2012 Croatia

And now… for something completely different

Our 2012 adventure must have started with what, as I can recall, must be our shortest holiday flight since decades. 1 hour and 20 minutes after our departure from Cologne we touched down in Zagreb, Croatia. No exhaustion, no yet lag, what a strange way to start a holiday…

We picked up our luggage and took a bus to the centre of Zagreb. There we checked in at Zagreb’s oldest hotel, the Palace. Not only was it Zagreb’s oldest, it was impressive indeed. Totally in keeping with the hotel itself the room was decorated in a classical, luxury style. We could get used to this.

After a refreshing shower we headed off for a leisurely stroll. Almost immediately it became clear that every opportunity was used to create a terrace, we could not believe how many there were. We passed the Dolac market and then made it to Tkalciceva Road. This road is famous for it’s … terraces, one next to the other, and at this point we could no longer resist. We found a comfortable place to sit down and watch the world pass by and ordered a Karlovacko, a local beer. That tasted well so it was followed by an Ozujsko, another local beer, a Pan Zlatri, more local beer, and a Staropnamem, as you can guess by now, another local beer. It was a wonderful way to watch the world pass by and relax. Life is good.

In the evening we went to Vinodol, a restaurant that was highly recommended to us. We sat in an ivy-clad patio with a good view over the kitchen. Both of us could not resist a perfectly prepared piece of beef with a truffle sauce, accompanied by a nice bottle of Croatian red wine.

That night we slept well, Croatia might be our nearest holiday away from home we’ve done so far but already we loved the tranquil atmosphere. Zagreb does not really have the rushed atmosphere which one would expect from a capital and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

The next day started with a sumptuous breakfast with local specialities and Croatian champagne. A good start of the day.

As Zagreb’s botanical gardens were only a 10 minute walk away I could not change Paul’s mind to start our exploration right there. The gardens, though modest in comparison with the world’s great botanical gardens, still made a pleasant stroll. A network of paths, ponds and greenhouses hosted some 10.000 plant species, and no, even Paul could not place a name tag on each and everyone of them, much to my disappointment.

After the botanical gardens we explored the lower town. First we passed the National library, followed by the Ethnographic museum. Both buildings were setup in a grand imperialist style and would not have fitted in badly in a town like Vienna.

Next was the Croatian National Theatre, dating from 1894. In front of it we enjoyed the well of life, a small fountain enclosed by a sprawl of bronze figures.

On the other side of the road, yet another terrace, time for a break, time for coffee. Now, the Italians might be known for their coffee adoring lifestyle and the culture surrounding it, in my humble opinion it’s just a milder version of Croatian coffee culture. Croatians breath coffee, Croatians live Coffee, Croatians are coffee! By the way, they drink it too! A Croatian Espresso is like an Italian one on steroids.

Being absolutely fit after our coffee’s we continued our way to Dolac Market. The market is a bustling place where fruits and vegetables fresh from the countryside were sold. On one side there were cheese stalls and hidden away in a corner a seafood hall where some of the catch was so fresh it was still breathing…

Lunch was being enjoyed in one of the restaurants not far from the market square and after that we visited the Franje i Franjevacki Church. The church itself was beautifully but modestly decorated and once again, like last year at Mary’s church in Cochin, India, we were treated with an organ recital.

Opposite the church was Tolkien’s house, a pub with 78 different types of beer, now how could we resist… Of course we limited ourselves to Croatian beer and we spent another hour or so watching the world go by, a wonderful way to spend our time.

Last visit for the day was the cathedral of the Assumption of the blessed virgin Mary and St. Stephen at Kaptol hill. Being under construction for years on a row we could only see the glory of one of the spires, the other one was surrounded by scaffolding. At one side of the cathedral we cold still see part of the wall and watchtowers surrounding it. Inside, initially the high central nave appeared to be bare but a closer look revealed more things to be seen. A series of 13th-century frescoes, Baroque banners and tapestries, and, most controversial, the tomb of Archbishop Alojzije Stepanic, a man convicted under Tito of high treason and war crimes for colluding with the Nazi puppet regime during World War II.  

In the evening we went to Tip Top, another recommended seafood restaurant. It was a bit difficult to find but just when I was looking a the map Paul mentioned we were standing just in front of it. Tip Top was a simple, but as we found out, perfect restaurant which is a favorite amongst locals. After we studied the menu card for a while and finally made our choice the waitress made a recommendation for fresh grilled tuna, grilled vegetables and a potato-spinach dish. She could have saved us some effort and mentioned it in the first place. 😉

Food was divine, and so was the farewell when the waitress surprised us with an unexpected “Do enjoy my country”. In all our years of traveling we had never heard this one before.

Our first days in Zagreb had been absolutely fantastic and by now both of us were convinced that our 2012 was going to be, once again, extraordinary.

Next morning we started of with an even lusher breakfast as the Croatian specialities were not only accompanied by coffee but a glass of champagne as well. Oh well, someone has got to do it…

We took the 106 bus line to Mirogoj cemetery, without doubt one of Europe’s most beautiful. It was built in 1876 and it’s entrance is suitably grand. High ivy-clad walls, neoclassical colonnades, cupolas and a large central dome. The cemetery is home to a large collection of sculptures, giving it a feel of a huge open-air art gallery. Both of us found it a bit macabre though to find no date of death behind some of the names engraved on the graves. Guess they have already been prepared for future occupants…

Back at the centre of Zagreb we first enjoyed another coffee on steroids before shifting our attention to the upper town. As we were to lazy to climb the stairs we decided to take a ride  on the old funicular which was built in 1888. At 55 seconds it’s most likely the shortest funicular in the world. It brought us from Lower town to the Lotrscak Tower in Upper town. By now it was noon, and as if we needed to be reminded, shortly before the ride started a single canon round went off. If the coffee we did enjoy earlier did not wake us up this one certainly did!

The Lotrscak tower promised amazing views over both upper and lower town and after we were ensured the canon only goes off once a day we decided to ascend the spiral staircase and enjoy the indeed splendid views! Down Town was nice but best was the view of St. Mark’s church with it’s distinctive checkered roof, which seems to come straight out of a brothers Grimm fairy tail.

St. Mark’s church was located on a square surrounded by government buildings. Unfortunately it was only opened up during mass times so we could not enjoy it’s interior. Oh well, one can’t have it all.

Slowly we headed back to lower town but not before we visited a 13th century Stone Gate. It’s the only of four city gates still standing and contains a small chapel, built to commemorate a fire of 1731 that razed the wooden buildings huddled about the gate.

Back at Tkalciceva road we enjoyed a wonderful seafood-saffron risotto, accompanied by a nice bottle of Croatian rose. By now the both of us were extremely relaxed, leaving the stress of the week before we went on holiday totally behind us. Talking about perfect timing….

We decided to take it easy in the afternoon and spent most of the afternoon at the hotel terrace, zipping a glass of Croatian red and Paul reading a book whilst I updated our travel story.

One of Zagreb’s landmarks is the Regent Esplanade Hotel which was established to cater for the needs of the passengers of the Orient Express. It houses the maybe even more famous Zinfandel’s restaurant which is rumored to be the best restaurant in Croatia. I did not need to make a lot of effort to convince Paul in spending our last night in Zagreb over there. It would be fun to recall the glory days of the Orient Express and as it’s own website mentions a Michelin star is long overdue….

We got a table on the outside terrace overlooking some historic buildings and were treated with some live music as an additional bonus. The atmosphere was great!

After inspection of the menu card whilst zipping on a glass of Croatian bubbles we decided to go for the 7 cause tasting menu; Adriatic langoustines with a bloody mary granite, fois grass terrine with a truffle brioche, langoustine consommé, risotto with frog legs and truffle, sole filet with truffle, veal with a horseradish foam and to finish it off a lemongrass pannacotta, tangerine sorbet and orange cake. Of course each dish was accompanied by Croatian wines and by the end of the dinner Paul and I really asked ourselves why Croatian wines are not that well known in Western Europe, they were fabulous! The evening passed by far to quick for our liking.

And to mention the ‘long overdue’ Michelin star… We guess that will still take a while. Food was very good but not to that level and also the service dropped a little at occasions. It was a highly enjoyable evening though and for the both of us that was all that mattered.

Next morning we took a taxi to the airport in order to pick up our rental car.  Unfortunately that one was not available yet so we were asked to wait half an hour and have a cup of coffee in the mean time. After we returned to the rental desk we were informed we were upgraded to a bigger car. We were supposed to get an Opel Astra or similar but ended up with an Opel Safira with only 7000 km on the counter. Not bad.

As soon as we left Zagreb we entered a beautiful hilly area with lots and lots of green. Some of the views we saw were absolutely amazing. Slowly we went up to the mountains and by the time we entered Istria the green had taken place of a drier, rocky landscape. Still absolutely amazing to drive through. It was a pleasure to drive, mainly because the road was in perfect condition, something be both had not expected to be totally honest. Oh well, Croatia keeps on surprising us in the most positive way.

After a 265 km drive we arrived in Pula, a small coastal town, where we checked in at the Amfiteatar hotel. As expected it was located next to Pula’s famous amphitheatre which was obviously our first place to visit. But not after we enjoyed lunch. I could not resist tagliatelle with truffles and Paul opted for a more traditional bolognese, we’re really getting spoiled this trip.

The amphitheatre was built in the 1st century and is world’s 6th largest. In order to save money it was built on a slope so less stones were needed. It was special to visit the dungeons under the arena where prisoners and wild animals were held awaiting their gruesome faith. The gladiators and lions may be long gone but nowadays the arena regularly hots pop concerts and other events, actually whilst our visit everything was prepared to turn the arena into an ice hockey venue, strange to think about with outside temperatures easily hitting 25 degrees.

Next we strolled through the small but compact town and enjoyed the architecture. We passed by the cathedral and as I was enjoying a well deserved gelato we could not go inside. Next was the temple of Augustus, built as a dedication to the eponymous emperor. The temple was locate. We decided not to continue our stroll until we had enjoyed another glass of local white. It would be rude not to…

Slightly further south we found the triumphal arch of Sergius which dated from 27BC. No it was nothing compared to the arch de triumph but still interesting to be seen. By now Paul and I certainly felt that the atmosphere had totally changed from what we experienced in Zagreb. We still encountered the tranquility but by now the whole atmosphere had turned int something more Mediterranean. Mediterranean but then without the buzz and hassle it comes with. We agreed it was the perfect timing for us to come to this nearby but still amazing country.  

During the evening we decided to chill and do not a lot at all. A nice bottle of wine, a mixed meat platter and fries. Nice and easy.

Next morning we packed again and headed towards the Opatija Riviera located at the Kvarner Gulf. In Opatija we had booked a room at it’s oldest hotel, the Kvarner. The hotel opened it’s doors for the first time in 1885. It was built in Austro-Hungarian style and came with very grandeur possible. Located directly at the sea we did not need another excuse to take a day of, relax, do absolutely nothing but work on our tans and have an occasional swim to cool down, and so we did…

Late afternoon we walked the promenade to a neighboring village called Volosko. The reason for our walk was of course food related. Konoba Tramerka was top choice in Volosko so we just had to try it. We were rather early so we went over to make a reservation for later. Unfortunately so had other and the place was fully booked. Unless we were willing to wait until 20:30 then we could get a table at the small terrace. We did not need long to take that place. So what to do with the remaining three hours in a small village like Volosko. The small harbor brought the solution. On the jetty, under the fishing nets, lounge chairs were setup, definitely the most romantic place to enjoy sunset. The only thing missing was a bottle of cold Croatian white but that was taken care of no much later by a friendly waitress.

In this superb setting time went by quickly so we headed back to the small alley where Konoba Tramerka was located. Our table was ready for us and neither of us could believe the remarkable and absolutely wonderful setting where we were going to have dinner. The concept was easy, no menu card but the patron came over to explain us what he had in mind. He came up with a number of options and we decided to give him carte blanche. A bottle of house white and we were ready for the food. First course was grilled squid and a tartar of a kind of tuna. That already brought us in seventh heaven. Next was a plate of grilled sardines, ok, not really sardines but the local variety. The atmosphere was to die for and so was the food. Simple but pure dishes with the freshest ingredients one could imagine. The local ‘sardines’ were followed by a plate of welks (again a local variety of vongole) and after that we continued with small scallops. We had heard that the fish stew was absolutely to die for but after these wonderful courses we could absolutely not handle anything more so we were more than pleased to finish this delightful meal off with a glass of full bodied red. The evening had been absolutely amazing and though absolutely a fraction of the cost what we paid at Zinfandel in Zagreb Paul and I were unanimous this was so much better. This evening’s dinner will for sure be one of the highlights of Croatia for us. As we were to lazy to walk beck we ordered a taxi and not much later we were back at the hotel, totally satisfied of a lazy but wonderful day.

As Paul was awake just a bit earlier than me he had opened the french windows of our room and by the time I opened my eyes I could enjoy a wonderful view over the Kvarner Gulf. What a way to start the day. After breakfast we continued on to our next destination, the Plitvice National Park. On the way to there we were constantly surprised with magnificent views. Shame we could not stop to make some pictures so we have to keep this spectacular scenery in our minds.

After we checked in at Plitvice Etno House, an old farm with an annex built in the same style with rooms for rent, we headed towards the entrance of the park.

It’s famous for it lakes which are in fact big limestone deposits. Moss and fungi have reacted and diverted the water flow into a natural network of dams, caves and waterfalls. Neither of us can recall to have seen a lake this clear and wonderfully colored. It was so inviting to jump in, something which however wasn’t allowed and maybe for the better. As we had a two day pass for the park we decided to start of with the upper part of the park. We took a bus which brought us to the starting point of our hike and from there it took us approximately three hours back at an easy going pace.

The waterfalls were magic indeed, as were the bright green absolutely clear lakes. The bulk of the forest was made up of beech, fir and spruce trees and unfortunately (Or should I say fortunately) we could not see some of the inhabitants like bears and wolves. The lakes were filled with trout, maybe as it’s not allowed to fish or hunt in the national park they became lazy, fat and plenty.

Next morning, after a good breakfast, we headed off to the entrance off the park again. A short boat ride brought us to the other side of the lake where we could start our hike. First we reentered in our footsteps of yesterday but soon we took a diversion and started to follow a narrow path following the shoreline of Jezero Kozjak, the biggest lake a the park.

Like yesterday we could hardly resist jumping in the emerald green, totally clear and inviting water of the lake. There was plenty of trout in this rich waters and everywhere we could find small pockets of diverse micro climates, depending on the location. It was absolutely amazing. Of course Paul could name most of the flowers and plants we passed by  (I had not expected otherwise) and both of us were absorbing the outstanding beauty surrounding us.

It took us the best part of 2 hours to get to the first resting point, a large picnic area, which also was the landing point for those who did not want to make the long walk here and opted for a boat ride.  A cup of coffee later we were good to go again. The track we followed was leading to the big waterfall and it was much busier over here then on the first part of our hike. Would dread this area in high season. We passed a cascade of smaller waterfalls, one even more beautiful that the other. Small emerald green lakes were of an almost surrealistic beauty and we were missing ohhs, ahhs, wows and superlatives to describe what unfolded in front of our eyes.

Every step brought new surprises and after each corner we discovered a new spectacular sight. Finally we made it to Veliki Slap, the big waterfall another amazing sight. The good thing of this hike however was not the reward of the sight of the big waterfall at the end but the journey itself.

We crossed a deep gorge and then had to climb a steep whirling path to the rim of the canyon. We had not expected this but from this high viewpoint the sight of the waterfall on the other side of the canyon was maybe even more spectacular. The emerald lakes, cascading waterfalls and the lush vegetation looked it one word stunning. Enjoying the park from this different perspective we slowly headed back. In order to get at lake level again we had to descend through a natural cave, another highlight of the day.

Once back at the picnic place we had a small bite to eat and as expected this was the culinary lowlight of our trip so far. Paul had a hamburger which even McD could have improved on and I had a pork steak and a portion of cold fries. Yum. Oh well, at least we had something in our stomachs again.  As the queue for the boat was to long for our liking we decided to complete the full circle of the lake just as we had started it, on foot. This was a decision we had not regretted as once again it was a nice and quiet area where we had nature for ourselves.

Six and a half hours after we started this morning we returned to our car and headed back to our hotel. It had been a day of superlatives and both of us could not stop reviving memories of the beautiful places we had seen. We agreed that Plitvice Lakes National Park was indeed one of the most stunning and extraordinary national parks we have visited, words or pictures just cannot describe how beautiful it truly is.

In the evening we relaxed at the terrace of our hotel and once again enjoyed a fabulous dinner. Our hostess came and joined us at the table and it was a good finish of a very special day.

Next day it unfortunately was time to leave but that’s part of traveling and we were convinced there were many more nice places to be discovered. We headed towards the coast again to a small town in Northern Dalmatia called Zadar, a 150 km ride. Once again the road was in perfect condition and the scenery around us made us speechless. We had opted not to stay in the centre of town but in one of the small villages around it called Kozino. Villa Clara, a private house with a beautiful pool was our home for the next two days. Ellis, the owner was already waiting to welcome us and a very good source of information on what to see and maybe more important, where to eat. She was a very friendly lady who ensured we were absolutely happy in her home which, as she said we should consider our home for the next two days.

After we unpacked we took the car to Zadar, Northern Dalmatia’s most populous settlement, and once Dalmatia’s largest town. The centre of Zadar, where most of the old Roman buildings can be found, lies on a small peninsula hemmed in by sturdy walls. Before we started our exploration though we enjoyed lunch in a restaurant which was recommended to us by Ellis. As I had not had fish with truffle yet this was the obvious choice for me, Paul opted for grilled swordfish.

Totally satisfied we started our exploration of the town centre. First sight was the five wells square, a nice lively square with, as we already expected, five wells in a row. From the neighboring park we had a good view over the harbor and the land gate. We strolled around the harbor and followed to waterfront boulevard to the tip of the peninsula.

At that very point we found the sea organ. The waves pressed air through a system of holes and tunnels under the boulevard and because of that a constant random sequence of notes was played directed by mother nature herself. Next to it was a piece of art called “Greeting to the sun”, a modern piece which consisted of a large circle of solar panels that was fed by sunlight and created a playful sequence of lights and colors in the evening, this unfortunately we had to skip as we would be back home at Villa Clara by then.

The St. Francis Church and Monastery were much older again, shame both were closed for visits so we could not admire he interior. We followed to narrow alleyways towards the Forum. There was not much left of the forum but the foundations but an information board gave an impression of the original state. It was not the forum that caught the eye though but the 9th-century St. Donat’s Church, a Byzantine masterpiece. It’s reputed to bear a similarity to the court chapel in Aachen though I cannot confirm that as I simply can’t recall having visited that one although it’s so close by home.

Adjecent to it was the bell tower of St. Anastasia’s Cathedral and while Paul headed towards one of the terraces I opted to climb the tower and g a bird eye perspective of Zadar. Of course the bell rang when I was close to it but fortunately it was not as loud as the canon that went of in Zagreb.

Next stop was Narodni trg, Zadar’s main public space in the middle ages. Now it was the centre of cafe society. As we did not want to skip the chance to be part of that we looked for a nice looking terrace where  both of us choose a coupe of ice cream to our liking. Life was good!

Enjoying our ice cream whilst watching the world go by was the perfect way to finish our visit to Zadar so we headed back to Villa Clara to enjoy both the sun and the pool.

In the evening we went to a nearby restaurant where we were ordered a nice rump-steak each. It turned out that one would have been enough for the both of us but then to be fair Ellis had warned us portions were big here.

Next morning it was time for more sightseeing. First we headed towards the small town of Nin, a sort of sleepy backwater. Although from the 7th to the 13th century this was a major hub for the Croatian kings and bishops not a lot was going on nowadays. Still it was a pleasant stroll and the Holy Cross Cathedral which claims to be the smallest cathedral in the world seemed to make a point.

As our GPS did not have a full roadmap of the area it was a bit of trial and error to find our way but we finally did manage to get through Vrsi, Gbre and some other towns with, for the untrained, unpronounceable names. And indeed we managed it to find the bridge leading to Pag island. Pag island is a desolated, barren, rocky empty landscape where nothing seems to grow but some weeds and salty grasses which feed the famous Pag sheep which ehh, were nowhere to be found. Farmers make an attempt to harvest on the miserly soil but all we could see was a moonlike landscape. It even more pronounced the emptiness of Pag island though it also was of a bizarre beauty with the steel colored Adriatic sea around it. We wondered how someone in a right state of mind would come up with the idea to build a town over here, but that had happened indeed. So after half an hour drive we parked our car at Pag town…

Pag town was small but rather nice for a stroll. The harbor, as expected was small with only a couple of fisher boats and small rowing boated moored. We enjoyed an espresso on steroids, walked a bit further and then opted for a nice looking restaurant for lunch. Of course we could not leave Pag without a sampler of it’s famous sheep cheese and the grilled squid looked so mouthwatering good I could not resist. A glass of Sutica, white wine from Pag, complemented the lunch perfectly so both of us were perfectly happy hen we headed back to Villa Clara.

The rest of the afternoon we lazily spent at the pool and in the evening we went back to the same restaurant as the evening before. Like yesterday we were treated on wonderful Croatian background music and the waiter proudly announced that the singer was his cousin. From that moment on we tried not to make fun of it anymore and enjoyed the cultural happening with a, maybe for our liking to big touch, of colour locale. Fact is we walked back humming those wonderful melodies that pleased our ears during dinner and even attempted a little dance at the empty street. An empty street that was suddenly filled with our outbursts of laughing.

That night the heaven’s opened. A strong and extremely loud thunderstorm passed over and the lightning made it look like daylight. After an hour or so it slowly passed away but it kept on raining heavily the rest of the night.

Next morning it was still raining a bit, however it did not take long for the valves to open opened totally again.

We checked out after breakfast and made our way to Trogir, our next destination. The trip took us over 3 hours although we only needed to drive about 160 km. And this was like driving through a 160 km long washing street. Croatia is a country of superlatives and also in this aspect id did not disappoint. When it rains… it rains! Obviously we did were not able to see much of the landscape but we made it safe to Trogir and that was what mattered. Our hotel was easily found and in spite of the rain we headed to the old city centre of Trogir after we checked in. By now it was lunch time so we found a nice courtyard covered by a grapevine and a screen so it was nice and dry. Lunch was great and so was the wine. A table next to us was occupied by a young couple and we got engaged in a lively conversation. That way the rainy afternoon passed quickly. Early evening we returned to our hotel for a shower and a nap, only to wake up next morning. Outside it was still raining so we did not have the feeling we missed a lot.

One good thing of the next day, it started of dry. Still overcast but dry so we took the opportunity to explore the old, Unesco listed old city of Trogir. Trogir is a narrow island linked by bridge to the mainland and by another bridge to the island of Ciovo (Where our hotel was located). The first prove of habitat is over 4000 years old and by now it’s a wonderful labyrinth of narrow alleys, medieval fortifications, Renaissance places and Venetian Gothic mansions. It’s absolutely to die for, so atmospheric it goes beyond imagination. We started of at the Kamerlengo Fortress built by the Venetians in 1420, after hat we just submerged in the labyrinth of alleyways without a fixed plan, not that it mattered, the atmosphere we were soaking up was magnificent.

Late morning we continued to Split, Croatia’s 2nd country which laid only 26 km further south. A parking spot was easily found after which we strolled by a market place towards the Diocletian’s Palace which was initially built by the Roman emperor Diocletian between AD 295 and 305. We entered the palace through the bronze gate which lead to the ground floor, built with limestone of the island Brac and which now was one big souvenir stall, both Paul and I could imagine better use of it as an exhibition hall.

We wandered a bit around and then visited  the octagonal Cathedral of St Domnius. A small, but certainly impressive cathedral. After that we decided to climb the bell tower, together with loads of other people. The way up and down was a narrow staircase which was used for both ways, so it was rather cramped. The upper part of the tower was constructed in n open way and as it was rather windy it did not add to our comfort levels.

The view from the top was definitely worth the effort though and both of us were happy to have made the effort.

Back at ground level we wondered through the centre of the old part of Split until we found a wonderful restaurant for lunch. After that we continued our exploration past the harbor side when it started to rain again. Good thing was that we had seen most of what we wanted to see.

The rain however made us decide not to visit another picturesque town in the area, Solina, but then, one can’t have it all.  Back in Trogir we headed back to the same covered courtyard as the day before where, whilst enjoying a glass of wine or two, Paul was enjoying his, as far as I can guess, fourth book of this holiday. I downloaded the last Marillion album (Could not wait until my arrival at home) and submerged myself into ‘ Sound’s that can’t be made ‘. We decided not to move for dinner and spent it at the same place. As it was still raining and we knew food as good here there was no reason to move. And so another evening went by…

Next morning we opened the shutters…. to see blue sky again!!! The picturesque town of Trogir looked even more picturesque now it was bathing in the warm sun but for us it was time to leave Croatia for a short visit to Bosnia Herzegovina. Our GPS was not loaded with the full map of Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina so our journey became a bit of a quest. We followed the coastline towards Makarska being stunned by the Adriatic sea on one side and an impressive chain of mountains on the other side. It was in one word, magic! Magic, but nothing compared to what was coming yet. As soon as we left the coastline the landscape turned dramatically. I cannot describe the rough beauty we were passing through. Red, Orange, yellow, green. The bare rocks were covered in a blanket of colors that the trees were exposing. Once again, like in Plitvice National Park both Paul and myself were lacking ohh’s, ahh’s and wow’s. Once again we were gobsmacked by the pure beauty of nature.

An unfriendly face at customs hardly made us feel welcome in Bosnia Herzegovina but we continued our way through new, and not in any means GPS documented, territory towards Mostar. Although we saw some really nice houses it was obvious the standard of life in Croatia was much higher. Roads were in not so good condition and so were the houses. Silent witnesses of former mortar attacks were still visible almost 17 years after the Balkan war had ended. It was impressive indeed.

Not as impressive though as our descend in the valley where Mostar was located. We assed by a large graveyard that seemed to take no end and then suddenly we arrived in the centre of Mostar.

The Centre of Mostar is divided by a beautifully clear river, which also acts as a cultural dividing line. Mainly Christian at one side, and Islamic, with strong Turkish influences,  on the other side. We arrived at the Christian side and although a lot of buildings had been repaired we could not ignore the damage done during war. A lot of ruins and even more bullet and mortar holes were seen in most of the buildings, a bizarre scenery.

With our GPS totally lacking any information we got stuck in a one way road where we were guided out by an agitated guy, welcome to Mostar… Some inquiries later we realized we needed to be on the other side, Islamic part, of the river. Our hotel was located at Marshala Tita 151, the main road, so how difficult could it be to find it. Very difficult! After we found ourselves close to Marshala Tita 100 and there was no way to get back we drove up the hill and asked information to a local guy.  Next we knew he jumped in our car and guided us through narrow roads back to the beginning of Marshala Tita for the second run… Of course we missed again, did the whole tour again and once back at Marshala Tita our friendly guide told me to stop every 50 meters so he could jump out, ask directions and guide me through the next 50 meters where the same ritual was repeated. Finally we found a narrow alley next to a big ruin that leaded up to our hotel which, in every aspect, was a hidden gem in the centre of Mostar. ALthough totally wrecked during the war it was brought back to it’s original state in 2005 by the current owners and the result was in one word breathtaking! We thanked our spontaneous ‘guide’ and wanted to thank him with a tip but he did not accept, this was a true welcome to Mostar and we felt special, very special to be in this town.

Of course we could not start our exploration of Mostar without getting a glimpse of Stari Most, the old bridge which was totally wrecked during the war but afterwards resurrected in it’s old state using the original techniques. Not only being a symbol of the war but a wonderful structure hanging over a crystal clear river. And it did not disappoint, in contrary it was picture postcard beautiful!

By now Mostar’s main attraction had turned into a major tourist spot but still it was definitely worth a visit. We spotted a couple of terraces at the other side of the river which would be the perfect venue for lunch. And so it was. We tried a Bosnian white wine which was not bad after all and food was nice, though not at the same level as in Croatia. The view of the old bridge however made up for everything, we were so glad to be here!

After lunch we headed back to the Islamic part of Mostar and strolled though the area, visiting a couple of mosques and being amazed by he amount of houses still showing scars from the war. From being lived in, to being partly renovated to being absolute ruins, Mostar definitely has a long way to go to completely recover. Most impressive was our visit to a cemetery where the majority of the people resting here seemed to be male in their early, mid twenties, and having died in 1993 – 1995. Some graves had no deceased date as the body was never found but the family had a strong need to erect a memorial for those who got missing loved ones. It was very emotional indeed.

Back at the bridge we spotted a kind of lounge bar, a good place to relax and soakn the impressions of today. We opted for a Bosnian red wine, something we had not tried before and will most likely not try again. It was called a wine but it was more like a noble vinegar, a liquid that would have tasted nice as a topping on a salad but definitely not as wine. Not surprisingly we did not finish our drinks and returned to one of the terraces overlooking the old bridge for dinner and… a white wine.

Watching the sun setting whilst having dinner and overlooking the old bridge was the perfect way to finish our short, but overly impressive, visit to Bosnia Herzegovina. It was a destination we will most likely not return to but it was fantastic to have visited a place with such an impact of South-Eastern European history.

Back in our hotel it felt like surreal, the place was decorated with so much love for attention it was not difficult to leave our impressions behind and fall into a deep, satisfied sleep.

Next morning, after a wonderful breakfast, it was time to return to Croatia, our main destination of this year’s trip. Cross country was beautiful but it was not until we returned to the coastline that our ohh’s and ahh’s returned. Emerald green, turquoise and Safire shades colored the sea which laid deep below the meandering road we were following. It was breathtaking (once again) and after another hour or so we spotted the unmistakable skyline of Dubrovnik. Not for long though as we passed by it and continued on the airport where we returned our rental car and took a bus to to harbor of Dubrovnik.

There we found out the ferry to Sipan, one of the Elaphite islands opposing Dubrovnik, and our destination for the next couple of days did not leave until 20:30. As it was only 12:00 by then we did not feel like waiting so we took a taxi to a small cove 15 kilometers further north where we charted a small speedboat which brought us straight to our hotel. It’s a holiday after all so why should we waste time…

The hotel was wonderfully located in a small bay. The perfect place for a couple of days of relaxing, something we were absolutely ready for after our Croatian adventures. After lunch we had our first swim in the Adriatic Sea, continued by soaking our bodies in the Dalmatian sun. Relaxation optima forma!

And that is exactly what did the next couple of days as well. Wake up after a relaxing sleep, enjoy the lush breakfast, swim, sunbath, and the odd glass off wine (or two).

Not far from the hotel was a small fishing village called Sudurad and one day we decided to stroll over there and explore the village life.

A small picturesque harbor with your typical village cafe where we had a cup of coffee, small narrow streets and the mandatory church. That was all Sudurad had to offer but it was picturesque indeed and a welcome change from our strenuous sunbathing and swimming sessions.

At the hotel Paul spotted a canoe and after he found out it was for the use of the guests nothing could stop him. After a couple of clumsy attempts he finally managed to keep the canoe stable and minutes later he has canoeing as a professional.      Of course I could not stay behind and after an even clumsy attempt I mastered the canoe as well and the next hour or so we took turns. I can only say it was a lot of fun and gave us the idea we had been active that day.

The views from the hotel over the Miljetski kanal were phenomenal. A beautiful skyline with a blue sky and an even bluer sea. What a treat to our eyes. It did not matter whether you were at the terrace at the pool, further down by the sea or enjoying a perfectly prepared lunch or dinner in the restaurant, it was difficult not to be blown away by the scenery.

Time flew by far to quick for our liking but we had one final place to visit, Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic. So we packed our bags, said goodbye to the friendly staff and were brought to the afternoon ferry which brought us to Dubrovnik. In the harbor we took a taxi which brought us to the Pile gate through which we entered our last destination of this trip, Dubrovnik

It took us some effort to find our apartment which was located in one of the many narrow streets but once found we were welcomed by a representative who showed us around and gave us the key. It was small but for the next couple of days perfect indeed.

In order to get an idea of the layout of the old town we decided to walk around the city walls. We got our tickets at one of the entrances at the Pile gate where we climbed the stairs to the top of the walls and started our 2km walk. The walk was popular and crowded, it sometimes took me quite some patience to make a picture without large groups of people.

During the evening we strolled through the relatively small city center without a fixed goal. Just breathing the lively atmosphere of the now completely restored city. We absolutely loved it. The streets were paved with glossy marble tiles, which at their turn were paved with countless terraces. We fell in love with Dubrovnik at first sight, the atmosphere was fantastic, a place well worth finishing our Croatian adventure.

Next morning we decided to start our exploration at a black and white war photo exhibition. The striking images and their accompanying stories had a big impact on us. We recognized some of the places we had visited but instead of the impressions we had these pictures were not a pretty sight.

As soon as we left the museum we had a cup of coffee to bring our senses back into the present time. The streets of Dubrovnik were now flooded with passengers from the cruise-ships visiting Dubrovnik for a couple of hours or so. In large groups of 100-150 people they followed their tour guide for their brief and in our opinion far to superficial visit to Dubrovnik. For sure they will have a very enjoyable time but Paul and I had already decided this was not our thing.

From the most northern point of the old fortifications we had a brilliant view over St. Lawrence Fortress on one side and the city on the other side. There was surprisingly little evidence of the damage caused during the war but if you looked well you could see the difference in roof tiles and traces or mortar holes.

We thoroughly enjoyed ambling around the old fortifications. We were rewarded for our efforts under the burning sun by splendid views over Dubrovnik and it’s surroundings. We could see the countless churches, narrow alleys and had a good view over the old harbor. Most impressive though were the layers of terra-cotta roof tiles. That was so unmistakably Dubrovnik.

Back at street level we went for a stroll through some some of the smaller alleys north of Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main street. There were many steep alleys with countless steps leading up to more alleys. Every space straight up to the walls was filled and wherever possible one could find a terrace in front of one of the countless restaurants. The atmosphere was in one word amazing and we enjoyed every single sight that caught our attention.

One of the places we had read about before our departure was Cafe Buza, a small cafe outside the walls with a fantastic view over the seaside. The place was easy to find and soon we were enjoying a well deserved veer and the dramatic views over the seaside. Drinks however were outrageously priced so we limited that to one. The original plan was to hangout here for the rest of the afternoon and chill out but with beers around 5 Euro’s a bottle we opted for a different place.

Next morning, after breakfast we headed to the Dubrovnik cable-car for yet another view of this magnificent city. It brought us all the way up to another fortress from where we had a superb view over the South Dalmatian coast and Dubrovnik. Leftovers from the war were easily to be seen over here. In the fortress there was the possibility to visit yet another war museum but we decided that the one we visited yesterday was enough for us.

Back in the old city centre we visited the church of our Saviour  and an old Franciscan monastery, after we strolled down Stradun. Once again it was packed with passengers from the cruise-liners and we asked our selves how many people the city could handle. In our opinion that point had been passed long time ago… In spite of the masses of people we still noted the shiny marble tiles. Polished for centuries by people strolling over them they shined beautifully reflecting everyone who was walking over them.

At the end of Stradun there was a small plaza with the Bell tower,  St. Blaises church and… plenty of terraces. From here we could see the Velike Gospe cathedral and it turned out to be the perfect place to sit down for a drink and relax.

In one of the other squares we found a market place and with this being one of my favorite places to make pictures so I was having a great time again whilst Paul had some time to browse the numerous shops.

As usual time was going by far to quickly for our liking and much sooner than we wanted evening has set in. The good thing however was that the big masses of the cruise ships by now had gone and Dubrovnik had become a far more quiet place. There were still plenty of people around but somehow the atmosphere had changed completely and became more relaxed than during the daytime. It was time to wind down.

That morning during breakfast in one of the restaurants in the small alleys we got into a conversation with the restaurant owner and it turned out he was as passionate about food as the both of us. A good reason to come back to Moby Dick on our last evening and give him carte blanche on a true Croatian festive meal. And what a meal it was…

After such a great night we indeed did sleep well and once we woke up both of us were extremely happy. We could however not believe it already was our last day and so we decided to finish of our visit to Dubrovnik from a different perspective and boarded one of the boats for a cruise around Dubrovnik. We were not disappointed and the next two hours can only be described as a highly enjoyable farewell to Dubrovnik.

We had still some time to spend before we had to go to the airport and decided to finish off with a good meal and a nice glass of Croatian wine whilst watching the world go by. It was a good decision…

Although our time in Croatia had come to an end we were not ready to go home yet. Instead we flew to the UK where we surprised Stephanie, Paul’s sister for her 50th birthday. we surely put a smile on her face…

After a great day of celebrations we then went home, happy and satisfied. Sometimes the unexpected things are the best. This was certainly the case with Croatia… Unexpected, not thought of, but so, so beautiful!

When Paul proposed Croatia as a holiday destination I tried to talk him out of it but I am happy he was persistent this time! Croatia turned out to be a fantastic and varied holiday destination and we certainly enjoyed every moment of it.

It’s nature, it’s culture, it’s cities and people. Not to forget it’s food and wines!

Croatia was a fantastic discovery and virtually on our doorstep. Why did we wait so long?

Hvala, Zbogom.