Gliding in over the coastline just north of Split, we get our first glimpse of Croatia. Water bluer than sapphire and clearer than crystal meets a dry, treeless shoreline that slopes steeply inland.
This will be our playground for the next two weeks.
Previous trips to Eastern Europe have piqued our interest in the region, our curiosity about Croatia heightened by the vigour with which this area has rebounded after the war in the 1990s.
After meticulous planning, reading and research, we have chosen a route that takes us southward along the Adriatic Coast from Split to the island of Hvar and then heading to the town of Dubrovnik.
Our guidebook tells us that there are several distinctive elements to this area known as the Dalmatian Coast: walled old towns, endless sunshine and fabulous food. We are not disappointed. Over and above that, we are impressed by local wines and beers, as well as the dramatic rugged coastline and pebble beaches.
Upon disembarking from our flight, a wave of 30 C heat welcomes us, offering the reminder that we have arrived back in Eastern Europe in midsummer. It gets hot! We have read that this area gets little rain in the summer, and from the smoldering wildfires we see in the far-off hills as we leave the airport, that does seem to be the case.
The city of Split hugs the sea, acting as one of the main ports for the country. It also serves as a hub for those travelling to the nearby islands and beyond. A 20-minute drive from the airport ends in the heart of the city, and we thank our GPS for navigating us through the rabbit warren of winding, one-way streets.
Our lodging is ideally situated at the edge of the old town (the first of three we will visit). Here lies Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built as a retirement residence for the Roman emperor Diocletian, dating back to the 3rd century. We meander through an outdoor market on our way to the palace entrance. Bargains are to be had on everything from afghans to zucchinis.
Following some local cheese tasting and the best gelato we have ever had, we find the front gate to the famed palace. Here, the taste is of both the sublime and the ridiculous. A sculpture of the late emperor and Romanesque-style wooden doors dating to 1214 can be found alongside designer boutiques for Gucci and Prada.
Built as a villa, the palace is more like a city within a city. It features huge watchtowers, gates, private apartments, religious monuments and altars, all crafted in white limestone. At one time it housed as many as 9,000 people. The cobblestone streets and open spaces invite strolling, socializing and — to the delight of our two-year-old — serious pigeon chasing opportunities.
We take advantage of Split’s bustling ferry service and make our way to the island of Hvar at dawn. Hvar has recently become known as a playground for the rich and famous, as the yachts in the marinas and the Cartier and Rolex shops in town attest. After we disembark from the ferry, we drive 20 kilometres through pine-covered hills and olive groves and along a wonderful coastal seascape. The fresh smell of wild lavender is everywhere.
As we wind our way down the coast, it is clear that tourism is a major source of income for Hvar, as luxury vacation apartment rentals can be found in town after town and souvenirs are on offer in high-end shops and street markets alike.
What strikes us as most welcoming here is how pedestrian-friendly the town is. Each day we park our car near the waterfront and spend our time on foot. We leave behind the hustle and bustle of the crowds along the pier with a steep uphill hike to the Venetian fortress that overlooks the city. The breathtaking views of the town, marina and the Adriatic, fringed with palm trees and lush vegetation, make the effort well worth it.
We drive to the southern tip of Hvar, stopping along the roadside to pick up some local olive oil and wine.
We take the ferry back to the mainland and head toward Dubrovnik, our final destination in Croatia, near the southern tip of the country. The highway hugs tightly to the steep mountainside and offers a spectacular view of the walled old town below. From this angle, the view suggests a marvel of medieval architecture.
Once inside, the vibrancy of the town is no less stunning. A particular treat of Dubrovnik’s old town is its surrounding wall. We join the throngs of visitors, climb to the top and stroll the two-kilometre perimeter as the sun sets over the Adriatic, the old town serenely spread out below us.
The red clay roofs, however, bear the scars of the 1991 Siege of Dubrovnik, when the town was heavily shelled by the Yugoslav military. Dubrovnik was rebuilt, however, and the painstaking detail of its revitalization is revealed only in minute details such as the different coloured tiles that cover the roofs: some old and weathered, others a new, vibrant red.
The pride in the old town, both the preserved and the rebuilt parts, is evident everywhere.
Our final days in Dubrovnik give us a chance to reflect on our time in Croatia. As well as historical and shopping delights, the country boasts fantastic cuisine.
The food on the Dalmatian Coast is very different from what we have tasted elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The Italian influence didn’t leave with the Venetian empire, and still permeates the many communities that dot the coast. Menu after menu boasts risotto, gnocchi, pasta and thin-crust pizzas.
However, there are local twists, such as risotto nevi (black risotto made with squid ink) and a Croatian gnocchi specialty — potato dumplings accompanied by a rich meat sauce that creates a hybrid pasta/stew combination.
The Mediterranean influence is also felt in the abundance of local wines and olives, and the ubiquitous white stoned buildings topped with scarlet tiled roofs.
We enjoy one more stunning pasta meal in the old town on our final night in Dubrovnik. Even with our travels throughout Eastern Europe in previous years, we are surprised again and again by the Dalmatian Coast. We can’t help but admire the resilience in the country’s ability to get back on its feet after such devastation less than two decades ago.
We watch another cruise ship dock, the tourists ready to delight in Croatia’s history, cuisine, architecture, landscape and people.
Kristin Harris Walsh is project co-ordinator at the MMaP Research Centre at Memorial
University, and Kieran Walsh teaches English at Gonzaga High School. Their travels have taken them to five continents in the past 12 years.