Under the bridge across the Ljubljanica river, there is a fish market. Set opposite a seafood restaurant, the market’s long steely corridor is fitted with large glass windows with a view of the river below. It smelled awful. Just like it should. Yet, in the absence of the frenzy of local fish markets in my country, it wasn’t fun enough. How will Slovene teachers ever get the chance to vent their frustration in noisy classrooms shouting, “Is this a fish market??”
Colourful crayon painted happy-faced fish stared at their dead, vengeful counterparts, displayed on gravels of ice under the sale counter. Perhaps, being exhibit is better than being food. Most seafood restaurants in Ljubljana, like in South East Asia, have a fresh catch market attached, to have your poison handpicked for dinner. My Croat family told me a story of oppression. When they were in a restaurant in coastal Opatija, in Western Croatia, a waiter had brought a plate of lobsters to demonstrate a proposed dish. While he was busy explaining the unique qualities of the dish, one of the lobsters managed to escape and started running across the table before it was mercilessly caught and tied.
We Indians, however, believe in the divinity of food. So, no trauma before eating. Out of sight, out of mind.
A newly opened restaurant with careful and well-invested Greek-style decor, served bowls of healthy but smelly fish soup with fresh bread and salad. Next to the fireplace, a group of three had their breads repeatedly dipped in plates of olive oil. I copied.
Back in Croatia, the Samoborska Kremšnita – made of alternating layers of vanilla and custard, became the sole reason to go back to Livadic, a patisserie in the centre of Samobor that also serves wonderful Croatian coffee. A Slovene version of this is Gibanica, pronounced as ‘gibanichka’.
Sometimes, cafes in Croatia known as Kavana will serve alcohol and have music. Bakeries sell an affordable snack called Burek, essentially a cheese role that I munched on the way to watch Rogue One, at Kino Samobor – the Socialist era theatre, complete with a single screen, wooden chairs, a raised ‘cabin’ class and so much character.
In Samoborska Klet, set closeby, two little girls played around a doll house and sometimes on the floor. They belong to two pretty ladies, the owners. The interiors of this old but popular restaurant resemble the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, complete with wooden barrels. With house red wine, came the loveliest Central European dish, Ćevapi. Originally an Ottoman-Turkish specialty, Ćevapies are similar to Sheekh Kebabs, yet so much more. As a proof of the indelible taste, I swallowed more and chewed less, and about the type of meat, I couldn’t care less. The other wonder was Štrukli, essentially dollops of cheese fried on more cheese.
Into the capital, things became touristy. At the edge of the old city in Zagreb, also known as the Upper town, is Pod grčkom Topom an old style and ageing restaurant. It served a limited menu, prices in Kuna chalked on the black board. While the wines looked expensive, they were manageable, especially for a view of the Austro-Hungarian cityscape underneath a setting sun that slowly bronzed the white table clothes.
Light chains over Christmas markets, by the Zagreb Cathedral and by the funicular to the Lower Town of Zagreb, made it so pretty. The cold was like a tonsil, biting yet being ignored. Long white candles on top of empty wine bottles effused thin smokey lines, where stalls sold hot ‘Glüh’ wine and fritule – little balls of flour fried with sugar and stuck on top of a stick. Men, women and children walked past in leisurely pace, as if they were out to tour their own city.
Frost showed up on the first day of January. The holidays had been very different. With wine in hand and wrapped in thick shawls, I sat by the largest window in the sleepy Croatian town of Samobor, watching silent fireworks lighting up the dark sky behind invisible mountains.The Christmas menu at home was rather from the Small Island, with a stubborn turkey that fought back despite being in the oven for hours, potatoes, pudding and of course, mince pies.
Not a single coffee shop was operating at Zagreb station, the next morning. It was New Years’ day. After a long search, a readymade nescafe machine was spotted. The train, a Croatian made one, arrived, with green painted coaches and graffitied windows. We had no reservations. Who would on their right mind travel on this holiday to an even colder Hungary.