Saturday

21st Jan 2017

Looking for cocktails in Croatia

The Croatian daily paper Jutarnji List sent me on a long trip throughout Croatia, as an incognito tourist, under strict instruction to sample the local specialities and hospitality and to be ruthless if I find that part of the country's reputation for high quality tourism is overdone, or unmerited.

Well, ruthless I am. From the start, I found that they are not very good at making cocktails, especially in Rovinj, on the Istrian coast, which has a reputation inside Croatia for being a kind of cocktail capital. One would think that it doesn't take much to make a Margarita cocktail. You throw into a shaker some tequila, a drop of triple sec and limejuice… you shake…. Or you can even dispense with the shaker... Just rub some salt on the glass rim.

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  • Pula - James Joyce gave it a bad press a hundred years ago (Photo: European Commission)

Still, what a frustrating experience to arrive in Rovinj, after half a day of travelling by bus from Zagreb, and to drink a flat, warm Margarita. Let's see: at 45 kune (6 euros), the Margarita cocktail, at the Havana bar, on the Rovinj docks, close to a seafood restaurant bizarrely named Bavaria, manages to be both bland and tepid. Damn, it's my first day of real holiday in Croatia and I wanted it to be something of a festive experience.

Getting to Rovinj was tough. I had been taken to the bus station in Zagreb by a bandit taxi-driver, who, after asking for a bandit price in a bandit tone, suggested that I give him something extra "for tea," although his big red nose singled him out as a drinker of something much more substantial.

But back to the warm Margarita! I leave the Havana bar very disappointed and head for the old town on the island. (Rovinj was an island and this is still visible). At the Monte Carlo bar, I get another warm Margarita for 5 more kune (50 kune, probably because the glass is a little bit cooler), called here Margherita, like the pizza. At the Valentino bar, the same Margarita costs a staggering 70 kune, that's 10 euros, but you can drink it on the stones, with your legs in the water...

The severe and tattooed matrons who run the place come and mop up after every guest who emerges from the water onto the stones. Nothing personal, they say, it's just that the stones become slippery afterwards. Half naked people sip cocktails staring at passing boats. The whole Valentino thing is a nice mixture of old communist-style rigour and contemporary tolerance.

What's more, the ladies even bring receipts for every cocktail, presenting them to the unclad guests. I also realise with horror that in some restaurants there is a "couvert" surcharge of 49 kune for the use of the cutlery, which is something that tourists always hate. Forty-nine kune, that‘s the price of a cocktail!… Perhaps they wash their cutlery in cocktails.

After two days in Rovinj, I can barely wait to run to Pula. I'm a real Joyce aficionado, yes, I love the unreadable James Joyce, the one with the eye patch and the monstrously complex prose. He stayed in Pula for half a year, almost one hundred years ago, and he taught English to Austro-Hungarian naval officers (among them the future admiral Horthy, the war-time Hungarian dictator, who was to keep his title of admiral long after he could only navigate on the Balaton lake).

It was in Pula that Joyce wrote the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the book that practically created modern literature. Still, what did he have to say about Pula? A "naval Siberia," he said. And about Istria? Well: "Istria is a boring place wedged into the Adriatic, peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear red caps and colossal breeches."

I regret the absence of the red caps, although I spot a couple of colossal breeches, wrapped around some beer bellies. And there he is, my dear Joyce… His bronze statue at the terrace Uliks (well, Ulysses, yes, like the novel)… No, the nice waitress has not read "Uliks". Strange, I thought it would be required reading for working in such a place. And they serve a cocktail Joyce (with cherry liqueur and Martini Bianco), and even a cocktail Nora, after the name of Joyce's horrible wife!... Nora: Baileys, coffee liqueur, cream… disgusting. But I have to have it before embarking on a further trip. Some "Ulysses" indeed!

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