Croatia is a young democracy that is proud of its roots. It has an acute sense of tradition when it comes to festivals, food, arts and crafts and regional identity, a dynamism in its resolve to rebuild a land ravaged by war, and a modernity in its concerns and European aspirations. Its contradictions and riches are revealed in a tableau of diverse colours, flavours and sounds.
The strength of tradition
Bound to a thousand-year-old culture, subject to multiple external influences, and home to diverse materials as well as terrains, Croatia once again proves to be many-sided in terms of its traditions and popular arts.
A devout people
A symbol of resistance in Communist times, the practice of religious faith represented a discreet but profound way to express defiance and was very widespread. Catholicism made its mark on Croatian festivals, which provide an opportunity to don traditional costumes and join in with the age-old songs and dances.
Most of the festivities have their basis in religion. From the carnival, linked to Lent, albeit permeated with paganism, Easter and Holy Week (a long succession of torchlit processions, chants and theatrical penitences) to the festivals related to the Virgin Mary and, of course, Christmas, the festivals give rise to colourful pilgrimages, marked by an intense fervour. The Holy Week in Hvar with its processions of people chanting in the Glagolitic language and that of Korčula with its parading confraternities and sword dancing are the epitome of Dalmatian tradition. In Sinj, the Assumption feast provides the opportunity to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for her protection against the Turks by means of the Alka knight tournaments (the 15 August is a date that provides an excuse to celebrate some miracle or other just about everywhere).
Palm Sunday – Palm Sunday traditions are alive and well all over the south of Croatia: people walk in procession to the church carrying armfuls of palm leaves or olive branches woven together to form poma, which receive a blessing. Back at home they are hung up all over the place, from the house gables, in the vegetable plot, the stables and from the beehives, to protect the family from bad fortune and illness. The weaving of the poma is a delicate operation and requires young palms that are woven into a large plait or cross and attached to a support.
The importance of saints
The cult of saints is another essential component of Croatian life. Each town or village venerates a patron saint (or even a few!) and the saint’s name day is the pretext for a whole range of different processions, dances and festivities. The relics are brought out of the church and paraded around with much ceremony. Sometimes, as is the case with St Blaise on the 3 February, in Dubrovnik inhabitants of all the surrounding parishes come in ceremonial dress to present their banners in front of the church. Even for less spectacular festivals tradition is observed, as in the Midsummer celebrations on 24 June, or St Martin’s Day on 11 November, when children go from door to door, singing and collecting sweets.
In Croatia nobody would dream of mocking folk customs, for the simple reason that folk tradition, like religion, is a symbol of national identity. In several cases folk customs celebrate victories over different invaders, which tend to take on the guise of veritable epic clashes in the collective memory. Even though since the beginning of the 20C traditional costumes have rarely been worn outside of certain public holidays, religious ceremonies and music or dance festivals, they remain one of the cultural showcases to which the Croats are most attached.
Music and dance
When it comes to music, the most enduring legacies go all the way back to the Middle Ages, when Hungarians and Venetians were fighting over the country. The instruments and musical motifs have remained relatively unchanged since then and reflect the ancient traditions of church choirs, village dances and bedtime storytellers.
As a country that shares its borders with many others, Croatia combines multiple influences, a wilfully preserved identity and very diversified regions in its cuisine. From the grilled fish served on the coast, to the pasta and truffles of Istria, you pass through the spicy flavours of Slavonia’s meats, charcuterie and goulash, to finish with the sweetness of pastries that will remind you of Austria.
If it’s the specialities of the country that you are after, you should know that there is really only one truly Croatian aperitif: it is called Bermet, and has been produced in Samobor according to a secret recipe since time immemorial. In Istria you can ask for an Istra Bitter, a local variant (or imitation!) of the well-known Italian aperitif. Finally, in Slavonia, a cold and harsh region, it is customary to start a meal with a glass of brandy.
Soup (juha) is found on most restaurant menus. Among the most common is the potentially disconcerting fish soup (riblji juha): served on the coast, it consists of a light broth with chunks of fish. You will also find thicker soups complemented with sour cream and pieces of meat. A local variant of minestrone, Istria’s maneštra, is a soup made of vegetables and whole beans.
Among the cold starters, smoked ham (pršut) is the starter par excellence, often accompanied by olives and cheese. You will also come across regional Pag cheese (paški sir). In Slavonia you will find kulen, sausage flavoured with paprika, which is sometimes quite spicy, and comes served with cheese curds. Samobor sausages (češnjovke), which are flavoured to differing degrees, and garlic salami also make hearty starters.
Salads (salata) are most commonly built around different varieties of cabbage. On the coast, don’t miss the delicious squid and octopus salads (lignje or hobotnice salata).
As well as anchovies and marinated sardines, you will find a kind of fish pâté (riblja pašteta), made with tuna on the Dalmatian coast, cod (bakalar) in Istria and freshwater fish in Slavonia, where they also make “sausages” out of fish roe, which are something like the Mediterranean delicacy botargo.
Hot starters could often be considered a main meal in themselves, so gargantuan are the portions. On the coast you can sample different risottos: black risotto (crni rišot) with squid ink, or with seafood, or squid. In Istria, cheese, ham, pasta and omelettes with truffles all make for delicious starters. In Zagora you may be served Štrukle, large ravioli stuffed with cheese and eggs. Then there is the Samobor speciality Rudarska greblica, which is reminiscent of a Quiche Lorraine.
Fish, shellfish and seafood
Croatians love their fish and seafood. In Zagreb, as well as in the whole of Slavonia, you will find a large choice of specialised restaurants, which are often rather expensive. But you can also sample freshwater fish: trout (pastrva) near the lakes of Plitvice, perch in Sisak, and carp and pike in Slavonia.
It is worth bearing in mind that due to the unusual configuration of the coastline there is no industrial fishing here, which means that restaurant menus depend on what has been caught that morning. They often propose two categories of fish: category I (sole, bass, sea bream: list, brancin, orada) and II (mackerel, sardines: skuše, srdele). Most of the time you will have to make do with the omnipresent squid (lignje), which are more sizable in Istria than in Dalmatia.
Fish is principally served grilled (na žaru), sometimes a little overcooked and swimming in a sea of olive oil, but you are sure to come across some really nice stews. Brodet (brodetto) is made with chunks of fish that are slowly cooked with onions, wine, tomatoes and herbs and comes served with polenta. Gregada, less common, is rather like bouillabaisse.
You can sample oysters (kamenice) on the Dalmatian coast, most notably on the Pelješac peninsula, which is a centre for oyster harvesting. All along the coast you will also find mussels (mušule), prawns and scampi (skampi), prepared in various ways, for example with the highly seasoned buzzara sauce, made with olive oil, white wine, garlic and parsley.
Finally, freshwater fish tends to be grilled. In the Kopački Rit region, carp is cooked vertically on little wooden forks (šaran u rašljama).
Meat and stews
Veal and pork escalopes (odrezak), served rolled up and stuffed with cheese, ham or mushrooms, and pork chops with cheese (Samoborski kotlet) are typical dishes in Zagreb and the mainland regions. There are variations on these dishes, which involve the meat also being wrapped in bacon!
Goulash (gulač) is a legacy of Hungary’s influence, although the word tends to denote just about any kind of stew. In Istria it is often prepared with game. The very popular pašticada is a piece of beef dotted with cloves and bacon bits, marinated in vinegar then cooked in red wine mixed with sugar, tomato sauce and onions and served with pasta or polenta. It is sometimes made with leg or shoulder of lamb, in which case the meat is rolled around a stuffing composed of pršut and herbs and served with an onion and carrot purée.
The equally hearty roast meat dishes (pura, turkey and janje, lamb) are served with mlinci, pasta lying somewhere between tagliatelle and lasagne. Then there is the baranjski paprikaš made with kulen and potatoes, perfect for combatting the northerly wind of the Baranya region.
In many of the roadside restaurants lambs and piglets are cooked whole in large ovens, in the style of a spit-roast. On the coast grilled lamb becomes a real culinary treat thanks to the ewes’ milk, which is salty because they eat grass on the banks.
And even the most enthusiastic eaters will beg for mercy after a čobanac, which involves seven generous portions of different grilled meats being served one after the other. All of which is sometimes served together with a bean dish!
Most meats can be cooked peka-style, an age-old method which involves a long, slow roast over an open fire, thereby retaining all the flavours. Naturally, in restaurants you will need to place your order in advance.
Artichokes and asparagus from Dalmatia, spinach, chard and peppers are the most common vegetables. In Slavonia, potatoes are used in favour of cabbage in the summer, and are often prepared with spinach or chard. As for the pomfrit (chips), it’s one of the few Croatian words a tourist with a smattering of French might be able to understand! Tomatoes are used in the fish specialities of the coast.
Black radish goes into the production of a spicy condiment that is served with meat dishes in the north. Another very common condiment is ajvar, a hot purée made of pepper, chilli and aubergine that is used to garnish grilled meats. Lastly, there is the strong muštarda, or Samobor mustard, the secret recipe for which was apparently introduced by Napoleon’s army.
Salt, that most indispensable of ingredients, has been manufactured in Croatia for centuries. The three sites with the best reputation for the quality of salt are Pag island, the Pelješac peninsula and the town of Nin.
And to finish
As well as the pancakes (palačinke) that can be found all over the country, you won’t have to look too hard to find the ice cream (sladoled) that Croatians are so fond of.
In Slavonia and around Zagreb you will be offered pastries, often filled with cream (kremšnica and torte), and also apple or cherry strudel, baklava, directly inherited from the Ottomans, or a kind of Swiss roll with poppy seed, nuts, or even cheese.
In Dalmatia and Istria there are very few sweet specialities. They do however have rožata, a sort of crème caramel, and maraska, another dessert made with beaten egg whites and flavoured with Maraschino vanilla and almonds. In Korčula they make prikle, little doughnuts with raisins and almonds, cukarini and klašuni, which are cakes filled with almonds. In Starigrad, on the island of Hvar, the paprenjak gets people’s vote. It is a honey sponge cake with nuts, coriander and cinnamon, that tastes oddly peppery. It was previously flavoured with saffron, a recognised aphrodisiac, which is absent from the modern version, which has been produced by hand since 1997
Thyme, lavender and rosemary honey are produced everywhere, and the fruit, which is always in season, is absolutely delicious.
The grapevine was introduced in the 4C BC by Greek settlers on the island of Vis and from there it went on to the islands of Korčula and Hvar. The Romans extended winegrowing to the mainland, using uneven terrain and poor soil. Needless to say, the Croatians are past masters in the art of winegrowing!
The quality of wine produced is really rather good and Croatia’s best wines, which just keep getting better, are excellent. Of the 697 wines of appellation contrôlée, more than seventy can be considered of a high quality. Note that red wine is called “black wine” (crno vino) and white wine is bijelo vino.
Dalmatia produces the wines with the best reputation. Pelješac is known for its dingač and postup. Korčula also produces decent wines, most notably those derived from the grk, one of the oldest Croatian grapes. Hvar is one of the best wine-producing regions.
Istria is proud of its malvazija, a dry white wine which can sometimes be a little sour if you drink a standard table wine version.
Lastly, in Krk, it would be criminal not to try the dry and fruity Vrbnik žlahtina at least once.
Inland Croatia produces lots of white wines, made using grapes such as graševina, Riesling (spelt “rizling”), Sauvignon, Cabernet, Pinot and “Burgundac”. Some of them are similar to Hungarian tokay or the wines of Alsace. Kutjevo, Požega, Ilok, Zagorje and Međimurje are among the best winegrowing regions. Don’t miss out on Slavonia’s krauthaker graševina or Ilok’s traminac.
Certain white wines that the Croatians themselves call “dessert wines” are naturally sweet wines that have an alcohol content of around 15% (the best known is pošip). Prošek is a light wine produced on the island of Vis.
Certain Croatian wine-drinking habits may seem odd to outsiders. It’s not unusual to see wine drunk with ice cubes, water, or sometimes even sparkling water. Don’t be alarmed: the alcohol content of wine tends to fluctuate between 13.5 and 15%.
Beer lovers are in for a treat. Wherever you are you will find ožujsko and karlovačko, which are popular, good-quality lagers. Some towns brew their own beer, such as Daruvar, which produces staro česko.
As for spirits, whatever the time of day or night, and on the slightest of pretexts, you will be offered slivovića, a plum brandy, as well as all kinds of rakija, made with pears (the fruit itself is sometimes inserted into the bottle using a procedure that is really rather simple, provided you have given it some thought) and, in Istria, grappa, made with grapes steeped in herbs. It’s difficult to refuse a grappa, even if, into the small hours, it seems a formidable challenge!
Bitter-tasting pelinkovac is a plant-based drink, while maraschino, a cherry-based liqueur produced in the Zadar region, is known throughout Europe. Last but not least is Brigljević, a liqueur that has been made in Turopolje by the family of the same name since time immemorial.
The country was bled white by its war of independence and the deep wounds inflicted by the conflict will take a long time to heal. There is nothing surprising in that, given that around a quarter of Croatian territory was directly implicated in the fighting and destruction and that the young state only regained sovereignty over certain regions in 1998.
According to the 2001 census a total of 4.4 million people inhabit the territory, which has a surface area of 56 542 km2. 56.5% of them live in towns, four of which reach or exceed a total of 100 000 inhabitants: Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and Osijek. Croatia’s Serbian minority is currently estimated at 200 000. The country is divided into 21 administrative counties or županija.
The Croatian diaspora, which is the result of 19C emigration, is estimated at 2 million people, 1.3 million of whom live in the United States alone. Croatians are extremely proud of fellow countrymen who have gone on to find fame: the philosopher Ivan Illich, Teodora Marković (better known as Dora Maar), and actors John Malkovich, Josiane Balasko and Goran Višnjić, the much-admired Dr Kovać in the television series ER.
Visitors from countries where displays of patriotic zeal are largely consigned to the past may be surprised by the fervent patriotism that exists in Croatia but its source clearly lies in the suffering that Croatians endured on the road to independence. You only have to be present when the national anthem is played, when Croatians stand to attention, hands on hearts, and belt out My Beautiful Homeland to understand the depth of their feeling. And rare are weddings where the procession is not headed with the national flag.
A changing economy
Like most ex-Soviet bloc countries, Croatia has had to make the difficult transition from planned economy to market economy. The various conflicts that ravaged its lands caused 15 000 deaths and did long-term damage to the country’s infrastructure (the cost of reconstruction has been around $37 billion). Croatia’s many assets should, however, ensure a bright future for the young state.
From communism to Europe
After Slovenia, Croatia was the richest part of Yugoslavia. The country was particularly renowned for its four principal industrial sectors: shipbuilding, chemicals, petroleum and aluminium. Unlike its neighbour, however, Croatia’s economic and natural resources had been plundered by two wars. The second factor behind the deterioration of Croatia’s economy was the disastrous handling of privatisation by Tuđman’s government. The overtly vote-catching nature of the process principally benefited those close to the president and was enough to put off foreign investors. His death in late 1999 brought about a change, with a centre-left coalition coming to power after an election at the beginning of 2000.
A change of course
Since 2001 and the signing of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union, a concerted effort has brought Croatia close to fulfilling the conditions necessary for its entry into the European Union. In 2005 economic indicators were positive: sustained growth, inflation that had been brought under control and a rise in GDP. Banking, health and state budget reforms were on the right track. But certain problems still needed to be resolved. In 2006 the government had as yet to deal with certain stumbling blocks, such as unemployment (20% of the working population), administrative reform and the need for development of economic focal points beyond tourism.
Although the government is optimistically hoping for entry into Europe, some observers are more cautious about the timeframe.
It would be wrong to consider Croatia solely in terms of its agriculture since industry accounts for 20% of GDP and employs 25% of the working population. The principal industrial sectors are, in order of importance: food-processing, petroleum, chemicals, electricity, paper, publishing and shipbuilding. Shipyards, food-processing, metallurgy and electricity constitute the bulk of Croatia’s exports. It should be noted that reconstruction work and marked efforts to improve infrastructure contribute to the increase in GDP and economic growth. For example, some 700km of roads are to be built by 2011. This dynamism also makes itself felt in the public services sector, which is booming.
The development of tourism, which just a few years ago could have seemed a handicap, has turned out to be a real opportunity for Croatia. Having escaped excessive industrialisation and desertification of the countryside, Croatia now intends to play to its strengths. Starting with the fabulous coastline, which is being developed without recourse to the construction of those tower blocks that have so disfigured other parts of the Mediterranean coastline; you will notice how hotel resorts and holiday camps are often hidden in pine forests, away from the historic towns. Note too the attention paid to environmental conservation; the quality of the waters, as well as that of the seabeds, is a stated concern of the government.
This approach should further highlight the phenomenon of “green tourism” (already developed in Istria, where tourists can stay on farms, a kind of “Agroturizam”), which aims to attract nature-starved city-dwellers back to the countryside.
Already a significant part of the economy (17% of GDP), tourism is set to develop exponentially over the next few years. Since 1999 the number of tourists has been growing constantly; Germans and Italians account for most of the tourists, followed by the Austrians, Czechs and Slovenes.
Agriculture and fishing
Croatia has managed to maintain what many countries can only look back on with nostalgia. For example, subsistence farming is alive and well and works in conjunction with the seasons, with each farmer presenting the produce from his little farm at market or even at the side of the road: freshly laid eggs, home-made cheeses, seasonal fruit and vegetables (the stalls overflow with strawberries in June and cabbages in winter), and two or three bottles of olive oil or wine made on the farm. It’s the same with fishing. Since the configuration of the coastline precluded the development of industrial fishing, the happy consequence is that in today’s seaside restaurants you can expect to be served the fresh catch of the day (squid, seafood, little fried fish).
Upholding traditional agriculture and fishing has a certain ecological interest. It also has significant social consequences. Although unemployment affects one in five members of the working population (a figure which refuses to go down, despite the prescribed criteria for entry into the European Union), there is no real poverty in the country, a fact which is also due to the traditional family structure, which is a further support for those in difficulty.
A visible dynamism
Much remains to be done. However, the scars of war are gradually disappearing; in very touristy spots, such as Dubrovnik, you would be hard pressed to find any trace of the bombardments of 1991. Should you happen upon partially destroyed villages in those regions which lay at the heart of the fighting, in east Slavonia or in the vicinity of the Bosnia-Herzegovina border, you will notice that reconstruction work, carried out through economic aid programmes funded by the European Union or the United States, is making progress. The innumerable new houses that are just awaiting a lick of paint to brighten them up are testament to this return to life. Vukovar itself has been transformed into an enormous building site and the minefields are being cleared.
At the same time, important work is being done on the road infrastructure, with the aim of opening up certain regions to the rest of the world. Rijeka is now just a two-hour drive from the capital and it will soon be possible to get to Split from Zagreb without leaving the motorway.
In the throes of a modernisation process, Croatia is able to extend the hand of friendship to old adversaries and look positively to its future membership of the European Union.
European young people
Croatia’s young people, particularly its urban youth, who are pretty indistinguishable from their western European counterparts, are a symbol of this future integration into Europe. They listen to the same music (with the exception of local singers like Oliver and Giboni, although they themselves are not representative of Croatian traditions), they have the same eating habits (perhaps excepting the popular Čevapčići), the same clothes and the same preoccupations. Already keenly aware of the overarching global trends, Croatia’s young people represent the country’s best chance of getting beyond a past that Croatians are keen to forget.