Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A week in Croatia - Split & Dubrovnik

In April we spent a week in beautiful Croatia, driving from Dubrovnik Airport to Split and back to Dubrovnik, staying a few days in each and stopping at a few places along the stunning coastal route.

I thought it would be worth writing down our itinerary for anybody else planning the same trip. It's highly recommended.

Day 1 - Dubrovnik Airport to Split

We'd decided to fly into Dubrovnik and pick up a car before driving along the coastal road to Split (the D8).

The route is ridiculously picturesque. You trail the coastline for almost the whole journey (although we took an accidental diversion through some mountains and paid a small toll to use a stretch of the new motorway, which may be a faster option if you've seen it all before). Winding your way along the mountain edges and turning the corner to see Dubrovnik's Old Town for the first time will be something I always remember. There are plenty of official and unofficial stopping points along the way, and I have thousands of photos of the sparkling turquoise sea and rolling hills to show lucky friends and family members for months.

I stitched a few clips together to give you a sense of the incredible coastline scenery:


We were lucky to be in Croatia at a great time - the final week of April, which ended in a public holiday on May 1, apparently marking the start of the peak tourist season. So the roads were pretty quiet and we zoomed along in our little hatchback.





Views from the road

The drive includes an unusual but brief crossing through Bosnia & Herzegovina - the result of a curious and historical border dispute whereby Bosnia retains a 15 mile-odd stretch of access to the coastline slap-bang in the middle of the Croatian countryside containing the small seaside resort of Neum. Stern-looking border police checked our passports entering and exiting the territory, which looked no different to the rest of the drive, but is stubbornly guarded by Bosnia all the same.

Before leaving, we'd found it hard to find a definitive answer to what would be needed to cross the border - but it turned out that only our passports were checked. The car hire company had supplied a 'green card' which extends our insurance cover for the passage, but we'd probably have had to pay further cross-border fees if we'd ventured off the Neum stretch (or into Montenegro the other way, which is close to Dubrovnik) or if we hadn't been in a locally registered car. It took only a few seconds to check our passports, but I'm told the whole process can take a lot longer during the summer season when rows of coach passengers all have to be individually checked.

We stopped briefly for lunch in the small town of Omis (more on that on the way back) before arriving in the early evening in Split. 

Split is beautiful, and far less 'touristy' than Dubrovnik. It's very compact and most of the Old Town is encased within the towering walls of Diocletian's Palace, named after the Roman emperor who settled here. The central Peristil Square is tiny compared with other European centres, and bordered with beautiful buildings from almost every century of the last 800 years (including a slightly less beautiful one from 1980) including the Cathedral of St Dominus. Drinking a glass of wine in the square in the evening, with quiet acoustic music playing and the cathedral lit by the moon, was one of my favourite moments of the week. It was easy to picture the thousands of people who must have done the same thing since the Romans turned up. Tiny streets and alleys snake off the central square, some barely wide enough for two people, each containing some brilliant quirky bars and shops.




In the evening we had a great meal at Dvor, outside the Old Town - the food was incredible, the view even more so. It's on a hill above the beach with great views of the sea if you sit outside. Two great three-course meals and a bottle of nice Croatian wine came to less than £60, and I'd love to eat there again one day: it was a great introduction to Croatia.

The beach at Split

Day 2: Split

I always think a guided tour of a new city is a good way to get a feel for the place. We chose one by Split Walking Tours which essentially turned into a private tour - we were the only two people on it, although the numbers rapidly go up as the peak season kicks in. It covered the entire Old Town in 90 minutes and gives a comprehensive history of the city. Our relentlessly chirpy guide gave us some great tips and drummed into us the differences between a Gothic and Renaissance window. The tour explained lots of the interesting quirks of a city built in stages by various civilisations, taking in both the above-ground buildings and the unusual substructures. Despite being a world heritage site, the Old Town is very much a living and working city and residents are responsible for the upkeep of their ancient apartments. I've never seen Game of Thrones, but our guide pointed out the various obscure corners and courtyards where filming had taken place for the upcoming series. It seems the show has been invaluable for Croatia, and Thrones tours and merchandise shops were springing up all over the place.


 


We bought a good value combined ticket that offers entry into the small cathedral, the treasury and the unusual Temple of Jupiter, which are all worth a look. The ticket also lets you climb the Bell Tower of the cathedral for great views. But be warned - it's windy up there, and it involves a climb up some terrifyingly shaky stairs.

Imagine my horrified delight when we stumbled on the frankly bizarre Froggyland - 507 stuffed frogs delicately placed in various everyday poses a century ago by a man with presumably nothing else to do. Anyone who knows me will know I can't resist throwing my money at niche tourist experiences, so I hurriedly paid the price of admission and spent a good 15 minutes admiring the fact that this place actually existed and wondering what the lady on the ticket desk put on her CV. I resisted the urge to buy a mug.

Bloody frogs
There's a small but fun flea market outside the Golden Gate (each of the four city gates is named after a metal) which is worth a look, and we also had a couple of drinks in Paradox, which serves great local wine and cheese combinations.

We were a bit disappointed by an evening meal in the overpriced Paradigma - the weather had cooled down so we missed out on the chance to sit on their much-talked-about roof terrace, so ended up in the main restaurant which had all the ambience of a 90s leisure centre cafe, but sadly not the prices to match. The food was decent enough, albeit of the 'stamp-sized portion with a few colourful blobs of sauce' school of fine dining, but the food wasn't a patch on Dvor from the previous night.

We rounded off a the evening with a few drinks at Figa, which is part of a small strip of bars in the Old Town, before a storm decided it was time for bed.

Day 3: Klis, Trogir and Split


Klis was probably the highlight of my trip. It's an extraordinary medieval mountain-top fortress just north of Split which sits above a tiny village of the same name. Over its two thousand years history overlooking a stunning mountain pass it has been lost and won, occupied by kings and queens and found itself under siege plenty of times.

We wandered around the fortress for an hour and didn't see another person until we left, when a surprised looking man appeared from a door in the side of a stone office. There are labyrinths of stone corridors, towering walls to clambour all over, and acres of flowery grassland. Most surprising of all, we opened a door to find a tiny chapel at the peak. In the summer, this place is apparently much busier and there is a small museum of armour and weapons, but there was no sign of life in April, which made the experience all the more interesting. The views across the mountains to the sea are fantastic, and you're basically left to your own devices to explore. Game of Thrones was filming here recently, so expect it to become part of the tourist trail very soon. 





Klis
Next we drove to the small walled town of Trogir, which is like a miniature version of Split, with a beautiful harbour and lots of small, quaint shops and restaurants. We had a great lunch at Konoba Trs, which is set in the tiny courtyard of a 13th century house and sheltered by vine leaves. We both had the signature dish of lamb stuffed with prosciutto and swiss chard, which was delicious.

 

Trogir

Armed with an ice cream we headed for the harbour and had (another) glass of wine watching the tour-boat hawkers set up their stalls ready for the impending tourist rush later in the week.

Back to Split, and in the evening we ate at a local neighbourhood restaurant, the unpronouncable Ostarija u Vidakovi. They served giant portions of traditional Croatian food (a starter salad was about twice the size of one you'd expect as a main course) and there seemed to be plenty of locals there, so I presume it's pretty authentic.

We headed back into the Old Town and rounded off our time in Split with drinks in hand, listening to a guitarist called Dale playing music in Peristil Square. One of the restaurants puts out cushions and tray tables and serves drinks all around the small square, which is a perfect way to end a few days in the town.

Drinks in Peristil Square
Day 4: Omis, Makarska, Dubrovnik

Leaving Split, we headed back to Omis on the recommendation of our tour guide to seek out the statue of the Croatian folk heroine Mila Gojsalić. Omis itself is a lovely little town with a scenic harbour and a tiny, winding Old Town area, but it's surrounded by leafy hills. We asked directions from a handy information centre (just off the harbour) and headed off into the mountains with a scribbled road map in search of the famous statue, which we'd been promised looked over a staggering view. And indeed it was - probably the best view of the trip (and, let's face it, everywhere we looked there was another incredible view).


Mila and her view

The statue is by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, who also created the giant wizard-looking statue outside the Golden Gate in Split. To find it, drive out of Omis following signs to Gata. After 10-15 minutes you'll drive through a low man-made tunnel - the statue is a couple of minutes past this, beneath a small viewing platform. If you get to Gata, you've gone too far.


Makarska

After taking a few hundred photos of the views, we continued our drive towards Dubrovnik. We stopped for lunch in Makarska, which is the closest Croatia gets to a package holiday resort - there are lots of  hotels and touristy shops but also a lovely beach and harbour lined with small restaurants. We grabbed a pizza in Timun restaurant and wandered round for an hour.

We approached Dubrovnik as the sun was setting, and reached our apartment on the side of the hill looking over the Old Town (incorporating a slightly terrifying incident courtesy of our sat-nav attempting to lead us into the winding streets of Dubrovnik via a steep cliff, observed with glee by a grinning crowd of Croatian pensioners). After settling our nerves with a stiff drink and admiring the impressive view from our balcony, we wandered down to the Old Town.

Our great view of Dubrovnik's Old Town and harbour

Entering through the Ploce Gate, Dubrovnik's Old Town centre is another one of those 'wow' moments encountered everywhere in Croatia. It's really like stepping foot on to a film set, with the greeny-white limestone streets and churches framed against the pitch-black sky. Heavily bombed in the early 90s, the skyline is dominated by new terracotta roofs peppered with the older, browny-grey tiles of the few buildings that weren't punctured by shells. The signs of the conflict and its impeccable clean-up are everywhere - churches and shops and pecked with bullet scars but the streets and walkways are made of smooth, straight limestone blocks.

The terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik

We'd been tipped to eat at Lokanda Peskarija by the harbour, a great and well-priced seafood restaurant frequented by locals with a great view of Lokrum Island and the mountainside. Next stop, just back inside the walls, was a nice drink at Nonenina in the heart of the Old Town, before a sleep-inducing hike up the 200+ steps to our apartment. That sort of view comes at a price!

View from the table at Lokanda Pescarija

Day 5: Dubrovnik

The cable car offers stunning views of the city and a quick journey to the top of Mount Srđ, the rocky hill which looms over the town. We found ourselves literally in the clouds.

View from the cable car
Next door is the Homeland War Museum, a dense but interesting run-down of the Siege set inside a Napoleonic fort, used as a base for the city defenders during the aggression. The exhibition does demand some advanced knowledge of the events and is quite a lot to take in, but is accompanied by staggering photography of the beautiful city being hammered by shells and the heartbreaking aftermath. 

We grabbed a sandwich at Yummmi's (by the cable car station and good for cheap/quick bites) and headed off to walk the city walls. It's a great way to see the entire town from just above and took about 90 minutes to complete the circuit - you buy a ticket for around 100kn. Homes and businesses are pressed right up against the walls, so you also get a glimpse of the unusual life of the Old Town residents.




Views from the walls

Not content with walking the entire city boundary, we headed off on another guided tour. This time organised by this company, our guide was a tad less chirpy than his colleague in Split and covered far less ground, but nonetheless gave us a decent overview of the city's ancient and modern history.

We ate at Konoba Amoret, tucked away in a beautiful corner by the Cathedral with a guitarist accompanying our meal from the steps. The restaurant serves up tourist favourites, but the food was fresh and affordable. Another quick wander of the Old Town by night was rounded off with drinks at Nonenina, opposite the Rector's Palace (the old Rector, apparently, had to stay in the Palace for a month solidly before being relieved of his duties by a replacement). Dubrovnik really comes into its own after dark, when the hundreds of cruise ship visitors leave and the streets become quiet and empty.

Day 6: Dubrovnik and Lokrun

We learned that our city walls tickets were also valid at Fort Lovrijenac.





This fortress sits on a rocky outcrop close to the Ploce gates, providing guards with an unblocked view over the sea. There's not a great deal to see in the Fort itself, but it's the best place to see how the Old Town and the walls are built right into the rocks. The Fort is also home to theatrical performances in the summer, and I can see exactly how well it must double for Elsinore in its annual performance of Hamlet in the summer festival.

We grabbed lunch at the packed and unashamedly tourist restaurant Poklisar by the harbour before catching the small ferry to the island of Lokrum - the boat leaves around every half hour and takes only 15 minutes. The island is beautiful - a shady and quiet paradise to escape the crowds. There are plenty of residents though - peacocks, unashamedly and camply strutting their stuff at every turn in an attempt to impress the ladies. There are some great photo opportunities as the birds have no qualms in swaggering right up to their human admirers and posing for pictures.

Showing off on Lokrum
The island has a ruined monastery in the centre, which is great to clambour around, as well as open parkland for families and a rocky beach with ladders down into the clear ocean. There is a busy restaurant and a calmer bar near the ferry station - it would be easy to spend a whole day on Lokrum, as many local families apparently do.

A quick ferry back, and we decided to venture out of the confines of the Old Town to the newer part of the city to a recommended restaurant, Otto's Tavern. Otto's is a tiny place set in the arch of a bridge with fresh, well-priced food from a modern menu and great wine. The service here was great, with the waiter explaining the origin of the wine and recommending each course. There wasn't much else in the nearby area, but if you fancy a change of scenery this place is well worth trying - but book a table.

Day 7 - Home

Dubrovnik Airport is only 20 minutes drive from the town, but departure queues were long, so get there early. We were really sad to leave, but pleased to have crammed so much in.

Croatia hadn't really been at the front of my mind when planning a holiday, but I'm so pleased we went and experienced even a small part of it. The drive between Split and Dubrovnik (and vice versa) really is one of the most stunning you can take, and there are so many extraordinary places to stop along the way. The towns themselves are beautiful - a combination of the winding alleyways of Venice with the grandeur of the palaces of Rome or Florence. It's also great value, particularly just out of season when we visited, when the walled streets are still quiet, the roads free of coach convoys, and prices for accommodation and flights relatively low.




If any of these tips were useful, or you have any questions, please post below!

Recommended...
  • The latest edition of the Lonely Planet Croatia Travel Guide was a great companion. It covers the whole country with lengthy sections on Dubrovnik, Split and nearby towns, as well as a general overview of the history and culture of Croatia. It's only just been reissued, and seemed pretty well up to date.
  • Our apartments were from AirBnB and fantastic value, particularly in Split where we stayed ten minutes away from everything we needed for £25 a night. Our apartment in Split had an incredible view and felt more like a hotel room, but was still under £50 a night. Leave a comment if you'd like the details.
  • We reserved a car from Sixt in advance and collected from Dubrovnik Airport. It was great value - less than £150 for six days' hire plus fuel, and we covered over 500km. Make sure your hire company gives you all the documents needed to cross through the Bosnia stretch, which should come as standard.
  • Take a Satnav - the coastal road is pretty simple to follow but the residential streets in the cities are winding and plentiful, and the street signs don't always match printed maps... but be careful it doesn't try to drive you off the edge of a steep mountainside. 


11 comments:

  1. hi there, i am keen to get the name of where you stayed in split! we love air bnb too :) thanks in advance

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  2. Hi, here's the link, https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/1189728

    If you haven't registered before or want a new account you should get a £17 discount with my registration link: www.airbnb.co.uk/c/cadams177?s=8

    Enjoy!

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  3. Hi, I have just posted on forum - be interested in the airbnb you stayed in and whether to stay out of Debrovnik in early July? Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi! It was this apartment https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/603259

      Please use this link to register and you should get some free Airbnb credit: www.airbnb.co.uk/c/cadams177?s=8

      I haven't been to Dubrovnik in July but I imagine it will be nice and warm, though quite busy!

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  4. Great Trip report. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it!!. We are travelling to Croatia in June for 3 weeks. You report will certainly help in the planning.

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  5. Wife and I are doing this trip in a couple of weeks. We added a side overnight trip to Mostar on our Split to Dubrovnik trip.

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  6. Thanks for sharing your terrific trip report! We're headed to Croatia in 2 weeks and will be using this as a reference!

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  7. Thank you, a very interesting and informative read. Great tips for our trip next year.
    cheers, Sue

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  8. Thank you for the great trip report. I am headed to Dubrovnik travelling up to split with my children in April. I was debating between taking the bus or rent a car. From what I can see from your report, renting a car was a great experience. You didn't have any hiccups?

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    Replies
    1. No it was very simple! I think we took one wrong turn but that was still quite a nice diversion and we soon found our way.

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