Surprising Croatia

Posted by on Jul 12, 2011 in Croatia, General Travel, Running | 4 Comments

If you’ve been considering a trip to Croatia, do it. Go now. The word is definitely out, and for good reason. This country has everything it needs to be a huge tourist draw: gorgeous beaches with turquoise water, amazing Roman ruins, fields of olive trees and lavender bushes, fresh seafood, a high coolness quotient, beautiful national parks, interesting museums, and a good public transportation system. Everyone speaks English and tends to be friendly, and a pint of beer only costs about $3.00. What’s not to love?

Croatian gorgeousness.

Croatian gorgeousness (in Brela).

In 2001, when I was traveling in the Czech Republic, some backpackers in my hostel were considering going to Croatia. I thought they were mildly crazy, having read in my Let’s Go book that there were still active landmines there and the country was kind of a mess. Now I kick myself for not visiting ten years ago, when I could have experienced this place for a fraction of today’s cost. Even now, I have to admit that I initially had some qualms. Not so long ago, Croatia was a place I only heard about on the news — a war zone. While I had a few friends who had been there, it still seemed like a bit of a backwater. As soon as we arrived in Split, though, I realized how wrong I was.

Our overnight Jadrolinija ferry from Ancona, Italy arrived in Split at around 7 a.m. The town was deserted, peaceful, and incredible. Roman emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace on the ocean there in the fourth century, and part of the city — including our B&B — is actually within the palace walls. We dropped off our bags and strolled through narrow alleys and stone archways, marveling at the palace’s ruins and the new life, including small cafes and funky bars, that has sprung up within. At one point I whispered to Pierre, “this place is going to be huge for tourism.” Well, yes. At around 9 a.m., when the tour buses and cruise ships dropped off their tourist cargo, we realized that it already is. It wasn’t long before the alleys were clogged with sightseers and the cafes were packed.

Part of Diocletian's Palace.

Part of Diocletian's Palace.

The Palace.

The Palace.

Street art in Split.

Street art in Split.

The view from our room, before the tourist masses awoke.

The view from our room, before the tourist masses awoke.

No matter. We still loved our time in Split. We visited the local beaches and the fish market, ran in the park, found a cafe that had decent quesadillas, and got lost (repeatedly) in the streets of Diocletian’s palace. We also had the opportunity to watch a high jump competition, which we think was just an exhibition, featuring Croatian Olympic silver medalist and national heroine Blanka Vlašić. She is 6’4″, 5 feet of which I think are her legs. She was impressive to watch, to say the least.

A (mostly obscured) view of Blanka Vlasic jumping. She made it look so easy.

A (mostly obscured) view of Blanka Vlašić jumping. She made it look so easy.

A lot of the guidebooks I looked at said that Split was worth no more than a day, but we disagree, especially since it is a great home base for beachy day trips. We spent one day on the nearby island of Brač, whose primary claim to fame is that its stone was used in the construction of the White House. Trouble is, we’ve done some pretty extensive online research and that story appears to be complete bullshit (the stone is actually from Virginia, which makes a lot more sense when you think about it). But whatever, it’s still a beautiful island with gorgeous beaches and crystal clear waves the temperature of bathwater.

Brac's most famous beach, near Bol.

Brač's most famous beach, Zlatni rat, near Bol.

Us on Zlatni rat.

Us on Zlatni rat.

Our other day trip was to my favorite place in Croatia, Brela beach. Located in a town between Split and Makarska, Brela was stunningly beautiful, had good cheap restaurants, and wasn’t crowded. It was a Mediterranean miracle!

Brela beach.

Brela beach.

Delicious grilled squid, served beach-side in Brela.

Delicious grilled squid, served beach-side in Brela.

From Split, we took a short bus ride up the coast to Trogir. This time the guidebooks had it right: one night is plenty! The town is beautiful, but tiny. Plus, the tourists outnumber the locals by about 3:1, which gets tiresome.

Trogir, as seen from the bell tower (which I was too chicken to climb in my flip-flops).

Trogir, as seen from the bell tower (which I was too chicken to climb in my flip-flops).

Street in Trogir at night. You may be surprised to learn that this picture was taken by Pierre, not a National Geographic photographer.

Street in Trogir at night. You may be surprised to learn that this picture was taken by Pierre, not a National Geographic photographer.

Our next stop was Zadar, another coastal Dalmatian town filled with Roman ruins and pretty beaches. Zadar is a place that has something for everyone: good restaurants in all price ranges (our favorite was Kornat), a cool open-air bar called the Garden, lots of sunshine, museums, and the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation, a funky pair of attractions that turn waves into music and the sun into the dance floor of a European disco. It was a nice place to chill out for a few days before leaving the coast to head inland.

Zadar at sunset.

Sunset in Zadar.

Roman ruins.

Roman ruins.

The Sun Salutation. It changes colors and creates nifty light patterns at night.

The Sun Salutation. It changes colors and creates nifty light patterns at night.

On our way from Zadar to Zagreb, we stopped for a day and a night in Plitvice Lakes National Park. It was absolutely beautiful, and though overrun with tourists, we were able to utilize two of the most important crowd-avoidance techniques we’ve learned on this trip: (1) go high (as in, hike uphill whenever possible), and (2) get up early.

Yes, it really was that color!

Yes, it really was that color!

Above the lakes were fields of wildflowers and tons of butterflies.

Above the lakes were fields of wildflowers and tons of butterflies.

It's like a pod of waterfalls!

It's like a pod of waterfalls!

We had the trails to ourselves on a peaceful early morning run.

We had the trails to ourselves on a peaceful early morning run.

From Plitvice, we caught a bus on the road heading to the capital, Zagreb. (We were very lucky to catch that bus, by the way; it came about 20 minutes earlier than the schedules indicated and it didn’t wait around after we got on. Another lesson learned — don’t trust Croatian bus schedules!) Zagreb was another pleasant surprise, with beautiful architecture, really good food, and the Museum of Broken Relationships, one of the most original museums I’ve ever seen. It’s basically a collection of items from relationships that people kept after breakups and then donated to the museum, along with the story behind the item. It was both hilarious and heartbreaking, and definitely worth a visit if you’re in Zagreb.

Detail from Zagreb's cathedral.

Detail from Zagreb's cathedral.

St. Mark's Church.

St. Mark's Church.

The Museum of Broken Relationships.

The Museum of Broken Relationships.

After a couple of days in Zagreb, it was time to say goodbye to Croatia. But with much of the country yet to explore (including dozens of inhabited islands and over a thousand uninhabited ones), I wouldn’t be surprised if we went back someday. Hopefully it will not have changed too much the next time we go.

4 Comments

  1. Erica
    July 12, 2011

    When I saw you’d been in Croatia I thought, I wish I’d known–I would have told you you had to go to Plitvice. So happy you went! I was there in my student days when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, very pre-war and pre-devastation, quite touristy but so gorgeous. Kind of like now, I guess…

    Reply
  2. Erica
    July 12, 2011

    Oops, I forgot: Museum of Broken Relationships?! That alone is more than enough reason to visit Zagreb!

    Reply
    • Robin
      July 14, 2011

      Too funny, I had no idea you had been there! It does sound like it hasn’t changed at all… And yes, that museum is worth a trip to Zagreb, though they told us the exhibition travels the world quite a bit (including to SF), so a trip may not be necessary!

      Reply
  3. Sandy
    July 15, 2011

    Maybe it is because of the workload and the weather here but this sounds so nice i am ready to pack up an go today. Sigh! Thanks for providing some vicarious relief from the everyday.
    mxxx

    Reply

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