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Croatia

Driving Down Dalmatia

On the road in Croatia...

rain 58 °F

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Croatia's gorgeous coastline along the Adriatic Sea, facing Italy

With cheap air fare to Venice, and The Croatian border only a little more than an hour away, a fly/drive Italy/Croatia combo was a natural combination. The only problem was that the part of Croatia that I wanted to see most -- the walled, medieval port of Dubrovnik -- was clear at the opposite end of the country. I'd been wanting to visit Croatia for decades, so we decided it was worth the drive time. We would do the drive in two stages, stopping off to see some sights on the way. The middle part of the trip, the meat of the sandwich, would be two days in Dubrovnik.

Our first driving day involved some serious chewing to get through the bread, so to speak. We detoured onto the Istrian Peninsula, a bit out of our way. The reason, and our first sight in Croatia, was the Roman Arena in Pula, Croatia. It had been cloudy throughout most of our drive there, even threatening rain a few times. However, the sun broke through just as we pulled into Pula. It was as if the travel gods were saying, "Yes, this place is worth the trip."

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Awe inspiring, the Pula Roman Arena -- Croatia's Colosseum

The arena was huge, and its outer walls were even more intact than the Colosseum in Rome. Instead of five stories tall, this one appeared to be three. About one third of the stone seats had been restored, while the rest of the interior was in a more ruined state. The arena floor was dirt -- no subterranean section here. But this meant you could walk out to the center of the oval and turn slowly, 360 degrees, and imagine the cheering and jeering crowds. It took all I had to not raise my arms and shout, "Are you not entertained?" in my best Maximus voice. It was a truly amazing sight to see the soaring stone archways enclose you, looming above, mute testament to the engineering power of Rome. I had never even heard of this place before planning my visit. How many places did that mighty civilization leave its imprint upon? Nearly 2,000 years later, the arena could still evoke awe and wonder in the sparse crowds visiting it that day.

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As we headed back toward the main highway south through Croatia, the rain that had threatened earlier fulfilled its promise. We had a good road map, but we're depending mostly on our smart phone Mapquest app to navigate. I'd purchased a SIM card in Paris on our layover, and it provided service like my research showed. We lost signal when we went through the dozens of mountain tunnels -- some up to three miles long! No exaggeration, I think I went through more mountain tunnels in Croatia than the rest of my life combined. Croatia stretches like a pork chop along the coast of the Adriatic Sea across from Italy. The coastline is famous for its beauty, though we were seeing little of that on the gray, rainswept mountain highway. Eventually, after we lost Mapquest for the umpteenth time, I switched to the Apple Maps app, and that worked so much better. It guided us to the door of our hotel accurately and easily. And on a dark, rainy night in a foreign country, that is a good thing!

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We'd paid our time in Purgatory, apparently, and our continuation of the drive the next day's was under sunny blue skies. We abandoned the mountain highway and took the coastal road. Here was that amazing coastline for which Croatia is famous. Wow! Blue, blue sea, white-walled and terra cotta roofed villages and towns along the way...and overlooking them all like a stern grandfather were those enormous granite mountains we'd driven through yesterday. These mountains are the bone in the Croatian pork chop, and run the length of the country, never very far from the sea. Their peaks seemed shrouded in clouds, so doubtless other drivers up there were having yesterday's weather while we basked in sunshine.

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Sun drenched, a symphony of sea, coast, mountain, and sky, Croatia's Adriatic seashore is a sight to behold

We stopped frequently to take photographs of the stunning seascape. They are a painter's dream. I can imagine a landscape painter venturing into Croatia a young man and not coming out till he was old and gray. If I were driving we perhaps never would have made it to Dubrovnik that day. Instead, I was navigator....a job that usually matches well with my anal retentive, perfectionist personality. I switched off Apple maps after an hour or so, having the road network down by that point. We would not turn it on again until it was time for it to guide us -- expertly, as usual -- to a parking lot near the old town. In the meantime, we enjoyed the show that Croatia's coastline staged for us.

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One oddity of the pork chop that is Croatia's geography is the nine kilometer "Neum Corridor." When the politicians were drawing the lines of the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, they decided that Bosnia-Hercegovina should have access to the Adriatic Sea. Thus, a nine mile section of coast containing the town of Neum, became A Bosnian toe that poked through Croatian territory dipping into the sea. Since then, a resort has obviously blossomed. There were more resorts and hotels in Neum than any area along the coastline except for Dubrovnik and the Croatian second city of Split. We had to drive through a passport control station at both borders. No traffic backups, the customs agents examined our passports, the Croatians stamped them, and we drove on. Later on, I Googled the Neum Corridor and read that 92% of the inhabitants are Croatian. Hmm, I wondered...how do they feel about becoming Bosnian so that they have an access to the sea? On our drive through, we noticed one language of the dual language traffic signs was spray-painted over. Was that Croats angrily whiting out the Bosnian script? It would be interesting to delve deeper into this.

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The miles to Dubrovnik kept counting down, and soon we were within sight of this fabled city. We were staying in the walled, Old Town, which is an entirely pedestrian zone. So. We had to park outside and walk to our hotel. This went very smoothly. We telephoned our contact at our apartment room we were renting, and they were waiting there for us when we rolled our bags up to their door. The Old Town looked like a movie set, it was so authentically medieval, with its cobble stoned streets, matching yellow stone buildings and gleaming terra cotta roofs. In fact, we discovered we had just missed the filming of Star Wars, which was using the Stradun, or Main Street of Dubrovnik for one of its scenes. We already knew that many scenes from HBO's Game of Thrones were filmed there. We looked forward to our exploration of its sights. It was time to unpack from the long, two-day drive and set out!

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Posted by world_wide_mike 12:10 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Dubrovnik: Worth Waiting Two Decades For!

Medieval seaport is a brilliant marriage of History and scenery

sunny 70 °F

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Me on Dubrovnik, Croatia's medieval walls

For decades I had been wanting to see Dubrovnik. This fortified, medieval seaport was Venice's rival throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Known as Ragusa back then, the city made alliances to stay independent of the mistress of the seas, Venice. Most importantly for the traveler, her walls remained intact through the centuries and her location on the gorgeous Dalmatian coast had captured my imagination from the moment I first saw photographs of her gleaming walls and terra cotta roof tiles. During the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian artillery rained down on this UNESCO world heritage sight. The Croats resisted, though, cut off from the rest of their countrymen. The damage has been repaired, and the Old Town greets visitors with shining walls and even freshly scrubbed slick, stone streets.

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In fact, Dubrovnik looks so pristine it has been used by Hollywood to film a number of movies over the past few years. I knew that the city is a stand-in for King's Landing in the HBO Games of Thrones adaption. We were surprised, though, to hear we had just missed filming of the next Star Wars installment by a week. Though it would have been cool to be there during the filming, in hindsight, that would have meant closed sights, blocked off streets, and other inconveniences. So, best to miss it, we surmised.

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Our exploration began on the Stradun, the pedestrian main drag through the compact, walled town. After checking into our hotel, we walked maybe 50 yards, and there we were! It LOOKED like a movie set, it was so pristine. Had they given the walls and streets a thorough scrubbing for Disney? Perhaps. We didn't ask. We checked out a few of the sights, including the Sponza Palace, built in the 14th century and elegantly remodeled during the Renaissance. Not much of it is open to visitors, but there is a photo exhibit in one room honoring the city defenders who died holding off the Serb army. Facing the palace across the square was the Church of St. Blaise, which we ducked inside to see a service going on. Though they were speaking in Croatian, my Catholic upbringing and its ritualistic mass meant I could tell what they were saying.

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As we wandered up stairs and around twisting Medieval streets, we could see most of the city's buildings were made with same light, yellowish stone. It gave the buildings a unity of appearance and made them glow with luster when the sun struck them. Over the next day and a half, we also visited both the Franciscan and Domenican monasteries. Each had similar cloisters surrounding gardens, with carved, stone pillars capped by interesting capitals. We declined to visit the museums in each, as we wanted to save the bulk of our time for Dubrovnik's greatest attraction: walking the circuit of the city's medieval walls. We were biding our time, keeping an eye on the sky. We wanted the best possible lighting for Dubrovnik's premier sight. When the sun broke through in earnest, it was time to begin our assault.

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The walls were built in the 10th century and improved three centuries later. As we climbed higher and higher, the panorama of terra cotta roofs spread out beneath us. Many of the tiles were a newer, brighter orange, replaced since being damaged during the 1990s struggle. Some were relics from further back, and their darker and duskier tones intermixed with the new ones. The colors shining back at you looked like swatches from a paint store's selection of oranges. Rearing up through the ocean of tiles were church bell towers, like giant stone sea creatures, grazing and passively watching the smaller life swim by beneath them. Out to sea, the blue Adriatic sparkled like gemstones, parted by the prows of ferries, tour boats, and speedboats. Beyond the landward walls, green hills rose up like an amphitheater to enfold the city on two sides. White walled houses shined back down at us, their view doubtless the equal of our's atop the walls.

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It was easy to get lost in the past, climbing up the stout towers and pacing along the battlements. The quiet, contemplative stroll was suddenly interrupted when a huge high school group of French students burst onto the bulwarks like an invading army. Shouting, laughing, and taking selfies, they marred the dreamlike quality for awhile. Thankfully, they descended the walls at the halfway point, though I cringed the rest of the day when I heard the "musical" (read nasal) tones of French being spoken. One of my favorite things to do when I visit a historical sight is to slowly wander through it. Dubrovnik's walls are perfect for that. I stopped to take dozens of photos -- every set of steps you climbed or medieval turret you peer through is an amazing view. The wedding of the magical Dalmatian coastline with the martial splendor of a medieval walled city has given birth to a world-class sight.

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To gain another perspective, we rode the cable car to the top of one of the hills that overlooks the city. Tourists pointed their "selfie sticks" -- one of the more annoying inventions of recent years -- every which way. We were elbowed aside several times by a Japanese tour group, but what could you do? Under sunny blue skies, on a warm Spring day, how could you really get angry? It took a bit of doing to find a view of the city below that wasn't partially blocked by the cable car towers and wires. When we did find it, I couldn't resist a smug satisfaction that the tour group was nowhere around, and seemed to miss out on that secret. I felt less guilty about my feeling when the tour group pushed in front of us and ditched us in line, forcing us to wait 15 minutes or so for the next car.

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Once down on street level, we grabbed ice creams and ate them on a bench overlooking the harbor. We then moved to the breezy sea promenade and sat on another bench, marveling at the glorious weather and view. I felt myself dozing off, contented and satisfied. At this point, we'd seen the top sights we'd come to see. We flipped through our guidebooks to figure out how to finish out our second afternoon in Dubrovnik. I picked out the Maritime Museum, which was a mistake. When a History buff is bored, you know it is a poor museum! Next, we decided to take a sightseeing boat tour to get a chance to get a new perspective on the city. It was about a 45 minute cruise in a small boat with only a dozen or so of us. The captain gave us occasional commentary -– the most interesting of which dealt with the millionaire hotels along the coastline leading back to the harbor. I recognized the gardens of the one which had been used in Game of Thrones filming.

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We finished out the afternoon watching the sun sink slowly into the Adriatic Sea from a seaside cafe located just outside the walls. Although they were sold out of virtually everything, they had plenty of Croatian lagers. I had worried that only two days in a city I had waited two decades to visit would not be enough. It had turned out fine, though. Sure, I could have taken an excursion to one of the islands in the area with a third day, but that wouldn't have been Dubrovnik, would it? Two sun-soaked, Spring days to visit this medieval relic of the Middle Ages were without rival. I looked forward to spotting places I'd visited in Hollywood productions for years to come.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 13:07 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Splitting the Day in Croatia

Last two cities on our visit

sunny

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Roman carvings adapted to be part of the decoration of a Christian church (formerly the Roman Emperor Diocletian's tomb)

On our final day of sightseeing in Croatia, we would drive from Dubrovnik, stop in Split, and then continue on to Zadar for the night. The following morning would simply be our drive back to Venice, so this was our last day to chance to see things. Hopefully, we'd have enough time to see places we'd picked out in both cities, but we weren't 100% sure how long it would all take.

Split is Croatia's second largest city after its capital of Zagreb. The city grew up around a seaside palace that the Late Roman Emperor Diocletian built for himself there. He was a native of Illyria, as that region was called by the Romans. After seizing control of the empire, he stabilized it with a new idea. The empire was too big for one person to rule effectively, he decided. There were too many invading barbarians, and giving lots of troops to generals often led them to launch their own coups to take over. Since, the emperor couldn't lead the army in two places at once, what Rome needed was two emperors. So, he split the empire into Eastern and Western halves, giving his trusted friend Maximian the other half. Then, he decided to fix the succession problem by having each emperor, or Augustus, name a junior emperor (a Caesar) as their successor. So, Rome went from one emperor to having four of them! However, even my middle school History students can spot the problem with the Tetrarchy: It requires four leaders willing to share power. Although Diocletian reigned for more than two decades, the system fell apart after his death.

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The walls of Diocletian's palace became a part of the medieval city of Split

Diocletian built his palace in Split on the model of a legionary marching camp. It was walled, square, and bisected by an East-West and North-South road. Since it was a permanent settlement, he built temples, offices for his administration, and even a mausoleum for himself when he were to pass away. The palace was kept in use by his successors, but did not grow into an actual town until centuries later. When the nearby town of Salonica was sacked by invading Avars, many residents of the town fled to the walled palace and took up residence behind its compact walls. Around this nucleus, a medieval town grew -- renovating the palace to turn it into homes, and the temples into churches. Humorously, Diocletian -- who had persecuted Christians mercilessly -- was even evicted from his mausoleum and its squat octagonal structure became a church. Had he known, I'm sure he would have rolled over in his grave! Sorry, couldn't resist that one...

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The area in the center of town called the Peristyle has rows of Roman columns that were formerly part of ancient temples

The core of Split is a curious mixture of Roman and Medieval relics. In some places, like the Peristyle, you can easily see the Roman side. Rows of columns enclose paved courtyards. The four gates piercing each wall look like Roman ceremonial entranceways. In other parts, Split resembles the jumble of Medieval homes and churches, with terra cotta roof tiles. You can see the walls, though, that enclose the square core of the palace grounds. For the best view, we climbed the church bell tower attached to Diocletian's former mausoleum. Here, you could clearly see the walls delineating the original Roman square.

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The walls define where the original medieval city built around Diocletian's Palace grew up

I found Split to be a bit disappointing, though, like it was neither fish nor fowl. Not Roman enough for me to lose myself in that reverie. Nor was it medieval enough, I guess, being a living breathing city. People still are crammed higgedly-piggedly in every nook and corner in Split. So, perhaps the coolest thing about Split is simply the idea of it. Refugees cramming a former Roman emperor's retirement palace, squatting in it, building new walls to subdivide it into homes, and then having this metamorphosis grow for centuries into a thriving town. And though it is free to enter the "palace," you are charged for every sight -- bell tower, churches, and the cavernous substructure underneath. It was interesting to wander around the town and see the various courtyards, balconies, etc., that had been added on as the town grew. After only about two hours of sightseeing, we were ready to leave and drive on to Zadar.

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The ceremonial gate leading to the walled seaside town of Zadar, Croatia

We were staying at the same apartments/hotel as our earlier night-time stop here. Many of the "hotels" in Croatia are called apartments, instead. Considering you can rent them for one night to one week to one month, I'm really not sure why they are not called hotels. Perhaps it is because the owners do not staff a desk 24 hours a day. Instead, they will contact you to see what time you are arriving, so they can meet you and check you in. Although that may sound like poorer service, the Apartments Lavandula in Zadar were the nicest placed we stayed in during our spring break trip to Croatia and Venice. The staff we met were professional and helpful.

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The Byzantine-style Church of St. Donatus with fragments of the Roman forum in the foreground

After checking in, we walked into the Old Town part of Zadar. This town was a pleasant find. Compact and easily walkable in the Old Town, it had a number of quality sights. Like Dubrovnik, it is a walled, seaport with roots in the Roman times. My favorite sight was probably the Byzantine-style, 9th Century Church of St. Donatus. It is a wide, cylindrical stone building nestled amidst the ruins of Zadar's Roman Forum. Column fragments, capitals, and even tombstones are spaced in rows in a grassy area adjoining the town's main square. I liked how the city kept them out in public for citizens and visitors to see every day and enjoy. Yes, they'd be better preserved in a museum, but here they get so many more visitors. Behind St. Donatus was the bell tower of the town cathedral. Unfortunately, like most of the other sights in town, it was closed for the evening. We did get to walk around and photograph the exterior of the churches and towers, so all was not lost. It was a cool, pleasant evening and the sinking sun bathed the stones of the buildings with a golden glow.

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The bell tower of Zadar's Cathedral that we were hoping to be able to climb, but alas, it had just closed

One curiosity that made Zadar a YouTube sensation is the sea organ. An incredibly clever person designed a network of pipes connected to the ocean, with hollow organ-like passages leading up to the point where the town promenade meets the sea. The effect is that as waves push into the tubes, they force the air up through the openings like an organ. The waves do not strike the tubes in a regular or repetitive pattern, so you get a variety of sounds issuing forth from the pipe chambers as you set and look out to sea. In effect, the sea is playing music for you! What's more, a circular area of solar panels next to the tubes soaks up the sun's rays throughout the day, converting them into electricity. At night, this circular area lights up. Sensors in the pipes relay the information to the display, which appears to assign a different color to each new wave pattern that comes in. So, not only does the sea provide music for you in Zadar, it also gives you a psychedelic dance floor to enjoy it upon (with a little help from humans)!

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Zadar's Sea Organ at night, with different colored lights representing each new wave that strikes the organ tubes

As night fell I definitely felt I could have used more time in Zadar. I would not give up Dubrovnik to visit it, but I actually enjoyed diminutive Zadar more than sprawling Split. I would love to have gone through its city museum, climb the bell tower for a view of the walls and ancient town on a sparkling day, and explore its churches. I knew my time in Croatia would be short from the planning stages, though. Spring break is only a week, and with poor connections and expensive flights dictating our use of Venice as a departure and arrival point, the time was cut even shorter. However, Croatia lived up to my expectations. It was worth the decades of waiting to enjoy its sun-soaked coastline and its Roman and Medieval relics. Though I didn't have all the time I hoped, Croatia waited for me before. Her charms will still be there when I return!

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The Captain's Tower, part of Zadar's fortifications, and the ancient wells that provided water to the city

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:47 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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