When in Rome, take a train east across the boot of Italy and then hop a ferry headed for Croatia. Just across the Adriatic Sea from the fascinating and beautiful Italy, Croatia has just as much to offer but without quite the same volume of tourists and tourist traps. Remarkably well recovered from its turbulent history in the 1990’s, Croatia’s people and places have bounced back with admirable vitality. The country is dotted with landmarks of great historical import, plus huge swaths of breathtaking scenery, bustling cities, and fine cuisine.
The Dalmatian Coast, an area in southern Croatia, contains a wealth of these features. From the cities of Split on down to Dubrovnik, there are numerous attractions to keep the traveler engaged.
In Split, it’s almost impossible not to visit the old palace of Roman emperor Diocletian, who built the structure at the turn of the 4th century AD as his retirement home. The palace now encompasses a large swath of the old town, where locals built in and around the existing walls and structures, and is open to public tours (both structured and not).
Further down the coast is the island of Korcula, said to be the birthplace of the famous explorer, Marco Polo. Regardless of the validity of that claim, the island is well worth a visit. Korcula Town, at the eastern end of the island, is an old walled city that provides a great base of operations. If you’re staying for a few days or more, renting an apartment or a guest house is the best way to go. They’re affordable and provide a much more home-like environment from which to launch explorations of the island.
Korcula Town has several great restaurants, including one that features fresh pasta, handmade especially for them by a local woman. Get a meal seated out on the riva (waterfront) and watch the sun set over the sea where your meal was likely caught earlier that very day. Be sure to spend some time exploring the interior of the island, too, where locals make and sell the local wine, or grk, which is made from a variety of white grape that grows native. It’s described as being dry, high in acidity, somewhat aromatic, with hints of pine, and can be had quite cheaply. Olive oil is also available from many stores and farms.
For a fantastic day trip, take a ferry from Korcula to the nearby island of Mljet, which boasts several noteworthy features.
Mljet is said to be the island where Saint Paul was shipwrecked for a time. This claim is disputed by Malta, but no one is really certain. What is certain is that a group of Benedictine monks settled there in 1100’s, building a monastery on a small island in the middle of a lake on Mljet–bringing us to the other unique feature of the island.
Two lakes–Malo and Veliko (small and big, respectively)–are located at the extreme north-western end of the island, and hold the distinction of being slatine, or salt, lakes. Because of this, they have somewhat unique ecosystems. The forests around the lakes shelter a unique species of animal, too. The mongoose, introduced in the Middle Ages in order to take on the overabundance of snakes, has since settled in and made a home-away-from-home of Mljet. Unfortunately, while the mongooses were effective in their snake reduction task, they also severely depleted the birdlife on the island.
Much of Mljet, including the lakes and the monastery, are part of a national park. The only motorized traffic allowed on the lakes is, in fact, the park service boats that can be taken to visit the old monastery and its island. It’s more than well worth the time, as the buildings are well preserved and the land around them makes for great hiking.
After your visit to Korcula and Mljet, take a ferry across the Strait of Pelješac, which separates the islands from the mainland, and hop a bus south for the city of Dubrovnik. After a sometimes hair-raising drive down the coast and along steep mountainsides, you’ll descend into the picturesque-yet-modern metropolis.
The main attraction in Dubrovnik is, of course, the Old Town. This UNESCO World Heritage site is surrounded on all sides by massive stone walls built to defend against marauding Venetians during the Middle Ages, when Dubrovnik was the only other city-state to rival the power of Venice. For a small fee (smaller still if you have any sort of student ID), you can climb atop the walls and walk the entire circumference of the old city, exploring guard towers and taking in spectacular views of the ocean and mountains all along the way.
Down in the Old Town itself, the streets are literally paved with marble. This can become treacherous on rainy days, but otherwise adds a somewhat opulent but beautiful ambiance. Scores of coffee shops, restaurants, museums and stores line the walkways of the Old Town, both modern and historical. Trek up the back streets–essentially staircases worn smooth from time–and catch a glimpse of the everyday life still very present in this ancient city. Small gardens, wild growing carnations, hordes of stray but calm cats, and the potted plants of residents line all of these hidden alleyways.
Venture far enough, and it’s still possible to find a few bullet holes in the walls, reminders of the city’s recent and painful history. In October of 1991, the Serbian-Montenegrin army began its 7-month siege of Dubrovnik. Despite international pressure to spare the city for its historical significance, artillery shelling during that time claimed an estimated 114 civilian lives. In the Old Town, it’s still possible to see which buildings were hit by shells, marked as they are by having brighter, newer roof tiles.
A factor that lead to the people of Dubrovnik being able to weather the siege, however, were the aqueducts that still brought water to the fountains in the Old Town. Even after the attacking army cut off the city’s municipal water supply, these ancient structures still provided clean water to the citizens. The fountains, in all their glory, are still present today.
Be sure to allot as much time as possible for your visit to Dubrovnik and the rest of the Dalmatian Coast. Learn some basic Croatian before you go, too, and it will go a long way toward making your stay that much more enjoyable. So whether your interests lie in historical landmarks and stories, hiking, boating, shopping, eating, or just about anything else, the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia has something to offer you.