I have wanted to visit Croatia for years, even before Anthony went there during the last season of No Reservations. We bought a travel guide for Croatia back in 2006 and have held onto it since, through many trips elsewhere and numerous rounds of downsizing. We kept trying to make our way here, but it never seemed to happen.
When watching Bourdain in Croatia, it was clear he was smitten. He asked, essentially, why aren’t people coming here? Between the beauty of the country and the food, he seemed to not want to leave. Tony said:
“I can’t believe it took me this long … to get here.
This is f*cking awesome.”
I too feel like it took me too long to get there. Although I have enjoyed Croatia, my problem was I don’t have a fixer to ensure the Tony Bourdain in Croatia experience.
First, Tony stayed in Istria, in the north, an area that might be considered wealthier, more developed, and closer to Italy. He had a fixer and a producer to take him to unique restaurants, wineries where he drank with the owner until he fell off a chair, mussel fishing on the Adriatic, a bluefin tuna farm in Zadar. He did this all with a Croatian TV chef. He ate “world class food” and drank “world class wine”. And, I am sure money was no option.
I am not expecting to replicate TV host experiences, but it would be nice to have a similar feel for a place. But, I don’t have a fixer. And, I have a budget.
I still liked Croatia, don’t get me wrong. It just was not as budget friendly as I hoped. Perhaps it was in 2006, when we first started looking to visit Croatia. Perhaps it is cheap in comparison to Nice or Monaco. But, as we travel through Eastern Europe, however you want to define it, Croatia seemed more expensive than others. Perhaps it is because we have limited our stay to only islands, which are inherently more expensive.
Thus, in Croatia more than any other we traveled through in the region, we ate many meals at home to avoid the $30 for a dinner for two price tag. Thirty dollars you say? That does not sound expensive. But, that was for two dishes and two glasses of wine or beer, and we were always choosing the least expensive thing on the menu, generally a seafood risotto, fried calamari, or seafood spaghetti. The menus were not too varied. Some of the food was good, others just fine. The more elaborate dishes were $20-$30 a plate, and not exactly in our budget. Tony said Croatia is “the next big thing.” I think it already is a big thing, a huge tourist destination, and the prices show it.
Again, I have enjoyed our time in Croatia. I sat on the amazing balcony of our apartment in Hvar one of the first days, watching the sun glitter off of the water, seeing the nearly uninhabited islands across the bay, watching the sail boats glide by, and I found myself out of breath because of its beauty. I actually said, “This is so f*cking beautiful” unaware that I was mimicking Anthony Bourdain in Croatia.
After our first few nights in Croatia, however, Eric remarked that he felt we were missing something. We just were not having the kinds of foodie experiences we hoped for. Even during our 10 days in Hvar, these experiences remained fairly elusive, but they started to show through.
Our Foodie Experiences in Croatia
We had some glimpses into the foodie haven that Tony described. Near the vegetable market in Hvar, there was a tiny shop that specialized in local artisan meats and cheese – sheep’s milk cheese from Pag, in the north (Tony had cheese from Pag), wild boar prosciutto from the mainland, and spicy salami, along with wines and olive oils. Ivo was starting to turn the business over to his son, but his personality alone was worth a visit to his shop. We stopped by a few times to buy meat and to chat. It was an artisan gem on an island filled with tourists and small super markets.
Elusive Fresh Fish
We initially stopped by the market in hopes of getting some fresh fish to cook up in our apartment, but they really don’t sell fish in the market. They were out for a few hours around 6am, but even Ivo said they shouldn’t even bother because what they sell at the market was garbage. The fishermen sold to the restaurants.
Basically, on an island, surrounded by water, you could buy frozen fish at the supermarket. Ante, our host in Hvar, was able to get his hands on some fresh mussels for us. We had to order them ahead of time. They were delivered to us, but they were a great price and we cooked them up in the tiny apartment kitchen with garlic, white wine, and red chilies. It was one of our better meals!
Birthday Wine Tasting
Our one splurge while on Hvar was to head out of town for a wine tasting. It fell within our budget because it was my birthday. I was not sure what to expect, as it was on a Sunday, starting at 4pm, which was a little strange. Ante, our driver (a different Ante than our apartment host), told us we would drive around the island, learn a bit about the history of the island and the wine industry and then we would visit a winery. I was disappointed, looking at things through my USA-vision. In the States a tasting at a winery might try 3 or 4 wines, and I would be disappointed if we spent 55E for only one stop. But, Ante did not disappoint.
It was harvest time in Croatia, so when we arrived at the tiny wine cellar of Dubokovic Medvid, you could barely walk around. They were in the process of squeezing grapes and storing them in large red plastic barrels that covered all available floor space, including right behind the picnic table at which we sat.
Again from an American viewpoint, I was initially aghast by all the fruit flies that swarmed the “tasting area.” But, after walking in and catching a whiff of the freshly crushed and soon to be fermenting grapes, I forgave the fruit flies. The smell was so strong that they were probably getting drunk as they flew over the covered vats.
It was very unofficial, and charming. We were in the family’s wine cellar, at a checker board covered table, with romantic candle light. Dubokovic Medvid is one of the premier wineries in Croatia, and seems poised to become more prominent on the international scene.
Ante had a rose and some whites on the table to taste, then he brought out two reds that did not even have a label on, then a decanter of their premium wine, which sells in limited quantity at the winery for at least 50E. After, we tried a couple dessert wines. Ante kept walking back to a cabinet to bring out various brandies and liquors. In the end, we tasted 12 wines and brandies. We also tasted a few olive oils along the way. One of which was a chili infused oil that Tony talked about and Eric craved. Okay, maybe we are getting a little closer to the foodie experience we sought.
After the tasting, Ante drove us to Villa Dinka, set up on a hill. A few times a week they roast a whole lamb, and luckily my birthday was one of those days. We ordered 3/4 of a kilo of lamb with potatoes and each had a drink. Eric devoured the lamb, as it was one of the only “meals” we had in over a week. The lamb was tasty, the crispy skin even better. It was a great meal, but at close to $50 it only fit into our birthday budget.
Problems with Using TV Shows as Guides
We have had great luck with watching Tony Bourdain, and other TV shows, to give us ideas of how to experience a city. We have even been to some places we have seen on TV, or sought out some of the markets, street foods, etc. We have found specific foods or locations in Osaka, Singapore, Chile, and Vietnam based on Tony’s tales. We walked the same food market as Tony in Kuala Lumpur. We have even met Chef Wan, a Malay celebrity chef from the KL episode. I think this is much easier to do in cheaper destinations, countries known for cheap eats or street food. It is much harder to do in Europe.
Bourdain in Croatia was just not an episode where we could emulate the way that he experienced the country. There was no way for me to get a Croatian TV chef to be my travel companion, to take me to eat blue fin tuna at a tuna farm, feast on lobster and shark liver. We did not have the budget to rent a yacht in Rivinj. Tony went truffle hunting, not just for any truffles, but for the “damn luxurious” white truffles, followed by a meal featuring these expensive delicacies. It was an unattainable set of experiences for the regular traveler.
We had a good stay in Hvar. I just wish I had some fixers to set me up like the king of Croatia – Tony Bourdain style . . .
Do you have any experiences trying to track down something you saw on a travel program? Have you tried to travel like Bourdain in Croatia?
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together they have traveled to over 70 countries.