Slovenia and Croatia
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves. This time we're venturing beyond the crowds, exploring the two most inviting and stable parts of what was Yugoslavia: the independent countries of Slovenia and Croatia. We're starting in Dubrovnik.
We'll sail the dreamy Dalmatian coastline, do a little sword dancing, rummage through a Roman emperor's palace, get spritzed in a watery wonderland, catch up with urban Croatia, clip-clop like Habsburgs on Lipizzaner stallions, before a rustic finale with the Polka king in the Julian Alps.
In the 1990s Yugoslavia disintegrated into several countries. We start in Croatia from Dubrovnik, we cruise to Korcula, then on to the city of Split. After Plitvice National Park, we cross into Slovenia, explore its capital, Ljubljana, and finish in the Alps on Lake Bled.
Dubrovnik. It feels like a small town today, but 500 years ago this was main street of a major power, it had the third biggest navy in the Mediterranean.
Still jutting confidently into the sea, Dubrovnik is the pearl of the Adriatic. Get your bearings with a walk around its formidable 15th century walls beefed up to defend against the Turks.
Within the ramparts, the traffic-free old town is a fun jumble of quiet cobbled back lanes.... and kid-friendly squares flanking its broad main drag. The buildings still hint at old time wealth.
It's busy merchants made Dubrovnik rich. And lavish annual payoffs convinced the Venetians and Turks that a free Dubrovnik was actually more valuable than a pillaged and plundered Dubrovnik. That's how the city maintained its independence through the Middle Ages. Dubrovnik's ships flew whichever flags were necessary as it earned the nickname "the town of seven flags."
While most of the town was rebuilt after a devastating 17th century earthquake, a few palaces, monasteries and convents from Dubrovnik's earlier golden age survive. The city has one of Europe's oldest pharmacies and... as it has for centuries, this cloister still provides a spot for peaceful contemplation.
But Dubrovnik's recent history has been far from peaceful. As Yugoslavia which means "the union of the south Slavic people" unraveled, Croatia was quick to claim its independence. But its declaration of freedom led to a short war and these walls were no match for modern missiles. In 1991, Dubrovnik was pummeled.
Its thriving tourist industry was devastated. But today, the city's rebuilt 80% of its roofs were replaced and about the only reminders of the war are lots of new orange tiles... and no tourist crowds. For now... we have Dubrovnik's charms all to ourselves.
Croatia has a thousand islands. Ferries and speedy hydrofoils shuttle tourists from major cities to quiet island towns. For about the cost of dinner, you can cruise the Dalmatian Coast from Dubrovnik to Split the main town of the coast, with your choice of enchanting island stop-overs along the way. Our target: Korcula, just a couple of hours away from Dubrovnik by ferry.
In welcoming towns like Korcula, tourist offices keep lists of locals with rooms to rent.
Rick: Dobredan, do you speak English?
Agent: I do.
Rick: Do you have a room to rent in Korcula?
Agent: A single room or a double room?
Rick: A single one, in the old center.
While I wait, the tourist agent calls a local bed and breakfast owner who picks me up at the office and escorts me to my room in the old town center.
People like Svetlana have moved into modern flats and rent their town center apartments to travelers. B&Bs are a characteristic and money-saving alternative to Croatia's lumbering Communist-era hotels
And in this case, a lovely view of the harbor.
Guests are welcome to use the handy kitchen, the cozy dining room and settle in their own private bedroom. Places like Svetlana's offer lived in charm for a quarter of the price.
In Korcula's medieval quarter tiny lanes branch off the humble main drag like ribs on a fishbone. This street plan is designed to catch the breeze and keep out the sun. According to legend, the great explorer Marco Polo was born in this house in 1254.
Rick: Is this the house of Marco Polo? ... Thank you.
Korcula was founded by ancient Greeks, became part of the Roman Empire, and was eventually ruled by Venice. Four centuries of Venetian rule left Korcula with a quirky Gothic/Renaissance mix and a strong siesta tradition. Early afternoons are sleepy... .
Unless a princess is being kidnapped. Korcula snaps to life when locals perform a medieval folk dance called the Moreska. The plot helps locals remember their hard fought past: a bad king takes the good king's bride. The dancing forces of good and evil battle. And at least in the Moreska dance... it's always a happy ending.
Here in Croatia, as in the rest of Europe, transportation connections are easy.
For most stops, rather than worry about in advance, I plan my departure upon arrival. In Korcula, ferries like this come and go several times a day. There's no need for reservations. Buy tickets as you board.
On board, island commuters are quick to give travel tips. This smoky and well-worn ship's cafe is a good place for some people watching. In a setting like this, the travel writing comes easy.
We're heading back to the mainland, for the big city of the Dalmatian coast Split!
Split teeming with a quarter of a million people feels fresh and modern. But its history goes way back.
The Roman Emperor Diocletian built this palace in about 300 AD. He moved home, back to his native Dalmatia, to retire. Eventually, the palace was abandoned. Then locals, fleeing 7th-century Slavic invaders, moved in.
Today's city actually began within the protective walls of Diocletian's palace. To this day, 3000 people live or work inside these palace walls.
The central courtyard of Diocletian's palace is now old Split's main square. The shell of the ruined palace provides a checkerboard street plan, four gates, and a town easy to navigate.
This sphinx, from ancient Egypt, was one of a dozen, which stood at the entrance to Diocletian's tomb. Inside, the columns, carvings and original fine brick dome survive. Ironically, the mausoleum of the Roman emperor famous for his persecution of Christians became the town's cathedral.
And, to add insult to injury, the remains of the bishop Diocletian had beheaded now rest here, in the tomb meant for the emperor. The bishop's sarcophagus dates from the early 4th century.
The pagan Temple of Jupiter, with its fine carved ceiling, stands across the courtyard. A thousand years ago, Croatians made it a baptistery and carved this relief of their king on the baptismal font.
These subterranean halls the palace's basement hint at the grandeur of the imperial apartments that were just above. Today, they're filled with local artists and Split's annual flower competition.
In ancient times, the Adriatic Sea lapped against the palace walls behind me. From the gateway just over there, the emperor could step into his boat.
Croatia's charm is both old world and new world. While Split has its Roman palace roots, this city is all about today... vibrant and alive. Learn a few words, many Croatians speak English and are quick to help you communicate. While the streets are quiet in the afternoon, later they sparkle with the youthful spirit of a new capitalist Croatia.
And after dark, enjoy Mediterranean charm, with a Slavic twist.
From Split, we drive inland, replacing breezy Mediterranean palm trees with harsher realities. Beneath limestone mountains, valleys offer a stingy soil. Worked by a thousand years of Croats, its good for goats, grapes and little more.
This valley was hard hit by the 1991 war with Serbia. A visit with these people personlizes the grief in the bombed hamlets and fresh memorials that line the road.
Rick: Can you read this to me?
Damir: Yes, Croatians came to this valley in the 13th century and lived in peace since the recent war. And this is the memorial to all young people who gave their life for freedom in Croatia. This line says that all people of Croatia hope them easy ground and to rest in peace
Our last stop in Croatia is Plitvice National Park.
Plitvice is one of Europe's most spectacular natural wonders. It's a refreshing playground of 16 terraced lakes separated by natural limestone dams connected by countless waterfalls.
Over time, the water has carved out this ever-changing landscape. The water is famous for its clarity. The dense forest home to deer, bear, and... mice feels almost medieval.
Years ago, after 8 or 9 trips, I thought I really knew Europe. Then I discovered Plitvice and realized you can never exhaust Europe of what it has to offer.
The Slovenian border is a short drive north. Tiny Slovenia about the size of Massachusetts with two million people sits on the sunny side of the Alps and coming from Croatia feels almost Tyrolean.
Ljubljana is the country's capital and with 300,000 people its largest city.
Slovenes decide their great issues by voting. In 1918, they supported a union with the Serbs and Croats as Yugoslavia was born. In 1991, Slovenia declared its independence. Because over 90% of the people here are ethnic Slovenians, the break with Yugoslavia was simple and virtually uncontested.
Independent Slovenia more advanced, prosperous, and Western thinking than other parts of formerYugoslavia is flourishing.
The heart of Ljubljana is Preseren Square named for Slovenia's favorite Romantic poet. He symbolizes this country's desire for freedom. Joyous Slovenians first raised their new country's flag on this square.
Ljubljana enjoys its freedom with a use-it-or-lose-it gusto. Festivals fill the summer and people seem to enjoy a Sunday stroll any day of the week.
In Ljubljana's thriving old town market, big city Slovenians enjoy buying directly from farmers. They develop longtime and loyal relationships with the person who grows their vegetables.
Prices here are about half what you'd pay an hour north in Austria and the economy is brisk.
After centuries of Habsburg rule, Ljubljana feels Austrian. After a devastating earthquake in 1895 much of the town was destroyed. It was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style, so popular in its capital at the time, Vienna.
Old town streets filled with students seem like Salzburg without Mozart. And a sophisticated cafe culture thrives. While people here jokingly nickname the Austrians "yodelers", neighbors to the south say the same thing about the Slovenes.
It's easy to get the local take on things as most young people speak English.
Rick: Marion, when I came into Slovenia right away I feel some prosperity, but you have a recent Communist history?
Marion: Yes, Slovenia was one of those Communist countries within Yugoslavia, but we haven't had that stereotypical Eastern European Communism, so we already had experience with Western system. It was a system, between Western and Eastern, with a Western sort of living and market economy.
There are lots of other cafes and more of Ljubljana to see, but it's time to explore the Slovenian countryside.
Venice is a 90-minute drive straight ahead and Austria is an hour that way, but between here and the border there's plenty of Slovenia to see.
The Lipica stud farm was founded in 1580 to provide horses for the Hapsburg court in Vienna. Austria's royal family had imported their court horses from Spain... they wanted a handier local source. Mixing Andalusian, Arabian and a local line, they created the Lipizzaner stallions made famous by Vienna's Spanish Riding School.
Unlike in Vienna, tickets to see the horses perform here are cheap, easy to get, and include a tour of the farm. And while some enjoy the horse hereditary, everybody enjoys the show.
Until World War I, Lipica bred horses for Austria's needs. Now, they prance for Slovenia, bred for local use, and a treasured part of the cultural heritage.
These stallions famous for their noble gate and baroque shape regularly perform a high-stepping medley to the delight of horse-loving audiences.
The Lipizanner stallions are as striking as the land of their birth.
We're riding north into the Julian Alps named after Julius Caesar they're the southeastern fringe of the Alps.
The mountainsides are laced with hiking paths, blanketed in a deep forest, and speckled with ski resorts and vacation chalets.
And something unique to Slovenia's Alps: brightly painted beehives. Since the days before Europeans had sugar, Slovenia has been a big honey producer. Local farmers, believing these paintings would actually help the bees find their way home, developed a tradition of decorating their hives.
The bee museum near the town of Bled offers a close-up look at this quirky bit of folk art. The Slovene farmer Anton Jansa is considered the father of modern bee keeping. These 19th century panels are entertaining for their historical, religious and satirical folk themes: here's the devil sharpening a woman's tongue, and in panels showing the hunter's funeral... all the animals are happy... except his dog.
Lake Bled Slovenia's leading mountain resort comes complete with a fairy-tale island, cliff-hanging medieval castle, a lakeside promenade, and this region's most sought after crème cakes.
Slovenes travel from all over the country to sample these famous cakes, first cooked up right here.
While Lake Bled has all the modern resort town amenities, including shops, restaurants and hotels, its most endearing qualities are its stunning setting, its natural romanticism and...its fun loving wedding parties.
Saturdays are wedding day here in Bled and the lake is festive with wedding parties.
Gondolas called "pletna" are the romantic way to tour Lake Bled and visit the historic island church.
A steady procession of newlyweds cheered on by their entourage head for the island. It's tradition for the groom to carry or try to carry his bride up the ninety-nine steps, which lead to the church. About 4 out of 5 actually reach the top. Will he make it?
The island has long been a sacred site specializing in romance an 8th century Slavic pagan temple dedicated to the goddess of love and fertility once stood here. This baroque Church of St. Mary is the fifth to occupy this spot.
Traditionally, Slovene newlyweds ring the St. Mary's bell to make a wish come true.
Good thing he just made it. The countryside leaving Lake Bled has it's own distinctive beauty. Alpine rivers with great fishing, lazy rural rest stops, and charming mountain hamlets.
Exploring, just a few miles away in a quiet village, I'm in search of a celebration of a lively finale for this trip.
Slovenes love to party... ideally with a polka band. When Lojze Slak and his ensemble drop in, the entire village turns out. Locals call Lojze "Slovenia's Polka king." After a three-minute lesson, even a tourist can polka.
And for us, Lojze performs a song that he wrote on the plane returning from America to his beloved Slovenia. Throughout Europe, the generations party together. Munching hearty cold cuts and sipping white wine to the beat, it's a fun time for all. And the Slovenes call Austrians yodelers.
Thanks for traveling with us. I hope you enjoyed our look at Croatia and Slovenia. Until next time, I'm Rick Steves. [ ... ] I think that means "Keep on travelin'!"
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.