Coastlines & Old World Charm: Croatia

April 18, 2016
Croatia

Croatia has been on what I call my “short” bucket list for some time (because I have a short list & an insanely long one).  Even before the Game of Thrones craze (P.S. I am totally addicted!), it was on my list.  I will just warn you now that pictures cannot do this place justice.  You will likely find yourself booking a plane ticket to see it for yourself!

During this trip, I also visited Bosnia & Herzegovena, Slovenia, and Montenegro, but since all offer so much, I will post them separately.

The number one question I get asked about Croatia is, “Is it safe?” or “Didn’t they just have a war?”.  Well, they did have a war (several actually, but more on that later), but that ended in 1995!  These days you see little to no evidence of any kind of war.  Just a stunningly beautiful country on the Adriatic sea with 1,244 islands!

The Trips Begins:  Breeze Through Split, Croatia

Now for the fun stuff!  The plan was to meet up with my travel companions who had already traveled to the island of Hvar in Croatia.  I flew into Split and immediately transferred to the ferry landing.  I took advantage of the few hours I had before my departure to Hvar to explore old town Split.  Luckily, it’s within walking distance of the ferry landing.  It was hard to resist the allure of the cobblestone streets, delightful alleyways, and historic buildings.  I quickly decided I needed to spend more time here next time around!  When you are planning your trip, definitely plan at least a day here.

Don’t Miss:  Diocletian’s Palace & the surrounding area

Tip:  The best way to navigate Croatia is by car.  They do not have a good bus or train system in place like Western Europe.  Plus, most of your driving, especially along the coast will be filled with incredible scenery!  Consider a local rental company; you will likely end up with better prices.  I used Uni-rent & had a great experience.

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Breezing through Split

Next Up:  Hvar Town, Hvar

Hvar is one of the more popular Croatian islands.  We had read this place could get quite crowded in the summer, but we didn’t experience this in mid-June.  Instead, we enjoyed a quiet, incredibly charming island on the Adriatic Sea.  This is definitely a place for simply strolling around & exploring.  Shops & cafes abound and there is a walkway by the water stretching both directions from Hvar town.  A climb up to the fortress offers fantastic views.  And Dubovica offers a pebble beach, great for catching some rays or taking a swim.  There are several other water activities to choose from, including sailing to surrounding islands and kayaking.  We decided to charter a boat (pretty affordable for a larger group with Hvar Adventure) to sail to the island of Vis, which I highly recommend.

Don’t Miss:  

  • Exploring Hvar Town
  • Taking a dip in the sea!
  • Visiting an island…any island!  Pick one & go!  Hvar, Vis, Rab, Korcula, Brac, Mljet, Krk…you get the picture.

Eat/Drink:  The Wine Bar-Tri Prsuta, Giaxa, Dalmatino

Stay:  Villa Nora (It may not be a Westerner’s idea of high end, but it’s got historic charm, clean, great location, & a fantastic breakfast)

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Hvar Town

King’s Landing:  Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Hvar Town, there are two ways to get to Dubrovnik.  We had rented a car & chose the long, scenic route…the drive across the island to Sucaraj (approx 1.5-2 hours) to catch the car ferry (via the Jadrolinija line) to Drvenik.  If you have the time, you will be richly rewarded with amazing views!  Plan to take your time and stop to smell the roses (or the fields of lavender that grow here!).

From Drvenik we drove to Dubrovnik (approx. 2 hours).  This is certainly the most popular place to visit in Croatia & for good reason.  This ancient walled city by the sea is the stuff of fairytales (or at least an HBO fantasy series!).  But here’s the thing:  the cruise ships stop here, so it gets overrun with tourists during the day.  Does this mean it’s a tourist trap or you should only do a quick stop?  Absolutely not!  The magic of this place is felt in the early morning and evening hours!

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View from the top of the city walls of Dubrovnik

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View from Mount Srd

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Dubrovnik’s Night Charm

I highly suggest you leave daytime Dubrovnik to the cruising folks and high tail out it to explore a surrounding area.  Afterall, there are over 1,000 islands along the Dalmation Coast…and more than a few near Dubrovnik!  Most of the touristy things to see are best done in the late afternoon and early evening.  Taking a day trips to Mostar, Bosnia and Montenegro are also great options.

Don’t Miss:

  • Walking on top the 16th century city walls (Best early or later in the day.  Bring water, sunscreen, & consider a hat-there’s little shade to be had)
  • Either hiking or taking the cable car to the top of Mount Srd (great place to watch the sunset)
  • A walking tour or Game of Thrones Tour (the latter only if you watch the show…be amazed at Hollywood magic)-this is a really great way to learn some history & truly gain an appreciation for this special part of the world.
  • War Photo Limited (not for the faint of heart, but a must.  You will come away with a much greater appreciation of this region of the world.)
  • An island if you haven’t been already (Mljet, Korcula, Lokrum, Elafiti Islands to name a few nearby)
  • Staying at least one night
  • Exploring the city on foot (Pile Gate, The Fortress, the harbor, Placa Stradun, etc)
  • Interested in the Croatian Wine Country?  Consider a wine tour, such as the one offered by D’vino Wine Bar
  • One of the little markets, great place to pick up some local produce

Eat/Drink:  The Taj Mahal, D’vino Wine Bar, Nishta (vegetarian!), Mala Buza (come here for the novelty of literally walking through a “hole in the wall” and the views)

Stay:  Amoret Apartments (spacious rooms, great location, & a nice patio to enjoy some relaxation)

Quick Tip:  Game of Thrones typically films in the fall.  If you are considering visiting Dubrovnik during this time, I strongly suggest you check filming times to avoid the frustration of the closing of some parts of the city.

Heading Back up the Coast:  Makarska

Makarska seemed like a good mid-way point as we traveled back up the coast of Croatia.  The drive in was full of great views.  It’s a quaint town, full of the familiar Croatian charms.  During our visit, Croatia was playing in the World Cup so we joined the locals in the town square to watch the match.  Even if you’re not into soccer, it’s hard not to get swept up in all the crazy excitement!  SO fun!  You might not have a soccer match to occupy your time during your visit, so consider hiking up Mount Biokovo to watch the sunset.  The view is worth the huff and puff!

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Makarska Sunset

Unbelievable Mother Nature:  Plitvice National Park

We left Makarska bright and early to get to Plitvice National Park at a reasonable time.  Parking can become a nightmare, so the earlier you arrive, the better.  There’s a little cafe near the entrance should you arrive hungry.  Now I am going to warn you, this place is truly awe-inspiring.  Make sure you have plenty of room on your memory card!  I challenge you to NOT take a million pictures!  Seriously.  Because everywhere you look is something you want to capture forever, so you can remember just how fantastic this place is.  But yet, somehow even after so many shots, you still feel the need to take more.  Even looking through my photos as I put this post together, I still feel none of my pictures quite captured just how spectacular this place is.  I guess you are just going to have to go & see for yourself!

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The Fork in the Road:  Different Itinerary Options

This is where my crew & I parted ways.  They headed further up the coast to the Istrian Peninsula and on to Milan.  I actually headed to Slovenia (and circled back around to end up in Zagreb).  Just to give you an idea of some itinerary options if you are interested in seeing more of Croatia:  instead of going straight from Makarska to Plitvice, you could continue up the coast and hit up Zadar (known for their Sea Organ and Sun Salutation).  You could visit the island of Rab, if you haven’t bothered to visit an island yet, or you could head further north and visit the Istrian Peninsula (Pula, Rovinj, and Motovun are a few places to consider), or you can simply head over to Zagreb.

End of my Croatian Road:  Zagreb

To see what I did between Plitvice & Zagreb, click here.

Zagreb is woefully overlooked in many itineraries.  It’s the capital and the largest city in Croatia.  And it’s charming, oh so charming!  But so many skip this place in favor of a coastal city.  They are missing out!

If you’re into the cafe culture (count me in!), there is plenty of it here.  Tkalciceva=cobblestone streets brimming with places to stop for a cup of joe or a bite to eat.  And plenty of people watching opportunities.  But beyond those cafes, there are other areas worth exploring.

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Zagreb is divided into Upper (Gornji Grad) and Lower Town (Centar).  The lower portion boasts a large pedestrian zone full of shops and cafes.  Depending on the day, you may also find the market, which is one of my personal favorite things to do.  It’s definitely a must explore kind of area.

You can take the funicular or walk up to Gornji Grad.  This is the area you will find most of the churches and museums listed on most “Things to Do” lists.  If you are a big church fan, then you might find it helpful to know many Croatian churches are only open during services.  I do think St Mark’s is worth a look-see, if only to take a picture of that adorable roof!  As far as the Cathedral of the Assumption, it is pretty, but don’t expect the jaw dropping, OMG kind of reaction.

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St. Mark’s

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Inside the Cathedral

Europe has SO many incredible museums.  And while Croatia doesn’t have any claims to such famous works, it makes up for it with probably the most creative.  The Museum of Broken Relationships is, I imagine anyway, the only of its kind.  It’s interesting, entertaining, and well, sometimes even a little sad.  I say it’s a must.  Even if you’re not typically into museums.  If you’re interested in art, the Croatian Museum of Naive Art is worth a go.

And finally, top your city tour off with a trip up to the Zagreb Eye.  For about $5, you’ll be able to take in a nearly 360 degree view of Zagreb.

Don’t Miss:

  • Exploring both Upper & Lower Town
  • Cafe culture on Tkalciceva
  • The Museum of Broken Relationships

Eat/Drink:  Agava, TrilogijaNishta (vegetarian!), Vinoteka Bornstein (great wine shop, super friendly owners-raised in NZ though he is Croatian)

Stay:  Hotel Jagerhorn (great location, fantastic upstairs patio for enjoying wine & live music)

 

Thinking about a trip to Croatia?  Have questions or need some advice, let me know!

 

 

Quick Facts for Croatia

Language:  Croatian (though English is spoken commonly)

Currency:  Croatian kuna (HRK; they have not converted to the euro at this time)

Electric:  240V/50Hz (same as the Western Europe)

Dialing Code:  +385

Water:  Safe, though some may advise bottled in some areas if there has been heavy rain

Internet:  Most places offered WiFi & some places even had free hot spots available (for a limited amount of time per day)

Helpful Hints:

  • Large hotels are not common in Croatia.  Much more prevalent are guesthouses (think B&B in the US, although some may not serve breakfast).  This may also be a more cost effective option.
  • Croatia’s beaches are not your typical sandy types.  While you’ll often see large rocky areas for enjoying a dip in the sea, there are some beaches with small pebbles (I personally enjoyed them on Vis & Hvar-I know there are more!).  If you are enjoying a more rocky area, you should keep your eye out for sea urchins (consider a pair of water sandals)
  • While many destinations can be a steal during off season, I caution against visiting Croatia before June and after September.  Some places completely shut down off season & public transportation, including ferries, cut way back on their schedule (or don’t even run at all).  We visited in mid-June and were pretty happy with the crowd levels (July & August are peak).
  • Croatia really is easier and more convenient to navigate with your own rental car.  You could waste a lot of time waiting for & trying to coordinate public transport.  Just my two cents.

Quick History

To understand this area of the world (the Balkans), I think it is really important to review a bit of history.  I promise to keep this as brief and non-yawn producing as possible!  Indeed, to fully understand you’d need a whole lot of time and way more than this little post.  It is quite complex!  Winston Churchill is famous for saying “The Balkans generates more history than it can locally consume.”  For ease, I will simply list a few highlights below:

  • The Balkans include the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania, and the European portion of Turkey
  • The former Yugoslavia includes Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, as well as two independent territories Vojvodina & Kosovo.
  • This area has been ruled by many empires, some notables include the Venetian & the Ottoman.
  • It was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the prince of the Astro-Hungarian Empire, by a Bosnian nationalist in Sarajevo that started World War I.
  • Yugoslavia was NOT part of the (former) Soviet Union.  Tito ruled Yugoslavia, but was a close ally of Stalin (leader of the Soviet Union)

Interested in learning a bit more?  Try here and here.

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