Croatia & Montenegro Road Trip: Croatia
Our trip to Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula in Spring 2015 left us wanting more, so almost exactly one year later we returned to Croatia, this time to its dreamy Dalmatian Coast (we also spent time in Montenegro which we will cover soon). We grabbed an early morning flight from Gatwick and appreciated the country’s beautifully jagged coast and the sparkling Adriatic Sea from above during our descent. There is an inexpensive shuttle that meets every arriving flight to transport eager batches of travelers to the Old City (be sure to sit on the left side to appreciate the views of the sea on the way!). Croatia is a proud country with a recent turbulent past; it was only 25 years ago that Croatia broke away from the former Yugoslavia and suffered through one of the bloodiest and most complex wars in Europe’s modern history. Dubrovnik embodies the spirit of the Croatian people as they emerged from their independence better than maybe any other major city in the country.
The Old City is one of the most stunning we’ve ever seen. This is no secret—the city is overrun with tourists during the high season, but we found ways to avoid the crowds and enjoy an intimate experience with the city. That said, we didn’t stop ourselves from strolling down Stradun (the Old City’s main drag) or sharing gelato and enjoying live music, weddings and parades in the square near Crkva Sveti Vlaha and Ploče Gate. These are essential elements to visits to this city. But we found less crowded spots not more than 60 seconds from these hot spots. For example, Gunduliceva Poljana is a square that hosts a market with fresh produce and colorful candies where we grabbed our breakfast for each day. One way to beat the heat and in some cases the crowds is visiting one of Dubrovnik’s many churches—the Franciscan Monastery has a beautiful courtyard and a fascinating old map of the city in its museum, Crkva Sveti Spasa is nearby and worth a visit, Dubrovačka Katedrala is the main Catholic church in the city and shows scars of war (look for bullet holes in the façade), Crkva Sveti Ignacija can be reached by a dramatic staircase reminiscent of Rome’s Spanish Steps, and the Orthodox Church & Icon Museum offers a glimpse into the faith practiced by many in this corner of Europe.
Part of what we loved so much about Dubrovnik’s Old City was what it offered arounds its edges. The city walls are a must, offering great views of the city itself from the north side (especially from Minčeta Tower) and of the open sea from the south side. You can also appreciate from the walls how the many statues of patron Saint Blaise guard the city. Pay attention to the shade of the terracotta shingles that adorn the tops of the buildings here—the dark ones are older while the bright ones are new, used to repair the damage caused by shelling during the war. We spent our evenings at the eastern port (which you can access without having to pay the fee to walk the walls) watching the colors of the sky change from vibrant orange to fiery red and finally to dull blue during sunset. There’s a little red lighthouse—the Porporela—at the end of the jetty and a small area to lay out, swim and cliff jump.
Some of the best things about Dubrovnik’s Old City are those that you can do outside of it. Lovrijenac is a nearby fortress that offers stunning views of the city. When we were walking to the fortress we stumbled on a pair of German girls trying to gather enough people to take a photo with a flag for charity in support of refugees. It’s sad to think that we may walk right past with no second thought if we saw this in London, but something about being away and in an explorative mood made us happy to participate, even calling (and in some cases begging!) for others to join in order for the girls to get the minimum number of people required. The entrance to the city’s cable car is also right outside the Old City and worth an hour or two. The views from the ride and up at the top are incredible, especially near sunset, and we could really appreciate from this height the beauty of engineering and architecture that is Old Dubrovnik. If you’re tempted to cool off at Banje Beach, think about walking the extra 20 minutes to Sveti Jakov Beach instead. Sitting below its namesake church, this beach is more picturesque and less crowded than Banje Beach with inexpensive chair rentals and a restaurant (more to come on food…)—and you can still see the Old City from your beach chair!
We took a half-day private boat tour with Dubrovnik Boat Tours which we would heavily recommend. Our tour guide Denis was knowledgeable, laid back and accommodating. He took us past the Isle of Lokrum (again, more on this soon!) southwest along the coast where we rode past dolphins leaping from the clear teal water! We reached the small coastal town of Cavtat where Denis dropped us off for a few hours. The town is very small, but very picturesque and dotted with shiny yachts, most of which proudly fly the Croatian flag. We did a loop through the town’s main peninsula, from Crkva Svetog Nikole through back streets to the Racic Mausoleum which crowns the town’s highest point. We walked back down along the coast to the peninsula’s eastern edge, around the point and back toward the main drag past Gospa od Snijega.
Once back in the boat we set our sights on the Isle of Lokrum. Denis dropped us off and we agreed to take one of the many (and frequent) ferries to the mainland. This gave us the whole afternoon to explore the small island. We started at the botanical gardens and quickly realized that the island is completely overrun with bunnies! We spent a lot of time trying to convince them that we were their friends, but they were skeptical of us. Fort Royal, at the island’s highest point, is the island’s main draw and we walked up to take in the views of Dubrovnik on one side and the open sea on the other. The walk along the water on the island’s west coast was very peaceful and eventually lead us back to the center where we stopped for lunch at one of the island’s restaurants. We wrapped up our visit with a swim at the Mrtvo More (“Dead Sea”), one of the coolest spots at which we’ve ever had a swim, and a walk around the rocky southern edge of the island back toward the pier.
We had a great food experience in Dubrovnik which always enhances a visit somewhere. We enjoyed slices of pizza from Pizzeria Oliva as our first meal and the deliciousness should have tipped us off to what was ahead of us for the rest of our time there. Rico fell in love with one of the local specialties—ćevapi—first enjoying it at the Sveti Jakov Restaurant while Britt dove into some grilled shrimp. Ćevapi made another appearance at our favorite meal of the trip—a shared mixed grill from Lady Pi Pi which also included chicken, pork, sausage with veggies and fries. The restaurant is outdoors, set under a roof of twisting and tangling plants, and we could watch our meat being prepared and cooked in the outdoor grill. Truffle was a hit—and local specialty—in Istria, so we threw it back to our previous trip with homemade truffle pasta at Rozario. And, don’t worry, we also had more than our fair share of gelato over the three days!
We left Dubrovnik with a couple of great souvenirs (woven bookmarks from Tilda, handmade by a local woman and her mother, and a small watercolor painting of the Old City from Dubrovnik Kuča. From there we grabbed a shuttle back to the airport to pick up a car and drive over the border to Montenegro. Stay tuned for our adventures in one of Europe’s youngest and most underappreciated nations!