I’ll be honest with you. I’d never heard of Dubrovnik until I saw a photo of it in someones album on Facebook in 2008 when the social network was still in its infancy.
Yes, I knew of Croatia but at the time but it didn’t really show up on the travel radar due to the conflicts in that region throughout the previous century.
What the hell was I doing?
Croatia, I’ve since discovered has long been known as the second cleanest coastline in Europe after Cyprus with numerous isolated islands along an 1,800km coastline. It’s on these islands that you will find the best beaches in Croatia.
I arrived in Dubrovnik around 4pm on a Friday which evidently is the same time every package tour in Europe arrives, coaches in file. There are actually 5 airports here but with its proximity to Italy, driving along the coast was the draw-card for me so my journey begins crossing the Slovenian border 4 days earlier.
Once you’re in the north of Croatia, island hopping is fairly easy: A 15 minute boat ride from the fishing village of Fazana will get you to the Brijuni islands where you can wander by the sea in relative solitude with only some Roman ruins for company.
Slightly further south and around the peninsula is the island of Cres in the Kvarner region with gorgeous hidden beaches and walking trails through the Tramuntana forest. It’s also the biggest island in the Croatian part of the Adriatic and within that there’s an island for just about everything else from watersports (Brac) and chilling (Hvar) to partying (Pag) with ferries operating within several regions so a bit of planning is required between them. Croatia ferries can get you between islands Jadrolinija.hr but they have specific regions so research is required. Other islands with incredible beaches are Rab with a lovely bay at Lopar, Korcula has two sandy beaches near Lumbarda, while tiny Susak island is entirely composed of fine, compacted sand.
For the divers, there are numerous dive sites throughout the Adriatic sea, some dating back to the middle ages. This region was and still is a major trade route between Italy and Greece as far back as the days of Roman rule. Many WWII wrecks have been salvaged from the region (especially along the coast of Istria), but for recreational divers there are still many that are accessible. On Susak is the Obis cove where in Margarina at a depth of 6 meters lives a coral reef with a nearby canyon concealing a ancient shipwreck at a depth of 17 meters.
Eventually making it back to the mainland on the Istrian peninsula, I made a straight line for Pula Bike Rental (http://www.pulabike.com/bike-rental) picking up a bike for €14 then making good use of the regions network of cycle routes casually breezing through a host of rather Italian-esque coastal towns, secluded beaches and yet more Roman remains. Back in the car, its from here I turned inland towards the Plitvice Lakes National Park where 16 crystalline lakes form a cascade of mineral-rich pools one after the other, creating ever changing formations with 18km of pathways around them. There are a number of free boats and buses throughout saving you quite a bit of time which you’ll need as just one of the lakes is 4km long.
Dubrovnik was still 3 days away and though highly recommended, the list is getting longer.
Sibenik, south of Zadar, has gone through a major tourist transformation over the last 5 years, boasting 4 fortresses, the most stunning of which is the that of St Nicholas, the Venetian-built sea-castle that stands at the entrance to St Anthony’s Channel. Spending an entire day here is necessary to see the all the forts but instead I passed by and opted for Split, just to the south.
Split’s seafront promenade named The Riva runs the entire length of the old town and is justifiably considered one of Europe’s finest promenades. Go for a coffee at St Riva café to take in the magnificent view across the harbour to the islands.
This town came into existence in AD295 through the retirement plans of Roman Emperor Diocletian at the end of his rule and had his palace built here, though he died 10 years later. His empirical cronies did better out of it though with it being used as a Roman retreat long after. Once surrounding the palace were numerous granite sphinxes from Egypt but only three have survived the centuries and are now 3500 years old. One is still located on the Peristyle, the second sits headless in front of Jupiter’s temple and the third sits in the city’s museum. The palace is always hive of activity but especially so on the weekends with two very active and lively markets taking place within the city walls.
From the palace a short stroll will get you to Galerija Mestrovic, a museum originally designed by Ivan Mestrovic, one of Croatia’s most famous artists. Originally intended to be his home, studio and exhibition space, he emigrated to the United States after World War II instead of retiring here as planned.
A sculptor, painter, architect and writer, one of his statues can be found at the gates of the palace while more sculptures are in the garden but it is the view of the sea and islands that will really take your breath away. I could have spent another two days in Split but no.
Dubrovnik is calling.
Without question the first thing to in Dubrovnik is walk the full circuit of the 24m high medieval walls either early in the morning or in the late afternoon for amazing vistas. The 15th century building near the harbour that was once the Rector’s Palace housed the Council’s meeting rooms, an armoury, gunpowder store and dungeon during the Republic of Ragusa and now the Cultural History Museum .
Taking a more modern turn the relatively recent addition (2010) of a cable car enables the laziest of us to reach Mount Srdj in a mere 3 minutes supplying the group with fantastic views down onto the old town, the sea and islands. Plan to be here for the amazing sunsets thus leaving you with a string of options for nightlife aftterwards and they are equally amazing.
A tiny doorway in the sea-ward facing walls is where Buza is located. A fairly informal yet candlelit affair with plastic cups but what a view. With tables perched on differing levels of rock, there is the option of taking a dip before the night begins.
Taking the style meter up a few notches is La Bodega, a very modern wine bar occupying all four floors of a 17th century building not far from the Rectors palace. A great place to try some Croatian wines in a very classy environment.
For a venue that sits somewhere between the first two, there’s East-West on Banje beach which by day is a beach club and a bar-restaurant until sunrise. An open-air rooftop lounge is, as I thoroughly discovered is an excellent place to sample some cocktails.
In all, Croatia was all I expected it to be, swim, snorkel, dine, drink, kayak and more.
Romans. Where would we be without them?