16th July Ancona to Split
Today we left Italy to cross the Adriatic Sea by ferry to Split, in Croatia. A taxi proved to be the best way of getting to the ferry terminal, although that in itself is a two stage affair. The check-in and collection of a boarding took place in one building, then it was onto a shuttle bus to travel around the port to immigration and departure. Every part seemed to have a long wait and standing around in queues became quite tedious. We found ourselves alongside another Perth couple, Paul and Laura, both teachers taking time off on a deferred salary scheme. They were travelling in a motorhome and had it booked on to the ferry. Unfortunately, they found that the papers they had for the hired van were actually photocopies and that the Croatian authorities demand originals. It could be that they would be sent back. Philosophically, they pushed on.
The ferry was a large twin hulled hydrofoil which did the crossing in five hours, less than half the time of the numerous other companies operating, all of which travelled at night. We took up residence in the spacious and comfortable rear lounge area, sharing a seat with Paul and Laura. For us, the voyage consisted of a bit of beer drinking, a little bit of eating, much sharing of travel yarns and the occasional stroll around the decks. For many other passenger, the voyage consisted of throwing up their last meal, lying around on lounges or the deck groaning, or just sitting around looking like death. The wind was blowing quite hard and a heavy broadside chop added to the regular low swell to produce a bit of a roll, unusual on such a large twin hull. Walking around was a lot of fun, with straight line paths being quite impossible.
The scenery consisted mostly of water, not surprising as we mostly just sailed straight across the Adriatic, although we did pass several picturesque islands along the Croatian coast. Docking into Split was efficient and we once again joined the inevitable queue to pass through immigration into Croatia. Nearby, we could see Paul and Laura lined up in their camper, awaiting their fate. We’d enjoyed their company on the way over and had our fingers crossed that all would go well for them and they wouldn’t have to face an immediate crossing back to Italy.
Once processed, we were met by Mirko, the owner of the apartment we had booked. Mirko is a very friendly and helpful guy, showing us the way to our lodgings and pointing out the locals spots along the way. He spent a good half hour with us giving us tips on things to do in and around Split. This advice, and the sights we’d seen on our short walk from the pier, convinced us to extend our stay from two nights to four, and Mirko said he was sure he could find us some accommodation.
Our first impressions were very positive; the whole place was alive. There were lots of tourists but things did not seem out of hand. We could step out of the door and straight across the road to the markets, filled with incredible fruit, vegetables and fresh foods. The markets were on the edge of Diocletian’s Palace, an amazing Roman palace dating back to the 5th Century AD. While much has fallen, a lot is now incorporated into other buildings and enough of the original exists that one can sense what it was once like. The lower levels are filled with shops of all kinds while the upper levels are mostly small hotels and apartments. Signs of general decay, damage by waves of successive invasions over the Centuries and local destruction and rebuilding is much in evidence but somehow it is very refreshing to find that all this is actually being preserved through usage. The result is one big living, working time capsule.
17th July Split
We had a lazy day, needing to unwind a bit after the rigours of Verona and Venice. All we really did was use the local supermarket, go across the road to the markets to buy some fresh vegetables and stock up on dried fruit. The dried fruit here is wonderful and cheap, masses of figs (even Christine is a convert), apricots, prunes and lots of nuts.
We did have trouble buying milk though. I chose a bottle that definitely suggested it was low fat. All was fine until we poured it into our coffee for the first time and it curdled badly. Christine had used some instant coffee left by a previous tenant so we blamed that, but the same happened with our instant coffee. Then she tried the milk and nearly gagged. It was some disgusting Yoghurt type stuff, very thin and pourable but with a taste that was unlike any yoghurt I’ve ever had. I’d bought some yoghurt for my cereal so we checked that. Same result! Inedible! After pouring a litre and a half of yoghurt and cat’s piss down the sink, Christine headed back to the supermarket to try once again for milk. She got it next time but now we are very cautious when buying dairy.
Another small outing was to purchase a bus ticket to Dubrovnik, our next destination and to check out the local travel agency. The bus ticket proved easy, but the travel agency was more difficult. Someone in Split needs to take a coordinating role because it is actually a bit hard sometimes to find the right kind of experience or tour. If there is one central agency, we didn’t find it. Most places purporting to be a “Tourist Bureau” were actually small time booking agencies for one or two tours. Resorting to the Internet, we chose a good looking tour to the outlying islands and then set off to find the agent and buy a ticket. The address was in Diocletian’s Palace, not far at all, but somewhere in the labyrinth of tiny streets. We entered it into Google Maps but it was hopeless. The streets were so narrow that a GPS fix was impossible and the guidance system just ran us around in circles. Eventually, we came across an agent with the kind of trip we wanted, bought it, then exited to find the agent we’d been seeking was directly opposite.
We ate both lunch and dinner in our apartment, saving both money and energy. It was a lovely relaxing day, although we did worry that Mirko would come back and we’d have to confess that we’d seen little of all the sights he had directed us to. It was a lovely relaxing day. Just watching the comings and goings in our neighbourhood was fun. We live on the ground floor of a three storey block. Mirko owns four or five of the apartments, others are rented by someone else and there seems to be a few permanents that live in a B&B. Young backpackers come and go (always entertaining) and a small army of cleaners service the variety of rooms around us. We have access to a small courtyard, where we spend time in the cooler hours. It is also the clothes line area so they is a constant stream of activity and I must say the typical image of a “washerwoman” is somewhat challenged here with all the youthful slim bodies around. There are also three resident cats, that just sit and ignore all unless there is any offer of food or unless the “cat lady” in the middle apartment appears. Mirko appears every now and then showing prospective tenants around. It is all so entertaining.
July 18th Split
After breakfast, we packed up our beach gear and headed down to the local quay to catch our boat for a day on the water. We boarded the “Pisanica”, a small wooden vessel that would take us first to Maslinica on the Western end of the island of Solta then on to a deep inlet on the Eastern end they were advertising as the “Blue Lagoon”.
It was an interesting experience, with the crew displaying little knowledge of how to cast off and get underway, although the skipper seemed to know what he was doing. Once away, they all started into steady beer drinking, although pouring a beer in the rolling swell was somewhat difficult.
The coastal scenery was magnificent, with the majestic mountains behind Split taking form as we drew further from shore. They must be truly amazing in Winter, with the snow covered peaks in the sun. Small towns dotted the various islands and mainland spurs, while the sea had a scattering of yachts getting underway to various destinations. Sitting watching the other passengers is always fun. We had to laugh at one woman who was resplendent in her hot pink ultra high wedge-heeled shoes, who was generally dressed well below her years. She would have lots of fun on the beach in those. Some others who were looking rather green found a spot to lie down and wish for the day to end. One strange looking chap, face half hidden by unruly and unwashed hair, had wandered on board late and seemed to negotiate with the ticket seller. His trousers were held up with a piece of old string and his clothes were last washed in the Twentieth Century. He sat forlorn and miserable for much of the trip out. We figured he was returning to an island or something.
Maslinica proved to be an absolutely delightful little seaside village, somewhat touristy, but still quaint and pretty. It is set in a deep inlet, completely surrounded by small quays. We docked at a modern quay, complete with attendants to help. Numerous motor and sailing yachts were tied up along the quay, with many more dotting the various nearby coves and bays. The foreshore was lined with eating establishments and cafes, while a few rocky beaches were filled with bathers and sunseekers. It was bloody good!
We walked around, stopped for ultra cheap and very cold beer, ate our first icecream of the whole trip, swam in the wonderfully clear water and spent ages watching expensive yachts come in to dock in the ever decreasing space. As the time wore on, the breeze picked up and by the time we returned to the “Pisanica” for lunch, it was rocking at the dock. Lunch was barbecued chicken or sardines, selected upon booking. We’d chosen one each, fortunate because both were good. We were served a basket of bread and a bottle of white wine to accompany it and there was no shortage because some passengers had elected to forgo lunch, fearful they would lose it in the worsening weather conditions. The rocking of the boat on the quay forced some onto the pier to eat lunch while some just stayed away altogether. The old bloke in the ragged clothing was in seventh heaven and wolfed down all his tucker and a whole bottle of wine.
The skipper came along the tables to explain that the strengthening wind meant proceeding to the “Blue Lagoon” was a poor option and offered the chance to stay the afternoon in Maslinica. We didn’t care either way and the majority elected to remain. One group were upset and tried to argue it out but got no support. It was back to the quay for boat watching or another swim. We wandered off, stopping to admire the way “wedge-heels” had managed to organise herself on the beach to sunbath in her bikini yet retain her shoes. Apparently, those shoes don’t come off for anything.
Getting off the wharf to head for Split was quite an affair. Once again, the crew proved completely incompetent (or pissed) and the boat was objecting to being thrown against the stone pier so finally, in desperation, the skipper called for the line to be cut. The crewman pulled out a puny steak-knife, that must have been razor sharp because it cut through the heavy mooring line like cheese and we were away. As we putted away into the heavy chop, we could see a small boy rushing forward to try to claim his prize of a small length of rope.
The trip home was even more beautiful than the trip out, with a rising mountain backdrop. The boat ran well in a heavy following sea and even our uncomfortable sailors survived. The old guy actually looked happy (perhaps it was all the wine). What a great day. Just to cap it all off, the crew continued to drink beer steadily, although the skipper had an hour’s sleep, and the docking performance was so bad that they got into a very loud Croatian slanging match with the boat in front. That made it an even better day.
19Th July Split
The plan for the day was to see more of Split than just the tiny section of the Old Town and Diocletian’s Palace that we had wandered through. We thought we’d catch a “Hop On Hop Off Bus” to tour the modern parts of the city. Split is Croatia’s second city and is quite extensive. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out well because there was an enormous cruise ship in the harbour and the bus was booked out.
Instead, we elected to just walk and see, a great decision in the end. Once outside of the palace walls, the city opens out into broader streets and more open squares and we found walking around quite easy. We wandered across to the Northern side of the peninsular and discovered some lovely coves filled with yacht clubs, sporting facilities and a huge arena. After an iced coffee and time watching the passing parade, we made our way back up and over the hill to enter the old town and its labyrinth of alleys. By luck of good management, we found our way back to the Birkenstock shop that Christine had found two days before to buy yet another pair of shoes. “This is the only place I’ve found the style I want,” is her excuse, but I let it slide because the shoes are much cheaper than those in Perth and even cheaper than on-line.
After lunch back at the apartment, we set out for the local beach, a crowded spot but nice enough for a bit of a swim. The water is shallow but at least the bottom is sand and not the usual rock that one finds in this part of the World. After a swim, we wandered around the point to explore but all the other beaches we encountered were rocky with pebble beaches. I don’t understand how people can go to sleep on a beach towel covering a rock beach. Then it was back to sleep in the comfort of air-conditioning and a proper mattress.
We returned to the restaurant we’d found on our first night for a wonderful meal of seafood risotto, followed by a stroll along the front promenade. There was all kinds of entertainment on offer and we stopped to be enthralled with a wonderful display of ethnic dancing. It was very energetic and very entertaining. After a few more venues, we eventually turned in, Split being one of the few places that has regularly kept us up until quite late.
20th July Bus to Dubrovnik
After a leisurely pack-up, we walked down to the bus station for our trip to Dubrovnik, approximately 200km to the South. The bus seemed comfortable enough although we were assigned the front seats, probably because we had booked a few days beforehand. Just as well too because the bus filled up. The front seat affords a wonderful view but I’ve found that I sometimes prefer not to watch when in heavy mountainous terrain.
I was puzzled at first because we headed North and kept following signs to Zagreb and Rijeka but eventually we had climbed well into the mountains and took a sweeping bend onto a huge motorway headed South. The views back over Split during the mountain climb were truly impressive from the first ridge at around 600m.
Mountains were to dominate the scenery during the drive and just as in Spain, the road passes through numerous tunnels and across some enormous bridge spans. While we were on dual carriageway things were fine and we could sit back and soak in the wonderful views. Later, nearly half way to Dubrovnik, the motorway finished abruptly and we turned off onto a narrow road with barely room for two vehicles and quite terrifying when they were both trucks or buses. The road headed down at a 10% incline and there were times when we clutched hands or simply closed eyes. To Christine’s right, a sheer drop away fell two to three hundred metres to a large river and flat plain, filled with agricultural crops. It seemed miles below and there was very little between the bus wheels and the edge. Fortunately, the bus driver was quite careful and made regular use of the air brakes.
Eventually, we reached the bottom and drove through the tiny village of Drusina, creeping around parked cars and negotiating tight corners. Then it was back into the mountains again and although the road widened, it remained single carriageway and had very little in the way of a verge or pullover area. The scenery actually got more spectacular, with a huge inland freshwater lake area and a large river.
Finally, we emerged from a winding road to a checkpoint into Bosnia and had to stop while an official wandered through the bus to check on passports. Bosnia has a 24km stretch of coastline that separates Dubrovnik from the rest of Croatia so all buses from Split have to pass through this strip. While our inspection seemed quite lax, we did watch a young couple in a camper van who were frisked then had to stand outside while their van was gone through.
They use the small town of Neum as a rest stop and we were able to buy a hamburger. Unfortunately for most passengers who were carrying Croatian Kuna, the one restaurant wanted Euros or Bosnian Marka but fortunately for us we had some Euros. We scored a delicious hamburger for only 2.5€. After a twenty minute stop, it was off again, through more mountain passes and seaside cliff drives. We ate our hamburgers slowly because we had to wait each time for the stomach to settle in order to swallow. Instinct said “Don’t look!” but the scenery was so beautiful we had to look. We passed through the border again to re-enter Croatia, this time they just waved us through.
Finally, we entered Dubrovnik, a two hundred kilometre trip in four hours. This is without doubt the most spectacular drive I have ever encountered anywhere.
A taxi from the bus station dropped us at our apartment and the owner, Anna, was there to greet us and show us around. Just as with Mirko in Split, Anna was a terrific host and gave us tips to exploring the city. She showed us to our room and we were thrilled, particularly by the wonderful terraced area that overlooked the walls of the old city on one side and the old harbour on the other. We were perfectly happy just to settle in to the view and do nothing, but with only two nights in Dubrovnik, we got our act into gear and headed out to do some tourist stuff.
We figured we had time to target four main things in Dubrovnik;
- Walk the city walls and old town – these 14th Century fortifications are just on 2km long and are in excellent condition;
- Visit the tiny island of Lokrum, sitting in the middle of Dubrovnik Harbour;
- Ride the cable car to the top of the mountain above Dubrovnik;
- Visit D’Vino wine bar – a cult location to learn about Croatian wines and cheeses.
The walk of the walls was first up, and not far away. We could almost touch the Eastern walls from our terrace so we entered the old town through the nearest gate and followed a huge flight of steps down to the main thoroughfare. As in all old medieval towns, the visual sights are stunning, with gorgeous little nooks and corners making it a photographers dream. The town was reasonably crowded, with a cruise ship in port but things weren’t out of hand.
Dubrovnik was badly damaged during the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991, with the Serbian forces shelling the old city from the heights during the three month attack. Signs of the damage are still present, mostly in the form of reconstructions or new buildings to replace the lost ones.
We paid our 70 Kuna and climbed the steep steps to the top of the walls and commenced the circumnavigation of the city. From this vantage point, the old city is really beautiful, the layout of the streets being clearly visible and the various spires and domes protruding above the sea of terracotta roofs. It was hot up top, and we were soon sweating freely as we followed the walls around. The scene changed constantly, from inland mountains, to the rocky points on the seaward side followed by the busy movements in the tiny semi-circular harbour. It was hard going in the heat but well worth the effort.
The view from the walls had convinced us to drop the cable car from the list. I’m sure the views are good but we’d already taken in the essential Dubrovnik. We picked up a supermarket on the way home for supplies, having the intention of eating in, and found that the cost of lovely commanding views over the harbour is that we have to trudge uphill on the return home.
Dinner on the terrace was a sheer delight, particularly with the lights playing on the walls of the old city and the mirror calm harbour reflecting the anchored boats. A beautiful spot.
21St July Dubrovnik
We set out quite early to go to the island of Lokrum, a short ferry ride away and sitting in the middle of Dubrovnik Harbour. The island has a long history, having been the site where Richard the Lionheart got himself shipwrecked, and also once owned by Emperor Maximillian of Mexico. It contains the ruins of a few buildings, an old fort built by the French and a partly intact Benedictine monastery.
As tiny islands go, it is quite cute, being beautifully wooded with cypress, pine and oak. Walk paths are well developed and it doesn’t take long to get anywhere much. The highlight though, is the short boat ride over, producing some fantastic views of Dubrovnik and its mountain backdrop. The harbour is a hive of activity, with small boats, sea kayaks and glass bottomed boats scurrying around. Near the island jetty, the scenery was dominated by the huge “Concordia Favolosa”, sister ship to the ill-fated “Costa Concordia”.
Once of the island, we quickly took in the sights then checked out a small salt lake on the island, locally called the “Dead Sea”, that proved to look much better in the guide brochures than in real life. Next, we headed down to one of the many rocky beaches. Some are “clothes optional” but we managed to avoid those, although in practice most beaches in Europe seem to be rather liberal. What is hard to find is a sandy beach. These weren’t even the commonly found pebble beaches, but rather low rocks and small cliffs. Steel ladders embedded in the rock dotted the coastline, which made for easy access, but made it hard to find a spot to lie down and sunbathe. The usual hire lounges were around but aren’t much good if you only like to lie out for 15 minutes or so then move on.
Still, the sea was a pleasant 26 degrees and the water incredibly clear. There were a few fish around, mostly bream type things and, as always, lots of small sardines and hardyheads. There wasn’t much in the way of life on the rocks, with no corals, sponges or suchlike visible but we spent a while exploring below the surface before just swimming.
Later, we had to drop in to the snack bar and have the usual refreshing lager and watch the passing parade as the ferries came and went. We’d taken a packed lunch so the fact that there was only one expensive restaurant on the island wasn’t a worry.
Back on the mainland, we headed for home to have a relaxing afternoon doing nothing.
In the evening, we wandered off into the old city again to track down the D’Vino Wine Bar, a spot with a big cult following. It was a cute little spot and we ordered the three wine tasting each, Christine with the reds and me with the whites. The wines were served and explained to us, all coming from different regions of Croatia and Slovenia. We haven’t heard much about Dalmatian wines in Australia because there are virtually no exports and certainly not down our way. The wines were all of an excellent quality and had more substance to them than many of the French wines we’d had. It’s a pity we hadn’t had access to this on first landing in Split because buying wine has been a bit of a puzzle to us, not understanding any of the terms. The wine industry has a system of government quality and area control, similar to France, and we have found them to be universally good, although these were better again. We rounded our wines off with a preserved meat and cheese platter.
22 July Dubrovnik to Bucharest
The airport shuttle bus left from a spot about 100m up the road from our apartment, making the accommodation almost the perfect location. With the airport some 20km out, a taxi can be quite expensive so we joined the backpacker set and took the shuttle at 35 Kuna (about $6) each. THis proved to be the best tour money we’d spent in Dubrovnik. Even if you aren’t catching a flight. It is worth taking the airport shuttle for the drive. The road follows the seaside cliff for 90% of the journey and affords some spectacular views of the numerous offshore islands and the area sign-posted as the Dubrovnik Riviera. We even saw some inviting sand beaches. The experience just strengthened our resolve to return to this magnificent part of the World. We leave for Romania well pleased with our time in Croatia. It is definitely a place to return to and explore more and the thought of chartering a yacht to sail the Dalmatian Islands is very appealing. It is hard to compare Dubrovnik with Split because they are so different in history and nature, but on the whole we preferred the laid back atmosphere and low cost of living in Split. Dubrovnik is almost too perfect and neat, and the prices are more akin to Venice and Paris than elsewhere. Still, it can’t be missed.