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Croatia Next stop, Croatia! And a Day Trip to Montenegro...

Terry

100+ Posts
By teaberry from Philadelphia, PA, USA, Spring 2008
Highlights of a trip to Croatia and Montenegro in June 2008.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

On the Road Again!

In early June of 2008, I spent a week in Croatia, traveling with a good friend. For my trip report, I thought I would share some highlights, lowlights, and sidelights. In no particular order.

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The Adriatic

Uber Zagreb

My friend and I didn’t arrive at Zagreb airport, from London, until very late in the afternoon, and embarked towards the city “Centar” (as all city centers are referred to in Croatia) in our brand new VW Polo car rental just around the same time that the dark and ominous skies finally opened up and spewed out all that wet stuff. No problem, we were in Croatia, YAY! Zagreb radiated an Old World charm and mystique. The narrow, winding streets and centuries-old structures invited exploration, and that is exactly what we did, in the pouring rain, trying to find our accommodations.

Well, after about an hour’s worth of driving through Zagreb’s streets, we were no closer to finding our rental than when we started. I must say, though, that we thoroughly enjoyed being lost there - such a pretty town. The streets were like a Rubik’s maze, and I had even printed out directions! Stopping the very friendly passersby and eliciting further clarification only got us more lost. It seemed, though, that the key to finding our place, which was apparently located exactly in the interior and pedestrian core of the old Upper Town of Zagreb, was to drive the wrong way down the one way streets and to even drive up a few pedestrian walks (that were barely wide enough to pass!). I thought for sure we would be arrested (okay, that’s severe, but at the very least stopped), but no one seemed to mind us driving where we thought we didn’t belong. Lo and behold, that held the key to our finding our very well-tucked-in vacation rental. Right in the heart of the Old Town.

I do use the term vacation rental loosely here. Gail Hecko, another Slow Traveler, once described an accommodation she stayed in as a rabbit warren, and I must plagiarize those very apt words here also. This apartment had a website, had received quite a few very nice recommendations and everything looked so nice online. When we finally arrived, the owner was not in town. Luckily, though, his mother was. Not so lucky, she spoke practically no English. She led us to our rabbit warren, located atop a lively bar with an open courtyard and a very active back alley, showed us our room, and left us our keys. By this time it was after 8pm. We were tired and wet and hungry, and weren’t about to start looking for another place. So we bit the bullet and hunkered in for the night.

Old Zagreb is just spilling with restaurants, bars, and nightlife; we reveled in it for our share, which was pretty lame compared to the other more serious partiers. But we felt uber connected to the people and the electricity in the town. Zagreb is a great place for pub crawling. Until we got back to our rabbit warren. We were all in, but the night was still young for the rest of the city, particularly the people who were pubbing right under our rabbit warren’s windows. Our beds were more like cots, we had no towels or soap, and the bathroom was, well, smaller than a breadbox. We felt pretty skived by our vacation rental, enjoyed a choppy night’s sleep at best, and left the next morning in a hurry. We felt fairly assured that things could only get better from here, and we were quite right.

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Trg Josep Jelacica, Old Zagreb's center square
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Deutschland, Deutschland, Aufwiedersehn

So we just happened to be visiting Croatia during the World Cup of Soccer, and throughout the country, very large flat screen TVs could be seen outside and inside at all the cafes, shops, and restaurants, with very large crowds glued to the sets. Of course, we got caught up in the fever, and were in Dubrovnik at a wonderful little outside pizza parlor when Croatia beat Germany and qualified for the quarter-finals. The excitement, exuberance, and national pride were just incredible, and reminded me of when the Flyers won the Stanley Cup and the Phillies won the World Series in Philadelphia. People all over Dubrovnik were spilling out into the streets, screaming and laughing and hugging and dancing and blowing horns. Drinks were on the house, and everyone was wearing the Croatian red and white checkers.

At the bar where we watched the winning game, I asked our waiters, who were fully garbed in proper soccer fan regalia, if I could take their photo. In one fell swoop, they hoisted me up in the air and continued the revelry, and that’s how this photo was taken. The entire town was singing and rocking to a song that wished a fond farewell to Germany in the quest for the Cup; you could hear the song echoing from every alleyway. It was so much fun. Croatia is strongly patriotic, and we were really glad to be a small part of it all.

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Croatia beats Germany!!!
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Food and Fare

I don’t think Croatia is known for its haute cuisine. Remarkably, almost every restaurant’s menu follows the same theme: Cold dishes, hot dishes, insalatas, meats, fish, pasta, pizza. Although Mediterranean-inspired, the meals tended to be a little greasy, heavy on the meats, and were not really for the diet-conscious. Unimaginative. Vegetarian platters could be found on many menus, and usually consisted of either a salad offering or grilled vegetables. Everything was a la carte, but with Croatia still not a part of the EU, their currency is the Kuna, which at this writing is valued at approximately five times the dollar. A fish plate for 50 Kuna is the equivalent of $10; a typical salad is 25 Kuna. The price is definitely right, but the selection and preparation is always the same.

I had some difficulty finding indigenous crafts and hand-made items to bring back as gifts and souvenirs. Croatian lace and embroidery, with its colorful geometric patterns against a white background, can be found in shop after shop after shop. On Hvar Island, we found an abundance of shops and kiosks selling lavender sachets, bouquets, and essential oils. They smelled heavenly. But it seemed that every store across the country that we encountered sold the same factory-line chatchkas.

While we were driving down the highway, there were many opportunities to buy freshly picked, perfectly ripe and plump cherries (we were lucky enough to be in Croatia at harvest time!) from roadside stands and family tables, and they were the perfect snack while motoring. I did find some cherry vishniak brandy in Dubrovnik, and brought some of that home for a semi-lasting memory of those wonderful cherries!

The photo on this page was a common sight throughout the country - pig is roasting on top, lamb on bottom.

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What's grilling
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Get Around, Get Around, I Get Around

Dubrovnik airport has to be in one of the prettiest settings I’ve ever seen. The airport was modern and efficient, and our flight was ON TIME. The real estate was breath-taking.

Driving the highways in Croatia was seamless. The roads were all well-paved and towns well-marked. Route numbers were a little more sporadic, but this is a country that just survived a war only a little more than 10 years ago. Croatia’s infrastructure is in a dynamic state, with construction and improvements to be seen everywhere. Once we entered a town, though, things got a little trickier. As in most European cities, the gridwork of the streets in Croatia doesn’t quite sync with the maps, and we had absolutely no difficulty at all getting lost initially in whatever town we entered. But, that was also part of the fun.

It is actually not possible to find a good country driving map smaller than 1:200,000 in Croatia, and this left something to be desired. I don’t know if I was just looking in the wrong stores, or if this is true for the whole country. But bookstores in the larger cities all had large city maps that could be easily read and understood. A more in-depth country map or road atlas was not readily available nor found on this trip by me.

According to the US Department of State, an American citizen in Croatia does not need an international driving license; their US driver’s license will suffice. Good to know.

Traveling with another female, I always felt safe, and found that the Croats were kindly, helpful, and all spoke some degree of English. We quickly learned how to say please (molim) and thank you (hvala).

There are Internet cafes virtually in every city in Croatia, at great rates, too, with fast connections. I must admit that I cannot get used to European keyboards, and I stumble a lot with them, but for 15 minutes at five Kuna, how can you go wrong? I’m glad that I decided not to bring my new laptop with me, as Internet access was readily accessible.

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Dubrovnik's breathtakingly beautiful airport
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Home Away from Home

Croatia is the land of rentals and B&B’s. There are signs everywhere, as you enter big and little towns, and even along more remote areas. Apparently that is the way to vacation in this country, not only for foreign visitors but for the Croats, too. In the harbor towns along the Dalmation coast, owners of sobes (Croatian for rooms) will meet the arriving ferries, holding sobe signs and hoping for customers. (It is actually not recommended to choose a rental in this manner, as you can never be sure what you are getting into). But rental websites abound with accommodations all over the country, most with photos, too.

Each of our four rentals was arranged via Internet communications, and we found three out of four to be very well-represented online. The owners were all on-site, readily accessible, and conversant in English. Aside from our apartment in Zagreb, all of our rentals were clean, well-equipped, comfortable, and well-located. We always had a nice kitchen and sitting area, good mattresses and sheets, and all the niceties were hospitably provided. Our rooms were more than reasonably priced, and a good value for our money. The owner of our rental in Split actually met us at a pre-determined location in town to guide us to our accommodation. Two thumbs up!! I researched our rentals by checking for recommendations on other forums, and 75% of the time, I was not disappointed by the reviews.

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Our digs in Split
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Road Trip

A real highlight of our trip was actually a side trip we took one day from Dubrovnik to the newly declared country of Montenegro. Upon crossing the border, I gleamed at my new Montenegro stamp on my passport. But not until we entered into the Bay of Kotor, with its fjords and medieval towns, did I really appreciate how special this area truly is.

Steep, stark, and imposing mountains guard the towns around the bay, with Kotor standing as the fjord’s centerpiece. Montenegro has a more raw beauty than Croatia, and the impenetrable, rugged peaks around the bay evoke a timeless eternity and truly impart a sense of awe and inspiration.

So much of history has marched across Kotor, and the Old Town exudes this. Another ‘nooks and crannies’ kind of place to explore within the old walls, yet visibly poorer than the European towns I have become accustomed to visiting. And that is what made this whole area so appealing. It felt untouched by much of modernity.

On the ride back we took a 15-minute ferry ride across the Bay. But the road to the ferry was one of the more hair-raising routes we’ve taken – only one lane wide, often without siderails, to be shared with sporadically-crazed oncoming traffic. But we’re still here to tell the story!

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The Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
 

Terry

100+ Posts
A Thing of Beauty

Croatia is a joy to visit.

The countryside boasts contrasting climates and elevations, and ranges from lush vegetation and farmlands to lake-lands and waterfalls; from rugged, expansive, dizzyingly high rocky mountains that tumble into an impossibly blue turquoise sea, to the necklace of islands that decorate the Dalmatian coast; from the ancient palaces and ruins that speak to a rich history, to all of the jeweled cities with their earthy structures and sun-bleached orange ceramic roofs.

A feast for the eyes and the spirit, Croatia will make you feel like you have tapped into something old and enduring, and also something right on the edge of newness and change. I am so glad to have had the opportunity to visit this country, and have become a huge fan and one of its biggest cheerleaders.

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At Plitvice Lakes

Resources

Croatia National Tourist Board
Croatia Traveler
Dalmatia.net
Dubrovnik Tourist Board
Find Croatia
Visit Croatia
 

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