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Circling the Adriatic Croatia: Korcula and Dubrovnik

By the time we reached Korcula, we had already seen an amazing number of beautiful and unique cities from the Umbrian hills to the Veneto to Slovenia to Dalmatia. Nevertheless, Korcula was unlike anything we had seen before. The old town resembled a giant trilobite fossil projecting into the bay, with a long central street bisecting the city and several evenly spaced transverse streets running from the center to the perimeter on either side. I've borrowed an aerial photo from the web that captures how truly amazing this city looks.

By the time we found our way to the town from the ferry port, it was already almost 10PM. We parked in a small dirt lot above the old city and I set forth down a stone staircase to find our Airbnb. I went up and down the stairs a few times but between the lack of street names and house numbers I wasn't getting anywhere. Fortunately on my third pass down the stairs I encountered an elderly couple who turned out to be our hosts. As usual, the Airbnb accommodation turned out to be roomy and comfortable and our Croatian hosts were friendly and helpful despite the lateness of our arrival. We weren't inside the trilobite so to speak but on the hill directly behind the town. However, it was only a short trip down the stairs to arrive at the town gate. The location of our Airbnb can be seen by clicking the link below, since only one map is permitted per blog post.

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

Due to the lateness of our arrival, we only had time to explore around the town gate and get some ice cream for Cleo at the one shop that was still open. The next morning, however, we had time to explore every street of the old town. There were wide promenades around much of the peninsula that gave great views of Peljesac and the small islands in the bay.

Our next stop was the town gate and the small square immediately behind it. The white paving stones were somewhat reminiscent of Zadar but Korcula had much more character even though most of the pedestrians seemed to be part of tour groups.

We explored a few of the narrow sidestreets before heading to the perimeter to enjoy smoother strolling and water views.

The old town didn't have continuous walls but it was well-defended with forts and cannon. Cleo took aim at a city across the bay, but fortunately for them the cannon wasn't loaded.

We found a restaurant whose menu we liked and sat outside until they opened, upon which we devoured generous portions of fresh seafood. Ian seems to have inherited his mother's fondness for squid ink risotto. Dessert was sour oranges from a tree in the old town.

On the way back to the car we took in one last view of the tiled roofs of Korcula against the mountainous backdrop of the island.

From Korcula there was only one last place to go on the Dalmatian Coast - Dubrovnik, the undisputed champion of the Mediterranean walled cities. After the short ferry hop back to Orebic, we drove straight down the Peljesac peninsula and connected with the coastal highway to Dubrovnik. We didn't stop along the way because we'd only given ourselves one day in Dubrovnik and it didn't seem to be enough given the reputation of the city. Our main trouble when we reached Dubrovnik wasn't so much finding our Airbnb but parking. The streets were jammed and even the parking lots seemed to all be full. We managed to find an illegal spot that wasn't obstructing traffic too badly and located our host, who was able to guide me to a parking area about a mile away and give me a lift back to the apartment. Our location was very good, just outside the northern city wall, and we got settled and headed for the old town as quickly as we could. A map of Dubrovnik showing our Airbnb can be seen by clicking the link below.

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

We had seen other walled cities, but the walls of Dubrovnik are by far the most formidable. They are so tall, thick, and solid-appearing that the only word that can properly describe their appearance is impregnable.

We entered the pedestrian zone of the old town through the northern Buza Gate and were immediately grateful we had chosen the carriers instead of the gondola. The only way forward was a steep and seemingly endless stone staircase that descended into the heart of the old town. Halfway down we encountered a transverse street that seemed to be entirely lined with busy, touristy cafes and restaurants.

At the bottom of the staircase was the wide main street of old Dubrovnik, the Stradun. The Stradun is always filled with people on their way from one part of the old town to another, and is also a showcase for some of Dubrovnik's most famous landmarks.

We saw there was a lot of activity at the western end of the Stradun close to the Pile Gate and walked in that direction. We soon realized we were in the midst of a wedding celebration.

After the wedding party passed we walked out the Pile Gate, the most famous and ornate entrance to the old town.

We returned through the Pile Gate to the eastern end of the Stradun and made a right turn at the Palaca Sponza. This took us to the Dubrovnik Cathedral.

We ate at Oyster & Sushi Bar Bota in the shadow of the cathedral. Unfortunately, the quality of the food paled in comparison to seafood we had elsewhere on the coast. We then climbed a wide staircase to a courtyard in front of another ancient church close to the southern city wall. From a balcony we could see the busy square below and the lights of the restaurants on the northern side of town.

Around this time we realized that we were running out of diapers and hadn't taken any from the car when we parked. We embarked on a mad search for an open supermarket at 9 PM on a Saturday night which predictably ended in me taking a one mile uphill walk to the car for diapers. Fortunately we got a good night's sleep after a very exhausting day.

We began the next day with a cable car trip up the mountain behind the town. Once we got to the observation deck we realized there wasn't anything at the top except for the view and a crappy looking cafe. The top of the mountain was as barren as a desert, a stark contrast to the thriving city below.

We went back down and re-entered the old town to find a place to have lunch. The city looked very different by the light of day.

Cleo got some exercise running up and down the stone staircases.

After giving away a substantial sum for the cable car, we didn't feel much inclination to double down for the cost of walking the ramparts. Instead we wandered through the maze of streets and squares at the southern end of town until we found the entrance to Buza, a multilevel cafe that spills down the cliff at the edge of the sea. From the cafe we could look out across the deep blue water to forested Lokrum Island. Canoes and replicas of 16th century galleons plied the waters just offshore. Buza is a unique spot in Dubrovnik that is definitely worth searching for.

Our next stop was the harbor with its pretty backdrop of white houses with orange roofs creeping up the hillside to the tree line. Near the harbor, Cleo got to enjoy another street band. She was having so much dancing I eventually had to cart her off screaming.

We clambered up old Dubrovnik's steep staircases one last time to the Buza Gate and returned to our apartment to collect our laundry from the clothesline and pack our bags. We were surprised to find another family in the apartment patiently awaiting our return. Even though we had informed our Airbnb hosts that we would be departing late, they hadn't mentioned to us that other guests would be arriving. We apologized and recommended that they skip the cable car and walk the ramparts instead. Then I made the long walk to retrieve the car and we were on our way to Montenegro, the last country of our journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:45 Archived in Croatia Tagged dubrovnik korcula Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Croatia: Split, Trogir, and Hvar

Split is the second-largest city in Croatia and no doubt is an exciting place to live and explore. For the vast majority of travelers, their experience of Split is limited to the enormous Roman ruin of Diocletian's Palace which now exists as a miniature city walled off from the modern metropolis. Given our limitations in terms of time and mobility, we were no exception. Nevertheless, there was more than enough in Diocletian's Palace to keep us occupied and entertained for our two days in Split.

Our arrival was something of a mixed bag. We found our way through the city to the Palace and parked in the extortionately-priced lot directly outside the southern Bronze gate. Per our usual protocol, I left the family in the car and went inside to locate and confirm our accommodation. The outside of the southern Palace wall is lined with small cafes, convenience stores, and other touristic debris. The small archway I entered through led into a basement-like space which was occupied by numerous vendors of crafts and jewelry. I later learned this area is known as Diocletian's Cellars. I found a staircase leading upward and emerged into the old city. It's hard to describe the amazement I felt when seeing Diocletian's Palace for the first time. Of course, it's no longer a palace the way we think of Buckingham Palace or Versailles but in many ways it's even more impressive. It's a bustling, vibrant miniature city with all the modern conveniences existing entirely within the imposing walls of an enormous Roman ruin. Everywhere one turns is another well-preserved remnant of a civilization that died two millennia ago. At the same time, the ruins have been overbuilt over the centuries with living quarters, churches, and other structures emblematic of countless centuries of history. The overall effect is breathtaking. Once I had walked inside the Palace for a few minutes the only question I could ask myself was "Why have I never heard of this?" I felt so fortunate to have stumbled onto this amazing place in the world out of pure luck. Discoveries like this are what motivated me to begin writing this blog, so that other travelers would be able to learn about these hidden gems that exist right under our noses but for whatever reason aren't well known. It makes me wonder how many incredible places like Plitvice Lakes, Diocletian's Palace, and Rocca Calascio (more on this later) I'll never find simply because no one ever talks about them.

My intoxication with the Palace was tempered by my inability to connect with our Airbnb hosts. They hadn't replied to our last message giving an estimated time of arrival. I called the contact number but there was no response. On reviewing our communications, I came to the unpleasant conclusion that the apartment was actually controlled by a tour company whose employees may have simply taken off for the day. As I stood haplessly in front of our building a man pulled up on his bike and began locking it to the gate outside. I ascertained he could speak English and asked if he could give me any information about the company managing the apartment. It turned out he was actually the owner, although he seemed somewhat annoyed that he was being drawn into an interaction he had outsourced to someone else. I made it as clear as I could that my family was waiting in the car and that there really wasn't any acceptable outcome to the situation other than my retrieving them and bringing them into an open apartment. I raced back to the parking lot where Mei Ling had been waiting for almost an hour and told her "You're going to love this place". Of course, she was more focused on getting settled in the apartment by that point and wasn't very pleased to discover that we were actually on a fifth floor walk up rather than the second floor as we had been led to believe. By that point the owner had been joined by someone from the apartment management company and both of them were thrown on the defensive as Mei Ling growled at them while we hoisted babies and bags up four steep flights of stairs. The apartment itself was pleasant enough and the location deep inside the Palace was perfect. After getting settled we took a quick look around the center of the Palace including the immaculately preserved Peristyle, the central square of the Palace.

We chose Konoba Kod Joze for dinner because of a reputation for game dishes, but their selection when we arrived was limited to wild boar. The meal was satisfying but unmemorable, similar to many that we had in Slovenia and Croatia. We had walked out the northern Golden gate of the city and through a park to get to the restaurant, and returned via the road to the east of the Palace. Outside the eastern Silver gate we saw stalls covered in tarps, clearly the produce market, and resolved to return there the next day.

The next morning, we got a quick continental breakfast at a nearby cafe where outdoor tables seemed to be migrating up and down stone staircases in every direction. We headed west to the fish market which was small but energetic.

From the fish market we wandered south to the seaside promenade, where the palm trees and cruise ships had me wondering if we'd somehow found ourselves back in Miami Beach. One cafe on the promenade seemed to be entirely staffed with shirtless beefcake waiters.

We strolled eastward on the promenade and eventually found ourselves at the produce market. It was a substantial improvement over what we had found at Zadar, although not as large or bustling as the market at Rijeka. One unique sight was the garlic vendors wearing their product on long strands over their shoulders. There were also butchers and cheese vendors and several small food stalls.

Since it was still early afternoon we decided to explore another nearby medieval city called Trogir. Not only was this a chance to see another Croatian walled city, but also a reason to get the car out of the overpriced lot we had left it in the night before. I forked over 50 Euros for the time we had already spent there and we drove back northwest on the coastal road for about twenty minutes until we found the turnoff for Trogir. This walled city was on a tiny island connected to the mainland by one small bridge and to the much larger island of Ciovo by another bridge. Trogir was entirely a pedestrian zone within the walls so we parked close to the town market on the mainland next to the bridge. We didn't spend much time in the market since we had just come from the larger one in Split, but I couldn't resist some pretty-looking fresh figs which turned out to be completely tasteless.

In many ways, Trogir was similar to Zadar or Sibenik but it also had its own unique elements. Soon after entering the city, it was impossible to miss the tall belltower of the Venetian style Cathedral of St. Lovro. Despite the smallness of the old town, it was easy to get lost in the maze of narrow alleys lined by tall buildings.

At the opposite side of the island from the bridge there was a wide promenade outside the walls with nice views of Ciovo. At the far end of the promenade was the imposing Kamerlengo Fortress.

By this time we were ready for lunch so we set course for Konoba Trs, recommended by the Lonely Planet for its attractive courtyard. We found it without too much difficulty and sat at a table in the courtyard, which had a natural ceiling formed by the serpentine branches of the trees which grew next to the stone walls. Ian and I decided to try switching beverages.

The food at Konoba Trs turned out to be excellent as well. We had a delicious rabbit dish as well as our favorite kind of seafood, musule. The restaurant turned out to be the highlight of our side trip to Trogir, one of the top ten meals of the entire journey.

We made our way back to Split and took a break at the apartment. As dusk fell, we went back out into the old city to explore some of the alleys and squares that we had missed the previous night.

For dinner we picked Nostromo, adjacent to the fish market. It was a little crowded, so we had to haul everyone up a spiral staircase to the upper level. Once seated we all broke out our electronics and proceeded to ignore each other until dinner was served.

Ian learned how to eat spaghetti by himself at Nostromo.

After dinner, which was OK but not as good as lunch, we went back to the Peristyle where a band was playing. Cleo loves street musicians and dancing, and we let her enjoy herself there for about half an hour.

We went back to the apartment and climbed the final flight of stairs to the roof deck, from which we could see the lights of the Cathedral of St. Dominus in the Peristyle.

The next morning we took a couple more pictures around the eastern gate of the Palace and had lunch in the market, and then it was time to go to the port to catch our first Jadrolinija ferry of the trip.

The islands off Dalmatia look scraggly on a map, as if the coastline was flaking into the Adriatic. Some are hardly islands at all, separated from streaky peninsulas by tiny straits that allow bridge access. Once you're traveling on the ground and the sense of scale is different, it becomes apparent that all of these streaks of land have their own people, their own towns, their own roads, and their own history. Each island is different in its own special way and you haven't seen them all until you've seen them all. We had bypassed Cres and Krk in the north but I had resolved not to miss this important part of Croatian life entirely, so I decided we would go to perhaps the best known Croatian island of them all, Hvar. Hvar is synonymous with hedonism and luxury to many Europeans, who flock there for beautiful beaches and high end dance clubs during the summer. In October, I was hoping to find Hvar in a more relaxed state without being completely deserted.

The Jadrolinija ferry turned out to be a very straightforward operation, in contrast to my memory of taking the ferry in Indonesia. We sat in a line of cars on the dock for a little while, and then drove onto the car deck where we left the car and our bags and climbed up to the passenger decks. We spent some time indoors where Cleo and Ian could run around and make friends, and then moved to the upper deck for fresh air and scenery.

The ferry docked at Stari Grad, about half an hour east of Hvar Town. After a short scenic drive through the island's interior and then along the southern coastline we found ourselves at our destination. As usual, we struggled for about half an hour to locate the Airbnb after finding the city itself, but the apartment was roomy and comfortable with a very pleasant owner. In my zeal to avoid stairs after our fifth floor walk up in Split, I had found an accommodation at the very top of the steep hill down which houses spilled towards the harbor. We were able to get down to the port along the road without having to worry about stairs, but it was a long walk. It had already fallen dark and every time I saw headlights coming towards us around the curves I tried to steer the gondola as close to the edge of the road as I could. Eventually we reached the entrance of the old town and St. Stephen's Square, the main open space of the town. In the background of the picture is the illuminated Cathedral of St. Stephen.

The only area we could explore with the gondola was the flat promenade around the harbor, as the steep staircases began immediately behind the first row of buildings. We found a restaurant that didn't require too much lifting of the gondola that seemed popular and ordered the island specialty of gregada, a savory seafood stew. The food was decent and assuaged our hunger, but it wasn't close to some of the better meals we had had. After dinner, we had to plow the gondola all the way back up the hill to our Airbnb where we collapsed in exhaustion.

The next morning, I knew we didn't stand a chance of seeing the hillside old town with the kids in the gondola, so we drove down to the parking lot outside St. Stephen's Square and took the kids out with the carriers. The first order of business was to stop at an insurance agency we had spotted to determine if we needed to buy a special policy to allow us entry into Bosnia. Europcar had told us that we were not permitted to drive our rental car to Bosnia or Montenegro, and my online research indicated that the border guards might refuse us entry or demand that we buy an exorbitantly priced insurance policy on the spot. A train from Ploce on the coast to Mostar in Bosnia seemed to have been discontinued, and I couldn't find any reliable information about buses. The very helpful staff at the insurance office looked at our rental car paperwork and told me I had the requisite blue card that would allow for entry into those countries regardless of what Europcar had told me. I was still unsure if taking the car to Bosnia was the safest option, but I decided I would look into the possibility of buses the next day on the mainland.

Next, we found lunch at a sandwich shop next to the small market just inside the main gate. St. Stephan's Square and the harbor looked completely different in the bright light of the morning sun.

From the harbor, we tackled the first steep staircase we came to. Hvar was an Escheresque town in three dimensions. The paths went up-and-down as well as side-to-side. The maze of passageways lined with walls of ancient white blocks was addictive, and I'm sure we could have explored for hours were it not for the thirty pound weights dragging on our shoulders.

From Hvar Town we had to drive down the road that squiggled longitudinally down the center of the island like a worm's gut tube all the way to Sucuraj at the Eastern tip. Fortunately the long drive meant a very short ferry trip back to the mainland. We didn't see much more of Sucuraj than the pretty little port, and I'm not sure there was anything else to be seen. Soon we were on the ferry and excited about the prospect of being in Bosnia in a few hours.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:11 Archived in Croatia Tagged split trogir hvar Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Croatia: Zadar and Sibenik

An interesting thing about Zadar was that it was the first and the last time in our journey that I would locate our accommodation and our host without getting lost or delayed in any way. We parked just outside the main gate of the walled city, which as usual stuck out of the Dalmatian shoreline like a sore thumb. Unlike most of the other coastal walled cities, Zadar was as flat as a frying pan. We effortlessly maneuvered the gondola and bags up the main street and encountered our host, who guided us to a comfortable two bedroom apartment a short distance away. The kids settled in quickly.

Given our surprisingly easy arrival in Zadar, I had enough time to carefully research our dinner destination. I settled on Kornat, which was highly recommended by both Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor. The walled old town was small enough that everything was within comfortable walking distance, so we set off towards the tip of the thumb where we would find the harborside restaurant. Zadar is a pretty place in the evening, with plenty of light reflecting off of the smooth white paving stones of the pedestrian streets. The central square is dominated by the bell tower of the Cathedral of St. Anastasia, which is illuminated at night.

Kornat was a huge disappointment, especially given our high expectations. I've thankfully erased most of the food we were served there from our memory, but one dish I simply can't forget is something that came when we ordered ceviche. "Ceviche" turned out to be several slabs of fish filet, possibly pre-frozen, that seemed to have been pickled in industrial white vinegar. Completely and utterly inedible. We ate just enough of the unpleasant meal to stave off hunger for the night. Mei Ling couldn't resist inquiring of our friendly waiter why the food seemed somewhat questionable, and he diplomatically replied that they had a new chef. Mei Ling suggested to him in all sincerity that if the new chef didn't know what ceviche was, he might consider looking up some recipes on Google. The expression on the waiter's face was hilarious. We spent some time hunting for a rooftop bar called The Garden nearby, but eventually determined that it was closed for the offseason.

The next day we went to the outdoor market, which was barely populated due to it being Sunday. We circled around for a while looking for a place to have lunch and eventually settled on Pet Bunara close to the city gate. Although much better than our dinner the night before, there wasn't anything particularly memorable about the food. After lunch, we spent some time strolling around the town and then took a break for ice cream.

From here we went to the seaside edge of the old town where the promenade led us to two unique attractions constructed by the same local architect ten years ago. The Sea Organ is a set of pipes installed under the water line so that the movement of the sea creates a series of musical notes that carry over the entire promenade area. The Sun Salutation is a series of circles composed of glass plates overlying solar cells that collect the sun's energy during the day and then emit colorful lights at night. The largest circle, 22 meters in diameter, represents the sun and eight more smaller circles represent the planets. There wasn't much to see during the day so we let the kids play on the promenade and resolved to return after sunset.

We went back to the center of town to do some shopping and then took a break at the apartment before heading back to the Sun Sentinel to see the light show. Naturally, the kids had a blast.

We were determined to have a better dinner than the previous night, so I chose Kastel which was the restaurant of the Hotel Bastion. Aside from having the top reviews on TripAdvisor, I felt we'd be unlikely to go wrong at the most luxurious and expensive hotel in Zadar. Of course, the food ended up being better than at Kornat (it couldn't have been worse), but it really wasn't the culinary experience we had hoped for. One thing that continually surprised us was the blandness of the seafood dishes we encountered on the Dalmatian coast, and Kastel was no exception. Nevertheless, even adequate food was a relief after Kornat. There wasn't anything left to see in Zadar so we went straight back to the apartment. By this time, we had concluded that we weren't very impressed with Zadar as a travel destination. There were certainly several atmospheric squares and some beautiful buildings, but the numerous fast food establishments and chain stores gave the old town the feeling of an upscale mall. The atmosphere wasn't helped by the preponderance of cruise ship tourists filling the streets. We could probably have seen everything we needed if we had gone to the Sun Sentinel the first night and spent the following morning walking around town. The second night in Zadar was probably the only night of the whole trip that we felt would have been better spent elsewhere.

On Monday morning we returned to the market which was considerably better than it had been the day before, but a pale comparison to what we had experienced in Rijeka. We then had by far the best meal of our stay in Zadar at Na po ure, a small restaurant with a local feel that specialized in grilled meats and vegetables. We consumed an enormous meal on their airy outdoor patio surrounded by old stone walls, and then proceeded to our car fully charged to resume our journey.

The logical spot for a stopover on the long coastal drive to Split was the medieval city of Sibenik. As multileveled as Zadar was flat, Sibenik proved to be a physical workout as well as being an interesting addition to our growing collection of ancient Dalmatian cities. I quickly lost track of how many steps we levered and carried the gondola over while exploring the old town. Our first stop, the Cathedral of St. James, was the easiest landmark to reach slightly downhill from the main entrance to the old town. We didn't go inside, but spent some time in the spacious square surrounded by ancient stone buildings, staircases, and mysterious archways.

After the Cathedral, we spent some time wandering through the narrow, picturesque streets of the old town. Sibenik did a much better job than Zadar of integrating modern stores and cafes into the labyrinthine passageways and staircases. There were no fast food joints or cheap souvenir shops to be found.

We next set our sights on the St. Michael Fortress at the top of the city. We struggled with the stairs for a while but eventually surrendered and moved to the road just outside the old town. After one last grueling staircase we reached the entrance to the fort where we finally ditched the gondola. The lofty elevation of the fort afforded great views of the Krk River and the entire town below us.

We were relieved to finally be going downhill, and soon arrived at the portentously titled Medieval Garden of St. Lawrence's Monastery. The garden itself was small but very pretty, and an outdoor ice cream cafe had been installed in the monastery. We took an ice cream break and then descended the rest of the way to the main gate. We still had plenty of time to make it to Split by the early evening.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:09 Archived in Croatia Tagged zadar sibenik Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Croatia: Rijeka and Plitvice Lakes

Rijeka was the next to last overnight stop on our itinerary to get settled. I waffled between Rijeka and Cres until the last minute, and then finally chickened out of tackling the island ferries so early in the trip. I had bad memories of getting stuck in an uninteresting town in Sulawesi for three days waiting for a ferry, and I couldn't figure out how to get the ferry schedule in advance. In retrospect, I'm glad it turned out that way because we got our share of island hopping later in the trip and found that they didn't have much atmosphere in the offseason. Meanwhile, Rijeka had the best market we found in Croatia.

Because of numerous stops during the day, we got into Rijeka fairly late but fortunately found the B&B without much difficulty. This was despite the fact that it was a poorly signed turnoff from the main road and a steep downhill drive with several turns. The B&B was comfortable and friendly, although the mosquito presence was somewhat irritating. As usual, we had to head out quickly for dinner and chose a restaurant in nearby Volosko called Konoba Tramerka. We located the restaurant without much difficulty and parked with considerably greater difficulty in a spot which barely afforded other cars room to pass. The grotto-like restaurant was lovely both inside and outside but the food was very disappointing, a notch below unmemorable. This was actually the first in a string of lousy dinners that we had on the Croatian coast.

We had a lot more difficulty finding our way back to the B&B than we had finding it the first time, mainly due once again to Google Maps misdirecting us down smaller and smaller roads until we reached a dead end. Overall we found Google Maps to be much weaker on this trip than we had previously. We eventually found our way back which Cleo celebrated by jumping on the bed until I tackled her.

The next morning we made our way to downtown Rijeka for the produce market. We didn't have very high expectations, but this ended up being the second best market of the trip after Padua. Aside from fruit and vegetable stalls covering an enormous area, there were large covered meat and fish markets. Our prize from this market was a foot long sausage of bear meat that we still haven't found an occasion special enough to consume.

After getting some snacks at the market we briefly explored the surrounding area, where there were some beautiful ornate buildings. I didn't want to get to Plitvice Lakes too late in the afternoon, however, so we took some quick photos and got back on the road.

When I researched Croatia, Plitvice Lakes came up over and over again as a top destination if not the most rewarding in the country. I hesitated because it was difficult to ascertain how strenuous hiking in the park would be, and even if it might be dangerous for the kids. Eventually I read enough accounts from people who had brought small children that I decided it would be safe and worthwhile. The first three quarters of the trip from Rijeka to Plitvice passed easily enough, but once we were far from any urban area I lost my phone signal and often had to navigate based on the confusing road signage. Furthermore, the air was becoming misty and the roads were starting to become narrower and curvier. The once attractive forest around us began to appear foreboding and oppressive. The overall effect was very uncomfortable and upsetting to Mei Ling as well, although the kids didn't seem to be bothered as long as they had their iPads. When we got into the park itself, I had great difficulty finding the entrance. We encountered a lot of travelers on foot who were mostly lost themselves, which didn't do much for our confidence either. We actually considered giving up and driving on to the next city but fortunately the last direction I tried turned out to be the correct one and we located the main parking lot. It was already after 3pm so we hurriedly put the babies in the carriers and bought our passes after confirming that we still had time to see the park. My research indicated that there was a confusing array of options regarding what paths to take, but once we were inside the sequence seemed straightforward. We crossed a pedestrian bridge over the highway and eventually reached a shuttle bus comprised of many small cars. After a long wait the bus took off, whizzing up a narrow winding road at surprising speed. Through breaks in the trees we could see lakes and waterfalls in the distance. Suddenly we arrived at the bus stop at the upper section of the lakes and we disembarked.

The lakes are formed by a confluence of small rivers that arise from runoff from the surrounding mountains. The lakes and waterfalls are shaped by the continuous action of the running water against the porous karst and travertine limestone that comprises the surface of the ground in that area. The lake at the highest level of the park conveyed a sense of serenity that contrasted sharply with the pounding waterfalls further down.

There were paths of wooden planks on either side of the lake system, with occasional transverse pathways connecting them. These transverse paths allowed us to walk right at the base of several waterfalls. The number of shades of green and blue seemed infinite here. Plitvice is where I regretted my lack of photographic skills and equipment the most, because our best photographs seem very washed out compared to our memories of what we saw.

We walked the paths for an hour and a half, and just when we thought our backs would break from the weight of the sleeping kids we arrived at a boat which would take us back across the lake to a dock below where we had caught the bus.

We still had to climb a seemingly neverending stone staircase, retrace our path to the pedestrian bridge and across to the parking lot before we could finally unstrap the kids and crawl exhausted into our car. There was no question in our minds that all the difficulties and hard work we had encountered that day was more than worth it for the lifelong memory of one of the most beautiful natural places we had ever seen.

As it turned out, leaving the park was much easier than finding it. We were already practically at the entrance to the highway and even though I continued to have no phone signal the route to our next destination Zadar was well-marked.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:06 Archived in Croatia Tagged lakes plitvice rijeka Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Croatia: Rovinj and Istria

Once in Croatia, we were again flying half-blind because I didn't yet have a Croatian SIM. Upon arrival in Rovinj, our first order of business was to buy the SIM which ended up being an enormously difficult task. The mobile phone store in the center of town was closed all afternoon for the Mediterranean siesta, which we learned was as popular on the Croatian coast as it was in Spain and Italy. It took us almost half an hour to find the other store, after we had seemingly explored every one way street and roundabout in Rovinj. Eventually, though, we achieved connectivity and proceeded to our Airbnb. At least, that's what we thought we were going to do. Google Maps just couldn't seem to figure out where the place was, even when I entered the correct address. I'd get close, and then find that the road I was supposed to take was a pedestrian street. We'd go around to the other side of town and the same thing would happen. I think we passed the town center four or five times. Eventually, I parked and walked down the pedestrian street to discover that our apartment was deep inside the old town which was entirely a pedestrian zone. Our host hadn't bothered to mention that even though she knew we were arriving by car. Furthermore, the travel agency where she had left the key was closed for the afternoon and wouldn't re-open for another hour. I collected Mei Ling and the kids and we strolled around the old town and the harbor for a little while. Rovinj was like a larger, more touristy version of Piran with Croatians instead of Slovenians. The market mostly consisted of vendors selling truffle oils and other preserved substances to tourists disembarking from the cruise ships in the harbor.

Eventually someone showed up at the travel agency to give us our key and helped us find the apartment. It was a pleasant two-level place but the wifi didn't work, which wasn't much of a surprise at that point. We wandered back down to eat at restaurant Veli Joze near the travel agency. It was good seafood and a pleasant atmosphere, but not top ten material like Pri Mari in Piran the previous night. Our main discovery from our first meal in Croatia was the variety of mussel called mušule. This was an unusually shaped mussel with something like a latch holding the two halves of the shell together, and the flavor was much more intense than the regular mussels (which were usually called dagnje). Later, we were to find that these words were often used interchangeably, and we had to be sure we were really getting mušule if we ordered them. After dinner, we took a pleasant evening stroll around the harbor and called it a night.

The next day we walked to the top of the hill that the old town was perched on. We strapped the kids on our backs and began exploring the maze of narrow cobblestone pedestrian streets. Eventually we arrived at the pretty Church of St. Euphemia, with a tall white belltower almost reminiscent of a minaret. There were good views of the harbor and nearby areas from the hill.

From here we wandered back down to our apartment, gathered our bags, and made our way back to the car.

Our lunch destination was a seafood restaurant called Viking next to the Limska Draga Fjord a few miles from Rovinj. According to the Lonely Planet, the setting was dramatically beautiful and the seafood extremely fresh. Google Maps couldn't find the restaurant at first and performed its favorite trick of guiding us down smaller and smaller dirt roads until reversing direction was practically impossible. Once I got back to the main road I took it to the end which terminated at the entrance to a nudist camp. The kind lady at the entrance (fully clothed) told me the restaurants were on the other side of the fjord and I would have to return all the way to Rovinj to go around. Aaargh. Once we had overcome our initial misdirection, however, I found the restaurant fairly easily with less than an hour lost. We were able to get our new favorite, mušule, once again but they weren't as good as they had been at Veli Joze. Overall, the place was sunny and pleasant but nothing special in terms of food. We made our way down to the bank of the fjord where a group of motorcycle hobbyists had parked their three-wheelers.

Our next stop was the ancient town of Bale, a few miles inland. Bale's medieval core is so well-hidden that when we first arrived in town we thought that Lonely Planet had sent us there to see the run down sheds and dumpsters of the unattractive modern village. After driving around the perimeter of the city, we found a small parking lot clearly intended for tourists although none were parked there. We assembled the gondola, found a path between two houses, and walked through a time portal into the 15th century. In many ways, Bale reminded us of Civita di Bagnoregio in Italy. The pleasant differences were that Bale was still a living city, and that there were no tour groups or other tourists there at all to interrupt the quiet beauty of the ancient buildings.

We then drove to Pazin in the very center of Istria. Pazin's main draw is the Pazin chasm, a canyon formed by the Pazincica river as it dives underground. We took a long walk and went over the footbridge that traversed the chasm, but since we had the gondola with us taking the path down to the bottom of the gorge wasn't an option.

I had hoped to stop over in a town called Labin in southern Istria which was famous for its picturesque old town and excellent restaurants, but I was worried about how long it would take us to get from Labin to Rijeka. If we ever return to Croatia to experience the Dalmatian coast in high season, I'm sure Labin will be in our itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:02 Archived in Croatia Tagged istria rovinj pazin bale Comments (0)

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