Croatia,  Travel

Riviera of the Adriatic

After Jordan, Dalmatia in Croatia was next on my list in 2017. Central and Eastern Europe – with its complicated geopolitics – had long been an enigma to me but fascinating, nonetheless. 

My only venture into Eastern Europe thus far had been to Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in the former USSR, in the early 1970s.

Croatia, formerly a region in the now defunct Yugoslavia, is experiencing a boom in tourism. This relatively small country forms a meeting point between the Mediterranean and Central Europe, and has emerged from years of conflict to become a highly popular travel destination. It offers mountains, forests, beaches, and hundreds of Adriatic islands sprinkled along the coastal area of Dalmatia, which has become the most visited region of Croatia. Often referred to as the “Riviera of the Adriatic,” it is probably known among the Game of Thrones generation as the filming location for King’s Landing.

Dalmatia covers a stretch of some 12,000 square kilometres along the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Its trade and political relationships with Italy (Venice) over the centuries have influenced its culture, food and language to a certain extent. The well-known cities are Dubrovnik (in the south) and Split (about 165 km north of Dubrovnik), and this mini-stretch is where I focused my adventure.

In short, it was spectacular and gorgeous – weather, food, and sights did not disappoint.  Going before peak tourist season (starts around 21 June, first official day of summer) meant avoiding the hordes of tourists from East Asia, North America and other parts of Europe. There were still a lot of people, but I could see a huge difference in the number of tourists in Dubrovnik between 13 and 21 June – seemed like tourist arrivals tripled in only one week, and there were definitely many more tour groups.

Idyllic is another word that comes to mind. One can get carried away with taking photos of crystal clear blue waters, dazzling sunsets, ancient palaces, city walls, fortresses and churches, tree-lined paths, markets and the food. All Instagram-able, of course. 

View from atop one section of the old city wall in Dubrovnik

Here’s what I came away with …

Travel light, or try to, anyway

When travelling, I like to book accommodation in either boutique hotels, or in old buildings (e.g. palace, cathedral) that have been transformed into modern hotels while maintaining its historical character, or hotels that are located centrally or in the “old” part of a city. It should have occurred to me that accommodation in the old cities of Dubrovnik and Split, and on the islands in between, did not have lifts or on-site porters to help with bags! So, one is left to carry one’s suitcase upstairs, which, if you’re lucky, can be only one flight up. But these buildings are old, and the stairs can be zig-zag or winding, and steep. This is when you find out if all that fitness training will pay off. Going up with bags means coming down with bags, and probably a little bit heavier after shopping.  That said, this was only a minor inconvenience. Once you reach your room and look out your window at the cloudless blue sky and sea, all else is forgotten.

That sea-food diet

Fresh and fresher. While you kind of expect fresh seafood when you’re on the Adriatic, I did not know what Croatian cuisine was before this trip. But, as in all countries, food is regional, so I had the pleasure of experiencing Dalmatian cuisine, which seemed to me all healthy – similar to Mediterranean cuisine. A large variety of seafood is there for the taking – grilled, baked, boiled, using either olive oil or sunflower oil. Lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, and some sinful desserts. Three dishes that stood out for me were: swordfish fillet carpaccio; zucchini carpaccio; and prawns brudeto, which came in a sauce made of white wine, olive oil, garlic and some herbs. These large prawns were the freshest I’d ever tasted – no lingering prawn-y aftertaste or smell. I left the heads and thought of friends in KL and Singapore who would have claimed them PDQ. One thing, though. I found the portion size of the main courses too large, so I ended up ordering two appetisers – one as appetiser and the other as main course. That worked very well for me throughout the trip.

Prawns brudeto

Party town, peaceful haven, island resort

Based on pre-trip research, I decided that an itinerary covering the cities of Dubrovnik and Split, and the islands of Hvar, Korcula and Mljet would give me a brief but balanced introduction to southern Dalmatia. 

Dubrovnik and Split are the “big” cities, loosely defined by the number of tourists, restaurants, retail outlets and operators for local tours. Most of the activities are centred within the respective ancient walled city, and walking tours around the buildings and streets are available. In Dubrovnik, there is a cable car just outside the city wall that goes up to Mount Srd, 415 metres above sea level. The views of Dubrovnik city are spectacular, and on a clear day, it is said the view can stretch up to 60 kilometres to the Elafiti Islands. 

View from Mount Srd of Dubrovnik city

Split, a charming city, has the fortified Palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (UNESCO World Heritage site), as its main monument, a well preserved Roman antiquity. It also has a magnificent statue of Gregory of Nin, a medieval Croatian bishop who introduced the national language after services, which were given in Latin at that time. Touching his golden toe is supposed to bring good luck.

Hvar is one of the many islands between Dubrovnik and Split, and is referred to as the Queen of the Dalmatia islands. Its location made it a strategic centre of trade along the Adriatic coast, as well as across to Italy. Today, it is one of the most visited islands in the Adriatic, and a significant contributor to the Dalmatian economy. By day you can walk around the town, or opt for excursions to other nearby islands for a swim or to see grottoes in the lagoons. I was so fortunate to see a pod of dolphins on my island-hopping excursion – it made up for the rainy day out! 

Hvar turns into a party town in the evening and goes on until 01:00 – strobe lights, music and live entertainment in many restaurants just down the alley from my accommodation. I was expecting to see a mess of broken glass and food outside my hotel in the morning, but it was clear. I guess people in the service industry work their socks off from May through October to maximise the tourist returns, because the winter season can be pretty low key.

Korcula was a lovely respite from the party atmosphere – an enchanting island. The town sits atop a peninsula, surrounded by 13th-century city walls that were reinforced by the Venetians in the 15th century. The main monument is the 13th-century Gothic Cathedral of St Mark, where one can climb to the bell tower. It’s an old and very narrow staircase – there is a “traffic light” system for people ascending and descending – and you need a strong head for heights. 

Korcula town

When in Korcula, one must see the Moreska sword dance. Performed on Mondays and Thursdays from June through September, it tells the story of a clash between Christians and Moors over an abducted princess. The dancers use real swords and get pretty close to each other, so a lot of skill is needed to avoid spilling blood!

Mljet, the third island on my itinerary, is home to a large national park in which there are two salt-water lakes, a Benedictine Monastery and some old villas. It’s an ideal getaway, quiet, not many cars and low population, where you can explore by bicycle, on foot or by kayak. Fishing villages mean fresh seafood – always welcome.

Award-winning Croatian olive oil!

Confession: I did not know that Croatia produces award-winning extra virgin olive oil. It’s not as well-known as Italy, Greece or Spain for producing olive oil,and seems to lack the wherewithal for large-scale export.  In Split, I went to an “olive oil appreciation tutorial” at a charming restaurant called Uje Oil Bar. The proprietors organise this free tutorial an hour before opening time (12:00) – free because customers are highly likely to stay for lunch or buy olive oil products after. We discover that the island of Brac in Dalmatia is one of the biggest olive oil producing regions in the country, and there is a Museum of Olive Oil on the island – which makes Brac a must-visit place on my next trip. We’re given three different oils to taste. After the tasting comes the bread platter, with more olive oil, balsamic vinegar, ground black pepper and sea salt. I wanted to buy a case of olive oil, but alas the restaurant does not have the facilities to arrange shipment. So, I settled for four bottles of olive paste. I think it’s only a matter of time that Croatia will get its act together about olive oil marketing and export – I hope so.

Before this trip, I knew of Croatia only as the home of former tennis player and 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, to date the only wild card in the men’s draw to win this prestigious tournament.

After visiting just a small section of Dalmatia, I have been enchanted. I am keen to return for more. I would …

  1. Aim to make Split and Korcula my bases and get day excursions to other islands from there.
  2. Travel in early June and plan to leave before 21 June to avoid peak tourist season. The weather is great, with long days to do and see more things.
  3. Take a pair of water shoes for swimming. The beaches aren’t necessarily the sandy type but more of pebbles and coral. Water shoes are needed to protect feet from sharp or rough rocks in the water, and prickly sea urchins.
  4. If going island-hopping, take a waterproof pouch to store your devices and other small items.