The pearl of the Adriatic
TYPE OF TRIP
- Family holiday
- Road trip
I came to Croatia in June 2015 as a part of the road trip my parents organised. We spent a few days driving around Switzerland, then flew from Geneva to Dubrovnik and just like with the Swiss leg of the journey, we had no particular itinerary.
The only thing my mother took care of far in advance was accommodation since Dubrovnik is a hotspot for holidaymakers. That said, many tourists here opt for apartments rather than hotels because they are cheaper and plentiful. Apartments are spread all over the city and have their own star ranking (although I’m not sure what kind of criteria it is based on and who assigns the stars), whereas the hotel sector is really expensive for what you get.
We didn’t book a car prior to arrival thinking we’d just get one when we need and that turned out to be a mistake. During our flight, we noticed a brochure about Easyjet and Europcar’s joint offer - 15% off car hire if you travel with the airline - and realised that it’d be more practical to get a car straight from the airport and hoped to use this deal. We didn’t realise that it is easier said than done, so on arrival, we were faced with a queue outside Europcar’s office and a few of idle brokers from other rental companies blatantly laughing at the tourists. These agents hang around for passengers from the few flights that land late in the evening (past their official opening hours) which, of course, is convenient. They fully take advantage of the situation - it is late, travellers want to get to their accommodation - and this attitude translates into their behaviour: taking ages to serve every client even if they have an existing booking, talking to each other and sharing jokes out loud, it's a far shot from smooth and professional customer service. In the end, we rented a car from a smaller firm because the well-known ones like Hertz claimed to have nothing to hat would match our preferences. Those who had something wanted to charge €50 a day, and only after a bit of negotiation, one of them agreed to lower the price to €175 for 5 days, only making the whole thing seem even shadier. For the lack of better alternatives we took the offer and left feeling like we had just been taken advantage of.
We spent the whole of the following day exploring Dubrovnik, and at the risk of sounding completely spoilt, I must admit it wasn’t my cup of tea. The main thing that put off was how touristy it is. Dubrovnik is overwhelmed by waves of daily cruise trippers and tourists alike who take over the streets in the blink of an eye. The city is simply too small for the crowd it gets in the summer.
All these people come here for a reason. “Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it,” as G. Bernard Shaw once wrote. It is only natural that the area so abundant in history and cultural heritage gets so much attention. Provided that the Old Town was heavily attacked during the Croatian War for Independence (1991-1995), it is very impressive that the damage has since been repaired. One day should do to cover most sights if visiting in high season, but if you are there during the quieter months, take your time to get to truly appreciate the beauty of this place.
Geneva, Switzerland - Dubrovnik - Split - Trogir - Śibenik - Dubrovnik - Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina - Makarska - Dubrovnik - Cavtat - Herceg Novi, Montenegro - Dubrovnik
Next, we decided to visit other places in the region of Dalmatia and hit the road up north. On the way there you pass through a 22-km long strip of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the town of Neum, which is no problem as long as you have the so-called “green card” (can be arranged through your rental car broker) and you’ll only get Croatian stamps. If your car is from a foreign country, it is necessary to double-check whether your state allows any crossing of the Bosnian borders.
The premise of how Dubrovnik became a Croatian enclave was political and goes back to the end of the 17th century. In order to protect itself from the rival Venice and their Dalmatian possessions, the Republic of Regusa (today’s Dubrovnik) gave up Neum to the Ottoman empire in 1699. Neum remained under Ottoman control until 1878, then under Austro-Hungarian control until 1918, and then was in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (referred to as Yugoslavia after 1929). The town officially became Bosnian once the borders of the Yugoslavian republics were established in 1945.
There are many interesting towns in the area that you can easily see in one day if you’re driving, although buses run regularly, too. When travelling around this part of the country you cannot miss Split - its historic centre is included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Split’s old town boasts ruins of the Roman walls, squares, and temples. In fact, the historic part was built around the remains of Diocletian Palace, dated around 305 BC. Beware that entering almost any monument in Croatia is not (!) free of charge including cathedrals, upper layers of the walls, and so on. Split is the country's second largest city and has a vibrant nightlife as well, so it may be worth staying here for a couple of days and exploring Dalmatia from here.
A little farther up from Split lies the beautiful town of Trogir. According to UNESCO, it is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, which had its fair share of turbulent times in the past. Originally founded by Greek colonists in the 3rd century BC, Trogir was protected by the Byzantine fleet in the Middle Ages before getting almost completely wiped off by the Saracenes in 1123. Following a prompt recovery, the town enjoyed economic property and went under the Venetian rule in the 15th century.
Today’s Trogir mostly exhibits the remains of those days, including the town hall, Cathedral of St. Lovro and Kamerlengo Castle. The town is small but perfect for a short visit, and you can also buy some fresh fruit at the market right next to the harbour - we bought a few kilos of delicious cherries at a bargain price thanks to our broken Russian-Croatian language skills!
From Trogir you can go to Śibenik - the drive is only about one hour long and it offers some gorgeous views of the inlet where Trogir is situated. Śibenik is the oldest native Croatian settlement on the Adriatic coast and home to St. James Cathedral, also listed among the World Heritage Sites. This building is the only building in all of Europe that is made entirely of stone. The construction took 105 years! Well, it is safe to say now it was definitely worth the time. On the way up to St. Michael’s Fortress you can enjoy amazing views of this picturesque town and its beautiful seafront packed with boats!
After the impromptu day trip around Dalmatia, we headed to Bosnia & Herzegovina. Or just Herzegovina, to be specific, where we wanted to pay a visit to Mostar that is primarily known for the beautiful Ottoman-era bridge called Stari Most (“Old Bridge”). Once the most ethnically diverse place in Yugoslavia, the city suffered the most severe bombings during the Bosnian War: air strikes destroyed the cultural icon as well as many important buildings and structures. It is very obvious that even two decades later, the country as a whole and Mostar, in particular, are still overcoming that damage. And is it possible to recover from it at all? Wherever you look, you see ruins and deep traces of shootings. More than that, the signs of troubled past are transparent in the community. Ethnicity is still a dividing line here: Christian Croats dwell on the west bank, Muslim Bosniaks on the east. The international community may have rebuilt the bridge, but they cannot bridge the social division (excuse the awful tackiness).
I was trying to jot down whatever was going through my mind on the way back to Dubrovnik only to realise that I felt extremely conflicted. This is my second encounter with the post-Yugoslavian war remains (the first one being in Serbia a few years ago), but once again I struggled to get my head around it. The people I met in those places were so genuine and had such an open attitude despite living among constant reminders of the war-torn cities. The cities they grew up in, their home! While some left everything behind and fled, those who stayed had to move on and start all over. What always takes me by surprise is that no matter what these people went through, I never see it translate into their approach to foreigners. I might be biased as the former Yugoslavian republics and Russia do have a lot in common - be it similarities in languages or cultures - it feels like we just get each other. Casual chats with assistants at grocery stores or border officers in a funny mix of our own vernaculars, passers-by that seem so familiar they could be your next door neighbours back home, it does feel very special.
Later that day we returned to Croatia and went to Makarska. It is a small coastal town and a popular holiday destination for locals and foreigners. Personally, I didn’t find it as compelling as the places we had visited the day before, but it does have a great beach. Exploring the gorgeous Makarska Riviera, on the other hand, is a must. The Riviera stretches over 60 km under the Biokovo mountain between the towns Brela and Gradac. If you are coming from the south, have your camera at the ready - the road takes you by the stunning Baćina lakes which you don’t want to miss!
Our last full day was a rather lazy one, so we ended up going south. First, we stopped by Cavtat, a tiny town only 17 km away from Dubrovnik. If you want to take a break from the crowds without travelling too long, Cavtat might be just that perfect place - it has best of both worlds. Whereas it does not have any particular sites that you need to see, it is a bliss in its own right. Set between two bays, you are always no more than a couple minutes away from the water. Along the harbour front runs a promenade packed with cafes and restaurants, so you can enjoy a refreshing drink while watching the boats come and go.
We carried on and crossed the border again - this time to Montenegro. This country certainly deserves a whole separate trip, but it would be a shame to neglect a visit to Herceg Novi when you are already just around the corner! The town was founded as a fortress back in 1382 by Bosnian King Stjepan Tvrtko, but the following centuries of different occupants shaped the town’s blend of different architectural styles. It shouldn’t take more than an hour to see most of the historic part, especially because Herceg Novi is best viewed from the waterfront or even better - from the sea. Taking a stroll along the beach is glorious, the promenade is covered with plants and flowers of all kinds. In comparison to Dubrovnik, it almost felt deserted but quite refreshing. Even though there are no sand beaches around the Old Town, feel free to go for a dip as the water is incredibly clear and nice.
Once back in Dubrovnik, we went out to a random restaurant for dinner. At the end of the meal, we unexpectedly got treated to a couple of rounds of home-made orange rakija, a fruit brandy common in the Balkans. If you are in the region, it is a must-try!
I must admit that by the of the trip, Croatia had really grown on me. It also reminded me that visiting a popular destination in high season is a risk to get caught in a tourist trap and overlook the real value of the place. As elsewhere, avoiding the crowd when possible, ditching the glossy brochures, reaching out to the locals, and doing a bit of research beforehand can make a world of difference. But most importantly, follow what you want to do and enjoy yourself!