CROATIA, Former Yugoslavia
I had been to Croatia before this, back in the 1980s when it was still Socialist Yugoslavia. My crazy aunt Bette and her husband Bob had come to live on the beach here and get away from their big city lives. I was a student on summer break with a French girlfriend. Might as well go freeload — er, visit — for a week or two. Back then, things in Croatia were a little … let’s say primitive. The beach house was a bare cinderblock structure on the otherwise empty gravel beach. The hot water heater was a 1-liter box above the kitchen sink. And the nearest restaurant had a “special” menu for foreigners. Regardless, there was a rough beauty to that undiscovered place.
I did not recognize the country this time. Split and Dubrovnik are among the most popular seaside destinations in Europe, and prices have risen along with that title. The island of Hvar, off Split, has become known as the new Ibiza, with a dozen discos blasting music until dawn around the picturesque harbor where ten thousand young visitors come to party. Once-hidden beaches are now popular, and popular beaches are mobbed.
Despite the feeling that Croatia is now just another part of Western Europe, the rugged beauty of the Dalmatian coast and relatively low prices for accommodations make this a family favorite. The people aren’t going to win any awards for friendliness — they are a bit taciturn and wary of strangers. Most of the time, good service just means you get what you ordered — but if you have the good luck to fall in with a local, you will make friends for life.
For photos of Croatia click here.
Split came to fame in the fifth century, when Roman emperor Diocletian had his retirement palace built here. The remains of the palace are still the core of the old city, where for centuries the population lived inside the walls for protection, only venturing out and building a stone village in the 18th century between the palace and Marjan Hill (now a huge park with stunning views) which is an excellent place to stay if you don’t mind rustic accommodation. There are some small beaches and swimming spots along the western end of Split. There is little sand, many rocks, and clear fish-filled water. A path goes along the edge of the water, so you can walk along until you find the spot you like best. There are a few restaurants along the walk, with limited menus and mediocre food so you’re better off bringing your own.
Diocletian’s palace had not changed, of course, but everything inside it had. Where I remembered a few local cafes and mom & pop restaurants, there is now a huge number of stylish restaurants with dozens of tables, and prices to match any coastal town in France or Italy. There are ice cream stands and bars on every corner. At night, the place is one big party scene with colored lights and music everywhere. The place used to be frequented by locals who shopped in traditional shops there. They have been supplanted by tourists in souvenir shops. Hordes of Chinese and Spanish tour groups make their way through the narrow streets, snapping selfies with every monument they come across.
There is precisely one bar in the old town that has not changed. It’s called Zalogajnica Dioklecijan, or Tri Volta for the three arches that overlook the Riva from the open dining terrace. The menu is simple, with a few local dishes on the menu for very reasonable prices. The menu also lists local meat and cheese sold by weight, and local wine and beer. The seating is cheap plastic and the lighting is old fluorescent, and any tourist in their right mind would turn around and head back to the mood lighting and comfy seats down the steps. As well they should.
Transportation: Split is connected by boat and bus to several destinations in Croatia and Italy. We took the ferry from here to Dubrovnik, which is more expensive than the bus but a very scenic way to go and you avoid the border crossing of the land route (part of the shoreline belongs to Bosnia, so you have to leave Croatia, enter Bosnia, then leave Bosnia and enter Croatia again 15 minutes later, frequently resulting in traffic jams).
There are a few islands near Split that are well-known. Brac is the closest while Hvar is the best known. Hvar has become an all-night, balls-out rave party during summer nights with several clubs along the waterfront that are open until dawn. That is in stark contrast to the rest of the island, which is quite beautiful. From Hvar, you can rent a crappy little skiff to visit some smaller islands. We met a family who did this and had a fun day exploring the coves and restaurants of St Lawrence.
Our kids’ favorite Croatian city was Zadar, which is snubbed by many Italian tourists who head straight to Split or Dubrovnik. Perhaps because of that, Zadar was such a great place to visit. There is not a lot going on here, and the old town was almost completely rebuilt after WWII in unattractive, Soviet-style architecture but there was enough personality and fun here to keep us occupied for 10 days. Walking along the recently-unearthed Roman ruins where you are actually encouraged to sit, touch, and play kept the kids entertained. Walks along the waterfront at sunset, up to the wave organ were romantic and relaxing. There are a couple of 1000 year-old churches here as well, St. Donatus (sv. Donata), the round one where concerts are held, and St. Anastasia which looks Italian mostly because this area was Italian when the church was built. The facade has some amazing carvings, but the inside is rather plain due to the fact that it was also rebuilt after being bombed during the war. Our favorite church, however, was St. Lawrence (sv. Lovre) which is inside a cafe of the same name. There are just a few columns and the apse remaining, but it was well worth a short visit to see how the cafe respected the architecture while serving beer outside the ruins.
The old town is flanked by Queen Jelene park above the Sea gate, with its Venetian lions. There is a cafe and a disco in this green park with sea views. The park also touches 5 Wells Square (Trg 5 Bunara), aptly named for the five wells here, which were in use up until the last century. The most fun way of arriving in the old town is by walking across the pedestrian bridge across the harbor. We actually added five minutes to our walk just to take the bridge each time we went in. By the way, the old town is the center of city life, so the closer you can stay, the better.
Transportation: Zadar is a short distance from Rijeka (Fiume in Italian) which is another pleasant spot overlooked by most tourists. There are regular buses and seasonal ferries between Split and all coastal cities (Zagreb too, but there is obviously not a ferry). Zadar is a couple of hours by bus from Split (Spalato in Italian) or a few hours by seasonal ferry. The ferry costs a lot more than the bus! If you are taking a bus from Italy, note that the buses will only list the Italian names (of course). We took the night bus from Bologna to Zadar, with a driver who clearly wanted to be a racecar driver instead. The bus stops in Rijeka and Zadar in the early morning. There is also a seasonal, ridiculously high-priced overnight ferry from Ancona to Split and Zadar. Bring your own food and drink (and pillow).
Taxi Warning: As in any city, do not trust the taxi drivers, especially not anyone who approaches you. I had called Uber, so I knew the 1km ride to our apartment would cost about 2 euros. A taxi driver “helpfully” approached us. He claimed he knew all the roads in the city. When I showed him the address on my phone, he had no idea where it was. He studied the map for a few minutes before declaring, “That’s very far. I charge 5 euros each person” which meant 20 euros. When I informed him that we could walk in 10 minutes, he told me, “No, no, no, very far. I drive. 20 euro.” Lili waved at him from the window of our Uber ride and three minutes later, we were there.
Around Zadar: Some well-known day trips from Zadar are to the Plitvice lakes or Krka national park. Krka is also a short ride from Split and there are plenty of buses from both cities to take you here. Krka may not be as breathtaking as Plitvice, but it is less crowded, closer, and allows swimming in one of the waterfall lakes. We spent several hours here walking over wood piers across ponds and waterfalls and barely covered a small fraction of the park. Be advised that you need to take a boat in and out of the main entrance, which is in the town. The boat ride is “included” in the high price of admission. Don’t miss the last boat, or you’ll be sleeping in a shepherd’s hut. We heard there is another entrance several kilometers up the road, but unless you have a motorcycle, you’re not going to use that one.
Half an hour south from Zadar is a small town called Biograd, which has a map showing itself as the center of the Dalmatian coast. There are a few beaches, but the main attraction are the boat trips and cruises that leave from here. Aside from the marinas and harbor, this is a small town with a good number of bars and restaurants catering to the tourist trade but still reasonably good and well priced.
Ah, Dubrovnik — the pearl of the Adriatic, better known these days as Kings Landing from Game of Thrones. UNESCO World Heritage city (a red flag for budget travelers). Actually, we didn’t really want to come to Dubrovnik, but had to — it’s on everyone’s bucket list, and it’s supposed to be beautiful. These days, it’s known more for the tens of thousands of tourists that descend on the city each day and for the Game of Thrones walking tours than for its architecture, or even for its role in the Balkan War, when the Serbian [then-Yugoslavian] army actually shelled the medieval city. You can see the new tile roofs which were replaced after the war. The city has bounced back admirably, skyrocketing to the most popular city in the Balkans. In fact, it is a victim of its own success and there is serious discussion about limiting the amount of visitors each day, because the mobs ruin the experience for everyone (the Vatican should pay attention, but they like the money too much). Like Split, Dubrovnik is now filled with overpriced bars and restaurants, catering exclusively to one-time tourists. This is just one of those cities where you have to bite the bullet and jump into the horde and get out with your wallet and dignity a little worse for the wear.
The good news is, the walled city is actually very small. We walked across it in 15 minutes, and even walking along the city walls only takes a few hours. There are a few places to see in the city, although it’s the exteriors and the setting that are the main draw. Another tip: come at night, when the tour buses have all left. The city is still alive and dramatically lit, but you can actually walk around. You may even want to.
There are very few reasonably-priced places to eat in the old town, such as Tutto Bene, but it’s food, not a meal. Go outside the walls for a decently-priced meal. Similarly, there are only about 3 small grocery stores inside the walls — this city is not meant to be a budget haven, it’s meant to extract as much cash as possible from short-stay guests.
Speaking of short stays, there are the tours of Dubrovnik: the city walls, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, haunted Dubrovnik, historical Dubrovnik, war tours. We walked the city walls, which took a few hours. The views over the city and the sea were gorgeous. There were thousands of other people doing the same walk and parts felt crowded, but we were still glad we did it. Bring a beer and drink it in a shady spot. You’ll be glad you did. We did our own GoT tour by watching a video on Youtube that showed us the spots to see. Better than paying 20 euros each.
Transportation: There are tours around Dubrovnik: the Elafiti Islands, Mostar, Kravice Falls, Blidinje in Bosnia and Kotor and Budva in Montenegro, to name a few. Depending on your budget, these are all worthwhile destinations. If you’ve been to other parts of the Dalmatian coast, you may have already seen a few islands — there are some 2000 of them off the coast. Do you need to see more? Kotor, Montenegro is a beautiful town, with low prices. As for the Bosnian destinations, that’s where we were headed. If you are going to take a tour, shop for prices. If you just want the bus, walk to the bus station. Tickets can be bought at the ticket window for a small fee or directly on the bus from the driver.
As for accommodation, we stayed at an Airbnb apartment inside the wall for our 24 hour visit. There were 94 steps to the front door of our 3-floor apartment. Do you need to stay inside the walls? No, and staying on the north side will result in so many stairs you’ll wish you’d stayed outside the walls. Stay close by and use Uber or a taxi to get around. Note that taxis can use special lanes and get much closer to the walled town than private cars. Inside the walls it’s noisy and you will pay a premium, but we’ve done worse. We were a little more likely to go out at night staying inside the walls, and the night was our favorite part.
So to answer the question I asked so many times, does one really need to visit Dubrovnik, if only for a day? I’d have to say yes. Grit your teeth, get in, spend a night, and get out.
For photos of Croatia click here
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
For photos of Bosnia, click here.
What do you get when you take world-class scenery, a population made up of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and historical capital cities? You get one of the most surprisingly beautiful and dynamic countries in the world. OK, it’s not perfect: they have co-presidents, corruption is high, and there are still bombed-out buildings from the war in the 1990s. Despite the drawbacks, the people are friendly, the food is delicious, and the sights are seriously world-class. The climate is Mediterranean in the south and continental in the north, which meant you can wear shorts in Mostar and a parka in Sarajevo.
We mentioned to a Croatian that we wanted to stay a week in Mostar. He said, “What for? There’s a bridge and an old street.” He was right, of course, but we spent a very pleasant week there. In addition to the UNESCO-listed bridge (faithfully reconstructed in 2004 after the original was bombed during the war) and the medieval streets on both sides, there is an extended walking street along the east side of the river lined with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. This area was mostly frequented by locals, and we spent most of our time here.
The stone street and stone houses around the bridge are unapologetically quaint, even filled as they are with souvenir shops. We arrived on a weekday, and we could walk unhindered across the bridge at almost any hour, day or night, as long as a bus tour wasn’t blocking the way, snapping selfies. Once the weekend came, however, the hordes arrived and we realized how lucky we had been. Still, we ended up walking back here every night.
Close to Mostar are a few places just as attractive: Blidinje, Kravice Falls, and Medjugorje. There are frequent tours, but we decided to rent a car instead. We drove to Kravice and Medjugorje, hoping to stop by Blidinje on our way back. The roads here are well-marked and well-paved so driving was simple.
The town of Medjogorje is entirely given over to the religious pilgrim trade. If you are not Catholic or not a believer in appartions, there’s very little here for you. We got lost driving around — the town is designed for tour buses and thousands of pilgrims, not families in rental cars. We finally parked at a hotel outside of town supposedly near Apparition Hill, where the Virgin of Medjogorje supposedly appeared on several occasions to a group of then-children (the same people are still living here, and at least 1 still claims to see the Virgin). The hill is a punishing climb of over 1km up slippery outcrops of rock, punctuated by stations of the Cross, then down again on more slippery, crumbling rocks. (There is also a quick route directly to the actual apparition spot, for those who can’t make the walk up.)
After a well-deserved beer, we were off again, this time to Kravice Falls which is not far from Medjugorje. We were expecting another experience like Krka or Plitvice, both of which are actually rather close. Instead, there is a long hike down to a pretty waterfall where you can swim, if you can handle the cold water. There are a few rustic restaurants on the pond where you can eat for a fairly reasonable price, considering the amazing view. There is supposedly another cascade a little further down the path but after half an hour of hiking, we saw no signs of it and turned back.
Considering our two hikes of the day, both up and down hills, the family was ready to go home without stopping in Blidinje. There is not much to see in Blidinje beyond the mouth of the river that comes up under an old Dervish home. Some say it’s a spiritual spot, and that it’s best visited in the evening. I guess we’ll find out on our next trip.
Sarajevo is a vibrant city of contrasts. It started as a relay on trade routes, when an Ottoman prince built a palace there — Sarajevo means palace (saray) in the fields (evo). It was captured in the 1870s by the Austro-Hungarian empire. Some people will remember that World War I started here when the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (who was considered a hero here for his actions which led, after all, to the independence of the region, at least until WWII). It remained part of Yugoslavia until the breakup of the country which led to a 4-year siege by the Serbians, causing the inhabitants to revert to medieval style lives in order to survive. The fact that the city has emerged from that dark era as boldly as it has is a testament to its citizens’ resilience and lust for life.
Today, aside from “Sarajevo roses” on the pavement, the city is bustling. Buildings that could be repaired have been repaired while others were torn down and replaced — mostly with money from Saudi Arabia, which explains the lack of alcohol in many new shopping centers. The food here is outstanding as long as you love meat: it’s the best of Turkish and Balkan styles. There is a large pedestrian zone that goes from the Ottoman section with its low, wooden buildings to European style stone structures along wide, straight avenues. Evenings and weekends, it seems every Sarajevan and every visitor is here, walking up and down, having a coffee or a beer here.
Transportation: Memories of the war still cloud travel to and from its neighbors. The bus from Croatia spent over an hour at the Bosnian border. We also had trouble getting to Kosovo, our next destination, by bus. Kosovo was the last breakup of Yugoslavia; it achieved independence from Serbia in 2008 although its independence is not recognized by Serbia, Russia, China, or Spain, among others. This can make travel to and from Kosovo tricky. In short, try to come through Serbia before coming to Kosovo. If you have a Kosovo stamp in your passport without a Serbian stamp, you will not be able to pass through that country as you are in their country illegally and other countries may give you a hard time as well. Also, you cannot buy a bus ticket to Kosovo from Bosnia. We had to buy tickets to Novi Pasar in Serbia. Once on the bus, we told the driver we were headed to Prishtina and he charged us the fare difference. We were warned that the driver would only accept Serbian money on board, but in fact he was not picky and accepted everything. There is also a train in Bosnia: it goes to/from Mostar in the south and Banja Luka in the north. There are only 2 trains per day from the huge central station in Sarajevo but the scenery en route is fantastic, when they run.
For photos of Bosnia, click here.
For photos, click here
Prishtina is a homely city. But it makes up for it with a vibrant pedestrian area lined with cafes and restaurants that are bustling day and night. We stayed in an apartment a short walk through twisting, crooked roads that led to the beating heart of the city, known as Mother Teresa Street. In fact, the streets around Nene Tereze are so convoluted that we regularly got lost, once even finding ourselves back at our apartment! Even once we knew the way, we ended up on another road from time to time. Prishtina has some Communist-era architecture, which is unfortunate. Luckily, it also has an Ottoman neighborhood that has survived, which hosts a large food and textile market near the Nene Tereze area.
Oddly, there is also a larger-than-life statue of Bill Clinton here, along George Bush Street — yes, you read that right. Clinton and Bush were instrumental in Kosovo’s independence movement. We found a pleasant promenade a block off of George Bush Street. You can walk at street level, where there is a covered shopping area, or upstairs in the open air with more shops and several cafes and bars. Not that there is much of a view from here, but the walk was pleasant enough.
Most of the time here we spent in cafes along Nene Tereze, watching the world go by. Kosovo uses the Euro as its currency, but prices are less than half of what we saw in the Euro zone countries. Warning: ATMs charge several Euros per transaction!
Kosovo has some amazing countryside and excellent trekking territory that we did not get to. We did get as far as the marble caves, a 50-cent bus ride outside of the city. If you like caves, I guess it was worth it. We had a “guide” but he would run off to other visitors then come back, urging us to finish up our tour. Mostly, we just followed the trail. Catching the bus back was the biggest challenge, as the stop is unmarked and is not on the main road. Luckily, the driver saw us and waited as we ran.
The kids were less than thrilled with Prishtina — not even seeing the world’s ugliest building or a trip up to the revolving bar here could make them want to stay. We set off for Bulgaria by bus. Stay tuned!
Recommended Reading: Our tour guide in Sarajevo recommended a few books that are highly worth reading for a good understanding of this geographically small but complicated region. Sadly, just about every modern book about this area covers the 1990s war, eclipsing coverage of WWI, the kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the country’s alliance with the Nazis during WWII (ironic considering the attempted genocide in the 1990s).
First, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a intense story of events in four people’s lives during the 1990s war.
Another book is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. She won the Pulitzer Prize for this tale that weaves history and current events. If you like Brooks, you’ll love this one. Then again, if you’re a Geraldine Brooks fan, you’ve already read this one. Congratulations.
If you are looking for another emotional story of life during wartime (I don’t need more of that), Goodbye Sarajevo ranks high on the recommended list.
I don’t ordinarily read or recommend graphic novels, but Joe Sacco’s The Fixer tells the story of some of the less ethical choices made during the war.