Summer is high season along Croatia’s beautiful, history-drenched Dalmatian coast – all the more reason to go at some other time of the year. So it was early spring when we headed for the northern coast of the Adriatic sea.
We planned to see the historic cities of Dubrovnik and Split. I’d visited these cities and places in between on an excursion to the former Yugoslavia with my family when I was a child, and I retained fragmentary but vivid memories, especially of Dubrovnik, which I recalled as the most beautiful city I’d seen.
Now, over 40 years later, my wife and and I wanted to visit some of the islands as well as the cities. But after researching to find out what places we most wanted to see, it became clear that getting ourselves there via ferries on our own was just not going to be practical, schedule-wise. Especially in the off-season when the ferries don’t run so often. So, although we’re not cruise people, a small cruise turned out to be the only way to go.
It turned out to be an excellent choice, a trip along the coast on a small boat with only 25 passengers (the capacity was 40), visiting various islands and the city of Split. Afterwards we spent a few days in Dubrovnik’s beautiful old city staying in a tourist-rental apartment, with a day trip into Bosnia to see the historic city of Mostar.
Arrival in Dubrovnik
We had one night in Dubrovnik before the boat trip. The van from the airport dropped us at the plaza that teems with tourists (off-season or not) just outside the Old City, where the friendly facilitator of our rental met us and led us into the Gradske Zidine, or Old City of Dubrovnik. We walked along the main drag, then up a seemingly endless (when carrying heavy bags) hill of staircases.
There are few if any hotels in the Old City, only tourist-rental apartments. If you want a regular hotel, there are plenty of them outside the walls. We wanted to spend as much time as possible in the heart of town, and the apartments are actually less expensive. We used a website devoted to Dubrovnik tourist apartment rentals to find ours. The owner was happy to rent to us for one night and then three additional nights later on.
We had time for a walk through the city and a quick look at some of the sights.
Then, exhausted from travel, we had what turned out to be a perfectly good dinner at (of all places) an Irish Pub called The Gaffe, just down the hill from our apartment. There’d be plenty of time for authentic Croatian food; just then all we wanted was someplace we could get to, and back from, without getting lost in the confusing zig-zag of narrow cavelike ways up and down the hill.
The next day we packed our bags again, dropped the key through the slot in the apartment door, and made our way to the waterfront, where Elite Travel‘s Adriatic Pearl was waiting for us.
Our guide, very friendly and helpful, and fluent in English and French, welcomed us, showed us around the boat and gave us the rundown on how things worked on board. We were the only two Americans among the 24 passengers, though almost everyone spoke English – our shipmates were from England, Scotland, India, South Africa, and Canada. With everyone on board and everything in order, we set out from the harbor and into the sunset.
That night we docked on the large island of Korčula, in the town of the same name. Though night had fallen, a local guide met us and took us on a short tour of the medieval town, where we happened upon a moment of auditory joy, passing a traditional Croatian klapa vocal group practicing.
The town museum was closed for the day, the ancient buildings and stone streets quiet.
But the waterfront restaurants were doing good business. Korčula is a popular island for tourists. We found a place with outdoor seating under a tent roof, which proved wise when a light rain shower arrived.
The streets are picturesque even at night.
We were a little sad that we didn’t get to experience a full day – or a day at all – in the town, but this was the only time that happened, and only because it was the first night of the cruise. The sun shone – figuratively, anyway – on the rest of our week, which continued the next morning with a short journey to Hvar, probably the best-known Dalmatian island and a major tourism and cruising stop.
First we visited Hvar Town, then Stari Grad (Old Town) on the other side of the island.
A rainy chill greeted us as we disembarked and walked the main square of Hvar Town.
It didn’t stop us from exploring the stony streets and alleyways.
Fascinating architectural details greeted us at many turns. Yet because it was the off-season, few people were about. We could feel we had the town almost to ourselves.
Sailing to the other end of the island later that day, we arrived in Stari Grad, our berth for the night. Rain followed us.
This medieval town, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a truly magical aura, with a twisting grid of quiet alleyways and ancient structures. The cloudy skies and light rain hushed the already-quiet streets.
We saw plenty of evidence of the local fishing industry.
A more vegetable kind of quiet suffused the edges of town where the alleys opened out to the countryside.
The most interesting historical site to me isn’t in town, though. Farms just outside the old town preserve the ancient Greek agricultural layout in an area called the Stari Grad Plain, also part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. For 24 centuries, up to the present day, agricultural activity in the chora (the ancient Greek geometrical parcels of land) has continued. We followed an irrigation canal out of town to glimpse a boundary of the historic area, marked off by stone walls as in ancient times.
The sky was clearing as night approached and we returned to the boat for a night ride up the coast to Split.
We had a whole day and evening to explore the historic city, built around Diocletian’s Palace and home to great restaurants and nightlife. Approaching under cloudy skies, we sighted beyond the harbor the highest tower of Diocletian’s Palace.
A tour guide met our small boatful at the harbor and led us immediately into the arcade which formed an entrance to the Palace. Today crammed with stalls selling jewelry, cheap crafts, and touristy trinkets, it is nevertheless most impressive.
Diocletian was a Roman Emperor (284 to 305 A.D.) who hailed from these parts and wanted a retirement residence in his homeland of Dalmatia. So around the year 300 he had a large fortress built here. It’s not a castle, or a single building at all, but a large complex that included both a military garrison and a residence. At one time, over 9,000 people lived within its walls. It now forms half of Split’s old town. Part of the fourth season of Game of Thrones was filmed here. (Coming up: a lot more GoT kitsch in Dubrovnik.)
I suppose every tourist takes a picture of this human-sized sphinx. When you were Emperor of Rome, you could plunder Egypt’s treasures like anyone else’s. It does have a lot of personality, don’t you think?
The main square (the Peristyle) bustled with tourists.
Not all of them, though, are up to climbing the bell tower of the Cathedral of St. Dominus. On the left in the next photo is a part of Diocletian’s fourth-century octagonal mausoleum. The structure was converted to a cathedral later, and the bell tower dates from the Middle Ages.
Rather than climb, some are content to take a picture.
A klapa singing group like the one we saw practicing on Hvar, polished and tourist-primed, gave a concert. We bought their CD. Touristy or not, it was worth it.
Before tackling the bell tower we continued with the organized tour, walking through the streets of the Palace and absorbing the ancient auras.
Exiting out the other side and out of the old town, you can see the scale of the fortress walls.
But before exploring the environs, we wanted to visit the cathedral itself. So we ducked back inside the “fortress” and made our way into the interior of the church, then up the bell tower for a view of the city.
I’ve brightened the exposure on the next two photos a little bit, as it was cloudy and sprinkles of rain came and went. The dim weather did nothing to darken our good spirits though. Split is a beautiful and fascinating city and we were very glad our itinerary gave us a whole day and night there.
Much as the emperor’s mausoleum became a church, Jupiter’s Temple became St. John’s Baptistry.
Along with the ancient font and architectural interest, it contains a marvelous statue of St. John the Baptist by the great 20th-century Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović.A highlight of our day in Split was a visit to Diocletian’s Cellars. Built to create a level foundation for the palace, they were used as a dump in the Middle Ages, then vanished from history for centuries until the 20th, when archeologists uncovered them and found they could use them to learn the floor plan of the upper parts of the palace that no longer existed.
Today the Cellars are a great place to get away from the tourist crowds and get a feel for the long history of this town.
Among the many remnants archeologists have uncovered are pieces of ancient Roman sewer pipe.
Stumbling into a courtyard gave us a break from the damp interior.
Explanatory information and history is provided at the entrance, where you buy your tickets. There’s no signage in the maze of the Cellars, giving them the feel of a true ruin rather than a museum. We followed, more or less, the walkthrough outlined in our Rick Steves’ Croatia & Slovenia guidebook. Diocletian gazes on his basement without the clutter of modern commentary to distract him.
Having visited the cathedral, the baptistry, and the dump, naturally we had to locate the synagogue. It’s just what we do.
Eventually, after consulting the guide book and hunting through the narrow streets and alleyways…
…we found it. Well, nothing to see here.
Split isn’t the first city and won’t be the last where it’s taken some sleuthing for us to locate a synagogue, or the Jewish community. In some places, of course, it’s only a memory. Here, at least we know they have a computer and a printer.
Our action-filled day continued with a sojourn outside the crowded warrens of Diocletian’s Palace. A walk inland through the modern part of the town toward the Archeological Museum took us past the handsome yellow National Theatre.
The Archeological Museum is a treasure trove, yet judging from the fact that we had it practically to ourselves, it seems the vast majority of tourists don’t get there.
It’s their loss. Dating from 1820, the Split Archeological Museum is Croatia’s oldest museum. (Its website appears to be only in Croatian and German.) The impressive building with its lush landscaping dates from the early 20th century and holds a collection with artifacts from the Greek, Roman, Early Christian and Early Medieval ages. The coin display is a highlight of the interior galleries.
But it’s the large objects displayed in the outdoor spaces behind the building that really capture history for visitors. These include stone epitaphs from Salona, the capital of the Roman province on the Dalmatian coast, which was located right beside today’s city of Split. (That’s why Diocletian built his palace nearby.)
While daylight remained, we wanted to get outside the town and experience some of the coastline we’d seen from the bell tower. So we walked back to the waterfront, past the Fishermans’ Port, west along the water and then up a series of staircases into the Park Šuma Marjan (Marjan Forest Park). The view of the city and harbor is spectacular from here.
After a long day of sightseeing and walking we thought we deserved a seafood dinner at the highly recommended Šperun restaurant in the Varoš neighborhood just west of the Old Town, and it was a memorable one. Afterwards we strolled along the modern pedestrian shopping street that connects with the Riva (waterfront), very picturesque by night, took another turn through the Old Town to see it by night as well, stopped for a drink and dessert at a cafe with tables on a stepped alleyway, and finally returned to the boat to turn in for another day of traveling the beautiful Dalmatian coast.
All photos © Critical Lens Media except where noted
To be continued in Part 2