Palm trees. Stale pastry. Humidity.
That’s what I remember about the fish market in Split, Croatia.
At 6:30am I was already drenched in sweat.
Prowling the “Riva” (Split’s waterfront promenade) before the crowds hit I was dismayed to feel the heat already baking my brain. Or perhaps that was the fever I felt for fish. This was in fact the third day in a row that I’d tried to catch the Split fish market in action. Despite rave reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites, the popular local market was maddeningly difficult to find.
Oh, sure, I could find where it had been earlier that day, and where it would be tomorrow. And there were usually one or two fishmongers still set up on folding tables when I arrived midmorning or later.
At that hour I was told that, given the freshness of their product (off the boat that morning), ease of spoilage, and the mounting heat, the market began early and was all but over by 10.
Some said nine. Others said try later, or, “This isn’t a good year (2015), so the market will be slow/low”, and I, “shouldn’t expect big things”.
If Dubrovnik is the trophy wife of Croatia (nice to look at for a while, but expensive), Split is the clever, interesting older sister who lives up the Dalmatian Coast. It’s contemporary, and old enough to have seen just about everything, but approachable and not stuffy and museum-like. And so far I’d found it charming and friendly. But now, taunting me in the heat, it seemed aloof and chaotic.
Arriving at the market around 7:00 was still a skosh too early, so I went for a coffee and pastry a block away on the Riva. It was probably too early for today’s pastry because ten minutes later, amped up on coffee and, “best if eaten by yesterday” pastry, I headed back up the street and found the market in full swing.
It wasn’t as busy as online sources had led me to believe, but it was busier than yesterday (and the day before). The products were indeed fresh, and the vendors friendly, if a bit less talkative than the few I’d spoken with the previous two days.
The Split fish market doesn’t specialize in any one thing. This is a true fishermen’s market where they lay out whatever came up in their nets (anchovies, snapper, squid, octopus, prawns, bream/dorado, etc.). There are a few vendors selling samphire and other seaweed or prepared products (mostly to tourists), but they are definitely in the minority.
Just inside the door, under the awning, there’s a cleaning and washing station where I stood in awestruck silence (like a stunned mullet) and watched men work. In a fraction of the time it would take me to mutilate my purchases back at home, fish are boned, scaled, cleaned, and returned to their mostly local customers (housewives, husbands who do the shopping, and restaurateurs). When I was there I saw only a handful of other travelers. Granted, it was just past 7am and most were still asleep or huddled bleary-eyed over their coffee down on the Riva.
While I was disappointed with its small size, the quest for this market was instructive. Timing is everything for seasonal and fresh ingredients like this, so it now seems obvious that the market would be somewhat transient. Ultimately this became more about trying to understand the local fishing community than buying fish.
I feel that I learned more about Croatian fishmongers by not finding them and asking around than I would have by any other means. Once this thing, this market, became my grail, I felt as if I bonded (even if only in my own head) with the market and the community.
There’s something about the ease of travel with the Internet, relentless access, dependability, and the sameness of experience that sucks the life out of discovery. There are those who say, “There’s nothing left to discover”. Bushwa. Hogwash. Feh. Not finding the fish market in Split taught me that the good pastry arrives after 7:00. The market opens at 7:30 and isn’t as huge as they say, but the fish cleaning is an amazing spectacle. And I learned the fishmongers won’t have time to talk to you at the market, but if you hit them up after the rush, they’re quite happy to chat.
Later, when I heard other people talking about the market:
“Yeah. It’s really impressive and definitely worth seeing. You’ll find it down there in the mornings”
I thought, “why ruin it for them with pesky things like details”.
Text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
Split Fish Market
(Head to the west end of the Riva and turn north on the street with the diamond-shaped pattern on it)