Charming cities characterised by old-world splendour, the waters off its coast glittering jewel-like, and with gastronomic fare to die for, Croatia has become a prime European destination.
No longer merely the bridesmaid to its perennially popular and touristy neighbours, Croatia conjures images of carefree, languid adventures, and is enticing tourists with its medieval charm. Not even the abhorrent exchange rate can put a dampener on things, as with some careful planning, Croatia can still be an affordable holiday destination for South Africans. Neighbour to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia and Hungary on the one side, and caressed by the Adriatic Sea on the other, this Eastern European country is an unconventional pairing of rich cultural history and devil-may-care opportunities for relaxation.
Zagreb – sentimental value
The universal human emotion, love, and its sad twin, heartbreak, take centre stage at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. Filled with sentimental relics of ruins of past relationships, the museum was established when two Croatian artists called it quits on their union. This attraction has been awarded Most Innovative Museum in Europe status, and exhibits are grouped according to theme, coupled with inscriptions that range from poignantly therapeutic to bitterly hurt and laughable. The ‘toaster of vindication’ inscription reads: ‘When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That will show you. How are you going to toast anything now?’ A sports jersey (simply put, ‘He was a player’), olive pips (kept for years to honour her ex-lover’s ability to neatly eat an olive), an ex axe (used to chop up their former lover’s furniture), a prosthetic leg and a parent’s suicide note comprise some of the contributions. An even more morbid attraction is the Mirogoj Cemetery, an architectural masterpiece that took decades to construct. This tranquil resting place with its elaborate statues is more open-air art gallery than Thriller music video. For sunnier dispositions, the resolutely old-fashioned Dolac market – it still uses antique scales with weights – is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for one’s stomach. Riots of colourful blooms, a multitude of mushrooms, and fruit and veggies so seemingly perfect, they appear Photoshopped, are but some of the goods on offer. Best you go hungry!
Rivers run through it
Croatia is a wonderful combination of man-made attractions and indescribable natural beauty. Plitvice Lakes National Park – a Unesco World Heritage Site – falls into the latter category. After walking throughthe park for a while, the waterfalls shyly start unveiling themselves among the lush forestation. Soon, countless cascades and streams appear as you meander along the 18 km route through the park, so allocate at least half a day for this exercise.
Fun and games in Dubrovnik
You won’t be blamed for feeling like a Game of Thrones extra (part of the series was filmed here, after all) when walking along the massive city walls that encircle the Old Town in Dubrovnik. For another spectacular vantage point of the azure waters and terracotta rooftops, go up with the Dubrovnik Cable Car. A leisurely stroll within the walls of the picturesque Old Town gives the opportunity to immerse yourself in details, including the marble cobblestone streets and gorgeous Gothic buildings, such as the Rector’s Palace. One of the nicest things to do in Dubrovnik is to steer off the beaten path, find a quiet alley and simply enjoy an exotically flavoured ice cream while taking in the view. Apart from an envy-inducing tan acquired by sailing and kayaking around Dubrovnik, salt (Croatia has a rich history of its production) and the abundant local herb, lavender, are good souvenirs too. Not to be missed is Buza, literally a hole-in-the-wall bar, for drinks with a difference. Once you’ve managed to find it, you can either nurse said drinks at leisure, or joinbrave tourists and cliff-jump off the nearby rocks.
Split – a culinary treat
The lifeblood of Split is centred around the ruins of the Diocletian’s Palace, which was constructed by the Roman emperor, and is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. The complex houses an underground market, unique concept stores and quaint restaurants, which are all nestled within a maze of alleyways. Characterised by beautiful white stone buildings, the bustling portside city can easily be explored on foot should you opt to stay near the harbour. Worth a visit is Morpurgo, reportedly one of the oldest bookshops in Europe, founded in 1860, and legend has it that rubbing Grgur Ninski statue’s oversized big toe will bring good luck. Breakfast in Split entails a trip to the fresh goods market, while lunch could be a picnic along the pier, complete with prosciutto, a bottle of wine and an open-air concert. Be sure to enjoy an ice-icold Croatian beer too. For dinner, you can sample a traditional Dalmation dish such as pašticada, beef stew marinated in a wine, herb and spice sauce for days and served with gnocchi, or try the black squid ink risotto. Long after your meal, the delightful aftertaste will linger – along with a black tongue.
Like the rich and famous
Croatia’s retreat for the jet-set crowd, Hvar is a short boat ride away from Split and is generously proportioned in terms of clear beaches set againsta hilly backdrop. It would be almost sacrilegious not to spend your stay here near the water, reading a book alongside the ocean, aboard a yacht, or even just whiling away your time over a drink in the town’s square. Once you are relaxed and rested, you will be ready to tackle the rather challenging walk up to the old Hvar Fortress. You’ll be rewarded for your climbing efforts with a panoramic view of the city and, if well planned,a spectacular sunset. The diversity of Croatia leaves many travellers with a distinct admiration for a country that punches well above its own weight.
[Image by Matthais Mullie via Unsplash]