Touring Beautiful Croatia, Slovenia and MontenegroAuthor: Bob W. (More Trip Reviews by Bob W.)
Date of Trip: July 2011
Before leaving for Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro, friends asked skeptical questions. Why would we want to go to Croatia? Is it safe? Where is Slovenia? Won't there be a language problem? Except for cruise passengers who stop in Dubrovnik, relatively few Americans get to explore Croatia or Slovenia. So, let's deal with those questions.
Croatia has long been a favorite destination for European vacationers because of its beauty, affordability and historic sites. Germans make up the largest number of tourists in northern Croatia and drive there. Brits are the largest contingent in southern Croatia and fly there. The coast of Croatia is exceptionally beautiful. Mountains slope to the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic. The climate is semi-tropical -- hot in mid-summer but devoid of snow in coastal areas. Slovenia is an alpine setting reminiscent of Austria and Switzerland. As for safety, the conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia into six separate nations ended many years ago. Although some bitterness remains, relations are now very civil.
There is no language problem. Because so little of the world speaks Serbo-Croatian, much of the population of the former Yugoslavia have learned English as a second language. This is particularly true in areas tourists visit. Croatian children begin learning English in early elementary grades. Signs and menus are in both Croatian and English. Equally important, most people you meet will be friendly and helpful.
Our trip began with a week's stay in Dubrovnik, Croatia, using the city as home base for exploration of surrounding areas. Our side trips included Montenegro (particularly the old city of Kotor), the Croatian walled island of Corcula, and the coastal town of Cavtat. From there we spent a night in Split, Croatia, where we enjoyed a guided exploration of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Next, we took the scenic drive to the beautiful and popular coastal city of Opatija where we spent four nights and took a day trip to the towns of Rovinj and Pula on the Istrian Peninsula. Our trip concluded with four nights in Bled, Slovenia, on the shore of pristine Lake Bled in the Julian Alps. We stopped en route to explore the impressive Postojna Caves. Side trips from Bled took us to historic Skofa Loka and to Slovenia's delightful capital city of Ljubljana.
The walled coastal city of Dubrovnik (Stari Grad) was an independent city-state from 1358 to 1808 and rivaled Venice. The well-preserved defensive walls of the old city are impressive in height and thickness. We took a very crowded public bus form the Posta Delapat bus stop near our hotel, Grand Hotel Park. The drive of less than 30 minutes took us from modern surroundings to an exceptionally well-preserved place that has changed little over the centuries. The old residential areas within the city are three stories high and have shops at street level, living quarters on the second story and bedrooms on the third.
Several wide avenues stretch the length of the old city, intersected by narrow alleys. Umbrellas and awnings shelter the many tables of cafes and restaurants located along most of the arteries of this compact city. Crowds were gathered to purchase many flavors of ice cream (gelato). Delicious! Two spring-fed fountains in the wider avenues provided a source of clean, cold water to refill tourists' water bottles.
Aside from the many shops and eating places, we toured the historic church, clock tower and Rector's Palace on our first visit to the old city with the help of our informative guide, Inga. The beautiful and ornate palace houses outstanding period art and furnishings and one of the world's first pharmacies. Days later we returned to climb to the top of the walls and walk their perimeter, giving us a sweeping view of the city and its surroundings. Then we decided to climb to the cliff-top stone fort that overlooks and once protected the city. The climb to and through the fort is demanding. From the fort, the views of the city, the harbor and the clear waters of the Adriatic are spectacular.
Dubrovnik is more than an historic city that hosts cruise ship tours. The red tile roofs and limestone walls of the old city and newer suburbs stretch along the shore and in tiers of housing dotting the steep hills. Where we stayed, some miles from the old city, modern hotels are concentrated near what we came to call the Promenade -- a pedestrian-only street lined with street-side cafes, restaurants, bars and small shops leading the way to a public beach. Croation families, many pushing strollers, walked the four or five blocks to the free beach, some stopping to permit youngsters to splash in a fountain. The beach of small pebbles fronted the clean, Caribbean-hued waters of the Adriatic -- so clear that the bottom could be seen clearly at any depth.
Beyond the beach, a walking trail leads to the tip of the peninsula, great for a night stroll. While the old city is living history, the new city is a place of joy and relaxation for Croatians and tourists alike.
Restaurants along the promenade offer a variety of meals. We ate lots of pizza (about $7 for a medium pie) at one umbrella shaded restaurant and got to know one very pleasant waiter rather well. He was in his last year of college, studying business management. The restaurant we highly recommend for delicious meals in a special setting is Eden, located on a street on the steep hillside above and parallel to the promenade. To reach Eden we climbed what seemed like hundreds of stone steps from the promenade. Only later, when we planned a return to Eden, did we discover that we could reach the restaurant without a climb by entering a hotel on the promenade level and taking their elevator to the top floor which connected with the upper street about 100 feet from the restaurant! Not only was the food and service excellent in Eden, we also struck up conversations with some delightful English and Russian diners.
While based in Dubrovnik, we traveled by van and, finally, a 10-minute boat ride to Korcula Island, north of Dubrovnik. Along the coast we saw many oyster and black mussel farms, each marked with their own distinctive colored buoys. En route we stopped briefly in Ston, a former salt-mining town with long protective stonewalls on the surrounding high hills. Today, the operation has been reduced to the sale of small bags of salt to tourists. Korcula Island is an old walled town. Highlights of the island include an old church, a museum with exhibits and relics of the city, a waterside walkway around the compact island, the remains of walls and watch towers, waterside restaurants and many small shops making and selling jewelry. We had a delightful lunch at a waterside restaurant.
On our return from Korcula, our Grand Circle Travel guide, Inga, stopped to show us the lovely hillside villa she and her husband rent and the sandy crescent beach below. Then, we stopped at the vineyards and tiny winery her husband operates. Wine and snacks topped off the visit. Many of the vineyards and wineries in the area are also small family affairs.
Another excursion was our trip to the small coastal town of Cavtat -- a place of lovely homes and coves. The center of town is a crescent walkway along the bay, lined with open-air restaurants and shops. Just beyond the commercial area, several hundred feet up the hillside, is an historic catholic church. A stiff breeze was entering the narrow bay, making it challenging for sailboats to dock.
Lying south of Croatia, the country of Montenegro shares the coastal beauty of Croatia. Although Montenegro is part of the European Union (and euro zone), Croatia is not expected to achieve membership until 2013. Thus, passports are still necessary to enter Montenegro or reenter Croatia.
We took a day trip to the old city of Kotor and along the Bay of Kotor. Rocky mountains, up to 5,000 feet high, plunge to the fjord-like bay. Decorating the foothills are cypress, fig, olive, cedar, palm and pine trees and grape arbors. Kotor, like Dubrovnik, has become a popular stop for smaller cruise ships. Kotor was jammed with tourists at mid-day. Its ancient catholic and orthodox churches, old city walls and museum attracted their share of visitors on this hot day in June. Some of Kotor dates back 1,000 years. Because we would eventually visit Slovenia, which, like Montenegro, uses the euro for currency, we took the opportunity to visit an ATM to stock up on euros.
After leaving Kotor, we stopped for a tasty lunch in the seaside town of Budva , afterwards wandering along Budva's long stretches of sand beach. Regrettably, our bathing suits were still in our hotel in Dubrovnik where we had used the large salt water pool. On our return trip to Croatia, our bus paused to permit a group of horseback riders of various ages to cross the road. They were dressed in elegant native costumes, the men in red caps and black riding pants and jackets and white long-sleeve shirts, the women in white dresses and embroidered vests.
Wanting a day of poolside relaxation, we passed up a planned trip to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. While we were sad to miss that trip and the famous bridge at Mostar, we needed a breather in our schedule.
The next day, we drove to Split via a winding, twisting coastal road carved into steep mountainsides and offering a succession of dramatic mountain, Adriatic and inland lake views. The active port of Split is home to the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian, built in 305 AD. After the Roman Empire became Christian, Diocletian's Temple of Jupiter was converted into a Christian baptistery and his mausoleum was converted into a cathedral -- a fitting memorial for a man who executed his wife and daughter after they converted to Christianity. The palace is considered to be one of the greatest Roman ruins in Europe. The high brick and stone arches now house many small businesses. The palace complex is impressive in size. Its fortress-like walls enclose an area 590 feet by 705 feet. Being open to pedestrians and the flow of commerce, the impressive ruins have suffered some graffiti. The front wall of the palace has become the back wall of a row of taverns, cafes and shops. Surprisingly, the historic site and retail outlets blend fairly seamlessly.
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