By RICH GRANT
A lot of people in the travel industry were surprised way back in 2005 when the “Lonely Planet” guidebook selected Croatia as the world’s Number One dream vacation site. Indeed, up until that time, the once war-torn region of the former Yugoslav Republic had gained far more international media attention for its ethnic tensions and wartime atrocities than it had for its beach resorts and majestic walled cities.
Even today, when Croatia has become one of the hottest destinations for European travelers, there are still many tourists who only see the country on day trips from cruise ships. Which is a shame, because Croatia is an amazingly beautiful, sophisticated and affordable destination.
With more than a 1,000 miles of spectacular, rocky shoreline dotted with beaches, red-tile roofed fishing villages, towering mountains and imposing fortresses, it is like the French or Italian Riviera in the 1960s – one of those rare places that actually lives up to its tourist billing – “the Mediterranean as it used to be.”
Some particulars: Croatia is the long, skinny country that is on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, directly across from Italy, which it resembles in climate and appearance.
It is one of six new countries that came from what was formerly called Yugoslavia. The war has been over since 1995 and peace and tourism are flourishing.
There is an in-land portion of the country that includes the capital city of Zagreb, but it is the coastline – and the famous islands of Croatia – that are the main attraction.
Croatia has 1,185 islands, all of them surrounded by beautiful Mediterranean blue sea. Sixty-six of the islands are inhabited and connected by a large fleet of ferries, making it possible to island-hop up and down the coast, staying each night on a different island.
Split is the second-largest city on the Croatian coast, with direct flights to London and Paris and the natural starting point. It’s an industrial city of 300,000 people, unattractive around the airport, but the old town has a palm-lined harbor and Diocletian’s Palace, the most imposing Roman structure in the world and a Unesco World Heritage site.
Calling it a palace is a bit misleading since the site consists of more than 200 buildings and is still home to 3,000 people. Think more along the lines of a fortified Roman town contained within high walls.
Built of white stone that resembles marble, it is maze of narrow streets and alleys, lined with chic boutiques, galleries, restaurants and outdoor cafes. A number of museums tell the history of the palace, which dates to 245 AD, but it’s most fun to just wander through the alleys, turning a corner to find a plaza lined with Greek columns and an elegant café.
Split is particularly magical at night when the marble sidewalks reflect the lights of the cafes and shops.
Split is a major terminal for ferries with boats arriving and leaving almost hourly. Jadrolinija is the main ferry line; one of the most popular short ferry rides is to Hvar Island, an hour and a half away.
Hvar bills itself as the greenest and sunniest of all Croatian islands. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful, with high mountains falling down to the shore.
Buses meet the ferry for a short trip to Hvar Town, a 13th century walled village with traffic-free marble streets, dockside restaurants and a yacht harbor, all topped by a Napoleonic fortress looming over the bay.
It’s a long climb to the fortress, but worth it for the view from the fort bar on top. There are paths along the shoreline for miles and the town has several small museums, but this is a resort area and just hanging out at the beach or in town is the most popular activity.
The food along the coast in Croatia resembles Italy with pizza and spaghetti dishes, mixed with local seafood cooked in garlic and olive oil. Try the whole calamari, grilled in olive oil and served tableside in black pots, with a side of fries and a liter of excellent chilled local white wine. The local beer (called pivo) is very good and served ice cold.
From here, the main inter-island ferry can take you on a three-hour voyage to Korcula. The inexpensive ferry is like a small cruise ship with restaurants and many decks for viewing the constantly changing scenery of mountains and sea.
Korcula first appears like a dream – a walled town ringed with palm trees and topped by a sea of red tile roofs. It’s a sleepy little place in the day as most people take water taxis to nearby beaches, stroll the miles of trails along the shore, or relax at one of a dozen outdoor cafes that form a line along the walls overlooking the bay.
The next day’s ferry continues on to The massive stone curtain surrounding the town rises as high as 82 feet and is more than 6,000 feet long. There are 10 semicircular bastions, two pocket fortresses and one outdoor bar guarding the flanks.
It’s possible to walk the entire way around on top of the walls that date back to the 10th century, but it’s no easy task and involves lots of stair climbing.
Below, the buildings within the walls date mostly to the late 1600s. The center of town is a wide, marble street, Placa, lined with outdoor cafes, bars and shops.
Even though Dubrovnik is traffic free, when the cruise ships are in, the town can be maddeningly crowded. Better to avoid the mid-day crush by taking a water taxi across the bay to Cavtat, an attractive Mediterranean resort with an old stone harbor lined with rustling palm trees and outdoor cafes.
It’s like an undiscovered Saint Tropez. The calm waters in the bay mean that you can enjoy a relaxing waterside lunch with the sea practically lapping at your feet and return to Dubrovnik in mid-afternoon when the cruise ships move on.
At night, the marble streets glow with a sheen that makes it look like it has just rained, while the towering walls are lit from dramatic angles.
During the civil war in 1991-1992, Dubrovnik was hit by more than 2,000 shells and guided missiles, which damaged the roofs in 68 percent of the 824 historic buildings in old town. A war museum has fascinating photos from this time, while maps located throughout the city show the location of where every shell hit. All of the damage has been repaired, but it’s easy to spot the new roofs. It’s an amazing thing to see photos of the main street burning less than three decades ago, then step outside to see lines of people at the gelato stands.
Other highlights along the coast are the tiny villages of Ston and Mali Ston, known for their oyster beds and more than a dozen seafood restaurants. The wall above town is five kilometers long and was the longest fortification in Europe when it was built in 1333. Climb up to one of the towers, then relax with oysters and chips under the shade of a tree-lined café. There are a dozen seafood restaurants in the small town.
One last island that must be visited is located just two kilometers from the airport in Split – the walled village of Trogir. This too is a Unesco World Heritage site, a 15th century town with twisting streets, hidden plazas, a medieval castle and a wide waterfront promenade, all squeezed on to a tiny pedestrian island. It’s the perfect place to relax, unwind, have an ice cold pivo and ignore the occasional jet carrying tourists back to the reality of 21st century life.
For more information on Croatia, visit the country’s official tourist site.
For the Jadrolinija ferry schedules, check out the company’s webpage.