A Travellerspoint blog

Croatia

Croatia 2018

Route: London – Split – Pirovac – Rabac – Zagreb – Kratecko – Rakovica – Dubrovnik – Makarska – Ciovo Island – Split - London

sunny 26 °C

APRIL/MAY 2018

After two weeks in the UK, catching up with friends and family, plus the usual medical appointments etc., we continued our travels into Croatia.

We arrived in Split and were met with a very pleasant 22C and a sunny sky. Once the usual paperwork was completed, we headed north in our hire car. The first things you notice is how quiet the roads are, soon followed by the scenery. This part of Croatia has that typical Mediterranean look of short trees and bushes on an otherwise barren landscape, which wasn’t surprising as the Mediterranean Sea would be on our doorstep for the next few days. But what was also very noticeable was the number of olive groves there were, they seemed to border every road we drove along. The production of Olive Oil is an important industry to Croatia and one they are very proud of.

Our base to explore this part of Croatia, Northern Dalmatia, was the coastal town of Pirovac. Pirovac would not be on the list of must visit locations, but was ideally placed for the attractions the region had to offer.
First up was the delightful historic coastal town of Sibenik, with its attractive natural harbour, castle fortress and cathedral. As you walk around the old town it is like stepping back in time, with a mix of Venetian Gothic and Tuscan Renaissance architecture around every corner.

Sibenik

Sibenik

Sibenik

Sibenik

Old Sibenik

Old Sibenik

Sibenik Cathedral

Sibenik Cathedral

The following day we drove inland to explore the Krka National Park. The park straddles the Krka River as it tumbles over seven medium sized waterfalls on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. A beautiful setting, with cliffs rising up on each side and the river cutting its way through the forested canyon below. At one point the river tumbled over a number of cascades each separated by a forested islands.

Krka NP

Krka NP

Krka NP

Krka NP

Day three was back on the coast, as we took a road trip around the island of Murter, one of many that dot the Croatian coastline. This was followed by a visit to Croatia’s largest lake, Vransko Jezero. The lake is famous for its size, shallowness and birdlife, however it must have been the wrong season as apart from a large number of Coots and Gulls there wasn’t much to see (although we did have a nice sighting of a Glossy Ibis).

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis

Vrensko Jezero Nature Park

Vrensko Jezero Nature Park

Our last day in Northern Dalmatia was occupied by a visit to Zadar. Promoted as a must see location, we were a bit underwhelmed. The 9th century church of St Donatus was interesting for it construction, and one of the earliest signs of Medieval recycling, with its use of Roman pillars, etc. in its wall supports. And the Sea Organ was fascinating; as water gushed in from the bay, air is forced up pipes inside the promenade resulting in sounds emanating from the steps. Other than these two attractions Zadar didn’t seem to offer much out of the ordinary.

Sea Organ

Sea Organ

Zadar St Donat's Church

Zadar St Donat's Church

St Donat's Church

St Donat's Church

From Pirovac we travelled north to the town of Rabac in the Istria region of Croatia. It was a long drive, but a very pleasant one. On route we called in at the Paklenica National Park, part of the Velebit Mountain range that runs along the Kvarner coast. Paklenica is a beautiful park, famous for its rock climbing routes. But as we have retired from rock climbing we did a hike up the Velika Paklenica gorge instead.

Paklenica NP

Paklenica NP

Paklenica NP

Paklenica NP

Paklenica NP

Paklenica NP

The drive from Paklenica to Rabac was spectacular for most of the way, as the road hugged the coastline sandwiched between the Velebit Mountains on the eastern side and the Adriatic Sea on the western side.

Coastal Road

Coastal Road

Rabac is a tourist resort, but a good base for exploring the Istria region. Our apartment was high up on the hill overlooking the bay and nestled amongst the cliff forest (the road through the forest we named snake road, not because its winds up hill, but because on two occasions we saw a snake crossing the road. A Four Lined Snake and a Horned Nosed Viper). The apartment location kept us away from the tourist hubbub, although it is pretty quiet this time of year.

Horned nosed viper

Horned nosed viper

For the first day in the Istria we took it easy, with just a visit to historic hill town of Labin. Labin is not far from Rabac and gave us great views over the local coastline and beyond.

Labin

Labin

Rabac view from Labin

Rabac view from Labin

The next two days were busier as we set about exploring the Istria region more fully. Our exploration first took us into the heartland, an area of rural communities and many hill top towns. Spoilt for choice we choose to visit the classic medieval hilltop town of Motovun. In addition to its well preserved streets and buildings it is also the birthplace of Mario Andretti (See Interesting Facts below).

Motovun

Motovun

Motovun

Motovun

However, the heartland is not only hill top towns, we also discovered a lovely little church tucked away in a forested valley. The Church of St Mary is just outside the little village of Beram, and is quite incredible. Hidden away under a layer of plaster and only discovered in 1913, were Gothic Frescoes dating back to 1474. Painted by Master Vincent of Kastav and his assistants, it has now been revealed for all to see and is in the process of a full restoration.

Church of St Mary

Church of St Mary

Church of St Marie

Church of St Marie

After the heartland we went back to the Adriatic coast and visited the town of Pula. Pula is famous for its Roman remains, which include the worlds 6th biggest Roman Amphitheatre and the Temple of Augustus built in 2BC.

Sports Cars and Amphitheatre

Sports Cars and Amphitheatre

Pula Amphitheatre

Pula Amphitheatre

Temple of Augustus

Temple of Augustus

It was then time to move on once again, this time the destination was the city of Zagreb. However, we didn’t go directly to Zagreb, we called in to the Risnjak National Park on route.
Risnjak is a beautiful protected area situated in Croatia’s northern mountains and close to the Slovenian border. It’s a thickly forested area with patches of alpine meadow, and is home to Croatia’s most diverse flora and fauna. Our hike took us gently up through the forest before looping back to our starting point. It was wonderful; we had the forest to ourselves with just the sounds of the bird life for company. The park contains a healthy population of Eurasian Brown Bear, Eurasian Grey Wolf, Pine Martin and Red Deer to name but a few, which unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we didn’t encounter. The name Risnjak means Lynx in Croatian, which was reintroduced in the 90’s but is believed to be locally extinct now.

Risnjak National Park

Risnjak National Park

Risnjak National Park

Risnjak National Park

Risnjak NP

Risnjak NP

From the peace of the forest we drove back to the motorway and on to Zagreb. With the peace of the forest now a distant memory, we were ready for a dose of culture that awaited us in Zagreb. Our apartment was on the outskirts of central Zagreb, which gave us easy access to all the attractions on offer.
At first sight Zagreb doesn’t look much, mainly due to the urban sprawl on the outskirts of the centre. But once you get more central, it’s a delightful city. There are grand buildings with fine architecture, attractive parks and gardens, more museums and galleries then you ever wish for and a pleasant and interesting street scene. We spent several days exploring the streets and found something of interest around almost every corner. You could wile away many hours in this city, but never lose track of time altogether as a cannon is fired at 12:00 noon each day to kept you focused.

Colourful Zagreb

Colourful Zagreb

St Marks Church with Zagreb Coat of Arms on the Roof

St Marks Church with Zagreb Coat of Arms on the Roof

Market in Zagreb

Market in Zagreb

Street Art

Street Art

Art Pavilion in Zagreb

Art Pavilion in Zagreb

Finally a good beer

Finally a good beer

The Cathedral spires view from Old Zagreb

The Cathedral spires view from Old Zagreb

Praying to Mary in Zagreb

Praying to Mary in Zagreb

Another complete change in scenery followed our departure from Zagreb, as we travelled south to an area called Lonjsko Polje. Lonjsko Polje is an area of rustic villages, marshland and a haven for birdlife. The whole area is a nature park and on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. For our three-night stay we were based in the tiny hamlet of Kratecko, in a traditional wooden two-story house. The house dated from the 19th century and had been completely refurbished. What was particularly nice was how the refurbishment had been done; wherever possible the original features had been retained but with modern conveniences added. It had period furniture, but also had a modern mattress, air-conditioning, shower and Wi-Fi. It was a really nice place to stay, with lovely hosts to go with it.

Our 19 Century restored house in Lonjsko Polje

Our 19 Century restored house in Lonjsko Polje

Our Room in Kratecko, Stork Country

Our Room in Kratecko, Stork Country

Dining with our hosts in Kratecko

Dining with our hosts in Kratecko

Croatian Traditional Dress

Croatian Traditional Dress

We had two days in the area and got out to see as much as possible. Activities included hiking, bird watching and gazing at some of the old buildings, amazed that they were still standing. The area is famous for its White Storks (the village of Cigoc has more Storks than residents), which mostly nest on manmade platforms. The platforms have been provided to stop them nesting on roofs and chimneys. The area is also prone to flooding, the river Sava run through the middle of the park and the rains earlier in the year had made access to some places difficult, but there was usually a way round it. More annoying were the mosquitoes, with so much water you were bound to encounter them this time of year, but with our jungle insect repellent we managed to keep them at bay.

Flooding field in Lonjsko Polje

Flooding field in Lonjsko Polje

White Stork Nesting

White Stork Nesting

White Stork and traditional House in Cigoc

White Stork and traditional House in Cigoc

White Storks nesting on a roof

White Storks nesting on a roof

Croatian Cattle (horns are very unique) in the Lonjsko Polje

Croatian Cattle (horns are very unique) in the Lonjsko Polje

Tradional 19th Century House (in need of repair) in Lonjsko Polje

Tradional 19th Century House (in need of repair) in Lonjsko Polje

Spoon Bills and Egret in Lonjsko Polje

Spoon Bills and Egret in Lonjsko Polje

A drive south past rural settlements, small towns, forested hillsides and a few reminders of the civil war (which is only two decades ago!), got us to our next destination, the village of Rakovica. This choice of destination was because it’s close to the Plitvice National Park, 12 kilometres up the road in fact. Both of our full days in the area were spent in the park, doing very similar but quite different activities.
The first day we undertook the full lake walk. Plitvice has 16 lakes, falling from one to the next in a series of gushing waterfalls, all of varying heights and all designed by nature. The walk was about 11km in length and allowed us to see all the lakes and all of the waterfalls. The walking was either on good gravel paths or on boardwalks, plus an electric boat got us across the largest lake and tram got us along the road section. It reminded us of a miniature Iguazu Falls (for those fortunate enough to have been there). Beautiful scenery, but a tad too many other tourist for our liking, its supposed to be the low(ish) season.
On day two we took a forest hike up to one of the parks summits, Turcic. This was equally as beautiful as the previous day, with the lakes and waterfalls replaced by trees and bird song. What was better than the first day, was we had the forest to ourselves, not a single other tourist anywhere to be seen.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Hiking in the Plitvice National Park

Hiking in the Plitvice National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

From Rakovica, we had the longest drive of the trip, 460km down to Dubrovnik. The drive was more scenic than we were expecting, starting off with flooded meadows below Plitvice, followed by the less interesting motorway stretch and finishing on the coastal mountain roads as we arrived in Dubrovnik.
However, what was unusual was that we had to leave Croatia to get to Dubrovnik. The reason for this is that the southern tip of Croatia is cut off from the rest of the country by a 9km strip of land belonging to Bosnia & Herzegovina (part of Neum Agreement – See PO&IF below). This meant we had to show our passports at a control point, both entering and leaving Bosnia & Herzegovina. This time of year the traffic was light so it only took a few minutes each time, but we understand that in peak season minutes can turn to hours.
Our Dubrovnik apartment was outside the old town but had nice views over the new town. Any visit to Dubrovnik requires a visit to the old town and that took up our first day. Our very helpful host informed us that parking in the old town was a nightmare and very expensive, so we took the bus (which stopped almost outside our apartment). The bus ride gave us a bit of a tour of the new town, which was a bonus. We got off the bus at the east gate of the old town and were immediately able to confirm our host’s comments about the parking. The old town is completely encircled by massive walls, some parts of which are very old but most date back to the 17th Century. We made our way from the east gate through the maze of streets to the north gate where we bought our tickets to go up on to the wall. Once on the wall, you had great views of the old town below you, and as the wall encircled the whole town you got to see every building and street from this vantage point. To do the wall walk justice, you need one to two hours, this is also dependant on the crowds, there was a cruise liner in at the time of our walk, and so it took a bit longer to negotiate. Once you have walked the wall there is still plenty to see in the old town itself, where you can keep yourself amused for many more hours. Amazing as it was, by late afternoon we had had our fill of history and architecture, so caught the bus back to the apartment.

Dubrovnik Old City Walls

Dubrovnik Old City Walls

View of Old Dubrovnik

View of Old Dubrovnik

Old Dubrovnik Alley

Old Dubrovnik Alley

Old Dubrovnik

Old Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik old city wall

Dubrovnik old city wall

Old Dubrovnkik

Old Dubrovnkik

Our second day was one of rest, to recover from the old town experience and build up some energy for our third day excursion.
Day three was a tour of the Elaphite Islands, not all of them, just the three that are inhabited. The islands sit in the Adriatic, not far from the mainland and just north of Dubrovnik. Our host had arranged for our boatman, Marko, to pick us up from the apartment, so that’s where the excursion started. Marko had a beautiful wooden boat to transport us and also acted as Captain, Cook (lunch was included, as well as lots of booze), Mechanic and tour guide. We didn’t have the boat to ourselves, as we were joined by six others (two polish guys, a German/Irish couple and a Irish/English couple), which was nice. First stop was Kolocep, the smallest of the islands. Although only a few kilometres from the mainland, it felt like another world. As you entered the harbour, everything seemed to be calmer. A few old buildings stretched along the harbour front only a stone through from almost empty beaches that were lapped by crystal clear waters. Behind the harbour the land raised steeply, covered in vegetation, old olive and fig plantations and abandoned houses (when the plantations ceased to be profitable anymore most of the residents left, hence the abandoned houses. It is said that there are more houses than people on the islands now). The second island was Sipan (the largest) and the last Lopud. The scenery and feel to the other two islands was pretty similar to the first, although progressively more busy with tourists. We explored each of the islands on foot; within the constraints of the time we had at each, and found the whole day very relaxing and enjoyable (although the aches in our legs when we got home, may have questioned the relaxing bit).

Our boat trip to the Elaphite Islands

Our boat trip to the Elaphite Islands

Hiking on a Elaphite near Dubrovnik

Hiking on a Elaphite near Dubrovnik

Hiking in one of the Elaphite islands near Dubrovnik

Hiking in one of the Elaphite islands near Dubrovnik

Elaphite Island

Elaphite Island

Boat trip to Elaphite Islands - Gallion

Boat trip to Elaphite Islands - Gallion

So that was it for Dubrovnik, next stop Makarska, about 150km up the coast towards Split. This meant a return crossing of the Bosnia & Herzegovina border, but before that a quick stop at Ston. The reason for the stop at Ston was to see the wall. Built in the 14th Century to protect the saltpans that lye behind it, it still makes pretty impressive sight today as it stretches up over a hill and of sight (a bit like a miniature wall of China). You can pay to walk on the wall, similar to Dubrovnik Old Town, but time constraints and knackered legs prevented us doing it this time.

Ston Walls

Ston Walls

Makarska is an attractive coastal town, on a thin strip of land wedged between the Adriatic and the Biokovo massif. The reasons for our two nights stop over was to have a hike in the Biokovo Nature Park, but the weather on our only full day wasn’t too good so we abandoned the idea and had a lazy day instead (something our bodies appreciated I think).

Makarska Coastal Park

Makarska Coastal Park

Sunset in Makarska

Sunset in Makarska

It was now time for our final Croatian location. We were flying out of the country from Split, and as we hadn’t seen the town yet, it made sense to stay somewhere close. Split seemed too busy and costly, so we looked for somewhere in striking distance. This led us to the island of Ciovo and the coastal village of Okrug Gornji, where were able to secure a beautiful two bedroom apartment right on the waters edge with its own beach (well, steps into the water anyway).

our accommodation in Okrug Gronje

our accommodation in Okrug Gronje

View from our house in Okrug Gronje Island

View from our house in Okrug Gronje Island

For the last four nights our niece and her partner joined us, which made it extra enjoyable. A visit to the old town of Split (which was more beautiful than we had expected), a look at the island town of Trogir, a traditional meal of Ispod Peka in a local restaurant and so relaxation around the apartment filled our last few days in Croatia.

Old Split

Old Split

Old Town Split

Old Town Split

Old Split

Old Split

Ispod Peka a traditional method of cooking meat or octopus by slow roasting it under an iron bowl over hot coals (delicious)

Ispod Peka a traditional method of cooking meat or octopus by slow roasting it under an iron bowl over hot coals (delicious)

And that was our month in Croatia. Lovely country, lots to see, friendly locals, but again a month was not quite long enough.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Croatia Facts & Figures
Croatia, or Hrvatska as it is know locally, covers 56,542 square kilometres of south Eastern Europe, and claims an additional 31,067 square kilometres of the Adriatic Sea. It has borders with five countries, Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro. It has a small population of around 4.5million, with about 1million living in Zagreb. Croatia has a 5,835km coastline; of which 4,058km surround its 1,185 islands (67 of which are inhabited).

Driving in Croatia
With the exception of some minor roads, the roads in Croatia are pretty good. Which can’t be said of some of their drivers. Their directional signage is also generally good, but that isn’t the case for its distance markers and speed limits. Recorded distances are at best inconsistent, for example, the first sign we encountered when driving from Labin to Pula indicated 40km, a kilometre or so down the road the distance was now 42km and when we returned on the same road the distance had stretched to 44km. Speed limit signs change constantly as well, sometimes with only a few meters gap between them. The indicated speed limits sometimes don’t make sense either; you could be travelling in a 40km zone to be then informed that the speed limit through road works is 50km. Having said all that, driving in Croatia is generally a pleasure, especially when compared to the UK. However, it was the low season and things could be different when summer arrives.

The Famous American of Motovun
Mario Andretti is probably the most famous American race driver and has won both the F1 World Championship and the Indy500, amongst much more. How come Mario Andretti is a famous American race driver when he was born in Motovun, Croatia, I hear you say? The answer is, he was born in Italy but at the age of 8 he emigrated, with his family, to the USA. But where’s the Croatian link, you further enquire? The answer is that until after WWII, Motovun was within the Kingdom of Italy, but after the war it was annexed to Yugoslavia, which then became Croatia.

Crossing Roads & Railway Lines on Foot
Croatia has the usual black and white marking on the road to indicate where pedestrians are supposed to cross. However, don’t wait for cars to stop, otherwise you will be there all day. Instead, step out in front of the oncoming traffic, allowing them a reasonable time to stop, then they will either stop or reduce sped as they go round you. We learnt this by watching locals negotiate the roads.
With the crossing of railway lines the pedestrian approach is different. If the barrier is up, then it is safe to just walk across. But, if the barrier is down, first look to see if there are any trains coming and if not duck under the barrier and cross anyway.

How Pedestrians cross railway line in Zagreb

How Pedestrians cross railway line in Zagreb

Zagreb Trams
Zagreb is served by an efficient tram system. They run regularly, were on time, very affordable and fun to ride (especially the older rolling stock). In addition to the service, a couple of other thing intrigued us.
Because different tram routes use the same rails, there is a need to change the points at intersections; depending on which directions the tram is travelling in. In this day and age you would expect this to be done electronically or automatically using a sensor. But no, its done the old fashion way. The driver will stop the tram at the intersection, get out of his cab, grab a specially designed pole, leave the tram and manually move the rail with the pole to the direction he or she wants to travel.
The other intriguing thing is that, on roads open to both trams and motor vehicles, the trams travel done either side of the road and the motor vehicles use the middle. This is fine until a motor vehicle needs to stop, even for a short period, then all the traffic behind need to wait. However, in reality, the other traffic will wait for a gap in the tram traffic and use their lane to get by.

Zagreb Tram

Zagreb Tram

Neum Agreement
The Neum agreement was signed in 1998 between Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, although never ratified by either side. The agreement guarantees a free passage from the port of Ploce in Croatia, through the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Essentially this means there is little border control for foreigners who are transiting without stopping, using the green track corridor. Just a quick passport check is all that is needed. At the border, there are two lines: one for travelers into Bosnia, and another for travelers in transit to other parts of Croatia (Dubrovnik County).

Posted by MAd4travel 10:16 Archived in Croatia Comments (3)

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