Entering Dubrovnik's old town at dusk, we felt like we'd stepped into a fairy tale. The stone-paved streets were polished smooth as marble by the thousands of feet passing over them daily. The city walls and buildings were made of golden stone with red terracotta roof tiles.
As we passed 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 was free of vehicle traffic and noise. Branching off from the promenade were narrow streets and alleys where restaurants had 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 massed all over the city for a few hours, and then thankfully disappeared around noon, just as quickly as they had arrived. 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 a place sans cruise crowds.
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 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 was in a completely different state, being much older (300 AD) and less well-preserved than Dubrovnik's old town.
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 did have a certain historical charm though, and enough of the original structure left for the UNESCO stamp of approval.
We followed our palace visit with some delicious gelato, a treat 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 had historic walled centres with ancient buildings, and both had a seafront promenade.
People were 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.
Speaking of meals, Croatian food was 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, we got our 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 were also plentiful due to the proximity and historical power of the Italians, and in particular the Venetians. Likely the Italians were 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.
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 were very much alive and well in Croatia. Unfortunately, in many cases the chosen costume was 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!
While there were a couple of small man-made sandy beaches in this area, the shoreline on the mainland was quite rocky and gravelly. Therefore, the majority of sun worshiping was being done on "concrete beaches." All along the oceanfront, there were gigantic patios stretching right up to the water's edge where you could rent beach chairs. In areas where the water was deeper, diving boards were notched into the rocks on shore so that youngsters and show-offs could impress onlookers with their flips and spins. And that they did.
Opatija started off a few hundred years ago as a spa town for the aristocracy. Royals and members of the wealthy set would visit in winter to enjoy 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. Hotel Bristol was 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:
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.
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 were two churches (quite a lot for a town of 20), one of which dated back to the 12th century and had 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.
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. 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.
For a taste of what lies inland in Croatia, read about my visit to the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park.