Traveling Through Croatia

We mentioned briefly in our previous post that there was a last-minute schedule change which afforded us one extra day in Istanbul (well spent, might I add). What had happened was … While in Bali preparing to depart for Istanbul the next day, I got two emails: One in Turkish that I could not decipher; and another in English alerting me there was an update to our flight from Istanbul, Turkey to Dubrovnik, Croatia, planned to depart at 7pm on April 1st. We were now scheduled to leave at 6am on April 2nd. I panicked:

What are we going to do? We can’t fly out the next day! And a flight that early? It’s going to be awful getting up and out by 3 in the morning! Plus, once we do land, it’ll be hours before we’ll be able to check in and drop off our bags!

Fast forward through some flight research, email exchanges, and a few deep breaths later, we were still flying out the next day, April 2nd, but at our previously planned flight time, departing at 7pm. We added an extra night on the back-end of our Istanbul hotel reservation, and all is right in the world (save for double-paying hotel stays on April 1st). So our Croatia itinerary now reads like this:

  • Tues April 2nd | Fly from Istanbul to Dubrovnik, land at 9pm
  • Thurs April 4th | 4-hour Bus from Dubrovnik to Split
  • Sat April 6th | 6-hour Train from Split to Zagreb
  • Sun April 7th | Train from Zagreb to Budapest, leaves at 4pm
Going from South to North: Dubrovnik > Split > Zagreb

We’ve moved around about every 4 days for most of the trip thus far, affording us ample time to get comfortably settled while not feeling like we were constantly on the move. This was going to be a big change. But luckily, while our three Croatian destinations were beautiful and interesting, this was still ample time to see and do almost everything.

Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way: The Old City of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site: “Situated along the Dalmation coast, Dubrovnik became an important Mediterranean sea power from the 13th century onwards. [After being] severely damaged by an earthquake in 1667 … and again more recently by armed conflict in the 1990s … it managed to preserve its beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains … and is the focus of a major restoration programme co-ordinated by UNESCO.” Now exhale.

We landed at the airport in Dubrovnik, got through immigration rather quickly, and exited baggage claim. The usual kiosks – information, currency exchange, taxi services, mobile SIM cards – were closed, as it was later on at night. No SIM card meant no phone signal, so we took one of the taxi drivers up on his offer, and got in. The 20-minute taxi ride cost us $40 – we were definitely not in Southeast Asia anymore (The transfer we hired from Hoi An to Hue was a 3-hour trip and cost $60).

The walking directions to our studio apartment had seemed daunting, especially as it was dark out and late at night: Once you are at the Pile Gate entrance to Old Town, take the stairs between Nautika restaurant and the information kiosk. Take the steps down and veer to the right, and continue to walk straight down for about 20 m passing the small church and small beach. You will find House Pile on your right, number 16. Our office doors are adorned with two small olive trees.

In reality, it could not have been easier to find. The steps were obvious and brief, you could only turn right, and our host was waiting for us in the doorway. She gave us a very brief tour of our room (it was late, she was tired and wanting to go home, I don’t blame her) and handed over the keys. Isabel called it a night, while I went out for a little evening stroll. A few steps opposite the stairway brought me this magical view, which we could also see from our apartment window (the only one in the building with the sea view):

The view from our apartment window by day. Not too shabby.

We were directly outside Pile Gate, one of the four main entrances to the city walls. I walked around for a bit taking photos and videos of the high castle walls, unable to believe where I was standing. I passed closed-for-the-night souvenir shops and tour booking offices all touting Game of Thrones merchandise and signage. I’ve actually never watched the show (Sorry!) so this mattered less to me than it would most of the global population, but apparently this is the filming location for the King’s Landing … whatever that means. Anyway, I was really excited to come back the next day to explore, even more so when I was able to pick up a SIM card at a newsstand. A functioning phone with maps! I was now able to rest easy that night.

In the morning, we picked up a pair of DubrovnikCard passes, giving us discounted entry to much of the city’s main attractions. As we started walking in, it was great seeing the look on Isabel’s face that I must have worn the night before, as she got her first glimpse of how we were going to spend our day. We ate breakfast at a restaurant sitting outside overlooking the main courtyard. Sadly, the realization sunk in that our Turkish breakfast spreads were behind us.

Isabel chose for breakfast a restaurant named Arsenal … She really does love me!

We popped in to a couple of small museums (included in our pass!), and wandered around the city walls. We happened upon a harbour, and marveled at the views. Then we stumbled upon a Salvador Dalí exhibit, one of Isabel’s favorite artists. It ended up being a very moving display of his lesser known watercolor works. There were three main collections: the first room depicting biblical images, then a focus on horses – his favorite animal, and finally a series he did for a publishing house illustrating chapters for Alice in Wonderland. Take my word for it that as someone who has never found himself to be “moved” by art, I was really taken aback by his work.

Right outside the Dalí exhibit was the entrance to what I had been looking forward to all day: climbing the steps to walk the city walls. The 2km perimeter provided stunning views of the castle walls, the town below, and the Adriatic Sea. Easily the highlight tourist attraction, a must do if you’re here.

Funny story time: While we were walking atop the city walls, there was a couple in front of us that really stood out. The guy was jacked, with a long viking beard, and wore an outrageous fuzzy, yellow bucket hat. His girlfriend had long white braided hair, and was covered in tattoos. What really made them stand out though, Mr. Bucket Hat kept talking to his phone like he was videoing himself. Isabel and I joked that they were probably a traveling Youtube couple, or livestreaming their adventures. I mention this because later that night, while searching Instagram for #dubrovnik, I came across their accounts … And lo and behold, look who happened to pop up in the background of one of their Insta stories!:

I think this is absolutely hilarious. Every. Time.

For lunch we went to Azur, a Thai – Croatian fusion restaurant, on the recommendation of a friend (Thanks, Christian!), and shared two of the tastiest dishes I’ve had in a long, long time (I’ve been saying that a lot lately, haven’t I?). For dinner we ate Italian, and each had delicious pasta dishes. Followed by a nightcap at a loud Rock bar, it was a great end to a solid day in Dubrovnik.

Split, 3 Months Too Early for Yacht Week

Traveling between Dubrovnik and Split, there were many options … sort of. We could fly, but with a layover in Zagreb. We could take the ferry, if it was April 15 or later. Or, we could take the bus! (Interestingly enough, there were more options the reverse way, from Split to Dubrovnik, than in the direction we needed to go.) The bus wasn’t crowded, so it wasn’t exactly uncomfortable. The views out the window were insane; for the first two hours we drove along the windy coast, with the blue Adriatic on our left, and sweeping views of coastal town homes on our right.

Interestingly enough, driving between these two cities requires passing through a border crossing – we spent 15 whole minutes in Bosnia Herzegovina, before crossing back into Croatia, in what is known as the Neum Corridor. There was passport control at both points, and both times a uniformed officer boarded the bus, collected our passports, disappeared inside his office, only to return them and send us on our merry way.

Isabel’s note: The few announcements on the bus were in Croatian only so we weren’t always up-to-date on what was going on. No announcements for upcoming stops, for bathroom breaks, just for “passport control.” At the first stop, I followed an older woman off the bus to go to the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes for the older woman to use the only stall, I finally finished and walked out to the bus….leaving! The bus was backing out and I ran up to the driver’s door, frantically waving to get his attention. Don’t worry, Mark was also making a small scene on the bus, telling the non-English speaking drivers that they were missing a passenger. They stopped and let me back on…phew! All worth it though, because that was the only bathroom stop.

Map of the Neum Corridor, Bosnia’s only 12 miles of coastline.

Getting off the bus at the Split station, we were just a 10 minute walk from our hotel. Our brief stroll there took us along the harbour and gave us a stunning view, welcoming us to our next stop.

Riva – Split’s coastline strip of restaurants, bars and cafes – behind the palm trees.

As luck would have it, it turns out that Hotel Slavija is the oldest hotel in Split, whose history can be traced back to the early 17th century! As its website proudly boasts, it is “Protected by the Republic of Croatia as a national cultural heritage [site] … due to its location within the [walls of] Diocletian’s Palace, Hotel Slavija is also protected by UNESCO as an international monument of culture.” You can imagine Isabel’s reaction when I showed her that!

Hotel Slavija, our UNESCO-protected home for a couple nights. How cool is that?!

It turns out that having just one full day in Split was really all you need to see the sites. I can see why this place works so well as a stop for the Croatian cruises that pass through, and why this is the perfect place to host Yacht Week come summertime. Coming from Dubrovnik, the streets of Split provided a homogenous aesthetic. Outside of Diocletian’s Palace, there was the Mausoleum, built in the 4th century, the similarly aged Temple of Jupiter, and … not much else. While stunning, central Split doesn’t take much time to explore. And if staying in the city center and not visiting the beaches, then you’ll find yourself repeating laps. Which I was all too happy to do!

On Isabel’s father’s recommendation, we went to a small museum called Froggyland. A century ago, a Hungarian man taxidermied hundreds of frogs. Today there are 507 frogs set up in these elaborate dioramas positioning them in everyday events: cooking meals, getting a shave at the barber, exercising in the park, being reprimanded at school, synchronized swimming, etc. There was no explanation for why, no background information, just a sign “thanking” the man for building the dioramas. The entrance area also had multiple signs that read “if drunk, cannot enter”. Hilarious and extremely odd, the only disappointment was that sadly we were not allowed to take any photos. This is all that remains as proof:

If you think this’ll keep you up at night, you should see the exhibit!

Isabel found us great places to eat during our brief stay in town. Dinner #1 was a warm little restaurant called Konoba Matejuska, where we ate black squid ink risotto with cuttlefish, and crispy pork belly with potato wedges and ratatouille. For lunch we found ourselves at Buffet Fife, a seaside restaurant with outdoor seating in the sun. A Split institution serving traditional local cuisine on a budget, we shared “beans and meat” (pretty sure it was pork) and the house specialty pašticada, beef stew served over gnocchi. It was heavy, but all so so good. And last but certainly not least, our final night’s dinner was at Apetit, Italian cuisine just around the corner from the hotel. I had homemade macaroni in a truffle sauce, and Isabel enjoyed a different take on black squid ink risotto. We continue to eat really well, and I am totally okay with all of it.

Zagreb, 24 hours in the Capital

We woke up to an early morning alarm to prepare for our six-hour train ride, departing at 8:33am. Breakfast at the hotel started at 7am, so we went downstairs on time. Before you know it, it was 7:45 (we were deep in conversation, not eating the whole time, I swear!). We ran upstairs, finished packing all our things, hurriedly checked out of our hotel, and made it on the train with just under 10 minutes to spare!

There’s a Planes, Trains and Automobiles joke in here somewhere …

Taking our third major mode of transportation in the handful of days we’ve been in Croatia so far, I was very excited (and a bit nervous) to finally take a train, because we officially started using our Eurail Passes! People always say “Oh, traveling around Europe is cheap and easy, you just get a Eurail Pass.” It certainly can be, but there are a dizzying number of Pass options, seat reservations need to be made (separate from the train ticket itself), and trying to plan and book everything while on spotty wifi bouncing between hotels around Southeast Asia made it virtually impossible to order things online and when you need to have them mailed to you. Time will tell how the whole Eurail experience plays out, but I have faith it’ll be just fine (fingers and toes are crossed, thank you very much).

Our first Eurail trip. 1st class and had the whole car to ourselves!

We’re slowing down and about to reach our final destination. Outside the window there are sporadic bombed-out buildings with broken windows and graffiti. I hear the lump in Isabel’s throat rise and fall. But then we pull up to the actual train station in downtown Zagreb, and thankfully everything takes a sharp turn for the better.

Zagreb Glavini Kol. train station

Our hotel is a 15-minute walk from the station, so we decide to get their by foot. It’s basically a straight shot North, which takes us through a series of stunning parks, surrounded on either side by beautiful, old buildings. We walk past fountains, and busts and statues of historic import. Then the path opens up to a giant square, which we later learn is known as The Square. Our room for the night is a short walk up the cobblestone street, surrounded by restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. We let ourselves in to what we discover is a really cute room, and our window view looks out on Tkalčićeva, commonly known as Bar Street. Basically what I’m saying is, yet again I am absolutely winning this location game!

Starving, we chowed down at a trendy Thai spot around the corner from us (isn’t it impressive how even in Croatia we manage to find so much Asian fare?). We spent the rest of the evening wandering around, taking it all in. There was a food market in The Square, a number of cathedrals, and beautiful classical architecture everywhere.

We checked out of our room in the morning able to leave our luggage behind, and after enjoying a delicious breakfast on Bar Street (inexpensive to boot), we joined a free walking tour! It was a large group, and very quickly I found myself hoping that we will find more of these over the next few months. Our guide, Luka, spoke perfect English and took us around to a lot of the places and sites I saw the night before, but it was great getting historical context behind it all.

Several hundred years ago, the land known today as Zagreb was two small hills with a valley and a thin river separating them. On the East side was Kaptol, land of churches, priests, and scores of Catholic peasants. On the West side was Gradec, a community of merchants, farmers, basically the regular people. The two hills gave everyone a constant close-up view of their neighbor, and as history always tells us, they did not get along with each other. There was a bridge over the river connecting the two sides, that became known as the Bloody Bridge, as it was the site of many a conflict between townspeople.

Fast forward to 1848, “Ban” (Governor) Josip Jelačić is now in charge of the area and declares that all people are equal! So basically, Ban Jelačić = Abraham Lincoln. The Square, situated on what once was the river, takes Jelačić’s name. His statue is erected, many beautiful buildings are constructed around it, and it becomes the epicenter of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.

Ban Jelačić , a.k.a. Croatian Abe Lincoln

Fun fact: Zagreb has a population of nearly 1 million people. This is significant, as all of Croatia holds a population of about 4.2 million.

Fun fact #2: How did Zagreb get its name? Glad you asked! Legend has it that one day, a beautiful girl name Manda was at the well, when Ban Jejacic and his men rode up on their horses, weary from battle. He asked the beautiful young Manda if she would be so kind as to grab him and his men a drink of water from her bucket, to which she complied. The Croatia word for “to grab” sounds pretty much like “Za greb”. Ta-da! (Apparently this is one of six or seven childlike legends on how Zagreb got its name, but I’m sticking with this as gospel.)

Today a fountain, at the former site of the famous well along the river.

I’ll spare you the full history lesson, if you find yourself in Zagreb you’ll just have to do the free walking tour yourself (it’s called Free Spirit Tours, and it meets everyday at 11am in front of the Horse Statue in Jelačić Square – look for the orange umbrella!).

One of the best parts of the tour (and Isabel’s favorite) was close to noon. Luka ushered us down a small hill to an area where others were congregating, telling us “something will be happening in 10 minutes that you won’t want to miss.” We stop under a tree and Luka points up towards a large tower. Isabel whispered, “sssstop it, they’re going to shoot the flippin’ cannon!” In Dubrovnik, a person rings the main clock tower. But sometimes they’re late, because they are human. In Zagreb, in order for all the churches to ring the bells at the same precise time, they shoot a flippin’ cannon at noon. Luka’s last instructions were, “please hold on to your phone with two hands, just trust me.” Isabel naively thought a guard would pop his head out and say hey, I’m here, gonna shoot the cannon now. Nope. Everyone stood ready and recording at 11:59 am. Waiting … waiting … wai-BOOM! It was very loud and a little scary.

Luka told us to hold on tight to our phones with two hands. Now I know why.

Looking Back

Looking back on our time in Croatia (Hrvatska as it’s known in native tongue), I think one full day was the perfect amount of time to spend in Dubrovnik. Waking up to and walking around the castle was stunning. You could spend a few days there, if you want to comb over every square inch, but in one day we felt like we saw everything we needed to. I can see how Split is amazing in the summertime and if you’re going to the beaches, and a perfect day-stop on a cruise along the Dalmatian coast. But from a tourist perspective, especially coming straight from Dubrovnik, there just wasn’t a whole lot to see. A similar aesthetic to Dubrovnik, we probably could have skipped it, and just flown the hour or so flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb (but then we wouldn’t have seen the beautiful views of the coast and countryside). Especially since 24 hours in Zagreb was way too short. It was a surprisingly beautiful city, plus our apartment was great and in the perfect part of town (as we were getting ready for bed, we heard an impromptu band of trumpets jamming outside our window along Bar Street). There were interesting museums (we chose the Museum of Broken Relationships over the Museum of Torture), a vast array of parks, and the architecture was stunning.

I’d definitely come back to Croatia for sure, but next time I’d like to rent a car and do a road trip (If you’ve been inspired to do the same, check out this itinerary from Geeky Explorer). Spending such a short amount of time was really a tease, and though moving around so much was less than ideal, I think it’s prepared us for our Europe leg in a number of ways. From here, it’s on to longer stays in new and different countries!


P.S. We were super engaged at breakfast in Split discussing Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix. Isabel binged it in two days, it’s excellent. Mark is currently enjoying Umbrella Academy after finishing Russian Doll.

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