There’s a line in a Donna Tart book that says “That day… had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe.” I have felt this way most days on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. The rocky coastline and clear blue waters can take one’s breath away.
But Croatia is more than just a pretty face. Many of us clearly remember those years in the early ‘90s when the evening news was often reporting on a war far away. Tom Brokaw speaking of Yugoslavia and concepts of tremendousus importance, which I couldn’t begin to grasp at the time. “Bosnia”, “Sarajevo”, “Croatia”, “Serbs”, “Croats”, all mentioned in reporting of armies, bombings, strongholds, ethnic cleansing, civilian casualties, and fighting for independence. I remember it, but didn’t understand it then. And I certainly didn’t realize that was just a small snippet within a thousand years of seeking independence.
I won’t recap that history here – you’ll find better resources on the internet to provide the full and accurate story. I’ll skip to the present, when an independent Croatia as it is today has only been in existence since 1991 and continues to build itself up from its battle scars. And what a wonderful job it has done.
The moment I set foot in Croatia I felt welcome. Although touristy, it is a welcome tourism. After all, tourism accounts for close to 20% of GDP from the 14 million or so tourists per year. So if you’ve heard that Croatia is up and coming, and you should try to go before the tourists truly discover it, sorry, that ship has sailed.
But that doesn’t make it any less lovely. Especially if you go in pre- or post-season, or on the fringes. I can’t imagine the crowds and the heat in July and August, but May has been perfect. Mid-70s most days, thin crowds in Dubrovnik and Split, no crowds in Korčula. The water is a bit cold but not too cold – let’s call it “refreshing”. The tour guides and people in the service industry are refreshed and energized from their winter breaks. And you can get into most restaurants and excursions without pre-booking.
May and September are arguably the months to visit, and from my experience of May I would definitely agree. And if you can only go to one region in Croatia, the Dalmatian coast should be top of your list. On my next visit I’ll be sure to explore beyond it, but here is a quick recap of the places I visited.
Dubrovnik’s ancient city walls enclose a beautiful old town with a dwindling local population. Tourism can do great things in building economies, but it can also drive up rents beyond affordable pricing, especially in a country with a 20% unemployment rate. So as beautiful as Dubrovnik is, the old town runs the risk of becoming another Disney Land type tourist destination. That said, I absolutely loved it (when not feeling guilty about driving out the locals). The Croatians there mostly depend on tourism and make their annual income in the seven months when the majority of tourists are there. There are plenty of walking tours to help ground you in the turbulent history, and excursions to get you out on the water.
Out on the water was pretty much where I always wanted to be. The three-hour kayaking trip around Lokrum island is a lot of fun, as are the short boat cruises for panoramic views. There are a few beaches nearby that require some work to get to, and water shoes are a must on these rocky pebbly beaches (no sand here). Bellevue beach was my favorite, and since it is hard to get to, there were no crowds.
One of my favorite things I did was a 7 AM hike up Mount Srd (don’t be too impressed by the hour – with sun up at 5:00, it’s hard to sleep in). There’s a cable car that most people take, running from 9:00 until sunset. But a hike up the mountain allows you to see much more than you would from the cable car, and also to get there before the crowds.
Split is larger than Dubrovnik, and although tourism is plentiful here, the city does not solely rely on it. Split is a working city with plenty more opportunities to get away from the tourist center if you like. Yet there is no shortage of tourist-targeted excursions and tours. I chose a catamaran day-trip that focused on relaxing on the boat, a few swimming stops, and a visit to Hvar. Other popular excursions will bring you to more islands and caves on a speed boat – perhaps you see more, but a little less relaxing?
The walking tours around Split’s old town help map out the ruins of Roman Emporer Diocletian’s retirement palace, from which much of the old city was built. Walking through the narrow streets you get glimpses of the crumbled palace walls – what a retirement home this must have been!
Many travelers coming to Dubrovnik or Split look for a little island time as well, often choosing between Korčula and Hvar. Korčula was my choice for being known as a quieter sleepy island, more relaxed than Hvar, known for a good night life and celebrity sightings. My initial itinerary had me in Korčula for three nights, but I loved it so much I quickly returned for another five. Extended travel can be exhausting, and a place like Korčula is perfect for recharging the batteries. Morning runs, long breakfasts, reading, swimming, sunbathing, and dinners watching the sunset – island time leaves you wanting nothing more.
Korčula’s tourist season runs mid-June through the end of August, so I was lucky to be here pre-season, pre-crowds. The disadvantage was that some of the excursions and tours weren’t really up and running yet, and although they could have offered them for a small group, it didn’t make financial sense for just me. But the benefit of that was finding things I wouldn’t have ordinarily done, like kayaking on my own, or hiking to another town. And some tour companies are looking for business, so I was able to do a private boat tour and running tour on Badija island, which I highly recommend.
Side trip: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Mostar is growing in popularity for tourists, and is often a day-trip from Split or Dubrovnik. I decided to stay a night to see a bit more than I would in just a few hours, however I did find that it really can be covered in that short of a time. I hired a Rick Steves’ recommended guide (of course) who provided an incredibly interesting history of the city, as well as her own personal experiences. Beyond that, Mostar is beautiful when looking past the kitschy tourist shops that have collected near the bridge. And the current mix of three faiths and ethnic groups (Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Eastern Orthodox Serbs) offer a glimpse into much-desired yet tenuous reconciliation. I do think Mostar is well-worth a day trip or overnight, but unless you have a car and desire to further explore more of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then a short time is all that is needed.
Croatia has become an absolute favorite for me. This country had me at “dobor dan”.
For more photos of Croatia, see the Photo Gallery.