Croatia is so geared towards tourism that it’s easy to forget that locals live here too. For most of the year, locals go about their business, patronise local markets, fish after dark and play bizarre ball games only natives know how to do. Here are a few non-touristy things you can do in Croatia.
They make it look so effortless. For six months of the year, young Spličani gather round each other in the shallows of Bačvice, the public beach a short walk from town, and bat a small rubber ball around. That, essentially, is picigin. It’s a communal game in which the art is to return the ball with some elaborate movement to earn the admiration of those watching from the beach, preferably female. The next person then has to match the previous player for style and impact in passing the ball on.
Back in the day when everyone in Zagreb started work at 7am with just a cigarette and a coffee, gableci were found all over the city. Loosely translated as ‘elevenses’, gableci were more substantial than that, more a hefty lunch of local fare partaken mid- to late morning. Although working practices have changed, some traditional eateries still offer absurdly cheap gableci – such as bean soup, pork chop – advertised on a board outside. The clientele remains staunchly working-class.
Foreign visitors who delve into the nightlife of Zagreb usually barhop along downtown Tkalčićeva or around the finer bars of the Flower Market. Few venture down to The Swamp, Močvara, an industrial-type club for underground sounds. Yet it’s the quintessential Zagreb experience: loud, in-your-face indie thrash and affordable inebriation with like-minded souls.
Near Dubrovnik’s main port and bus station, Gruž Market is very much a resource for locals. Vendors trek down from Konavle or the Neretva Delta with their wares. You’ll find next to no tourist tat here, only fresh produce and (soon snapped up) fish.
One of those things that locals – hikers and cyclists – do on a regular basis, the Parenzana is the name of a rail line that once ran from Trieste to Poreč in Istria, through bucolic countryside. Abandoned before World War II, it lay neglected for decades until being slowly revived and renewed, section by section. Now it provides a route for active recreation, on foot or on two wheels, passing picturesque Motovun, Buje and Grožnjan on the way.
All down the coast and over the islands, fishing is offered to tourists. But few tourists go out when locals do, which is after dark, zipping over the moonlit waves to do battle with the sea, when the fish are most plentiful. Though the Adriatic is calm 24/7, it’s still a good idea to go out with a local, who will know the waters like the back of his hand.
Mushroom picking in Istria
As well as the famous truffles, Istrians also head out to pick mushrooms, a communal activity and an economic way to create several delicious, healthy meals. There’s little glamour involved – you set your alarm early, get up in the dark, and usually it’s raining (or at least damp), but you reach prime spots in the woods first. The uninitiated must have a local in tow – there are plenty of prize porcini mushrooms out there but there are poisonous ones, too. Plus, once you get your haul back home, the local can show you the best way to prepare your catch.
Ston Wall Marathon
Those who venture up to Ston from Dubrovnik usually admire its fortified defences from afar, gazing as the longest wall in Europe tails off into the distance. Some locals, meanwhile, take this one step further by actually running the length of them, for the so-called Ston Wall Marathon held in September. On the same day, shorter challenges are also set, such as a 4km race, itself calf-crunching yet satisfying. There are great views across the Pelješac Peninsula from up there.
The highest slope of the Medvednica Nature Park overlooking Zagreb, Sljeme is a skiing centre in winter and a destination for ramblers, climbers and hikers all year round. Dotted amid the verdant landscape are rustic huts, mountain cabins converted into makeshift restaurants where bean soup and mlinci (pasta strips with turkey) are served. This is very much a local experience, a typical family weekend day out.
A local institution, the bric-a-brac market that spreads out around Britanski Trg off Ilica in Zagreb tends to be a social occasion, as well as a trading one. Families arrive, browse, perhaps pick up an old painting or a candlestick holder, then retire to a nearby café for a leisurely late Sunday chat. It’s all very casual, yet a revered ritual in the weekly agenda.
It’s what all the locals do. Spličani seem to spend all day sitting at a café terrace on the waterfront promenade, talking endlessly over a single coffee, two at most, over the course of an afternoon. Tourists tend to drink up quick and get going – not so locals, for whom time seems to stand still.