Croatia: Adriatic Delights

A fascinating land with a hard-fought history in a complex corner of Europe, Croatia is emerging as one of Europe’s top destinations. Sampling the very best of Croatia, we start by exploring the fabled Dalmatian Coast from dramatic Dubrovnik to crusty Adriatic island ports. Heading inland, we hike through Plitvice Lakes National Park and enjoy the thriving capital city Zagreb. Our Croatian finale: the Istrian Peninsula and its enchanting port town of Rovinj.

Travel Details

Apartments Lenni (Korčula)

Lenni and Pero Modrinić, both of whom are outgoing and speak good English, rent four apartments in a nicely renovated house right in the middle of the Old Town, a fifth apartment next door with two bedrooms and a sea view, and a small, budget double with a private bathroom across the hall. Since they live off-site, confirm your reservation the day before and let them know your arrival time (perisa.modrinic@du.t-com.hr).

Diocletian’s Palace (Split)

Split’s top activity is visiting the remains of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s enormous retirement palace, sitting on the harbor in the heart of the city. The ruins themselves are now integrated with the city’s street plan, so exploring them is free — except for the cellars and the cathedral sights/temple, which you’ll pay to enter. In peak season, the cellars are open late, and the cathedral sights generally close at 19:00 (in the off-season, the cathedral sights close around noon). Fragments of the palace are poorly marked, and there are no good guidebooks or audioguides for understanding the remains. For most visitors, the walk in my guidebook provides enough details; for more in-depth information, you could join a walking tour or hire a guide.

Cathedral of St. Domnius (Split)

The original octagonal structure was Diocletian’s elaborate mausoleum, built in the fourth century. But after the fall of Rome, it was converted into the town’s cathedral. Several sights associated with the cathedral require tickets: the cathedral interior, the unimpressive treasury/museum, the crypt, the tower climb, and — a block away — Jupiter’s Temple.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice is one of Europe’s most spectacular natural wonders. There’s nothing like this lush valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls, boat rides, and miles of pleasant plank walks. You can see all of the best scenery at Plitvice in just a three- to four-hour hike. While you can give yourself longer here, it’s not necessary. Since it takes some time to get here (about two hours by car or bus from Zagreb), the most sensible plan is to spend the night in the area (either at one of the park’s hotels, or at a guest house nearby). To avoid crowds, get up early and hit the trails (ideally by 8:30); by early afternoon, you’ll be ready to move on (south to the coast, or north to Zagreb).

Croatian Museum of Naive Art (Zagreb)

This remarkable spot, founded in 1952 as the “Peasant Art Gallery,” is one of the most enjoyable little museums in Croatia. It features expressionistic paintings by untrained peasant artists. On one easy floor, the museum displays 80 paintings made mostly by Croatians from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Valentino Champagne and Cocktail Bar (Rovinj)

This romantic, justifiably pretentious place for an expensive late-night waterfront drink. Fish, attracted by its underwater lights, swim by from all over the bay...to the enjoyment of those nursing a cocktail on the rocks (literally — you’ll be given a small seat cushion and plunk down in your own seaside niche). Or you can choose to sit on one of the terraces. Classy candelabras twinkle in the twilight, as couples cozy up to each other and the view. While the drinks are extremely pricey, this place is unforgettably cool.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.


Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re navigating the Adriatic and a lot more. It’s Croatia. Thanks for joining us.

Croatia is a fascinating land with a hard-fought history in a complex corner of Europe. And as travelers are rediscovering its charms, it’s emerging as one of Europe’s top destinations.

Exploring Croatia, we’ll see the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” sample some island charm, wander Roman ruins, and hike through a watery wonderland. We’ll enjoy its thriving capital city, the Italian-like charm of Istria, and that peninsula’s most enchanting port town.

Yugoslavia filled much of Europe’s Balkan Peninsula during most of the 20th century. When Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries in the 1990s, Croatia wound up with most of its coastline. We start south in Dubrovnik, sail along the Dalmatian Coast, stopping at Korčula and Hvar en route to Split. After exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park and the capital city of Zagreb, we travel to the Istrian peninsula, to Rovinj.

Spectacularly set Dubrovnik is both historic and a hit with tourists. It’s understandably Croatia’s top draw.

Whether surveying its stout walls, joining the promenade along its main drag, or appreciating its former glory, it’s clear this city was a major power in the past and is a major draw today. Exploring its evocative back lanes, relaxing on its pebbly beaches, or just pondering its majestic setting...Dubrovnik is simply delightful.

Dubrovnik is “the Pearl of the Adriatic.” In fact, we’ll cover it in more detail in another episode. For this program, we’ll leave the crowds of Dubrovnik and explore the less-appreciated corners of Croatia.

Boats, big and small, connect Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia. We’re setting sail along the scenic Dalmatian Coast with its countless islands. They’re all variations on the same theme: rugged limestone features with historic port towns and sparsely populated interiors. The rocky soil and persistent sun are good for grapes. And the pebbly beaches with crystal-clear water are both pristine and inviting.

We’re visiting two islands, and first up is Korčula. Visitors enjoy its “mini-Dubrovnik” vibe. You’ll find a fortified peninsula under a striking mountain backdrop. In the Old Town, narrow lanes come with an easygoing charm.

Like other Croatian coastal towns, Korčula has two parts: The functional, practical side — where most people park, eat, and sleep — and the time-warp Old Town.

Rather than stay in a big resort hotel, I’m staying in a soba — that’s a room rented in a private home. I called ahead and my hosts, Lenni and Peter, met me at the boat. They rent six rooms in their house buried deep in Korčula’s old town. A 500-year-old building can be tight.

This room may be small, but it’s comfortable, air-conditioned, and half the price of a hotel. And a great location...they claim Marco Polo lived just up the street.

The town’s charms are all within a few steps. The historic gate is a reminder that Korčula was once a mighty little place. Facades recall its 14th-century trading heyday. Each lane contributes to the evocative medieval townscape, dripping with drying laundry and local character. You can savor it all over a cup of coffee.

If you want to enjoy the Croatian café scene, it helps to know a few words. For a latte, it’s beila káva. That’s white coffee.

We’re setting sail again. Both lumbering car ferries and sleek cruise ships carry Dalmatia’s many visitors efficiently from port to port.

In ancient times Greeks and Romans sailed up and down this coastline, establishing many trade settlements. The island of Hvar was settled and named by the Greeks in the fourth century B.C.

The island’s main town, also named Hvar, nestles under its formidable fortress. Its handy boat connections make this a popular stop. While mobbed with tourists in peak season, we’re here in late May, and it’s more sleepy than chic.

Like most major towns along the Adriatic coastline, the fortified harbor of Hvar was a strategic link in a vast 16th-century Venetian trading empire. Its fortress, walls, tower, and palaces all built by and for the Venetians.

Activities are low energy. Expertly enjoying this town, seemingly made for relaxing, yachters stern-tie into the good life. Visitors nurse drinks on the main square. Stroll the back lanes, where you may come upon a musical surprise.

Local a cappella choirs perform klapa music — the quintessential Dalmatian folk music. Every town has their all-male klapa choir. These songs of seafaring life, of loves lost and loves found, stir the souls of Croatians and visitors alike.

Rick: Bravo. Yeah.

When it comes to mealtime, here on the coast, it’s gotta be seafood. Hardworking restaurants seem to abide by the local creed: Eating meat is food...eating fish — that’s pleasure. Our waiter reminded us that a fish should swim three times: first in the sea, then in olive oil, and finally in wine.

After a little island-hopping, approaching urban Split — Croatia’s “second city” — feels like a return to civilization. [While] so many Dalmatian Coast towns feel tailor-made for tourism, Split is a serious port. It’s vibrant with or without its visitors.

Split feels modern. But, a close look at the surviving facade of a Roman palace fronting its harbor reveals the city’s ancient roots. Today’s residents are literally living in a Roman emperor’s palace. In the fourth century A.D., when Roman Emperor Diocletian retired, he built a vast residence for his golden years here in his native Dalmatia. When Rome fell, Diocletian’s palace was abandoned. Eventually, a medieval town sprouted from its abandoned shell. And, to this day, the maze of narrow alleys — once literally Diocletian’s hallways — makes up the core of Split.

Local guide Maya Benzon is joining us to help explain the story behind her hometown.

Maya: The palace was huge, 200 meters on each side, and these were just the basements, so you can imagine what was on the upper floor. Roman engineers could build anything.
Rick: So they had concrete, they had bricks, round arches — they had the technology.
Maya: Yes, they had the technology and they had the slaves.
Rick: Cheap labor.
Maya: Yes.

Nearby a grand underground hallway now used as a shopping arcade leads to Diocletian’s vestibule.

Maya: This is the grand entryway towards Diocletian’s private area, private quarters. Roman emperors called themselves the gods. And Diocletian called himself “Jovius,” son of the god Jupiter. People worship him so they were kissing his robe. They treated him like a god on earth.

Diocletian’s mausoleum dominated the center of the palace complex. Much of the original Roman building survives — the impressive dome, columns and capitals, and fine carved reliefs. Diocletian was notorious for persecuting Christians. But centuries later, in the Middle Ages, his mausoleum was converted into a cathedral. And so, ironically, what Diocletian built to glorify his memory is used instead to remember his victims: Christian martyrs...like this one, who was tied to a mill stone and tossed into the sea.

A few steps away is a temple dedicated to Jupiter.

Rick: This is all part of Diocletian’s palace complex?
Maya: Yes, we are still walking in the area of Diocletian’s Palace, and you know Diocletian was “Jovius.” And here in the middle of the palace he erected the house for his father — this is Jupiter’s temple — and for a Roman building it’s very rare that it’s completely preserved with the ceiling, with the roof. So on the ceiling you can see really nice Roman carvings. You can see some faces, some flowers. Later on during the history of the Middle Ages this was converted into the church, so this was the medieval baptistery. We have St. John the Baptist, and here we have the baptismal font. And we have this curious panel here in the front. We have Croatian king from the 11th century. We have a bishop standing just next to him, and underneath his feet we have a citizen.
Rick: So you’ve got the secular power, the religious power, and the people respecting the power.
Maya: That would be it. Because this is a baptistery, here we have a statue of St. John the Baptist. This is a modern work of the 20th century made by the greatest Croatian sculpturist ever, Ivan Meštrović.

A highlight for me is simply people watching. The sea of Croatian humanity laps at the walls of Diocletian’s Palace along the pedestrian promenade, or “Riva.” As on similar promenades throughout the Mediterranean world, the cars have made way for the people. Strolling locals finish their days in good style...just enjoying life’s simple pleasures in a city made friendly for its residents.

While the coast is Croatia’s main draw, some of its best attractions are inland. We’re delving into the Croatian heartland.

One of Europe’s top natural wonders is Plitvice Lakes National Park. Imagine Niagara Falls sliced and diced and sprinkled over a vast and heavily forested canyon. It’s a lush and unforgettable valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls and miles of pleasant plank walks.

Boats glide visitors into the heart of the park. Countless cascades and water that’s strangely clear, yet full of vibrant colors, make Plitvice a misty natural wonderland. Fish seem to know there’s not a hook for miles. Carefully maintained trails and boardwalks let you get intimate with the wonder of the place. Observant nature lovers can choose from hundreds of flower types to assemble a photographic bouquet.

The stony formations drip down like the foliage because the grass and moss both direct the flow of the water and provide a kind of scaffolding for the slow and steady calcification process. Naturalists call Plitvice a “perfect storm” of geological, climatic, and biological features. The magic ingredient: calcium carbonate, a mineral deposit from the limestone that gets dissolved into the water, then re-deposited — continually breaking down natural travertine dams...and building up new ones.

Tranquil as this park is, it was here, in 1991, that the first shots of Croatia’s war with Yugoslavia were fired. And, if you know where to look, evidence of the war survives.

When Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, its Serb minority — about 10 percent of the population — was concerned about its rights. So they broke away from the new state of Croatia, which plunged the region into four years of war.

While the war barely touched the coastline, here in the interior — which had a sizable Serb minority — the fighting was devastating.

In towns like Otočac bullet holes still mar facades. These scars reflect the brutal house-to-house fighting that characterized the war. Seeing bomb-damaged homes rebuilt makes you ponder loss, resilience, and hope. The Croats’ Catholic church, once shelled and now repaired, has a poignant memorial in its garden: Christ crucified on a cross of artillery shells.

Taking a little extra time to wander through town gives an insight into people moving on with their lives.

While a few Serbs are returning, the reality is the war changed the ethnic make-up of Croatia forever. As disturbing as these reminders of war are, it is uplifting to be here, and to actually see how well the country’s putting itself back together.

Our next stop: the capital city, Zagreb. You can’t get a complete picture of modern Croatia without a visit here. This lively and livable city is home to one out of every six Croatians.

Jelačić Square — the “Times Square” of Zagreb — is boisterous with modern commerce and local life. The statue depicts the square’s namesake, Josip Jelačić — the 19th-century national hero who still inspires Croatians today.

Seeing the city buzz with activity, you feel the energy of urban Croatia. Night or day, the streets are a parade of stylish locals — confident and looking good. The people-friendly business zone comes with the energy and bustle you’d expect to find in any prosperous European capital. Whether you’re enjoying an outdoor café, window-shopping, or just lounging in one of the city’s many inviting parks, Zagreb makes you wonder, Where are all the tourists?

Zagreb’s historic upper town blankets a hill. Its main square is home to Croatia’s government. The national parliament building flies both the Croatian and European flags. Dominating the square is the Church of St. Mark — with the colorfully tiled roof depicting both the coat of arms of Croatia and the city seal of Zagreb.

Nearby is the Croatian Museum of Naive Art. This charming collection features lyrical landscapes and village scenes painted in the mid-20th century by self-taught peasant artists. While some are on canvas, most are painted on glass — a cheap and readily available material that was easier to work on.

Naive art is created by untrained artists isolated from the artistic mainstream. They painted in a figurative way, while the rest of the artistic world embraced, increasingly, an abstract style.

Generalić, shown here in a self-portrait, was the father of the Croatian Naive Art movement. In 1953, he took his art to a show in Paris as a relative unknown. He was a huge hit, sold everything, and came home rich and famous.

These Croatian naïve artists were outsiders — sought out by art-world insiders to validate their notion that artistic ability was more than a learned skill — it was an inborn talent.

In places such as rural Croatia, medieval lifestyles survived well into the 20th century. You see a lot of winter scenes because these artists were farmers first...busy tending their fields through the growing season. They painted their village world, isolated from the modern world. In a complex age, many urbanites found this art refreshing for its brute simplicity.

Tucked inside Zagreb’s only surviving town gate is an evocative chapel. The focal point is a painting of Mary that miraculously survived a fire in 1731. People, young and old, passing through, stop here briefly to worship. Pausing reverently, the faithful bring their concerns to Mary. The many candles represent Zagrebian prayers. Smoke-stained plaques on the wall give thanks — hvala — for prayers answered.

Just down the road is a thriving pedestrian zone — Zagreb’s main café street and urban promenade. Comfy seating encourages people to slow down and enjoy each other’s company. Sitting here, it’s clear: Zagrebians love their city.

Thanks to new freeways, the Istrian Peninsula, in Croatia’s northwest corner, is just a couple hours’ drive from the capital.

In the Istrian interior you’ll find a thickly forested landscape of rolling hills and family farms. Istria is dotted with picturesque hill towns, striped with vineyards, and busy with hard-working farmers.

Dramatically situated high above the vineyards, Motovun is Istria’s most popular hill town. Its modest main square is the only flat place in town — ideal for budding soccer stars. The church’s crenellated tower is a reminder that these towns were built on hilltops not for the view but for protection. But today, strolling the ramparts, it’s clear: The panorama is a big part of the town’s appeal. As the day ends, the square is made to order for al fresco dining.

I find that, sometimes, the best experiences don’t come to you; you need to find them. An after dinner stroll with a sense of curiosity gets me a seat at the rehearsal of the local klapa group.

A short drive to the coast takes us to Rovinj — my favorite stop between Dubrovnik and Venice. The town rises dramatically from the Adriatic — as if being pulled up to heaven by its grand bell tower.

The church that crowns Rovinj is dedicated to the fourth-century martyr St. Euphemia; her statue functions as a weather vane. Scaling the church bell tower’s creaky wooden stairway requires an enduring faith in the reliability of wood. From the top is a commanding view...and, if you’re here at high noon, an ear-splitting memory.

The town’s history created its current shape: Medieval Rovinj was a walled island. Because it offered safe harbor from both pirates and the plague, Rovinj became extremely crowded. That explains today’s pleasantly claustrophobic Old Town.

Like the rest of the Croatian coast, Rovinj was part of the Venetian Empire for centuries. And Istria remained part of Italy until after World War II. That’s why this region is enthusiastically bilingual — an engaging mix of Croatia and Italy.

Rovinj’s vibrant market is a fun place to shop for a picnic and snack on free samples.

Rick: Dobar dan!
Saleswoman: Dobar dan…
Rick: Orah? Orah. [walnuts?]
Saleswoman: Orah, yes.
Rick: Dobro? [good?]
Saleswoman: Odlično! [excellent!]
Rick: Nice; thank you.

It also has a gifty corner where salesmen tempt visiting tourists with the local specialties.

Rick: So: white truffle paste.
Salesman: White truffle, yes, yes.
Rick: Very nice. Dobro.
Salesman: Thank you.
Rick: No souvenir, eat it, OK? Hvala!
Salesman: Alright thank you.
Rick: Thank you!
Salesman: Ciao! Bye!

The twisting back lanes of crumbling old Rovinj seem designed for a photo safari: Arches span narrow alleys, which open into hidden courtyards. The main drag leading up to the top of the island is lined with art galleries. Understandably, artists love Rovinj.

And so do romantics. At the Valentino Bar the Old Town tumbles right into the sea. It’s a memorable place to cap your Rovinj day. Grab a cushion and settle into a cozy stone nook. Enjoy a drink, your travel partner...and the Adriatic sunset.

Croatia is clearly coming into its own. With each visit I’m impressed by its complexity, its natural wonders, and its vibrant spirit. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’.

Credits:

This time we’re trying to figure out how to eat the scampi in Croatia.

They painted in a figurative style.

They pained in a figurative way, while the rest of the art world was embracing an increasingly abstract style [snort].

Clips