A little back-story. Road trips. This goes back to my kids being 7 and 11 and visiting every national park west of the Mississippi. There is a romance, an abandon being on a road trip. Calories don’t count and it is fine to feather your floating nest with carbohydrates. When my newly married daughter suggested we all go on a road trip for two weeks in the middle of their 10-month honeymoon, I was all over that one. But where to go? Where was it we had all never been that would be enough of an adventure for me, a vacation for my wife and a journey for the four of us?
Croatia? Why not? The name rolls off the tongue as exotic, like Constantinople. Part of the former Yugoslavia (Southern Slavs), it is a perfect mix of familiar and not quite. Think of a perfect vacation in Italy–then cross the Adriatic and meet a similar period and half the cost. Croatia is a bit of a necklace, start at the nape and work your way down. The jewels get more impressive as you work your way south. The journey begins in Zagreb, a city of one million small, affordable, slightly exotic and a portion of Croatia that has not quite caught up with the world. Here the Kunar goes a long way as the EU and the Euro is still in the future. The square is punctuated with a bronze rider on horseback, sword outstretched in the gray drizzle of Southern central Europe Spring. On the periphery of the square is a daily farmers’ market with two floors offering a cornucopia of produce, cheeses, breads, pastas and hams of every description. From the simplest to the most complex. It is hard to find fault with the freshest of ingredients. Up the street, next to the Astoria hotel is Ivan’s hat shop (8-12 and 4-7) with hand made hats spew forth from a treadle sewing machine. Berets and a semi-authoritarian/flight attendant caps are a must. Great and about $17 each.
Croatia doesn’t have the museums that are so prevalent across the way, but what they have is nothing shabby. And the crowds of Florence? – Forget it! Zagreb’s museum of Contemporary Art opened at the beginning of the 2010 with a collection of Croatian and global artists in an eye-popping modern internationalist style building. The work is decent, serviceable contemporary, nothing to overwhelm nor equally nothing to dismiss. The new structure is lined with LEDs that play videos and inundate the vehicular traffic with conceptual narratives as they drive by…perhaps more distracting than talking on a mobile while mobile.
The Modern Art Museum is an exploration of Croatian Artists that ran parallel to the masters of early 20th century French, German and Austrian names. It leaves a viewer unsure as to who came first the Croatian chickens or the western European eggs….The artists of Western Europe obviously had better press machines. The style of display is to pack as many objects into a gallery as can be conceived and then add a few more. This beyond salon style is more evident in the modern museum. Here the collection, which mirrors the style of the larger cities of Europe in the period from 1890-1930s, presents a more attractive destination. It is also walking distance from the main square. Gas lit streetlights still in use from the turn of the last century are still lit and dampened each evening. This should be emphasized as the idea of spending a few days in Zagreb can be well full with an in depth look at the city center and you never really need get in your car…..Unless you start driving to Opatija, Split, Hvar and South.
All the cities of Croatia are walk-able, or Zagreb is easy to get around with a trolley.
Start the road trip in Zagreb, getting a rental on your way out of town. As with any modern European city, there is not reason to have a car with a great public transportation network and being a pedestrian in Europe is a gift rather than a chore. But outside Zagreb, the transportation system is far from great. There is one train (overnight from Zagreb to Venice) daily. Something has gotten lost in the infrastructure and the country remains a bit isolated. Although there is a decent highway in portions of the country, other parts define the expression “hair-pin” curves. Think of driving US1 near Big Sur. Yes the coast line can be beautiful in parts, but for the driver it is all work and lots of it. But With Isteria and Opatija just a few hours west on good roads, it is well worth the visit. The food is Southern Slav mixed with Eastern Italian. While Zagreb has the meats-lamb, duck, pork—the coast moves into a seafood palette. The waterfront at Opatija has a 12 km stone walkway with the Adriatic and small boats on one side and small restaurants and shops on the landside. Walking to a restaurant to build an appetite, and walking back to a hotel after barbeques cuttle-fish (squid) Scampi (a form of shrimp/small lobster) with local olive oil and wine is like discovering the flip side of the Eastern Italian Coast.
In Optija you have lovely hotels and a beautiful seafront stone walk way to harbor, ocean and restaurants. The best of which is Le Mandrac. This is a must. Four or five perfect courses. Perfect. From the aerated black truffles to the lime enhanced crème fresh over chocolate molten cake. If you are in need of further adventure, you are an hour from Trieste or Slovenia. Drive a few hours down the coast and stop at Zadar. Here on the quay of the island town are marble steps and the Sea Organ of Zadar. This is the coolest name of any public monument or sculpture and a fabulous understated installation waiting for your enjoyment. Its constant deep throated tonal range is energized when any ferry goes by. Visit on a windy/choppy day and it sounds like a magical circus is in town.
Split is home of an enormous Diocylineatian palace that still dominates and defines the walls of the old city. Here shops and businesses are embraced in the architecture and keep it breathing. Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian Coast and worth a few days visit. As beautiful as the city is during the day, it is perfect at night. The Venetians controlled the coast to the north and the history of this 3,000 year old city is marked with architecture and events that well pre-date the modern era. Split is history with a significant bump due to the influence of the Venetian empire and the power emanating into the Adriatic. The history of the entire coast is written into the walls—the city walls that surround all this habitations. The landscape is rocky and roads CAN be tricky. As you drive down the coast on four or two lane, remember the difficulty it would be for any aggressive force to move over these mountains and around these rocks. The far more obvious path is the sea, so every city is a walled fortress with protection aimed to repel a sea-born invader. This has evolved to a series of smaller, limited populations living within world monument class cities and evolving organically with them. Although every conservationist I know would disagree, the idea of “monumentalizing” a city and protecting it from further interaction with a living public is the goal of preservation, but it doesn’t describe how a city forms, grows and evolves. The beauty of the Dalmatian Coast is the living organisms these cities remain. On moving farther south there is more to discover. Cities such as Utica in Tunisia, Pompeii in Italy, Bagan in Myanmar hold well deserved spots on the World Monument and UNESCO historic list, but the cities of Hvar, Zadar, Split are living cities. This is the type of situation that would make a historian cringe. Imagine, someone hanging out laundry, cooking or putting up a satellite dish in a zone targeted for preservation. But these cities of Croatia are organic. They breathe, hold families where people live, die, cook and make noise. They are limited by building codes and more importantly city walls, but they are alive. These are not ruins.
The island of Hvar is an example of a quiet Adriatic Island accessible by ferry for an evening or two by heartbreakingly beautiful harbor. The day’s entertainment could well be sitting in a coffee shop on the square, overlooking the harbor, watching children on three and two wheelers scoot by and sipping a Maciado. There is no museum, no movie—here it is not about what you do, rather the act of being here is the goal in itself. Rarely did our rolling thunder road trip relax to this extent. No one wanted to move. After two days of bliss, the designated driver (myself) drove to the East end of the island Sucuraj 80 km of switchbacks and rough road. Sometimes two lanes, on occasion less. To catch the ferry to Drvenik—This is an hour ferry ride and a pleasant lounge to indulge in more coffee, a newspaper and dominoes, or watch the truck drivers play a seemingly continuous game of cards. It might be easier to take the longer ferry to Dubrovnik as the road from Drvenik to Dubrovnik is another tough drive.
In California tourists describe US1 and the road through Big Sur as breathtaking. It is beautiful if it is not jammed with tourists with, of course—breathless tourists. If you are driving it–different story. The road is a bitch and the driver is sweating and it is the least enjoyable drive on the planet. This stretch into Dubrovnik is tough and not as heroic in vista. The ferry from Sucuraj to Dubrovnik might be a better bet.
The father south you go, the more beautiful the jewels on this necklace….until Dubrovnik, which moves the metaphor from semiprecious to diamond. This is the centerpiece of a medieval city. The city (as is Split) is pure pedestrian. Limestone fortifications are double walled and form the limits of the city in arguably the most beautiful walled city in the world. The streets are unusual in their regularity of grid, which diverts from the normal chaos of a medieval plan. The main drag is a marble walkway bordered by luxury shops, cafes and restaurants. But still there are children playing soccer and local teenagers making too much noise on the way home from orchestra practice. Dinner at Pisrecki, at the harbor next to the former slave market, a two-hour walk on the periphery of the city walls makes a perfect day. But, as part of this history, one should also allow a visit to the museum that commemorates Europe’s most recent acts of barbarism and madness. In the museum to the fallen, the wall of 1991-1995 is presented in portrait and video. Although the entire city is on the historic monument site of every cultural organization it was still bombed by Serbians and Montenegrins and the population is very conscious of the privations and hardships that are part of their recent memory.
And finally, Dubrovnik. First, get your accommodations in order and make sure you stay at the Excelsior . This is THE hotel and the perfect cherry on the whipped cream. Dubrovnik is the star of the show and the excelsior is the five-star. Crammed within its city walls are parallel streets of tradesmen and history. The oldest continuously function Sephardic Synagogue is here, the lentils and posts of the doorway tear with their stories of battles that continued until the most recent destruction that came with the Serbia-Croatian War that lasted from 1991-1995.
Dubrovnik has a small museum—a room with plaques, video, mementos and a periphery of faces of young men killed in the war, looking like a Christian Bultanski installation. Maps of the damage done by the shelling adorn many of the public streets. The population does want the 250,000 killed in this war forgotten. The wounds here are fresh and the resentment toward Serbia is overt. There is an air of superiority here and the distinct feeling that Croatia was the victim of Serbian aggression and attempt to conquer or retain was is rightfully Croat. This is a complex political world and the citizens are both anxious and hesitant to discuss it. The wounds are fresh. People remember the privation of an anxious world not more than 16 years past. Rooftops have been too recently rebuilt from aerial and naval bombardments. That a city this small and precious could be the target of such violence has to be one of the mysteries of the world. One resident quoted a Serbian as saying “If we had leveled Dubrovnik we would have rebuilt it newer, older and better.” Who can argue with that logic? For all the adventures you must have in this perfection of pedestrian passages…it is lovely to return to the sheer quality of the Excelsior hotel. Open the window overlooking the Adriatic, view the walls of the city and listen to the lapping of the tide below. It doesn’t hurt that you are sitting in a 20-pound terry cloth bathrobe and sipping on Russian Standard Vodka, sold in the convenience stores. Yum. The excelsior has it all with an enclosed heated lap pool, saunas and spas. Perfection indeed.
Two weeks on a road trip through Croatia. My daughter and her new husband still had months to go as we boarded the plane for Zagreb to go on to home, while they deplaned there and continued their odyssey for months. (I think the rule of thumb is your honeymoon has to end by your first anniversary.)
In truth, it could have been anywhere. When you are invited to travel with your adult children, and their spouses, should they exist, you can go anywhere. I can be in a cheap motel in the middle of a ghetto and I would be fine to crack a bud lite rather than a two olive martini. It is about the people more than the places.
Croatia is more that “that will do.” It is a discovery, a vacation and an adventure. Too frequently left to German tourists as the closest access to the Adriatic beaches and days drive from the homeland…..Croatia is becoming discovered and it’s not to late to join in. But I would suggest haste. Go in the shoulder or slightly off-season, before the press of tourism. These are small towns and cities that become consumed by those that are there to appreciate them. This is the basic paradox of tourism. It is great because it is under visited, undervalued and under appreciated. As soon as it is “discovered”…it consumes itself. The lovely “Sea organ of Zadar” is actually a quay for a cruise ship. As the ship comes it, the site it uses to create the safe have, so beautify in its voice and solitude, goes silent with the protection of the ship and obscured by the gangplanks disgorging the passengers who are coming to enjoy it. Tourists eat their young…..so hurry.
***Time to go is Very late March…before tourism starts. Weather may be a bit sharp, but to have the streets empty, and the cities to yourselves is a joy.
Summer and you are battling German tourists in Wall-to Wall dysfunction and you loose track of what these cities are.
Hotels, Astoria, Excelsior. A note on this hotel and spa. My colleague asked the meaning of the word, and rather than reach for a dictionary I thought, plush robes, a steam room, sauna, 180 degree views of the Adriatic, a six floor sitting room, the lights of a ship cruising in the distance across placid waters, the lit walls of the city as I sit on the patio of my suite with a chilled martini. This is excelsior in my dictionary.
IF YOU GO
The Excelsior, Dubrovnik
Le Mandrac. This is a separate article and a destination on its own.
Each element of a dish grown, caught, picked or selected, each dish conceived and blended of a multitude of taste and texture, four dishes put together in a symphonic fashion to create a meal that is a destination in its own right. Four courses with a bottle of wine are about $65/person. Not a meal, but a memory. Black truffle that could only be described as eating angel pussy.
Obala F. Supila 10, Volosko
051 701 357
The Park Hotel Split.
Staff with all the warmth and charm of cold war era border crossing guards. Breakfast with cold refrigerated croissants. A must to avoid.
Hotel Palace in Hvar, still has a key, not a plastic card swipe– modest but lovely.
Archeological museum, highlight of the collection is the “Zagreb mummy” and its bandages, which are actually a linen book inscribed with Etruscan script. http://www.amz.hr/home.aspx
- Modern gallery for Denis Matia, www.mdc.hr
-Ethnographic museum www.etnografski-muzej.hr
Visit to Morton Museum www.muzej-marton.hr
-Art Pavilion, www.umjetnicki-paviljon.hr
-Museum of Contemporary art, www.msu.hr
-Zagreb city Museum www.mgz.hr
-The Strossmayer Old masters gallery www.hazu.hr
Sea Organ of Zadar