Traveling to Croatia is not for the faint of heart. Between the uneven steps everywhere, that seem to lead to the sky, and the steep limestone streets, worn to a lovely patina, but slippery when wet, you would be smart to come prepared with sneakers/walking shoes. That said, every step you take will be well worth it!
Located in Southeastern Europe, this small country borders Slovenia, Hungary and Serbia. Situated on the Adriatic Sea, Croatia has strived to keep its head above water since the 7th century by being innovative and one step ahead of its enemies. Curving the massive stone walls that protected its cities, this design was more resistant to cannon fire than straight sided fortresses. This helped protect their trading port that rivaled Venice. This small, but mighty country has worked hard to stay afloat, especially after its devastating civil war in the 1990’s.
The red tiled roofs on the homes nestled into the limestone hills gives the scenery a Mediterranean look, as the Adriatic Sea sparkles below. Blessed with a perfect climate, ancient sites, wonderful food and a grasp of the importance of hospitality, Croatia has become a top tourist destination.
Touting itself as the quintessential summer destination, massive crowds from over ten cruise ships docking at once have caused their UNESCO World Heritage Site status to be in question. In October, prices drop, crowds dwindle and with temperatures in the 70’s, you can still swim (bring your flip flops; beaches are rocky).
Our taxi stops abruptly. The driver tells us in broken English that he cannot drive any further into the Old City. Just when we’re wondering which way to walk, we see Mario running towards us calling our name. Sent from the hotel to personally carry our luggage and walk us to our hotel, we are already impressed with the Marmont Heritage Hotel. It’s a charming, small hotel (21 rooms) with views of Old Town and Diocletian Palace.
At first glance, Croatia’s second largest city seems so perfect. With its striking scenery and palm trees all overlooking the bright blue Adriatic Sea, it looks like a movie set. Actually, Game of Thrones was filmed throughout Croatia.
Built in the 4th century AD, by the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, his Palace’s preserved remains form half of Old Town. Museums, shops, restaurants and over 1000 people reside within the walls of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s hard to fathom the historical significance and sheer age of the sights before you.
Diocletian’s mausoleum has been repurposed into the Cathedral of St. Duje and stands as the oldest cathedral in the world. You can enjoy a coffee or a cocktail, sitting on a pillow on the steps of Peristil Square, the original Roman court. Even the Kappa traditional music performed in the square has been granted UNESCO status. The steps taper as you climb the bell tower, but the view at the top is worth it. Make sure to rub the toe of the Grgur Ninski statue for good luck.
A cocktail with a view is our reward for walking up the steep hill and the many steps amid a forest of pine trees and a peak into an old Jewish cemetery, on our way to Marjan, a hill on the peninsula of the city. Our first Croatian meal introduces us to their Italian influenced cuisine. At Apetit, a 15th century palazzo, the four of us dine on eggplant tempura, seabass, black rice made with squid ink and beef with gnocchi; sharing prevents having to choose just one entrée. After dinner, there’s still time for a lovely stroll on The Riva, the promenade known as “Split’s living room.”.
The catamaran from Split to Hvar is large, with comfortable seats and beautiful views. We are warmly welcomed at the dock by a hotel representative, who scoops up our luggage and leads the way.
This picturesque city has that Wow Factor. The boats and yachts regally swaying in the harbor, the wide, café lined walkways bordering the sea perfect for people watching, this town is sophisticated enough for Prince Harry sightings (pre-Meghan), but casually elegant, so that the city seems unaffected by it all. Metal signs politely announce the fines imposed for improper behavior. Diagonal red lines through a series of drawings get the point across: no bathing suits and no public consumption of alcohol along the main thoroughfares.
Any hotel that welcomes you with champagne at check-in quickly rises to a favorite. The Adriana Hotel and Spa is contemporary and tastefully furnished in soft colors, but adding just a touch of blue, everywhere you look, to remind you the sea is nearby. Our room is a relaxing haven with spectacular views and an impressive two-person jacuzzi. The hotel’s outdoor pool, patio area and indoor infinity pool remind us to save time to experience them all. With displays of food that are almost too beautiful to eat, such as honey slowly dripping from its honeycomb into a silver bowl, this could very well be the best buffet breakfast we’ve ever encountered.
It’s a 25-minute walk up to Fortica Spanjola, the town’s fortress and a 16th century prison, but the views make it worthwhile. According to local law, it was abandoned and left for the fairies to dance in at night. That story, along with the gardens and walkways that zig zag down the hill and lead to patios and homes built into the side of the hill, give the area a magical feel.
We didn’t come all this way to not swim in the Adriatic Sea. We cross the rocky beach and take turns climbing down a ladder into the water. It’s not what we expected, but once we are swimming, it’s hard not to remain a bit longer.
Dalmatino, with its wonderful food served by a highly professional, yet personable staff, gets our vote for our favorite meal. A “Booze Bouche” of carob and brandy playfully replaces the usual Amuse Bouche. Feasting on tuna tartare, gnocchi, sea bass and filet, we couldn’t resist sharing a piece of grandma’s homemade cake.
The live music we hear coming from the bar, Central Park, perks us up and we decide to stop for a nightcap. Many nightcaps and dances later, we have made some new friends from Canada and Sweden
After another smooth catamaran ride, we arrive at Dubrovnik’s busy port and secure a taxi to our hotel. The Hotel Imperial Dubrovnik is a Hilton property. Classically elegant, its housed in a historic building, just outside the walls of Old Town, dating back to 1897.
Old Town is known as being one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world. Traffic free and surrounded by rugged limestone mountains and the sun dabbled Adriatic Sea, its steep, winding steps and narrow walkways lure you into the joy of wandering around until you get lost.
It’s a tourist tradition to walk the wall and you’ll pay $33 for the privilege. Be prepared for very steep steps to get to the top, then it’s a 1¼ mile walk all around. Enjoy amazing views, and cafes and shops to stop at along the way.
Banje Beach is just a short walk from Old Town. Nestled within the impressive coastline, it’s not a sandy beach, but at least pebbles have replaced the rocks we encountered in Hvar and It’s hard not to spend the entire day swimming.
While we did enjoy the dark, quaint Bakus Wine Bar and our chat with a couple from England, the Buza Bar is not to be missed. You enter through a hole in the wall (“buza” is Croatian for hole) and come out the other side to view a bar and tables built on the cliffs. Included in our visit was a show; teenagers jumping from the cliffs, down 30 feet into the water!
The Forty-Four Restaurant stood out, not only for its food, but its presentation. The server wore white gloves and the breaded artichokes with cheese, Korčula macaroni with beef and goat cheese and sea bass with chick peas, swiss chard and tomatoes were creatively served in lovey pottery dishes.
“Forced” to stay an extra day due to flight changes and with our hotel sold out, we head to the Prijeko Palace for the night. With assistance of the Croatian government, the 15th century palace has been renovated back to its former glory, with a quirky twist. Each of the nine rooms/suites are colorfully decorated in styles ranging from modern to Baroque. The avant-garde rooms are the backdrop for the explosions of photography that line the walls.
Our travel partners having left for Italy. It’s just the two of us and we decide on a romantic dinner at the palace’s rooftop terrace restaurant, Stara Loza. We are surprised to see what looks like a young girl sitting on the ledge of the wall, but realize it’s an incredible lifelike, life- size sculpture. We smile to think their art had its way of startling us again.
With lovely vistas of the city, we dine on tuna tartare, veal risotto and squid with potatoes and avocado. It’s one of those perfect evenings. I smile at the older French couple sitting next to us and say ‘Isn’t this just one of the best places in the world?!” That leads to a discussion of their favorite travel destinations.
I take a moment to jot them all down and smile, thinking how this wonderful adventure we’ve had has culminated into a list of where we need to head to next.