Friday, 12 August 2016

Travels in Croatia

I have had the tremendous good fortune to spend more than five weeks again this summer on the sunny Adriatic Sea along the coast of Croatia. I have written about my connection to this land of 4.2 million people before and have visited the country a number of times since the mid-1980s, including when it was part of the the former Yugoslavia. I composed this post for something to do between visits to the beach, to reflect on our trips here and for the certain enjoyment of four or five readers.  An important disclaimer is that while I am married to a Croatian and I know all the swear words, I am not Croatian; I do not live here and I cannot really know the country or the people. My views are merely those of a tourist from another continent.

The region known as the Balkans is an important nexus between the east and the west and has been a complex crossroads of clashing cultures for centuries.  I apologize in advance for misunderstandings and oversimplifications I have of the history of Croatia, yet some background is important to better understanding the place today.  To be fair, it would take a hundred pages to write even a cursory history of Croatia. If you’re interested, perhaps have a read of my summary to get a little background or cure your insomnia.

Despite thousands of years of imperialistic rulers, conflicts, shifting alliances and a violent civil war that ended as recently as 2001, the transition to independence and NATO and European Union (E.U.) membership in less than 15 years has been remarkable.  I find most Croatian people to be self-aware, resilient, capable, well educated and quite frequently, humorous story tellers.  The country is beautiful and the combination of Roman and Venetian architecture, eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, diverse landscapes, warm sunshine and the pristine Adriatic Sea have made Croatia a “must see” travel location for people around Europe and increasingly, from other continents.  The only downside is that the secret is out, and many of the top locations are as crowded in the peak summer months as other European hot spots.  The upside is that there are a thousand islands along the undulating Croatian coast and most are so narrow you can see the Adriatic from both sides. For every beach or town packed with sunbathers and tourists there are twenty uncrowded beaches and villages waiting to be discovered, all with warm waters, medieval architecture, ancient squares and narrow, meandering streets and stairways.

In Croatia, the airport, bus and ferry services are good and improving and we recommend travelling by rental car, and adding some boat excursions along the Adriatic coast, as both would give you access and freedom to explore more places, including many that are less predictable destinations.  The Adriatic Sea is a very popular destination for sailors and yachts people - if you can arrange it on your own or with friends, and book a charter, this would be the ideal way to see many incredible places along the coast and you can usually sleep on the boat. You can also stay in hotels ranging from one to five stars, bed and breakfasts, rent an apartment or a house, search on Airbnb and other sites and camping is also popular and readily accessible.  Below are areas we have visited and would recommend, but please know that there are many we have yet to get to, and our list is incomplete.  I have used the Croatian spelling whenever possible – please note that the accent over the letter c, s or z makes the word pronounced ‘ch’, 'sh' or 'zh'.  

Dubrovnik – once known by its Latin, Dalmatian and Italian name Ragusa, Dubrovnik is located on the southern end of the Croatian Adriatic coastline. The old town (stari grad) is a UNESCO world heritage site and the 'Pearl of the Adriatic' became an important Mediterranean power from the 13th century onwards. Despite the many battles in the Balkans over the centuries, Dubrovnik largely managed to preserve self-government as a free-state and grow into a powerful and modern trading territory, at times rivalling Venice. The walled city fortress protected its beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains. The 90-minute walk around the medieval upper wall, with incredible views of the old town and nearby coastline, is spectacular and something I love. Be cautioned though - as parts of the popular TV series Game of Thrones (i.e. King's Landing) is filmed on location here, tourism has increased even more - and it is very crowded in the peak summer months and includes the unfortunate 'hustle' you see in other places, including higher prices and every tour guide and restaurant trying to lure you in.  However, you will find refreshing, cold and free drinking water from a couple of ornate public fountains - and all seasoned travellers know to pack a good, insulated water bottle, along with a camera, decent sunglasses, SPF 30 cream and a hat, and you'll need all of these in the summer in Croatia!  

As in many old towns ('stari grad') along the coast, you can't help but imagine life hundreds of years ago as you walk along familiar streets and piazzas on worn slabs of limestone, polished with centuries of use.  Below is the main road or Stradun that cuts through the heart of the old town in Dubrovnik (and is normally packed full of tourists). Often with a fresh gelato in hand, I love strolling this and nearby streets full of shops, restaurants and cafes, pondering whether I would have been a nobleman or a commoner. At least here I would not have been a slave.  For centuries, imperialistic empires regularly enslaved local people and human trafficking still exists in our world today, so it is interesting to note that Dubrovnik did not participate in slavery and, in 1416, abolished participation in the slave trade by law. Korčula (up next) abolished slavery as early as 1214 (the Magna Carta was signed in 1215). Dubrovnik had a large fleet of ships and was very much involved in global trade, but they refused to traffic in slaves. The city-state of Dubrovnik had a long history of standing for justice, equality and freedom so the law was created to send a clear message to the world that the people of this city-state valued human life.

Korčula(Korchula) the island of Korčula is a great place to visit and features excellent beaches and the main attraction is the old town – a medieval walled city positioned on an oval-shaped swelling of land pointing deep into the Pelješac channel. There is some heated debate with Venetians, but the locals claim it is also the birthplace of Marco Polo. The old town features charming, narrow streets that branch off the spine of the main street like the fish bone. This design was used to reduce effects of wind and sun and provide citizens with sheltered and comfortable accommodation. It is interesting to wander the small town and look in the shops and the stone streets come alive at night with busy restaurants and musical performers. The island and nearby peninsula of Pelješac are well known for vineyards and great wines (as are other areas of Croatia) - perhaps book a wine tour and enjoy a glass or two.  Cheers or Živjeli!

Hvar – the island of Hvar is massively popular and the old town of Hvar was an important trading and naval port and agricultural centre on the coast coveted by Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians. The 'stari grad plain' is an ancient farming area that has been preserved since the Greeks established and subdivided the area with stone walls in the 4th century B.C. and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, the island and ancient town are very popular for tourists, from backpackers to billionaires and when we were there in the summer of 2016, a 77m private luxury yacht with a helicopter on board was moored in the inner harbour. (Strangely, the two young guys casually guarding the gangway didn't believe that I went to school with the Kuwaiti billionaire owner and I did not get a tour). While the fragrant flowering plant and products are popular all over the coast, Hvar is often called the "lavender island". It is also one of several Croatian locations known for "party tourism", with frequent musical festivals and bars open until 5 or 6 in the morning - alas, while my dance moves are still awesome and alleged to be part of the PE curriculum at my last school, this is now well past my bedtime!

My wife loves lavender.  Indeed, the man with the hat might have been her husband had she not met me and come to Canada.

Split – the second largest city in Croatia after Zagreb and significant port on the Adriatic, this ancient city is believed to have been created by the Greeks in the 4th century B.C. Split (aka Spalato) became a popular retirement city for Roman emperors after Diocletian had a palace built in 305 B.C. and was buried there - this is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Split is home to lots of shopping, both local and major brands (you'll even find McDonald's, but don't even think of it, not even for breakfast; the local cafes and restaurants are too good!); as well as ancient cathedrals and ruins and a beautiful walk along the sea with mature palm trees and luxury yachts. Split is also a great location to take day-long boat excursions to sea caves, blue lagoon waters, beautiful beaches and nearby Trogir, Hvar and the island of Brač (with the popular Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn) beach - photo below) among other spots.

The island of Brač is near Split;  Zlatni Rat is a very popular, smooth pebble beach and a great spot for photos!

Zadar yet another historic old town of Roman ruins, medieval churches, cosmopolitan cafes and museums set on a small peninsula, Zadar is an interesting city. It is also not too crowded and listening to the waves break into and 'play' the sea organ and seeing the giant sundial at sunset are worth the visit (Alfred Hitchcock apparently enjoyed many sunsets in Zadar, but we saw no evidence of unusual bird activity). From Zadar, you can also take a boat trip to the 150 or so small islands just off the coast, called Kornati National Park (2nd photo below). Also nearby is the beautiful Dugi Otok (Long Island), that also has some amazing beaches (3rd photo below).

Trogir – yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trogir is a remarkable example of thousands of years of civilization. The street pattern of this island settlement dates back to the Greek Hellenistic period (300 BC), and has been embellished by successive rulers with many fine public and domestic buildings and fortifications. Romanesque churches are complemented by outstanding Renaissance and Baroque buildings from the Venetians. By the way, if you're an architectural troglodyte, and like me, you thought Rococo was an ice cream flavour, no worries, just imagine there a lot of very interesting old buildings and churches to marvel at.

Cres and Lošinj and Krk – these three larger islands are part of the northern Adriatic coast. The area enjoys very mild Mediterranean climate, plenty of sunshine, and both popular and secluded beaches. It is important to note that some beaches in Croatia are designated with signs that declare FKK or nude beaches, and some topless sunbathers can be found on all beaches. The nudist lifestyle is quite popular, and includes designated beaches, some camping areas, sailing and usually involves entire families. I always appreciate the diverse cultural differences you discover while travelling, but I can't imagine playing board games on the beach with my naked parents and I am certain my own kids have zero interest in seeing this act! 

The island of Krk can be accessed by a very cool looking bridge, the other islands by a short ride of one of the many Jadrolinija ferry boats - these ferries are typically on time and will often add extra runs during busy times. Cres and Lošinj are separated by a narrow, 6-meter wide channel (and a one-lane bridge) that was dug in Roman times to help sailing ships. The towns of Mali Lošinj, Cres and Krk are worth a visit and, like areas all over Croatia, there are countless smaller villages and beaches accessed by incredibly winding, one lane roads that are fascinating to see (e.g. Malinska, Baška, Lubenice, Valun, Beli, Osor, etc.).  As on all the islands, you will find many beaches, including some rare sand beaches, kilometres of hiking trails, small local fishing boats, luxury sail boats, yachts and even some newer 5-star luxury hotels (e.g near Čikat), if that is your style.  As I have written about previously, we have a small home on Cres and prefer to spend long periods relaxing on various nearby beaches and fitting in the more hectic pace of travelling and sightseeing as we can.

A sunset view from our home on the Island Cres (Otok Cres).

Pula – the largest city on the northern part of the Croatian coast known as Istria, Pula has been the hub of this area since Roman times. More great architecture, beaches and an incredible and accessible Roman arena or colosseum that is worth the visit (where modern outdoor events and concerts are still held).

Rovinj while very popular with tourists today, this key location in Istria is still a very busy fishing port on the northern Adriatic and you can watch active fishermen working on their boats or mending nets on the outer seawall. The old town is crammed onto an egg-shaped peninsula on a small hill. Nearby is the popular Punta Corrente Forest Park and several large hotels. The old town is full of steep, winding, picturesque stone streets, restaurants, apartments for rent and features many artists and studios selling original paintings and creations - a very cool place to walk and explore! The wood steps up the centre of the tower in the church at the top of the hill provides a great view of the town and surrounding sea.  Rovinj is also officially bilingual, with both Croatian and Italian common, but in all tourist areas you will find lots of people who speak other languages, including plenty of English, to help all travellers. 

Plitvice and Krka National Parks – it has been several years since we have visited, but these two national parks are inland from the coast, and have become massively popular with tourists (Plitvice is a UNESCO World Heritage site). They feature many kilometers of trails, crystal clear lakes and cascading waterfalls. Being from the west coast of Canada, the home of some of the most incredible forests, hikes and waterfalls in the world, these destinations resonate less with me; however, online reviews and blogs are exceedingly positive, but if you’re going to go, pack a lunch and arrive early in the morning to beat the crowds.

Zagreb – the 1,000 year old capital city of Croatia, the city is now home to large, modern shopping malls and stores and restaurant chains recognized all over Europe; however, there is still a lot to see in this growing city (the greater Zagreb area is home to 1.3 million). If you have limited time, consider booking a walking tour. The Gornji Grad (upper town) contains interesting architecture, cobblestone streets and many churches.  There are excellent parks, museums, a vibrant arts culture and countless cafes and restaurants.  Be sure to see the outdoor Dolac market, Kamenita Vrata, St. Mark’s church with the beautiful mosaic roof, the two tall spires on the Zagreb Cathedral on Kaptol, the Museum of Naive Art, and my favourite area, the shops, bars and cafes along Tkalčićeva Street. If you’re a sports fan, Croatians have many world class athletes and Zagreb is home to excellent soccer, basketball, team handball, water polo, tennis, volleyball and rowing clubs and a KHL hockey team - maybe catch a game!

Other Thoughts  Croatia is not a very big country and the main highways, while tolled, are excellent yet smaller routes near the sea can be serpentine, narrow and steep (a GPS device is a good idea). You can also travel to many other interesting European locations and places like Bled, Budapest, Vienna and Venice are nearby.  In Croatia, the speed limit on the major highways is 130 km/h (stay out of the left lane unless you are passing as the 'fast drivers' in Europe are really fast!) and you can drive from Zagreb to Dubrovnik (600kms) in the same day (or take a one hour flight) and spend time working your way up the coast, via car, ferry and small boat excursions. For the young, fit and adventurous, travelling the coast by bicycle or motorcycle/scooter are also popular and outdoor adventures like hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, sea kayaking and even big game fishing are all available.   There are countless other places to see and visit and with a few hours on Google, you can find great advice and see stunning photographs of Croatia. As with most travel, the earlier you book, the more money you will save, especially with flights and car rentals. In the summer, the weather is typically sunny and hot (30-35 degrees) and this can seem oppressive if you're not by the sea. The Adriatic Sea really is incredible - clean, clear, warm and spectacular to swim, cliff jump, snorkel, scuba, windsurf, paddle board, kayak or explore by sail or power boat. However, it is not the sand and surf of Hawaii, and the beaches are typically pebbly or rocky, so some kind of 'water shoes' are necessary. 

The food in Croatia is outstanding and prices reasonable by western standards (although no longer inexpensive, especially in popular tourist locations such as Dubrovnik). I recommend you try the wine, both whites and reds and the cold beer (pivo) is great after a hot day of hiking or at the beach and you're certain to be offered a shot of 'rakija' or 'šljivovica' that are a form of brandy made from grasses, plums or other fruits - an acquired taste, but the best stuff is good and usually homemade.  Croatians love to talk and have a coffee (unfortunately, still too often with a cigarette) and the variety of kava, from espresso to cappuccino to 'bijela kava' or latte, are all very good (find out where the locals go - the prices will be much more reasonable). While bottled water is for sale, I've always found the water out of the tap to be safe, clean and tasty (fill up a bottle and put it in the fridge). The food available in the local shops and wide variety of restaurants - especially the local extra virgin olive oils, cheeses, pršut or prosciutto, figs, plums and other fruits, fish and seafood, fresh fire-roasted lamb or pig, ćevapi and mixed meats and amazing thin-crust pizza, are all excellent. For dessert, you must try the pastries, the palačinke (crepes) and the fresh, homemade gelato - not all gelato is made the same - so ask to try it - the best stuff is fresh and full of flavour. As odd as this may seem to mention, Croatians also have incredible ice-cream (sladoled) on a stick - try the variety of Kings by a Croatian company called Ledo - simply outstanding on a hot day!

Enjoy your travels and dobar tek!

p.s. while I have taken thousands of photographs, most of the shots above are from Google Images - as aerial shots usually provide a better general idea of a place - with thanks to unknown sources and travellers.

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