Croatia- the Jewel of the Adriatic
In the town of Bol, Croatia, there lives a big yellow post box. Resting against a grey, cobbled wall, its glass front winks merrily at passers-by in the beautiful Dalmatian Sun as it waits for its next customer.
But it has no ordinary customers. For it is no ordinary post box. In it, anyone can drop off BOOKs- used, old, new for someone else to pick up what they find interesting. No governance. No fee. And that simple little system is symBOLic (this pun wrote itself, I promise) of Croatia itself. Organized, friendly, welcoming and helpful. I have tried to recount as many stories as possible without appearing patronizing, where someone went out of their way to help us.
We crossed the border into Croatia in the dead of the night, on a bus from Venice, through Slovenia. Croatia is not part of the EU, so at 2 am, our bus was stopped at the border crossing for passport checks!
We swung our way into the city of Zadar on a cold misty, rainy morning. It was a strategic detour before our first stop in Croatia, with the express purpose of seeing the magical Sea Organ. Cut into steps at the beach front in Zadar, this beautiful engineering marvel plays haunting music as the waves lash against the shore. I’ve never been happier to be awake at 5 am. Turn up the volume when you play the video!
Plitvice National Park
Croatia is home to some of the the world’s most breathtaking national parks. Some allow you to swim in the waterfalls and we chose Plitvice specifically because it does not allow this impudence. While Plitvice is hugely popular with tourists, and swarming with people, it is so enormous that you can even stay in some beautiful BnBs located right on the fringes of the park.
Its best to start your trek early in the morning so you can harvest available daylight. There are 2 main entrances to the park, and about 8 different walking trail paths right from the easy 3 km ones to the lofty 18 km Mecca- Path “K”. Each of the treks take you through the park, and some even include sailing across one of the lakes.
The entrances are oases of urbanization in the middle of the park – the only source of potable water or food, so make sure you carry enough supplies. We set off upon an ambitious 9 km trek.
Plitvice has about 16 lakes, each at a different elevation and all interconnected. The result is 300 acres of cascading waterfalls. There are moments when words fall miserably short of capturing overwhelming beauty, and Plitvice is hours of being torn between wanting to lay on the grassy banks, take in the quiet rush of water tumbling around you, and maniacal picture/ note taking, so you can do justice when you have to blog about it.
The pools of water take on different hues, emerald green, turquoise, cyan and indigo depending on the algae that grows. As the sun dances across the sky, the waters deftly catch its moves and throw back shades of salmon pink, orange and red.
Later that evening, back at our B&B, we had the most interesting conversations with the local family next door; we ended up borrowing supplies from them to make a hearty dinner of pasta. The lovely owners were even willing to let us overstay at half price, simply because we were “nice people” and Plitvice was too good to say goodbye to in just two days.
The resplendent Diocletian Palace complex forms the heart of the city. Home to the Roman empire back in the 2nd century, this grand palace has miraculously stood witness to the rise and fall of the Greek, Byzantine empire, Roman, Venetian and eventually Yugoslavic rule.
From the outside, stark white stone walls gaze upwards at the sky, shielding from the outside eye a labyrinth of narrow alleys and squares. The original structures – the palace with its four gates, and various smaller buildings which functioned as military garrisons – are today conjoined with modern fortifications creating a habitable city right inside the palace.
The white marble-like streets play host to a most vibrant nightlife, street shopping, boutiques; and best of all plenty of affordable hotels- while booking accommodation choose places in the “Old City” if you want to experience the magic of ancient structure that has now mutated into a living, breathing organism.
We reached late in the evening, and quickly got lost trying to find our apartment in the maze of alleys. Our mission turned into a local treasure hunt, led by a young man with a fractured leg , the owner of an art store, and a lady serving bubble waffles. I’ve never stayed in a place that had more character per square inch. Ornate, quirky and old-fashioned, the rooms (whose wifi password has remained the same since 2009) were owned by an adorable old man who patiently insisted on filling out our details in a receipt book with individual copies for all 8 of us.
Spend a day exploring the palace and the ancient temple of Jupiter. You will occasionally stumble upon musical performances by locals or groups of tourists jamming together.
One of the best places to get a bird’s eye view of Split is the bell tower. It costs 5 EUR to enter a winding stairway wrapped around a crumbling array of massive bells, to reach a landing point, which though not very high, offers a beautiful view of this red-tiled city, just how you would expect to find in a children’s book, the kind that tells “Once upon a time…” stories.
As night falls a new tune starts to play in the city, as the street corners turn into suave open bars, and massive pub crawls start getting together. In the same breath you will also find quieter joints, with friendly faces serving up authentic Croatian fare, telling you more about their beautiful country and the history of various dishes.
Brac and Bol
The island’s economy survives mainly on tourism. The main town of Supetar is very well connected by ferry from Split (tickets must be booked on the spot) and from here, you can get a taxi to any of the other smaller island town. You can also do quick day trips to the islands of Hvar, Vis and Korcula.
Unspoilt, fresh and clean, Bol is that well- deserved Mojito after a painfully long day in office. The beaches are mostly all pebble. Even though they look very inviting do not be lured by the crystal-clear waters, the coarse karstic sea bed is spiney and painful and will cut right into naked feet. Only venture into waters that are designated for swimming. There are beautiful walking paths all along the beach, in the gentle shade of casuarina trees. If you get tired, you can grab an ice-cream for fuel, from the numerous pop-up stores. The long walk will eventually lead you to Zlatni Rat, the famous shoe-horn shaped golden beach.
Evenings in Brac take on a different dimension. Croatia is Europe’s newest party destination, and Brac lives up to this title with polished ease, even in the off-season.Late in the evening, after 1 am, the crowds move to the day’s designated party hub. Pubs take turns throughout the week, to host events. Just how seriously this is taken, is evident by the exclusive Party Buggy that picks up people (of course for free, what did I tell you about Croatia) and takes you to wherever the party is happening. This little archipelago is the site of Ultra Europe that happens around July every year.
Brac is also an excellent market for local produce – as you walk down the sinusoidal streets, lined with colourful awnings, you will be drawn to each stall, by juicy, rosy, rotund tomatoes, enormous bursting pods of garlic, large leaves of spinach and other unknown greens waving at you. Such a thrill to pretend you’re a local, doing your lazy Sunday run of errands, and you will go home to your large open kitchen, that opens out to the sea where you will proceed to whip up lunch as you sip on home-made honey wine.
Local wines seem to be a matter of local pride, our BnB host had thoughtfully laid out a careful selection from his own vineyard for us to sample
The inebriating beauty of Brac consumed two days in the blink of an eye. Brac was about languid hours spent on the sun deck, pretending to read, staring into the sea and taking in the silence – the silence of neat rows of luxury houses, lining the Adriatic coast like thick kohl, of the calm ocean glinting in the cold spring sun, of empty, empty roads interrupted by the occasional jeep.
Croatia is a strange contradiction – The most stunning un-spoilt natural beauty, and yet absolutely luxurious lifestyle right through the middle of it all. You must go before it gets over-run by tourists (like Dubrovnik, which we consciously omitted from our itinerary). Just 20 odd years of existence as an independent country, but the people are cheerful, happy-go-lucky, and ever willing to share; be it books, umbrellas, seats on a jeep, or cheerful Spirit in the middle of a national park, when your own runs out.