Having something burning a proverbial hole in your pocket is quite an ordeal. Even more so when it isn’t money, but something that carries tremendous emotional meaning and expectation.
Rather than drag this post out in service of a dramatic reveal, I’ll just come out and say that it’s a ring. Yup, that ring.
Stick with me, loyal reader(s), this story won’t spiral into a soppy life experience monologue. The true meat of the tale involves Croatia, a road trip, the high seas, walled cities, and pretty pictures. Ok, and a ring at some point. Trust me, though, I’ll make it worth your while.
Let’s first talk about sea sickness. Thankfully I don’t suffer from such an affliction, yet it would have been an idea to consider such a possibility before booking a kayak trip on the Adriatic sea. Bobbing along in the waves, some as tall as myself, the thought did occur to me. Thankfully I kept this thought to myself, rather than saddle Kat with the idea of a potential liability in the front of her boat.
Instead, we were much too distracted by our surroundings. To our back stretched the expanse of the Adriatic. Mildly rough, and rolling with man-sized waves, the sea shone with an azure beauty that was immeasurably calming. To our left sat the imposing walled city of Dubrovnik: a place which occupied the top spot on my travel list for several years. Once torn apart by internal turmoil, Dubrovnik is now more known as a seat of power for fictional kings.
It was truly unreal to finally be there in person. A little sleep deprived, perhaps, and ill-prepared for sunshine and heat, but entirely enraptured by the experience.
Every trip has its stand out moments. Kayaking on the Adriatic will be a difficult one to top.
Kat and I do love city escapes, but we always try to do at least one thing in each place that’s not a typical outing. If it can get us out of the city, all the better. You could say that kayaking ticked all of those boxes.
Not far ahead of us bobbed a small flotilla of kayakers; the rest of our small group. At their head, Dan “The man”, who didn’t feel the need to burden travelers with last names. At his right hand, a quieter fellow, by the name GI Joe. I suspect this to have been a pseudonym, but he sold it.
Joe and Dan proved to be passionate tour guides, in spite of their aversion to surnames. They excitedly spun tales of local history, sights, and bits of interest about their coastal home. The tour saw us journey from the walls of Dubrovnik, across rolling waves to the Island of Lokrum, finally resting in a cavern beach carved out of the rocky coastline.
Gliding back to our launch, Dan and Joe capped off our adventure with some local wine, followed by meat and bread, which were generously provided by a nearby gathering. I can think of worse ways to start a trip.
The rest of the evening saw us wandering the old city and enjoying local flavour. The narrow streets and winding alleys within the walls feel like a portal in time, with every turn of a corner revealing new sights to gawk at without remorse. Sometimes you just have to be a tourist and be ok with it.
With this in mind we set out on a leisurely path through the city to the seaward side. Nested along the outside of the walls, perched on a series of staircases above the sea, is a sizable bar with unparalleled views. As it turns out, such places aren’t busy near closing. We rounded out our day, sat in near privacy – save for a particularly friendly stray cat – with a cold beer and a stunning view of the moon setting over the water.
Dubrovnik is the epitome of a tourist haven.
There are no shortage of touristy guided walks, sights and, tours to sink your money in to. Even if you’re a fan of a certain popular TV show, I’d recommend skipping themed walks in favour of other outings, unless your time is very limited.
Kayaking is well worth the price, as you might have guessed. We were also pleasantly surprised by the city wall tour. It costs roughly £20 per person, but the views are not to be missed. You’ll be afforded an unbeatable vantage over the city, as well as dramatic seas and an imposing fortress. Not to mention that there will be many opportunities to kick back with food and drink along the way. While there are plenty of options in the streets, there’s nothing quite like perching on stone steps with terracotta roofs stretching out below. Again, cold beer doesn’t hurt, either.
Speaking of, craft beer has not been overlooked in Croatia. Dubrovnik has several great places to enjoy it from. We opted for Glam Cafe. It’s a small spot with only a couple of alleyway tables, but with plenty of atmosphere. And beer. While their tap list is small, their fridges are stocked with the best local craft options.
And that’s pretty much how our time in Dubrovnik played out. Wandering. Eating. And simply enjoying the atmosphere. It’s a lovely slice of the world and a place I would happily return to. I’m starting to think that I’m meant to live near the sea…
We may have also found ourselves giving in to a little bit of fandom… We’re both only human, afterall. And a little nerdy. There’s a certain hotel not far from the old town. This hotel set the stage for a fateful meeting between a southern lord and a northern… mountain. In a sad twist of local history, the hotel has been abandoned for many years; an unfortunate casualty of a bloody struggle that nearly ruined the country in the 80s.
I won’t go into detail as the hotel isn’t the safest of destinations. When not being used as a set, it’s been left to fall into disrepair. Much of it is quite dilapidated and more than a little unsafe. Several areas have begun to fall in to the sea and become entirely blocked from access. It’s perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.
I do love me a creepily abandoned structure or two. We weren’t brave enough to venture in, but remained outside and explored as much as we could without putting ourselves in danger. However, because of that danger, I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend the outing to everyone. I would certainly recommend looking in to the history of the area. It’s as political as it is fascinating and offers a window into a topic that the rest of the world hasn’t been afforded a view of.
Queue Failsafe Road Trip Mix #1
From Dubrovnik we set out on the road. I avoid driving in London, which means that I sit behind the wheel perhaps once or twice a year. Thankfully, driving in Croatia is easy as can be. A few wrong turns in the city had us calibrated and comfortably cruising along the coast. Once you get used to the breakneck speed that many locals practice, you’ll settle right in.
For us it was a quick and easy process. Passport. Stamp. “Dobra dan”. Repeat. However, I’ve heard this can be a long process at busier times, so plan accordingly.
Our only complaint about the overall trip would be that we planned things perhaps too tightly. Leaving Dubrovnik, we’d estimated 4 hours to Split, where we would stay for an evening. The following day we would leave as early as possible, with another 4 hours planned before arriving in Plitvicka Jezera. And again, the next day would allow a short window for us to travel to Zagreb, with a few hours in the city before catching a bus to Budapest.
A couple of extra days wouldn’t have gone amiss. Driving the coast provides plenty of views to ogle. Winding cliffside roads dip inland through valleys and vineyards, peppered with orange stands and fresh food vendors. Combine that with a prime soundtrack and fresh coastal winds, and it was actually difficult to step out of the car each evening.
After Dubrovnik, Split felt like a typical port town. I would call it Aberdeen-esque… which is perhaps unfair as we didn’t have enough time there to truly experience it. What we did see combined ancient architecture with modern conveniences and massive cruise ships, all in an atmosphere that felt a little rough around the edges.
That said, we stayed in a lovely little flat directly within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. We also managed to find perhaps the best meal of the trip: a traditional meaty stew at a restaurant with down home, traditional charm.
We were also treated to a fantastic coincidence. Of the few hours we spent in the city, while rounding a corner, I came face to face with a face from my past. Our trip happened to time up with the travels of a couple of neighbours I hadn’t seen in years, and thousands of miles. It sounds cliché, but the world does have a way of feeling shockingly small at times.
My review of Split may sound less than glowing. What we saw of it was a vibrant city with tons of things to do…none of which we had any time for. Diocletian’s Palace itself was stunning, and we’d have loved to have taken advantage of some of the historical tours within, or perhaps ventured on a coastal hike or paddle… Sadly, none of that would be in the cards.
Instead, the open road beckoned!
The coast slowly gave way to rocky passes and winding hills as we worked our way inland towards the lush forests of Plitvicka Jezera.
We’d planned this part of our trip very carefully, as we’d wanted to spend as much time as possible in the region.
Plitvice is a vast forested region made up of protected woodlands and lake systems. It’s known for its near tropical beauty, as well as numerous waterfalls and crystalline waters. Most popular are the lakes, which meander down a valley of step like plateaus, linked with cascades of water and…honestly, Google it, the photos are stunning! I promise that it’s even better in person.
Remember that ring I mentioned? You can bet I had ulterior motives for spending extra time in a picturesque place like Plitvice.
To be honest, neither of us are showy people. We’d prefer private moments to public displays. That’s why, in my head, I’d assumed a natural park would be a perfect place to pop the question. Surely there would be an opportunity to steal off and avoid unwanted attention.
It turns out that they don’t like you doing such things in Plitvice. In fact, there is nothing they like less, apart from perhaps diving directly in to those crystal blue pools.
In an effort to protect the delicate ecosystem, the Croatian parks service has built an elaborate system of boardwalks throughout the lakes. It’s really quite impressive and absolutely adds to the beauty of the park. The boardwalks allow you to get up close to most of the natural beauty, directly into the spray of torrents of water, often with much of it thundering by beneath, without ever once disturbing raw soil. It’s stunning and near magical. But it also means that privacy ain’t gonna happen.
I can tell you that it’s tricky to keep your attention on the scenery when you’re constantly scanning for lulls in tourists. Every bend presents new ‘ews’ and ‘awes’, all while slowly dashing hopes and plans.
That said, it’s really difficult to be disappointed in Plitvice. I’d challenge that if a person is disappointed, they must be doing something wrong.
The forecast called for rain on the day we were there, which had the added bonus of keeping the numbers of tourists down. While it did sprinkle now and again, it was nothing that a light jacket couldn’t handle, and actually added to the lush colours around us.
We stretched our time there as long as we could, opting for the longest trail with the most amount of walking, assuring us a view of every fall possible.
It’s at the very last of these falls that I saw my opportunity. The numbers of tourists had dropped off as the day waned. With the hours growing short, and buses few, many didn’t take the chance of a lengthy hike back to the parking lot.
The furthest basin in the park caps things off with a bang: the highest waterfall in Plitvice cascades into a stunning basin, like something out of The Lost World. And there – at the end of a long path of boardwalks – switchbacking up the slick side of a cliff, was a narrow path. It was steep, it was wet and, even better, the weary tourists seemed little interested in venturing up its steps.
The rest of that story is ours but, suffice to say, she said yes 🙂
Perhaps it’s for personal reasons, but Plitvice will always hold a prominent place in my heart. It was magical and it’s well worth a visit, even if only for an afternoon…and without ulterior motives.
The region is also packed full of great bnb options, many of which have been converted from traditional guest houses. You really can’t go wrong. For us, we chose a place called House Boro. Family run and rustic, it had a charm that was the perfect accompaniment to a day of hiking. They were instantly welcoming and even offered well priced, home cooked meals that I’m still dreaming about months later.
Again, we’d have happily spent a second night here, further exploring the parks from the comfort of Boro…but we had a date with Zagreb, and Hungary beyond.
The drive further inland offered no further surprises beyond good weather and open roads. While the wind did threaten to blow our little ForFour off the road, and we scared the proverbial piss out of an impatient deer, the drive was smooth and easy.
One thing I wasn’t expecting about the Croatian countryside were the number of derelict buildings and towns. There are a shocking number of ruins of both old buildings left to rot, and new ones left unfinished. I’d wondered at the time whether this was inductive of shifting local economies, or if these too were victims of the nation’s past troubles…but I haven’t been able to turn up any definitivee information. Regardless, they offered an interesting glimpse into a region that I wouldn’t have had by remaining firmly in one location.
It would be a great adventure to wind your way from the southern tip of Croatia, charting its coast and interior towards the capital, only to strike out coastwards again, so as to end the journey along the sea at its northernmost point… But that will have to be an adventure for another time. Our travels in Croatia brought us finally to the capital of Zagreb.
Where Dubrovnik felt like the Riviera, and Split felt like the Aberdeen of the south, Zagreb was very much the epitome of a capital. It felt at once regal, crisp, and clean, with a welcoming vibe and healthy bustle.
We had but hours there, but thoroughly enjoyed our time with a relaxed stroll through its streets, some choice craft beer, and much needed downtime.
Mounting a bus at the end of the day, we were at last on our way to Hungary.
I have to say that we thoroughly fell in love with Croatia. We were told many things before going. Most commonly we were warned not to expect much from customer service. In truth, we encountered the exact opposite. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Each of our hosts did nothing but make us feel welcome and truly made our stays memorable. Not everyone went out of their way for us, but then, we weren’t in their country to be catered to, so that was never an expectation (nor should it be). Without gushing too much, I’ll say that neither Kat not I would hesitate to visit Croatia again.
As for Hungary, I’ll save that for another post.