Pigging – In Croatia In Bay Town – Hopping Kvarner Bay

Opposite a vast painting of the Last Supper in 13th-century Saint Francis of Assisi monastery in Cres town is a small alcove. Smiley father Zdrak, whose benign presence is like a tonic, leads us there. And in the alcove is another kind of tonic. No, not the half-empty orange Fanta bottle, but a glass urn of greenish liqueur from which the father pours with some glee. “It’s called koromac,” he says, “We make it using fennel from our garden.”

Croatia part 3 map

It is delicious. We repeat the tasting. My daughter Maddy (13) turns down the koromac and gazes longingly at the Fanta, but it is not offered. It is 9am and Maddy, my partner Sophie and I are just beginning our exploration of the island cities of the Kvarner gulf, the broad bay of Adriatic sea that snuggles up under Croatia’s Istrian chin.

Cres Town is an easygoing place, little frequented by tourists and pleasant to stroll around, even in August. (The pronunciation of the island’s name is subtle and sibilant and not at all like cress, stress or tress, but somewhere between the three. A glass of koromac is probably required for precision.) We buy olive oil from the co-operative and admire the work of Mate Solis, a local artist and character now in his 80s who still finds inspiration in Cres’s pretty boat-filled harbour.

Early morning in Krk town with the day’s first bread delivery.
Early morning in Krk town with the day’s first bread delivery. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

Next day we take a short ferry ride to Krk, which is a big change after the depopulated harshness of Cres. Krk is verdant and well-inhabited: its main town, also Krk, is busier than Cres but with similar cool stone lanes. A walk through its crowded streets can be slow, but why hurry? There are so many strange highlights: the temple of Venus that is now a beachwear shop, the restaurant (Konoba Maritim) that serves us tangy sheep’s cheese with octopus and squid (Maddy looks wistfully at other diners’ spaghetti), and a little doorway in the city wall that leads to one of the world’s most astonishing cafes: Volsonis.

Volsonis cafe in Krk town, built in Roman walls.
Volsonis cafe in Krk town, built in Roman walls. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

The building was bought in 1999 by Maria Elena and Goran Stanic, who set about converting it to a cafe, but discovered a Roman wall, and then a tomb under the floor. In some countries that might have ended any hopes of a cafe, but in Krk things are different: they simply integrated a cafe, nightclub and gallery into the structure of an ancient building. The result is startling and original – and they do good coffee.

We take a day trip to Vrbnik, in Krk’s wine region. This handsome hilltop seaside town sees no need to lure tourists: there are few hotels or cafes, and lots of ungentrified winding lanes, including one, Klancic, that is so narrow we have to squeeze through sideways. There is also a luminously brilliant family-run restaurant: Nada. They love their local wines here – all based on the indigenous žlahtina grape. We eat a grand seafood dinner and remember not to attempt the Klancic on our way back to the car.

Octopus,squid and cheese at Maritim restaurant, Krk town.
Octopus, squid and cheese at Maritim restaurant, Krk town.

Our fourth town is Rab, on the island of the same name and about an hour away by ferry. These inter-island ferries, operated by Jadrolinija, are fast becoming real pleasures on this trip. You queue on the road outside the port and race the other drivers to the ticket office. On board it’s like being on a mini-cruise: lovely views and a decent cafe. If the breeze is right, you can smell the different islands: I swear I can detect Cres’s sage, Krk’s pine and, coming up on the bow, Rab’s lavender. Maddy is unconvinced, claiming that it is chocolate and chips.

Vrbnik, Krk island.
Vrbnik, Krk island. Photograph: Alamy

Someone on the ferry tells us Rab “fancies itself”. That’s immediately obvious in the super yachts moored by the old town and the chi-chi boutiques that line the main street. But this is a subtle and complex town. An enquiry at the tourist office for “something unusual” leads us to the headquarters of the medieval order of crossbowmen, a surreal mix of weaponry, heraldry and archive photos of Rab in the 1930s. That was when Rebecca West came, writing in her 1941 travel masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon of stricken people with the faces of “crucified Christs”. The island is, thankfully, a lot more prosperous now.

Maddy is asleep on the hallowed bench of the crossbowmen. She has the face of a crucified teenager in dire need of sugar. But first we must visit the four bell towers of Rab, a sequence that has all the rhythm and resonance of a peal. We climb two before we relent and help our wilting daughter towards the dangling carrot that has kept her feet moving since breakfast: Rab cake.

Rab town. Three of the belltowers
Another view of three of Rab Town’s belltowers.

When Pope Alexander III came to the island in 1177, the sisters of St Anthony concocted a cake to celebrate: a filling of eggs, almonds, sugar, citrus zest and cherry liqueur baked in a spiral-shaped pastry case. At Rabska Torta on the edge of town they show you how – with great deliberation. Maddy is twitching like an addict awaiting her fix, but finally the cake is done. We retire to the garden half-expecting a refusal followed by demands for Kit Kat, but no: rabska torta is a hit.

Selection of cakes at Rabska Torta.
Selection of cakes at Rabska Torta. Photograph: Kevin Rushby

She eats more than Pope Alexander, then, sweating, asks about a swim. Simple: there’s a wild forested peninsula next to town, dotted with coves. We stumble to the harbour and hire a boat for the afternoon.
Accommodation on Rab was provided by Prestige Holidays (01425 480400, prestigeholidays.co.uk), which has a week’s B&B in Hotel Padova from about £469pp, including flights and transfers. For further information, visit croatia.hr

Discovering Croatia: fruits of the sea

Croatia is a seafood lovers’ paradise. Ivana Gamulin from the renowned Villa Spiza restaurant in Split gives her take on the country’s best fish. “The most important thing is seasonality. Sardines are best in May, calamari in summer. Brudet is the classic dish: a stew of garlic, onion, white wine, tomatoes and fish. If I find kosmej or grancigula crabs, I use them, too. A very traditional recipe is fažol na brudet, a bean and fish dish. Wash it down with white wine (bogdanuša or parč grape) or a light red (plavac mali).”

Next week: Kornati islands