I’ve been wanting to go to Croatia ever since I saw Dubrovnik on a travel show some years ago. What I discovered was an incredible country, rising up from the blood and ashes of the Homeland Conflict of the 1990s. Fantastic people with a real joy for life. The trip focused on coastal areas, Split down to Dubrovnik, so I saw nothing of Zagreb or the inland areas below Hungary. I also traveled into Bosnia and Montenegro, both participants in the war – and discovered the absolute gem of Kotor! After this I flew to Malta and travelled to the small island of Gozo before taking a small flight to Sicily and spending some time at Taormina – location of major scenes in the thriller – Iron Man Project.
Flew into Split and drove an hour or so north to the coastal town of Vodice. This was to ensure some much needed chillout time and because of the close proximity to Krka national Park. Vodice is a seaside tourist heaven. Nothing pretty about it but just super friendly and easy. Had room at the Olympia Hotel (very good) and it was easy to just wander down to the sea and go swimming (less than 5 minutes walk). The water is warm and very salty. There’s a mass of bars and places to eat and the atmosphere is wonderful. I had a 30 minute massage on one of the many tent-concessions, a big blonde girl who seemed intent on driving every gram of air from my lungs with her elbow driving down into my back 30 minutes cost about 12 quid. Super good deal. Croatia is cheap, for now, whilst they continue to use their currency. But sadly for them they have a crony government that managed a sleight of hand to get them into the EU. You’ll now see this wonderful country smothered in red tape, health & safety and the prices rise with no benefit to the people.
Drove the short distance to Krka National Park. This is really worth the visit. Bring your swimming trunks. The main attraction is the presence of 17 waterfalls that overlap in cascading delight. It is vast. There is a boardwalk that gives you a 45 minute walk through the forests, flora and fauna and glimpses of the waterfalls from different angles.
Then you come down to the level of the main river and the waterfalls are thundering down near you… and there are people taking off their clothes and cliimbing in. I didn’t have my trunks but didn’t want to miss the opportunity – so stripped down to my underkaks and got in. The current is strong and the shallow waters glide across rocks that are easy to clamber over , but which are also incredibly slippy. But once you get into deeper water you can power through towards the safety rope that stops people getting too close to the base of the falls. Hanging off the rope I let the current drag my body away, whilst I just stopped and soaked in the moment, looking up at this vast terrace-work of mighty rock and the tons of water crashing down towards me. A profound and very primal moment.
Took a river boat from the national park down into a small town called Skradin. This is likely to become the next Saint-Tropez, with direct access to the sea and harbour space for very large yachts. However, at the moment it still holds onto an identity that includes burned out buildings after hand-to-hand conflict broke out between Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox neighbours… as the Homeland War erupted across the region. Locals consider it bad fortune to occupy a building once occupied by Serbs, and hence the ruined structures remain abandoned. But amongst this there are great places to eat and the river provides easy access to the nearby National Park.
Getting back to the hotel the rest of the day was spent in the sea, or chilling in one of the bars overlooking the water.
Drove down to Split. Parking is a nightmare. Get the bus! Went to the remarkable Diocletian’s Palace, which was built around 300 A.D. by the Roman emperor Diocletian and still stands today!!!!! Well, parts of it. The outer walls and the original lower floor, which was preserved for millennia until uncovered in the 1950s. Within the walls are a medley of narrow alleys and tiny courtyards, once belonging to the equally tiny but ostentatious villas of the powerful and wealthy. The term palace is misleading as only parts of the structure were for the emperor’s personal use, whilst the rest housed his military garrison. The man was a pagan; centuries after he died, the church moved in, hurled away his body and used the palace for Christian worship.
Statue of the Roman god: Jupiter. This is inside of the Temple of Jupiter which is well worth the visit for a sense of being encased by ancient history. In excellent condition, it was built within the 4th century, around the same time as the palace and is considered to be one of the best-preserved Roman temples in the world. The Roman Emperor Diocletian believed he was a reincarnation of Jupiter and so placed this temple directly adjacent to his mausoleum (unaware Christianity would turn his mausoleum into a cathedral). Jupiter was the name of Diocletian’s father and was also the highest Roman god, the god of the sky, and the god of thunder. This god was highly worshiped during the Imperial era until the Roman Empire came under Christian rule. The Temple of Jupiter is small with a vaulted ceiling featuring a myriad of stone blocks, holding the myriad faces of Jupiter. Boarding the ceiling and walls is a very ornate frieze all around. The temple is elevated as below it hides the crypt, which is a typical character of a Roman temple.
Christianisation of the temple in 12th century included installation of a baptismal font, allowing for complete immersion of the body and head in compliance to the Byzantine rite. The front of this font is carved with the Croatian King Zvonimir and other notables at the time – including some poor fellow lying in supplication at their feet.
A form of traditional a Capella singing in Dalmatia, this part of Croatia. Sonorous and heart-aching melodies and harmonies as the voices combine. Well worth catching one if you can find one of the ad-hoc performances within the palace.
A fantastic place to visit. But the real delight for me was a cafe bar within in the labyrinth of old town streets: Marcvs Marvlvs Spalatensis. Possibly one of the best cafes I have ever encountered. I was pushed for time so nearly walked past but something about the atmosphere oozing out through open doors and windows snagged my brain. I stepped inside into a slice of heaven. Great coffee. They give you the bill within one of the numerous books in their library. Mine was pressed between the pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – one of my favourite weird tales.
Here is a review from Trip-Advisor that sums the place up:
Marko Marulic is the Dante of of Croatia, a literary genius who lived and wrote in the 15thC. The first floor of his house, in the Palace, just opposite the Split City Museum, has been lovingly transformed into a gorgeous period “salon” that is sure to become the place to meet, enjoy great wine and wonderful music—the owner loves jazz in all its forms and what comes out of the speakers is divine! There are tons of books that line the walls you can read (the bill even comes in a book!) as well as art on the walls as well as the ceiling! Unlike so many of the wine bars in town that offer stingy pours at high prices in hard edge surroundings, Marcvs Marvlvs knows how treat guests right–generous 125ml pours, terrific salon ambience and real comfort with personal service that really sets it apart. There’s even a glass walled smoking area. From Marulic’s writings on the walls and ceilings, to the original floors and walls, the whole place is just smashing. We had some lovely wine, 45kn a glass, served with some excellent cheese (free, because the owner had run out and we were starved!). The plans are to expand the interior to add a real art gallery–so we can’t wait to bring our friends!
A massive storm came sweeping in so I had to get back to Vodice. Spent 4 hours sitting on a balcony outside the hotel bar, beside the sliding glass door, drinking wine and watching the sky grow black with thunder…. and then jagged forks of lightning flashing across every few minutes. Booms and crashes of sound. Wonderful.
Left Vodice and drove south. Ultimate destination Dubrovnik but took a detour into Bosnia. Went to ancient town of Mostar that straddles blunt cliffs overlooking the river. Once a provincial capital of the Ottoman Empire then annexed by the Austro- Hungarians, Mostar reflects this multitude of influences it has experienced over the centuries. The main reason to go to Mostar is the bridge linking the two halves of the old town. Constructed of stone and over 450 years old, it was all but destroyed during the 1990s conflict. The bridge has been rebuilt and they have done a good job. On the west side of the bridge is a strong Roman Catholic enclave. On the east side it is very much Muslim. The Catholics have built a church with a tower taller than the nearest minarets (wailing towers). And so some tensions remain in place.
Got to Dubrovnik quite late so went straight to hotel. The Argossy. Which is a couple of miles away from the old town (walled city). I spent the night swimming in the pool – it was raining, the sky was a turbulent mix of thick white cloud with ribbons of angry black, all of it drifting across the nearby peaks of mountains. Long sauna afterwards. Bliss.
Went down into Dubrovnik, a 30 minute bus ride using the Number 6 that serves the hotels out here. I walked the walls, which are vast and really are a must-do. That afternoon I caught the ferry over to Lokrum island. It’s an expensive trip (14 quid) for what you get, but still worth doing if you enjoy the idea of being able to look back at Dubrovnik from the sea, and being on a relatively small island. Walking up to the fort is very worthwhile and there’s an enjoyable sense of space and isolation amongst the narrow paths that wend through the dense forests there.
Island of Lokrum. Took the ferry from Dubrovnik old harbour across to Lokrum. Beautiful sunshine. Ate alfresco at the small pizza place there amongst the ruins of the monastery. Climbed up the impressive hill towards to the French Fort and watched this immense storm front come rolling in across the sea, slamming into the mountains and then spilling along the coastline towards us. No way were we going to get back to the tiny harbour in time before it struck. When it did strike there was a wonderful and dramatic shift in light and atmosphere. Thunder rumbled overhead. Bloody brilliant.
The afternoon was more swimming in the rain, sauna and just chilling in the bar afterwards with a large whisky, coffee and skin tingling.