To the east of Italy, sitting on the east coast of the Adriatic Sea in the Mediterranean, sits one of my favourite countries I’ve visited so far… Croatia.
This trip was the first big trip I’ve ever really planned… and I learned a lot about travel from it. A group of four of us decided to plan a Euro trip, and all I knew when starting it was that I wanted to go to Croatia. And Hungary was right next door, so I thought, let’s do both! Well, that turned into… hey, Austria isn’t far away… might as well hit it up too! So, we flew into Croatia, drove through Slovenia to Austria, and then on to Hungary, all in the span of just nine days.
Originally, the plan was to fly in to Dubrovnik – a city in southern Croatia becoming an ever-popular tourist destination, mainly due to its link to Game of Thrones, but also because it’s simply beautiful. There’s so much there I wanted to see – the old historic walls with great views, the iron throne, Sponza Palace, the cable car…
I couldn’t wait to get to Croatia. We booked our flight to Dubrovnik, along with a rental car, and planned on driving up to Split and Hvar, then across to Plitvice Lakes National Park, through Slovenia to Salzburg, then Vienna, and finally, Budapest; where we would fly back to the East Midlands from.
My friends were flying into Heathrow from Halifax, so I hopped on the bus down to London to meet them. I was about halfway to London when I was scrolling through Facebook and just happened to notice Nottingham Post’s article, titled “This is what you need to do if you’ve booked a flight with Monarch”.
I thought, Huh, that’s funny… Why would they write an article about that? So I opened it up, and the first line stated, “All Monarch flights from the UK cancelled after company goes into administration”.
You can just imagine my reaction…
We were due to fly out the very next day, and the company didn’t even give us any heads up at all that the flights would be cancelled. If I hadn’t been on the bus checking Facebook to pass the time, I wouldn’t have had any idea until we arrived at the airport the next morning with no plane to board.
We had planned on spending the day being tourists in London, but we ended up spending the afternoon trying to cancel the car rental, Airbnb, and book a new flight. Sadly, there were no other flight options for Dubrovnik for the next day, unless we wanted to arrive at midnight. Which we didn’t.
Rather than cancel all of our other accommodations we’d booked for all of the other cities we were going to, we found a flight to Split, Croatia’s second largest city, instead. My Game of Thrones tour would just have to wait.
But we managed to get everything cancelled and re-booked, just in time for a late supper. Our streak of bad luck hadn’t ended yet, though – when we tried to light the gas stove at the bnb, we discovered the starter wasn’t functioning. However, our tickets with Monarch weren’t completely useless… We lit them on fire and started the stove with them! Thanks again, Monarch…
Our flight from Gatwick was early in the morning – we had to be there by 6am. Mind you, this was after my friends traveled on a red-eye from Halifax the night before, so I was basically forcing them to get up at midnight (Halifax time), to hop on a plane to Croatia.
They’re troopers, though, and didn’t complain at all. I had pre-booked a cab through the MyTaxi app, as train tickets would’ve been £25 each anyway, plus our underground fare to get to the train station in the first place, and the cab fare was £75.
So we climbed in the cab at 4:30am, and were about halfway to Gatwick when my brother looked at me and said, “This isn’t going by the meter… right?” – it was already at about £100. I replied with “No, it’s a fixed fare of £75. No worries”… But when the cab stopped, the driver turned to me and said, “Okay, that’s £176 please!” and my heart nearly stopped.
Okay, this is going to be a trip full of bad luck… Our own series of unfortunate events. Lovely.
When I looked at the driver, very confused, and said that the app had said a fixed fare of £75, he explained that you have to actually click on that to make it a fixed fare, otherwise it goes by the meter. But, he also said that if I contacted them and explained what had happened, they’d likely refund me. Thankfully, they did!
So, on my Canadian credit card, the charge for the cab had been $299.76. They refunded me $282… so our $300 taxi ride ended up being $17! Our luck had actually turned around. 🙂
But, back to the point of this post…We arrived in Split later that morning, to sunshine and a renewed excitement for travel, replacing the previous day’s feelings of frustration.
Split is an ancient town on the Dalmatian Coast, with an old fortress right smack dab in the middle and pebble beaches everywhere. The military fortress, called Diocletian’s Palace, was erected in the 3rd century as a retirement home for a Roman emperor. It was more than just a fortress, however… It was also the imperial residence and a fortified town – there are 220 buildings within the palace walls, and even today the place is home to about 3000 people.
The city of Split has the ability to take you back in time, while taking in the beauty of the ancient walls and buildings and wandering through the labyrinth of streets, then brings you back to the present with the sounds of its many bustling bars and shops scattered about.
We continued strolling past the bus station and ferry terminal, along the edge of the sea until we found a beach. It was pretty busy, so we just dipped our toes in the sea and carried on.
We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out at a bar right on the edge of the sea, watching the sun set, then headed out for our first taste of Croatian food.
It didn’t disappoint. Our Airbnb host suggested a place just a few steps from the BnB – the busy Restaurant FIFE, so we took her advice and checked it out. They serve authentic Croatian cuisine, with big portions. The food was amazing, and cheap, and we sat outside with other friendly tourists sitting on either side of our table.
After stuffing ourselves, we strolled around Diocletian’s Palace again that evening, then stumbled upon a shots bar called ShotGun Shooters Bar. It was a tiny little spot, with pretty uniquely named shots, and we couldn’t pass by without trying it.
Well, one shot turned into many, and we ended up spending the rest of our night at this little hole in the wall. The bartender was super friendly and we basically had the place to ourselves. He even let us sign the wall, and let me take over the DJ-ing and jammed along with us to the Rankins, Barrett’s privateers, and heave away.
The next day, we boarded the ferry to the nearby island of Hvar – known as a bit of a party island. Very similar to Split, but a bit smaller and less busy feel to it.
Our Airbnb host picked us up from the middle of town in an old hatchback Volkswagen. With our luggage sticking out the back, the hatch wide open, and a driver’s seat that wouldn’t lock in place so he kept sliding back into my brother the whole way, we arrived at our Airbnb.
The place was huge, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and two balconies. Our host, Andrej, was amazing to us and actually convinced us to stay a second night in Hvar. If you’re ever headed to Hvar, check out his Airbnb – https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/6850128 – it’s situated just a 5-10 minute walk from the town centre, and was perfect for the four of us.
We headed out to make the steep climb up to the Fortica, making our way through the tiny streets and up through the park to get to the citadel 100m up the mountain. The original fort was built somewhere around the 6th century, but the current fortress construction began in 1282. Sometime in the late-1500s, the Fortica suffered quite a bit of damage due to a lightning bolt igniting a store of gunpowder, and it had to be repaired again. Either way, the building is pretty old.
The views from the Fortica are magnificent, and well worth the 15-20 minute climb. It costs 35 kuna (about $7 CAD) to actually enter the fortress, but is free to walk up to it and admire the views from the outside. We had some ice cream and cooled off with some beverages from the cafe inside before making our way back down.
We spent the afternoon at this pebble beach, swimming in the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea, before having supper at a Thai restaurant in St Stephen’s Square.
St Stephen’s Square is one of the largest old squares in Dalmatia, at 4500 square metres, and is the centre of Hvar Town. The cathedral is also named after Saint Stephen, and I’ve heard it’s nice and tranquil, but we didn’t go inside.
Our next day was spent on a boat, cruising around the Pakleni Islands. Our Airbnb host had a friend that rented boats from the town centre, so we got a 30hp boat for the entire day. The seas here are clear and gorgeous, with a chain of 21 islands to tour around – aka, ‘Hell’s Islands’ in Croatian.
We even discovered a little island with no trees or shelter, but covered in sheep…
We stopped at one of them with a dock to explore, and discovered a restaurant. It was basically a large family home, and when we followed the path up to it, ended up in the backyard area where there was a big table of people eating. It felt like we had just barged into someone’s home, and interrupted their family meal. But one of them got up and greeted us, and the awkward feeling quickly passed.
The guy was from Denmark, and we had some great conversation. We ordered the fish dinner, which he informed us he had just caught that morning. And it was all delicious.
That evening, we went to “The spot to catch the sunset” on the island – Hula-Hula. Of course, the sun was already basically set by the time we got there, but we enjoyed some drinks anyway. We were visiting in October, when it isn’t so hot at night, so the place wasn’t too busy. But apparently during the summer months, it’s a pretty happening spot.
We got back on the ferry to Split the next morning, where we picked up our rental car. Time to check out the driving in Croatia…
Our goal to reach by the end of the day was Plitvice Lakes National Park, roughly 2.5 hours away from Split. But first, we wanted to go see Stari Grad fortress in Omis, just outside of Split.
After a very stressful, very narrow, steep climb full of hairpin turns partway up a mountain, we found the fortress… another ways up the mountain, with no road up to it. Looking up at the fortress from where we were parked, we thought… no way that’s an easy hike…
But, we’d come this far. We had to give it a go.
And it only took us about 25 minutes! It was very steep, but well worth the trek for the incredible views at the top.
We made it to our hotel near the Plitvice Lakes National Park just before supper time. Yes, an actual hotel this time instead of an Airbnb. We quickly decided we should’ve stuck to the Airbnbs, though. Not that it was a gross, unacceptable hotel or anything, but for the first time this trip, four of us were sharing a room together. We’d been spoiled with Airbnbs.
We ate at the hotel restaurant, where I had seafood risotto that was absolutely delicious, then went for a quick drive to grab some snacks and drinks. We stopped by Dresnik Grad (Dresnik Castle) ruins nearby. They’re currently rebuilding and restoring the old town here.
Our hotel was just five minutes from Plitvice Lakes, so we got up the next morning and headed to the park. But first, we had breakfast at the hotel, which I had high hopes for considering how great our meals were the previous night.
We all ordered the traditional Croatian breakfast, which had no description, but we all assumed it’d be something similar to traditional English or Canadian breakfast… eggs, bacon, etc. Which, looking back now, was pretty dumb of us. We were very sadly mistaken.
Turns out, traditional breakfast in Croatia consists of bacon/ham bits (delicious, but greasy), two scoops of plain cream cheese, and some sort of very strange pate thing, which I can only describe as corn meal mixed with some sort of tasteless mashed vegetable the texture of turnip… formed into a pate. Disgusting.
I am not a picky eater by any means, and can usually make it through most foods no problem, but I’m also a big texture person and this was just heinous. I didn’t even make it halfway through the pate thing, and who the hell just eats cream cheese on its own? And no, it doesn’t mix well with the pate.
Needless to say, I was quite thankful for the cherry croissant I’d bought the night before.
Anywho, we finally made it to Plitvice Lakes National Park – one of the main reasons I had been drawn to visit Croatia. I’m so glad we were there in the fall, not only because of the leaves turned colour, but because it was off-season. There were so many people there, it took ages just to walk around the main trail at the bottom of the lakes. The temperature was just perfect for walking around the park too – I can’t imagine hiking in Croatia with any hotter temperatures (it averages about 20°C in October) or any more people there.
Of course, pictures never do places justice. But the park is definitely a must-see while in Croatia. It consists of 16 lakes, inter-connected by many, many waterfalls; the tallest one, Veliki Slap, being 70m tall. We spent an hour or two wandering around the park taking in the beauty of the place. It was our last destination, and a fantastic end to our fabulous time in the beautiful country of Croatia.
The people, the food (well, most of the food), the scenery, and the overall relaxed, happy vibe of the country makes it one of my favourite so far – I’ll be back for you, Dubrovnik.
Next up – Slovenia & Austria!