My husband Brian and our daughters landed in Split two days after Christmas. Split is the second largest city in Croatia, spread over a central peninsula. Roman Emperor Diocletian’s fourth-century palace is built here, an ancient “retirement” palace. The Old Town built into the nooks and crannies and has some of the best Roman ruins. It is a beautiful maze of narrow alleys, dramatic coastal mountains and sparkling turquoise waters of the Adriatic.
We walked through the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, known as the basement halls, now filled with vendors selling souvenirs. History notes that Diocletian caused tragic suffering as he tortured Christians to death. Ironically, his tomb was later turned into a Christian church, the Cathedral of St. Domnius.
We stayed at Palace Judita Heritage Hotel for two nights in the center of town. The hotel manager, Andrea, met us on a golf cart with an exuberant smile and scolded me when I tried to carry my bags up the stairs to the “lighthouse” room where we were staying, “You shouldn’t be holding anything heavier than a wine glass,” he said. The girls had their own loft room upstairs with a gorgeous standing chandelier, tiny windows in every corner and a beautiful wooden beamed ceiling. I told our friends the Biebers about the hotel (they have been to Split several times) and they immediately remembered Andrea, the manager, who helped them plan many special memories in Split.
The hotel was steps away from the promenade and many restaurants on the sea. Christmas vendors were still out and selling seasonal treats. The cafes were lit with twinkling lights that reflected on the water. Each café had outdoor heaters and blankets on the backs of chairs. And there was a live band playing on the main street. Our daughter Madison and I went out and sipped on hot chocolate both nights we were in Split. It was lovely sitting outside in January with a chill in the air, near the sea. Many locals stay out very late and the energy was infectious. In the mornings we went running along the promenade, alongside the boats and up toward the hill was stunning.
I booked a family electric scooter tour one day and our guide took us all over the area with sleek, black Xiaomi M365 scooters. We all practiced in a nearby parking lot and found the ride very smooth – it was like hopping on a skinny Segway. I did some research on this electric scooter company and it was owned by a former Uber executive. We whizzed through the ancient streets with ease, gliding through a forested park up to Marjan Hill, or what our guide called the “lungs of the city” which provided a gorgeous panoramic view. We also stopped at a tiny monastery built into the limestone. It was a three hour tour we highly recommend in seeing the city.
Day tripping to Dubrovnik on Brian’s Birthday
Celebrating my husband Brian’s birthday in Croatia today. Happy 54 sweetheart! From Split we drove to our next destination on the southern coast. Dubrovnik is often referred to as “the pearl of the Adriatic” and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. The vibe in Dubrovnik was completely different, as it is encircled with massive stone walls from the 16th century.
Similar to Zadar and Split, Dubrovnik is paved with limestone and the pedestrianized Stradun (or Placa) is lined with shops and restaurants. We stayed for two nights at the Pucic Palace, a 17th century Baroque building located on the Gunduilic Square in Old Town Dubrovnik, surrounded by monuments, museums and art galleries.
We ate at the Taj Mahal, a hidden gem. It’s a small quaint Serbian food restaurant with about 5 tables. In fact, we had to wait outside for a while to be seated, but it was well worth it. I ordered Cevapi – mini sausages served on flat pita bread (called Lepinja in Serbia, or Somun in Bosnia) with sliced red onions. The flavor was outstanding! We told the waiter that it was Brian’s birthday and he brought out a delicious apple strudel cake with vanilla ice cream. Two thumbs up!
We explored the town and found the east entrance, Ploče Gate, built in Romanesque style at the end of 14th century. Above the Gate there is a statue of Sveti Vlaho, the patron saint of Dubrovnik. This town is one of those places that you never want to leave. The best sight is the still-stout medieval wall that surrounds this city of about 40,000, offering an unforgettable scenic mile-long stroll above town. While constructed over many centuries, today’s impressive fortifications date from the 1400s, when they were beefed up to defend against the Ottoman Turks. We really enjoyed walking the walls – taking a circular, hour-and-a-half walk around the fortified perimeter of one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval towns, There are ever-changing views and plenty of favorite picture spots. On one side is a sea of red rooftops and on the other side is the blue sea waters.
We continued to celebrate Brian’s birthday that night and went to the restaurant Dalmatino, recommended to us by the hotel staff. Unfortunately this was the worst meal we have experienced in Croatia. I ordered an Irish coffee and after one sip got a mouthful of coffee grinds. Brian’s pasta was overcooked and bland. We were underwhelmed by the service, cleanliness and flavorless food. Plus Morgan found black bugs crawling in the olive oil container on the table. Ewwww! But they did bring out a slice of cake and candles to celebrate Brian’s birthday and the entire restaurant broke into the universal song “Happy Birthday.”
Brian is a big “Game of Thrones” fan and the next day I scheduled a Winter in “King’s Landing” tour where we visited filming locations Blackwater Bay, Red Keep and the Walk of Shame. Our hotel was right around the corner from this scene in season five, the Walk of Shame, in which Cersei Lannister is forced to walk naked through the streets, starting at the top of the near the iconic Jesuit Staircase. The elegant Baroque stairs are located on the south side of Gundulic Square and lead up to the Uz Jezuite Street to the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius and two of Dubrovnik’s colleges, Collegium Ragusinum and Jesuit College. The guide told us if you look closely at the television frames, the editor forgot to block out the college’s names, so it looks like Cersei may be coming out of class while walking down the staircase. He even pulled up clip of the bell ringing and woman chanting, “Shame, shame, shame.” It was extremely windy and cold that day, but we walked around Fort Lovrijenac and looked out onto Lokrum Island where several additional scenes were filmed.
2020 in Zadar
Ringing in the New Year with family in Croatia was the icing on the cake to my semester as a US Fulbright Scholar. Walking hand in hand across the footbridge, showing them the town, my favorite bakery, the university, my running route along the sea – it was magical. Since we drove from Dubrovnik on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t make dinner reservations because I wasn’t sure when we would arrive in Zadar.
We arrived in the afternoon, enough time to introduce the girls to the SuperNova shopping center, where they bought a few things to take home. Having the rental car with us was so much easier than walking to the bus station and timing the bus routes. After some shopping we went to the sea organ and watched the sunset. This was one of the most spectacular sunsets, with the sky illuminated in an array of purples, pinks and reds. We took so many pictures!
After the sunset, I surprised the girls by giving them the keys to the apartment next to us. My landlord gave us the use of the extra apartment so the girls would have their own space during their two night stay. They loved it! We all got ready and headed out to eat in Old Town. As we approached the first restaurant, La Bodega, it turns out it isn’t a restaurant at all, only drinks. They directed us to The Hedonist restaurant a few block away. But as we approached, one of the waiters was collecting the chairs and bringing them inside. “We close in 5 minutes,” he said. Wait, what? It was only 6:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Isn’t this the night where many people go out to dinner to celebrate? We asked him if he had another recommendation and he told us to try 4 Kantuna, or 4 Corners Restaurant closer to my apartment. Again, after a brisk walk, we were told that they closed as well.
All of the restaurants in Zadar close at 6:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and are closed New Year’s Day. Oops. Thankfully one of the smaller grocery stores was still open and we grabbed some pasta, sauce and frozen vegetables before heading back to the apartment. It was a spontaneous dinner that turned out to be a lot of fun. We played music, danced, and tooted our New Year’s horns.
At 11:00 p.m. we put our coats on to head out on the town again. The streets were full and we had our “2020” festive paper glasses on and were blowing our party horns (people stopped to stare and take pictures of us). Perhaps horn blowing is not a “thing” during NYE? I was hoping to take the girls out to show them the nightlife (admittedly, I have never been out past 9:00 p.m. the entire time I’ve been in Zadar), and Ellie recommended a club called Hype, on the other side of the footbridge. We walked into the club and noticed champagne bottles on each table and a “reserved” card. Uh oh. And the club was completely dark and empty, except for the waiters and a few flashing disco lights. One of the waiters approached us and asked if we had a reservation, which of course we didn’t (who knew?) and politely asked us to leave.
Did our NYE party end before it had a chance to begin? On the way out we laughed and said, “Well, I guess we were ‘kicked out’ of the club . . . with your parents!” We ended up going to the Advent Market and there was a live Croatian rock band playing. We danced in our chairs to a few songs and by midnight we were back in the apartment once again. Later I told my colleagues our NYE story and they said that most folks in Croatia go out to clubs around 1:00 a.m. and come home around 4:00 a.m. They are night owls and ready to celebrate while we were sleeping. Oh well, Happy New Year!
Happy New Year at Plitvitce Lakes
This is a national park I have been told is a “must see” and everyone was right. Plitvice Lakes National Park covers over 73,000 acres. There are four hiking trails that are organized into 7 different routes to tour the park. Not only are the crowds significantly less during the winter months (in the summer the park officials have put a cap on daily attendance at 10,000 people per day, requiring purchase of online tickets in advance and car lines hours long before making it to the entrance), but the landscape of snow and ice makes the waterfalls look like a winter wonderland.
Since the park was basically deserted on New Year’s Day (we must have seen 1 other car on the highway during our drive there), we had a guide and he told us the upper waterfalls were closed, so we toured the lower portion. There is a chain of 16 terraced lakes, joined by waterfalls, that extend into a limestone canyon. Walkways and hiking trails wind around and across the water, and an electric boat links the 12 upper and 4 lower lakes.
It is very slippery from the mist and we had to hold on to the wooden rails (it was like ice skating on the boardwalk) in many sections as to not slip and fall into the lake below. The guide told us that many visitors fall into the lakes each year and many have drown. He said that 11 of the rivers have been named after people who have drown in them!
The waters flowing over the limestone deposited travertine barriers over thousands of years, creating natural dams which created a series of beautiful lakes, caves and waterfalls. The guide tells us the forests in the park are home to bears, wolves and many rare birds.
We began hiking in Entrance 2 and first saw Veliki Slap, the tallest waterfall in Croatia (78m). Hiking the lower section takes about three hours. The guide tells us about the natural history of the park and how he grew up here, swimming in most of the lakes (which is no longer allowed). He also shared that the Homeland War began here when he was about 10 years old. He heard the first strikes and his father told him to hide with his brother in the bathroom. They abandoned their home for 4 years during the war before returning. What a stark juxtaposition between the beauty of nature and grief of destruction. It was definitely a day of reflecting on the past and welcoming a new year.