Croatia: The Roman’s Favorite Summer Getaway
By Jean Miller Spoljaric
Everyone loves a vacation to escape the doldrums of everyday life. No exception were the Romans. They would travel east, away from the heat and humidity of the peninsula and seek refuge across the sea in the Central Valley of what is today Croatia. From the Adriatic Sea to the City of Zagreb, what was good for the Romans still exists, and it was great for me! Indeed, the Romans had it right.
While the Romans enjoyed the luxury of 180 holidays a year, most of us are limited and need to be more selective in choosing a vacation destination and we want our choice to feel like 180 holidays. While the Roman excesses destroyed them, the geographic splendor of their retreats remains for us to enjoy. Much as the great populace of New York City ventured to the cool refreshing mountain areas of Saratoga and The Adirondacks after the Civil War, the Romans would venture towards the cool refreshing Mountain Valley of Central Croatia.
I am going to start my story where I ended it, on the Adriatic Sea, along the Dalmatian Coast in the beautiful town of Dubrovnik. A stay in Dubrovnik will be the highlight of your Croatian holiday, as it was mine. Dubrovnik is Croatia’s top destination.
George Bernard Shaw baptized Dubrovnik “The Pearl of The Adriatic” because of its incomparable architectural heritage. The gleaming marble streets of Dubrovnik are lined with Baroque buildings punctuated by beautiful sculpted Renaissance fountains and facades.
Think of Dubrovnik as a city inside of a castle. Dubrovnik’s walls are intact and most impressive and head a long list of sights to see. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) named Dubrovnik a World Heritage site and stated, “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live today, and what we pass on to future generations.”
Dubrovnik has had many ups and downs over the years. It was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1667, and then again by the Bosnian bombardment of 1991. Yet, Dubrovnik has preserved its architectural harmony. Now, the entire Old Town is under UNESCO protection.
The bombing of the Old Town of Dubrovnik began October 23, 1991, but tensions had been rising for weeks ever since Yugoslav Forces implemented a sea blockade and moved into the surrounding region. The ‘Dubrovnik Riviera,’ including the entire coast from Srd Hill to Cavtat and the Dubrovnik Airport, was occupied by the Yugoslav Army. The neighborhoods were shelled from land and sea.
Dubrovnik was left practically undefended by Croatian forces as, frankly, no one thought the Yugoslav Forces would dare attack such an important cultural monument with negligible military value. In fact, Serbian-Montenegrin forces wished to seize Dubrovnik from Croatia and annex it to Serbian-Montenegrin control.
The Old Town quickly filled with refugees from the region who crowded into hotels or, if they were lucky, the apartments of family and friends. Various international organizations attempted to negotiate with the attackers, but to no effect. The shelling of Old Town continued through November even as agreements to end the fighting were being postured and signed.
On December 6, 1991, the full crushing weight of the Yugoslav artillery was turned on Dubrovnik in what became known as the “St. Nicholas bombings.” Intensive shelling continued for 12 hours with the northwestern part of town suffering heavy damage and 13 civilian casualties.
A ceasefire was again brokered and the shelling died down, finally ending in June of 1992. At least 43 people had lost their lives and Old Town had suffered serious damage to 824 buildings (68%). Dubrovnik’s walls sustained 111 direct hits and there were 314 more on Dubrovnik’s baroque buildings and marble streets. The price of reconstruction and repair was estimated at 10 million US dollars.
During my time in Dubrovnik, it was clear to me how very scary and real this war was for the Croatians. I talked with tour guides, taxi drivers, waiters, store clerks, and locals, and they all told me stories of hiding underground for up to six months at a time, with no toilet facilities or running water and with very limited food sources.
Although I don’t like to think of such horrendous living environments, or the horrid actions by people around the world, it is now an important part of Croatia’s history.
As the old saying goes, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ and that seems to be true for the Croatians. They have worked hard at rebuilding their city and it was never more evident than during my stay at the beautiful Excelsior Hotel, situated high on a hill, overlooking the refurbished historic Old Town. It’s still the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic.’
Konoba Konavoski Komin
Of all the wonderful restaurants that I heard about, one overlooking the Dalmatian coast piqued my curiosity. I wondered if I would be able to find it. I asked Pero, my driver, and he immediately knew of the place I was speaking of.
“Konoba, Konavoski Komin,” he said. Now, you understand why I only knew it as the place ‘way up on top of the hills of Cavtat.’ A fabulous little spot; I ordered the grilled Adriatic squid. It was cooked on an open fire pit and you could taste the smoky flavor in every bite. The stone archways, candle-lit tables, and white linen tablecloths made this place warm and inviting. I enjoyed the free roaming kittens that would stop by and visit each table in hopes of some scraps.
I was also lucky enough to find a fabulous little fish restaurant named “Proto” centered in historic Old Town. They prepare specialties according to old recipes of Dubrovnik fisherman. I know that sounds a little scary, but trust me, it wasn’t.
To start, I ordered the Adriatic shrimp ocktail, towered with Adriatic rock shrimp, melon, avocado, black rice, truffles, finished in a sour cream dill sauce and served in a chilled bowl. My entrée was a Mediterranean truffle pasta dish. The best! And it was paired with exceptional homemade wine. It had my taste buds screaming for more.
On another afternoon, while strolling through Old Town, I stopped off at the Croatian Tie store. Did you know that the Croatians invented the necktie? Known to them as a “cravat,” it was during the European Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that the Croatian Calvary reached all the way to Paris and the Croats, as part of their traditional costume, tied lively colored scarves around their necks. In the time of Louis XIV, this beautiful Croatian style impressed the Parisians so much that they adopted this new fashion item worn ‘A la maniere croate,’ meaning, in the Croatian way. And, the rest is history!
Streets of the Old Town
After a day of roaming the streets of Old Town, I worked up a thirst for a cold beverage. Inside the castle walls, I spied an old, hand carved, crooked, hanging wooden sign reading, “Cold Refreshments.” I followed the handmade signs, climbing the white marble stones while navigating the seemingly endless rugged walls towards a vibrant blue sky and the beautiful view of the Adriatic Sea.
There it was in front of me dangling from a rock ledge, “Buza,” an oasis on top of the world! I ordered a Karlovaco beer, or ‘Pivo,’ as they say in Croatia. I found a seat among the twenty-plus other imbibers, took a deep breath, and gazed out over one of the most beautiful views of the Adriatic. The warm sun, the cold beer, and the beauty of the moment all converged in my senses.
Back at sea level on my last day in Croatia, I was determined to make it to a beach. The beaches in Dubrovnik are modest. You won’t find vast sweeps of white sand, but you will find crystal clear water and clean stretches of rocks and pebbles or gravel to throw down your towel. I tucked my towel in my bag and took the short walk down to Banje Beach, a popular choice amongst tourists and locals as its located closest to Old Town.
After pressing the lumps out of my sandy bed and getting my area situated, I followed the sounds of the crashing waves. As the refreshing 70-degree current was pulling me to the sea, I felt a baby octopus scurrying under my feet and I headed for shore.
I struggled a little while trying to make my exit from the water; the sand giving way to the rocky ocean floor below made it hard on my bare feet. Where were my water shoes when I needed them!
As I lay on the beach, I sifted the grainy sand through my finger tips, picking out pieces of colorful sea glass to bring home with me. The warm sun heated my body and I reflected on having been able to experience such beauty.
Like the Romans, my visit to Croatia would not be complete without heading northeast to the hills of Croatia. Of the eight national parks in Croatia, I chose to visit the largest and the smallest. They provide an ideal vacation experiences for active travelers; rock climbing, hiking, biking, or even spelunking. Admission prices are reasonable and, in the spring and winter, the crowds are diminished.
Croatia’s largest National Park is Plitvice Lakes, located midway between Zagreb and Zadar in the Lika Region and open all year. It’s no wonder why this park made it into the semi-finals of the New Seven Wonders of The World Foundation. The countless waterfalls and emerald colored lakes make it Croatia’s most visited park.
Plitvice Lakes rest upon karst, a highly porous limestone and dolomitic rock through which water seeps to create underground streams. What seems to be stone is actually travertine, a sort of petrified plant. The flowing water absorbs minerals from the dolomite and coats the plant life, turning it to porous travertine stone.
The new travertine sprouts moss and plants that again petrify and the process repeats itself all over again. During the day of my visit, it was crowded with more than 8,000 of the annual one million visitors. While walking the narrow, single file only, one-way-in, one-way-out, wooden slatted walkway that surrounds the park, I was lost in thoughts of “what if?” What if someone accidentally moved the wrong way?
What if you lost your footing and fell to your doom? One should be in good physical condition before entering the lake trails of this park. The lake trail is not handicapped assessible and venturing down is easier than ascending. No swimming is allowed.
I was also told that it’s home to over 120 species of birds as well as deer, wild boar, and the occasional bear, although, I believe the crowd scared them off as I didn’t see any. I did see many beautiful fish in the clear waters of the lake. It must be visually striking in winter as well as it is in other seasons.
Velebit, the Newest National Park
Velebit, the newest National Park (1999), is also the smallest. Its cliffs, gorges and caves make it a favorite for the adventurous types.
Although it’s small, one could easily become lost in its labyrinth of rocks. Access is only by mountain trail or via off-road vehicle. My driver, Horve, handled the long bumpy trail as he would a mountain bike. The national park is within the Velebit Nature Reserve that is also home to Paklencia National Park. The northern part of the Velebit range runs parallel to the Adriatic coast.
The two main peaks of the range are the Rozanski and Hajducki Kukovi peaks. The most remarkable feature of Hajducki Kukovi is the extraordinary Lukina cave. With a depth of 1392 meters (4567 feet), it is the eighth deepest cave in the world and only 83 meters (272 feet) have been explored! Lukina made history when an entirely new variety of leech was found in it. I guess you have to be famous for something!
The virgin forests of Stirovaca are another prime attraction of the park. It’s the largest completely pristine forest in Croatia. As we drove single file only, caravan style, down the bumpy dirt roads of the Velebit National Park, there were many hard working loggers busy manicuring the forest. The caravan came to many complete stops, waiting for loggers to clear the fallen 300-year-old trees from the roadway.
The northern Velebit is the least accessible of Croatia’s National parks. The national park office is located in Krasno and there is a climbers’ lodge located just below Zavizan. Most mountaineers meet just below Zavizan and take the Premuziceva Staza road into the park.
After a long day spent in Velebit National Park, we drove a short distance to Rizvan City, home of Adrenaline Rush Adventure Park. It was there that I experienced my first zip-line trip through the canopied forest in Croatia.
Among the adventurous fun things to do are a jeep safari, paintball, archery, wall climbing, four-wheeling, and even human table football (think of an enlarged foosball table and you are one of the players.) Rizvan City is located at an old family farm in the small village of Rizvanusu in Lika near the town of Gospic.
In the middle of Croatia is Slavonia, often referred to as Croatia’s “breadbasket.” This fertile region stretches from the Ilova River in the west, over the Sava and Drava basins, and to the Hungarian border in the north. The southern border touches Bosnia-Hercegovina and the eastern border with Serbia. The region of Slavonia is divided into two countries: Osijek-Baranjska and Vukovar-Srijem.
At the fault line of the former Yugoslavia, it’s not surprising that Slavonia experienced the brunt of the fighting during the “Homeland War” and suffered more damage than any other region in Croatia. In contrast to the rugged Croatian coastline, the terrain is pancake flat. Croatians like to say, “The highest mountain is a cabbage.”
Slavonia retains a strong Hungarian influence, especially in its cuisine, as it’s a remnant of the Hungarian aristocrats who descended into the region in the late 19th century and built huge baroque and classical mansions around Osijek. Very little remains as much was destroyed in the early 1990s.
Once prosperous Slavonia is still in the process of regaining its economic footing. Tourism remains minimal in comparison to the coast, but is slowly growing. In contrast to the Croatian coast where English is widely spoken, it helps to know some German in this area.
In Karlovac County, in the shadow of the tall mountain of Klek, lies a little fairy tail town called Ogulin. During my visit to this mysterious place, I stayed in the Frankopan Castle, originally built around 1500 above the gorge of the River Dobra – Dula’s Abyss. It is said that after dark falls, the witches of Klek swarm down into Ogulin and fly around the sky above the town.
On the first geographical map of Croatia, made by the Jesuit cartographer Stiepan Glavac in 1673, Ogulin was named Julija’s town. Julija’s Town is known for the legend of Dula, a woman who threw herself into the abyss of the River Dobra because of a broken heart. It is said that, to this day, if you listen carefully, you can hear the cries of Dula throughout the abyss, her heart still pining for her beloved who was killed in the war.
While touring the little towns in Croatia, I spent much time asking the locals if they knew anyone with the name Spoljaric (my husband’s father was born in Croatia in 1896). Some people seemed to know the name and the area where the name was prevalent, but it was in Karlovaca at the Castle on the hill that I hit pay dirt.
Dressed in hot pink robes and complete with full head dress, a character actor at the Castle named “Neven the High Priest” began to tell me the story of his grandfather who just finished publishing a book on genealogy. Within a five minutes, the “High Priest” had me on his cell phone speaking with Zlatco Spoljaric!
And, in fifteen minutes, I was whisked away to the Spoljaric family house. Long lost relatives I thought! Upon arrival, I was immediately welcomed with open arms, hugs and kisses. We shared stories, spoke of past relatives, laughed, and visited. My hosts even shared their homemade cookies and walnut brandy. It was a visit of a lifetime!
I even called home to my husband and put him on the cell phone with our new-found family. My Croatian holiday will always be special, but for this day and happening, it will be historic in my mind. We were complete strangers one moment and bonded for life in the next.
It was now on to another one of my favorite little towns, Rastoke. This picturesque little mill town, filled with waterfalls and wooden bridges, made the top five list on my Croatian holiday. The village has grown along the edge of a respectable and robust waterfall where the Koana and the Slunjcica Rivers meet. These waters flow around and into the village, creating numerous streams and ponds for fishing and kayaking.
Rastoke is about an hour and thirty minutes drive from the city of Slunj, located between Zagreb and Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Casualty of War
The historic part of town has recently been rebuilt as it was a casulty of the Croatian War of Independence. This region was one of the hardest hit during the war in the early 1990’s. The entire village was horribly damaged. Homes were burnt down and the surrounding areas were loaded with landmines and explosives. Since then, the region has undergone a restoration program with limited assistance from a government overwhelmed with rebuilding and where Rastoke is not a priority.
Rastoke is famous for its well-preserved and functioning mills that date to the 18th century. Rastoke had 32 houses and 22 mills before the war and today only 3 mills remain. Despite the deaf ear of the government to their needs, the people of Rastoke are friendly and enduring.
During my visit, I saw a 90-year-old man tending to his daily chore of chopping wood and then I watched in awe as an 83-year-old woman operated the mill to crush the grain. The old mills continue to emanate the aroma of freshly ground flour that has seeped into the wooden panels.
In the gushing water underneath, fish flap about without a care in the world, while overhead the day’s laundry catches the sun. It is a picture of the idyllic country life that masks a difficult and violent past.
Flora and fauna and the soothing rhythms of flowing water obscure the scars of war. It is a perfect place to bring a bike or to hike the pine forests and explore the nearby caves. Afterwards, find a shady seat at one of the waterside cafes and enjoy a cup of Kava.
From the rural serenity, it was on to Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, with its wealth of museums, restaurants, and nightlife. Home base for me while I stayed in Zagreb was the beautiful Palace Hotel, located in the heart of the city.
The oldest parts of Zagreb are two hills, Gradec and Kaptol, and I believe they remain the most interesting neighborhoods to visit in Zagreb. Back in the 11th century, Kaptol attracted a small religious community while Gradec became a nearby artisan community. Unfortunately, the Mongols swept through in 1242 and destroyed everything. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the two towns merged and became what is today known as Zagreb.
Most Polite City
Zagreb is an exciting city and offers an invaluable window into the Croatian culture. In 2006, Reader’s Digest named Zagreb the ninth most polite city in the world!
Trg Jelacica (pronounced yell-atch-itsa) is located in “Lower Town,” Zagreb’s Central Square and meeting place. Maybe it’s the Roman influence, but you’ll wind up in Central Square sooner or later as all roads and trams lead there. It’s dominated by a giant statue of Josip Jelacic, a Croatian hero riding his horse. Josip was very popular among the people because he advocated the key Croatian objectives: freedom, unity of Croatian provinces, and equality among nations.
Above (literally) Trg Jelacica is Zagreb’s Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose twin spires are visible from afar. Under a constant state of renovation, the 13th century Roman Catholic Church was reconstructed in the 20th century after an earthquake had damaged it. As with many places of worship, its architecture and cultural impact cannot be overstated.
My favorite area in Zagreb is known as “Upper Town.” Its hilly, narrow streets, filled with cafes, shops, and bars, make it an adventurous hike and you’ll think you’re back in the 18th century.
While in “Upper Town” in the Kaptol neighborhood, you must visit the Dolac Market. Dolac is a fruit and vegetable market like no other. As you stroll through the market area, you can buy Croatian handmade crafts, baskets, linens, toys, as well as fresh baked breads, home grown flowers, and, if your feeling up to it and have a strong stomach, go underground where they have the refrigerated section filled with meats and cheeses.
I am a vegetarian, but I wanted to experience the culture of the country, so I made myself go and check it out. Whole skinned pigs hanging from the rafters with their heads lined up in the meat case like artwork in a museum. The dry cured meats hanging from strings and the strong men with bloodstained aprons working behind the cases left a lasting impression. I’m glad I decided to walk down as it was the most impressive market I have ever been in. Keep in mind the market only operates on weekends and holidays
Nearby the Dolac market is the Stone Gate, containing a shrine to the Virgin Mary. It is believed by Croatians to hold magical powers. People pass by and light a candle, say a prayer and go about their day. The Stone Gate is the only preserved gate of the former four town entrances. Its present appearance dates from 1760 after a big fire.
The most photographed site is St. Mark’s Church on St. Mark Square. It has a multi- colored tile roof with the coat of arms of Croatia. The roof was constructed in 1880, but the rest of the church dates back as far as the 13th century. It is beautiful to see, its history is rich, and my camera was busy!
With so many wonderful memories and new friends, and even some newly discovered relatives, Croatia will go down in my book as one of the top destinations of all time.
I found what the Romans discovered centuries ago; a diverse geography, regional cultures, and welcoming people. The Romans had it right from the Adriatic to Zagreb.
CROATIA INFORMATION SOURCES:
St. Mark’s Church Plitvice Lakes National Park
Markov trg- Trg sv. Marka 5 HR 53231 Plitvicka jezera Hrvatska
Upper Town +385 0 53 751 014, 751 015
01 485 16 11 www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr
Dolac Market Hotel Croatia, Cavtat Dubrovnik
Upper Town www.hoteli-croatia.hr
Stone Gate Konoba Konavoski Komin
Upper Town “ The restaurant in the hills of Cavtat”
Jasenice, Velji Do 4 Cavtat, Croatia
Cathedral of the Assumption of the + 385 20 479 607
Blessed Virgin Mary
Pavlinska ulica Hotel Excelsior
Upper Town Frana Supila 12
20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia
Rastoke +385 20 35 30 00
47240 Slunj www.hotel-excelsior.hr
Rastoke 25 B
+385 47 801 460
Proto Restaurant in Old Town
www.slunj-rastoke.com Siroka no.1 Dubrovnik
+385 20 32 32 34
Hotel Frankopan Ogulin
I.G.Kovacica 1-47300 Ogulin BUZA on top of the castle
00 385 (0) 47 525 509 Crijeviceva 9, Dubrovnik
www.hotel-frankopan.hr 0 312 957 38 15 12
Jean Miller Spoljaric has a great time when she travels, and it really shows in her stories and her eye-popping photos. She brings her unique brand of enthusiasm to the art of travel writing. She lives in New York’s Dutchess County.