On the road in Croatia...
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."
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!