Craig and Ross in Croatia and Greece

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June 22nd 2018
Published: June 22nd 2018
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June 22, 2018.

Episode 2: Craving Croatia

A zest for life isn’t confined to France. This past week we have been in Croatia, where we have met more friendly people that enjoy the good life.

Shaped like the open jaws of a dragon (in lateral view!), Croatia is located in the south Eastern corner of Europe. It has a complex history and something of a split personality. The “upper jaw” includes the capital, Zagreb. The landscape features mountains, meadows and forests. The people have a serious work ethic and they eat hearty Hapsburg-inspired food. The “lower jaw” is dominated by the wonderful Dalmatian coastline - a more liberal, laid back area. Lapped by the Adriatic sea, it is a sun-drenched holiday destination, dotted with islands and with large throngs of tourists. It features handsome ancient old town districts (e.g., Split and Dubrovnik) and offers excellent seafood.

We started in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, a very nice under-appreciated European capital. Arriving at the airport from Paris, we were picked up by a guy with an unsettling resemblance to that war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic. He basically threw us into his car and drove like a Grand Prix entrant on acid to get into town. Our accommodation was on Dolac Square, right on the doorstop of a wonderful bustling daily market. We bought some cherries and some tasty dried and semi-dried figs. It was great to be staying right in the middle of the old town. However, at the moment, juxtaposed amongst the grand old medieval buildings, there are large outdoor screens beaming the world cup soccer. The Croats love their “soccer.” Everywhere across town, they were watching the Croatia vs Nigeria match. The Croatians won. Oh my god - the noise and crowds and flares on the streets were insane. Can only imagine the chaos had they lost!

The next day, we did a self-guided walking tour through the historic old quarter of Zagreb. Our half-day walk took us up to a Zagreb landmark, lovely St Marks Church, with its multi-coloured tiled roof. I overheard a tour guide saying that the local currency is called the kuna because this is the Croatian term for “marten” (a small mammal) and marten pelts were units of currency in medieval times. A rotund American tourist snorted and said:

“Oh, that sounds stupid.” To which the tour guide smartly replied:

“Well, you actually had something very similar in America. The colloquial term “buck” for the US dollar bill probably comes from the deer skins that used to be traded as currency in the colonial period.” Touché! Overall, we found Zagreb to be a charming little city.

From Zagreb, we travelled by bus to something I was very much looking forward to; Croatia’s top natural attraction, the wonderful Plitvice Lakes National park (pronounced Plit-veet-sa).. As we boarded the coach (bus) for the two-hour trip to Plitvice, Ross said:

“That bottle of red wine is in my case – which is in the luggage compartment below. We should have brought it on board.”

I said: “Well, its only a two-hour trip. I’m sure you can wait till we get there. Or perhaps keep it for the next bus trip after Plitvice, which is four hours down to Split...Oh, hang on, no we can’t do that. The bus for Split leaves at 8.30 in the morning. We can’t drink a bottle of wine on that bus trip.”

“Yes, you’re right,” said Ross. “Its four hours. We’ll need two bottles.”

There are hotels right on the doorstep of Plitvice Lakes National Park, so there was no camping involved (much to Ross’s relief). We met an animated group of older Aussies at our hotel. They must have been in their 60s to 70’s. Like us, they were doing walks in the park the next day. Four couples variously from Newcastle, the Gold Coast and Sydney. As they entered the hotel restaurant and walked past our table, one of them smiled and said to me:

“We like our drinks, so do tell us if we get too rowdy in here tonight.” They were a very funny group. I kept going over to their dinner table, telling them to shut up as they were being too bloody noisy. All in good humour and they screamed laughing. Moral of this little anecdote – you are never too old to get out and see the world.

OK, Plitvice Lakes National Park. It was absolutely stunning, as evidenced by my attached photos. This place features a series of terraced emerald green lakes all joined by cascading waterfalls everywhere and encircled with lush beech forest. We chose one of the longer walks (trail H, 5 hours), which was outstanding. The wooden boardwalks take you around the lakes and over (or often right beside) gushing waterfalls. It was like a scene from Avatar or Lord of the Rings. (Ironically, according to Europe travel guru, Rick Steves, it was in peaceful Plitvice that the first shots were fired in Croatia’s war of independence with Yugoslavia). Anyway, if you are ever in this region, this place is an absolute must see.

We then hit the Dalmatian Coast, stopping first in Split. This involved a four-hour bus trip from Plitvice. (A very comfy coach – Croatia’s bus system is very good.) We passed by verdant forested hills dotted with Leggo-like houses. That is, until the bus climbed a mountain and went through a very long tunnel. We emerged into what looked like a completely different country. Gone were the lush beech and pine forests, replaced by stout hardy shrubs, rocky terrain and it was hot. The houses were more squat and with orange terracotta roofs. We had entered the “lower gaping jaw” of Croatia – the sun drenched coast. After some four hours, I said to Ross:

“We must almost be there. What was the name of that town we just passed?”

“I dunno, something complicated” Ross replied.” I think someone must have thrown a handful of Scrabble tiles on the table, and whatever it spelt out, they just went with that.”

We really enjoyed the coastal city of Split. It has a lovely waterfront promenade, officially called the Obala hrvatskog narodnog preporoda. Little wonder that everyone knows it simply as “Riva”! It was choc full of holiday makers and sun worshippers. The thing about Split is that the old town is a living city embedded within the walls of an ancient Roman Palace: Diocletian’s Palace, one of the best preserved Roman buildings in existence. It was wonderful to walk through it, with shops, bars and indeed people’s apartments built amongst the grand marble architecture. Even more interesting was a tour of the fascinating vaulted basement area of the palace, still as it was in the Roman days.

While in this atmospheric basement, I hovered surreptitiously near a tour group to eavesdrop on some information about it. The tour guide was at a small statue of a sphinx and said that 16 sphinxes were brought to the palace from Egypt back in the day. A tourist - I’m afraid I think it was another American tourist – said:

“Sixteen sphinxes? Where did they keep them all? What did they feed them?” I dunno, I can only guess that she figured sphinxes were actually living creatures. We all now that they became extinct during the Jurassic period, don’t we?

We also caught a ferry to the nearby historic town of Trogir, a highly recommended world heritage site. It is a lovely place isolated on an island about one hour away from Split. In both Split and Trogir, we enjoyed fresh Dalmatian seafood, and we especially love the marinated anchovies here.

Whenever we are in a town and need to find a bathroom, one of our tricks is to find the nearest fancy hotel. We stride purposefully inside, as if we are staying there, and find the loo in the lobby. While on Trogir, Ross needed a bathroom and we came upon the “Palace Hotel” – quite a fancy place. Ross happened to be wearing some cool sunglasses and a white panama hat that he bought in Zagreb. He strode inside and was greeted by a smartly dressed concierge, who said:

“Good afternoon, sir. I trust you have enjoyed your day out.”

“Indubitably so, my good man,” said Ross.

Concierge said: “Is there anything I can help you with this afternoon, sir.”

“Yes, please send a chilled bottle of your finest champagne up to my penthouse suite” said Ross, striding off. After doing what he came in for, Ross snuck out a side door.

I first traveled to this part of the world as a young backpacker in 1990. This was when the whole region was still the communist state of Yugoslavia. It was a wonderful adventure at that time. We were definitely in “Eastern Europe”. Visas in our passports that took several weeks to get beforehand, cold war austerity everywhere, people queueing solemnly for things and bugger all to buy in the shops anyway. There were no bars or restaurants lining the sidewalks back then. At that time, we were obliged to exchange a certain amount of currency each day and could not leave the country with any of it still in our possession! Looking for something - anything - to buy, I recall spending the last of my Yugoslavian cash on some crystal souvenirs. They got crushed in my luggage a few days later.

But the winds of change blew strong through here. Today, a strong and democratic Croatia is thriving. Just a few hours ago, we we were sitting in a restaurant eating wonderful Dalmatian seafood and watching cashed-up hipsters enjoying risqué antics along the Riva. Bars were pumping, people were wind-surfing, and a Rihanna tune wafted from a nearby cafe. That’s Westernisation for ya.

Craig (and Ross).

More photos below. (To enlarge any of the images - either those in the text or below - just click on them).

Additional photos below
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