When I told my friends that I was planning a trip to Croatia, most thought I was kidding. Some of them had never heard of the country. Some tried to coax me into going to London or Paris. The rest thought I was plain stupid to waste my money on a country that is on no one’s wish list. But I was determined. I had first seen Croatia’s beauty on HBO’s Game of Thrones (King’s Landing is actually Dubrovnik) and I knew that it was only a matter of time before mass tourism followed. Right now, it’s an unspoiled gem, and tops my list.
I am a paranoid flyer. But luckily, I was travelling with three friends and after flying for nine hours, with me clawing into their arms for most of it, I knew that these girls really loved me.
Croatia, apart from its clean air and unparalleled beauty, has very warm people. The immigration officers are a jolly bunch. Cabbies open doors, strangers smile, you’re welcomed everywhere with open arms (they are huggers). Our 60-year-old bus driver even asked for my friend’s hand in marriage! In his defence, my friend was definitely passing glances at him.
Dubrovnik, aka King’s Landing (sadly ladies, I didn’t find my Jamie Lannister there) is a mix of bays, pebble beaches, hidden coves, olive groves, and forests of cypress and pinewood. The ports and marinas are sprinkled with ships, boats, yachts, kayaks and canoes. Mini islands are lush green. And the Adriatic Sea is so clear, you can see 30 feet deep.
The city has a princely charm: Baroque facades, Renaissance palaces, fortresses and a Franciscan monastery. But what is even more compelling is how it juggles ‘what was’ and ‘what is.’ A Diesel store stands adjacent to a palace or museum. For every monastery, there’s a gruff tavern serving Ožujsko beer. For every souvenir push-cart, there’s a high-end store selling crotchet napkins. There’s no sense of displacement.
The Old Town of Dubrovnik, shaped like a cereal bowl, is circled by the mighty ancient walls built by the democratic government of Dubrovnik, protecting its people from foreign invaders like the Saracens, Turks and Venetians when it was an independent state. They run for almost two kilometres but have allowed for foreign influences to seep in. The Gundulic Square has one of the most beautiful twisting Spanish steps. The Placa or Stradun – a limestone drag on which you can see your reflection – leads to the heart of the Old Town and is flanked by medieval churches and Baroque museums. You can see Greek, Roman, Venetian and Slavic influences in its alcoves, windows and doors.
Down below, the Stradun lights up every evening with a motley crowd – Kate Moss lookalikes in six-inch heels, cigarette smoking boys making passes at women, tourists gobbling gigantic pizza slices and bare-chested dudes in beach shorts. The merrymaking usually starts at a local pub or a nearby park where young revellers down medica and rakia shots before switching to Jagermeister with beer. These people completely redefined my understanding of tippling! Once the main clock tower strikes midnight, the real party shifts indoors (most clubs let girls in for free). Party till the crack of dawn, eat at a local bakery and pass out for the rest of the day.
You could spend months circling the Old Town without feeling like you’ve seen it all. It has some beautiful museums and galleries. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Steve McCurry’s photos at one of the art galleries. Most museums focus on 16th century religious art. If that’s not your thing, spend your day shopping for souvenirs like my friends did.
Take a quick detour from the main street to the higher lanes in the city. The long winding stairs and narrow labyrinth paths lead to secluded areas where your only company is the strong fragrance of fresh flowers and sleepy cats. Here, trios and quartets play music for themselves and are more than welcoming. Here, I discovered the real Dubrovikan life. Breakfast seamlessly merges with lunch as conversations go on and on. Lunch, usually, is fresh fish, bread, potatoes, cheese and cake along with generous quantities of some honey-flavoured liquor. Then locals throw on their bathing suits and dive off the nearest cliff into the greenish-blue water below. Then it’s time for midday coffee at quayside cafes and more hours of chatter.
I spent more than a week in Dubrovnik’s lanes, falling in love every day with someone or something – swimming, scampi fry, Ožujsko beer, the lazy cats, cathedrals, walls, pebble beaches, a Kurt Cobain lookalike, the girl with dreadlocks and an old grumpy sailor. Then it was time to move on…
Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, is a 685 km drive north from Dubrovnik, and really a world away from the cereal bowl. While exquisite Dubrovnik is soaked in history, Zagreb is here and now. No orange roofs, just Lego-shaped apartment blocks. No Spanish stairs, No Greek alcoves. No taverns. But fancy pubs and restaurants, traffic signals and McDonald’s and Zara outlets. Still, there’s is a strange pulse to the city that grips you in no time.
Unlike Dubrovnik, the four of us didn’t stay with a friend, but rented a furnished two room-hall-kitchen in the heart of the city for 450 Kunas (Rs 4,050) per day. Because we were living at the main square, we spent no money on exorbitant taxis. We walked to the shopping malls, museums, art galleries, parks, pubs, restaurants and the movie theatre.
Zagreb is also home to the unusual Museum of Broken Relationships. Yes. Really. It houses items people from all across the world have donated as signs of their broken relationships: wedding gowns, ex-lover’s T-shirts, love letters, fake breasts, an axe, even handcuffs. Each object tells a story. The whole experience was sad, hilarious and poignant.
When I stepped out of the museum, I knew that this was definitely not my last trip to Croatia. After all, I need to give the museum my story. Big enough reason!
Several pretty islands dot the Croatian coastline:
An hour-long ferry ride from Dubrovnik will take you to Lopud, a four km-square island housing fewer than 220 people. It has the only sandy beach in Croatia – Sunj – and has 30 churches and beautiful guesthouses all over the island.
Mijet is an archipelago of pristine wildness. It also has two connecting lakes which eventually meet the Adriatic Sea where you can go kayaking or just jump and swim. Hire a bike to explore the wilderness while butterflies accompany you. Or walk past the ruins of an ancient church. Catch the last ferry at 4 pm or get ready to camp out in the wild.
Southeast of Dubrovnik, Lokrum is a a special forest vegetation reserve. It has one of Croatia’s best nude beaches and a small lake called Mrtvo More (dead sea), linked to the sea. The water is calm, crystal clear and ideal for swimming. You can also explore the island on a kayak.
The Plitvice Lakes National Park lies in the Lika region of Croatia. There are 16 blue-green lakes each separated by natural dams of travertine. Most lakes are fed by waterfalls. The tallest waterfall is Veliki Slap at 70 metres (230 feet) tall. Go hiking and explore the many trails and caves or take a boat to enjoy the water. You can also pitch your tent at their campsite or find accommodation at villages close by.
Way to go
Visa: Apply at the Croatian Embassy in New Delhi. Visit http://croatia.visahq.com/ for details.
Currency: Their local currency is the Kuna. One Kuna equals Rs 9. But you cannot convert rupees to Kuna, so just carry euros to Croatia.
Gettingthere: There are no direct flights from India to Croatia. Fly Turkish Airlines to and fro with a stopover in Istanbul. Apply for a Turkish visa beforehand if you want to explore Istanbul because they do not have visa on arrival for Indians.
From HT Brunch, September 2
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch