Croatia: the road less travelled

Article about travelling through Croatia for Business Destinations magazine.

Enjoying the warm Adriatic Sea and renowned Dalmatian culture,
Nathan May travels through Croatia in search of something special.

The up-and-coming town of Zadar was my first port of call in Croatia,
and one that turned out to be well worthwhile. Although not as instantly
impressive as Dubrovnik, or as vibrant as Split, the third town on the Dalmatian coast
certainly shows great promise in its fledgling existence as a tourist hub.

The marina here has a relaxed atmosphere and could even be described as quaint in
comparison to the chaos down the coast in Split, which on summer days resembles a boat
show. From the harbour, it is a short walk to the walled entrance of the Old Town, where
you will find a delightful network of narrow streets and ancient buildings. The highlight
of the Old Town is St Donatus Church, the largest pre-Romanesque building in Croatia.
Construction on the church began as far back as the ninth century, and the circular
shape is typical of the early Byzantine age in Dalmatia. Now used as a concert venue for
the annual International Festival of Medieval Renaissance Music, the stark interior of St
Donatus has excellent acoustics, and if you can time it right, it is well worth enjoying a
performance there.

Zadar’s growth is evident in parts of the Old Town where traditional bakeries and
fishmongers are being replaced with designer clothes outlets and souvenir shops, but
thankfully the overall balance is still agreeable, and there is plenty of traditional culture to be
lapped up. Zadar’s suburbs are where the real development can be found, with high-rise
blocks of luxury apartments and boutique spa hotels cropping up everywhere you turn.

I managed to avoid the large chain hotels and stayed in a small family-run hotel called
Villa Valentina, located in the popular tourist quarter of Zadar. This clean, friendly bed and
breakfast offers rooms with great views of the town and a handy taxi service running to and
from the centre.

From Zadar, it is a two-hour car journey away from the coast to Plitvica national park. This
must-see UNESCO world heritage site is a breathtaking series of azure lakes, connected
by a succession of beautifully cascading waterfalls. The lakes have formed in karstic
rock, mainly dolomite and limestone, and are separated by natural dams of travertine,
created by the precipitation of carbonate minerals; in this case moss, algae and bacteria.
These natural dams grow at the rate of about one centimetre each year as more and more
encrusted plants and bacteria accumulate on top of each other. The incredible colours
change constantly depending on the quantity of minerals or organisms in the water and the
angle of sunlight.

The lakes collectively cover an area of about two square kilometres of beautifully
undeveloped natural habitat where rare plant and animal life flourishes. Tourists can enjoy
the spectacle from a maze of discreet wooden walkways, which meander through the park
on stilts above the water. You can easily spend a few days here, taking various routes from
the lower to upper lakes and vice versa, but be prepared to plan out your day to avoid
the coach loads of tourists who arrive every day at the same time to walk the boards and
somewhat tarnish the tranquil atmosphere.

The hotels and restaurants that surround the national park benefit from this steady stream
of custom, and consequently, one should expect high prices and mediocre service.

Leaving the lakes behind, I made the five hour journey back to the coast, to Split,
and was instantly enamoured with Croatia’s second city. A single jaunt down the stunning
seafront promenade, dividing marina and old town, is enough to fall in love with the place.

At the heart of the Old Town is the impressive Cathedral of St Duje, which provides a
beautifully lit backdrop to the town square, where at night live music can be heard and
bars spill out onto the cobbled streets. For a meagre sum you can climb the steep steps to
the tower’s summit and enjoy a great view of the sprawling city’s suburbs.

Back on street level I found it best to leave the guidebook back in the hotel room and
venture this way and that, through the lattice of back alleys and side streets. Delightful bars
and restaurants exist around almost every corner, all vying for the tourist kuna. With
local specialities ranging from seafood risotto to freshly prepared pizzas, the food options
are more than adequate.

From Split, it is considered the norm to make your way south to Dubrovnik using
Dalmatia’s network of ferries, island hopping as you go. There are plenty of equally
beautiful islands to stop at en route, and I chose Korcula, separated from the Pelješac
peninsula by a narrow strait. The island is the second most populated island in the Adriatic.
Avoiding the port of Vela Luka on the western tip of the island, I continued on to the
beautiful town of Korcula on the east side.

Here it is advisable to steer clear of the high-end hotel complexes and rent a room from
one of the locals. These are easy to find, and can offer great value for money. I was lucky
enough to find space in Tarle apartments, with clean rooms and my own kitchen.

From there it is only a short walk down the hill to the town centre, which buzzes with
excitement on warm summer evenings. Head in the opposite direction during the day and
there are numerous coves and beaches perfect for a lazy day by the sea. Swimming here is
to die for, with the clear blue Adriatic sea invitingly calm and warm.

Leave the serenity of Korcula behind and head for Dubrovnik, Croatia’s main tourist
draw. There are plenty of accommodation options available for most budgets, but
my advice would be to settle in the Lapad region, where you can escape from the busy
throngs of cruise ship tourists that dominate the Old Town. Only a bus journey from the
famous red roofs, Lapad offers a more relaxed atmosphere and an all-important beach to
soak up some sun. Take the coastal path along to the Levanat restaurant, located on the very
tip of the peninsula, where you can enjoy a good meal with fabulous views out to sea.

When fully refreshed, set aside a full day to head to the Old Town and do your best to
make an early start. The ideal time to walk the incredible city wall is undoubtedly early
morning, before the cruise ships unload their passengers. The views from this unique
vantage point are astounding, and the entire wall will take you a good few fulfilling hours
to circumnavigate.