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Crotia: A beautiful country leaves its turbulent past behind

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November 23rd, 2015
Dubrovnik walls
Dubrovnik walls

After a long history of being a Communist regime, war with Serbia, and reconstruction, Croatia has become a hot destination, and it definitely deserves its moment in the spotlight.

Croatia isn’t a large country, but its coastline is quite jagged so that it extends to over 1,000 miles. If you add in the coastlines of its over 1,200 islands, Croatia’s total coastline is over 5,000 miles. That’s quite a lot to explore, but whether you’re driving or going by boat, the Dalmatian Coast is definitely an important part of your trip.

In addition to the scenic beauty provided by the Adriatic Sea, there are many cities well worth visiting. If your time is limited, the top three to see are Zadar, Split, and Dubrovnik.

Zadar 

Zadar is the smallest of the three and a little less touristy. The small size also allows you to quickly get a feel for this ancient city on foot. One reason to walk along the waterfront is to experience the Sea Organ. You’ll be amazed as the ground below you emanates sounds, similar to the call of whales, created by the waves. And if you go back in the evening, you also might be treated to one of Zadar’s world-famous sunsets (enhanced, in part, because the citizens turn down their lights to make it more visible!).

The bay where Zadar sits was first colonized by the Greeks; since then, there has been a continuing series of wars in that part of the world as one army or another arrived to claim this beautiful land. But today, peace reigns, and sitting in the sun enjoying a cup of cappuccino at a cafe by the side of the old Roman Forum (only one intact column remains) will give you a taste of what that long sought-after peace means to the Croatian people.

Split

Heading south, the next must-see city is Split. Split is the largest city on the coast, but the area you want to visit is pretty compact and is called Diocletian’s Palace. Diocletian was a Roman emperor who voluntarily gave up his title toward the end of his life to retire in Split (not as an ordinary citizen, however, as he declared himself a god). Much of his original palace remains, though over time, the citizens of Split have moved in, so while some of the old city is an open museum, other parts actually serve as housing. Hire a guide and wander the narrow streets learning about the history that’s taken place within the walls of the palace. 

Split has a large port and is an important calling point for the cruise ships that ply the Adriatic. This means during the height of the season, you may find yourself drowning in waves of tourists launched by these ships. If you make it a point of going out early in the morning, while the cruisers are still eating their breakfast, you’ll be able to breathe in the atmosphere and take a photo or two of the historic courtyards and monuments without including any modern-day visitors.

Dubrovnik

As you continue farther down the coast, you’ll come to the walled city of Dubrovnik. Walking the walls around the city is a bucket list item for many world travelers. But if you go in summer, the crowds and the heat may make the kilometer-and-a-half hike less than pleasant. Because the mountains behind the Dalmatian Coast protect it from northern blasts, while parts of Croatia are snow-covered in winter, the coast itself stays relatively mild, making a trip in fall or spring ideal. The temperatures will be moderate and the tourists fewer in number.

While water is an important element of the coastline, it also forms the basis for another of Croatia’s wonders. There are two national parks, Plitvice Lakes and Krka, that have a unique series of waterfalls. Perhaps not as dramatic as Niagara Falls or Victoria Falls, but the sheer quantity of falls is amazing. 

Pula

North of the Dalmatian Coast is the peninsula of Istria. The main attraction is the city of Pula, which has Roman ruins second only to those in Rome. Istria is just opposite Venice, Italy, on the map, and in summer, you can take a ferry across to visit Croatia either before or after seeing the canals.

Zagreb

The capital of Croatia, Zagreb, is inland though that doesn’t make it any less worthy of a stop (and if you fly, its airport will likely be the one you’ll use.) There’s an older part to the city, whose narrow streets and ancient buildings sit up the hill, while the center is a modern metropolis filled with places to shop or sip a cup of coffee. There’s a lovely cathedral, a church (St. Mark’s) with a unique tiled roof, an enormous daily food market where you can purchase hand-crafted items, and more museums than you can shake a stick at. 

No language barrier

One aspect of Croatian culture you’ll discover in the museums is that from the time Croatians begin school, they’re taught English. So the explanations of museum exhibits are in both Croatian and English. In fact, you’ll have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t speak English.

Another part of your visit to Croatia you’ll enjoy is the food. Since Croatia is a small country, the ingredients never have to travel very far and so are always fresh. That’s especially true of the fish you’re served along the coast. Croatian wine is excellent and the olive oil from Istria is delicious. The cheese is a little so-so, but that’s a small quibble.

Croatia’s economy is wobbly, and many young people leave to find work in other European countries, but that also means the prices for tourists are reasonable. For a modest sum, you can have the vacation of a lifetime in Croatia.

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