The Top 10 Best Things About Croatia

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

The Neretva River Delta grows enough citrus to serve several countries.

Counting down, these items make my list of the ten best things I discovered about Croatia.

10. Fresh fruits and vegetables

There is a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

The fresh markets offer a great choice of fruits and vegetables during the harvest season.

Everything grows fresh in Croatia.  We were fortunate to be living in Croatia during harvest season.  There were melons, pomegranates, figs, plums, grapes and apples.  And there was citrus.  Almost the entire Neretva River Delta is planted with citrus – mandarins, lemons and several varieties of oranges and they are quite affordable.  Other fruits like bananas and tropical fruits are imported.  The variety seems endless and prices are quite good. 

9.   Coffee

Every place we have visited has a coffee bar (or two or three) on every block, or so it seems.  I am not saying that the coffee is as good as what we could purchase at every market in Panama or Costa Rica where it was grown and picked and roasted within walking distance of our house.  But every café, bar and coffee shop in Croatia has an espresso machine, and it is a custom in Croatia to ‘take coffee’ for almost any occasion.

8.   Olive oil and wine

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

There are countless vineyards and olive tree groves throughout Croatia.

I think everyone in Croatia either has their own olive trees or is related to someone who does.  The same goes for vineyards.  They make a lot of olive oil in Croatia, and they also make a lot of wine.  Production numbers seem small compared to wine growing regions in other parts of the world, but Croatia’s population is only about 4.5 million, and they consume most of what they produce.  However, wine lovers who get a taste of the finer Croatian wines will likely wish to add some bottles to their collections.

7.   Cheese

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia.  Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

Farm fresh is not just a saying in Croatia. Yes, this was my first time milking a cow.

I confess I love cheese.  And I have come to learn that not every country has great cheeses.  Croatia got it right!  There is probably as much cheese-making tradition in Croatia as there is making olive oil and wine.  Lucky for me!

6.   Bakery breads and other goodies

You should not expect to find a bread aisle in the supermarket.  All breads, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods are made fresh daily in a bakery.  There are in-store bakeries and independent bakery shops on nearly every block in the commercial areas.  Many Croatians still bake their own items if they have time.

5.   Natural beauty

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

The waters of the Lika River are scenic and pure.

Where do I begin?  The Dalmatian Coast, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Skradinski Falls in Krka National Park, the Neretva River Delta, Lake Vrana, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the natural springs.  Croatia is so diverse that the list of scenic spots seems never ending. 

4.   Clean air

To me there are two key items that define ‘quality of life.’  Being able to breathe clean air is one of those things, and it is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia, especially on the Dalmatian Coast with its steady breezes.

3.   Clean water

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

These springs in Lika County have provided fresh water to the area for two thousand years.

This is the second key ‘quality of life’ item, and Croatia has abundant resources of clear, clean water.  Many of their rivers are spring-fed at their sources.  You can dip your cup or water bottle into most streams and expect to get pure water better than the bottled water for sale at the market.  Wherever I travel I compare the water with what I experienced in my youth hiking past creeks and streams in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  Clean water is not a given everywhere.  It is in Croatia.

2.   History and Culture

The medieval fortress near Samobar reminds of the civilization that existed here long ago.

The medieval fortress near Samobor reminds us of the civilization that existed here long ago.

Croatia may have finally appeared as a country on geography maps in the last twenty years.  However, as a region with a distinct culture, Croatia has a history of its own dating back over 1,500 years.  Many of the traditional foods, dress, music and dances are still common today.  They have their own language, their own art, their great legends and their heroes.  All of these traditions are woven into the fabric of everyday life.  One of the great things about traveling in Croatia is the people are eager to tell their stories and share their culture.

1.   The people

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most lasting memories.

The friends we made in Croatia will be our most treasured memories.

I have said this before and it bears repeating.  The people of Croatia have been among the most welcoming, most hospitable and most caring of any we have met in any country we have visited.  They care how you feel about their country and about them.  They want you to appreciate the beauty, the history and culture, the food, the wine, and their hospitality.  And I do!

One more thing, the women in Croatia are quite style-conscious.  In the cities and towns women seldom go out in public without putting on makeup and nice clothes.  At first I thought there was simply a high percentage of striking-looking women.  Then I realized that women of all ages take great care to look their best in public.  The men, not so much.  They may be ruggedly handsome, but they do not dress up unless they are hoping to impress the women.  That however, is a whole new story.

 

Croatia’s Enchanted Islands

The Romans may have had this view from the Island of Kornat.

The Romans may have had this view from the Island of Kornat.

To fully appreciate Croatia’s natural beauty, one needs to visit some of the 1,000+ islands that make up the Dalmatian Archipelago.  Seagoing vacationers have long enjoyed the quiet coves, sandy beaches, hiking and biking paths and boutique hotels tucked comfortably in their secluded venues.  However, a charter boat or water taxi can open this private world to any interested traveler.

Fortunately, Croatia has seen fit to preserve some of their island treasures as national parks.  I explored two of these island national parks, and each could not be more different from the other.

Rock cliffs tower over our boat like giant sea monsters.

Rock cliffs tower over our boat like giant sea monsters.

Kornati National Park

Kornati National Park is about 30 miles up the coast from Šibenik (SHE beh nik).  The park includes the island of Kornat, largest of the 89 islands in the park.  Our charter boat took us around several islets with high cliffs that plunge 200 feet vertically down into the depths of the clear, turquoise sea. 

Other than scattered shrubs and trees, the islands seem largely barren.  On the main island, Kornat, we climbed to a promontory ruin believed to have Roman origins.  It is hard to tell, as we were informed by our captain, Emil, that a film company had rebuilt some of the ruins for a film set some years ago.  Even so, it was not difficult to imagine that the Romans had used this site as a lookout vantage point.

Some ancient ruins were probably part of a movie set.

Some ancient ruins were probably part of a movie set.

The magic of Kornati National Park becomes apparent below the water’s surface where you will find a diver’s paradise.  These protected waters feature 352 confirmed species of algae, 22 corals, 177 mollusks, 160 fishes, 55 crab species, plus indigenous sea grasses and countless organisms that have yet to be identified.  In addition, large numbers of bottlenose dolphins and loggerhead turtles make this habitat their home.  If you are a diver or snorkeler, you must discover Kornati National Park for yourself.

The saltwater lakes are connected by manmade canals.

The saltwater lakes are connected by manmade canals.

Mljet National Park

The western part of Mljet (mul YET) Island was declared a national park in 1960.  In brilliant contrast to the stark islands of Kornati National Park, Mljet features inland lakes.  They are not really lakes, but rather natural depressions that were flooded by the rising sea after the last ice age.  These are actually saltwater lakes connected by a small channel to the sea.  Because they are shallow and landlocked, the lakes are several degrees warmer than the sea and make for excellent swimming for nine months out of the year.  Visitors often rent bicycles to casually peddle around the forested shores of these lakes in shaded comfort. 

The monastery is accessible only by boat.

The monastery is accessible only by boat.

If you get too warm, there are lakefront café bars called konobas where you can stop to refresh yourself.  If you are seeking refreshment, you should remember these two words – Ožujsko and Karlovačko, the Croatian equivalent of Budweiser and Miller.  Every konoba will have one or the other.  I occasionally enjoyed a variety called lemon Radler, made by both Ožujsko and Karlovačko, which is only 2% alcohol and tastes a lot like San Pellegrino limonata – very refreshing!  It is also sold in grapefruit and orange flavors at the supermarkets.  If you are stopping for lunch, let me caution you to allow at least 1½ hours for eating.  Dining in Croatia is not a hit-and-run activity. 

Ruins of St. Paul's Church built on Mljet Island in the 4th century.

Ruins of St. Paul’s Church built on Mljet Island in the 4th century. I think they had a very small congregation.

Mljet Island has something for everyone – sandy beaches, Roman ruins, a 4th century church and the Santa Maria Benedictine monastery that is being refurbished and is open for visitors.  Even the Greek poet, Homer, wrote about the island in The Odyssey.  Some believe this is the island upon which Odysseus was shipwrecked.  There is a sea cave that could match the description in Homer’s story.  Mljet is also a great island getaway with lovely resorts and hotels suitable for families or for a romantic holiday for couples.

One thing is certain.  If you are interested in a special vacation of a lifetime, then you owe it to yourself to consider the islands of Croatia.  Once you go, you will be like me – looking forward to the day when you can return. 

Discovering Croatia’s Krka National Park

Looking down the Krka River valley

Looking down the Krka River valley

In 1985, 45 square miles of the Krka River basin was proclaimed Krka National Park.  Flowing only 45 miles from its spring-fed source to the Adriatic Sea, the Krka River offers stunning scenery.  Like most of the rivers in Croatia, the Krka is clean and pure enough to drink, which may be why the Romans saw fit to build structures in the area now included in the national park.  Several sites are undergoing archeological study and preservation.

Skradin welcomes luxury yachts to its quiet harbor

Skradin welcomes luxury yachts to its quiet harbor

The coastal entrance to Krka National Park is via Skradin, a picturesque town just upriver from the Dalmatian Coast city of Šibenik.  Skradin is accessible by yacht from the sea.  The locals are known for respecting the anonymity of the rich and famous people who visit their town.  They are proud to drop a few famous names of visitors like Prince Rainier, the Sultan of Brunei, Bill and Melinda Gates, and assorted movie and sports celebrities who come to Skradin to escape the paparazzi and autograph seekers.

The Krka tumbles 200 feet over 17 falls

The Krka tumbles 200 feet over 17 falls

Just upriver from Skradin is one of Croatia’s best known natural wonders, Skradinski Falls, a series of travertine falls formed by calcium deposits.  A series of bridges and footpaths allow for year-round viewing of the falls, the renovated water mills, and the site of one of the world’s first hydroelectric power plants.  Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the AC generator, grew up nearby, and the power plant that provided electricity to the coast cities of Šibenik and Split incorporated his design and began operation only two days after the world’s first hydroelectric plant opened at Niagara Falls in 1895.  A nearby plant still operates as part of Tesla’s legacy.

The Romans based a legion along the Krka R.

The Romans based a legion along the Krka R.

Due to the rising sea level over the past 10,000 years, the water at the base of the Skradinski Falls is a mixture of fresh water and the salt water estuary from the coast.  All the water flowing over the falls is pure and fresh.  This unique environment provides habitat for over 800 species of plants as well as a variety of amphibians, reptiles and fish.  The Krka basin is also important as one of Europe’s foremost spring and autumn bird migration areas.

Opposing fortresses face each other across the Krka River.

Opposing fortresses face each other across the Krka River.

The Krka basin is often referred to as the cradle of Croatian History.  The Krka River served as the dividing line between powerful ruling families in the region during the Middle Ages.  Each family built fortresses along the Krka River, basically to keep an eye on one another.  Wars only broke out when invaders from the Ottoman Empire or Eastern Europe encroached on the territory.  The strength of the ruling families along the Krka allowed for stability and trade in the region. Economic growth gave power and prestige to the ruling families whose descendents remained in power until the 16th century.

The last fortress along the Krka was abandoned 500 years ago.

The last fortress along the Krka was abandoned 500 years ago.

Today, visitors to Krka National Park are treated to the natural beauty of the upper Krka River, the historical treasures of earlier civilizations, and the modern comforts of some of Croatia’s most charming villages and towns along the Dalmatian Coast.  When the weather gets hot there is the inviting clear water of the Krka River and the beaches along the coast.  And when you get hungry you can sample the great food, the local wines and the hospitality that makes people who discover Croatia keep coming back.

Discovering Croatia’s National Parks

Mike's mile high view of the Makarska Riviera and  beyond

Mike’s mile high view of the Makarska Riviera and beyond

Note:  I have been touring Croatia as a guest of Dhar Media in the role of journalist/blogger for most of September.  Due to constraints on time and internet connectivity, my blog has suffered some neglect, although I managed to post a couple of stories in fulfillment of the expectations of our hosts.  We return to Scotland at the end of September when I will explore in detail more about our travels through Croatia.  For example, we visited seven of Croatia’s national parks and I have posted only one related story to-date, the story about Plitvička Lakes.  This series continues with the following story about two of Croatia’s beautiful parks.

One of the most impressive qualities about Croatia is their preservation of the most beautiful public spaces for posterity through their system of national parks and parks of nature.  The distinction between national parks and parks of nature is the legal limitations on land use.  A good analogy would be the difference between a national park and a national forest in the United States.

Paklenice National Park

The steep canyon walls of Paklenica National Park

The steep canyon walls of Paklenica National Park

Paklenice (pawk-leh-NEES-eh) National Park is above all a climbers’ paradise near the Dalmatian archipelago island of Pag.  Solid karst rock walls rise 1,000 feet and higher in some areas to form a narrow, deep canyon.  Most routes are numbered and protection anchors are drilled permanently into the rock for clipping in carabiners for climbing ropes.  Small plaques on each pitch label the difficulty rating with a numerical designation.  Some pitches are no more than ten feet away from the next adjacent pitch, and during the Spring and Fall, climbing ropes lay about like spaghetti as climbers take turns climbing various routes.  Colorful names for the routes are given to each pitch, an honor reserved for whoever was credited with the first ascent.

Climbing walls tower overhead

Climbing walls tower overhead

The national park covers 95 km² (23,000 acres) and the terrain which straddles the coastal mountain ridges is an ideal setting for backpackers.  A ranger informs me that camping is only allowed in designated sites where shelters have been built.  Their purpose is primarily to protect surrounding areas undisturbed in their natural state.

A backpacker could hike the high country from one end of the park to the other in a few days.  This would make for an invigorating and rewarding outing and instill the desire to return to one day further explore the park’s hidden treasures.

Biokovo Park of Nature

View of the Dalmatia Coasts and Adriatic Sea

View of the Dalmatia Coasts and Adriatic Sea

Biokovo Park is named after the peak that towers over the Riviera town of Makarska.  The road to the summit winds up and up, switchback after switchback for 23 kilometers (14 miles).  Our drive climbs 1,700 meters (over 5,500 feet elevation) from the sea to a viewpoint marked by a radio relay tower.  The temperature drops 6°C (11°F) from our seashore point of origin, and a brisk wind reminds me I should have brought a jacket.

We can see all the way to Bosnia from Biokovo Mountain's summit.

We can see all the way to Bosnia from Biokovo Mountain’s summit.

Although weather can change rapidly and extreme weather is possible any day of the year, we arrive at the summit on the perfect day.  Looking east I can see Bosnia.  To the west I am able to see over the Dalmatian archipelago to the Adriatic Sea and beyond to catch a glimpse of the coast of Italy.

I should warn any prospective visitors who aspire to reach the summit of Biokovo Mountain.  The road is adequately maintained.  However, it is single lane over much of the route, and you will encounter oncoming cars.  Be prepared to find the closest wide spot in which you are able to squeeze past one another.  It may seem challenging, but the view is worth it.  Many tourists rent scooters for the drive, and that is a great solution on a typically warm sunny day.

During our trip I visited seven national parks.  You may be surprised by the diversity of natural settings as I share with you more of the natural beauty of Croatia in my next story. 

Surprise – We Are Going to Croatia!

Pozadina

All photo credits: Discover Croatia Tours, Touristar TV

The Six Monthers exist due to a lot of behind-the-scenes work. While I busy myself writing this blog and sharing our travel adventures, Florence is busy on numerous social media sites promoting our brand and seeking opportunities that complement our travel plans. These efforts recently paid off when the staff at Touristar TV in Croatia invited us to join their team to promote their Discover Croatia Tour in September, which will be filmed for television.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dubrovnik is one of the world's finest examples of a medieval walled city.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dubrovnik is one of the world’s finest examples of a medieval walled city.

We will be representing the United States on an international team of travelers and journalists from Brazil, Finland, Spain and host Ashley Colburn along with our Croatian hosts TouristarTV and the Croatian agency, Dhar Media.  I will be sharing more about our fellow travelers in the weeks ahead. Currently, I am announcing our travel plans and sharing a few photos from Croatia provided by our hosts.

Croatia's freshwater richness is evident in the Neretva region.

Croatia’s freshwater richness is evident in the Neretva region.

I will share stories about the people, the culture, the sights, the food and the history of Croatia. I am no expert about Croatia, so I will be learning and writing about it as I go.  I have met only a few Croatians in my life, and they all have one thing in common. They are proud of their country’s beauty and heritage.

Our route will take us from the interior capital of Zagreb through scenic national parks past mountains and lakes to the coast. It is the desire of our team to create an irresistible image of Croatia as a travel destination.  Until such time as we assemble as a group on September 3rd, our hosts at Touristar TV passed along some images from Croatia to share with you.  I will post updates as I am able until I begin sharing stories and photos from Croatia.

Plitvice National Park features a string of alpine lakes connected by waterfalls.

Plitvice National Park features a string of spring fed lakes connected by waterfalls.

I am excited about seeing a part of the world I have only read about or heard about from others. One thing is clear. Now that Croatia has become a member of the European Union, they want to raise their profile and let the world know who they are and what their beautiful country has to offer. I can hardly wait to share my discoveries.