Along the Adriatic Sea, in what was once vital part of the Roman Empire, lies one of the most beautiful and culturally rich countries, Croatia. For years, as part of the communist Yugoslavia, this beautiful area remained off the “tourist radar” for most Americans. The European Union and United Nations recognized Croatia as an independent nation in 1992, though the war for independence continued until 1995. With the end of that war, many cruise lines started to include stops in Croatia, most often in the popular port cities of Dubrovnik and Split.
I first discovered Dubrovnik while channel surfing on my TV one evening and happening upon a Discovery HD Theater Special on that fascinating city. Dubrovnik (Italian, Ragusa), is a Croatian city on the Adriatic Sea coast in the extreme south of Dalmatia, positioned at the terminal end of the Isthmus of Dubrovnik. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it is one of the most prominent tourist destinations on the Adriatic. The city has been compared in historical importance to Venice, as it was once the smallest but one of the most prosperous merchant states in the Mediterranean. In its prime, the city has as many as 700 merchant ships, rivaled only by Venice at the time. The city is home to sites like the over 500 years old Arboretum Trsteno, the oldest arboretum in the world. It is also home to the third oldest European pharmacy. Still in operation, it is located at Little Brothers church in Dubrovnik. Other notable attractions include the Onofrio Fountain, City Bell Tower, Sponza Palace, Ducal Palace, and the Baroque church of the city’s patron St. Blasius. Noted writer George Bernard Shaw described the city by saying: “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.”
That aspects of the city that most impressed me, from that initial introduction on the television, were the remarkable fortified walls, and the dramatic setting between azure seas, inviting beaches, and beautiful country side. Most cruise ships dock across the bay from the old town in Gruz Harbor, a suburb of Dubrovnik. Cruise lines offer complete tours of the old town, but it probably is not possible to simply walk into the old town with out taking some sort of shuttle or transfer. Once in the old town, it is possible to see most sights as a walking tourist. Other options offered by the cruise lines include boat tours of the area and coach tours visiting the surrounding countryside or offering wine tours.
Split is another popular destination along the Dalmatian coast. The city grew up around the palace/fortress of Diocletian. Diocletian was one of the rare Roman emperors who named his successors and went into retirement. Originally from the Balkans, Diocletian is said to have retired to “grow cabbage” in his garden. Part fortress, based on the layout of a typical Roman Army encampment, and part luxury palaces, Diocletian lived protected here during the last years of his life. A cruiser who visited the palace just a few years ago described the palace as a “city within a city”. A UNESCO heritage site, the historic center of Split is built around the remains of this Roman palace. Two streets remain well preserved: Cardo and Decumanus. After Roman times, the city integrated Gothic and Renaissance buildings into the area. It is considered the best preserved of all Roman Palaces.
I wanted to find out what else there is to do in Split and the surrounding area. I spoke with another traveler, Anne Marie, who shared with me her week long visit to the Split area.
Cruise Talk: Can you tell us about your visit to Croatia?
Anne Marie: We rented a holiday house just north of Split in the May half-term break last year (’08). So for us it was a fly-drive holiday — not for the faint hearted! Driving can be a little hectic. We had a beautiful time lazing around the pool, and swimming in a beautiful little inlet, and had day trips to Split, Trogir and Krka National Park… and just toodling around the Dalmatian Coast.
Cruise Talk: What foods did you enjoy?
Anne Marie: The best food is simple and fresh — they make a lovely olive oil bread and have special sun-cured olives, that were particularly memorable. Look out for restaurants that cook in a Peka, which is an open hearth fire, and give yourself plenty of time! (Sometimes you have to book ahead for a Peka dish.)
Cruise Talk: What was your impression of the people of Croatia?
Anne Marie: The people are VERY elegant! Most places we went, there was an English, French or Italian speaker around… they are very cosmopolitan.
Cruise Talk: Any memorable experiences to share with our readers?
Anne Marie: When we take a rental car, there is always some sort of calamity, and this trip was no exception. We found ourselves in a dead end in Split, and as my husband was trying to turn around, he went off the pavement, only to realize there was a drop of about a foot between the road and the verge. So the car was stuck like a see-saw with the front wheels dangling off the pavement. As my husband and father-in-law tried in vain to push, a gang of men in white (like chefs to the rescue — we realized later they were a crew from a sailing yacht) heard me gunning the engine. They came hup-hup-hupping up the hill and hup-hup-hup lifted the car back on the pavement and disappeared hup-hup-hup down the hill again! They are very friendly and helpful!
Cruise Talk: Did you have a favorite attraction?
Anne Marie: My favorite attraction was Diocletian Palace. It is just amazing to see something built by the Romans still in use. It is really marvelous and you get a real sense of what it must have been like in Roman times.
Cruise Talk: What was the weather like:
Anne Marie: The weather is very hot — May was a good time to go, but expect Alabama-like temperatures — and the Adriatic was fine to swim in May…that is my other highlight — long swims in the sea early in the morning, heavenly. Gosh — makes me want to go back! That’s the trouble with travel!
Cruise Talk: What resources would you recommend to other travelers.
Anne Marie: I’d refer you to the Rough Guide to Croatia which is excellent, and to our friend Sasa King who runs a travel agency called Adriatic Holidays. She is from Split, specializes in sailing holidays and really knows her stuff.
As Anne Marie mentions, Sailing Holidays, are another popular way to enjoy Croatia. These vacations offer a sailing yacht experience to vacationers. However, if you are visiting on a traditional large cruise ship you have many choices when visiting Split. Cruise lines offer all kinds of excursions that include visits to the Ruins of Solana, scenic countryside drives, historic walking tours of Split, scenic Krka National Park, Taste of Split food tours, and excursions that visit some of many galleries and museums of Split.
It seems that Croatia offers an endless array of sites, scenery and experiences to visitors. We invite our readers to share with us their experiences in Croatia. For many, it was or surely will be the highlight of their Eastern Mediterranean cruise. Cruise lines visiting Croatia include P&O, Azamara, Fred Olsen, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Hapag-Lloyd, Princess, and Oceania.