Hidden gems in Croatia
Last time when I was in Croatia was five years ago: two days in Dubrovnik. The beauty of Dubrovnik had haunted me ever since. The short visit made me curious about the other parts of the country. Finally, I arrived in Croatia for the second time, to spend longer time and take a road trip around the country.
Tourism is booming. When I arrived in Dubrovnik, though already off season (mid-September), it failed to touch my heart in the same way than five years ago. Stunning as it is, the old city is just packed with tourists, and all the traditional shops, cafes have turned into selling tourist products and menus. However, this time with a car, I was able to go wherever I wanted. As always, I did not do any planning or read any tourist books in advance, just hoped to encounter surprises on the way, and I was not disappointed.
There are many articles about routes and destinations of Croatia. In this post, I just want to share some of the hidden gems that I have discovered along the way.
Cavtat is only 20 minutes' drive away from the airport. It is very small, you can walk around it within 30 minutes. You can spend a chilled afternoon just roaming around, sipping a cup of coffee by the sea side, dipping in the crystal clear water and relaxing under the sun. In the evening, there was a performance of Tango dancing along the walking street by the sea side. I found it was a perfect stop over which got me relaxed and into ‘holiday mode’.
I stopped over here for late lunch and wandered around after Dubrovnik city. It possesses great natural beauty: many different types of plants, a Roman garden with a fountain, situated by the sea. After experiencing a morning with a city fully packed, this little place offered me much needed quietness.
Mostar (in Bosnia)
The decision to go to Mostar was super last minute. I was driving towards Split, and the route requires crossing the border of Bosnia. The police at border control only gave a glance at the car, and waved me away. So I thought to explore Bosnia a bit while I was there!
The drive towards Mostar did not give in much – narrow curvy roads in the hills. When I parked the car in the new city side, I was not impressed. But it was already late and getting dark, so I decided to stay there overnight. Later when I went out to get dinner, I followed the way suggested by my host to the ‘old bridge’ and what a pleasant surprise it was: first when I turned the corner at the walking street, it felt I was walking in a market of Istanbul, then it let me to the most beautiful bridge and view. The bells of the church and the prayers of the Islamic temple are both in the air, which signals the co-existence of religion and cultures.
Dragon’s Eye Lake
It was sunny, and I was looking for a place to swim and relax. After parking the car, I followed a small group of people carrying beach bags. It was such a pleasant surprise – a lake with cliffs around it. I got into my swim wear and jumped in from one of the spots, even more surprise: the water was salty! There were only 6 people there including myself – some just floating in the water, some looking for different heights and spots to jump in, one was in a wet suit and diving into the small caves.
It used to be an island, in the recent years, a land was built to connect it to the mainland, so you can just walk there. The highest point sits a church, I found it was extremely peaceful to sit there and watch sunset. Many places offer traditional Croatian food with reasonable price. In the evening, you see local people sitting around in their yards and chatting, people would say hi to each other and exchange some friendly words. Though touristy, it still has an authentic feeling to it.
Mljet is just a short ferry or catamaran ride from any of the main ports in Croatia. It's relatively unheard of, which adds to the beauty of the island as is untouched and quiet.The entire north-west of the island is the National Park that includes two salt water lakes - Veliko and Malo Jezero (Large and Small Lake). The Lakes stretch for about 4 kilometres and are bordered by great cycling and walking routes. Right in the middle of the Large Lake there is a small island / islet Melita (Sveta Marija) with large building of a former Benedictine monastery, erected there in 12th century. The monastery’s building is now café/restaurant and doesn't take long to explore, after the short crossing on a small boat that leaves from either side of the lake. Both lakes are great for walking, cycling, swimming and kayaking.
The south of the island is where you will find the island's beaches. Lovely quiet, white sandy beaches! There is only one main road on the island so it's hard to get lost and you can even explore Odysseus cave; a cave steeped in mysterious history. The island is also well known for it's white and red wine, olives, goat's cheese and scuba diving. Covered in Mediterranean forest it's the ultimate scenic escape.
Again, finding Rastoke was a bit of coincidence. After a long day in Plitvice Lakes, I did not feel driving for too long. On the way to Zagreb, I passed a town called Slunj, and decided to stay. Next morning after breakfast, I picked up a leaflet my host left behind and was impressed by the pictures, so went out for a walk.
The river side is very impressive with several waterfalls. It looked like a great place for kayaking, a bit further from the river, there were several areas that you can bath in. Plitvice was very enchanting, but you would not be able to jump in and swim in the waterfalls. If you are like me – eager to have a dip Rastoke is perfect!
This was my last stop. The weather has turned (thunderstorm), and I ditched the plan to follow the coast line. Instead, I drove towards Zagreb where I would fly out and thought I’d just spent my time indoors and catch up with some work.
Many travel posts said Zagreb was not worth more than half a day. But I was so glad with the choice I made for spending a couple of days here. This is the city where people work and live in, where you can find authentic restaurants to eat in with groups of locals, and shop in the stores where locals do daily shopping.
I just walked random in town. If it rained too heavy, I’d just take refuge in a museum or a cafe. The city has so many interesting museums: the museum of Illusions, the Museum of Broken Relationships were my favourite. I also randomly walked through a tunnel, which had interactive exhibition of Croatia history (at one part of it, you will need to walk through a long and dark part of the tunnel which rains even more heavily than outside).
And lastly, here are some tips if you plan to have a road trip in Croatia:
Plan your parking in advance
Parking is a nightmare in Croatia – almost every city/town. Due to the history, the alleys are narrow, and spaces are limited. My recommendation is: don’t drive into the city. When you are close enough, find a parking spot on one of the main road and walk it. I’ve seen many cars with scratches, and frustrated drivers trying to navigate out from the centres.
Take beach shoes
Croatia have few sandy beaches. Most of the coast line are stony, so are the rivers and lakes. If you want to take a bath, having beach shoes is very handy: so you are not risking getting scratches walking in and swimming in the water.
This can sound sneaky, but find a place on Booking.com and google the contact info if you can. The hosts often gave me a 5-10% discount off the price on booking sites. In addition, if you are from countries that use Euros, carry some with you and offer to pay your accommodation in cash and in Euros. The hosts use much better exchange rate than banks!
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