The more observant of you may have noticed that I’ve been a bit quiet on here recently. This is because on top of some additional work pressures, its actually bloody hard planning to get round 28 countries in 2 years! It’s taken some serious scheduling and after Trip 1 (Scotland) and Trip 2 (Ireland) Trip 3 sees the Family P getting ourselves over to Croatia and Slovenia. The truth is that neither of these were places originally anywhere near the top of our ‘ooh, that looks interesting’ list. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we actively tried to reduce our time here but found ourselves committed to a week due to school holidays and the ever increasing cost of leaving things too late.
You know that time when Donald Trump said that he was going to build a real, actual non-imaginary wall across the entire US Southern border, and get Mexico to pay for it, and this was an amazing idea, and everyone would say that he is the best and kindest and most humble President/Humanitarian Saviour the world has ever seen*? Yeah, we were as wrong as that.
So first the itinerary;
Croatia feels like it’s a country just waking up to the rest of the world. It’s situated on the other side of the Adriatic sea with almost the same length as Italy. As a result the weather and scenery is pretty much the same too with temperatures hitting 40 degrees when we were there this July. Formed out of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia is chopped into 2 bits separated by a finger of Bosnia that reaches out to the coast. If you come in and your hotel has organised transfers then this won’t be a problem, but to drive up and down the country you’ll probably need to let your car hire company know so they can charge you additional exorbitant insurance fees, like they did for us.
We started in Dubrovnik for a couple of days and apparently everyone who comes to Croatia wants to see the filming locations from Game of Thrones. This is certainly something that the hordes of Americans and Japanese tourists who swarmed off the cruise ships then across the city like a plague of digital camera wielding locusts had a vocal and persistent opinion on. For the Family P? Not so much. So, we decided instead to go and check out the 2 thousand year old actual history that the Croatians themselves are more proud of.
Dubrovnik and Split are the two biggest GOF draws and no matter when you visit, you won’t get away from the ubiquitous shops, t-shirts and shaggy bearded day-tripping Jon Snow wannabes. However, being up early seems to be the key here and in Dubrovnik the views from the city walls were fantastic when they opened at 8am with only a few fellow travellers for company.
The sunset from the top of the hill overlooking Dubrovnik is one of the ‘must see’ sights of the town and we could see why, it was phenomenal. But be careful if you decide to walk down afterwards because when the guides say the path is difficult after dark, they are not joking, the path is quite steep and very rocky. We did it in flip-flops because we’re hardcore/stupid. Remember we do these things to tell you that you shouldn’t.
A garden paradise at Plitvice Lakes
One of the things that people kept talking to us about when we said we were visiting Croatia were the lakes and waterfalls. Plitvice Lakes is a Croatian National Park as well as a World Heritage Site, and once again employing the Dubrovnik technique of trying to get in before the Americans, we rocked up at 8:30am. The place is, without question, totally stunning. When the sun hits it the water is a colour that stops you in your tracks, the waterfalls and caves are beautiful at every turn and lakes have a serene composure that forces you to realise that the world is so much more than the lido in Croydon. Of course that is if you experience them as we did. As we left more than a few hours later we spared a thought for the poor souls bussed in from Dubrovnik or Split on the next hurried stop of their round trip. Waiting in a line to enter the lakes that had stretched out of the office, twice around the entrance square and half way over the bridge to the carpark. There must have been easily at least 300+ people waiting, I think avoiding that was definitely worth getting up early for.
Split, Hvar and Brač oh my!
If you’ve been to Croatia before (and liked it), the chances are that you visited one or more of these places and came back gushing with near fanatical fervour about them. Yeah, you know who you are. Well, brace yourselves because this one is going to be controversial; we did not like Split. Like; AT. ALL. In fairness, Hvar and Brac are pretty impressive if you like your beaches burningly hot, overcrowded and frighteningly expensive. The water is as clean and clear as the pictures would have you believe and if that is what you want to go to Croatia for then I can promise you this; you won’t be disappointed.
However, these very destinations also provided us with the most miserable, ill-mannered and least welcoming Croatians we met during our whole stay in the Country. From bar staff, to boat captains all the way to the tourist information reps, we were confronted time and time again with indifference at best and, on one occasion, outright aggression regarding the size of a tip. Just to give you a sense of perspective and reassurance that this is not a statement based on one or two encounters, we must have spoken to at least ten or twelve people who identified themselves as from or working in the Split area and not a single one of them impressed with any form of welcome.
The best of the bunch were this pair of happy jokers. Two young guys dressed as Romans outside the most famous historical site in Split (which was also doing far more trade as a GOT film site), they are paid by the tourist board to stand and welcome visitors like us to this, one of the most popular destinations in Croatia. I wandered over, introduced myself and asked what they thought of Brexit. This was met with the response that you receive in any classy establishment: looking and pictures are fine but for anything else, you have to pay. Fair enough, I thought; everyone has to make a living and dug out a note. Now what did they think of Brexit? Nothing. They had vaguely heard of it and maybe it was a good thing. Probably, if I had any with me and could give them some to try.
So OK, perhaps this wasn’t my most successful interview then but they were the best dressed of all the people we spoke to and I liked them more than anyone else in Split, which wasn’t hard.
Zagreb and the best of the rest
What can I tell you about Zagreb? Well, the Old Town is much smaller than you think but the market is pleasantly noisy and boisterous and while there is a statue in the main square, there’s only so much time you can admire a statue of a man on a horse. If you do find yourself in Zagreb with an hour or so to spare, then there are a few interesting churches of which Zagreb Cathedral on the Kaptul Road is probably your best bet. I understand that they do throw the best Christmas Market in Europe too so if you find something more stimulating than I did then by all means let me know what we missed out on.
But it was the smaller towns up and down the Croatian coast that held our attention, the coves of sparkling azure blue water lapping against shaded groves with a bar off to the side ready to provide an ice-cream and cold beer. Ston, Tragir, Tisno, Murter and Cavtat among others were all (in our opinion) nicer, more interesting, cheaper and generally all-round better than the main cities. Most importantly, the beaches were quieter, there was plenty of potential for finding yourself a private cove and you were generally less likely to be screwed over at the bar.
What did we eat?
You know by now that I can’t help but talk about what I ate and without doubt the best food we tasted in Croatia came from Dubrovnik. You do have to be picky though because within the Old Town walls there are more than enough tourist traps to separate you with your cash monies for the sake of very poor plates of limp octopus and, of course because there are so many Americans here you get chips with everything. The two best tips we found were:
Gradska kavana Arsenal – This place gives you a fantastic breakfast and it opens directly onto the old harbour and sitting there in the morning with a glass or orange juice is what holidays are all about. The value is reasonable considering the quality and although you might get bigger portions elsewhere, you won’t get that view.
Dubravka – Owned by the same company as the Gradska (we only found this out afterwards) the Dubravka is just outside the main gate with the entrance just to the left of its own gelato stand. Both the Prawns Dubrovnik and the gelato were the best things we tasted all trip, they really were right up there with some of the best seafood I’ve tasted. It’s also got a much better price to deliciousness ratio than anything you’ll get in the Old Town and they seem to play live Jazz on the weekend evenings which Mrs P absolutely loved.
(PS – I can’t stand Jazz, I hate it with a murderous passion but sometimes happy wife = happy life).
Top Ten Incredible things that happened to us in Croatia:
- Someone thought I was actually Mark Zuckerberg and ran off to tell all her friends. I mean like screaming down the street – ‘look it’s Mark Zuckerberg’. Single best moment of my year, bar none.
- Mrs P interrupted a half-naked Australian man pleasuring himself behind a sign half way down a hill above Dubrovnik. Don’t worry, the feeling of horror and disgust seemed to be mutual between them.
- We gate crashed a Catholic mass after being caught in a tropical storm.
- We found out what a sea organ is and realised that explaining why you are laughing at some holes in the ground to a group of passing Germans rather takes the fun out of it.
- We discovered that we cared even less about Game of Thrones than we thought.
- We learned to re-adjust our perception of risk as Croatian drivers proved that what we understood to be the universal rules of driving, such as staying in your own lane and not causing other people to crash, are apparently only ‘advisory guidelines’.
- Mrs P had to take down a waiter for serving us rather more attitude than was professional.
- Ever seen a dog so excited by the sea that she physically can’t stop herself from jumping in non-stop for over an hour? We have, it’s amazing.
- We met three girls from Australia who were traveling around Europe (awesome work guys) and Andy from Reading who’s brother works in the building next to mine. Small world!
- We sat on the dock of Cavtat and had front row seats over dinner, watching Dubrovnik thrash the local boys at Water Polo
So how do we feel about Croatia?
If you like the heat and the beach, unlike us, then come in the summer because you will get lots of both. The coastal cities are easy hubs to get into/out of with plenty of activities to be had and all in close proximity to each other. But venture off the track a little and you’ll find the real stars of the show and you best do it quick before Netflix turns up to film some half-nekked people pretending to kill some other half-nekked people and the entire population of America turns up to watch.
In general though the positives far outweigh the negatives because if you are after a beach holiday, then it’s cheaper than many places but just as nice and if you want historical destinations with lashings of culture then the Romans left plenty behind for you to take a look at. In short, no matter what kind of holiday you like, you’ll find it here. The exchange rate is certainly not as good value as you might like to believe with currency at roughly 8 Kuna to the pound, prices in the cities for most things are easily on par with the UK but as with anywhere, some unscrupulous characters (we’re looking at you Split), chance their arm trying to get away with a whole lot more. If you decide to drive yourself around then keep your wits about you as the locals weave their way around you but it has to be said that Croatians are overwhelmingly lovely people who generally all speak amazing English. We enjoyed (most) of Croatia and if all this is your bag then we’re fairly sure you’ll love it too.
Next up is PART 2: Slovenia where Mrs P and I have our umbrella ‘stolen’ and fall in love with towns with names we cannot pronounce.
*Litigiously eager lawyers for Mr Trump please be aware; this is a paraphrased quote, Donald Trump may not have actually said these exact words, although I bet he wanted to and probably did in private**.
**This is also a view/opinion that does not constitute libel (I checked).