What you eat and drink in Croatia will depend on where you are – in Slavonia, along the Hungarian border, you can expect to find spicy sausages and heavy, meaty soups, while along the coast you’ll find an Italian flavour to the food, with plentiful pizza, pasta and fish dishes, followed by lashings of ice cream. What you’re unlikely to find these days, sadly, is Hoppel Poppel on the menu. According to my trusty 1966 Gateway Guide, ‘Hoppel Poppel, which the visitor feels inclined to tackle straight away because the name sounds so amusing and exotic, turns out to be a well-known international dish – hash.’ Each region has its own wines and beers to be proud of, and across the country you’ll find a range of fearsome spirits, designed to warm the cockles and cement friendships.
The day starts for most of us with breakfast, though it practically doesn’t exist as a meal per se in Croatia. If you’re in a hotel, however, then breakfast of some sort will invariably be included in the price – usually in the form of a self-service buffet, with the quality and variety of fare on offer closely correlating to the number of stars.
You’ll also find cheap restaurants and snack bars everywhere – often billed as bife (bar) or roštilj (grill bar) – serving up lunch or dinner of ćevapi or ćevapčići (spiced meatballs or small sausages, usually accompanied by spring onions and spicy green peppers), pljeskavica (a wad of minced meat often served in pitta bread – the Croatian hamburger), or ražnjići (kebab). Try any of these dishes with fiery ajvar, a sauce made from tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, with a dash of chilli.
The most important thing you need to know is that you can drink the water – all publicly supplied water is safe unless it explicitly says otherwise. The next piece of good news for drinkers is that alcohol is pretty inexpensive when compared to northern Europe, with a half-litre of draught beer (pivo) costing anything from 10 to 20kn, depending on the establishment. Premium brands go for a little more, but local beers are just great, my personal favourite being Karlovačko pivo, from Karlovac.
Thanks to its popularity with tourists in the 1970s and 1980s, Croatia has a good supply of accommodation, coming in five flavours – private rooms and apartments, hotels, campsites, hostels and mountain lodges.
Anywhere that sees regular tourists has a supply of private rooms (privatne sobe) available, and for most independent travellers these represent the best-value accommodation option. They are the equivalent of B&Bs in the UK (though usually breakfastless), and are generally clean, comfortable and friendly. Their big advantage over hotels – other than reduced cost (many private rooms go for under €50 a night) – is that they offer you a chance to meet local people, though in the most popular places families are showing a tendency to insulate themselves from their lodgers.
Croatia’s numerous hotels are classified by the standard international one- to five-star system, though at the lower end they don’t represent very good value for money when compared with the better private rooms, which generally cost around half the price of the worst hotel in any particular town (though notably not in Zagreb and Dubrovnik).
In a country with fine weather and beautiful countryside, camping ought to be the ideal option. It ought to be, but it isn’t always. Campsites are not especially cheap, and sites are often huge and far removed from easy access by public transport.
Youth hostels and student dormitories
Croatia has only a handful of officially recognised youth hostels, but with summer prices averaging under €15 a head it can be easily the most economical option for single travellers (if you’re in Zagreb, Pula, Rijeka, Zadar, Dubrovnik, Veli Lošinj, Krk or Punat). For two or more people travelling together, private accommodation tends to be both more convenient – no daytime lockout, for example – and competitive on price.
Croatia has over 100 mountain huts and lodges, with facilities ranging from the basic (roof and walls) to the positively hotel-like. They’re excellent value for money and are usually run by the local mountain associations under the auspices of the Croatian Mountaineering Association.