Friday, October 23, 2009

Autumn in Europe - Austria and Croatia

OK, time to reveal where I disappeared to for three weeks! For those of you who took a guess on my last post, I can now answer: the nature and ocean photographs were taken in Croatia, while the castle is Schönbrunn Palace, in Vienna – that’s right, Sissi’s castle! (Simone guessed Versailles, which was pretty close in a way: Marie-Antoinette lived in both places!)

Schönbrunn Palace

Schönbrunn gardens

Vienna State Opera

But all in all, we went through 9 countries and 19 cities. I’m not saying we thoroughly visited every single one of them, but we passed through them – and most of them were given adequate time and attention.

A few years ago, some of my relatives from Europe came here to Canada, for a visit. Their plan was to visit Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Gaspésie, New York and Vancouver – all in under two weeks. They were surprised when we told them how far all these places were from one another: they were barely halfway between their home in France and Vancouver, for instance. But this is because everything in Europe is so comparatively close to the rest, and the borders are so open: after 11 years in Canada, I get surprised too, when I go back.

Still, there are places in Europe I wouldn’t have spontaneously considered visiting. Like Slovakia. The only reason I started going there, a couple of years ago, is because my parents now live there. However, not only is it a surprisingly pretty country, it’s also a gateway to many even prettier places. Thus, over the past couple of years, I’ve been able to visit parts of Austria, Hungary, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Plitvice National Park (Croatia)

So, this year, it was Croatia. We went there by car, with my parents, which meant that we got to pass through a couple of countries on the way (Austria, Slovenia, and Bosnia). But Croatia was our main focus. We had heard many good things about this country, and it did not disappoint.

The main attraction was simply the landscape. Croatia has truly been blessed by the Gods of Geography: it has awe-inspiring, wild mountains, stunning national parks, and a beautiful coast, surrounded by islands. I am the first to admit that I am a through-and-through city girl, and that I could never live completely surrounded by nature. But even I was tempted to just buy a tent and pitch it in the middle of Plitvice Park (nevermind the bears).

The cities were also worth the trip. The cool thing was, they got better as we travelled along. First, Varasdin, which was charming, but not quite mind-blowing (although, apparently, we failed to visit the historic core of the city). Then, Zadar, where we caught our first glimpse of the Adriatic Sea, and heard the sound of underwater pipe organs, whose music was created by the movement of the waves. Then, Split, which had some stunning old buildings, and a lovely promenade alongside the sea. Then, Dubrovnik, at the Southern tip of the country, which was surrounded by islands, and was full of tiny, steep streets. And finally, Zagreb, which was quite larger and a lot more urban, but still had a lot more charm than many big cities I’ve visited.

City walls of Dubrovnik

Streets of Dubrovnik

But what about the food? Unfortunately, I don’t have any decent photographs of it. For one thing, we mostly ate on outside terraces, with very little lighting, which was far from ideal for taking pictures. And second of all, none of the food was very photogenic.

Croatian cuisine, at least from what I’ve sampled, appears to be very simple. Since the country is surrounded by the sea, there is no shortage of fresh fish and seafood, especially in the South. I tried to make the most of the trip by eating mostly fish that are hard to get here in Canada, such as sea bass and bream. I also binged on grilled calamari, because I will eat calamari in any country. The dishes were always very simple: the fish was always grilled whole, with salt and olive oil, and served with one’s choice of vegetable; I often went for Dalmatian-style chard, which are sautéed with boiled potatoes in oil and garlic. It was good, but it got a little repetitive after a few days. There were also basic meat dishes, such as roast lamb, steak, and veal scallops, always very simply prepared. Maybe it was because we tended to stick to tourist-type restaurants, but all the menus appeared to be similar, with very little variety. I know that Croatia does have some more elaborate preparations, such as salt-crusted sea bass, and lamb slow-roasted in ash; unfortunately, the only place we dined at that offered these specialties required one to order them 24 hours in advance.

Promenade in Split

Seaside in Zadar

Now, I don’t need a complicated dish to be happy. I am a firm believer that a good, fresh ingredient shouldn’t be messed around with too much. When I pan-grill a really good cut of steak, I typically use butter, salt, pepper, and a side of mustard – that’s all. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t experiment at all. A little flavour contrast can go a long way. I mean, it’s telling that the most delicious fish soup I had throughout the entire trip did not hail from a Croatian kitchen: it was served to me in a village near Vienna – in Austria, a landlocked country!

Still, there was one Croatian restaurant that stood out from the rest. It was a discreet (but apparently very well-known) little place called Rozarij, in Dubrovnik. The owner was an older gentleman who seemed to be able to make small talk (at least, restaurant-related small talk) in just about all the European languages. The menu was a bit more varied than the others we had come across, with more kinds of fish, and some dishes we hadn’t come across yet. But it was the owner who made this place special. He brought out our fish (grilled whole, as usual, but seasoned with more care than the others I had eaten), and made a huge deal of deboning them for us (the first and only time anyone had offered to do that). He really put on a show, making dramatic gestures and elaborate flourishes. Truly, that alone was worth the bill (or, should I say, the price of admission). And before we left, he treated us to a homemade local liqueur, which I think was called travarica, and is basically grappa with herbs. I’m a whisky lover myself – but I have to say, that stuff was not for the faint of heart.


Still, maybe it’s a good thing that Croatia has not yet capitalized on its gastronomy. Because with everything that country has going for it, the day its chefs decide to advertise their skills and make full use of all the different fish and seafood they have on hand – well, I’m guessing there will be even more tourists than there already are. And that would be bad, because then I couldn’t afford to go back, let alone eat there.


We also travelled to Belgium, during the second part of our trip. But I'll post about that next time!


  1. Wow. I've never been to europe but I really want to go - it looks like your trip was wonderful!

  2. Aha, Croatia!! Well... not really close but ok. I have not been to Croatia yet, but I have heard wonderful stories about the land... The food however is another story. I used to have a boss that came from Croatia and so I have eaten croatian food a couple of times. Mostly meatdishes and I have to say... not my favorite cuisine at all!
    But.... you came so close! And you didn't go to Holland? :(

  3. Wow. What an amazing vacation!

  4. woww, great pictures! I've always wanted to visit croatia, dubrovnik is one of my top 5 cities i'd like to visit. And i can't believe how clear the water was in Zadar, looked like a wonderful vacation!