August 13-20, 2005

I had no idea what beauty awaited me in Croatia. While the country has long been a popular tourist destination for Europeans, it is seldom visited by North Americans, so I really didn't know what to expect.

Joining me for my first few days in Croatia were Dan and Dave, a couple of ex-Mormon brothers from Tennessee that I met at my hostel in Budapest. Flying into Split, a city on the central coast, we were shocked by the stunning views from the moment we arrived at the airport. The southern coastline of Croatia is characterized by green and gold hills that rise out of the inviting, blue-green waters of the Adriatic Sea. Steep grey cliffs loom above the mix of slender pines, deciduous trees, and the occasional palm.

As a member of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia has a battle-scarred history going back well over 1000 years with the most recent civil war leaving its wounds in 1991 and 1992. Croatia's meandering C-shaped borders reflect the ethnic lines along which the countries in this area are divided. The northern half of the country, just south of Slovenia and Hungary, is narrowly connected to a long southern stretch of coastline along the Adriatic Sea. The country of Bosnia & Herzegovina is nested between the northern and southern halves and technically divides Croatia in two with a 20km wedge of its own coastline that separates the southern tip of Croatia from the rest of the mainland.

Starting in the city of Split, Dan, Dave and I spent the day wandering through the Old Town, a square region that marks the footprint of the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The palace was built in 305 A.D. and the vast majority of the four-story palace wall still stands, despite centuries of changes and renovations. The basement of the palace, which was excavated some 30 years ago, is in pristine condition with its monolithic stone walls and vaulted ceilings that mirror the shape of the emperor's upstairs quarters as they existed some 1700 years ago.

The area inside the old palace has been modified and rebuilt over hundreds of years to form the patchwork maze of winding corridors that can be seen today. Many of the roads are so narrow that it's easy to reach out and touch the walls on both sides simultaneously. The stone tiles of the plazas and roads have been worn smooth by centuries of foot-traffic. Mysterious architectural remnants such as underground tunnels and free-standing columns can be seen everywhere.

At night, thin strings of lights mark the exterior locations of the original palace windows, making it easy to imagine how it might have appeared centuries ago.

In the southern city of Dubrovnik, even less imagination is necessary. The layout of the Old Town is very similar to how it was during its original construction. The old city wall, which is 10-12 feet thick at places, is perfectly intact and can be walked in its entirety in an 890-meter loop that offers spectacular views into the city and out toward the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean. The city suffered substantial damage from the more than 2000 shells that were dropped by the Serbians in the early 1990s, but Dubrovnik has recovered rapidly, and only a careful inspection reveals recently the newly tiled roofs and recently renovated walls and paving stones.

Unlike the plazas of Split, which are scarred by neon signs and billboards, shop names in Dubrovnik are subtly painted on the lamps that hang above each door, giving the town a more traditional feel. As with every town I've visited in Croatia, cats wander the streets, darting in and out of the holes in the stone walls, possibly making regular visits to long-forgotten architectural relics.

Hoping to experience some of the natural beauty of Croatia, Dan, Dave and I spent a day at Krka National Park which has a stunning series of waterfalls that cascade down into a perfectly clear lake. The trip to the park isn't particularly easy. From Split, we took a bus to Šibenik, another bus to Skradin, and finally a ferry to the park entrance. On our arrival, we found the park swarming with tourists, who packed the lawns, river banks, and hiking trails. But despite these inconveniences, the trip was worthwhile to see the towering waterfalls and swim in the cool, inviting waters of the Krka River.

The hospitality industry in Croatia unfortunately leaves much to be desired. Following the end of the civil war in 1992 and Croatia's recent admission to the European Union, local tourism has boomed and the most popular destinations are experiencing serious growing pains. It's nearly impossible to arrange budget accommodations in advance. Of the cities that I've visited, only Dubrovnik has a hostel, and it was booked full for the next month. Instead, the most common way to find a room in Croatia is to speak with the men and women who swarm around the ferry stations, train stations, and bus stops, advertising rooms for rent in their homes. For an experienced barterer, the prices are negotiable.

Having visited a number of different Croatian cities (Split, Dubrovnik, Šibenik, and Skradin), I'm particularly amused by the generic postcards that can be found at every little tourist kiosk. One of my favorites is a picture of three dolphins with a caption reading "Here is great!"

As for the restaurant industry, I've come to expect that I have to ask at least three times to request a menu, drink, or bill. Nothing gets done very quickly, as the waiters are far more interested in the game on television, the newspaper, or chatting with their buddies at the bar than they are in actually serving you. A moderately priced meal can easily top $10 with extra charges for water ($2.00) and condiments ($1 each), so I've taken to getting food at the bakeries and outdoor fruit markets. With a little searching, it's easy to find a couple of delicious pastries, a filling portion of fresh fruit and a serving of ice cream for less than $5. Not necessarily a balanced diet, but it fits my budget and calorie requirements.

Highlighting Croatia's growing pains are the extreme overcrowding on the buses and ferries. As with housing, advance reservations are impossible, so getting a ticket is always a gamble. There are long lines for all modes of transportation, and there is a very realistic possibility of being left behind due to space limitations. When a bus reaches capacity, it leaves the station, even if it's scheduled departure time isn't for another five minutes.

But with my own flexible schedule, these inconveniences are a minor distraction from the natural beauty and rich history of Croatia. Hopefully the country's tourist industry will soon catch up with the growing demand, making for a more experience for everyone. It's only a matter of time before Croatia's reputation as a popular tourist destination grows well beyond Europe and captures the attention of Americans looking for something new.

Here is Great!

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.