Croatia — Discover this Eastern European country before the glitz hits.
• Croatia's Adriatic coastline with its historic enclaves, castles and fortresses, and its inordinate number of natural wonders, which are so pervasive the place is called "The Garden of Europe;"
• The imposing Alps in the distance that make you wish you were a Sherpa guide;
• The striking seascapes along the Dalmatian Coast that make you want to be a pirate;
• Centuries-old-but-still-bustling Dubrovnik and its old town fortress;
• Hospitable locals who will welcome you as family.
Croatia has been in the throes of becoming a destination darling since it emerged from the turmoil of armed conflicts that raged throughout the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1995. This Croatian War of Independence was triggered when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from Yugoslavia, ending 45 years under Communist rule.
Thankfully, war damage to several centuries-old landmarks has been repaired, due in large part to funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Today the country is doing what it has done throughout its history — capitalizing on its geographic locale as the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Central Europe and the Balkans. But this time it is attracting tourists, not conquerors. And rightly so, as it has the basic goods — including six World Heritage sites and eight national parks — to deliver a quality travel product.
The crescent-shaped footprint of the country stretches from the Alps in the northwest down its island-speckled 3,552-mile Adriatic coastline to Dubrovnik on its southern tip.
Its well-preserved antiquities, reserves, natural monuments and natural parks are constantly in the view-finders of cameras being toted by some nine million-plus tourists who visit annually — a significant economic engine for a country with 5 million residents and an unemployment rate of some 15 percent. (By comparison, Temple Square in Salt Lake City annually attracts about five million visitors.)
Last October, my view-finders joined those nine million during a 2,300-mile, 12-day motor-coach excursion orchestrated by Collette Vacations, the venerable travel-tour operator. Starting in Zagreb, the capital, our troupe motored down the Adriatic coastline to Dubrovnik, then traveled the mountainous interior north to Salzburg, Austria, and ultimately to Munich, Germany.
The trip included numerous stops between the destination cities affording extravagant visits to attractions including miles-deep caves, boat rides to secluded restaurants, remnants of World War II bunkers, massive Roman Empire-era structures, the island enclave of former Yugoslav leader Tito and bucolic villages.
No doubt, one gets seat-ite-is on such a motorized journey, but the discomfort is fleeting, thanks to the panoramic countryside zipping by and the hospitable, humble, hard-working locals. (Humble to the point of apologizing for not speaking perfect English. "You know more English that I know Croatian, please do not worry.")
For sure, our group dynamics, heightened by the confines of the motor coach, occasionally wore thin, but the awe of the place, the exceptional hotels (for the most part) and the delightful, wine-enhanced meals diminished every irritation.
The shoulder-season tour proved to be a fortuitous period to travel as our group numbered only 18, less than half the capacity of the spacious coach. We enjoyed the luxury of on-board seating options following extensive walking tours: quiet chatter, personal CDs, a back-seat snooze, the passing views, reading or watching a travelogue about the next destination. The spectacular autumn hues were a bonus.
The group's median age was in the 55-plus range, and most said they travel extensively. They hailed primarily from New England, the upper Midwest and California. Donna and Bill Kyle of Twin Falls, Idaho, helped tout the travel wonders of the Intermountain West.
Veteran travelers among us rated the tour's price as "upper mid-level." Its fare started at $1,649 per person, for 12 days and 21 meals, exclusive of air travel. Singles paid a substantial premium. Since Croatia is not a member of the European Union (it hopes to join by 2010), shopping bargains were plentiful — but who knows for how long?
The well-planned itinerary was comprised of one day in the bustling capital of Zagreb, three in the charming and restful seaside resort town of Opatija, one night in Zadar, three in Dubrovnik, one at Plitvicka Lakes National Park, two in enchanting (read: fairyland) Bled, Slovenia, and one night in Munich.
Sandwiched between Bled and Munich was an all-too-short visit to Salzburg, Austria, birthplace of Mozart and the Christmas carol "Silent Night," incredible shopping opportunities, a restaurant dated to A.D. 803, and the Mirabel Gardens, site of the filming of the "Do Re Mi" scene in the 1964 movie classic "Sound of Music."
Rating scores of "10" on the trip were:
• A delightful sign-language (read: hand and arm motions) exchange with a grizzled 80-year-old Croat farmer as we shared a cluster of grapes from a mountainous load he was delivering to a winery.
• The precision performances of high-stepping horses at the Lipica, Slovenia, stud farm where the bloodlines of some of its horses date back 400 years.
• The strength and grace of the guy who rowed our traditional
pletnja (20-seat boat) for 20 minutes non-stop from shore to the
tiny wooded Bled Islet and its picturesque medieval church where
we pulled the rope near the altar to ring the bell for good luck.
• Remnants of a 23,000-capacity Roman Era (circa A.D. 425)
coliseum, site of gladiator vs. lions contests, in Pula, Croatia, the
main base of the Byzantine fleet in the 6th and 7th centuries. The
coliseum, whose underground once housed animal cages and a
prison, is said to be the sixth largest of the era still standing. It now
is a venue for musical/rock concerts, operas and film festivals.
• The trek through a portion of spectacular Plitvicka Lakes National Park that has 16 lakes connected by countless waterfalls, pools and streams.
If there was a "People's Choice" vote, this visitor would split his between Dubrovnik and the alpine paradise of Bled as the sites for subsequent visits and longer stays. A knowledgeable, accommodating, flexible and patient (worthy of a medal in some instances) tour manager greatly enhanced this tour. We were fortunate to have Steve Walker as our guardian, answer-man and sometimes taskmaster. ("If you're late, the bus will leave without you" ... which it never did). The mild-mannered Walker hails from Sun Valley, Idaho, where he once worked as a bartender at the storied Duchin Room at Sun Valley Lodge.
As such, he is acquainted with several Intermountain area luminaries and ski aficionados, which made for "did you ever run into ...?" conversations. The trip's most interesting inquiry about knowing someone from your home town came from a waiter at a poolside bar at the luxurious Dubrovnik Palace Hotel. The waiter initiated the exchange that went like this:
"Where you from?"
Assuming he meant what state, I responded with "Utah."
"Utah!" he exclaimed, eyes propped wide, arms raised. "Utah Jazz! You know Karl Malone?"
See, Croatia isn't as far away as you may have thought.
Napkin scribbles from Croatia ...
By Mike Korologos
• As the birthplace of the "cravat" that evolved into the necktie, buying a silk necktie at an upscale shop is an occasion to behold — a real event. You've got to do it, pricey price be damned.
• Another "must-do": Take the 1.8-mile stroll around the top of the cannon-dotted medieval-era wall that encompasses old town Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The views and photo ops from its rampart-accented vantage point are endless as you peer over the ubiquitous red-tile roofs out to sea and fantasize about the pirates who once plied these waters — defying the TV antennas and strings of drying laundry below.
• Access to the interior of old town is gained through one of two 18-foot-high drawbridge gates that were called into service during the 1991-92 war (not bad for a place built in the 13th century). The interior of the walled city is abuzz with its bustling Stradun (promenade), alleyways, shops, restaurants, museums, Franciscan monastery, apartment-dwellers, cathedrals — and lots of tourists.
• Croatia's lone golf course is on the island of Brijuni, a one-time private preserve of Yugoslav leader Tito. The tranquil isle is now a national preserve with three hotels and a zoo that houses exotic animals given to Tito by visiting heads of state. The golf course's "greens" consist of white compacted sand and the fairways resemble a recently harvested alfalfa field. The lone golf equipment sales representative (Titleist) in the country informed us that there are only about 1,000 resident golfers in Croatia, but that number increases substantially each summer due to club-toting tourists. He assures us that numbers of golfers and courses will increase in the near future.
• Tito's hulking 1953 Cadillac convertible is the only car on Brijuni. The chrome-laden classic and a curator/driver are available for hire for a 4-hour tour of the island for about $400.
• As the birthplace of Marco Polo, the island of Korcula with its Venetian-influenced Cathedral Square is a magnet for tourists, but the visit to his alleged home with its cupola overlooking the sea isn't up to the hype.
• Locals are as charming as they are accommodating. When we inquired about the prospects of rain on a cloudy day, our city guide said: "We don't expect many splashes today."
• Locals talk to each other with great gusto — hands and arms a-flaying — be they folks on street corners, in restaurants, buses, restrooms, wherever. It is delightful to watch the animated exchanges.
• Germans make up the majority of the country's nine million annual visitors; Italians are next. British and U.S. visitors are far down the guest list, yet commercial and road signs and restaurant menus in English are plentiful.
• Croatia's capital, Zagreb, has 800,000 residents and was the cultural center of the former Yugoslavia. It is the home of the ball-point pen and fountain pen and offers numerous museums, ballets, art galleries and folk festivals — most accessible by its 1930s-era narrow-track trolley system.
• A college in the capital is housed in a one-time tobacco factory, but students are not allowed to smoke on campus.
• The local menu fare is accented with Mediterranean dishes, meaning lots of seafood. Lamb, pork and veal are the primary red-meat dishes and almost all restaurants have a custom risotto dish. Restaurants along the seacoasts specialize in deep-fried squid, oysters, scampi and mussels.• A multi-course dinner of fried squid (calamari) on the idyllic patio of the Opatija Yacht Club costs $18. (There was no charge for the picture-perfect full moon and its wavy reflection on the bay waters just beyond the rail.)