n Dubrovnik and Split we’d wandered the sun-drenched streets and hidden passageways of the marble old towns, followed in historical footsteps and gorged ourselves on food and drink at the konobas and alleyway bars we’d happened upon. After a brief ferry crossing we found ourselves on Brac, where we bought several bottles of the island’s delicious olive oil, and cycled to a private cove for a swim in the clear, aquamarine waters. Now we were leaving the dreamy south behind us as we journeyed up the coast road towards our final destination: Zagreb, the nation’s capital.
Trogir: A tiny, ornate city
Poring over our map while gearing up for another jaunt further north, we’d decided to make a stop at the historic town of Trogir, which was just 27km into the journey from Split. Plenty of travellers spend a night or longer in this ornate town, but given our tight two-week itinerary, we only had a couple of hours to spare.
Trogir was certainly the quaintest town we visited during our time in Croatia, with its elaborate architecture and secret courtyards seemingly miniature compared to Dubrovnik. If anything, this made our sun-drenched wander even more idyllic. After a little exploration we relaxed under the large blue umbrellas of the main square with some midday cocktails (virgin for the driver of course) and chocolate ice cream.
Then it was back in the car and onwards to Zadar. The Dalmatian coast roadside features plenty of leafy seating areas, and we decided to make the most of this opportunity for a picnic. Digging out some bread, Brac olive oil and questionable Croatian wine (for me – the fortuitous non-driver), we tucked into our lunch in a surprisingly secluded roadside location with a glorious view of the sea.
It was a delightful way to break up our journey, and needless to say much more enjoyable than having a picnic on the hard shoulder of a motorway back in the UK.
Zadar: Roman ruins, a silent sea organ and several pub crawls
Zadar provided the slightly grittier Croatian experience we knew was lurking under the shiny white surface. The marble promenades, lined with souvenir shops, led to tumbling Roman ruins, and traditional konobas sat alongside heavily-graffitied buildings, bouncing student dives and cheap yet cheerful pizza places.
We met our friendly airbnb contact on Stomorica Ulica outside Kult – a large, tourist-filled bar – and he led us down a back alley where staff from a nearby kitchen had congregated to smoke, and then up a narrow staircase to a tiny, starkly-modern flat above the bar. We told him that after driving round Zadar unsuccessfully seeking a parking space and becoming more frustrated by the second, we’d given up and pulled in on the side of a road. He explained that we’d likely get a parking ticket to the value of £8, and helpfully added that if we left the ticket and our money in the flat upon departure, he’d go to the police station to pay it for us. This was just one instance where a host really went the extra mile for us during our time in Croatia.
Our first port of call that afternoon was to hunt out a square meal, which we found just around the corner at a handy restaurant called Providencia, whose chalkboard menu promised us burgers that it later turned out would be more accurately described as “burgers”. As ready as we were for a hearty meal, we were not prepared for the pizza-sized slabs of meat in pizza-sized buns that were presented to us. These gargantuan sandwiches proved simply too much, but we spent an enjoyable early evening sat outside on the cafe’s ancient wooden benches, soaking up the hip, eclectic atmosphere as I – yet to have learned my lesson – attempted to force down yet more Croatian wine.
After a few glasses, I decided it was time to switch to a classic gin and tonic, at which point the waiter asked me, with a knowing look:
“Is Croatian gin okay?”
I shrugged and nodded, only to find out that Croatian gin was in fact much, much stronger than the variety I was used to back home. When, hours later, we – swaying – asked for the bill, two complimentary shots were slammed down on the table in front of us. Again, we shrugged and downed the shots, gasping as the petrol-like liquid hit our throats. Quickly venturing inside for a chaser, we asked the waiter what they were. She told us we’d just experienced a traditional herbal shot – Rakia – that is so strong it sometimes doubles as cleaning fluid.
Next on the agenda was a meander down to Zadar’s famous “Sea Organ” and “The Greeting to the Sun”, which were installed by Croatian artist Nikola Bašic as part of the project to repair the devastation suffered by the city’s coast after the Second World War.
A short walk down to the harbour saw us arrive as the sun was going down – a beautiful time to look at the sea organ, but sadly not to hear it. The waves and sea breeze play the instrument through polyethylene tubes and a resonating cavity which are cleverly concealed in the stairs leading down to the ocean. When we arrived there were plenty of tourists milling around, their ears to the holes in the steps, but unfortunately the ocean was not playing ball that night. At first I thought I could hear a pleasing baritone hum, until my boyfriend Phil pointed out that what I was listening to was the engine of a tourist boat moored nearby.
We had more luck with “The Greeting to the Sun”, which vibrantly lit up as the sky turned dark. This circular installation is 22 metres in diameter and looks like a huge dance floor; its tiles lighting up with reds, blues, greens and yellows in enchanting patterns underfoot. Solar modules under the tiles soak up the energy from sunlight during the day and blast it out in this charming light show at night. Furthermore, the energy soaked up by The Greeting to the Sun also powers around half of the Zadar waterfront.
We walked back to our flat via a few pints of Ozujsko at a quiet konoba on a side street before taking the party to Kult, at which the surly barman was blasting REM tunes on loop and determinedly ignoring anyone who dared to approach the bar.
The next day we prepared for our city tour with a cheeseboard breakfast in the deli adjacent to our apartment. Then, guidebook firmly in hand, we ventured to the 3rd century Roman Forum. Once the beating heart of the city, the forum now lies in ruins. The outlines of some of the shops and homes that once stood there are evident, and a number of the classic columns remain erect, including a “shame pillar” that people would be forced to stand at when they’d done something wrong. This obviously makes for a great photo opportunity for travellers.
Other highlights of our Zadar tour included a visit to Five Wells Square, where the eponymous ornamental wells date from the 16th century, when the Venetians helped the city to withstand Turkish sieges by constructing a huge water cistern. The Church of St. Donatus proved to be another architectural marvel thanks to its striking circular structure.
Our days in Zadar were warm yet overcast, with regular bouts of rain, and after seeing the sights we decided to embark upon a small pub crawl. We headed over to Liburnska obala to visit “The Garden”, which – fun fact! – happens to be part-owned by James Brown, the drummer in UB40. Again, visiting slightly before high season it was quiet, but it was easy to see that once the summer was in full swing this joint would have an Ibiza-esque feel, all white canopies, cabanas and cocktails. The local brews were great too, and we watched the sun descend while supping the excellent Zmajsko Pale – a hoppy, citrusy American-style ale from Zagreb-based microbrewery Zmajska Pivovara.
Next on the itinerary was an artsy little hole-in-the-wall called Djina. Located just off the main square on Varoška Ulica, the inside was loud, smoky and intimate. We sat at the bar with beers and a complimentary bowl of crisps and chatted to the barmaid as we surveyed the art-adorned walls.
From there we bar hopped to Caffe Bar Borgo, which was just down the ulica. Sitting outside, we people-watched as the night’s korzo (when friends and family meet up for a leisurely stroll through the historic streets) took place. Then it was time for last orders in Kult before we popped to the cheap yet delicious pizza place next door for a tasty nightcap.
Pag: Otherworldly scenery, sheep’s cheese and a frog in the pool
Pag holds the unique prestige of being an island you can drive to. Famed for its lace, cheese and dramatically rugged landscape, it has the longest coastline of any Croatian island.
Our decision to visit the island was made at the last minute, and we paid dearly for this lack of planning.
The initial part of our drive there was positively otherworldly; with jagged mountains surrounding us, the rocky terrain reminded me of rural Bolivia. We parked up on the side of the deserted road and jumped out to take pictures, only to be absolutely swarmed by flies, which had previously been hanging around a flock of sheep nearby.
After that, our journey took a turn for the worse. Our terrible satnav took us on a ridiculous detour that saw us end up first on a private residential road, secondly in someone’s driveway and last but not least, on a walkway on the side of a sharp cliff that it was near-impossible to reverse out of.
Finally arriving in our destination of Povljana – amazingly unscathed – we were underwhelmed. The beach was stony and deserted, the empty hotel eerie, the weather overcast, and the restaurants half-closed. It was one of those resorts where it feels like everyone is staring at you. I have no doubt that much of this was – hopefully – because we arrived on a cloudy low-season day.
Retrospectively reading travel pieces singing Pag’s praises, the fact we had such a strange experience is clearly due to our extreme lack of planning and perhaps the fact we never made it to Pag Town. Instead we ended up taking a chilly swim in the hotel’s pool and subsequently fishing out a frog that had decided to join us. That night we enjoyed some of the famous Pag cheese – a hard, sheep’s milk product – drizzled in honey and laden with walnuts. As a cheese aficionado, I would say this was definitely the highlight of my time on the island.
The next day we high-tailed it to Plitvice National Park – a long-awaited highlight of our itinerary.
Plitvice: Fairytale waterfalls, heavy rain and the threat of a bear attack
The stunning turquoise waterfalls and lakes of Plitvice National Park are one of the iconic images of Croatia, and yet the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s distance from the coastline and islands mean that many travellers miss out on experiencing the sheer beauty of this area, choosing to go to more easily-accessible parks instead.
However, we wouldn’t have to go too far out of our way to reach Plitvice given that our final destination was to be Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. It was time to leave the blue skies and open roads of the Dalmatian Coast behind as we made our way inland.
Away from the coastline, the scenery became much greener and more dramatic. As we motored on under purple storm clouds, our windscreen wipers barely keeping pace with the driving rain, it was clear that this was a very different Croatia to the one we had left behind. The roads and motorways led intermittently to small towns, where we would navigate our way past grocers, off-licences and houses back to the main highway, and this pattern continued until we finally got to Plitvice.
Unfortunately our technique of booking accommodation only couple of days before we needed it had backfired when trying to find a place near the park, and we ended up camping in a rather dusty “tipi” in a campsite’s “Indian Village”. This was not the “Wi-Fi yurt” we had seen advertised, in that it was not a yurt and it also definitely did not have Wi-Fi. Four single beds covered with wolf-patterned fleeces adorned the inside of the tent, while outside signs warning of wolves and bears made visiting the toilet block in the middle of the night a shiver-inducing prospect.
Upon arrival, we jumped straight back in the car and headed for the main section of the park. By the time we arrived the rain had reached deafening levels, battering the roof of our little Volkswagen. A significant lack of foresight meant that neither of us had brought anything remotely waterproof, and we were both wearing flimsy pumps. We decided to make a break for it and ran to the nearest shop, which was contained in a wooden hut and sold all manner of bear and wolf memorabilia. The shop was rammed with sodden tourists clamouring for rainproof ponchos, so we joined the rabble and eventually emerged triumphant with two extra large green ponchos, which made us look like giant vegetables.
So far our experience at Plitvice had not been the most enjoyable. But what I will say is that the sheer beauty of the waterfalls, lakes and forests of the national park more than made up for the accommodation, weather and the terrible, stodgy meals we would later be served in the campsite restaurant.
The park itself is so large that free bus services run from one trail to the next. The map and the bus service are honestly quite confusing so it’s best to do your research before you visit, as all trails take different amounts of time, and you want to be finished before the bus service stops running! Bears roam the park, and although they usually avoid visitors, I wouldn’t fancy remaining there after dark!
We simply picked a trail and started walking. Everywhere you look is absolutely breathtaking. Waterfalls range from the gargantuan – where tonnes of water crash over the rocks every second – to cute woodland streams that look like they are straight out of a fairytale. Most of the routes involve rickety wooden walkways and bridges circling the massive turquoise lakes, which, due to the heavy rainfall, had flooded. The water is so clear that when the sunlight strikes the surface you can often see fallen trees and vegetation that lay on the lake beds. The fact that we were often ankle-deep in this crystalline water as we explored the lakes and waterfalls really only added to the magic for me – but I have a feeling that the woman ahead of us in a red ball gown and stilettos felt differently! On the bright side, she seemed to get some great selfies!
We spent around six hours in the park and then headed back for a terrible dining experience that involved being ignored by the waiting staff for around three hours and an uncomfortable night’s sleep in our “tipi”, which was not-so-tastefully decorated with dreamcatchers and Native American headdresses on the outside.
Accommodation aside, our trip to Plitvice had been magical. Visitors just need to remember that the scenery and wildlife are the main attractions – not the quality of accommodation or any sort of luxury experience!
Zagreb: Fashion, culture and The Museum of Broken Relationships
Zagreb was the final stop on our whirlwind tour of Croatia, and we weren’t expecting too much. Travellers rave about Dubrovnik, Split and Hvar, but you never really hear much about Zagreb, despite it being the capital.
My first piece of advice to anyone driving to Zagreb is to work out where to park beforehand. We spent over an hour driving around in the sweltering heat trying to find a spot that wouldn’t cost us a small fortune.
We had treated ourselves to a swanky airbnb for our last night in Croatia – a luxury flat in the centre of Zagreb – and after a couple of days driving and camping we made the most of the heavenly bathing facilities before heading back out.
Zagreb is a cool, modern city. Packed to the brim with culture, there are a variety of bars and restaurants on every street and the locals dress impeccably in designer clothes. A number of roads are cordoned off to traffic and instead filled with tables and chairs from the eateries and bars that line every road, and the shopping malls are huge.
We only had one afternoon and evening in the city, but managed to squeeze in a couple of bars, a trip to the breathtaking St Mark’s Church with its unusual, striking roof, and a visit to the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships.
The latter proved heartbreaking and humorous in equal measure. All exhibits in the museum symbolise the breaking down of a relationship, are accompanied by the story of the couple in question, and have been sent in from all over the world. Exhibits range from clothes and jewellery to the museum’s iconic battered garden gnome and a copy of Football Manager.
And then all that was left was a dash back to our loft in the rain, via our last pint of Ozujsko in a vintage train-themed pub called Orient Express. There could not have been a more fitting end to our two-week journey!
Our road trip through Croatia felt like a number of different holidays rolled into one. The white marble cities, turquoise coastline and terracotta rooftops had given way to a more rainy – and admittedly more stressful – experience once we ventured inland.
In the south of the country, drunk on the sunshine and (no doubt) the cheap beers, we’d loved exploring the beauty of the polished old towns, swimming in the most beautiful ocean we’d ever seen and trying to find the best restaurants and bars in town. Driving up the coast road was in itself an undeniable pleasure.
Further north there were fewer tourists and “real Croatia” came to life for us as the modern country it is, with an intriguing history and jaw-dropping scenery.
Ultimately, it had been a stunning trip, with adventure and relaxation in equal measure, and we were left in no doubt that, with so much to see, a road trip had been the ideal way to tackle this diverse country.