We had little info to go on when we decided to go to Croatia. Our friend Kevin had been twice and recommended it, but we never really had specifics about why he liked it so much. But we put it on the list and here we are. We arrived about 8:30pm and were quickly informed by our host/cab driver that it was the hottest day so far this year. If we thought Spain was hot, Croatia was HOT! We were also informed that our guesthouse apparently had a “water issue” in our room and put us up at “my girlfriend’s mother’s home, very nice accommodations, you will like”. And luckily, we did like, as it was much closer to the Old Town than my original booking and 10 Euro cheaper (which makes me happy). We made the most of the evening cool off by heading into Old Town for a late dinner, and getting our bearings. “Old Town” is the common term used when the original town was a fortress behind a stone wall that has since been turned into the tourist attraction. Despite the hordes of people during high season (with buses and buses of tourists daily), it was remarkably lovely. The wall and the lookout towers are lit up at night, and the Old Town is blocked off to traffic and all pedestrian pathways. The larger city of Dubrovnik runs along the scraggly Croatian coast, making for little coves and inlets with beautiful views.
We headed to the beach our first day to escape the heat. Beaches are all pebbles and a sand beach is non-existent – at least we couldn’t find any. It was a nice day of playing in the water and walking along the coast cliffs.
The second day we did some needed catch up on sleep, laundry and shopping. Luckily we hadn’t planned anything too touristy outside as it was also the day it chose to rain. The thunder showers (including rather large hail stones) rivaled any of those we experienced in Central America. But it cleared up in time to go back out for dinner.
Day three we “walked the wall”, which was a two hour process of hiking up and down stairs of the wall that surrounds the town. It afforded great views of both inside and outside the wall and the ocean, and although hot, was well worth it. Visually it was so beautiful and we began to understand what our friend enjoyed about Croatia.
Day four we spent again at the beach, but this time in the Lapad section of town. This was the area where our original guest house was located and I remembered why I had booked here. There was a promenade that runs several blocks with shops, restaurants, cafes, etc. and had a great vibe of fun and vacation. It also had Jackson’s fantasy fun zone – a ton of slides and other play equipment, including 12 “baby cars” all in one location. He was actually a little overwhelmed and although talked about riding on the cars, helicopters, horses, he would look stunned and almost paralyzed when he actually rode on them. Too many choices!!!
The food, although good, was not as amazing as we had anticipated. Given that Croatia is across the Aegean from Italy and they have a love of seafood, I had expected more depth of flavors which we did not seem to find. Seafood was plentiful, but fairly plain and everything in Croatia was overpriced. We were hoping it was just touristy Dubrovnik, but we soon found out it was all of Croatia. We were later told that Croatia is the most expensive European country to visit – who knew?
Culturally, the first thing we noticed was that the women are incredibly tall. Everywhere you turn there are 6’2”+ women who then wear 5” heels, causing them to hover over both Chris and I. They are also very thin and usually quite pretty. I’m guessing modeling and basketball are both well represented by Croats. The other thing that I personally noticed, and am still having a hard time with, is that this is the land of aerosol hair spray. For anyone who knows me well, you understand that my hair, and thus my hairspray, is very important to me. I was able to come to grips with the curls in Central America (and I have planned for them again in Southeast Asia), but having aerosol hairspray instead of pump is just not acceptable. My greatest concern came when I used said hairspray as effective insect killer in our room, but it did not work to hold my hair past a 5mph breeze. Well, I guess I will keep looking (although as I write this, I am actually in Austria where there is still nothing but aerosol to be found).
The port of Split is north of Dubrovnik approximately four hours on the bus. There is train service, but we were warned that it tends to take more than twice as long by train, so we didn’t bother. The bus ride was beautiful, along the coast and fairly comfortable. The odd thing about it is that there is an area of approximately 10 miles along the coast that belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina. We entered a passport check (where I got a B&H stamp), stopped for a potty break, and then exited the country five minutes later (again going through a passport check in case we picked up any locals at the rest stop). I shot one photo of the coast, which not surprisingly looks exactly like the coast of Croatia.
Split is similar to Dubrovnik in that it is very touristy and has many yachts and cruise ships docked nearby. They are also both quite historic. However, in our opinions, Split is the nicer of the two. The “old town” here is actually the inside the ruins of the Roman emperor, Diocletian’s retirement palace of 300 AD . This area was ruled by the Romans for centuries and there are quite a few ruins still visible. In the middle of the palace walls here is one of the most well-preserved Roman ruins: the Temple of Jupiter. Similar to Dubrovnik, the inside of the walls are blocked to traffic and we strolled around for parts of each day we were there. We also did a tour of the caverns below the palace, called the Basement Halls, which was both beautiful and a little creepy.
We also spent part of a day going out to Salona where there is a large complex of Roman ruins. Dubbed as “the most interesting archaeological site in Croatia” by my guide book, we thought it important to check it out. Not overly impressive, and due to the sweltering heat we didn’t last too long wandering around looking at “a bunch of foundations of what used to be buildings”, as Chris so thoughtfully put it. The remains of the amphitheater, which was used as a gladiator arena were interesting though. We enjoyed the ruins in town better and wouldn’t necessarily recommend Salona to others.
We stayed at a great little apartment with the owner’s mother living downstairs. Although she could not speak a word of English, and we did not speak more than “thank you” in Croatian, she was very hospitable and kind. She offered us drinks and fruit and appeared to really enjoy having Jackson for our three days there.
Having had enough of the heat, we opted to go out to one of the many Croatian islands. We initially were going to go to Hvar, but did a little more research and found that it was probably too much of a party spot given the third traveler in our group. So we chose the town of Bol on Brac, took a ferry, and cooled down.
Bol (on Brac)
Bol is a great little town! Although it still had its share of yachts, it was more relaxed and less crowded than what we had experienced so far in Croatia. We spent five days here on the pebbles of one of Croatia’s more photographed beaches Zlatni Rat. We had dinner our first night overlooking a beautiful sunset right on the beach. I had one of the best meals in all of Croatia (steak grilled over real wood flames) and actually got a little chilled (thank God). Everything was an easy walk away and the little seaside promenade area was a nice step down in pace from over-touristed Dubrovnik.
We liked Bol quite a bit. Jackson found another great play area, this time with toddler-sized electric 4X4s on a dirt track. (How fun!!!) Although he never quite got the steering down, he definitely understood getting it moving with the gas pedal, and we took turns helping him steer.
We have noticed that both Chris and I are feeling a little soreness and back pain in recent weeks and finally realized that Croatia is quite hilly and we are packing Jackson around more than normal. He’s becoming a heavy little guy. The coast of Croatia is beautiful because of the cliffs that jut out and the little towns that lie at the water at the bottom. But the climb back to your room is a doozy!
After five days of “relaxin’ in the sun” (Jackson’s term for sun bathing) on an island, we needed to get moving to make our way up to Germany in two weeks (where we will be meeting Chris’ dad, Greg). We knew we would have a few long travel days so we decided to break it up by staying two days at our next stop, Zadar.
Our apartment in Zadar was inside the “old town” walls this time. Great location, although it was very noisy being right on the main shopping strip. We struggled to find good food, despite some recommendations and were glad we were only there 36 hours. The main square where we stayed had more Roman ruins, right out in the open square where people were sitting on them, which was a little odd after seeing most ruins roped off.
The one thing we really enjoyed was the sound-and-light spectacle of the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation. This is an artist installation along the promenade at the water that moans and whistles as the sea waves push through the organ. The second part of it stores wave energy and sunlight during the day to create a light show at night on hundreds of multilayered glass plates. It reminded us of a Burning Man light show, which was just what we needed the week before all our friends head out to the desert to play without us.
So that was Croatia. Overall we thought it was OK, but not sure we’ll be back. Maybe if we had spent more time on the islands (of which there are over 100) we would have enjoyed it more. We are glad we saw it and added it to our list of travels.
A Little Side Note
We are now over halfway through our trip and are looking back on all we have seen so far. We are both shocked at how quickly this long vacation is moving by, and also feel it has been forever since we were in Nicaragua. Traveling is both easier and harder for us and Jackson. He has gotten used to moving frequently and looks forward to the new room, new keys and has become a great traveler on buses, trains and taxis. Eating out most meals is the one source of true stress with a two year old, as he is not patient with waiting over an hour at a table, even if entertained. He is a good eater and willing to try anything we are re: local foods. Thanks to Carol, we are now eating ice cream/gelato almost daily, which is a treat for all of us. We do better on days we have naps. But there are always days we don’t get one, when we drag him to another museum or pack him in the backpack carrier for a little too long. Chris and I both worry that we are setting patterns of behavior that we won’t be able to undo – like providing a cell phone with entertainment at most meals to quiet him down (how do you foster ADHD again???). But we are attempting to minimize his discomfort without spoiling too much, so that we all enjoy ourselves a little more. Are we glad we are doing this crazy thing that no one else we know has ever done? ABSOLUTELY!!! Is it a lot harder than if we had done it three years ago as a childless couple – a second ABSOLUTELY!!! We now both feel comfortable with the idea of living abroad, but both know this may not be a feasible thing given our professions. It has opened our minds about other cultures and other ways of living than what we have known in our lives – which really was a goal of the trip from the beginning. Even with the small difficulties and frustrations of traveling with a small child, we are excited about the next stops on our itinerary and what the next 10 weeks will offer us!