View of Dubrovnik from a town wall
What does the home of Marco Polo, lavender ice cream, and a monastery on an island in a lake on an island in a sea all have in common?
It was all the thrill of Italy--with people who were friendlier and beer that was cheaper--than anything we’d experienced in the high-heeled boot of Europe. For summer fun in Mediterranean Europe, Croatia is definitely the place to be, and the place I’ll return to a dozen times over. At the apex of this last summer, we took a cruise down the coast of ancient Dalmatia, stopping at ancient Greco-Venetian villages, seeing the home of Marco Polo, and sipping lavender champagne while watching the sun set over the sea. Croatia is a real jewel of Europe, certainly something we had never expected would be so amazing.
I was trying to think of some vacation ideas last year for my parents. Ever since I moved to Europe, it’s become an annual thing. My wife and I would be private tour guides for my parents on their yearly vacation, showing them corners of the Continent that they would never think of going. When we were trying to figure out where to go, I suggested Croatia.
“It’s where all the Czechs go,” I said. “Which means it must be cheap and it must be good.”
I had only been to Zagreb, which is a nice town in its own right. But all the inhabitants were busy telling me to go to two places—“You must see Belgrade!” they would surprisingly say and “You must see the Dalmatian coast”. I followed the former advice, quite happily. In winter, any coast can be dreary, but a city with a huge river lined with boats the herds of gypsies and Balkanistas playing their jams on sounds like some fun.
At first my parents were understandably reticent. In American imagination, we still have memories of seeing the Balkan Wars on television and we still imagine mountainsides and towns riddled with land mines, just ripe for an Angelina Jolie movie topic. But all of that is gone, I reassured them. And after sending them some photos of the pristine blue Adriatic Sea, dotted with islands and ancient Greek villages, they quickly agreed that Croatia should be the destination.
It was then a long process on deciding what to do. We had a couple of ideas.
We’d drive from Prague down to Vienna, to Bled and Ljubljana, and then down to Zagreb and continue onto the coast. But then we decided that was too long to drive, so we should take a train. Maybe a train to Split, a boat to Dubrovnik, rent a car and go to Bosnia, then back to Zagreb.
After all that, my mom presented the idea.
They had a Split-Dubrovnik route and a Dubrovnik-Split route. They had party boats full of hormone-packed yuppy youths that resemble something like floating hostels and liners with a bit more luxury for the settled romantic couples. You can imagine which one we picked, what with a retired couple we were traveling with. Though really, being already aged and in my mid-thirties, I'm slowly becoming the settled sort myself I suppose.
I weighed in on my opinion for the route. But first, some information.
Korcula, the birthplace of Marco Polo
Split is an ancient Roman city, built up as the palace of the Emperor Diocletian. It was a seaside fortress, projecting Roman power across the Dalmatian coast and protecting traders from the infamous pirates who would hide in the coves up and down the shore.
In modern times, it is more known for clubbing than ruins. The center still boasts the remnants of the Diocletian fort and his mausoleum, but much of it has been replaced by cafes, banks, and souvenir shops. A natural enough fate for any famed city of old, true enough.
A view of Split while sailing out
This is the crown jewel of the Croatian coastline. If the trip started with Dubrovnik, then the rest would be a disappointment. It’s a walled city crammed into a narrow peninsula with castles overlooking it and defending it. It has a large claim to history in its own right, for many centuries it rivaled the power of Venice. It’s such a beautiful town that it was chosen to be King’s Landing in the Game of Thrones series. For any history fans, or fans of the sea, beauty, or castles, this is the town to visit.
Ultimately, we made the decision to cap the tour with Dubrovnik for those reasons.
The city gates of Dubrovnik
We would fly from Prague to Zagreb and overnight in Zagreb. This turned out to be a ludicrously easy thing to do, as there is an entire village of decent hotels that have been built up around the Zagreb airport that are literally a 5-minute walk. Flights from Zagreb to Split cost about the same as a bus and take only an hour versus the 5-hour bus ride, so we opted for that as well.
Choosing to fly meant that we had an entire half-day to spend wandering the narrow corridors of the ancient Roman version of Camp David. At one o’clock, we’d hop on the tour boat and begin the adventure. From Split, our tour would go on to Omis-Makarska-Stari Grad-Hvar-Vis-Korcula-Mljet-Dubrovnik.
Don’t worry, I’ll give you pictures and information about all those following towns in the upcoming blogs to help with your own travel planning, or to help you imagine yourself somewhere sweet and serene while the snow piles up outside. So, set your sails and get ready to take your mind off of this wintry dreariness. Unless you’re from the southern hemisphere, then get ready to book your winter vacations.
Have any of you visited Croatia? Where was your favorite island?