Croatian Capers

I have never liked capers much. But they are used extensively in Croatian cooking and so I thought I’d give them another go and am pleased to say I was converted. Pretty much everything in Croatia is excellent. The coastline, the cuisine, the climate, the courtesy of its people. Despite being a relatively small country it has a wealth of holiday and travel opportunities. It has no less than ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites and there are over a thousand islands, of which around forty seven are inhabited, of which I visited just five! The highlight of my trip was a rare sighting of a family of bottle-nosed dolphins who came to play briefly alongside our boat.

The island of Prvić

I don’t usually go on organised tours but in this occasion I chose to do a swim-trek with a company of the same name. We convened on an island called Prvić, a 45 minute boat trip from nearby Šibenic. I stayed with the group in the well-positioned family-run hotel Maestral at Prvić Luka, one of the island’s two towns. It’s not the cheapest option, however, and there are a number of AirBnb choices available too at a lower rate. The Maestral also hires out kayaks by the day, half-day or hour so you can either explore the harbour or do a trip round the whole island.

Prvic is a sleepy car-free island. Its main claim to fame is the bishop, inventor and polymath Faust Vrančić who has a new museum dedicated to his work, largely courtesy of EU funding. Amongst more spectacular engineering feats involving complicated bridge structures, he also invented the rubber ring (for swimming) and the parachute! The museum is fascinating with lots of working models and detailed explanations in English.

It is possible to walk around the island in a few hours on a coast path as well as over the top through olive and pine groves. There are a couple of sandy beaches towards Šepurine, a twenty-minute stroll away. And at the second, a van selling fritule (tiny doughnuts) and drinks.

There’s a good selection of restaurants to discover too, all of them along the sea front. I’ll recommend just Punta, overlooking the point of the port, simply because of the excellent time I had there one windy night when I was the only diner. I’d eaten fish there earlier in the week but hadn’t been able to manage the platter of three local cheeses. This was to be my main course this time. The first, a soft cow’s cheese made in a factory by Trappist monks, the second a famed mature sheep’s cheese from the nearby island of Pag and finally Livanjski, made from the milk of both sheep and cows who graze on grass and medicinal plants on a private estate! I know all this because my waiter Nik paid me lots of attention as he was probably a bit bored or may have felt a bit sorry for me dining alone (although it was actually my choice to have a break from the group for one evening). Nik went on to recommend the most delicious dessert I may ever have tasted. I’m not a fan of sweet things at the end of a meal and yet the hot wild sour cherries on home-made vanilla ice-cream was sublime. And the highlight was not the obligatory glass of pear grappa but a demonstration of how to turn an ordinary paper napkin into a delicate flower, which was presented to me by my attentive waiter. Another C for Croatia – chivalry!!


Most people flying into this part of Croatia arrive at Split. There are various expensive options to transfer into the town but the cheapest is to leave the airport building, cross the road and turn left where you’ll find a number of unmarked tourist coaches which hang about till they are almost full before setting off. I waited twenty minutes and paid only 5 Euros.

Split is also a transport hub for the many ferries leaving for islands and other towns up and down the coast which make for a pleasant alternative to buses.

The town was heaving in late June, mainly with twenty-somethings, and it was noisy too. But the students are gone by September which is a great time to visit. As I only had a couple of nights in Split I stayed in a single room at the minimalist Design Hostel Goli & Bosi.  I’d booked ahead which was just as well as it was full. It’s in the old town a short walk from the bus station, on a lovely square with two restaurants, and just around the corner from the seafront.


This UNESCO World Heritage old town is the main reason to visit Split and well-documented.

I am partial to sculpture and a bit of architecture and was delighted to discover, a mile and a half north of the town along the coast, a gallery showing the works of Ivan Meštrović, a renowned Croatian sculptor and architect who built the elegant summer house which now houses many of his works in the spacious rooms and gardens. The villa was built between 1931 and 1939 to his own design. There’s a small café there too.

A hundred metres or so further along the road, and included in the price, is an entirely different modest building – the Kaštelet-Crikvine, a restored chapel that houses a set of wooden wall panels carved by Meštrović. If you don’t want to walk back a bus passes every hour or so.

I also enjoyed the twenty-minute walk up the town steps towards Marjan Hill park where lies the peaceful Old Jewish Cemetery and a restaurant/café with extensive views over the town and coast to the south. You can’t miss it!


I’d done my research and heard that the Uji Oil Bar was the place to dine. The octopus and shrimp were indeed very tender, but the experience was marred by the nod to modern international trends to garnish everything with rocket and fat chips and dipping bread albeit with a selection of excellent local olive oils. This detracted from the experience and I could have been anywhere.


Much better, I discovered, was Villa Spiza at Ul. Petra Kružića 3, 21000, which does not compromise real Dalmatian cooking. A tiny space tucked away in an alley, it accommodates only 15 people at a time, seated at the bar and bench tables inside where you can watch the cooking, and two tables outside. It’s cash only & you cannot book, so a wait is inevitable but worth it!!


I also passed through Šibenik and only then realised that, it too has UNESCO World Heritage monuments in St James Cathedral and St Nicholas fortress. It’s a stylish and happening town, small enough to wander round easily and large enough to be of interest for a few days at least, and a great base for visiting the islands and the Krka National Park. There’s an extensive programme of events in various genres including the Festival of Old Wedding Customs, the Summer School of Organs, a Medieval Fair, the English Brass Academy Summer Festival and an International Children’s Festival, to name but a handful. Jazz and Dance also play a significant role.

I arrived at Pansion Šibenik, a simple place centrally located up a narrow cobbled street, on a Sunday morning as the sound of plainsong echoed through the quiet streets from a nearby chapel .

I also want to mention a local speciality from Skradin, the gateway to Krka National Park. Skradin Cake is made without flour, instead using ground almonds and walnuts. It’s simply delicious!


Finally, I met a lovely woman who, in addition to being a private guide and storyteller, also offers massage treatments for a very reasonable sum (I took two!). Contact Karmen Bezbradica on her local number 091 73 17 116 or by email at  She speaks excellent English.


Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire

Further to Katy’s posts on Haverfordwest and on Walking the Welsh Coast Path, here are a few thoughts on my research for the Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire chapter of the next edition of the Rough Guide to Wales. As this blog is meant to be about going beyond the guidebook, there’s not a whole lot to say because the interesting stuff is mostly going into the book!

I did notice a clear pattern of all kinds of places being open for shorter hours or closing one day per week. Tourist Information Centres in particular are being closed – welcome to austerity Britain! And bus subsidies are also being cut in a way that can’t help but damage the tourism industry (although Pembrokeshire is beginning to link together some pretty substantial and decent cycle routes). However, gardens (or at least the National Botanic Garden and Aberglasney, both in Carmarthenshire) are extending their summer hours into October – this seems a bit odd, as in Cornwall and elsewhere the trend is to open earlier in the spring, as climate change means that plants are flowering earlier every year. But I didn’t think there was much going on bloom-wise in October.

In Pembrokeshire there are three different sets of parking charges, depending on whether the car park is owned by the county council, the National Park or the National Trust, and the costs vary hugely. County car parks, mainly in towns, can be so cheap that it doesn’t seem worth maintaining the machines and paying for enforcement staff. The National Park lets you park free for the first thirty minutes, and is then not too expensive. The National Trust, however, levies a pricey fee to park all day (with reductions for shorter periods in a few places only), but is of course free for members.  At the Trust’s Dinefwr estate near Llandeilo (in Carmarthenshire) it’s no longer possible to pay for parking alone at Newton House to walk up to the ruins of Dinefwr Castle – now you need to pay £7.27 for the full visit of Newton House. The castle is accessible by public footpaths and I’d encourage you to walk in from Llandeilo if possible.

The most exciting new attraction in the area is Dr Beynon’s Bug Farm, on the outskirts of  St Davids. This will be covered in the new edition of the guide, but suffice it to say that – in addition to displays of exotic insects and so on – this is also the cutting edge of the very contemporary movement towards entomophagy, ie eating insects. As the world’s population grows towards 8 billion there’s no way that we can expand meat production (far and away the least efficient or sustainable form of agriculture) to match it, and insect farming is a very promising substitute, requiring far less land and water to produce equivalent amounts of protein. The Grub Kitchen, at the Bug Farm, is experimenting both with developing insect-based dishes, and with their public acceptability. If you think bug burgers, bug felafels and cricket-flour cookies sound tempting, be sure to go and test them out. Personally, as someone who gave up meat over 35 years ago, I feel no need for a substitute (although I do enjoy plenty of cheesey animal protein) – even so, in the interests of research, I did taste a few  bits and pieces, and found them quite unobjectionable but also felt that they didn’t taste of anything much beyond their main (veggie-based) ingredients – although ants do give a noticeable tang.

Stuffed pepper with termite-crusted goat’s cheese topping

Around two billion people in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere already eat insects in various forms, so it’s really about overcoming people’s perceptions in Europe and North America. Equally, insects can be used for animal feed, to reduce the damage done by rainforest being destroyed to grow soya.

Oddly enough, no sooner had I been to the Bug Farm than I started to notice other references to entomophagy online, such as this and this – it turns out that Nordic Food Lab, co-founded by René Redzepi (chef-patron of Noma, widely lauded as the world’s best restaurant), has also been active in this area.

I stayed one night at the fancy new Twr y Felin art-hotel in St Davids, and had a fine dinner there, with a BBC film crew at the next table. In the morning I made a special effort to switch on the TV for breakfast news and there they were (or specifically Nick Higham), announcing St Davids’ bid to be UK Capital of Culture 2021. And when I went down to the cathedral he was still there, speaking to camera for probably the umpteenth time. Obviously the smallest city in Britain (population 1800) couldn’t support a year’s cultural gallivanting on its own, so the bid will include the surrounding area, known as the Hundred of Dewisland (the Welsh form of David is Dewi), and perhaps Fishguard, which is not just a ferry-port but an increasingly lively artistic centre in its own right. This isn’t relevant to the next edition of the Rough Guide, of course, but it may be something to watch for the following one.


One place I visited that I knew perfectly well I wouldn’t be able to squeeze into the book was Monkton Priory, on the outskirts of Pembroke. Monkton Abbey, founded in 1098, was one of the most substantial religious establishments in Pembrokeshire (the future Henry VII, born in Pembroke Castle, was educated there), but after Henry’s son dissolved the monasteries it was broken up. The church is now Monkton Priory, a remarkably long slim edifice with the tower set in the centre of its south wall. There’s only one window on the north side (and that’s half-hidden behind the organ) and not many on the south side, so it’s lit from the two ends, giving an unusual effect. Restored after 1882, there are now Victorian frescoes in the chancel. It’s usually open, and there’s free parking outside. To the rear of the church, Priory Farmhouse is in part a 14/15th-century tower-house, which may have been the prior’s residence. The nearby Monkton Old Hall, built c.1400, is the oldest domestic dwelling in Pembrokeshire and possibly in Wales, and has a distinctive Flemish chimney at the rear; it’s now run by the Landmark Trust and you can rent it (from £450 for four nights).