The trip started out pretty well, with a complimentary limo transfer service provided by Qantas – it’s only available on their flights up to London and back. A black Audi A6 picked us up from home and we were also met at London Heathrow and transferred to our hotel. We could easily get used to this. Around 24 hours after leaving Sydney, with a stop at Singapore, the Red Roo’s Dunlops kissed the tarmac at London Heathrow.
We left Sydney the day before our travelling companions, so we overnighted in London. Since we arrived around 6am, we had a full day. It was essentially a lazy day, so we took advantage of the hop on hop off buses and took in some of the tourist destinations. It was nice to wander without being overly touristy.
We met up with our other travelling companions the next morning at London Heathrow, then flew together to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. We arrived a couple of days prior to our tour in order to acclimatise. Our Insight Vacations “Country Roads of Croatia” coach trip commenced in Zagreb, then we wended our way through some stunning countryside to the spectacular coast, and concluding in Dubrovnik.
Zagreb’s architecture is a bit of a mix of what we’ve previously seen in other European & Scandinavian cities, fine old buildings along with the new. There was a remarkable absence of litter; however, the large amounts of graffiti more than made up for it.
While staying in Zagreb, we travelled to the small town of Kumrovec, famous for being the birthplace of Yugoslavia’s former dictator, Marshall Tito. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too hokey. We had a late lunch at a delightful place at Gresna Gorica, set amongst rolling vine-clad hills, where we were served some great local produce, washed down with some great local wines.
We crossed into Slovenia for the day in order to visit the Postojna Caves. The Caves are absolutely huge, measuring some 24km in length. Around 5km is accessible to the public. The cave system is around 2 million years old. It contains all the usual suspects, such as stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, columns and translucent curtains, but on a large scale – both numerically and physically. The largest cavern is called the Concert Hall which, unsurprisingly, has great acoustics and can accommodate around 10,000 people. I always thought that Jenolan Caves in NSW were reasonably big; unfortunately, Postojna leaves them for dead.
We spent the following two nights in the seaside town of Opatija and explored the Istria Peninsula, which juts out into the Adriatic. Opatija’s waterfront was reminiscent of the French Riviera.
The town of Pula boasts Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre that dates from 68AD, similar in age to the great colosseum in Rome. There were many verdant valleys and hills on the way.
We had lunch at the delightful old fishing port of Rovinj, on the peninsula’s western coast. It’s got a great waterfront area with many cafes and restaurants to laze away a couple of hours, and charming narrow cobblestoned streets in which to explore.
One of the highlights of the trip was visiting the pristine Plitvice National Park. Comprising 16 lakes of varying sizes, it’s truly a stunning place. It was also one of many UNESCO world heritage listed sites that we saw in this wonderful country. We spent the night at a hotel in the park, with the muted roar from the various waterfalls providing a degree of ambiance.
Leaving the magnificent park we headed for the Dalmatian coast, stopping at the medieval town of Trogir, which was founded by the Greeks around 400BC and the centre of which is UNESCO listed, then onto Split. The coastline en route is reminiscent of the Amalfi coast and parts of Cinque Terre.
Split was originally founded in the 4th century AD, essentially as the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. The city has grown from this, with much of the walls and buildings intact. Once again, it’s UNESCO listed. There were many little hole in the wall cafes and restaurants that just oozed character and charm.
We caught a local ferry to our first island stop on Hvar for a couple of nights. It’s alleged to be Croatia’s sunniest island. The ancient Greeks (who I’ve come to realise must have been extremely busy!!) founded a colony at the port town of Stari Grad in 384BC. The island is consistently rated in the world’s top 10. It’s not hard to wonder why!!
While on the island we visited a couple of the picturesque towns and had a great lunch of local produce and wines. As we further explored the islands we were stunned by the blue colours and absolute clarity of the sea waters.
Our next stop was the island of Korcula. To reach this island we needed to catch a ferry to the mainland, south of Split, cross into Bosnia and then back into Croatia, for a smaller car/truck ferry to Korcula.
The island’s major town is, unsurprisingly, called Korcula. It’s an old fortified town which extends into the bay. It has one main street, with all side streets in a herringbone shape which aids in air flow but also assists with moderating strong local cross winds. The locals maintain that Marco Polo was born there, while the Italians dispute this. At the time of his birth, the city was controlled as part of the Venetian empire.
We had an evening cruise around the old town and some adjacent bays before being taken to a traditional restaurant for another example of delightful local fare along with wines produced by the owners. They also made some of their own “grappa” which succeeded in clearing (burning??) the sinus’. Mine host had emigrated to Canada for a number of years prior to returning home. There is quite a diaspora of Korculans who emigrated to Australia, Canada and the US.
Our final stop was to be in Dubrovnik. Returning to the mainland, we stopped at the town of Ston, which has a well preserved old wall (nicknamed the “great wall of Ston”). We had the opportunity to hop onto a boat and were taken out to some oyster and mussel farms to see how they are grown. Once on the boat we were given some shots of local spirits to sample (seems to be a common theme developing here!!) – it was a bit of an ask at 10am.
The oyster growing process is quite fascinating, in that the farmers suspend bunches of fine mesh that collect the spawned cells, from which the shells grow. They have quite a high mortality rate of around 40%, both from natural causes and a species of fish that have suitably adapted teeth that crack them. It was a pleasant experience sampling a selection that had been pulled straight from the water and washed down with a nice local white.
The old town of Dubrovnik was an absolute gem, constructed from a local limestone and kept spotlessly clean – the streets are washed nightly. We didn’t find any graffiti, which was very refreshing. It sustained much damage during the war with the knuckle-headed Bosnian Serbs in the ’90’s; however, most of it has been repaired and rebuilt. The amount of new roof tiles against the really old ones is testament to the barrage that the town received. There is some shrapnel damage to some of the building walls. Unsurprisingly, it’s another UNESCO site. We were able to walk around the town walls which provided great views of the town, as well as the surrounding sea.
We had sundown drinks at Buza Bar, which is essentially located at a hole in the city walls and provides great panorama of the setting sun. Drinks are very pricey; however, the location really compensates.
We had the opportunity to travel down to Montenegro for the day. This country, like the others on this trip, was once part of the former Yugoslavia. We travelled around a picturesque bay that is very reminiscent of a glacial fjord, on the way to the pretty city of Kotor.
We had a dinner cruise around the bays on our last night, which was a wonderful way to farewell this truly wonderful town and truly great country.
Croatia is a seriously great place to visit. To paraphrase Molly Meldrum “do yourself a favour” and visit. Common feedback from our fellow travellers was that they thought Croatia would be a great place to visit; however, didn’t expect it to be as great as it was. There were so many gems sprinkled around the 14 days of our trip.
In all, we travelled through 4 countries and covered almost 2180km.
We then moved on to Budapest for our next adventure, a river cruise up to Amsterdam.
- Croatians invented the fountain pen and parachute;
- They have “smart benches” in public places that can be used to charge iPhones and other devices by day and provide lighting by night;
- Croatians “invented” ties. The story goes that when their soldiers went off to fight in the 30 year war in France during the 1600’s they wore scarves around their necks, some say to remind them of wives and lovers back home. The French King liked it so much that the item was adopted as “a la Croate”, then bastardised to “la cravate” and ultimately adopted around the world.