August 7, 2012

Sunbaking In Croatia

It’s August, and that means it’s time for Europeans to skip out on work for an entire month. We decided to vacation like the Europeans do, so we headed to scorching Croatia. Our ultimate goal was to spend 10 days city and island hopping along the Dalmatia Coast, but first we made a few inland stops…

We started in the capital of Zagreb.

Croatia is set to join the European Union next year, and the flags are already flying. These relatively young capital cities like Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Zagreb are funny. Government just does not seem like a big deal here. Besides one security guard, we were pretty much the only people standing in the square where the country's President and Prime Minister work.

From Zagreb we bused down to Plitvice National Park, where limestone rock and calcium carbonate rich water create a complex of clear blue waterfalls.

The falls don’t compare to Iguazu in Brazil/Argentina, and the water is not as perfectly pristine as the Soca River in Slovenia. Steve says I’m being too hard on Plitvice. It’s true that this is not something you get to see every day.

Like Pompeii, I found the park management to be incredibly frustrating. We had gotten used to the Germanic efficiencies of Northern Italy and Slovenia. It was an adjustment to come back to a lackadaisical culture, where the people want your tourist dollar but they’re not very helpful in exchange.

Side note…we noticed that the girls here wear skanky outfits in the most inappropriate places. For example, this girl was sporting a New Years Eve party dress through the national park.

It was time to make a beeline to the Dalmatia Coast. First stop: Split.

Most people just use this as a transportation hub to the islands, but Split deserves more credit than that. We liked it so much that we decided to stay a second night.

In 305 AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian decided to retire in his homeland of Croatia, so he built a massive seafront palace in Split. After his death, the villagers set up shop inside the abandoned palace, and since then, pretty much nothing has changed. There have been some buildings added and a little restoration work done, but all-in-all, the modern city of Split is centered smack dab in the middle of the emperor’s palace for all to enjoy. Take these people...they have seat cushions and are sipping cocktails on the steps of the Emperor's mausoleum. No big deal.

It’s an unusual and fun sight to see people of today using and taking such pleasure in antiquity. Throughout Europe we’ve visited so many Old Towns that are oozing with charm. But to be honest, their narrow winding streets, cobblestones and archways are all starting to feel a little similar. Split is an exception. Nowhere else do you get to dine, listen to street musicians, and lick ice cream as you stroll through the former Roman Emperor’s palace.

One night after dinner, the palace’s former living room square was full of salsa dancers. The next minute an instructor was leading everyone in a sequence of hip hop moves. It was just crazy to think that all of this was going down less than five feet from Diocletian's burial site. Maybe he’s rolling in his grave watching this night after night, but we thought it was really cool.

From Split it’s just a short boat ride to some of Croatia’s most famous islands. Hvar is the hippest and most jet-set of the islands. 

With its cliff hugging bars, waterfront lounge beds, and DJs blasting music that you can hear across the island, we thought Hvar would be the perfect place for college spring breakers.

But then at night Hvar turns magical, even for older kids like us. Crowds are out enjoying late dinners in romantically lit alleys, and there's a fun summer night vibe in the air.

Hvar is just as happening as Nice, but I think it deserves even more credit given its size and relative obscurity.

In contrast, Korcula is the sleepy little hometown of Marco Polo. The Old Town is circled by defensive walls and connected to the rest of the island by a grand staircase.

This is Korcula’s "main street". It’s 6 feet wide. 

All of Korcula's other streets branch off of the main street like ribs on a fish’s backbone. We loved Korcula. It had yummy seafood, good swimming, a sandy beach (which you had to haul across the island to get to), and it didn’t hurt that we scored a cottage in the heart of Old Town with views to the sea and city walls for only 60 Euros. 

Our final island was Mljet National Park, where it's all about nature. We hiked to the island’s highest point for sunset. At the top of the mountain there’s a wooden shack where locals take turns on fire patrol. So there we were…all three of us…enjoying this romantic sunset together.

Mljet has two saltwater lakes which we enjoyed by boating, biking and floating. I say floating because the water is super salty. We loved drifting down this natural lazy river. 

While Mljet was pretty, it was also pretty weird. The towns are so small that they only take up one side of one road. Within a 15-minute period we had four really terrible encounters with local people. We found them to be rude, unhelpful and dishonest. Aren’t island people supposed to be happy and carefree?

All across the Croatian islands, it seems the local people are living in a pre-Internet world. The hotel options are terrible, so the best place to stay is in a "sobe" – similar to a bed & breakfast in England, but without the breakfast. It can be impossible to book a sobe in advance. These people have email addresses, but reservation requests must get lost in outer space. It requires a real go-with-the-flow attitude to step off the boat and make contact with local sobe owners who are trolling the docks for nightly guests.

Even the sobe owners who are a little more technologically savvy still do things the old-fashioned way. We actually had a reservation in Korcula, and when we stepped off the boat, our sobe owner was there to greet us like a chauffeur at the airport. She was holding a STEVE NAUMAN sign written in bright highlighter.

I have to say, the Croatian islands were not what we had imagined. They are much bigger than we expected. And arid. They're not tropical at all. There are no sandy beaches…just rocks, lava spew, and concrete slabs. During the day there’s really not much to do except to lay on your concrete perch. People don’t sunbathe here, they sunbake. And nap. I took four naps in one day.

Call me crazy, but I think it’s kind of dumb to take a beach vacation in a place that has no beach. Fortunately we’re not on vacation. We’re traveling, which means that we’re allowed to chalk this up as a cultural experience.

Months ago we toyed with the idea of booking a week-long sailing trip around the islands. We’re glad we didn’t go that route because (1) I would have most certainly been seasick the entire time and (2) we heard from several sailing travelers that they didn’t get to spend enough time in port. That's a shame because I think it’s the cities that make these islands worthwhile…not the islands themselves.

Are we jaded? Maybe so. We’re worried that we’ve gotten a little picky. We’ve seen so many amazing things these past six months that some of the nice – but not astounding – places feel a little mediocre. We’re attempting to snap out of that attitude.

Nevertheless, we were excited to get back to mainland civilization and our final Croatian destination...the Pearl of the Adriatic...Dubrovnik

This is such a special city that we spent five nights and we still didn’t want to leave. Dubrovnik’s Old Town is just as charming and quaint as a small village, but it’s big. It’s probably the biggest Old Town we’ve seen throughout Europe. It juts out into the sea and is completely surrounded by huge medieval walls which you can climb and walk on.

I kept thinking that if this was the first European city someone ever visited, and they went on top of those walls, it would completely blow their mind.

Dubrovnik was probably our favorite place to swim in Croatia. It’s hard to beat a swimming hole that’s 5 minutes outside of a heavily fortified city in water with at least 20 feet visibility. The Adriatic Sea is so blue, clear, and beautiful.

Dubrovnik is also a living war museum. When Croatia violently separated from Yugoslavia in 1991, Dubrovnik was the only coastal city to be pulled into the fighting. It was senseless. Yugoslavia wanted to hit Croatia where it hurt, so they bombed their most beautiful city. The townspeople had to take cover within the city walls, which was the first time in Dubrovnik’s long history that the walls were actually used for defense against an attack.

More than 300 people died and two-thirds of the buildings were damaged. Dubrovnik rebuilt. Except for the new roof tiles and a few pockmarks in stone facades, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the city had just come through a war. Now the damage just lives on within the people. It was new for us to be in a city where every local person we met had lived in a war zone. Thankfully we saw it in happier times.

Changing subjects, have you ever been to a city where every item on every single menu is EXACTLY the same? That’s Dubrovnik. For as charismatic as the city is, their restaurants have no personality. So boring. We did get to try some new dishes like octopus salad and squid risotto. They were great; I just wouldn’t want to eat them 5 nights in a row.

We supplemented with Croatian staples of pizza and pasta and the occasional fresh catch of the day.

We expected Croatia to be ahead of Slovenia in terms of infrastructure, technology, and customer service. But in fact, we experienced the opposite. It’s hard to even find a trash can.

We wouldn’t put a complete tour of Croatia on the top of our list, but if we had to do it over again Split, Hvar, Korcula, and Dubrovnik would be up there. And now we can say we’ve vacationed like the Europeans.


  1. Hey kids! Glad to see you're still having fun exploring the world. Thanks for taking the picture of the skanky chick... I'm going to guess Steve took that one.

    Oh yeah... Steve, have you been working out? Sher says you're lookin good!

    Take care,
    Steve and Sher

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