Flew in to Dubrovnik airport; only a 20 minute drive from where we were going to be based for the first 7 days at Cavtat (pronounced Savtat). Took us a wander around several car parks following another equally bemused couple until we found the car hire place that wasn’t in the grounds as Expedia had advised, but actually outside the airport on the other side of a main road accessed by dragging our suitcases over a small pile of rubble. Amusingly the guy we asked directions from back at the airport miraculously appeared at the small prefab hut to get the car. I wondered how long he’d watched us circulate the parking lot. I jokingly remarked to another couple waiting outside the hut in the scorching sun, that I definitely didn’t want the tiny car parked nearby that looked like it had been painted in shell pink nail varnish. I felt a little guilty afterwards when they were handed the keys to it. Rather them than us as we were ushered to our black VW Golf which the guy had rushed off first to the car wash as it was “covered in the dusts of Africa”.Checked in to the Hotel Croatia; not our usual choice of hotel…absolutely huge, just shy of 500 rooms and shaped like a cruise liner hugging the ragged rocks of the coast line. Booking last minute ain’t what it used to be and most of the smaller places had been booked months in advance, so here we were, in a gloriously outdated behemoth; but most of its the charm being in its outdated-ness; like the architect and interior designer went on a communist package holiday through 1950’s Las Vegas.
Long golden carpeted corridors, curved sectioned frosted glass in the walls, yellow easy chairs in wide open spaces connecting the corridors and a gloriously pink and white clothed trolley table that was disconcerting in its resemblance from a scene from The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Fully aware that hundreds of people were sleeping here it became a fascination to walk these empty spaces, discovering empty conference rooms shrouded in voile curtains, a huge open space with Rose pink carpet and 70s style seating curving around central supporting pillars. Patterned circles formed in to some of the larger areas of concrete walls and echoed in the large wooden art piece downstairs where the dining area is. Miles of deserted space that we rarely passed anyone in.The modern rooms stereotypical of hotel rooms the world over. The little hair dryer which you have to hold in the blue button to keep it blowing. The mini bar stocked with coke, Pringles and like Gideons Bible, the requisite mini toblerone.We unpacked hastily, keen to get out in to the fierce sunshine. 32 degrees. Slathered in factor 30 we found the hotel occupants slow roasting around the outdoor pool, along the terraces on sun loungers and even scattered across the rocks below; part of which was sectioned off for the nudists. We walked down around two hundred steps in to Cavtat to explore.Cavtat is a picturesque place; curving around the side of a bay and lined with the usual rows of restaurants catering mainly to tourists with their food photo filled menus…not there to explain any exotic Dalmatia cuisine but serving to remind you of what spaghetti bolognaise looks like just in case you’d forgotten. The bay was lined with yachts, jostling to show off their exclusivity to hundreds of people who’d never afford to put a foot on the gang plank let alone rent or own one. A quick google of some of the names of these super yachts revealed prices of £60,000 a week to hire the sleekest moored among them.
We ventured in to the local church and walked the loop around the entire town which takes about 30 minutes. Along the quieter parts of the walk stopping to look through pine trees laden with cones; their branches sweeping down to meet the sea. The sensory colour hit of the clear blues and turquoise of the water mixed with the dense green of the pines offset by an azure blue cloudless sky is breathtaking. Areas of the bay are sectioned off to swim in and this was one of the only areas that looked to be enjoyed more by Croatians than the hordes of visiting tourists. And there are hordes in this part of Croatia, our presence adding to that swelling number, most heading here for the sea and its proximity to Dubrovnik without having to actually stay in Dubrovnik where the huge cruise liners pull in to disgorge even more. It is a stunning coastline and considerably less expensive than other places in Europe like the South of France and Italy. Eating dinner on the bay where yachts are moored along the promenade; their proximity to your dining table amusingly obnoxious.Dubrovnik
On our second day we drove 16km from Cavtat to Dubrovnik, keen to get some sightseeing underway and look forward to days of doing bugger all down the line. It’s a straightforward drive along the coastal road; hugging the cliffs and looking down on to stunning scenery. It’s a popular route so there was plenty of other traffic but it didn’t get particularly clogged until we reached the outskirts of Dubrovnik. Dipping down towards the ancient walled city, we wound our way all the way down to an overloaded car park only to have to drive all the way back up and out the other side to re-connect to the main road to drive back in to Dubrovnik again. I doubt you’d ever get a space in that lower car park unless you get there at 6am. We found another car park at a higher point; the prices were high to match. £36 for the full day or you could pay hourly; pretty much London prices but Dubrovnik being the star of Croatia it’s no surprise. To be honest, you’d be better off jumping on a bus and avoiding the hassle.
You only need a day in Dubrovnik and I was glad that we were staying at a hotel in Cavtat and not right here in the city. It is packed to the gills with tourists. Coach loads of them; a constant flow of guided tours and package holiday makers…and if you’re extremely unlucky the cruise liners that empty up to 2,000 people a time in to this already crammed walled city. Yes of course it’s worth wading through all of this becasue it’s a truly beautiful city…but July and August which are officially viewed as high season must be unbearable. It was already 32 degrees in mid-June and full of people. I think the day we visited was free from docked cruise ships and the walk around the full length of the city walls above the city was a pleasant experience which didn’t feel too crowded. There are great views and opportunities to see the city from above. Miles of red rooves stretching away in an undulating sea of tile. The red bright, almost harsh, against the blue of the sky. Dubrovink was heavily shelled in 1991 in the war; the coastline and Dubrovnik Airport occupied by the Yugoslav army. As a UNESCO World heritage site, Dubrovnik wasn’t expected to come under attack as it had negligible military value and was such a recognised cultural monument. They say that when you look out across the rooftops of Dubrovnik now you can pick out areas that must have been heavily shelled where the roof tiles are a much brighter colour as they are new; replacements for the many hundreds of rooftops that suffered from the heavy shelling. You can read more about the bombing of Dubrovnik here: http://www.croatiatraveller.com/southern_dalmatia/Dubrovnik/bombing.htmland see video footage here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WE0pHt6L6yETo stand here now I find it impossible to imagine this devastation. Millions were pumped in to the reconstruction and the restoration is quite remarkable; for your average layperson with no architectural skills, I would go so far as to say seamless. It is a very beautiful city with its smooth marbled streets, cathedrals and monasteries; but there is also something a little ‘Disney’ about it all, as though now it exists only for the tourist. Its streets and alleyways crammed with shops selling postcards and your average tourist tat, the restaurants with their laminated food photo menus for the most part offering very basic bland dishes and nothing particularly authentic. Local life appears to exist here only as an appendage to servicing the constant flow of tourists, it doesn’t seem to be really lived within its walls.But walking the walls, visiting the cathedrals, spotting landmark filming points from Game of Thrones (because so much of it is filmed in Dubrovnik, it doubles for King’s Landing, and other areas of Croatia like Split and Trsteno) is of course worth it, because it is stunning…but to avoid the crowds and the blistering temperatures try to come in low season months like April and May. For worldwide locations for Game of Thrones in pictures including inside Croatia visit this website: https://www.skyscanner.net/news/38-amazing-game-thrones-locations-pictures The most moving thing we saw whilst in Dubrovnik was the War Photo Gallery. See their website here: http://www.warphotoltd.com/ For me this was the highlight of our day trip to the city and is an incredibly moving experience, one not to be missed to gain more of an understanding of what happened here in the war. From Lonely Planet: “An immensely powerful experience, this gallery features intensely compelling exhibitions curated by New Zealand photojournalist Wade Goddard, who worked in the Balkans in the 1990s. Its declared intention is to ‘expose the myth of war…to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike’. There’s a permanent exhibition on the upper floor devoted to the wars in Yugoslavia, but the changing exhibitions cover a multitude of conflicts.” http://www.lonelyplanet.com/croatia/dubrovnik/sights/museums-galleries/war-photo-limited
Stunning Montenegro; with your mimosa trees and turquoise bays glistening like gems under cobalt sky. There’s not enough superlatives to describe the dazzling Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska, or simply ‘the Boka’). Driving from Cavtat in Croatia and over the border is a hassle free exit from one country and entry in to another, taking less than hour to reach the border from Cavtat. We arrived at border patrol at 9.30am, later than warned but only a 40 minute wait in the queue; a perfunctory glimpse at our passports and we were through…heading on up past Herceg Novi, winding our way deeper in to the folds of the Bay where the mountains grew higher and the Bay expanded outwards. A cloudless blue sky the perfect backdrop to what is often described as the Mediterranean’s only fjord. Not geographically correct but the Bay’s position, gently carving in to the mountains, makes sense of the comparison. We drove 90 minutes around the bay, following the scenic rocky edge so close to the car you could almost lean out and trail your hands through its water. Different points along the way encourage people to strip down to their swimming gear and dive in; clean and crystal clear, you can see several feet down. With mountains and church spires mirroring the pines circling the bay, the scenery is breathtaking. We drove on through Zelenika, Risan, Perast and Dobrota…reaching the ancient walled city of Kotor; where building started in the 9th century and went on until the 18th.Outside the entrance to the old walled city of Kotor. Ancient walls are flanked by the feathery Mimosa trees.Kotor is an UNESCO world heritage site, laid out in warren of marble streets trodden smooth by traders and sailors in the Middle ages and the locals and tourists today.
Nowhere near as touristy as Dubrovnik and smaller and more contained, we explored the meandering alleyways, climbing up and down ancient stone steps; stopping half way at a small bar to eat a selection of meats and cheeses on wooden boards whilst sheltering from the sun in a peaceful side street. Washing hung from old stone built buildings and swifts visited their nests under the tiled roofs.Worth a quick mention is the eccentric Cats Museum of Kotor http://catsmuseum.org/ A small building up some steps with several rooms filled with old postcards, posters and wonderful old black and white photographs of cats during War Time; sitting in the laps of soldiers and across their shoulders.In one of the main squares we stopped in to the Cathedral of St Tryphon, (Sveti Tripun); a Catholic Cathedral consecrated in the 12thCentury but reconstructed after several earthquakes. The Romanesque interior is almost soporific in its calming natural hues of pinks and decorative brickwork; slender Corinthian columns and pink stone pillars lead the eye upwards to its vaulted ceilings. The gilded silver bas-relief altar screen is viewed as being Kotor’s most important treasure and behind the grille are body parts of saints including St Tryphon.Whilst wandering the alleyways I bought one of the happiest holiday souvenirs I’ve ever found. A group of 3 young children were sitting on the steps selling stones that they had drawn on with black marker pens, and on the reverse of each one had penned the name of Kotor and the year. We gave them 5 euros as we didn’t have any coins…this made them squeal with delight and thank us repeatedly. A lovely memory of our visit to Kotor and they stones now have pride of place on my dressing table.Driving back to Cavtat, we stopped off briefly to look out across the bay from Perast, a peaceful sleepy town where Captains once built their villas. Further along the Bay of Kotor we stopped in at Herceg Novi, parking our car at the top of a steep climb of steps in to the town only to be confronted by loads more steps leading up in to the walled city. At 32 degrees in the late afternoon we decided to sit in bar and drink ice cold drinks overlooking the bay instead.
Gruda and Lutja
After a day chilling out at the hotel and letting Dave get some quality sunbathing time notched up we had a lazy lie in next morning but then got the urge to try and find some good food to eat. The food at the hotel was ok for breakfast but bland beyond belief and to be honest the menus in Cavtat are geared to tourists only, with tourist prices to match. Not something you would pay too much mind to when already on holiday but overpaying for basic bland menu staples is a bit of a cop out.
Trying to find where the locals eat anywhere in the world is a fun pastime which usually delivers some gems but trying to find them in Cavtat was tough. I went online to Trip Advisor to find places to eat in the region and did find the rather lovely Konoba Koraceva Kuca restaurant in Gruda.Dinner with these views. Stunning. Konoba Koraceva Kuca restaurant in Gruda, Southern Croatia. Drop them an email firstname.lastname@example.org for dinner and Southern Croatia boutique hotel reservations.A family run business this is a restaurant with genuine heart; they so obviously love what they do and enjoy meeting people. A 20 minute drive from Cavtat we swapped views of the sea for views of vineyards backing on to mountains. Hardly any other tourists in the area and rolling countryside in a gorgeous peaceful setting, we ate whilst watching the sun go down across the fields. We sat outside with the original old stone farm building behind us. The owner has put old family photos up in the restaurant inside; lending some local history to the business which is interesting to look through. Reservations are recommended and they are quick to reply: M.+385993341000 T. 020791 557 https://www.facebook.co/konoba.koracevakucaAlso, if like us you prefer to stay in small boutique style hotels, they’re opening a b&b any day now. We asked if we could have a look around. The rooms are lovely, laid out in the various old stone buildings with views across the countryside, decorated in serene shades of white. This would be the place to stay, nothing else anywhere near as good in this region. I wish it had been open already when we were looking for places to book. Staying here would bring you far from the package crowds of Cavtat whilst still being in easy distance of there and Dubrovnik…plus there’d be the additional bonus of great food selected from a seasonally changing white page menu.
Local traditional dress which I think was used on this occasion for a coach visit as this area is known for some sort of dance. We didn’t see it as we were walking by as they were packing up for the evening and jumping in to their cars to head home, but they were happy to stop and pose for a photo.After dinner we took the advice of our waiter and drove down to Lutja – 5 minutes further down the road. This region is called Konavle from the Latin word ‘canale’ or locally ‘konali’ or kanali’. You can find more information about this most southerly part of Croatia and its many small villages on this website: http://visit.cavtat-konavle.com/en/konavle It’s a beautiful area; a bucolic landscape of old viaducts, locally quarried buildings, and discarded stone mill wheels. There’s a water wheel which has become part of a local restaurant theming itself around it and the river which turns it. It’s clearly signposted from the road but caters to coach tours so I’d imagine it gets crowded at certain times of the day. When we were here it was very quiet and the sun cast a warm light across the fields creating an idyllic setting for an evening walk. The castle, slightly higher in the mountains was only a few more kilometres away, but a plan for the following day. We returned to Cavtat to the hotel to catch the last of the sun before it dipped in to the horizon.
The following day we drove back, bypassing Gruda and heading higher up to the Castle or Fort, Sokol Grad (Dunave, Krajnje) also known as Falcon Town but confusingly some people refer to it as Hawk Castle. It rises up from the foot of the stone cliffs of Dunave in Konavle and has undergone a huge restoration project. Apparently the first written evidence of the fort dates back to 1391. A blisteringly hot day with temperatures around 33 degrees but the climb up to the highest point was manageable as we took it slowly and we could duck in and out of various rooms of weapons, insignia and historical reference to shelter from the heat. They’ve even set up a coffee shop at one of points with a great terrace looking out across the countryside. We were lucky on the day we visited as we only saw two other people here; staggering limply up the stone steps behind us – all of us laughing at our feeble sweaty determination to make it to the top. Aerial photo credit The Dubrovnik Times.
We were lucky, only two other people here; staggering limply up the stone steps behind us – all of us laughing at our feeble sweaty determination to make it to the top. The sun was so strong that we couldn’t stand there for long as we were totally exposed. You can read more about Sokol Grad and its restoration here: http://dubrovacki.hr/clanak/78954/sokol-grad-offers-cappuccino-with-an-ancient-touch
At the foot of the hill there’s a small roadside shop run by these two fantastic characters, Devika and Duro Primic. They lived for many years in South Africa and although a native Croatian, Duro still has his South African twang. They sell welcomed refreshments; soft drinks and ice creams and Devika also makes homemade curries, catering to local tourists who book apartments in the area. Look out for these guys when you visit because they work really hard and are bloody good fun to talk to; they’ve had lots of adventures and have a great sense of humour. They have a decent range of stone carved souvenirs at a fair price. Buy their traditional Croatian orange rind sugared sweets, it’s delicious and way better value than at the airport or shops in Cavtat and Dubrovnik. We meant to bring ours home but they were so delicious we scoffed the lot.The following morning we found ourselves in an uncomfortable situation because of the EU referendum being held back at home in the UK on June 23rd. The word Brexit becoming a new byword for disparity and a split in the way the country thinks. Unfortunately for us the UK voted out of the EU which was a depressing and somber start to the day. We had believed that the vote would result in a win for the Remain campaign and polls had predicted a lead; so it was with rather a numb feeling that we went down to breakfast and caught up with the news on our IPads. It became apparent very quickly that the majority of guests at the hotel had voted out which put us in a minority that increased our feeling of unease. It may seem ridiculous to some that whilst away on holiday and enjoy such stunning scenery we would be so affected by the politics back home; but such was the division in thought; and feelings were running high and becoming more vocal since the results came in.
To get us in a better mood I suggested that we drove up a bit beyond Dubrovnik to visit the relaxing Trsteno Arboretum.The arboretum was declared a ‘natural rarity’ in 1948. It has been managed by the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts since 1950 and in 1962 was listed as a monument of landscape architecture. It covers an area of approximately 255,000 square metres and includes a park surrounding the fifteenth century summer residence which is a monument of garden architecture. During the Croatian War of Independence Trsteno was severely damaged and looted when in October 1991 the Yugoslav’s People’s Army set the Arboretum on fire during a series of gunboat and air attacks. Sadly it suffered further extensive damage from a forest fire in 2000 during a drought. It has since been restored and at the time we visited looked absolutely beautiful. Neptune’s Fountain at the heart of the arboretum.Beautiful views down from the arboretum. With the freedom of a hire car and a hotel booked further up the Dalmatia Coast in Sibenik; we set out early on a Monday morning for a 4 hour drive to the city of Split. Winding close to the rugged Adriatic coastal roads, heading up beyond Dubrovnik and Trsteno, small towns and villages ’til we reached a border point…60 km from Dubrovnik. Here you pass through an entirely separate country whilst remaining on the same road; a short stretch of Bosnia-Herzegovinian territory called the Neum Corridor that stands between Central and South Dalmatia. The Neum cuts Croatia into two non-contiguous parts, a result of the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz. An agreement signed in 1998 between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, guaranting a free passage from the port of Ploce and through the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We showed our passports, through border control and in Bosnia. We parked and got out for a walk to look down to the small town of Neum then drove through the exit border post back in to Croatia. In Bosnia…20 minutes. Split
Approx 165km further up the coast we arrive at the city of Split, the second largest city in Croatia and built on the original site of the Roman Palace of the Emperor Diocletian. Settled by Roman refugees but originally founded as a Greek colony in the 4thCentury. The city draws its name from the spiny broom (calicotome spinosa; brnistra), a common shrub in the area. The Palace is in fact a large contained lay-out of several structures; quite massive and more like a fortress with port access. Originally they believe that about half of it was for Diocletian’s personal use whilst the rest was used as a military garrison. When you enter through the city walls you are in fact entering the original grounds of this large plan, like entering in to an enclosed city. You can pay a small fee to have access to the sub-structure too and wander around beneath the city above.
It is a very pretty small town with several family run restaurants and small bars. Despite the large hotel we were staying in, Sibenik was very quiet and there weren’t many tourists. Exploring the alleywalls and climbing the steps up and dwn throughout the city was a joy, especially in the evening with dusk coming in. As the sun set on our last night in Croatia, Sibenik harbour glowed in a golden light. If you can avoid the cruise ship crowds (something I believe that Dubrovnik is working to adjust) Croatia is a spectacularly beautiful country with incredible scenery. If you are limited on time I would even suggest that you make a day trip to Kotor in Montenegro if you have to make the choice between that and Dubrovnik…the Bay of Kotor was one of the most beautiful areas we have ever seen. Make time to get away from the resorts and travel to Split and Sibinek because you will be rewarded with a more ‘real’ expereince of Croatia. I would love to come back and travel further to places like Zagreb which has become one of the great food capitals of Europe matching the culinary cities of Central Europe.
Artist Tihomir Matijević http://www.sculpture.org/calendar/event/tihomir-matijevic-transheroica-or-sculptor-seeks-for-a-hero