Every now & then you need a vacation from your vacation. That may sound odd, but believe me, though we've been doing some amazing things, we also want some time to do nothing but relax. For that, we headed west to the beautiful Croatian coastline.
Our time began in Split, as most tourists do, & from there we headed out to the islands. We heard mixed reviews of the city before we arrived there; most people we met didn't think much of it to be honest. Only one woman we met in Prague, who happened to be from Croatia, said it was her favorite city in the country. Honestly, I can understand both sides; on the one hand, it is beautiful with a rich history & if you know a local, there's probably loads of great spots to go, but as a traveler (& someone who hates being stuck in enormous gawking crowds) it is just too overwhelming.
Thousands of people flock here to begin their seaside or island-hopping adventures; week long boat excursions either begin their debarkation here & head to Dubrovnik or vice versa. It felt like most of Europe & half of Australia were in Split.
But the architecture, especially in the old town, is absolutely beautiful. Maybe it felt a bit Disneyland-ish, but there is nothing like walking around an ancient Roman city to make you marvel at all their empire accomplished. It was hard to tell what was actually original ruins & what has been reworked for the tourists & scene filming, though I suspect the sphinx replicas were not original…
Still, even within the Roman fortress walls, you can find your escape in the vast web of side alleys, claiming a quieter spot for your own to enjoy dinner or an evening drink. Plenty of beach bars line the waterways & docks as well for your afternoon entertainment or perhaps while you wait for your ferry. A day, two max, is sufficient to get a flavor of the city. Unless of course you're luckier than most & can find an in with better informed locals.
While boating or sailing the islands would have been amazing, that will have to be our next trip now that we are more acquainted with the waters. For now, we hopped a ferry from Split over to the large island of Hvar. Inhabited since pre-historic times & later colonized by ancient Greeks, the island has served as strategic trade & military posts for various empires.
The island is also the landing point, ground zero if you will, for the masses of tourists. Daily boat trips, party barges & private boats swarm to its harbors & Hvar town becomes a nightly club scene. Signs around town attempt to remind the, er, well-meaning party-goers that it is a cultural heritage site, not just a party & to please wear real clothes & not “sleep” in public. It is a bit overwhelming at first.
But the rows & rows of sailboats moored just off shore are beautiful, & you even have to admire the overly obnoxious mega yachts that pull in.
One of the best activities is to get off the island, spending a day or so with a boat rental & skit around to the famous caves or surrounding islands. The water is a crystal-clear blue & you can see straight to the bottom There is nothing better than diving into the cool, crisp salty Adriatic Sea to escape the blistering heat.
Just a few minutes outside of Hvar town felt like a different world; we puttered into a small cove on the south side of the island to a mom & pop restaurant. You know the type - momma comes out & before you can ask, she says, “I think you'll start with the shellfish. And then have the big fish to split; you'll like it” & there you have it. A few minutes later you have a platter of shellfish & a pan with a giant fish that she carves up for you. Probably one of our best meals!
If you’re an early morning riser (not late-night partier) you can beat the heat & walk up to the old fortress that overlooks the main harbor. Originally began in 1282 by the Byzantines, it now serves simply as a beautiful viewpoint overlooking the old city center. A short stroll back down into town leads you down steep staircases & narrow alleys. Plenty of local shops are around & if you can avoid the main square, delicious family-owned restaurants still call it home.
Korčula may have been our favorite spot, though we had the least amount of time here. It’s a smaller island about a 1 1/2-hour ferry ride from Hvar, but feels about a world apart. It's far less crowded most of the time & has a more laid back less “see & be seen vibe” than its sister island.
Throughout all of Croatia we had some spectacular wines; red, white - it didn't matter, we loved (& drank) them all! Korčula is very well known for its wines, especially the pošip grape, therefore our number one objective while visiting was get to the wineries.
A short taxi ride out of the main Korčula town we popped into Toreta, a 3rd generation family owned winery in Smokvica. We sampled several whites of the local grape & one of our red favorites, the plavac mali. We were even lucky enough to be offered some of their homemade rakija, the local drink of choice, which would be rude to refuse!
On the other side of old town Korčula, we ventured into Lumbarda, another well-known wine town, for a final stop at Popić winery. When we arrived, it appeared the grandfather of the winery was holding down the fort; he was the only person there just quietly reading his paper. He popped up to serve us the tasting, but with the language barrier, it went something like “white - try it”, “rose” & finally “red - its good”. With a few smiles in between. He was right, all 3 were delicious.
It was such a peaceful spot, we probably could have just sat for hours starring out over the vines & off to the sea. A demanding little cat also kept us company, jumping up & around the benches & tables, constantly meowing. I could have offered wine, but I don’t think he was of age...
Here is where things became interesting…we were scheduled to head from Korčula to Dubrovnik via another ferry. Apparently (I think this may happen a lot…) due to windy conditions, it was canceled. So instead of a lovely boat ride for another 1-2 hours, we were promptly plopped onto a bus, which then took a short car ferry, & driven the rest of the way on the hot & curvy roads. We always seem to strike out with ferries.
Our final stop brought us to the one & only “King’s Landing”. Yes, obviously I'm talking about Game of Thrones & that (plus the stunning scenery) is driving thousands of tourists to the UNESCO city every day. In fact, it has become such a burden, city officials are moving forward with drastic measures to reduce their daily numbers.
Crowds aside, it is an amazing city. Walking into the old town city walls is like taking a step back in time (minus the selfie sticks). The walls, the buildings, the sea - everything is amazing. Two “must-dos” in town are the city wall walk & take the cable cars up to the view point.
We only recommend doing the city wall early, before the heat & day-trippers make it in, & you can spend a relatively peaceful hour or so walking the entirety of the enclosed old town. Between the mountain, the sea & the rock cliffs, it is easy to see why this fortress held for so long - it must have been nearly impossible to attack! Here is a secret - ask a local guide where an unmarked entrance is. On the tourist maps they list two ways to reach the wall, but there is actually a third, closer to the Maritime Museum entrance. In the busiest of seasons, it may just help you skip a bit of a line!
To reach the view point, you have a few options. Most people line up to ride the cable cars up & back from the top. While it offers great views, in our opinion it is costly & a waste of time. You will spend 3xs the amount of time in line as enjoying the view. On a tip, we took the city bus to Bosanka (12 HRK) & walked up the last 15 minutes to the top.
Yes, this was hotter & required a bit more work, but not only could we enjoy the view down to the shoreline (better ones, we think, than at the lookout itself), but we also got to take in the nearly untouched ranch lands to the south. Thousands of people were situated down in Dubrovnik & as soon as you turn around & look back towards the mountains, nothing could be seen but a single ranch with a few horses in the distance.
Here, in the town of Bosanka, we found one of our only references to the previous wars from the 90’s. What had been so front & center in Serbia was here only briefly mentioned - who would want to upset the tourists? But in this small town, they wanted to ensure it is remembered, that their homes were completely flattened, & only recently rebuilt.
That's something no one would see from the gondolas.
Dubrovnik was both exactly what we expected & a bit of a surprise. Does that make sense? We were ready for the crowds, the constant flow of day trippers, & the heat. But what was so funny, was how quickly you could get out of it if you just stepped one small street off the main walkway. Delicious local eateries & petite wine bars can be found on either side of the main tourist spots. You can plop down a cushion right on the steps & split a bottle of wine if their tables are full. No one seems to mind nor care if you stoop-sit a while & enjoy yourself.
One final piece of advice, if you have time to kill, wander through Park Gradac & ask a local to point you towards to swimming shore. It is a quieter spot for a dip, known mostly to the town’s people & you’ll avoid the overly crowded single “sandy” beach in town.
Croatia was a fantastic escape; a few days to relax & bask (or bake) in the sun & salty air. I’ll be honest though, the landscape took a bit to grow on me. It’s not as lush green or tropical as many places we’ve enjoyed, but watching the sun dip below the horizon & how it glistens off the rocks & over the waves, I’m not sure I have seen a site as beautiful.
It is easy to see why people come, why they flock to the shores, to enjoy Croatia’s natural beauty. We will certainly be back, though I believe next time we will admire her solely by a beautiful boat drifting with the current down the gorgeous coastline.