If you seek the road to my soul
take me to the stormy sea...
Before the sea, as before death, I have no secret.
– Vesna Parun
The secret is out! Somewhere in the Mediterranean lies a country with a thousand islands and an infinite coastline, UNESCO fortresses and Roman palaces, medieval cities and Venetian towns, hilltop villages and seaside resorts, colourful markets next to Gothic churches, pristine nature and age-old traditions, and extraordinarily friendly and loyal people. Forget about overcrowded Italy, Spain, and Portugal, Croatia has equally sunny olive groves and aromatic wines, and a longer summer!
For a blissful month, I wander around my new found paradise, following the sun and the sea. Starting with the upbeat capital, Zagreb, I make an excursion to beautiful Plitvice Lakes before spending a week in enchanting Istria. Slowly, I come down the famed Dalmatian coast – through Zadar, Sibenik, Split, and Dubrovnik – island-hopping along the way. The summer crowds have thinned out, the weather is still balmy, and the water enticingly translucent. And it is vine, olives, pomegranate, and mandarin season! The national poet, Ivan Gundulić, knows his country well when he writes: All silver, all gold, all human lives cannot repay your pure beauty!
Zagreb is the New Black
I love capital cities with their wealth and history. With hip cafes, fun museums (one on broken relationships!), and plenty of new start-ups, Zagreb is the new black. After a two-year break due to the pandemic, the marathon is back. The main streets are off traffic, a dream for traveller photographers. I stroll along classic Ilica, arriving at Jelacic Square where a little passageway called Hamica takes me to the medieval Upper Town. The words of Robert Perisic come to mind: Sometimes he liked to read the newspapers in countries that had been socialist. There was a magical thinking feel about them, part real and part unreal. I find the vintage look of Zagreb irresistibly photogenic.
First stop in the Upper Town: the colourful Dolac market well known for its fresh produce and signature red parasols. On the left are many little restaurants to stop for a beer and seafood fritters while a lane on the right takes me to the Cathedral and the city ramparts. Following the footsteps of millions of worshippers, I go through the medieval Stone Gate before stopping at the iconic St. Mark’s Church and descending to Lower Town through a WWII tunnel. What time travel through centuries of rich history!
Full of architectural gems, the Lower Town is every bit as pleasant as the upper part. From Art Nouveau to city sculptures, Zagreb offers plenty of cultural stimulation and visual treats for the visitor. Above all, it is the light that makes Zagreb come alive…
It is the weekend flea market. The morning light casts shadows on trinkets from a bygone era under prime red parasols, happy shoppers scouting for old treasures, and vendors as ageless as the Britanski Square. Ivo Robic’s classic tune from 1958, Samo Jednom Se Ljubi/You Only Kiss Once, brightens up this little universe on a quiet October morning, magically transporting one to the former Yugoslavia!
You only kiss once
And then the heart burns
When that flame is lost
That’s when all the magic ends.
– Ivo Robic, Samo Jednom Se Ljubi/You Only Kiss Once
Plitvice Lakes in Autumn Colours
If you don’t know how, observe the phenomena of nature, they will give you clear answers and inspiration.
– Nikola Tesla, a Croatian inventor.
The Plitvice Lakes are in their full autumn splendour. The oldest and largest national Park in Croatia, the reserve boasts an impressive network of sixteen pristine lakes and countless waterfalls, walkways and hiking trails that snake into a limestone canyon. The stunning park makes for a perfect Fall outing. Back to nature!
It’s time to hit the coast! For a week, I base myself out of Pula in the southern tip of the Istrian peninsular and make day excursions to the Brijuni islands and the picturesque towns of Rovinj, Beram, Motovun, and Porec. Italian heritage mixed with Central European history, medieval fortresses and byzantine churches, narrow streets radiating from large squares, tall houses with pointed doorways and grated windows, rolling vineyards and shining olive groves, and always a coastline nearby. Istria: what a gem of a discovery!
The magnificent Roman amphitheatre alone is worth the trip to Pula. The tiny old town is charming, and from there it is only a short bus ride away to Stoja where one can still plunge into the Mediterranean in October or head to Cape Kamenjak for some pleasant Fall hiking…
History obliges a stop at the nearby Brijuni islands known as Tito’s playground. With Roman ruins and secluded bays, the Brijuni is a gorgeous place except that a Tito legacy has turned it into a zoo for mass tourism. The safari park – with alpacas and zebras – feels surreal but is priceless as a history lesson!
Known as Little Venice, Rovinj was part of the Venetian Republic from the 13th to 18th century before it fell under the Austrian Empire. One can still feel its prosperous past as a maritime trade and shipbuilding centre until the rise of Trieste, Rijeka, and Pula. At the end of WW1, Rovinj became part of Italy again before being integrated into Yugoslavia in 1947 and remains bilingual today. Set in a headland, with houses packed down to the seafront and cobbled streets leading to the hilltop church of St. Euphemia, Rovinj is without doubt the beautiful town in Istria.
From Pula, I take a morning bus to Pazin and hike for an hour to reach Beram to admire the frescoes (completed in 1474!) in the church of St Mary on the Rocks set deep in the forest. Then I hitch a ride to the nearby hilltop fortress town of Motovun, famous for its artist community and summer film festival. The setting overlooking a green valley is gorgeous and at the bottom lies a dark, damp forest with an Istrian treasure: truffles. They are in season! Free truffle tasting, anyone?
An hour North of Rovinj is its twin sister, Porec, famed for the 6th-century Euphrasian Basilica, the nearby Baredine Cave, and a long coastline where I enjoy another timeless Istrian sunset…
Dalmatia: The Crown Jewel
From Istria, I make a pit stop in Rijeka, a former maritime centre and gateway to Croatia’s islands, before making my way down the magic Dalmatian coast. A steep climb up the Trsat Castle offers splendid views of the islands off Kvarner Bay while a stroll in town along Korzo passes through many handsome Habsburg-era buildings. Fun fact: the first rescue dispatch for the Titanic was from Rijeka!
The coastal bus ride from Rijeka to Zadar is ultra-scenic, with magnificent views of Cres, Krk, Rab, and Pag islands. As the oldest continuously inhabited Croatian city, Zadar is famous for its Venetian gates and city walls, Roman ruins and medieval churches, and a beautiful seafront. But these days the biggest attraction seems to be a unique sea organ installed by the architect, Nikola Basic. As part of the project to redesign the new city coast, he put some tubes beneath a set of large marble steps where the waves interact with the organ to create random but harmonic sounds. Free natural concert all day long and, at sunset, it is magical!
Located between Zadar and Split, Sibenik is often overlooked by visitors. A gateway to the Kornati archipelago with 150 islands, the city boasts the UNESCO World Heritage St. James Cathedral, fortresses with magnificent views over the Sibenik Bay, palaces, and monastery gardens. For a week, I stay at my friend’s place in the beautiful old town, soaking everything in. We visit Krka National Park, a mini but equally enchanting version of Plitvice Lakes. I make day excursions to the nearby towns of Primosten, Omis, and Trogir but my favourite is the tranquil islands of Prvic and Zlarin. It’s olive harvest season! With Vesna, uncle Rocco and Aunt Antonia, we head to the family grove and pick about 70kgs out of six trees in a day, for about a dozen litre bottles. It has been an exceptionally dry year and the olives are small. Never have I tasted more delicious home-made olive oil and appreciated more where the treat comes from!
Finally, I save the best for the last, the two crown jewels on the Dalmatian coast: Split and Dubrovnik. Never mind the crowd, the sprawling Diocletian’s Palace alone is worth a visit to Croatia. I was in Split years back as a college student hitchhiking through the Balkans. Nothing about the Palace has changed. The gates, the walls, the magnificent Peristyle Square, the cathedral and the bell tower, and the 3500-year-old granite sphinxes are all still there, standing strong, except that I am not alone! Split has become part of the mass tourism circuit after the release of Game of Thrones in 2011. Taking this set of photos is particularly challenging, requiring an overdose of patience, but it is worth it!
From Split, I hop on a ferry to Hvar and visit the villages of Jelsa, Vrboska, and Stari Grad. Nothing beats the morning light and its reflections on big pastel-coloured walls and local residents going about a brand new day. The morning is fresh and the town at its quiet best. Photographing island life – sans tourists – is definitely one of the best memories of my trip to Croatia.
From Hvar, I take the onward ferry to Korcula, a gorgeous Venetian town that seems to have stood in time. I roam around all day, playing with the light and shadow, on the old town square and cathedral walls, narrow lanes and seafront promenade. No words can describe the joy of trying to capture a moment in time in such a gorgeous setting…
O beautiful, o beloved, o sweet freedom, God has given us all the treasures in you, you are the true source of all our glory, you are the only decoration of this Dubrava.
– Ivan Gundulić, author of the play Dubravka, Dubrovnik’s “unofficial motto”
Last stop in my long journey through amazing Croatia: Dubrovnik. Poets have sung praises, plays have been written, and battles waged on this glorious city that remains standing. It is an emotional reunion after my last visit here as a college student. Stradun – the photogenic 300m limestone-paved pedestrian street through the old town surrounded by the walls – has and has not changed. It was heavily bombarded during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991-1992 but stands as beautifully as ever, having risen from the ashes. I awake early to reach town before eight when the tourists are still sleeping. Photographing Stradun and its surrounding walls in early morning light – without the crowds – is one of the best experiences of this year.
What a blissful month exploring this gem of a country – and having seen only a fraction of it – being blessed with extraordinarily good weather and company. Yes, the secret is out: Croatia is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I would move there in the blink of an eye! La dolce vita: tranquil coastal, island living, chasing light. So which island is best?
To Vesna, veteran traveller and model host, who treats me like family and introduces all things Croatian to me…
Because despite the eternal change, I know I have to find
before I leave this earth and this sky
a flower that will retain innocence
and love that will not end.
– Vesna Parun
This is part of a series on my three-month journey revisiting the Balkans in 2022.
Next: Traversing the Balkans: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Traversing the Balkans: Kosovo
Traversing the Balkans: North Macedonia
Traversing the Balkans: Albania
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan