A few years ago I saw an unreal picture of a dreamy place with crystal-blue water flowing through a series of lakes. At that point, I didn’t know where this place was but the scenery had convinced me to find it and pay a visit. Later, when I found out that it was in Croatia, I discovered that those lakes were not the only thing worth a visit to Croatia, the country is a photographer’s paradise. At the beginning of 2018, when I and my friends were thinking of options for our next road trip, we decided to go to visit this beautiful Balkan country.
A week in Croatia was full of amazing experiences. If I had to pick three highlights of our trip that would be: beaches, national parks, and most definitely, the roads. So I would go in that order.
Upon landing in Zagreb, we felt a welcome change in temperature, it changed from around 10°C to 25+°C. So the first thing we did once we got the rental car was to drive towards the sea. As it turns out, the sea is a little far from Zagreb – a 300km drive brought us to the beautiful city of Zadar. To our luck, we got a brand new car, so we didn’t realize when those 3 hours passed. The route from Zagreb to Zadar perfectly narrates the diversity in the Croatian landscape. We started the drive along lush green forests, then came the tree-less boulder filled valleys with distant views of the water, but before we could reach close to water, we drove through small Balkan villages with fruit plantations all the way to Zadar.
Right before leaving for Croatia, a friend of mine had suggested not to miss the sunset in Zadar. Luckily, we were close to the perfect place for a majestic sunset – the old town of Zadar which sits right at the Adriatic coast with uninterrupted views of the sea. We spent some time exploring the Venetian walls of the old town till we found the ideal place to enjoy the sunset with some soothing natural music in the background from a special musical organ – öalskdfj organ, which is a unique installation making amazing melodies with sea waves. Whenever a ship or a boat passes making waves, you hear a different melody which is quite scintillating. We sat by the sea enjoying the sunset with a soothing breeze brushing across the face as the sky changed its color from bright white to blue, then purple and orange and finally the street lights took over. This setting sounded a bit romantic, but we had no choice but to make it bromantic and have fun. The things I had heard about sunset in Zader lived every bit up to the hype and more.
Zadar’s old town is a quaint narrow peninsula which was built during the Roman era; throughout the day, it is filled with tourists coming on huge cruise ships. But when we went back to explore the streets after sunset, the ambiance of the streets had totally changed. The day-tourists had disappeared and we could finally notice the shiny white stones on the streets reflecting the lights from the neon signs of the ubiquitous gelaterias, gift shops, and restaurants. Not just the lights, these gelatarias, and restaurants added a pleasant aroma of a myriad of flavors into the evening breeze which made our mouths water. Eventually, we couldn’t resist and went to one of the gelaterias and ordered more scopes of ice cream than we could finish before it all melted. At this gelateria, we realized two things: Surviving without cash was difficult in Croatia, and gelato is awfully cheap here. The guy at the counter was nice enough to trust us to come back with cash, which we did. And then we carried enough cash throughout the rest of the trip to satiate our gelato cravings.
After spending one evening and having next day’s breakfast in Zadar. We headed straight to the accomplish the real purpose of Coming to Croatia – Beaches. Our next stop was a town called Bol on the Island Murter. It was a short drive but we got delayed by road blockages to facilitate a half-marathon in Zadar. After almost an hour, the traffic blockage opened up, and we started driving towards Bol.
During the drive, while catching up on the past months’ anecdotes and blunders, another blunder happened. We didn’t realize that the speed limit changed from 60 to 50 close to a village and a policeman standing with a speed gun clocked us at 58 kmph. 15minutes of talking to a policeman who knew less than 20 words in English and 250 Kunas (Croatian Currency) later, we resumed our drive towards the beaches swearing not to miss any speed limit signs.
The island of Murter is connected to the mainland with a small bridge at a town called Tisno. As soon as we crossed the bridge to get on the island, the landscape dramatically changed. The route kept going uphill and the view kept getting better and better. We made multiple photo-stops en route before we finally had our first chance to be on a Croatian beach.
As we walked towards the beach from our car, we got excited watching so many people in the water, but the moment water touched our feet a chill went through the body. Yep, the hot showers spoil you, and I guess at the beginning of May, water is still comparatively cold (pro tip – go in September if you enjoy swimming, but be wary of jellyfishes at that time). So it was decided, no one is going in the water, not least that day. Against the plans, we sat there, with only our feet dipped in water appreciating the uniqueness of Croatian coast. There is a reason why I call the Croatian coast unique: One thing that I have always associated with beaches throughout my life is- Sand, to my surprise, in Croatia, there is none. All the Croatian beaches are full of round, white pebbles, no sand or mud and hence crystal-clear blue water. Another thing I have associated with beaches, especially in India are coconut trees, I have rarely seen them in Europe but pine trees right next to beaches are new for me. I was used to seeing pine trees on mountains, pebbles in rivers, and blue waters in lakes. But now it was all at a beach. Made for some interesting pictures.
After spending some hours at this beach, we drove to another nearby beach, the “beach” part here was tiny but we could see some elderly couples going on a trail along the water, we followed to the same path hoping that there would be something better at the end of the trail. Eventually, we reached the tip of the peninsula which was uniquely quiet. All we could hear was the sound of waves slapping the rocks and a man sitting on a plastic chair on his boat desperately trying to catch fish.
We sat there for a few hours soaking the scenery, silence, and Sun; and waiting for that guy to catch at least one fish. Eventually, he gave up and started his boat to head back, that’s when we also decided to call it a day. Thereafter, we headed to Split, another big city in Croatia. After driving for a while, I started noticing a glare in the rearview mirror as the Sun was getting lower. Just in a matter of few minutes, that annoying glare transformed into a magical orange sunset. I couldn’t resist the view in the rear view mirror and decided to take a short break to appreciate the view. Luckily the resting point we stopped at offered an amazing vantage point to see the sunset
We didn’t realize that we had spent almost an hour at this resting point and it started getting dark quite fast after we resumed our drive. While approaching Split from the North, the highway is at a high altitude. Once you exit the highway and start descending towards the town, the view is mesmerizing. Especially at night, the city lights sparkle like a nest of fireflies with a view of the sea in the background. That evening, our missing piece of the puzzle, Aditya also joined us after he took a 4 stop flight to come to Croatia from his work trip. By the time we picked Aditya from the airport we were tired as hell, after two slices of pizza and an episode of The Crown on Netflix we decided to skip our travel tradition of playing cards every night and went to sleep.
Next morning, we took a quick walk around the Split old town and realized that it was just an overcrowded and less beautiful version of Zagreb old town. Although, there is a lot of history associated with Split; but after enduring through Swedish winter and surviving temperatures of -21°C — beach sounded much more important than history. So we fast forwarded through the Split old town with one quick stop to get the daily dose of gelato. The harbor is not too far from the old town, and from there we boarded a car ferry to an Island called Brač.
Brač is a hilly island known for Olive plantations and famous for a uniquely shaped beach. The Zlatni Rat Beach is a knife shaped beach which looks like the land is trying to stab the sea. Interestingly, the beach changes a bit in shape every year. This time we finally decided to face our fear of cold water and showed no hesitations in taking a dip. We were at this beach for more than 3 hours but then came a moment when no one could hold their hunger.
After surviving a spider-infested shower facility, we went to be a nearby pizzeria which turned out to be the best pizza I had eaten in a long time. The server claimed that there are a lot of Italian tourists coming to their place and they say that their pizzas are better than many of the pizzerias in Italy, she also recommended us to go to a place called Vidova Gora which is the highest point on the Island. It was indeed a great suggestion, From Vidova Gora, one can enjoy a panoramic view of the nearby Islands, an areal view of Zlatni rat beach and nearby coast, and the best thing: a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset, so we saw an amazing sunset for the third day in a row (Yes, there were so many of these on this trip). As it was getting darker, we had almost an hour long drive ahead of us before we could reach the ferry terminal. As we drove downhill, we could see Split on the other side of the sea with all the sparkling city lights, it was like watching chaos in the distance while you sit in peace (Sounds like making a comment about the current political situation in the USA). We had to wait for almost an hour for the ferry before we got to our airbnb but we managed to play cards this evening before hitting the bed.
Split to Dubrovnik
It was already our fourth day in Croatia, time was flying quite fast, and we were finally embarking on the much-awaited drive from Split to Dubrovnik. This is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the Balkans and trust me – it is true. We drove through some of the amazing yet constantly changing landscapes. Most of the time we were driving along the sea but when we were not, the road was still close to water, sometimes it was rivers, sometimes canals. Driving through the Croatian villages is also amusing. While driving through the villages near the river Neretva, farmers were selling fresh orange and peach juices outside their roadside farmhouses. We bought a bottle of each and it was gone within a few minutes, without doubt, it was the freshest juice I’ve had in a long time, although we suspected that they had added some sugar to make it sweeter. During this drive, we also crossed a 20km stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina before re-entering into Croatia. It reminded me of an old map-joke about Bosnia.
Q: How do Bosnians go to sea?
I guess, I just lost half of my readers at that PJ. This 20km stretch was also very scenic as the road was right next to the water with nice panoramic views. As we got closer to Dubrovnik, the density of civilization kept on increasing. The way Dubrovnik city has expanded is quite unique. The highway crosses the city at an altitude 100 meters higher than the old town. Along the slope from the highway till the old town, lie the houses built along zigzag downhill roads and plenty of staircases. Our Airbnb was right at the Highway, that meant we had to climb down around 400 stairs to go to the Old Town. It was almost 4 PM and we hadn’t eaten lunch, hence to climb down we had the best motivator known to humankind – food (okay, don’t look like that, second-best).
After another day of eating Pizza for lunch, we started exploring the old town when we noticed a board pointing in a direction saying “Coffee with a view”. Intrigued, we followed the signs with fears of getting mugged, but there was actually an amazing view waiting for us. We didn’t have coffee and rather walked past the cafe to spend some time on a nearby rock where a lot of people were sitting watching the waves and sunset. So, luckily, we found a perfect spot to see the sunset for the fourth consecutive day.
After the sunset, we headed back to the city to grab gelatos and some “Game of Thrones” souvenirs. Now we had a daunting task ahead of us, to climb up 400 stairs to get back to our Airbnb. To make it less boring, we had a bet on which route up was the faster one. So we split up and raced each other to the top. I won’t go into details of who got first, but yeah, everyone was hungry again. Thankfully we were carrying a few packets of soup that we ate before calling it a day.
The biggest attraction in Dubrovnik old town are the walls around the old town and there are cruise ships full of tourists coming every day to see them. Our Airbnb host suggested us to get there at least 2 hours before the cruise ships arrive if we really want to have a good overall experience. So we had to get up early and reach the old town around 7 AM. Arriving early turned out to be a great decision, and the views from the walls were very enjoyable given that we were among a few people who had come that early.
To get a much better perspective of the old town, we drove to the top of the hill to reach Fort Imperial. It was a scary uphill drive, but the view from there was totally worth it.
Since we started early, we were done with all the sightseeing by noon. Once we started looking for things to see around Dubrovnik, we found out that Kotor in Montenegro was not too far so we thought, why not. A scenic two-hour drive brought us to Kotor Old town, which was situated in a totally different landscape reminding me of Norwegian Fjords. We didn’t have much time to spend in Kotor because there was a 5-hour drive waiting for us to get to our next Airbnb in Šibenik. After arguing for almost one hour about what should we do in our one hour at Kotor, we decided to just do some souvenir shopping and grab quick bite which to our horror turned out to be the worst pizza of our life. The drive to Kotor gave us a glimpse into the landscape of Montenegro, which was totally different from what we have seen in Croatia so far. The long 5-hour to Šibenik was enough to make us tired, but this drive along the Croatian coast was the perfect way to end the first leg of our trip, we drove through 3 countries on this single stretch. We played cards for a while before falling asleep, Now it was time to explore the national parks from the next day.
Krka National Park
After plenty of planning and replanning the trip, we had decided to see two of the national parks on our way back to Zagreb. In the hindsight, it would have been wise to book an open-jaw ticket rather than booking a round trip from Zagreb, then we could have avoided this 5-hour drive. But you can’t get everything perfect in the first go. During our first 4 days, we had stayed in the middle of cities. But now that we were going to see the national parks, we decided to stay in the Airbnb’s in the villages close to national parks. One big plus point was that the houses were much bigger for almost the same price, and we were closer to nature.
After we came to Sibenik, our next destination was to go to Krka National Park. Taking a dip in the Skradinski Buk waterfall was one of the things in the top of my Croatia To-do list. Krka National Park turned out to be much bigger than expected. It is spread across 70 km along the River Krka where it makes its way through different rocks and mountains. The part where we went first was called Lozovac which is an area where I think the river got a bit crazy and spread wings in all directions and then climbed down the rocks with numerous waterfalls. We went on a 2-kilometer long trail which is a wooden elevated path above water and marshland. The trail takes you through numerous waterfalls before finally arriving at the Skradinski Buk waterfall. At this point, we were in 2:2 opinion of taking a dip. Finally, I and Hassan decided to jump into water while Aditya and Abu watched our stuff. Once we got out of the water, we were starving, so as soon as we dried up, we just followed the smell of fries to the nearby overpriced restaurant. After finishing eating, we decided to not take the bus back to the parking which turned out to be a daunting task as we had to climb on a 30-40 degree slope for almost a kilometer.
Next, we headed to other waterfalls on the Krka river. On the way made a quick stop when we sighted a perfect rainbow. This waterfall was probably the neglected part of Krka NP, and there were hardly any people here. So we relaxed here for a while before heading to our next Airbnb in a village called Slunj.
Plitvice National Park
It was our last day of the trip and finally, it brought us to the place which made me curious about Croatia – Plitvice National Park (The place with plenty of lakes I mentioned at the beginning of this post). Plitvice NP is made up of 22 lakes on a river, connected to each other by innumerable waterfalls, which makes for a hell of a view. The lakes are divided into Upper-Lakes and Lower-Lakes with multiple trails taking you through an amazing view of all the lakes and waterfalls. Since we arrived early in the morning to avoid tourist groups, we took the second longest trail which was 12-kilometer long. Like Krka national park, This trail was also made up of wooden path elevated over, water and swamps quite similar to Krka. But for some reason, this felt much rawer and disconnected from the chaotic world.
The walk, coupled with chips and chocolates definitely made for some great photo opportunities. I still remember the first spotting of one of the waterfalls; we were walking on a downhill path following the loud sound of multiple water streams falling into the lake; as we got closer, the sound got loud enough to make us shout to communicate with each other, the trail went quite close to the waterfall(s) and there was mist all around forcing me to repeatedly clean the camera lens. The Waterfall looked like a rearview of someone’s head with thin water streams looking like locks of hair. It was an unforgettable view, and then the following waterfalls kept getting better and better.
Eventually, when we came to the end of the upper-lakes trail. We boarded on a boat that took us to the lower lakes. Once we reached there, it was quite evident, that lower lakes were much more touristy and there were people all around, the sun was finally out and we decided to grab something to eat from the only restaurant and went forward.
On this trail, the waterfalls were not as high as the upper lakes trail but there were plenty of them. With the sun out, the blue color of the water was also popping up, with hills on both sides and waterfalls in between, it would have made for a nice picture, and I was lamenting not owning a drone camera. As we walked a bit more we noticed a small path diverging out towards a cave with a warning sign saying “enter at your own risk”, and we thought, why not. As we walked into the cave, there were stairs going up towards what looked like another opening of the cave. We just followed the light as we climbed the stairs until we were on the top of one of the hills. This hill offered a panoramic view of the lakes and waterfalls eliminating the need for a drone and I finally got a chance to re-create the photograph that I had seen a few years back. As we walked further, we arrived at probably the highest waterfall we had seen in Croatia and this led to a childish bet between two of my friends that who can throw a stone at the top of the waterfall. I won’t say who won the bet, but it was fun to see two adults trying to prove stupid stuff. We completed our walking trail by late afternoon, as we headed towards our Airbnb, we had our last Croatian pizza of the trip.
Next day we had a short 100 km drive to the Airport to catch our flight back to Sweden. On the way to the airport, as we drove through the Croatian roads for the one last time on the trip, I realized that this trip wouldn’t have been half as good if we had not rented a car. Croatia is one of the best countries for a road trip. The country has a long coastal line and the roads offer breathtaking views of the seaside. The terrain changes every few hundred kilometers and you would never get bored of the views. On top of that, the Croatian government has definitely poured in a lot of money into building their highways and the quality of roads is top class. However, you have to pay the toll to drive on the motorways, but it is not a lot. I would sign off with some pictures from the road which might end up compelling you to plan a Road trip to Croatia.
Here is a map with details of our route and the places we visited: