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Charismatic Croatia

Twenty reasons people love southern Croatia so much........ a great coffee tipoff

What a view! Whether you brave vertigo to see it from Fort Imperial on the cliff that looms over Dubrovnik...... 

.. or gasp as it suddenly pops, sparkling, into view from the south-eastern approach by road, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old Town of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea is unique. Little wonder that it has welcomed millions of visitors, and that half the powers of European history have vied for its control for centuries. 

The Old City is quite small and very compact, as you've seen, so we chose to book into a guesthouse on the peninsula in Lapad, a suburb to the west, fifteen minutes by bus away. 

Here is the rose-garden terrace outside our room where we were served breakfast by the Begovic family who own the house. They had advised us to take the bus in to the city as parking is just too difficult there, and that worked well for us.

The first evening, they also suggested that we should leave our car in the guest parking spot on their improbably narrow street, and walked down a few flights of stairs to the shaded promenade below packed with cafes, bars and restaurants. Another great tip!

The promenade led us to the waterfront and this unusual bar..... the name suggests, making use of a cliffside cave.


While this may look like a corner of one of the cruise ships that visit here regularly, it is actually part of the bar's decks where guests may sit and sip, overlooking the ocean.

Croatia (pop. 4.3 million) is named for the Croats, an ancient south Slavic group who have been in this area since the 7th century AD. That's a long time, but their tenure hasn't always been easy.

There have been numerous conflicts, with various conquerors, dictators and crowned heads involved. Finally, after a short but bitter war, Croatia declared independence in 1991. 

Interestingly when you see the country's name written in Croatian it is Hrvatska - the number plates have prefix of HR - and we were told it is pronounced something like this (don't hold me to it) 'krvertska'.

For a fee, it is possible to walk for almost two kilometres around the top of the Dubrovnik's metres-thick stone walls, and this is the entrance to them near the Pile Gate. Alternatively, you can use the entrance near the port, as that one may not be so crowded.

Do any of these parts of the city seem familiar? You may make the connection if you are a Game of Thrones fan, but this old city is much more than just a filming location.

If walking the walls is not for you, the pedestrians-only Stradun (above) - the city's main street - cuts straight across the Old City, from the Pile Gate to the Old Port. Once a channel of water, it was filled in during the 13th century and is now the city's main thoroughfare.

It's worth detouring often into side streets and small alleys, though, to soak up the atmosphere and get the feel of a city that, despite massive damage in the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991, has remained much the same for many centuries.

The city buildings were meticulously restored between 1995 and 1999, and now Dubrovnik welcomes over two million tourists annually. It is such a popular port for cruise ships that more than 10,000 passengers may arrive in a day in the summer season. Locals advise visitors to visit the Old City in the afternoons and evenings when crowds thin a little.


What makes this country so popular?

Here are 20 reasons we found in southern Croatia, beginning with Dubrovnik...


#1 The music

There is always music, somewhere as you wander the old streets of any Balkan city. It may be piped, but more often you will round a corner and find troubadours like these singing centuries-old songs or playing instruments. Many sell their own CDs, and these make great souvenirs or gifts.


#2 The food

Bakeries (called pekara) are everywhere and the buttery smell of various pastry treats being pulled from an oven somewhere near you is forever in the air. There are endless pies made from fairy-flaky fillo, as well as turnovers, croissants, baguettes - they are all here.

For those who want a place to relax (yes, those cobbled stone streets make for tired feet!) look down the next laneway and you will almost certainly find a cafe where you can sit and watch the endless trail of tourists pass by.

Restaurant offerings may be fairly repetitive - grilled meats and seafood, grilled vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, capsicum) white goat or sheep cheese, salad - but the good news is the cost. You should get a satisfying meal for around A$15 per person.

Do watch out for the gelato bars too. Being just across the water from Italy, they seem to be vying to excel, and they manage that.


#3 Old meets new

Here's a fun way to enjoy Dubrovnik - or any other ancient Croatian town. The foundations for this city, formerly called Ragusa, were laid in the seventh century AD but we constantly found ourselves enjoying the way the past intersects with the modern day - like this vapour trail above a church dating from the Middle Ages.

There are many possibilities: catch sight of impossibly high stiletto heels wobbling along on 14th-century cobbles, or a sleek sportscar parked outside the UNESCO World Heritage city walls. Even a massive cruise ship is a contrast to its location in an ancient port that will have seen rigged ships and pirates over the ages.


#4 A place to reflect

There has always been a strong core of religion over the centuries in the Balkan countries, even throughout the Communist era. This is the fully restored  Church of the Holy Annunciation, Serbian Orthodox Church, built in 1877 and heavily damaged by bombing during the Siege of Dubrovnik. It also has a museum of rare fifteenth- and sixteenth-century icons.

Each city has churches, cathedrals, mosques and synagogues, and to enter one is a privilege. The interiors are usually lavishly decorated - gold covers most surfaces and even glimmers from the darkest corners. It's obvious the murals were created by great artists with love and patient genius.

These churches may be open to the public, but it is important to remember that locals come here to worship, so a high level of respect is needed. Only take photographs if you are allowed to. If not, I like to put my camera away, take a seat and absorb the atmosphere and beauty, and be stilled by the reverence and the hush of the people.

As George Bernard Shaw once remarked 'Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik'.


#5 Outdoor spaces

Croatia has a perfect Mediterranean climate. Hot  and dry in summer, with distinct spring and autumn weather, and a chilly wet winter. Because of this, much of the year is ideal to spend outside. 

Our visit was in mid-May, and you can see how sunny it was, and the rich bounty of fruit for sale at the market in Gundulic Square, complete with a statue in the middle. Gundulic was a 17th-century baroque poet here, and when the church bells ring at noon, it's worth pausing behind his statue to watch the local people feed the pigeons.


#6 The panoramas

Far above, can you just make out the cable car station on Fort Imperial?

This is that view you get when you either walk the 400-metre zigzag path up from the Old City, drive several kilometres on a hair-raisingly steep and twisting road from the highway, or (much easier) take a four-minute ride on the cable car. You can see one of its pylons to the right.  


#7 The fortifications

See these walls, metres thick, and you get the idea of how life would have been behind them centuries ago.

They are up to 25 metres-high and the inner wall on the seaside is up to three metres-thick while the landward side averages about four metres, though it can be six metres-thick.

For your interest, they consist of the main wall, sixteen towers, three forts, six bastions, two corner forts, three pre-walls with several turrets, three moats, two barbicans, two drawbridges and a breakwater. That is a fortified city, for sure!

On a calm and lovely day, they are picturesque, but in times past they were vital for the survival of those sheltering inside them.


#8 The islands

This is an ideal side-trip, and one which can be done in the mornings when the Old City may be a little too bustling for your tastes. Take a ten-minute boat ride for the 600 metres to Lokrum. From parts of the island you can see the old city but it is like another world, a place of love and legends. 

Peacocks parade the pathways.....

...while canoeists slice past.

Even here there is history. In this case it is the Benedictine Monastery of St Mary with an enigmatic quote chiselled above an archway of the cloisters. Translated it reads: 'Harmony makes small things grow. Discord makes the largest things fall apart.'

Nearby, another building is being restored.

And, yes, for Game of Thrones fans, in a quiet corner of the monastery you may see the famous Iron Throne which the series donated to Dubrovnik. Sit on it for the ultimate GOT-fan selfie, if you like.


#9 The spring water

Here Gordon fills a water bottle at Big Onofrio's fountain, with some of the world's purest water that has been gushing up for almost six centuries. Onofrio della Cava from Naples was the 15th-century builder of the city's water supply, which was completed in 1438. This fountain, near the Pile Gate, is the big one and Small Onofrio's fountain is at the port end of the city.

For others it is simply a convenient ice cream eating stop.



And then there is Split

Split is Croatia's second-biggest city. It was built initially around the retired Roman Emperor Diocletian's Palace in 305AD. So, a visit here is like a sort of very ancient royal tour. The original layout is square and balanced, but there is still much to see inside and outside the walls. 

Split's history spans colonisation by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, the Venetians, the Habsburg monarchy, and Napoleon. France, Austria and Yugoslavia each had a period of rule before Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991 during the Croatian War of Independence.

While these various colonists and rulers left scars, they also added an ethnic richness to the architecture, art and culture of the city.

.....and so the Croatian love-list continues.


#10 Split's ancient buildings and statues

Star in the crown of the Old City's buildings is St Duje's (or Dominus), which dates from 305AD making it the world's oldest surviving cathedral. Climb the imposing 900-year-old belltower's twisting staircase with dizzying open views across the city and the nearby islands.

The cathedral building also contains the octagonal mausoleum of Diocletian.

Above is one of two original Egyptian sphinxes brought from Egypt by Roman Emperor Diocletian. This one appears to guard the cathedral while the other is found in front of Jupiter's temple or St. John's church.

If the sphinx needs any help in keeping order in the old city, then there are always strong 'Roman soldiers' available to step in - or at least pose in a souvenir photo op.




SEE MORE of Dubrovnik on this VIDEO.....


#11 Split's web of lanes and alleys

The city's connecting pathways are a good way to stay a little cooler. Summer sunshine can become unbearable as the stone buildings and streets heat up. When this happens, it is time to dive into a nearby alley.

Chances are you will find shop or two, or a laneway restaurant where you can relax for a while and cool down, or some other surprises.


#12 Here it is at last - some great coffee

Personal taste is absolutely vital when choosing a coffee and, spoiled by the standard now in Australia, we always had our noses on the ready to detect a good brew happening nearby.

Actually in this case there was something about the signage that we glimpsed up another tiny alley that was enough for us to want to check it out.

We walked into the small cafe, inhaled deeply and grinned. This was a place we would enjoy, we thought. And we were right! We watched closely as the owner-barista of D16 Specialty Coffee meticulously weighed each dose...

...for our perfect flat white coffees!


#13 Quirky corners

As readers of this site's Weird and Wacky World features would know, we love quirky things. We were surprised to realise that the old city of Split has no parks or gardens. In fact this small area, just across for D16 is quite a tourist attraction for that reason. More precisely, most of the pictures feature knickers and other washing hung out to dry in one of Split's few private open spaces.

In fact the city gets more relaxed and fun when you look up. Like this blue umbrella which is doing more than just looking pretty. It signifies the booking office for a walking tour of the city.

Here a pretty flower box looks likely topple, but it is simply a way of brightening the view.


#14 Traditional Dalmatian cuisine

Obviously this establishment was not around in Diocletian's day, but he would have approved of it, I am sure. The cuisine of this part of the Balkans is often simple, but always tasty. Expect plenty of seafood, simply grilled or fried, ham and cured or grilled meats, sausages and pastries. There will be sour cream and white cheeses and always salads and soup. If you want grilled vegetables, you may need to ask for them, but expect capsicum, eggplant, zucchini and whatever else is in season.

So what is this peka?

It is a covered cast iron pot in which meats and stews are cooked slowly until the combination is meltingly delicious. Read more...

We ate lunch one day at Restaurant Luxor, directly opposite the cathedral. It was a cool and restful spot yet we could still watch the tourist-action outside.


#15 Beyond the walls

Of course there is much more to explore in the rest of Split, and these brightly decorated pedicabs save your feet.

We found this fellow consulting his iPad outside the city walls near the Golden Gate. Gregory of Nin was a much-respected 10th-century bishop despite his  radical views regarding the church.

Seems there is a fascination with Gregory's big toe, and people from all over the world feel they need to rub it for good luck. Read more....

On the bay side of the Old City, the Riva is also controversial. Most tourists like the wide esplanade's relaxed Mediterranean feel, the views and the outdoor restaurants. Ask a local, though, and you may get another opinion.


#16 More music

It's impossible to silence music in this part of the world. Whether it's a busker outside the city gate...

... or a well-known and loved group of Dalmatian Klapa a capella singers, music has always been then soundtrack of the Balkans.

Watch (and listen to) this video to see what makes them so popular....


#17 Ancient ruins

As we walked around this old city, it was impossible to get away from noticing its age. Split shares with Dubrovnik and other cities in the area, a similar history of nations which have occupied or ruled here. Archaeological exploration continues and the archaeological museum is well worth a visit for those who would like to know and understand more.

We rounded a corner as we were searching for a place for lunch, and suddenly the past appeared. It is like this in the old city. Past and present seem so close that bumping into a Roman centurion seems quite a likely possibility. Oh, that's right we had already done that earlier! 


#18 Split's Kastella region

Rather than book a room in an apartment or hotel in the city itself, this time we took the chance to stay in the Kastella region in Kastel Luksic which looks towards Split south-west across the bay.

Our room at Villa Cezar had its own balcony with a snatch of blue water in sight.

It was walking distance to the waterfront, a relaxed and calming reprieve from the busyness of the city where we had spent the day.

Better still be found a waterside restaurant in Stacija & a newly renovated hotel. Just reading this menu we knew that we had found a winner for dinner.

The chef showed great skill in using the local traditional flavours in a contemporary way. Much as we had been enjoying our meals until now, we had found that there was often a certain sameness of menus in the large centres - no doubt to appeal to tourist-appetites.
The amuse-bouche above was just the prelude to a meal that was possibly the best we had in Croatia.
The kastellas or castles of this region were built and owned by the local aristocracy from the 15th century. There are seven castles spread along 17 kilometres of the coast.

Kastel Luksic is the middle one of these seven castles and is open to the public to enjoy and also to connect to the past.

It was time to leave this lovely part of Croatia, but not before celebrating spring and the magic of red poppies in a field.


#19 Pocket-sized Trogir

Before finally heading to our next Croatian destination (watch out for that in the next few weeks) we stopped off at Trogir, just a few kilometres west of Kastel Luksic.

If this place reminds you of Venice there is a good reason for this. A thousand years ago the Venetians became closely involved with trade and commerce between Venice and ports on the Adriatic coast. When following invaders and conquerors had left,  in 1420 Venetian rule began again and remained for four centuries.

Trogir is a 2300-year-old fortified city-island so designed to prevent shipping from getting close to the coastline, which of course includes those castles as well.

The church above, St Lawrence's Cathedral, was built in the 13th century.

Today's Trogir is free of cruise ships but hundreds of tourists still come, drawn by its small-scale beauty and charm.

Trogir is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city. It is said to be the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex not only in the Adriatic, but in all of Central Europe. Go and see for yourself!


Its medieval heart with a castle and tower, houses and palaces from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods, is worth taking time to explore. 

Trogir is connected to the mainland and Ciovo island by bridges, so you can stroll around the island in an hour or less, enjoying the architecture and the sparkling waterfront.

In Croatia, food is never far away, and this shop showcases local produce: olives and olive oils, wine and spirits, jams and cured meats.

Like life in this country, food can be as fancy as you like, or plain and simple. For a late-lunch snack in nearby Sibenik we asked for just some bread, and this was what we got: freshly baked rounds, still warm, with olive oil and garlic.

Thank you, Croatia for reminding us that fresh is best and simple food wins every time.


#20 The sunsets

All western coastlines have something special - sunsets over water - and Dalmatia is no exception. Here the view is again from Fort Imperial, the same place we began this list of things to love about the south of Croatia.

Watch out for another Croatian feature sometime soon, when we share our journey up the coast the northern border. 


Text & pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Videos: ©Gordon Hammond


Gordon and Sally travelled to Croatia, self-driving and booking all accommodation independently. The car was hired  from Europcar and Begovic Guest House in Dubrovnik, and Villa Cezar in Split were booked through

All opinions remain our own.



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