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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Croatia
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Croatia
In grade school I was always the kid who eagerly awaited the newest issue of National Geographic magazine. I remember devouring each story, especially when it involved one of my favorite destinations — Greece. Reading about the Greek islands was thrilling. For a while, I had a bookmark with a photograph of the Parthenon in Athens.
Such treasures seemed so far away to a young Midwestern girl, but recently I visited those dreamed-about destinations in the best way possible—aboard Grand Circle Cruise Line’s M/I Athena.
Titled “Hidden Gems of the Dalmatian Coast & Greece,” the two-week itinerary included a night before the cruise at an Athens hotel and three nights afterwards in Zagreb, Croatia. Places we visited on the 10-day cruise: Delphi and Corfu in Greece, Butrint in Albania, Kotor in Montenegro, and Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar and Split in Croatia.
My cruise had 32 passengers. Grand Circle welcomes solo travelers, and there were four on my cruise, plus me. Founded in 1958, Grand Circle specializes in offering travel to Americans over age 50. Alan and island of Korcula, a port visited by Grand Circle’s Athena. The town claims to be the birthplace of Marco Polo.
Ivo Blocinaf Croatian National Tourist Board Harriet Lewis acquired the company in 1985, and it now has a dedicated fan base. On our cruise, only two of us had never traveled with Grand Circle before. Two couples in the group were taking their 13th trips with Grand Circle, the ultimate compliment.
A highlight of my first day in Athens was visiting the Acropolis and the $175-million Acropolis Museum, opened in June 2009. A strikingly modem building with glass galore, the museum sits on an archaeological site about a quarter-mile from the Acropolis. Glass floors in the entryway and elsewhere let you see excavations that may contain treasures yet undiscovered.
Next stop was the guard-changing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens. The two Greek soldiers known as evzones are self-disciplined almost beyond belief. Every 15 minutes, the guards change positions in an impressive slow march with highly stylized movements.
Stepping onto our tour bus, we left Athens to head to the ship. Resembling a luxurious yacht, the 50-passenger Athena is big enough to be comfortable but small enough to dock easily at islands that big ships seldom get to visit. My cabin was an outside stateroom (all Athena staterooms are outside) with a balcony, flat-screen TV, refrigerator, plenty of storage space and large walk-in shower.
The next day I was ready for our visit to ancient Delphi, a 40-minute drive from Itea, a town on the Corinth Canal, the east-west passageway that connects Athens to the Ionian Sea. On each shore excursion, passengers were divided into two groups with different program directors and local guides. Our tour itineraries varied slightly so that all 32 of us were not converging on the same place at the same time. Both groups saw the same things, just in a different order.
The Adriatic coastline of Croatia is contorted into so many bays and deeply gouged inlets, and laced with such a multitude of islands, that to explore it all would surely take a lifetime. A week can only offer a taster, but with a self-guided walking holiday, the landscape comes alive. Responsible Travel’s seven-night trip takes in the southernmost stretch of the country – that part of the historic province of Dalmatia that’s centred around Dubrovnik.
The walled city features in the itinerary, but the real focus is on its hinterland and satellite islands. The first day’s walking is spent in the valley of Konavle, among vineyards and old water mills. Later in the week, hikers take the ferry to the islands of Lopud and Mljet, to join looping trails past sandy beaches, Roman ruins, pine forests and medieval monasteries.
It’s a golden late afternoon at the marina, and nothing is moving among the white forest of masts except for a lone swan; anybody with ambitious plans for the day has long since sailed. One mile away across a natural harbour, the quayside cafés of Šibenik are filling up, as bells toll above the city’s stone streets. Almost exactly midway along the island-fringed Croatian coast, in the historic region of Dalmatia, this port makes a most fitting point from which to launch voyages of exploration. The Skalice (pronounced ska-lit- say) is moored at one of the jetties in Mandalina Marina. At just over 13m long, the boat is built on a smaller scale to the megayachts moored nearby, but she fits three snug cabins and a kitchen below deck, and, when her sails are up, she can go at quite a pace. None of that is thanks to me; I start the week knowing little more about sailing than the difference between port, starboard, bow and stern (and I have to think about the last two).
Instead, it’s Mate Bedrica – a professional skipper since he was 18 – who is preparing the Skalice for the short first leg of the trip. Mate is a ‘typical Dalmatian name’, he explains, equivalent to Matthew and rhyming more with ‘latte’ than ‘late’. No first mate jokes then. Now aged 25, he has sailed on a variety of boats, but this particular model is new to him. “The draught is 2.2 metres,” he says, pointing out how far the keel goes below the waterline. “That’s a lot on a boat this size. The deeper it is, the higher the mast, the bigger the sail and the more speed.” But this evening we are heading out under engine, as required in the narrow channel that links the harbour to the Adriatic Sea. We pass the belltowers of Šibenik and exit by the island fortress of St Nicholas, built in the 16th century by the Venetians to guard the approaches to the city against the Turks. Croatia has 1,244 islands by one official count. “I think I would have to work the next 25 years to know all of this coast,” says Mate. “But I like being around Šibenik – this is my home.”
In no time at all, he steers the boat to the small port on the island of Zlarin, where social hour is under way along the quay. In the honeyed light, with the smell of pine trees filling the air, people sit around tables at the stern of their boats, with glasses of wine and plates of prosciutto – or pršut – as the local wind-dried ham is known, after removing a few superfluous Italian vowels. Around midnight, with chatter still wafting over from a few of our boat-neighbours, I try out my cabin for the first time. There’s enough headroom to sit up in bed – if I go in feet first.
Zlarin Village is a delight to wake up to. Although the odd abandoned house tells of the modern drift of jobs from the islands to the mainland, the place is otherwise well kept; its streets and gardens filled with fig and mulberry trees, cornflowers, poppies, lavender and oleander. Much of the attraction in sailing this coast comes in discovering villages and towns like this, where sights are low-key and uncrowded.
A short crossing to the next island, Prvic´ , means a chance to stop by the small but smartly presented museum to Faust Vrancˇic´, a local inventor and scholar born in 1551, who may have made the first successful parachute jump in history. From Prvic´, Mate takes the Skalice northwest, still powered by engine. “Whether you can sail or not depends on the strength and direction of the wind,” he says. This particular boat can sail into a breeze up to 30 degrees either side of its bearing, but conditions aren’t worth it for where we are headed today. While there’s a definite romance in crossing the seas purely on the power of wind, sailors in Faust Vrancˇic´’s time would surely have been grateful had the motor been invented then, at least on days when the choice was between rowing or waiting for the next favourable gust. On the way to Murter – a larger town on the island of the same name – Mate sings snatches of song as he stands at the wheel. He is part of a klapa, a traditional Dalmatian choral group, and they perform outside Šibenik’s cathedral most Saturdays.
As he fits in his a cappella practice, I look out to port to see hazy, rounded shapes dotted along the horizon, fading to a final point like the last notes of a symphony. These are the Kornati Islands, the densest grouping in the whole coastal chain, and our aim for the next day.
Buildings of any kind are sparse on the Kornati Islands, so before leaving Murter, we head to Delikatese Vukšic´, in a small market square, to pick up ham, cheese and other picnic supplies. Owner Mile Vukšic´ shares a common Croatian pride in the country’s cured pork products. “Spanish ham has all the marketing,” he says.
“But ours is just as good.” Helping at the counter, Kristina Turcˇinov holds up a garland of figs and bay leaves. “Try some with the ham – it’s delicious,” she says. We do just that a few hours later, after dropping anchor for lunch in a quiet bay on Levrnaka, one of the Kornati Islands. The meal is watched by a large seagull who bobs around the boat with the air of an overbearing customs official. The spindly, 24km-long main island of Kornat and its smaller neighbours appear barren from the sea, their forests of holm oak cut down centuries ago to provide grazing land for sheep.
Without the tree cover, the contours of the islands are smoother, more sculptural, the long folds in the rock criss-crossing with drystone walls built by shepherds. The islands form a national park, although the land is still owned and sporadically used by the islanders of Murter. Just after leaving Levrnaka, I spot two buildings on the shore of Kornat and ask Mate if we can stop by. I take the dinghy from the Skalice to a small jetty and a path up to a whitewashed church, which sits at the foot of a hill topped by the ruins of a Byzantine fort. In July, hundreds of boats gather here for a pilgrimage, but, today, there are no human inhabitants, just four surprised black-faced sheep. The evening stop is the most remote of the week: the small island of Ravni Žakan, which nevertheless has a good restaurant on it.
The mooring is less sheltered from the Adriatic than at previous marinas, and, though the waves are slight, the ropes creak against the hull. At 11pm, I’m about to turn in for the night when Mate hears a large fishing boat come in to dock, and he suggests we buy some prawns from them. The fishermen aboard the Ares work fast in the lamplight, going through their catch and tossing anything unwanted to the ghost-like seagulls wheeling in the dark beyond.
This 6th-century church, a Byzantine masterpiece, is decorated with splendid mosaics on a gold background. The Basilica of Euphrasius was constructed for Bishop Euphrasius between 539 and 553 by enlarging the 4th-century Oratory of St. Maurus, one of the earliest Christian religious sites in the world. Over the centuries, the building has undergone several alterations. Some of the original floor mosaics have survived — they were discovered during restoration work in the 19th century.
Little is known about the lives of St. Maurus, the first bishop of Porec, and Bishop Euphrasius. In the 4th century, St. Maurus built an oratory used by early Christians for secret worship. Legend says that he endured a martyr’s death during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. In the 6th century, his body was transferred from a cemetery near the basilica to the Votive Chapel. The influential Bishop Euphrasius sought the best craftsmen for the construction of his basilica and created one of the greatest architectural complexes of the period.
The art of mosaic, especially in churches, peaked during the Byzantine period. Small, colored glass pieces were inlaid onto the walls, while hard-wearing natural stones and marbles were encrusted into the floors. In the 6th century, mosaicists began to use gold and silver glass tesserae in their designs to reflect the maximum amount of light. Most mosaics depicted biblical scenes or saints, but a few also included images of the builders. Bishop Euphrasius commissioned marvelous Byzantine designs for his basilica. The most impressive is that of the Virgin and Child in the apse, flanked by images of St. Maurus and Euphrasius (apse mosaics).
The Basilica of Euphrasius is entered through the atrium, which contains traces of the Byzantine mosaics that were restored in the 19th century. Nearby is the baptistry, built with a wooden roof in the 5th century and remodeled during the construction of Euphrasius’s basilica. Christian converts were baptized in the central font until the 15th century. Inside the basilica, beautiful mosaics, made partly from semi-precious stones and mother-of-pearl, are still visible, especially in the apse and the ciborium. Several fires and earthquakes over the centuries have altered the shape of the building, the southern wall of the central nave was destroyed in the 15th century and later rebuilt with Gothic windows. On the western side of the basilica is the Holy Cross Chapel, adorned with a 15th-century polyptych by the Venetian artist Antonio Vivarini.
The remains of a mosaic floor from the 4th century oratory can be seen in the church’s garden.
Sacristy and Votive Chapel
Past the sacristy’s left wall is a triple-apsed chapel wi1tl a mosaic floor from the 6th century . The remains of saints Maurus and Eleuterius lie here.
Dominating the presbytery is a beautiful 13th-century ciborium, or canopy, supported by four marble columns. It is decorated with mosaics.
Mosaics from the 6th century cover the apse. On the triumphal arch are Christ and the Apostles; on the vault, the Virgin enthroned with Child and two Angels; to the left are St. Maurus, Bishop Euphrasius with a model of the basilica, and Deacon Claud with his son.
A triple-aisled building dating from the 6th century, this now houses several paintings by Antonio da Bassano, a polyptych by Antonio Vivarini, and a painting by Palma il Giovane.
This octagonal building dates from the 6th century. In the center is a baptismal font and there are also fragments of mosaic. To the rear rises a 16th-century bell tower.
Interior of the Basilica
The entrance leads to a large church with a central nave and two side aisles. The 18 marble columns are topped by Byzantine and Romanesque capitals carved with depictions of animals. All bear the monogram of Euphrasius.
This has a roughly square portico with two columns on each side. Tombstones and a variety of archeological finds dating from Ill e medieval period are displayed in this area.
Near the Basilica of Euphrasius is the regional museum, which was opened in 1884. It contains more than 2,000 exhibits, including mosaics from as early as the 3rd century, as well as crosses, altarpieces, and choir stalls.
539-53: The Basilica of Euphrasius is built on the site of the Oratory of St. Maurus.
1277: A great marble ciborium is built, ordered by Otto, Bishop of Porec.
1800s: Restoration work on the basilica repairscenturies of damage.
1997: The Basilica of Euphrasius is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
While Croatia remains a below-the-radar destination for many U.S. travelers, this eastern European gem and home to dozens of sites in the HBO series Game of Thrones is “a must-see that offers plenty of immersive experiences especially for epicures,” says Patricia Shachat, a Virtuoso advisor from Lakewood Ranch, Florida. Here, Shachat shares insights garnered during her recent nine-day journey with Calvados Club Luxury Travel.
Shachat raves about her tour of the food-centric Istria peninsula, which included a hunt for white truffles in the village of Livade and a private winetasting in Momjan, epicenter of Istria’s wine country. She recommends a visit to the Kabola Winery to sample its muscat, malvasia, and teran vintages. “The cellar is located underground,” Shachat explains, “and the wine undergoes a prolonged fermentation in amphorae [two-handled storage jars] a process that goes back millennia.” Her trip also included opportunities to sample Croatia’s regional specialties, many of them seafood based, including “a memorable meal in Rovinj featuring a fusion of traditional and modern Mediterranean dishes.”
Feasts for the Eyes
Ranking high on Shachat’s list of must-see attractions is the UNESCO-designated Plitvice Lakes National Park. “It comprises 16 distinctively colored lakes interconnected by a series of waterfalls and set in deep woodland populated with wildlife and rare bird species. Each turn brings yet another picture-perfect photo opportunity.” Another favorite destination: the island of Hvar. It’s especially popular in summer, she says, “when the small harbor is dotted with celebrities’ yachts.” To get there, Shachat suggests flying via floatplane from Split (“my favorite port city in the country”), to take advantage of the spectacular views of the Croatian archipelago.
If You Only Have a Week
Shachat recommends building your itinerary around Dubrovnik (Croatia’s best-known port), Hvar, Split, and Plitvice Lakes National Park. If time permits, add Istria and Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Game of Thrones enthusiasts can visit settings featured in the series, including Dubrovnik’s Bokar Fortress (King’s Landing), nearby Trsteno Arboretum (the Red Keep’s gardens), and Split’s Diocletian’s Palace (site of many of Daenerys’ scenes).
When And How to Go
April through June and September through October are ideal months to visit, Shachat notes. Your advisor can work with Virtuoso’s local tour providers to create a tailor-made trip.
For anyone following coast roads south through Croatia, Ml jet represents the grand finale – one last big island, before the Dalmatian Archipelago fades out into the Adriatic Sea. It’s a case of saving the best until last, with Ml jet being one of the most untouched islands in the Mediterranean: all tumbledown terracotta-roofed villages (such as Prozurska Luka, pictured), quiet stone quays and low-slung hills forested with Aleppo pine.
It’s equally perfect whether you board one of the sailing boats that bob beside limestone rocks or cycle along the solitary road that wriggles its way across the interior. Explorers from both sea and land can visit the Odysseus Cave — a sea tunnel rumoured to be the spot where the Greek sailor was imprisoned by the nymph Calypso, and into which brave swimmers set out on their own mini-odyssey.
Beguiling, compact and steeped in history, Dubrovnik is the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’. A 7th century citadel and modem metropolis rolled into one, there are many sights to experience, so staying at the heart of the action is vital so you don’t miss a thing. That’s where Valamar Hotels comes in. A stay at one of its five resorts provides the ideal base for exploring. And with two of its hotels – the four-star Valamar Argosy and five-star Valamar Dubrovnik President, both on the tranquil Babin Kuk peninsula -having received a revamp, there’s never been a better time to discover Croatia.
A day of Dubrovnik – Reopening in June, the five-star Valamar Dubrovnik President Hotel sits at the very tip of the Babin Kuk peninsula, looking across to the picturesque Elaphiti Islands. If you just fancy some pampering, the Valamar Dubrovnik President’s renovations include an indulgent wellness area, high-end restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools and a first-class level of personalised service.
Meanwhile, the relaunched Valamar Argosy Hotel has plenty of pleasures of its own: the landscaped meditation gardens, its own wellbeing area and the pebble Copacabana Beach is just a stone’s throw away. And at dinner, you can enjoy views of Daksa Island from your table. Of course, the headline attraction is that Dubrovnik’s city walls and UNESCO-listed Old Town are just 6km away. We’d suggest getting to the walls early, meaning the 2km promenade of preserved stonework will be all yours. And at the end of the day exploring the Old Town and surrounding Mount Srd, return to the verdant oasis of your Valamar hotel – your exclusive seafront retreat.
Dario skidded on the dirt track, the back wheel of his bike spraying dust into the dry air. “Viper!” he shouted. “Be careful!” I braked hard and looked to where he was pointing, just in front of my wheel, to see a mottled brown sliver of tail slide into the dense maquis. My heart pumped. But I was exhilarated as much as frightened. Croatia’s horned vipers are Europe’s deadliest snake, but their presence was a sure sign that the surrounding countryside was pristine. It certainly felt so. The empty road stretched bone-white in front of us for 3km, winding round the distant spur of a hill.
Above to our right, the maquis-covered mountainside rose sharply and peaked at a soaring ridge-top lookout. To our left the bush dropped in waves of green, broken by pale grey crags of rutted, weather-worn limestone. Below lay Vransko Jezero, a limpid lake, blue as a summer day, fringed with rushes and busy with herons and bitterns. The sea shimmered beyond, dotted with dimpled islands that merged with a distant, hazy horizon.
Even in March I was sweltering. Dario handed me a bottle that he’d filled from a rushing stream at the start of our ride. I took a long, cool swig and thought of England. It would be raining at Stansted, just as it had been when I’d clambered aboard the cramped Ryanair flight a few days before, on my way to somewhere called Zadar. I knew nothing of Croatia beyond the Balkan conflict and the pretty pictures of Dubrovnik I’d seen on the internet. And while Dubrovnik flights had been pricey, Zadar – some 220km to the north – was the cheapest Mediterranean destination I could find. It sounded like something from the Arabian Nights – but was probably, I’d reckoned, a grey Eastern European town of choking chimneys and tawdry Iron Curtain tower blocks. My plan had been to find a hostel for the night and then catch the bus south.
But Zadar was a delight – a labyrinth of streets built on a tongue of land extending into the bottle-blue Adriatic. The skyline was of terracotta roofs and the domes and spires of Renaissance churches. Searching for a room, I wandered through streets lined with Venetian houses. They led to airy piazzas lined with cafes and paved with flags polished marble-smooth by the passage of time and the shuffle of myriad feet. Nestled next to the water were the ruined columns and broken pediments of one of the Mediterranean’s few remaining Roman Forums. The hostel, housed in a building next to the towering Romanesque cathedral, was cheap, airy and surprisingly empty. I checked in and, while sipping a macchiato out under the stars, I resolved to stay in Zadar and use it as a base to explore the Croatian coast.
A bit cheesy – My first day was spent on Pag, a long, low island famous for its beaches, summer revelry – and cheese. Arriving by ferry from the mainland, the landscape looked as barren as a rocky moon: lifeless limestone burnt by the fierce sun, crenelated by the desiccating bura wind and set stark white against a Matisse-blue sea. The tiny main town, set under towering crags in a long, lullaby-calm cove, was in low-season sleep. Streets echoed with footfalls. A single fisherman carried his catch home from the harbour. A widow knitted intricate lace in the shaded doorway of the 15th-century Gothic cathedral. Tourists were limited to a handful of Italians eating fresh sardines by the waterfront in the warm sun.
The guidebook called Pag the new Ibiza. I hitched a ride to Zrce, the party beach. It was deserted but for the gulls in the sky and the dolphins in the adjacent cove. The turquoise water lapping the polished pebbles was warm on the toes so I took a refreshing swim. Then I climbed the hill and walked inland through rocky fields of bleating sheep, criss-crossed by dry stone walls. The scented air was filled with bees and butterflies, and the fragrance of wild rosemary and sage.
It may not have the samba-fuelled antics of Rio de Janeiro or the giddy opulence of Venice, but Rijeka wins at carnivals when it comes to sheer stamina: with the Croatian port town staging an entire month of festivities through February. A recent revival of a medieval tradition, the highlight of the carnival is the 10,000-strong parade, with locals marching through the town’s grand Habsburg-era avenues, dressed variously as crabs, bananas, Vikings or simply wearing masks – a legacy of Venetian rule over the city.
From here it’s just over an hour’s drive to a more sedate corner of Croatia, the fishing town of Rovinj, whose graceful Old Town juts out into the sea. Pine-shaded beaches and quiet seaside promenades provide an ideal spot to recuperate from any post-carnival headaches.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Rijeka’s Carnival runs from 17 January to 18 February – the grand parade takes place on 15 February.
The closest airport to Rijeka is actually the Italian city of Trieste – 1.1/2 hours’ drive away (plus you get to cross Slovenia on the way). Ryanair flies from London Stansted.
Car hire options are plentiful at Trieste Airport.
The Hotel Lone has high-design rooms in a striking modern building on the fringes of Rovinj.
CROATIA’S VIBRANT CAPITAL is constantly reinventing itself. Restaurant menus change seasonally, parking lots play host to trending bike sports, and cobblestone streets alternate between pedestrian thoroughfares and late-night party strips. Gallivanting gourmands flock to Park Bundek for the annual Oktoberfest, while eager shoppers sniff out its remarkable design stores. And there is nary a vacant lot or blank wall that a pop-up bar or street artist hasn’t already discovered.
It’s all-change in the Croatian capital. While the urban fabric of the city might look the same as it was ten, 20 or maybe even 50 years ago, life on the streets is beginning to dance to a new set of tunes. To start with the most obvious sign of change; a new breed of cafes, bars and bistros are threading their way along the central thoroughfares, heralding a new going-out culture that is slowly stretching further and further into the suburbs. Elsewhere, the evidence is more subtle; a new fashion boutique here, a Croatian design store there, and an organic delicatessen shop opening up just around the corner.
When Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 people expected the country’s high streets to adopt a more globalised look. In fact, almost the opposite has happened, with Zagreb not so much preserving its unique identity as adding to it, with a well chosen selection of image-enhancing tweaks. The quality of the eating, drinking and shopping experience in Zagreb has gone up, not because the city is becoming more internationalised, but because there is more focus on what’s local – local wines, local ingredients, local products and a typically local emphasis on the good things in life.
By far the biggest change to overtake the city is the year-on-year increase in tourist numbers, turning Zagreb from Central Europe’s best-kept secret to a veritable regional tourism tiger. The booming popularity of Croatia’s Adriatic coast has certainly helped. Zagreb, despite being a couple of hours away from the sea, is an obvious entry point for beach-bound vacationers. But that is far from being the whole story. Global travellers increasingly want to visit cities with an authentic pulse – and Zagreb, with its relatively tourist trap-free landscape of street markets, pavement cafe terraces, quaint courtyards and gritty-but-not-too-grungey alternative nightlife, fits the bill admirably.