“Croatia is the most beautiful place.”
My taxi driver announced this with complete assuredness in a heavy accent as we motored along a mountain freeway in transit from the Dubrovnik airport, which is just a hair north of the Montenegro border.
Through stands of oaks (“Dubrovnik” derives from the Croatian word dubrava, meaning “oak grove”), I could only occasionally glimpse the bewitching turquoise of the Adriatic Sea. Suddenly, with a harsh flash of sunlight, the dense foliage halted and I was granted an unobstructed vista of the island-studded Dalmatian Coast, and in the distance, Dubrovnik, one of the most well-preserved medieval walled cities in the world.
“You can see now? Very beautiful. Like no other place.” the gray-haired driver grinned almost giddily as he caught my awed expression in the rearview mirror. “It is the place of one thousand islands,” he added.
“Yes, I can see,” I breathed, all but mashing my face against the taxi’s glass window like a kid who has just caught sight of Disneyland from the freeway.
I could feel my excitement skyrocket.
Why was I drawn to this underdog among Europe’s tourist meccas?
I—like you, in all probability—have heard enticing whisperings in recent years of the allure of this mysterious land, which lies a mere spitting distance across the Adriatic from Italy, and backs up to Eastern European countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Hungary.
But prior to those wafting rumors of Croatia’s secret beauty, the country had occupied a rather vague position in the mothballed corners of my memory. From 1991 to 1995, during my early teenage years, it had existed only as a series of elusive images; crumbled concrete, barbed wire and gunfire, regularly fortifying news outlets with tales of calamity and violence.
After fending off attacking Yugoslav and Serb forces and winning the Croatian War of Independence, the collective blood pressure of the country slowly stabilized, and people could at last exhale and take their first tentative steps forward.
In the past 20 post-war years, the government has steadily cleaned house. It has vastly improved decrepit roadways and city interiors, begun restoration of the country’s innumerable precious antiquities (some of which date to neolithic times), and initiated the creation of tourism infrastructure.
In 2013, the country officially joined the European Union, and that’s basically when things really started going gangbusters.
If you rebuild it (and keep it cheap), they will come
Perhaps you’ve heard this comparison: ‘Croatia is just like Italy — but cheaper!’ Having traveled Italy top to bottom and left to right in a whirlwind two weeks after college, my official stance on this is: well, more or less.
It’s cheap, there’s no doubt about that.
In many restaurants, even in the larger cities of Zagreb and Dubrovnik, a shoestring traveler like myself can indulge in a nice dinner complete with a glass of tasty Croatian wine for a tiny pittance. And inexpensive lodging is easy to come by, even during high season. Croatia certainly doesn’t leave you and your wallet with buyer’s remorse.
However, next to the well-established tourism expertise of Italy, Croatia, with its ongoing rebuilding process, is the younger sibling trying desperately to mirror its older, cooler sister. There is no equivalent to the Prada-store-lined, colluseum-touting, fountain-sprouting piazzas of Rome; it’s no Lake Como, and no Florence. Not quite.
But what Croatia lacks in pomp and grandiosity, it makes up for with distinctive charm and surprising character. It boasts unique natural wonders, and it’s got ancient ruins in spades. You get the sense that the people here have adopted a necessary die-hard, can-do philosophy, all while remaining notably humble and kind.
You can almost feel the entire country moving together to push through the rubble of their recent past and bring Croatia to the glory it deserves.
Much ado about Dubrovnik
My friendly taxi driver dropped me at Villa Amfora, my hotel in Dubrovnik. It was not close to the famous stone wall-encapsulated Old Town, but it was very near to the big port where huge cruise ships sidled up to release their cargo, one after another, of up to several thousand visitors per ship nearly every morning. Upon descending from the great iron bellies, each group is swiftly gathered up into buses and imported into the medieval town — an extremely popular UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The sight of such mass human migration practically right outside my hotel window was cringe inducing, so I elected to put off exploring Old Town for as long as possible. Instead, I signed up for a tour of the nearby Elaphiti Islands, a small archipelago first mentioned by famed Roman author Pliny the Elder.
A double-decker barge of a boat, the name Carmen painted in maroon brush strokes at the bow, sat waiting at 8:30am for myself and several other tourists — two stylish 20-something Spanish girls, a young family of three, and an older family of four. The boat was unglamorously affixed with basic picnic bench-style seating, and I climbed steep stairs up to the blistering top level on the advice of the pot-bellied captain, “You will have the best view there, very nice!”
A pause near Gruz Harbour at Old Town topped off the boat with another heap of tourists. Then slowly the behemoth chugged out to sea.
The first of our three stops was the Island of Šipan, which was, all things considered… a teensy bit of a bust.
I meandered through the minuscule main square to pick up a barely marked trail that guided me to the remains of a medieval castle, abandoned, and not a soul around. Its worn stone facade leaned a bit, and was partially encased in an impenetrable mesh of dense vines, young sapling trees, dry grasses and thorn-wielding bushes.
A sharp buzzing reverberation of insects was the only sound. It seemed like a half-hearted warning: Not much to see here, stranger, best move along…
A quick trek further up the trail revealed zip. I turned and headed back down the scorching, dusty path, passing a few people I recognized from the boat, hesitantly trickling forth, looking similarly perplexed by the castle’s apparent inaccessibility.
On the way back, a little girl had appeared at the side of the trail sitting on a square blanket selling an array of shiny brown speckled sea shells she’d collected. Across from her, a man (her father?) stood looking out from the doorway of an exceedingly tiny wine shop, waiting to intercept passersby.
I asked if I could taste any of the vinos, but he shook his head. “Only to buy,” he said, “But very good price, less money than in Dubrovnik. The best Croatian wine!” I shrugged and nodded, and said I’d take his cheapest bottle of red, a blend of grapes I’d never heard of. It set me back all of four American dollars; I would later find out it was richly flavored and delicious.
Nearing the docks, with time to kill before re-boarding, I scanned the area hoping to locate a beach, but oddly there was no sandy beach here, only a flat cement rim at the waterfront.
I did manage a cool reprieve from the pounding heat by stepping down half-submerged seaweed-carpeted concrete steps while gazing into the clear lapping water. Pointy black sea urchins, teeny silver fish and sideways shuffling crabs flickered dreamily beneath sparkling ripples.
On Koločep Island, the options were a little more interesting. You could, 1) Hike up a steep, narrow road in the blazing heat to see medieval homes and a couple of churches, or, 2) Head to the refreshing-looking beach, which beckoned like the Sirens before we’d even docked.
My sunburned, sweat-saturated body pulled whimperingly toward the beach, but my inner ‘dedicated traveler’ mentally smacked it into submission and made it swerve in the direction of the huge hill and awaiting churches. No! Culture first! it commanded sternly.
I huffed my way up the road and eventually found St. Stephen’s church, built in the 17th century. It was just “eh.” Far more intriguing to me were the enigmatic stone-walled pathways surrounding it, which sprouted like twig branches from the road.
I had no idea if these were tourist-approved paths (I suspected they were not), but since I’m largely incapable of passing up such compelling mysteries, I randomly chose one and charged in.
Inside was a maze of delights.
I traced dappled vine-shaded curls and angles, steps and ramps through private gardens strewn with metal chairs and tables, past olive groves, rainbow-hued blooms, lines of hanging laundry, and dilapidated stone houses with shutters or small cobwebbed windows. Some appeared lived in, some not.
Finally I emerged back onto the road, sopping with sweat. Satisfied that I’d met my culture and adventure quota, I virtually skipped toward the silky sand and chilled teal waters of the beach.
The final docking was on Lopud Island, where I stuck to my newly-minted routine of hiking up to the medieval church (why are they always UP??), peeking inside, glancing at a few of the surrounding structures, and then quickly scampering back down to wade into the luxurious Adriatic waves. Bam! Done!
Eventually, when our trusty old Carmen lurched into Gruz Harbour at Old Town, the sun had already begun its evening descent. I was informed I wouldn’t be getting a ride back to my original pickup point and I’d have to disembark here and find my way home.
Peeved, I figured I might as well check out the scene now instead of holding off for a less crowded time. I plowed my way upstream toward the fortress gates through (I supposed) the same swarms of tourists that had landed near my hotel that morning—they were now strolling en masse back to their buses and cruise ships.
Once within the immense walls, however, it was flat-out impossible to stay mad.
The medieval mini city transfixed me within seconds of entering. I spent the next several hours letting my curiosity lead me gape-mouthed through its fairytale corridors, squares and towers; up and down skinny steps, into infinite nooks and crannies, and past restaurants, shops, and street musicians sending notes of blues and jazz echoing through the sticky evening air.
The following evening, I returned to Old Town to take a cable car to the top of a tall peak overlooking the city. The timing was spot on, and I witnessed one of the prettiest sunsets I’d seen, and startlingly lovely views.
Time to Split
From Dubrovnik, I cruised up the Dalmatian coastline by bus to small-but-mighty Split. The main attraction here is Diocletian’s Palace, a mammoth-walled relic built in 305 AD to offer Roman Emperor Diocletian super posh retirement digs.
My four days in Split were a roller coaster of pros and cons.
On the positive side, I enjoyed seeing the ruins and museums, and ambling through the smooth-stoned alleyways. However — though it’s absolutely lovely from afar — the entire place felt as if it existed for the sole purpose of prying cash from the pockets of tourists. There were strings of cardboard-ish cafes serving terrible food, as well as unremarkable overpriced restaurants as far as the eye could see. The “Green Market” has a nice core section for vegetables… but then it expands ever outward like spider legs into a crowded, chaotic web of obnoxious tourist junk.
Most towns and cities I’ve visited during my trip, even if they are unabashed tourist traps, have managed to retain at least some shred of their original authenticity, which can be glimpsed if you sneak around the sides of the shiny tourist facade. But I couldn’t find the locals here, I couldn’t see where the hotels and hostels ended and “real life” began.
But could I really complain? This city was helping to keep the country financially stable, and I knew that. I felt slightly torn between acceptance and disgust.
Also, and this is of course of no fault of the city, but it didn’t add to my fun: My Airbnb rental flat provided a simmering, humid hideout for a small army of cockroaches. They lurked unseen during the day, but should nature call during the night, a flick of the light switch shed a yellow glow over a handful of the creepy critters. The light would send them scattering, clicking their insect feet across the wooden hallway floor.
The one place I truly relished was the beach.
It became a comforting, tranquil spot where I could go to wash away my completely ridiculous (I hoped) worries of nighttime cockroach hoedowns atop my sleeping body.
Zadar the musical
If you want my opinion, there is really only ONE big reason to visit Zadar. Yes, it’s irresistible with its ancient medieval walled city, cute shops and quaint buildings.
And there are fascinating museums, and cool old ruins absolutely everywhere. Seriously, Roman ruins are ev-er-y-where. Dispersed among the weeds next to sidewalks on the way to the grocery store, strewn through the middle of road turnabouts, piled in people’s yards — you could trip over them, there are so many.
And yeah, the boardwalk isn’t half bad at all.
But those things are not why you go. Not really. Here’s what you do in Zadar:
Wait until the sun has drifted close to the horizon, and the sky is becoming sweetly saturated with violets and magentas and oranges. Take to the boardwalk and follow it until you see steps of cement leading down into the blue Adriatic. People have gathered there; some have jumped into the inviting water for a swim in the glimmering waves, some simply relax on the steps looking out serenely toward the islands and sailboats.
Make yourself comfortable there. And wait. Listen. You’ll begin to hear something, a sound that stands out from the whooshing waves and the chatting of visitors around you and all other sounds.
It sounds like music.
You’re sure you can hear almost a tune, as if from an organ, coming from somewhere. You swing your head around, trying to decipher where it’s originating from. And suddenly you realize it’s coming from rectangular holes built into the top step! Pipes connect the wind to the sea, and the ebb and flow of waves push random, but oddly exquisite harmonies.
As the sun disappears behind the horizon, this serenade of the sea plays on into the night.
Chasing waterfalls in the land-o-lakes
Something was buzzing near my ear.
I groggily pulled the sheet over my head to shoo away the fly or whatever bothersome insect it was, but the buzzing persisted. Through clouds of sleep, I noticed it morphing into a rhythmic vibration. I lifted my eye mask and removed my ear plugs, irritated that someone in my darkened hostel dorm room in Zagreb had set an alarm that they were neglecting to shut off.
It was, of course, my phone alarm. Sheepishly, realizing it had been going on for quite a while, I turned it off — and gasped. I torpedoed into full consciousness when my eyes registered the time. It was 8:21am… I was supposed to be at the bus to Plitvice at 8:20!
My brain stumbled, trying to quickly weigh the options of making a dash for it (no shower, no brushing teeth, no time to pack the food I had bought yesterday), and giving up (I’ll never make it! This sucks! The one big thing I wanted to do in Croatia!).
I landed on I gotta try! and vaulted from my lower bunk bed, rummaging not-so-quietly in the dark for my backpack, camera, clothes and keys, all of which had been shoved haphazardly into the small storage locker under the bed. Hoping I had what I needed, I made a frantic exit from the hostel and ran down the street, risking red lights, to the bus stop.
Breathlessly, I asked a clipboard-holding guy standing outside an unmarked bus if I was in the right place, he confirmed that I was indeed — I made it! Barely. But I made it! I hauled my greasy, stinky, mussed-up haired, half-awake self onto the huge bus and settled in for the three hour ride.
Few people I’ve met have ever heard of this place.
Plitvice Lakes National Park made the UNESCO World Heritage register in 1979, and it’s been noted in countless travel publications as a ‘must-see hidden gem’ and a major bucket list item. All with good reason.
It is easily among the most stunning, one-of-a-kind places on this great Earth of ours.
And the line to get in was easily one of the longest lines I’ve ever stood in. While I crept ever so sloooowly through the winding line, I chatted with the two girls behind me; Malain from Louisiana (who had quit her event planning job to travel for a year, like me), and Runa from Iceland (a hotel chef who was in the midst of traveling for six weeks, something she simply ‘does occasionally’).
Finally, we made it through the ticket office and found ourselves spit out into the park, facing a large wooden map depicting the various hiking routes that could be taken. Malain chose the longer one, which would take her to a few extra waterfalls, but she’d have to book it in order to return to the bus in time. Runa and I (being somewhat equal in our out-of-shapeness) decided to take the shorter route so that we could go slower, enjoy the views for longer, and most importantly, take all the photos we wanted — she’s as much into photography as I am, so it was a convenient pairing.
And off we went.
Starting at the top with a grand view of the major waterfalls, we worked our way down a zig-zagging dirt path that would eventually turn into myriad raised narrow walkways fashioned from logs. We would follow them over and around the clearest turquoise ponds and lakes, and past innumerable waterfalls ranging from sky-high rocky drops to low cascades of glass-like water. We’d sashay past caves, take boats from one side of gem-like lakes to the other, and finally board a mini train back up to the beginning.
And here’s the magic we witnessed during five absolutely unforgettable hours in Plitvice…
Afterward, on the long bus ride back to Zagreb, while everyone dozed from exhaustion or quietly gazed out the windows at the pretty countryside, I thought about what the grinning, gray-haired taxi driver had said during my first hour in this remarkable country: “Croatia is the most beautiful place.”
I couldn’t help but agree.
Next stop: Budapest, Hungary!