Croatia was never really on our bucket list, but after always hearing and reading so many positive things about it, it seemed it would be the perfect place after all for a short road trip over the long Easter weekend. From Zurich to Zagreb is only 1.5 hours, even with an older propeller-engine plane. Zagreb’s airport is small but nice, and after a quick coffee, we were already holding the rental car keys in our hands and driving to Plitvice Lakes National Park.
I admit I had a fair amount of respect for driving on Mediterranean roads, which are known for their aggressive driving style. But Croatia proved to be a very peaceful country with perfect streets, light traffic, and pleasant drivers. From beginning to end, I truly enjoyed driving there.
Along the way to Plitvice, it’s worth making a stop at Rastoke, where the picturesque bridges, large waterfall, and country houses make for a great picture.
About 2.5 hours later, we arrived in Plitvice Lakes National Park. Just six hours after leaving behind the rush and stress of Zurich, we were surrounded by peaceful silence, with only the sound of the twitter of birds and the wind in the trees. Following our arrival, we had a cozy dinner at Hotel Jezero and even squeezed in a little bowling later on.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
The next morning, our guide Helena met us on time at the hotel for a comfortable walk to the Plitvice lakes. Our goal, of course, was to photograph the magnificent waterfalls. But to take a picture like the famous photo of multiple waterfalls from a bird’s-eye view is unfortunately not an option for tourists. For that picture, you would need either a helicopter or a drone, and both are strictly forbidden. Still, nature knew how to impress us with its views from the beautiful trails. The complex ecosystem has created a unique formation of a series of lakes and waterfalls, and the lime deposits that form the landscape continue to grow unabated. The best time to visit the park is outside the summer high season. Otherwise, you’ll never get away from the hordes of people.
After our wonderful excursion in nature, we had an excellent meal of local trout for lunch at Licka Kuca and later drove on to Split.
Split – A Place for Lingering
Welcome to Split, where just three hours later we parked our car in this history-laden city on the Adriatic Sea. Without any prior knowledge (OK, so a little, thanks to Game of Thrones) or great expectations, we found ourselves overwhelmed by Split! Our hotel was in the center of the Old Town, placing us right by the alleys and buildings that have existed for hundreds of years, though their appearance regularly changed through the influence of various conquerors: the Romans, Greeks, and Venetians all left their imprint on the city’s architecture. Anyone wandering through Diocletian’s palace can read the signs left behind. Examples are statues from the ancient Egyptians, Venetian balconies, or simply the clotheslines that hang between the houses – an image most familiar to us from Italy. We also learned the following about these clotheslines: they were once an ingenious communications system for the teenage youth, who used them to send romantic messages. Girls would also send specific signals by hanging their lingerie out to dry. That was supposed to attract potential suitors.
Our tour through the palace, which you can see for yourself in 360 degrees on our platform, began before the impressive statue of Gregory of Nin, who as the defender of the Holy Mass in the Slavic language tangled with the Pope himself. After securing some luck for yourself by rubbing his half-meter long, beautifully gleaming feet, you pass through the Golden Gate into the famous complex.
The gate was built with a strategic ulterior motive in mind: in a threatening situation, the attackers would first arrive in the stone courtyard, where a second gate would quickly be shut behind them, so that they now found themselves in a mousetrap where they could be doused with hot oil.
A few more steps, and we find ourselves right in the midst of an old town, full of small palaces, shops, bars, and tourists. Those who prefer peace and quiet for viewing the main square in front of Diocletian’s palace should arrive very early in the morning. Otherwise, there’s still the rooftop terrace on top of the Ethnographic Museum. The terrace is empty at 9 am and offers a gorgeous panoramic view.
Split is lively and up and coming, in addition to harboring many cultural treasures and being near two beautiful beaches. This little town will not remain a secret very long.
But for us, it was already time to say goodbye. Our next stop was Dubrovnik, with two meal stops planned for along the way.
Omis – A Pirates’ Lair
On the way to Dubrovnik, we stopped in Omis, a village known for being a pirates’ hideaway.
At the restaurant Kastil Slanica, we experienced Croatia’s wonderful hospitality once again. The fish and meat dishes would easily have fed not just us but an entire large family. The wine and liquor offerings were also more than adequate. But since I had to keep driving, it was left to Kevin to enjoy a generous aperitif. After this superb lunch, we were well fortified for the rest of the trip.
Mali Ston – A Paradise for Oyster Lovers
Onward we went along the sea, briefly passing through Bosnia-Herzegovina to Mali Ston. If you have time, be sure to visit this little village, known for its oyster and mussel farming. The village itself is small and in need of repair in many spots, though this still doesn’t detract from the main draw: the most delicious and freshest seafood. The clear water, shallow depths, and warm current are optimal conditions for shellfish culture.
You can get spoiled in a restaurant with seafood specialities (we were at Villa Koruna), or if you want something even fresher, you can take a boat right to the farms, where you can see with your own eyes how oysters and mussels are raised. Afterwards, you’re served fully grown mussels with a fine local wine. There really is no fresher or better way to eat mussels.
Dubrovnik – Croatia’s Red Heart
All across the world, there are many towns with red roofs (hello, Cuzco!), but the first one that springs to mind for me is definitely Dubrovnik! The red clay roof tiles have long been an icon and the pride of the inhabitants. Dubrovnik is a filming location for lots of Hollywood flicks, but its own history could outdo any bestseller. It’s a wealthy, free city that was the first in Europe to abolish slavery and that paid in gold for the construction of its wall. Its social system was also extremely advanced for that period. In spite of turbulent times of war, Dubrovnik was never captured because of its skillful use of diplomacy. It was only during the Yugoslavian war that the bombs fell and destroyed many of the red roofs. For the reconstruction, the clay tiles were hand-made in France, since Croatia no longer had enough craftsmen who understood the art of manufacturing these tiles.
Today, roughly 2000 cruise ships dock in Dubrovnik’s harbor, and there’s no dearth of tourists in any case. In the summers, it’s packed and hot, so if you’d rather climb up and down the steep steps without the crowds, you’re better off avoiding the high season.
We spent two nights at the Hilton Imperial Hotel, a great spot for exploring Dubrovnik on foot. Don’t miss the tour of the city walls, a visit to the oldest apothecary’s shop, and Fort Lovrijenac, where you have wonderful view over the city. In the center of the city itself, we recommend the “Above 5” rooftop terrace. Good coffee is available at the multi-story La Bodega, where the window seats are especially in demand. And Restaurant Posat is a good place for an evening meal.
Our drive back to the airport just a few days later was a bit wistful. Our return flight went from Dubrovnik over Zagreb and then on to Switzerland.