Thursday Column - Croatia Lifestyle 4: Shopping
In today’s posting we have a look at the type and variety of shops available in Croatia and what sort of shopping experience you can expect. It is based on our detailed knowledge of the area around Split and our travels around Croatia. We are indebted to four friends who live locally and seem to have antennae highly tuned to the best deals around and ears equally well tuned to the chink of cash registers as soon as a new store opens.
In looking at the Split area, in detail, we are covering a radius of about 30 miles around Split town and believe this area is typical of other similar regions such as Sibenik, Dubrovnik and Zadar. We have less experience of inland towns though we have managed to spend plenty of money in Zagreb, the capital. As far as the islands are concerned, many of the bigger towns are as well served as those on the mainland but lack the larger superstores that are found in mainland town suburbs. That makes furniture shopping a bit more expensive and time consuming if you’re equipping an island property.
Croatia seems to be following the general trend of huge out of town superstores that slowly result in the failure of the local butchers, bakers and corner shops. Within half an hour’s drive of Split there’s a large Getro, Ipercoop, Mercator, Kerum, Kaufland and Metro all designed along Tesco type lines, though Metro is for trade buyers only. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Metro, the newest store in town, has the largest stock, the best range and the cheapest prices. My favourite is Ipercoop at Kastel Sucurac, in the big Emmezete centre, with a large furniture store next door and Bricostore (an upmarket French Homebase) just a five minute walk away. Compared with three years ago, you can find almost everything you need now, in one store or another. Baked beans are a recent addition to Kaufland, Mercator has good orange marmalade, rather than the ubiquitous, not so good, “mixed fruit marmalade” and smoked salmon is now readily available. We still rely on England for tea, bacon, marmite, cheddar cheese and sausages but our list used to be much longer. You won’t find a lot of good “ready meals” but, for us, that’s no great loss. As far as prices are concerned, there’s not much difference on meat and fish but everything else seems at least 20% cheaper. Wine, beer and local spirits will save you even more. My favourite drink, Prosec, a cross between sherry and fortified desert wine, is a snip at about £3.50 a litre, good local Brandy, called Stock, is about £8 per litre and a decent bottle or red plonk is about £2 though you can splash out on Zlatan Plavac at a cost of around £10, and enjoy a really good Croatian red wine.
Fruit and vegetables in the large stores are of reasonable quality but tend to consist mainly of foreign imports and we like to buy Croatian where we can. You’ll do better at the local market in this respect but you need to find a vendor you can trust and will not charge you tourist prices. Croatian eggs and tomatoes are special but remember it’s only the English who buy eggs by the dozen. Home brews and home made olive oil can also be found on the market stalls but these vary greatly in quality and price. Good Croatian extra virgin olive oil is about £7 per litre at the supermarket. In the bigger towns such as Split, Trogir, Zadar and Sibenik, you’ll also find buzzing fish markets but it’s best to get there early.
The Superstores have also taken over the furniture and white goods market from the smaller shops and some of the deals are amazing, as is the quantity of stocks they hold. Pevec, in the Split Industrial Area, has acres of space devoted to wine stills, garden tools and equipment, fridges and freezers and a lot more besides. We bought two very good quality three seater leather sofas from Emmezete, next to Ipercoop, for less than £700 and you’ll find similar deals in all the Superstores. Fridges, freezers and washing machines are all very reasonably priced. The Friday papers often have inserts aimed at weekend shoppers highlighting the bargains of the weekend but there’s normally a special area in each store for heavily discounted items.
Most of the food based superstores also have a wide variety of reasonably priced clothing though the Croatian shape does not make for the best fit for those of us with more voluptuous bodies. The bigger markets also have plenty of clothes stalls and the main towns such as Split, Sibenik, Zadar, and of course Zagreb, have plenty of designer shops at higher prices. Apart from casual wear, I’ve found clothes prices not to be that different from the UK, and the choice more limited. If anything, shoes seem more expensive though there are always bargains to be had.
Bags, jewellery, hats and other luxury items are about the same price as the UK, in the shops, and vary in price in the markets. There are plenty of small boutiques where you need to be prepared to barter a little to get a good price.
And of course there’s more to Croatian shopping than Superstores and markets. The medium sized towns and villages have large supermarkets where you can buy most things, though the quality of fruit and vegetables can be very mixed and some shops are much better maintained and presented than others. Then there are the small bakeries, corner shops and butchers. Few of the owners and staff few seem to speak much English which means a whole new vocabulary to request one of the many different types of bread, an unrecognisable cut of meat, or to describe a vegetable who’s Croatian name you haven’t discovered yet. We like to patronise these shops, particularly where the staff are friendly and helpful, and in the hope that the Croatian version of traditional high streets, with good local shops and traditional skills, doesn’t go the same way as in the UK.
So what’s the shopping experience like I hear you ask? Mixed is the answer. Until recently, the policy on returns was quite severe and the burden of proof of defect was heavily on the buyer. That’s now gone full circle with a new law that says the buyer has up to six months to go back with a defect and the onus is on the seller to disprove it. Queuing in the Superstores reminds me very much of the Ikea experience. In Emmezete, for example, you have to get a ticket and go to the warehouse for the larger items. You may have to wait a long time and then find your item is out of stock. Queues in the food superstores are normally quite well managed and the staff very helpful, mostly speaking English. You have to get used to paying deposits on some glass bottles (those with no writing stamped on them) plastic bags are free, parking is normally good, you often have to have your receipt stamped by a security man as you leave, and staff usually have to weigh and price the fruit and vegetables before you go to the check out. I find the smaller supermarkets more difficult and less easy to navigate around and the small butcher shops quite daunting as the butcher’s knife is normally poised over the meat I'm looking at before I’ve had a chance to find out if it’s the one I want. This experience is only capped by the first encounter with a new market lady who would probably sell you the whole stall, roof included, if you let her.
On the whole though, the shopping experience is a good one and getting better all the time as Croatia gets more used to the obscure tastes of foreigners and becomes a little more adventurous itself. Herbs and spices used to be quite limited, and still are in the smaller towns, but you can find most of them now if you look hard enough. There’s still nothing to beat the taste of fresh, home grown, produce and the markets and roadside stalls are always full of the best of it.
Finally, a few Croatian specialities that are worth looking out for:-
Prsut – locally produced smoke ham
Livno and Pag Cheese
Fresh fish – our favourite is Orada
Travarica or Rakija – herb flavoured liqueur similar to Grapa
Orahovac – walnut flavoured brandy
Black Risotto – flavoured with the ink of the cuttlefish
Easter Cake – a little like Brioche
Bacalar – dry salted cod used to make fish stew
Pašticada – slices of beef stewed in a rich sauce