When I mentioned that my husband and I had just returned from a trip to Croatia and Slovenia this fall, an acquaintance said, “You must have been everywhere else.” Not so.
By Michele von Dambrowski Gothberg
When I mentioned that my husband and I had just returned from a trip to Croatia and Slovenia this fall, an acquaintance said, “You must have been everywhere else.” Not so. Instead, we were drawn to experiencing the Adriatic Sea, the Julian Alps, beautiful lakes and waterfalls, noteworthy historic spots, charming towns, friendly people, and lots of value for our dollar.
And, as our visit extended into late September, the disappearance of throngs of tourists. As always, my husband, Mark, planned the entire trip.
First stop was Dubrovnik, Croatia, whose historic walled city is closed to vehicular traffic and is the site of the filming of the HBO series, “Game of Thrones.” The highlight was our walk atop the city walls and a spectacular view of the sea and red tile rooftops. As in most of our other destinations, we stayed in a studio apartment in the midst of the old town. Weather permitting, we ate lunch and sometimes dinner outside in the many lovely cafes that dotted our destination’s central city. Seafood – especially octopus, squid, and sea bass – was plentiful and delicious. Dalmatian ham, Pag Island cheese, and grilled vegetables were also hits.
In our last full day in Dubrovnik, we rented a car and drove nearly six hours roundtrip to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, site of a beautiful 16th- century stone bridge, which was destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian War and subsequently rebuilt. While the bridge was impressive, and we enjoyed a tasty Bosnian lunch on a terrace overlooking the scene, the old part of Mostar had turned into a tourist bazaar. Shops lined the difficult-to-maneuver, smooth-rock-paved walkway leading to and from the bridge. If you go, be sure to visit the local museum that chronicles the 1990s conflict before continuing onto Sarajevo, about two hours away, and spending the night. Still, we saw some beautiful scenery, especially on the way north along the coast, and encountered several border crossings. Croatia’s coastline is interrupted for a few miles to allow Bosnia a sliver of access to the Adriatic. Inadvertently, we drove through the first border without stopping, fortunately without incident.
A late afternoon ferry the next day brought us to Korcula, one of the largest of Croatia’s islands. Laid-back compared with its more popular neighbor, Hvar, the island is a gem that offers vineyards, small towns, and stunning vistas. Our apartment was steps away from the promenade alongside the waterfront of Korcula Town, reputedly the birthplace of Marco Polo. Island highlights included dinner at a traditional Croatian restaurant and an afternoon at a lovely but rocky beach.
Another inexpensive ferry (less than $11 for a three-hour trip with few stops) brought us to the city of Split, whose star attraction is the Palace of Diocletian, built by a Roman emperor of that name around 300 AD. The restored basement halls, whose layout mirrors the long ago destroyed upper floors, provide a worthy perspective of the building and the area’s seafaring history. One afternoon we took a 45-minute bus ride to the medieval town of Trogir, whose charm outweighed that of Split. Actually an island, Trogir is connected to the mainland by two small bridges and consists of narrow mazelike streets filled with restaurants and nice shops. The Romanesque-Gothic cathedral features a niche containing a statue of a crucified Jesus surrounded by skulls. At the cathedral’s main doors are Adam and Eve statues, which correspond to the statues of a lion and lioness at their feet.
The next day, a Tuesday, found us on the road, having rented a car for the remainder of the trip, heading inland to Plitvice Lakes National Park. On the way we stopped for lunch at Sibenik, which landed us in the midst of a local festival that featured a Catholic service broadcast over town speakers. We soon were part of the service; its congregants having spilled out in the plaza in front of the church. Wearing native costumes, a dozen or so women sang during the mass.
Leaving the coast, we drove northeast on a great highway, which hugged wind-gust-deflecting barriers and spanned sprawling valleys with bridges or tunneled through mountains.
Arriving in Plitvice Lakes National Park in the late afternoon, we were greeted by a light drizzle and temperatures in the high 40s – some 30 degrees cooler than in our previous destinations. Our accommodations were in a large lodge inside the 115-square-mile park. Although convenient and restful, the Hotel Bellevue appeared like a throwback to the earlier years of Tito’s Communist regime. The next day, despite being rainy and cold again, welcomed us with hundreds of waterfalls cascading from a network of 16 tiered lakes. We spent five hours easily hiking the trails, many of which consisted of narrow boardwalks that wound over, around, and behind the falls. We were most impressed by the park’s beauty and the great attention paid to its maintenance.
The following day found us enjoying the sun and much warmer weather as we headed back toward the coast and the Istrian Peninsula. We ate lunch in Pula, the site of a Roman amphitheater, which today is used for outdoor concerts and other events for up to 5,000 people. Arriving in mid-afternoon at our destination of Rovinj, we were reminded of a smaller version of Dubrovnik. We again stayed at a charming apartment – as usual a third-floor walkup. The lovely young couple that owned the small apartment building presented us with a bottle of wine and spent considerable time mapping the route for our next destination. We ate dinner at a pizza restaurant and socialized with a free-spirited British couple – the husband, an architect, and the wife, a relief worker who had traveled to numerous natural disaster sites.
The next day, we wandered the streets of Rovinj, visited the local church and its bell tower, and marveled at all the truffles for sale at an extensive outdoor market. (Early October was the start of the truffle harvest.) A visit to the local museum surprised us with an exhibition of Picasso ceramics. Another exhibit by a local artist depicted a progression of events that featured a young woman meeting the man of her dreams only to finding herself alone with a baby in the last painting.
Slovenia was next on our itinerary, which would bring us through a pass in the Julian Alps – 24 hairpin turns up and another 24 down, all duly noted by signs that also posted the elevations. The Soca River, whose hue changes from turquoise to emerald to celery green, winds through the mountainous region. The area saw some of the bloodiest battles of World War I and claimed the lives of 1.7 million mostly Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers during a 29-month period. The fighting was fodder for Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” whose hero – like the novel’s author – served as an American ambulance driver on the Italian Front.
We arrived in the resort town of Bled in the late afternoon, with my husband dismayed to realize that Lake Bled was probably too cold for him to take his last swim of the trip and evoke memories of a summer vacation in Bled decades ago. Our full day in Bled was spent walking around the lake and marveling at the Gothic church on a small island in the middle of the lake. Tradition states that a groom has to carry his bride up all 99 steps of the church’s staircase to get married there. After lunch we ventured into the countryside to see Lake Bohinj, which because of the rain was barely visible.That disappointment was assuaged by a drive through a lovely village, where flowers festooned the windows and balconies of every house. The sun returned just as we drove back to Bled, which gave us the opening we needed to visit its fairy-tale castle, high above the town.
After a hearty breakfast at our hotel, we set out for Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and a big college town (40,000 students strong), arriving just before noon. The sun and warm weather having returned, we ate lunch outside near the river that cuts through the urban area. Like many areas we visited, the center city is closed to vehicular traffic. Residents have cards, which allow them to lower barrier posts and drive into the center city.
We decided to take a free walking tour (pay what you feel it’s worth) with a young man who was supplementing his salary as a high school history and French teacher. Nearly three hours later, our international group of 11 mostly 20-somethings had learned so much from Daniel, especially the influence of the 20th century architect Joze Plecnik on the capital’s center, particularly its bridges, national and university library, and marketplace. We were told university students pay little, if anything, for their education and receive vouchers that entitle them to 20 half-price restaurant meals a month. That might explain why students average seven-and-a-half years to obtain a four-years degree!
Daniel also gave us a Balkan history lesson, focusing on the origin of the 1990s civil war and the fact that Slovenia, whose war lasted less than two weeks, was relatively unscathed in fighting that left parts of many other countries in rubble. Thirty-five years after his death, Communist leader Marshal Tito is still well regarded for granting Yugoslavs passports and holding antagonistic ethnic factions together.
Another day in what we decided was our favorite city found us taking the funicular up to Ljubljana’s castle, where an audio tour described how an infamous noble escaped imprisonment via a well. Later we passed the parliament building, where sculptures of naked men, women, and children engaged in daily activities cover the façade of the entrance. Not much for shopping, we ended up purchasing two colorful folk-art beehive doors, which in Slovenian culture are attributed to attracting bees back to their own hives. Dinner at a splendid restaurant brought Mark’s wish, a horse steak. (More tender than venison, the meat comes from small horses especially bred for this somewhat pricey delicacy.)
The next day, we drove about 90 minutes to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. A fairly big city, Zagreb is divided into an upper and lower town. The lower town contains government buildings, large hotels, extensive plazas, and cultural institutions – including the yellow stone art pavilion and the national theater. The upper town is home to smaller museums and galleries. A museum of Croatian art that featured whimsical paintings by self-taught artists was a treasure. Also high on the list of treasures was St. Mark’s Church, whose most noteworthy characteristic is a mosaic tile roof decorated with four huge coats of arms. We also visited the central farmer’s market, which lacked an extensive area for flowers and didn’t seem as large as the one in Ljubljana.
While we didn’t often get lost while driving, that was not the case the next day in finding the airport. Our mistake was not getting good directions to navigate by town name. Identifying road signs were almost nonexistent, and the tiny airplane symbol was easily missed. Welcome to Croatia, proclaimed the car rental agent when we complained about our difficulty finding the airport and, once there, locating the correct lot and its attendant, who was off on a coffee break. Aside from a few glitches, a wonderful 18 days!