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- Balkan Odyssey, Balkans, Travel, Travel: Eastern Europe
Balkan getaway – route planning
My holiday is finally over! Thank goodness. In fact, I am not sure if it was a holiday at all. In just over two weeks of zooming around Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro, I managed to sleep in 11 different locations, travel the distance of close to 1,700 kilometres, use every means of transport available (airplane, bus, ferry, train and car) and take over 5,000 photos (of which only about 30% turned out above the passing mark). That in addition to covering a walking and swimming distance possibly comparable to that travelled. While most of my friends would have a different definition of a holiday, the time I had was truly wonderful. Below is the brief description of my route and the main impressions from the trip.
I had initially pondered entering Croatia through Split or Dubrovnik with an easyjet flight, but discovered, months in advance, that low cost airlines’ price levels to those two destinations were already comparable to flag carriers. Imagining an airplane bursting at the seams with (already drunk) British tourists, I opted for Ryanair, which, for the summer only, was flying to Croatia’s most underrated city – Zadar. Tickets were booked and filed. Bingo.
My next big challenge was route planning. I tend to get carried away with these things. Friends had explained to me repeatedly beforehand how unrealistic it was trying to cover more than a few spots on the Adriatic over two short weeks. I bent to peer pressure and preliminarily decided to stick to Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik and a couple of Croatian islands. When I started putting my route on paper, however, I realised that the Adriatic could only fill up one week of the two I had at disposal, no matter how hard I’d try.
I had to take some emergency measures. My itinerary was expanded to include Bosnia & Herzegovina’s beautiful Mostar and the capital city of Sarajevo. I then unexpectedly received a full commitment from a friend in Montenegro to drive all the way to Dubrovnik to see me and tour Montenegro’s Kotor Bay together for a day. Montenegro was duly squeezed into the route. Then another friend jumped in to offer a visit to Karlovac and Plitvice National Park in Croatia. The only way to accommodate that was by undertaking a 9-hour transfer from Sarajevo to Zagreb towards the end of my tour. Then I remembered a good friend was now living in Zagreb and could spend an evening hanging out in town after my killer journey. Finally, the first friend got cold feet about driving into Dubrovnik with Montenegrin plates and asked me to take a bus across the border. The bottom-line was drawn there, the absolute highlight of the route being not two, not four, but EIGHT Croatian border crossings. With an almost virgin passport, I boarded a plane in London. My holiday had begun.
My arrival in Zadar set a good start to the entire odyssey. The cutest passport control officer I had ever seen made prolonged eye contact, deprived my passport of virginity, smiled and said “dobrodošla” (“welcome”). I have to admit people from the back of the queue had to push me forward from the precious spot in front of Mr. Cute. I will always be flying through Zemunik airport from now on!..
A beautiful town on the Adriatic coast, Zadar was every bit as expected, and more. A group of klapa singers were performing on Narodni Trg main square that night, filling the air with melancholic Dalmatian folk melodies. After receiving close to queen’s welcome from Sandra and family, I really could not have wished for more. That in addition to much milder temperatures on the Croatian coast compared to London.
The next day brought a visit to Nin, a small coastal town on Nin Bay, famous for its rich royal history and salt production. After Nin, I bid farewell to Sandra and transferred to my next destination – Split.
Split is the largest Dalmatian city, second largest urban centre in Croatia and a busy point of departure for several Croatian islands and Italy. Again, I was impressed. I still remember the year 2000, when Croatia first started to be advertised by Latvian tourism agencies as the “new Italy”. With the communist past, the recent war and all, most of us remained very sceptical back then. I had also spent eight months of the past year travelling and living in Greece, that paradise of a holiday destination, so held my standards rather high.
Cathedral in Nin, the smallest in Croatia
All that summarised, I repent to say that I had expected much less from Croatia in general and Split in particular. But the city was simply amazing. The old town is built inside a real palace (Diocletian’s Palace), except that the chunk of this one is not a closed museum but an open area where normal people still reside. The Split harbour is always busy with ferries and boats zooming in and out. The riva (waterfront promenade) offers fantastic leisurely strolls and people-watching. Finally, the Marjan Hill on the west side of the city takes a pair of strong legs to climb, but awards one’s patience with truly breath-taking views of the city and the surrounding Adriatic, especially around the sunset hours. Absolutely recommended.
Split harbour by night
St. Stjepan’s Square, Hvar
Another less invigorating aspect of life on Hvar was the number of sticky Italians. The “ciao bella” was already echoing in my ears by the time my ferry to Korčula was due. I used to compare those individuals to a chewing gum stuck to the sole of your shoe on a hot summer day… but enough of that. After a day excursion to the idyllic Pakleni islands (some of Croatia’s best swimming spots are there), I left the shining Hvar to its legitimate owners.
My next stop was Korčula, Croatia’s second most populated island after Krk. The island generally popular with families (as opposed to party animals), Korčula turned out much more peaceful than Hvar. Within seconds of arriving there, I was flooded with Marco Polo memorabilia. The legend says that the famous globetrotter was born on Korčula in 1254. The island is also famous for moreška sword dance, which used to be performed all around the Mediterranean Sea but is now unique to Korčula. I happened to catch one bi-weekly performance of moreška, and was much entertained. Even more so because I understood every word spoken in Croatian and one of the actors looked like a good friend of mine. I kept on imagining my mate Ivan dressed as a Red King and dancing around with a sword. My resulting giggling distracted not one a co-visitor.
Sun-kissed Korčula facades
A major achievement during my stay on Korčula was the discovery of an authentic YUGO car in the village of Lumbarda. The star vehicle of the former Yugoslavia, it has almost gone into oblivion in more developed parts of the region. My child’s joy at facing the real one could not possibly be put into words. I bid farewell to the sweet Korčula, promising myself a return one day. Next visit’s mission will be to hit Vela Luka, the hometown of some of Croatia’s most famous singers. Next time.
I then jumped on a bus to Dubrovnik. Korčula is quite close to Croatian mainland, which enables a scheduled bus connection with some Croatian cities. The bus loaded itself on a smallish car ferry, was safely transported to Orebić, and continued its way southwards along the Pelješac peninsula. I had only heard third-party praise for some amazing beaches on Pelješac, but can truly say that some of the most amazing sea views during my trip were indeed there. The peninsula is also known for its wine and a regular sea connection with Mljet island. Next time I will even make sure to get off the bus while there.
Heading deeper south
My first night in Dubrovnik was deprived of any glamour. After making the week’s most stupid decision of walking from the bus station to the westernmost tip of the Lapad peninsula (which took me just under one hour) and checking into the hotel, I had strength for little else than a quick shower. As exhausted as I was, I could not help noticing a disproportionate number of Russians populating the place. I even had a momentary suspicion that my Croatian was getting fluent enough to give me this illusion. Wrong; the words flying all around me were indeed my native. I went to sleep that night thinking about my following morning’s mandatory return to the hapless bus station. Montenegro was waiting!
The morning brought with it a minor entertainment. While checking out at the hotel reception, I was asked where I was from. “Latvija” I said and, unsure whether Croats and Serbs were calling my country the same name, added “Letonija”. “It’s Latvija in Croatian”, said the receptionist. “It’s Letonija in Serbian”, I remarked. “Yes”, was the answer. “Serbs always get it wrong”. Well, I did not expect anything less in Dubrovnik.
The bus to Montenegro was loaded with Russians. At the border, passport controllers (notably below my Zemunik standards) collected all non-Russian passports, only casting brief glances at Russian ones. I was only waiting for something like a “welcome home, druzja”, but perhaps I was being too sarcastic. Oh, and the road between Dubrovnik and Herceg Novi may be short, but the sea views are some of the most unbelievable on the Adriatic. Not for those scared of heights, though.
After a tearful reunion with Tanja in Herceg Novi, off we went to explore the Kotor Bay (Boka Kotorska), the only fjord-like formation on the Mediterranean (despite actually being a ria, a flooded river valley). We initially planned to dedicate the hottest and least comfortable part of the day to Herceg Novi and Perast and then hit Kotor, but unforeseen circumstances made us reconsider. Boccan Night (Bokeška Noć), an annual crazy event in Kotor, was something both Tanja and I would rather avoid. Hence Kotor was relocated for the hottest part of the day. Even then, it was amazing. Perast was likewise very cute, but I found the distance between the sea and the high-rising mountains – the actual area of the town – far too short. Apparently Russians feel so claustrophobic there that they skip it altogether and proceed all the way to Budva instead. Don’t ask.
My only evening and night in Montenegro were spent discussing the Montenegrin national identity (which some would probably question), Montenegro’s church dispute with Serbia, specifics of Montenegrin language (which has recently seen an addition of two new letters – ask your Serbian friends for details), politics and sharing romantic gossip. Seriously, all the ingredients for my unconditional happiness. When it comes to little ex-Yu tweaks, I could listen and talk forever. Perhaps I should have been born in the region, but I am never sure which republic I would then choose.
Kotor City walls I was back in Dubrovnik in the early hours of the following day, met Paula, was told that Kotor Bay used to be part of Dubrovnik Republic back in the days (diametrically opposite to what my Montenegrin buddies had told me the night before), decided not to argue and just enjoy the city. Regardless of how congested and overpriced Dubrovnik was, I could not but agree with Lonely Planet putting it among the top Croatian highlights. It just has to be experienced at least once.
Especially recommended is a stroll along the entire perimeter of Dubrovnik’s city walls. The angles onto the old town, the Adriatic and other parts of the city are magnificent. Go after 4pm to avoid sweating off in the shade-less heat.
I was much entertained while buying the entry ticket to the city walls. By some unexplained phenomenon, the language database inside my head gave a false signal, and, instead of a proper Croatian “jednu kartu, molim”, I said “jednu kartu, prosim”. “Slovenka!” screamed the ticket seller. I insisted that I wasn’t actually from Slovenia. “Znamo, znamo, odakle ste” (“We know where you are from”) was the answer. Whatever. I had been accused of many things in my eventful life, but being called a Slovenian was something new. Sometimes it just helps being flexible with things.
Sisters on Luža Square
On top of the city walls, I was lucky enough to bump into a Spanish guy who, armed with the most professional camera I had ever seen, was taking pictures of his girlfriend. I quickly mobilised him into taking pictures of myself on my very own Nikon. The exercise resulted in a few proper photos of myself, which otherwise take a role secondary to landscapes, random people and city views.
Also recommended is sitting on the Luža Square just observing people. Food in Dubrovnik might be good, but, being in town pretty much alone, I skipped that part. I was already crossing the border with Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) in my mind… to Mostar, my next destination.