, from perfect grilled fish to complex dishes routed in heritage and history. However, when it boils down to it, if you find yourself sitting on a sunny square, cold beer in hand, make sure to order some extra Ajvar for the Ćevapi… When in Rome.
For the last 6 years Eric Matthews was the head chef at Dublin’s famous Michelin starred Chapter One. Eric has over 18 years experience working in Michelin starred restaurants around the globe, having trained under some of the best chefs in Ireland and internationally, including Heston Blumenthal, Philip Howard and Guillame Brahimi. This year Eric was named in The Independent’s annual Top 50 People to Watch in 2022. Eric is also a food content creator and a regular at Taste of Dublin. More recently Eric was a judge on the RTE series ‘Battle of the Food Trucks’.
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