Croatia – April 2019

Our cousins went to Croatia a few years ago, and piqued our interest with their reports of the beautiful coastline. We watched some travel videos and did some reading and decided that a spring break could be a great way to escape the daily grind of bad news and the decline of democracy.

Diocletian’s Palace

Over the years, we’ve come to a “less is more” travel planning framework, so decided to only focus on southern Croatia, starting with Dubrovnik, going only as far north as Split, and then visiting islands on the return to Dubrovnik. We booked apartments in each place to give ourselves the opportunity to meet some locals and to have a kitchen for leisurely morning coffees.

Our overnight flight to Dubrovnik (via Dublin on Aer Lingus) was uneventful, and the bus from the airport left us directly at the Pile gate to the Old City. It was a wonderful way to start the trip. While Dubrovnik is full of tourists, nothing can take away from the magic of walking through a thick stone gate and seeing the preserved medieval and Renaissance architecture and the polished white marble of the Stradun, the main street of the old city. Most of Dubrovnik is perched on two hills on either side of the Stradun, but our apartment was just a few blocks off the Stradun on a quiet street in the “flats” of the city. For our first evening, we just wandered, taking in the Venetian influence on the architecture and celebrating only having to wear light jackets. Many of the tour groups visit from cruise ships during the day, so the town is peaceful before 9:00 AM and in the evenings – at least in April. During the summer all accommodations are double to triple in price and there are long waits at restaurants, so we were very happy to be traveling off season.

On our first full day of Dubrovnik, we got up early and walked the walls that surround the old city. While the distance around is less than a mile (the city is surprisingly small) it took us nearly two hours, as we had many stops to see the vistas over the red tiled rooftops, with sun shining on the limestone buildings and the sparkling blue Adriatic. We had also stopped to read some of the placards identifying the damage done to Dubrovnik in the early 1990’s during the war with Serbia, and from the walls could see how many new roof tiles had been needed. We visited several of the city’s museums, including one which still had visible damage from the war.
It didn’t take long to discover Croatian pastries. Croatia’s cuisine is influenced by its many invaders – Turk/Ottomans, Hungary, and Venice. Savory flakey boregs, filled with cheese, became a favorite. Apple and cheese strudels reminded Phil of his Hungarian grandmother. Fresh grained breads with local sheep’s cheese were a favorite lunch.

Our pace was, for us, pretty sluggish, with daily stops for morning cappuccinos and evening drinks on terraces watching the world go by. On our second day, we fortified ourselves at a terrace restaurant on the main square with coffee and a delicious almond cake before climbing up the many stairs to a fort just outside of Pile Gate. We have never seen Game of Thrones, but it is filmed in Dubrovnik and it was amusing to see some of the props inside of the fort.

We ended our Dubrovnik stay with a seafood dinner overlooking the harbor, watching boats come in under swooping gulls and swallows. It was so very peaceful and beautiful.

We traveled by bus to Split. Estimates for the trip were 4 hours, but clearly that didn’t include the border stops. Bosnia-Herzegovina has a small bit – just 6 miles – of sea access that bisects the road from Dubrovnik to Split, and relations between the two countries appears strained. At each border, a border agent got onto the bus, collected all passports, took them off to be checked, and then redistributed them, carefully checking photos to be sure everyone got the right passport. This added a 25-30 minute stop at each border.

After checking in to our apartment, just two blocks from the Golden Gate of the old city, we began exploring. Split’s old city is within the walls of what was originally Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace. Now, 3,000 people make their home within the palace ruins. We went through every corner of the city, sometimes to catch the early morning light and sometimes in the evening, amazed each time at the preserved Roman ruins intertwined with centuries of new buildings. Layer upon layer of history, with sphinxes that the Romans brought from Egypt in corners just to make it even more historical. Really magical.

We took a day trip to Trogir, just a short bus ride from Split, after a visit to the extensive vegetable market in Split. Trogir is a UNESCO Heritage Site, a perfectly preserved medieval city. We had a coffee in the square and were lucky enough to catch several performances of traditional klapa singers in the medieval loggia of one of the palaces. From Trogir we took a bus to the Kastela – small towns along the water, each with a fortified “cottage” that defended the harbor at various points. We were able to find excellent pastry shops to keep us going.

On our last day in Split, we visited the cavernous basement that is the foundation of Diocletian’s palace, which gave a sense of the scale of the building. We walked along the waterfront, the place to “see and be seen” in Split, backed by the remains of one of the walls of the palace, and found the ferry company that would be our means of transport for our next sites.

From Split, we took the ferry south to Hvar. During high-season, Hvar is the playground of the wealthy – it is the island where Prince Andrew apparently partied his way into infamy at some point. However, we arrived on Easter morning, and it was very quiet. The ferry sailed into the picturesque Mediterranean harbor, with stone houses and terracotta roofs winding up the hills from the dock. Hvar has a large public square that ends at a medieval cathedral, and it is a stunning small town. We had an apartment quite a few stairs up the hill from the plaza, so got a good workout during our Hvar stay. Our apartment owners were lovely, and greeted us with a homemade Easter bread and chocolates. Once we got settled, we wandered back down to the plaza, and watched the families leaving church services, with all the mothers carrying their children’s Easter baskets. Most of the shops were closed for the holiday, so we were able to wander around and enjoy the aromas of orange blossoms and honeysuckle as we walked around the coat line. Hvar is known for its wine and cheeses. We did our duty.

On the next day, we got up early for a 500-foot ascent up a hill to the fortress that overlooks the town. There were few other people around, so we had the beautiful vistas to ourselves. As the afternoon wore on the winds started up, and our landlady informed us that there was a chance that our ferry onwards to Korcula could be cancelled. It was good that she warned us as we would have carried our bags all the way down to the ferry landing the next day; instead we called in the morning and learned that the boat was cancelled. We notified our Korcula hostess and decided to explore the other “major” city on the island, Stari Grad.

Kocula surprised us. The old cityis tiny, located inside a renaissance fort that stuck out into the Adriatic on a peninsula. The peninsula is so small that ferries use both sides of peninsula, whichever side is free at the moment. The village is also beyond sleepy. It has only one main street, with tiny alleys branching off it. The village is frozen in time.

The village dates to the 12th century – or perhaps to Greek times – depending on the history one reads. The primary entrance is via a 14th century former drawbridge, up a flight of picturesque steps, and then stepping into “Trg Antuna i Stjepana Radića”, the town’s central square. The square is tiny, and is dominatedby the Cathedral of St. Mark, (14th C.), decorated with all types of animals, withmedieval buildings on the other side of the small street.

Korcula is supposedly the birthplace of Marco Polo – at least according to local lore (which Venetians dispute). Nevertheless, his supposed birthplace is now a museum (unfortunately closed for renovations while we were there). The Town Museum, near the Cathedral of St. Mark, provided an understanding the history of the city of Korcula and its relationship with Venice.

The village is surrounded by the remnants of the city’s walls. The circumference is now the home to numerous restaurants. We sat on the north side watching a massive cruise ship disgorge boatload after boatload of tourists into smaller shuttle boats, giving us a taste of the summertime hordes that descend on this amazing place.

Notes:
We based our trip partially on Rick Steve’s video on southern Croatia. Traveling by ferry is definitely nicer than by bus, but the ferries have no outer deck and the windows are obscured by the saltwater spray. Croatian food is heavy on grilled meats and fish/shellfish. The fish is mostly monkfish and dory from the Mediterranean and not too exciting. Proximity to Italy means excellent pasta and gnocchi, and some of the best pizza we’ve ever had, particularly at the Mizarola restaurant in Hvar.

The Dubrovnik card is a good deal! Walls are 200 kuna per person; if one orders the card in advance, it is 180 kuna, and includes the walls, multiple museums, and discounts on buses and some restaurants.
To get groceries at a discount, pick up a free “MultiPlus Card” at any Konzum. We never sent in the form, we just presented the card at the cash register.

Sug Restaurant, Split
We usually use Tripadvisor to identify interesting places to eat. When we saw the amazing reviews that Sug had, we knew we had to try it. The reviews are right – this restaurant is exceptional. Items ordered: Hard & Soft Cheese Appetizer, Venison Stew, and Beef Risotto. Each dish exceeded our expectations, being perfectly prepared and presented, with rich flavors and normal portions. The service was also perfect; and the prices were quite reasonable. The entire evening was wonderful, and we strongly recommend dining here. It is just a few blocks outside of the old city.

Portun Restauarnt, Dubrovnik
A family-owned small restaurant with delicious Croatian food just off the Stradun– and where we met a charming waiter from North Macedonia. He gave us complimentary aperitifs, made by the grandmother of the establishment’s owner.

Mizarola Restaurant/Pizzeria, Hvar
We had read that pizza in Croatia was good, but until Hvar we didn’t think to try it as we were sampling other Croatian specialties. We picked the perfect pizza place – this was WAY BETTER than we had been expecting! We ate here twice: one night, we split the Quatro Staggioni, which set an impossibly high bar for any pizza in our future. Every ingredient, including the artichoke hearts was fresh and deeply flavorful. Two nights later, we returned for the Caprichosa which was equally amazing. We are not sure what the secret is to their pizza… but we’re now spoiled. The service was also excellent; the beer and wine were good and reasonably priced. There is both indoor and patio seating.

Gradska Kavana Arsenal Restaurant, and
Dubravka 1836 Restaurant & Café
Split
Apparently owned by the same folks, these two restaurants have the BEST locations in Dubrovnik by far – at the two ends of the Stradun. The Gradska Kavana also has a café facing the plaza, with amazing pastries, especially the almond cake. On the other side of the building, their seafood restaurant faces the harbor. The Dubravka is right outside Pile Gate, with views of the fort and a small bay. We dined here a number of times, enjoying their pasta specialties, and each meal was perfect, as were the wines and the service.

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