Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Croatian Riviera

I spent last week on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia and can affirm what all the travel magazines say is true -- in summer, this area is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

I started my trip by staying up all night in Istanbul to make a 6:40 AM flight (ugh), but despite being slightly out of sorts the journey was all worth it when I touched down in the sunny coastal town of Split. Seeing the town nestled between mountains and sea, I was happy to have had the window seat for this flight.

I took the bus to the center city, walked along the marble boardwalk along the harbor (the "Riva"), and found my hostel nearby. After checking in I met a girl transiting through the town briefly on her way home to Australia, and we headed out together to find one of the beaches near town.

The beaches in Croatia are almost all rocky, but with every day seeming to have perpetual sunshine and dry heat no one seemed to mind. The sea water was somewhat mild near Split, but this would not be true further south.

After swimming the two of us grabbed dinner and took a tour of pubs in the Split old town, sampling Croatian beers Karlovacko and Ozujsko and also the Slovenian beer Lasko Zlatorog. Ozujsko is a little bitter for my taste but I enjoyed the other two. Croatians like their beer -- you sometimes even see people with beers in the morning, sitting and sipping in outdoor cafes or parks. It's cheap too. Unless you're in a tourist bar (and hence being overcharged) you can expect to pay 20 Croatian kuna (about $3.50) for 0.5L of the local draft brew. Delightful!

My new Australian friend was gone the next day as I explored the old town of Split on my own. It's compact, very walkable, and very clean. By far the most prominent feature of Split is Diocletian's Palace, built by a Roman emporer as a place for him to retire. After 1500 years most of its former glory has been lost, but you still see some cool archways and the bell tower is a nice climb -- not for those with a fear of heights!

The rest of my Wednesday was pretty lazy. You can see the Italian influences in Split all over. I spent the day eating pizza, sitting in one of Split's ubiquitous outdoor cafes drinking coffee, and dined on a cuttlefish risotto for dinner. I like how you can just sit indefinitely in a restaurant or cafe after the meal is over without being bothered -- actually getting a bill can be difficult!

To burn some calories, I hiked Marjan Hill, a protected bit of green space near the city. It gives quite a view. In the evening I found some more cheap beer, watched the World Cup semifinal, and finished off with some tasty cheap ice cream.

On Thursday morning I caught a catamaran bound for Hvar town. Croatia's coast is dotted with islands and I wanted to sample a couple.

Hvar is even more beautiful than Split...a fancy harbor with an awesome hilly backdrop and all sorts of fancy yachts docked in the harbor. Other travelers described it as a mini Monte Carlo.

I had booked a bed in "Villa Skansi" on Hostel World and expected the place to be a little beach shack, but in fact the name did not lie. The house was like something out of Beverly Hills! I couldn't believe that $25 could get me something so luxurious, or a terrace with a view.

After lunch I spent my afternoon partaking in a great European tradition...sunbathing! On Hvar you take your beach towel and lay it on your favorite rock, hopefully one which fits the contours of your back. If you get too hot you can plunge into the chilly water, but beware for sea urchins!

It's interesting how different attitudes are between Europeans and Chinese regarding sun exposure. Europeans can't get enough of the sun, and will lay interminably until turning the color of a lobster. On the other hand, on a sunny day in Shanghai you would see an array of umbrellas burst out, protecting the porcelain complexions of its citizens. The girl from Hong Kong who I met in Dubai even had a "whitening cream" which she used on her face in the evening!

My night in Hvar started with dinner, more ice cream, then some time staring at all the yachts in the harbor. Rumor has it that Eva Longoria was on one of them, and someone staying at my villa claimed to have spotted her at the disco the night before.

I returned to the villa for evening drinks on the terrace and met a group of Australian expats living in London. We left for a big night out which ended at the aforementioned disco, a massive outdoor party lounge situated in a medieval castle. Quite the party spot, but don't arrive before 2AM!

After a late night it was hard to awaken to check out of the villa on Friday. I booked onward ferries, took a long breakfast at the harbor with the Australians, then headed up the hill to a fortress atop the hill overlooking the town. There was nothing in the fort, but there didn't need to be as it possessed a fantastic view of the harbor and the nearby hills.

After some more time in the endless sun I took a late afternoon catamaran to the small town of Korcula, alleged to be the birthplace of Marco Polo. His house no longer stands here but a tower has been erected in its place, and of course no trip to Korcula is complete without visiting the Marco Polo store!

Korcula is small but I wasn't staying there long, using it as a transit point to the city of Dubrovnik on the southern end of the long Croatian coast. The ride on the automobile ferry was much slower but equally scenic. I spent three hours sipping a beer while gazing at the hills shooting out of the sea.

In Dubrovnik I was greeted at the ferry port by a big friendly Croatian named Ante, whose guesthouse I had booked for two nights. More expensive than a hostel but totally worth it. My room was both luxurious and spotless, and Ante spent a thorough 15 minutes explaining to me everything to do in the old city.

Ante gave me a ride to the Dubrovnik old city and wow, what a sight! It's exactly my vision when I think of a medieval fortress. Stationed on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic, the imposing walls make every visitor stare and take notice.

Dubrovnik is far more touristy than Split, and for good reason. Nothing against the latter, but Dubrovnik is simply amazing. Even after sustaining a Serbian shelling in the 1991 Croatian war of independence, the old city remains remarkably well-preserved, or at least reconstructed. The inside of the city hums with tourists, and I found Americans! "Semester at Sea" was in port that weekend, so 740 college kids were in town. After traveling for so long out of the homeland, I actually wasn't saddened to see a few.

I cruised the streets for awhile then ascended a long flight of stairs to walk around the city walls. This is a must-do if you ever visit Dubrovnik...the views can't be beat.

Circumnavigating the city took about 90 minutes, getting me to dinner time. After so much climbing I had worked up a serious appetite, and I downed a whole pizza and a big salad. A meal fit for two, but hey, sometimes I try to play the part of fat American!

Saturday evening marked the beginning of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, a 6 week celebration of the performing arts. That night the streets of the old city were teeming with police to protect the dignitaries attending the opening ceremonies. I did not pull enough rank to get a ticket, but I did get outside the city walls in time to see the celebratory fireworks display. After missing 4th of July in the US I'm glad I didn't go a whole summer without seeing some! I finished my night by listening to some of the live Croatian music.

Sunday was another easy day. Ate a little too much at a portside seafood restaurant, then visited the small green island of Lokrum to walk off the meal. It's a peaceful island with no inhabitants, no cars, and a few peacocks. At the top of the island was a small fort with a decent view of the old city. I walked back down and past several beaches, including a nudist one! I did not partake, but I found a different rock nearby in the sun.

In the evening I found a seat in the Buniceva Poljana square to watch the World Cup final, Spain vs Holland. There were far more supporters for the red side than the orange, and it felt like the old city was a giant Spanish pep rally! Bars surround the square and with plenty of TVs the square was packed with soccer fans. Bedlam ensued when the Spaniards scored their late goal to win the trophy. The Spanish victory cheer rang throughout the city -- "Campiones! Campiones! Ole Ole Ole!"

Croatia was absolutely wonderful. I barely saw a cloud over six warm days and the Croatian people were very welcoming. It would have made for a brilliant end to my trip and I'm ready for home now, but I can hang in for more week. Who knows, maybe Spain will be equally amazing.