Crazy for Croatia?
Updated: Jun 7
Without a doubt, Croatia has arrived on the stage! Could be their dazzling FIFA stars who wowed the world in the recent World Cup. Could be the intrigue of 'The Game of Thrones' shoot locations. Could be the amazing beaches and sea views of the Adriatic. Could be the cultural lure of the frontier between the East and the West. Whatever your reason, Croatia, and the neighboring Balkan countries, should certainly be on your bucket list. While ALL of Croatia is overwhelming to cover in a short blog, I want to highlight Dubrovnik and Split, for now, and leave other areas of Croatia for a future post.
The Pearl of the Adriatic ... DUBROVNIK
Dubrovnik, the southernmost seaside city of Croatia, appears a gem to behold. This pedestrian-only, picturesque, Old Town is encased in a thick fortification that was built to protect it from the Ottoman Turks in the 1400s. The scenic ramparts of the mile-long wall running along its perimeter are Dubrovnik's best attraction as they provide breathtaking views of both the city and the sea. Orange terracotta shingled rooftops of the enclosed buildings complement the cobalt blue sky brilliantly. The mighty wall has protected the city for five centuries against foreign invasions, as Dubrovnik was able to withstand multiple sieges thanks to its underground grain silos and early Renaissance aqueduct system, securing the city with food and spring water, respectively. It wasn't until 1991 that Dubrovnik actually fell victim to attacks when it was shelled with modern artillery by the Yugoslav army as Croatia was claiming its independence from the former Yugoslavia. At that time 2/3 of the buildings within the fortified city were damaged. This caught the world's attention as the historic town was already on UNESCO's list of world heritage sights!! Since that time, the buildings have been reconstructed and new rooftops laid.
Being a medieval port city on the Adriatic, Dubrovnik amassed wealth over the years from salt trade and shipbuilding. It was a near equal maritime rival to Venice in the 1500s. The port there is still active and frequented by fishermen, merchant boats, and cruise ships, alike. Despite the beauty and allure of Dubrovnik, it is only the overwhelming number of cruise ships that make it uninviting; for the city is overrun with and paralyzed by tourists. Tourism clearly dominates Dubrovnik's economy. The Stradun stroll is the all too common pastime, as it is the main walking thoroughfare of the town. It is lined with cafes and ice cream kiosks and is a good location for people-watching. The Franciscan Monastery Museum, off the Stradun, is an interesting little find. Within it you will find a century-old pharmacy that is still active. In addition to displaying many antique medicine jars, scales, and advertisements they sell excellent face and hand creams that make wonderful souvenirs. Adjacent to this museum is the lovely sun-dappled cloister of the monastery.
Moving away from this crowded area, however, is far more charming to me, as you lose yourself in the narrow step lined alleys of the town which are draped in green foliage. Many delightful small restaurants, art galleries, jewelry shops, and unique boutiques are hidden amidst these alleys. A classic Dubrovnik meal to be sure to try in one of these restaurants is called Pašticada with gnocchi and parmesan cheese. This is a slow-cooked beef marinated in vinegar and braised slowly with vegetables. The vegetables are later blended to make a thick sauce. Pair this with Dingač red wine for a dinner you will remember. A classy souvenir you may want to purchase in one of the little jewelry shops is a piece of local jewelry called a 'Konavle Button'. They are available as earrings or necklaces. These distinctive filigree pieces are available in various sizes, in both silver and gold, and represent the buttons of the soldiers' uniforms. I was told that historically, soldiers going off to battle would leave a button behind for their loved one, to be remembered while they were away. I purchased such silver earrings in Dubrovnik and a day doesn't go by without my receiving a compliment on them.
Delightful little bars, called Buza Bar, appear nestled in the rocks by the sea as they cling like barnacles to the OUTSIDE of the fortification wall. There are actually two Buza Bars, I and II. They each serve cold drinks, including wines and beers, and can be accessed just a little distance from each other, from the alley that runs parallel to and just inside the wall. Visit at least one of them for a relaxing, breezy, and picturesque break from the heat and crowds.
Another recommendation, before we venture away from Dubrovnik, is an evening hike up to Mt. Srd (pronounced like 'surge'). There are walking paths that traverse a route to the top of the mountain where stands a Napoleonic-era fortress, which unfortunately was heavily shelled and damaged during the recent war of independence as the young Croat men tried to defend Dubrovnik from that vantage point. The spectacular, sweeping views from the top are well worth the hike, particularly during the evening hours when the sun is about to set. From the apex, you can see both Bosnia and Montenegro. If you don't care to hike, a crowded cable car is also available to reach the top, but the lines for this convenience are typically quite long. Enjoy the striking colors of the dusk sky as you descend back to the Old Town.
The Game of Thrones junkies would surely appreciate and know that Dubrovnik served as the filming location for King's Landing. Fort Lovrijenic doubled as the Red Keep, Lokrum island as the city of Qarth, and the Minčeta Tower as the House of Undying, to name a few. While all of that meant NOTHING to me when I was there last year, MANY young tourists (too many, actually) were scouring the town to revel in the exact locations.
A Gem in Dalmatia ... SPLIT
Another seaside city, dated much older than Dubrovnik's medieval establishment, is urban Split. This name is thought to have been given to the area by the Greeks in the 4th c. BC from Aspalathus, a Spiny Broom plant, native to the region. A Greek colony emerged there by the name of Spálathos, which ultimately spawned the name Split. That may be more information than you care to know, but a name as quirky as 'Split', I feel, deserves an explanation.
Six centuries later around 300 AD, once the Roman Empire had already fractured into East and West dominions ruled by a tetrarchy, the eastern Emporer Diocletian, from Dalmatia, decided to build his retirement palace at the location of Split. His palace was magnificent stretching along the seashore, with the sprawling residential section (his villa) overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Present was a Temple to Jupiter and a mausoleum for himself with an intervening courtyard called a 'peristyle.' Beyond this, he built a fortified Roman town with a Cardo and Decumanus and many public areas. After Diocletian died, the palace and area were vacated and abandoned. Centuries later in the 7th c. AD when nearby locals were fleeing invasion by the Slavs, they took up residence in the old abandoned palace and fortification, and a medieval town sprouted from its rubble.
Now, urban Split has a modern, youthful feel. The numerous restaurants, bars, shops, AirBnBs, hotels, apartments, and narrow alleys are all fully integrated into and built within the rooms and walls of Diocletian's former palace and fortification. When sitting by a window in a restaurant overlooking the sea, you are actually looking out through the original windows of the Emporer's former residence. During the early Renaissance when Split fell under Venetian control, Diocletian's Temple of Jupiter was converted to a baptistry and his mausoleum to a cathedral. Diocletian's former peristyle is now one of Split's most inviting bars, called the 'Luxor', and is pictured below! If you sit down on one of the red cushions in the peristyle, then waiters will serve you drinks. (You may wonder why it is called the 'Luxor' ... well, a black Sphinx and purple porphyry stone columns pillaged by Diocletian from Egypt line this 'peristyle' courtyard. Must be great to be The King!) The nucleus of Split IS Diocletian's palace and at this time about 2000 people live and work inside the former palace walls. It is truly phenomenal and unlike any other Roman ruin I have seen ... and I have seen MANY!
Stretching between the Old Town and the sea is the Riva. This is a waterfront pedestrian-only promenade lined by palm trees and cafes. This is an integral part of the Mediterranean culture. Adjacent to 'Diocletian's Old Town' is the Venetian neighborhood with fountains and an area mimicking St. Marks square in Venice. There are many restaurants, art galleries and museums in this area. Split's best art gallery houses the works of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrovič.
Beaches and many islands are easily accessible from the seaport of Split. Hvar, in particular, is a popular and beautiful island frequented by both locals and tourists for its fabulous bars and nightlife.
I visited Croatia during the "off-season" in late April. While crowds were less, they were still significant. The weather was very pleasant, but certainly not "beach weather". As such, I didn't travel to the islands on that trip. I would love to go back to Croatia during the summer and explore its beaches and island life, for the Adriatic Sea is so lovely and inviting.