Up the Coast of Croatia

Dubronvik and its harbour bathed in golden light, the first stop on our travels up the coast of CroatiaOur first experience of Dubrovnik’s old town was at dusk, and we felt like we’d stepped into a fairy tale. The stone-paved streets are polished smooth as marble by the thousands of feet passing over them daily. The city walls and buildings are made of golden stone with red terracotta roof tiles.

As we entered through the city gate just after sunset, the whole place was glowing with the soft light of lanterns lining the main promenade. It’s a pedestrian zone, so it’s free of vehicle traffic and noise. Branching off from the promenade are narrow streets and alleys where restaurants have positioned cozy outdoor tables.

A late afternoon walk on top of the walls of the old city the next day was just as magical. Around every bend and curve in the wall was a new postcard view of the old town and the Adriatic sea. I saw absolutely no dust, dirt or garbage anywhere, which seems like an impossible feat given the hordes of cruise ship passengers traipsing through the place each week of summer.

We didn’t realize it was such a huge tourist destination until we witnessed this pouring out of the cruise ships’ human cargo the next morning. They mass all over the city for a few hours, and then thankfully disappear around noon just as quickly as they arrived. As I’ve written previously, I’m not 100% against cruising, and have even taken a cruise myself. But, particularly in small ports, there is a huge advantage to staying on land to experience the place sans cruise crowds.

cobblestone streets., terracotta roofs and the harbour of Dubrovnik's old city

Palaces & promenades

A 4-hour bus ride up the coast is the town of Split, home of the Diocletian Palace built by the Roman emperor of the same name. Our local guide for our tour of the complex was an animated old character who seemed to know almost everyone in town, judging by the number of greetings he received from passersby.

Like Dubrovnik’s old city, Split’s palace complex is a UNESCO world heritage site. However, it’s in a completely different state. The palace is much older (300 AD) and less well-preserved than Dubrovnik’s old city. Over the centuries, the town overtook the palace and its grounds.

Rooms were turned into apartments, courtyards into squares, and ballrooms into stores and restaurants. Some old decayed sections have been replaced with haphazard uncomplimentary additions, and the whole place is now a rather jumbled mess that authorities are trying to gradually undo and restore properly. It does have a certain historical charm though, and enough of the original structure left for the UNESCO stamp of approval.

crumbling buildings and a motorcyle in Split, Croatia

We followed our palace visit with some delicious gelato, something that became a daily ritual during our time in Croatia. It was a great way to get a little relief from the heat, and hard to resist with a gelateria on practically every corner.

Further up the coast, we visited both Trogir and Sibenik. During the bus ride, there were beautiful views of the turquoise Adriatic Sea, sunny coastal towns and green offshore islands. Both towns have historic walled centres with ancient buildings, and both have a seafront promenade.

People are always strolling along the waterfront and sipping drinks at outdoor caffe bars, especially in the evenings. This “promenading” seems to be a favorite Croatian pastime for young and old alike. Maybe it’s their secret to staying so slim despite the rich diet and rather large portions served at meals.

Promenade in Trogir and cathedral in Sibenik, CroatiaCroatian cuisine

Speaking of meals, Croatian food is an interesting mix, with influences gathered from thousands of years of shifting borders, alliances, and control. Along with the expected seafood and Mediterranean ingredients like olives, tomatoes, goat cheese, etc, you can get your fix of Turkish style meat or cheese-filled pastries (a legacy of Ottoman rule), Hungarian-influenced paprika-flavored dishes, and Austrian-style schnitzels and strudels compliments of the Hapsburgs.

Pizza and pasta joints are also plentiful due to the proximity and historical power of the Italians, and in particular the Venetians. I think the Italians are also the instigators of the ice-cream-shop-every-100-metres rule.

In Sibenik, I tried octopus for the first time, combined with zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, and homemade pasta – yum! Overall, the food was an amazing value in Croatia. In a typical konoba (family-run restaurant), we had a feast with appetizers, main courses, dessert and wine for less than $25 per person. It’s as good a reason as any to toast “Zivili” – “to your health”.

Teeny tiny bathing suits

While having a drink at a cafe overlooking the famous promenade in Opatija, I couldn’t help but notice that both the Speedo and the g-string bikini are very much alive and well in Croatia. Unfortunately, in many cases the chosen costume is not necessarily flattering to the wearer.

I also witnessed an amazing feat of bathing suit switchery, right out in the open. A woman ingeniously tied the top and bottoms of one string bikini over top of the other, then untied the original pieces, gingerly pulled them out, and voila!

patios and resorts along the shoreline in Opatija, Croatia

While there are a couple of small man-made sandy beaches in this area, the shoreline on the mainland is quite rocky and gravelly. Therefore, the majority of sun worshiping is done on “concrete beaches”. All along the oceanfront, there are gigantic patios stretching right up to the water’s edge where you can rent beach chairs. In areas where the water is deeper, they have diving boards set up so that youngsters and show-offs can impress onlookers with their flips and spins.

Opatija started off a few hundred years ago as a spa town for the aristocracy, so the royals and wealthy set would visit in winter to experience the warmer temperatures and breathe in the sea air. As a result, there are quite a few grand historic hotels, one of which we stayed in. It’s called the Hotel Bristol, and it’s a gorgeous place to stay, close to the sea.

A trio of villages

Our day trip through the Italian-influenced region of Istria had three stops:

Rovinj

This coastal town is said to resemble Venice in some ways, maybe not surprising given that you can almost see Venice across the sea. We walked through the old town on hilly, winding cobblestone streets to the church, which is situated cliffside with a gorgeous view of the ocean. Another non-surprise: the plethora of jewelry shops selling beautiful baubles made of Murano glass.

Motovun

This small village is perched high on a hilltop and surrounded by a large stone wall. The area is known for truffles (the mushroom-y kind, not the chocolate kind!), which grow in the surrounding forest. The place is supposedly quite sleepy for the most part, but we arrived during their annual film festival, so there were movie buffs and I suppose film-makers and such hanging out all over town. Movies were to be screened outdoors on big screens erected for the event, but unfortunately we weren’t able to stay long enough to take in a film.

street in Rovnij and view of green hills aroud Hum, CroatiaHum

At 20 inhabitants, Hum claims to be the smallest town in the world. I’m quite sure there are a few towns in my home province of Saskatchewan that could give the place a run for its money on that one. When Hum was at its peak in the 1700’s, over 2000 people lived there. There are two churches (quite a lot for a town of 20), one of which dates back to the 12th century and has ancient frescoes on the walls. Our guide Igor asked at the cafe for a large skeleton key in order to let us in for a look. The town was a picturesque place, with its old stone farmhouses and surrounding green fields; quiet and peaceful.

For a taste of what lies inland in Croatia, read about my visit to the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Zivili,

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