Croatia; historic towns and beautiful islands

September is usually a perfect time for some spring skiing in the Southern Hemisphere. Since I visited the Andes last year (you can read about that trip here) and my last trips had been ski trips anyway, I figured it was time for a change. After all…variety is the spice of life, so I planned a nice summer holiday. I waited for the high season to finish, so temperatures would drop a little bit to a more convenient 25 degrees Celcius and the huge crowds would hopefully be back home. Dubrovnik was a city high on my list of places to visit, so I planned a trip around it and visited Croatia. I started in its capital Zagreb and slowly made my way South through the Plitvice lakes, Split and the islands of Hvar and Korčula and finished in Dubrovnik.

Mid September I flew to Zagreb and checked into my guesthouse. After a leasurely stroll around town, it soon became clear there is not much to see or do in Zagreb. I am not that interested in sightseeing anymore as I used to be so no problems here, time to relax. I checked out the beautiful cathedral and sightseeing was over. In the center there are a bunch of nice streets that are very lively no matter what part of the day you go. Nice restaurants, little bars, some live music and a mixture of locals and tourists fill the streets. One very characteristic little alley is the Skalinska ulica, a street that reminded me of the so-called “Korte Putstraat” in Den Bosch, a city in the Netherlands where I used to live for a while…

a nice buzz on Skalinska ulica, the "Korte Putstraat" of Zagreb...

a nice buzz on Skalinska ulica, the “Korte Putstraat” of Zagreb…

In the adjoining street there is a restaurant one wouldn’t expect in Zagreb named Curry Bowl (click here to read more about this great restaurant!) with Sri Lankan cuisine. I normally like to try the local cuisine too but this one was simply impossible to resist. It’s a small place and one of their specialties was Deviled chicken, the Sri Lankan alternative to a curry dish their Northern neighbors are so famous for. I had to get back there a second time when I ran into a notorious inhabitant of Zagreb, the former leader of the “BBB” (Bad Blue Boys) which is the hooligan firm of Dinamo Zagreb. While I was waiting for his table to be cleared he invited me for a drink. Within minutes he talked about hating everybody other than Catholics, showed me some impressive tattoos and admitted to have been in prison for three times. When he finally invited me to join him on his quest to a heavy metal concert, I was pleased to see him go after some pleasant lies had worked out well…

one of the lakes in Maksimir park

one of the lakes in Maksimir park

Located in the vicinity of my guesthouse was the Maksimir park, a beautiful piece of greenery. One day I explored the area filled with several lakes, only to come back the next day for a little work out session. The park is a heaven for jogging. After a nice shopping session in the afternoon, my stay in the capital was over. Time to move on and make my way towards the Plitvice lakes…

One of the natural wonders of Europe is located in between Zagreb and Split and consists of a series of waterfalls and lakes. In order to visit Plitvice lakes I stayed in the dreadful town of Korenica. The bakery, with its incredibly cranky employee, is the highlight of town. I visited the area during a couple days of horrific weather, it was pouring rain. Hoping for some sun and in order to avoid the many tourists that visit the area on a daily basis, I decided to wake up early and enter the park at 7 am. Being one of the first persons there, I was hoping for some nice “Kodak moments”. Unfortunately though, a sensational sunrise was out of the question but rain was on the menu for the whole day…

trails, waterfalls and wildlife at Plitvice lakes

trails, waterfalls and wildlife at Plitvice lakes

The park is divided in two parts. The upper part with many lakes, all at different elevations, and smaller waterfalls and the lower part which doesn’t have the lakes but has the main attraction of the park, the big waterfall. I started with the upper part and enjoyed the serenity and beauty of the park. The turquoise water with a waterfall every now and then were simply stunning, even in pouring rain. At some point I faced a very intimidating creature, even though it was only 10 to 15 cm long… As a little kid I occasionally looked into my parents’ encyclopedia which had a picture of a poisonous frog. The one thing I remember from it is that bright colored animals are usually toxic. Well, this creature, the fire salamander, was black with bright yellow stripes! From a distance I had no idea whether this dude could jump or spit but after a while I got closer and closer and calmed down. After this encounter with such a beautiful animal, the lower part of the park was next. The trails were filled with Asian tourists with cell phones in one hand and an ipad and umbrella in the other. They were all following their leader with a certain flag while trying to figure out the working of their selfie sticks. In the meantime I almost got beheaded several times by their umbrellas. Tourism has reached commercial maturity, oh yeah!

a characteristic scene in the old town of Split

a characteristic scene in the old town of Split

The next day I took the bus to Split. After a convenient busride of a couple of hours I arrived in the largest city of Dalmatia and second largest city of the country with about 157.000 inhabitants (2016). The city is made up of three parts, namely the historic town, the Marjan peninsula and residential areas. The historic town or old town is stunning but for tourists and commercial purposes only. After about two hours I had enough of this fairytale. Real life is lacking in these kind of areas and tourists annoy me in almost every possible way. Using the selfie stick to make new profile photos for social media seems to be more important than actually enjoying the city you’re in. Hey, and don’t forget to upload it immediately and send a whatsapp to all the people you know, after all, life is all about priorities. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the architecture and the little alleys but after a while I had to get away from tourists following flags and taking pictures with cell phones and ipads of literally anything…

The next day I decided not to wander around the old town anymore but to explore the Marjan peninsula, a park with hills, forests and beaches to the West of the city. I took the opportunity to see the area in all possible ways. “Hey, I’m here now”, was my mindset apparently…

left: nice flowers in the forest on Marjan peninsula, right: Kašjuni beach

left: nice flowers in the forest on Marjan peninsula, right: Kašjuni beach

So, I started with a 10 km run through the park. Up and down, along beaches and forests…yes, it was the perfect workout session. Did I mention the weather was absolutely perfect? It was between 23 and 25 degrees Celcius with a little breeze, great. Next on the agenda was a beach,  I wasn’t sure which one but I had to visit a deserted beach and go for a swim in the cristal clear water. Can you imagine, I’m not even working for a tourist agency? This ain’t promotional stuff, it’s simply how I experienced Split. During my run I noticed several beaches and one stood out for its remoteness and lack of crowds. After half an hour I arrived at Kašjuni beach. The only downside were the pebbles instead of comfortable sand, but who can complain here…

I enjoyed a nice leasurely swim and relaxed for a while. On my way back I hiked through the forest to the top of the hills for a nice view and slowly made my way back to my guesthouse before going into town again. After a traditional dinner in the heart of the city at a restaurant called Bepa, I ended the day by listening to some low key live music at To je To (yep, that’s really the name of the little bar!). Not completely out of the blue, they served some craft beers too…

live music in the cozy To je To bar

live music in the cozy To je To bar

Initially I planned to cover the distance from Split to Dubrovnik by bus. However,  as it turned out, there are some beautiful islands in between and a catamaran stops at some of them on its way to Dubrovnik. That obviously seemed like a better way to travel. So, I stayed one night at Hvar and one night at the island of Korčula. Hvar is both the name of the island as it is of its major town. Mid summer this town is supposedly a huge party place, luckily for me things had already slowed down a notch. The town is like a small version of Split with similar architecture. I checked out the fortress and a nice beach named Pokonji Dol. Having tried several international cuisines the nights before, I still had to try a local specialty. Apparently a place called Dalmatino was rated highly in Hvar (read more about my experience at Dalmatino here), so I checked it out and had a great dinner, Dalmatinska pašticada, stewed beef cooked in a special sauce served with some homemade pasta. The apartment I stayed at was pretty nice with all facilities and even a balcony with a good view. In the night however it became very clear that insulation was not part of the building. My neighbors, two Spanish speaking guys, thought they were great singers. Instead of getting scouted for The Voice of Croatia, they only kept me awake. Thanks guys!

one of the many characteristic alleys in Hvar

one of the many characteristic alleys in Hvar

A short ride in the huge catamaran took me to neighbouring island Korčula. Where Hvar is more of a party island, this piece of land surrounded by water is more of a retirement place. Everything is very peaceful and relaxed. Checking out the old town seemed to familiar to me after Split and Hvar, so the only thing left to do was going to the beach and go for a nice swim. I walked roughly 5 km to Lumbarda to find the only sandy beach of the trip at Pržina beach. A nice pizza concluded my stay at this quiet island.

The final stop of the trip was Dubrovnik, a city that felt quite big on arrival due to its international appearance, hilly landscape and huge popularity amongst travellers from all over the place. However, arguably the most beautiful city of Croatia only has about 27 thousand (2016) inhabitants and is in fact a small city. The biggest attraction of this city, also known as ‘the Pearl of the Adriatic’, is obviously the old town surrounded by 2 km of city walls. The original old town was completed in the 13th century when Dubrovnik became an important Mediterranean sea power. During the Homeland war, as Dubrovnik was left practically undefended by Croatian forces since no one thought the Yugoslav forces would dare to attack such an important cultural monument with negligible military value, it got heavily bombed. Nowadays it has been reconstructed in a very impressive way as part of a major restoration programme coordinated by UNESCO. So, the old town is actually not that old anymore…

left: the characteristic orange roof tiles the old town of Dubrovnik is so well-known for, right: an alley in the old town by night

left: the characteristic orange roof tiles the old town of Dubrovnik is so well-known for, right: an alley in the old town by night

Currently the old town can best be described as a large open air museum. Its beauty is unheard of but, unfortunately, comes with a price. The streets and little alleys are filled with tourists who are getting in the way and making it impossible to wander around and imagine how it must have been centuries ago. I have to say things generally improve after sunset. People visit the old town to have dinner and the atmosphere becomes more and more peaceful. In the upper areas it’s still possible to walk around on your own and run into some local people every now and then. Noticeable as well is the immense amount of stray cats, both adults as well as plenty of kittens. As a huge fan of cats, this was a nice bonus to me!

The old town being the absolute highlight of Dubrovnik, other parts are visited much less by tourists. Since the city is rather small, I could cover the area by foot. The peninsula of Lapad was roughly 3 km away from my apartment and from there a nice trail led me around Babin Kuk with its beautiful beaches all the way to the beach of Lapad. Lapad itself was not that nice if you’d ask me but the first part of the walk, around Babin Kuk, housed some beautiful vistas. On the way back to my apartment I noticed a small and out of sight beach, named Bellevue. I visited it the next and also last day of the trip to go for a final swim, relax and reflect on the new experiences!

Bellevue beach in Dubrovnik

Bellevue beach in Dubrovnik

After nearly two weeks of travelling in Croatia I can only conclude that the country has a lot to offer. A rich and intense history, beautiful nature and impressive culture are all part of the country. Croatia has been part of the Roman and Ottoman Empire and more recently Yugoslavia, just to name some significant events in its history. Naturewise the beaches and its cristal clear water are simply breathtaking. The national parks add another dimension to a visit to this part of the world. There are several islands to choose from for your getaway. In terms of culture the old towns with its squares, churches and fortresses offer enough to keep you busy for a couple of days. So far, so good…

Unfortunately these pros of Craotia also come with a price. The number of tourists is immense, especially in Split and Dubrovnik. And then you’d have to consider that I visited these places outside the high season. I do not want to imagine the crowds mid July… Even though Zagreb doesn’t have a lot of sights to offer I’m happy I visited the capital. Due to the relative lack of tourists, I felt capable of at least observing local life to a certain extent. A consequence of the number of tourists are the prices. Zagreb is pretty cheap but once you travel South the more expensive things get. Split is probably 50% more expensive compared to Zagreb whereas prices in Dubrovnik are at least doubled. Finally, I have to say my experience with the local people has been very mixed. In hospitality some people really don’t understand service where others welcome you with tea and homemade cake and went out of their way to make my stay as pleasing as possible. Many people simply ignore you where some others were open for a nice conversation. It was also very strange for me to be in a European country with a very limited multicultural society. Considering the ethnic conflicts related to former Yugoslavia ended only in 2001, I can only conclude that things will improve and Croatia will broaden its horizon in the near future!

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