Originally we had a hiking holiday in Slovakia planned, but due to some bad weather we decided to spontaneously head south instead to find some sunshine. Many Czechs and Germans go on holiday to Croatia, and we knew it had both sea and mountains, so it seemed like the perfect choice for a quick getaway. I’m a bit short on time to write these blog posts so decided to make some notes in the car – here is our road trip travel diary complete with Instagrams I made along the way – more photos to follow soon in a photo diary!
Day 1: Czech Republic to the thermal springs of Ptuj, Slovenia
We set off from the farm and headed for Slovenia via the Czech winelands in Moravia, stopping at a wine shop to pick up a bottle of local wine. After admiring the nearby castle on a hill, we continued through Austria (really central Europe, considering how many countries it borders) to Slovenia, where we stopped for the night at a campsite near thermal springs in Ptuj. After a walk around lovely Ptuj, we visited the spa for a few hours where we enjoyed swimming laps in the big pool, soaking in the warm water pools, a waterslide and sauna. The water slide was quite an adrenaline rush since part of it is painted black inside and it feels a bit like going down a wormhole (it stays dark just long enough for you to wonder if you’re going to see light again). Afterwards we walked back into Ptuj town to have a local dish for dinner, pleskavica, big meat patties containing some cheese, served with a roll, onions, tomatoes, cucumber and a paprika sauce, basically a deconstructed burger.
Day 2: The aquamarine Plitvička Jezera (lakes) and the coastal town of Seline
Soon after leaving Slovenia we crossed the border into Croatia. There are lots of green forested hills and we took a winding route past villages towards Plitvicka jezera, a UNESCO site where you can walk past a series of interconnected lakes with amazingly clear blue-green water and many waterfalls (“Jezero” means lake). There are a lot of tourists there, so it’s a walk rather than a hike. There are hiking trails in the area also.
After our walk we headed back to the car to drive to our next stop, the coast. The scenery on the next part of the drive was mountainous and beautiful (it actually reminded me a lot of parts of South Africa). When you’re driving there, keep an eye open for little stalls selling homemade cheese (syr) and honey from local farms. Be sure to fill up with petrol too, since the petrol stations seem to be spread fairly far apart.
We had it in mind to find a place to camp for the night in Starigrad, a coastal town, or possibly a room as it was late. However when we drove through the town before, Seline, there were quite a few places to rent. The first place we checked at offered us reduced rates if we stayed three nights rather than one, and since we’d done a lot of driving the first two days it sounded like a great idea to have a nice base in Seline and travel around from there.
The place was a good choice as what we didn’t realise was that the sea was right out the back door of the main building /restaurant!
There was some kind of concert on in the town in front of the church, and we went to listen for a bit, it seemed like almost the whole town was there enjoying the music. Then we had dinner: cevapcici for J (little log shaped meatballs) and shrimp risotto for me.
Day three: Paklenica national park and the ancient town of Zadar
Seline is right next to the rocky Velebit mountain range and the Paklenica national park, perfect for hiking and climbing. So we got into our hiking shoes, packed water, snacks and hats and set off for the mountain. Near the entrance to the park were many climbing routes. The rock was limestone: sort of hard/rough/crystallized to the touch but worn slippery smooth on the surface of the path . Apparently in many mountains in Croatia you need to be careful to stay on marked paths as there might still be mines around leftover from the war. We bought a hiking trail map, and it was only areas further away where there were some uncleared areas where it is still advisable to stay on or close to the path.
The first part of the route is a wide stone path leading up into a gorge and then along it next to a stream. This section leads to the mountain hut and the beginning of many other hikes, and is the busiest as many tourists (and probably locals) just walk this section to visit a cave in the area or to go to one of the restaurants / houses up there (Dom) before returning. There are quite a few of the houses around that point, with beds, toilets and basic food and drink. We went to one to ask directions to one hiking trail and ended up staying for lunch. Goulash was advertised everywhere but was finished everywhere too, so we had bean soup and some cheese, bread and olives. Afterwards the host offered us a free shot of Schnapps (“it’s good for your condition! ” he said) in local custom.
We headed for the start of the hiking trail we’d planned on, but bumped into a local mountain guide who recommended a nicer trail for a day walk, a path leading around the mountain on the way to Crne vrch, with some nice views. It was a great hike: hardly anyone else around, good mountain views, some open and some forested sections, clear paths and some rocks. The descent back to the parking lot was a bit more effort though as it was a path with a lot of loose scree.
In the evening we drove about 30min to a town called Zadar for dinner. The dinner was good, grilled white fish with potatoes, Swiss chard and tomato salad. The town itself was also a surprise as there were Roman ruins lying casually about in the centre. Somehow I never realized that Croatia was part of the Roman empire, but the area we are in now was part of the province of Dalmatia. We were also lucky to arrive at the town square just in time for the beginning of some traditional dancing.
Day four: A Roman palace in Split, the medieval town of Trogir, swimming at Čiovo and dinner at Primošten
Croatia is a mountainous country – driving through the mountains and along the coast reminds me a lot of South Africa. We headed out to Split, the second largest city in Croatia, after breakfast. Finding parking near the centre was not easy, many streets were lined with cars on both sides. For paid parking in the city you have to pay in coins (the local currency is Kunas), so as usual we also had to find someone to change some notes.
We headed through a market to the centre, found ourselves wandering through a gate into what looked like a Roman forum as the market continued amidst the Roman ruins. The vendors and customers were current but the surroundings were ancient, it felt like going back in time. The feeling was only enhanced when we heard the sounds of Roman trumpets and crowds coming from the direction of Diocletian’s palace. We hurried there to find people everywhere, on steps, hanging around old Roman columns, and in a square, and above in the palace windows some Roman soldiers playing Ben-Hur style music on the trumpets. Time warp! Turns out, every day at noon “Diocletian” comes out to salute the visitors to his palace, so we caught the end of it.
The first tourist attraction we visited was the cathedral near the palace. There are some seriously scary stairs to the top, where there’s a good view – I skipped that part. In the crypt are open notes left around a statue of the Virgin Mary. One near the edge was in German and was quite sad and touching…”I wish my parents wouldn’t fight so much,” the girl wrote. “I hope that they can learn to listen to each other better”. Wherever they are, I hope that too.
After that we walked into the huge complex that is the remains of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian (emperor from 284-305AD). In the one section are many souvenir stalls, at first I didn’t even realize we were in the palace. But apparently the whole town of Split grew up around the palace in the 7th century when people fled there for refuge from the nearby town of Salona after an invasion by Slavs. The palace was therefore used by the town for a long time and even today many shops, restaurants and even some homes are within its walls. The original upper levels are gone but the basement layers remain and are in the same layout of the level above, so if you walk around there you get an idea of how the palace rooms must have looked. It’s the best preserved Roman palace in the world and definitely worth a visit, although I felt they could have put more information up in the different rooms about the palace itself and the emperor Diocletian.
After visiting the main sights of Split we drove to the medieval town of Trogir, a port town which was actually founded in the 3rd century BC but flourished in the middle ages. The town has many beautiful streets and buildings from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods and it was nice just to wander around in the maze of streets.
After that we drove to a beach on the nearby island of Čiovo, where we again had the conversation: is it an island if you can drive to it? Many islands in Croatia are connected to the mainland by bridges. The beaches along the Adriatic coast in Croatia are pebble beaches, which have the advantage that the water is amazingly clear, and the disadvantage that it can be a bit painful hobbling in and out of the sea! It’s good to have a pair of flipflops or similar shoes for walking on the beach and wear them as close as possible to the water, or else get into the water from a rock or from one of the metal ladders that are sometimes around. Look out for sea urchins as there are quite a few of them around on the rocks, and their sting is painful. Normally the stones near the shore are fine, it’s only when you are a bit further out that you should be careful where you put your feet down. The water is however quite warm and the beautiful blue-green shades and clarity make up for the pain of the pebbles.
After our swim we headed to dinner in another islet, Primošten. if you like shopping, you’ll certainly enjoy the shops there with all their local and seaside themed goodies. There are a lot of shops and stalls selling honey liqueur, honey and lavender sachets. In fact, the scent of Croatia for me is lavender, since many towns, including Split, had that fragrance. We walked to the top of the island where we found a beautiful church glowing in the moonlight. It was exactly 8pm when we arrived so the bells started ringing, and the chimes echoed over the whole island. Outside the church is a graveyard; the large, rectangular graves looked almost like beds overlooking the sea from the top of the hill, a nice place to be laid to rest. After walking through the church we went for dinner at a nearby restaurant, sharing fish and calamari, before driving back to peaceful Seline. It was a great day exploring the various towns, and I felt sad that it was our last night in Seline.
Day five: Northern Velebit national park and a night walk on the island Krk
We were reluctant to leave Seline, entertaining thoughts of staying just one more day, but we would never be able to drive back to Czech in time if we did so (we were aiming to get back on Saturday evening, to have Sunday on the farm before heading back to Berlin). We dawdled in the morning, sitting at the restaurant of the apartment owner with a coffee by the sea, watching the water.
Eventually we headed off on the coastal road. The rocky cliffs next to the sea really reminded me again of the Cape, it’s a beautiful drive. We drove to Northern Velebit national park (Nacionalni park Sjeverni Velebit). Following the instructions of the map we turned right up the mountain, but faced with a narrow road next to a steep drop we wondered if we were on the right road – luckily another tourist came past in a camper van heading in the same direction, and we figured if he could go up there in that huge thing, our small car wouldn’t be a problem. The views were really beautiful on the drive up, looking out over the sea and the islands. You can hike up from lower town, but for other shorter hikes you drive quite high up and start hiking from there. We did a scenic hike through a forest and on open land in between the tops of mountains on a path between long grass. On that short hike, we came across two vipers, both of them in bushes. We warily made our way around the first one, the second one was more aggressive and was right a few metres from the end of the path, so we just headed back. They always say snakes are more scared of you than you are of them, I would think that depends on the person and the snake! But most of them do slither away when they hear you coming. After seeing those two vipers we jumped whenever an insect went “ssssssss”.
Back to the coastal road, with a stop for early dinner near Senj. We there experienced the worst of the Croatian habit in restaurants of trying to add things on to your order. We’d noticed before that waiters and waitresses would always ask us if we wanted additional things we hadn’t ordered, but in a relatively inobtrusive way – “Would you like a salad with that, perhaps?” etc, which is normal in many restaurants to try to sell more. But the waitress we got at a restaurant called Kod tri monara took the cake. First of all, when she would not give us the menu to order drinks even though I asked for it three times, perhaps she did not want us to find something cheap. We ordered Cocktas (the local cola) so she brought us two huge glasses. She tried to sell us big platters of meat or fish, 350 kunas each, but we politely declined. We wanted to try the local pizza which seemed to be everywhere, so ordered two pizzas (about 45-50 Kunas each). Then she said she could prepare us a salad with that. I didn’t want one for me, a pizza is already a huge amount of food, but J said he would have one: she brought a giant plate with enough salad for about four people, and charged us 50 Kunas for that, whereas should have brought a salad for one. While we were waiting for the pizza she came back and started trying to sell us an appetizer, saying it was scampi cooked in a tomato sauce. We weren’t keen to order more food, but she was very pushy, so in the end we said we’d take a small portion. When it arrived, it was a plate with prawns, mussels and calamari in tomato sauce, not scampi at all. Prawns and mussels are a) expensive and b) I don’t eat them. For that appetizer she added 90 Kunas onto the bill. And just as well we’d insisted on the small portion, as on the bill it said the full portion was 180 Kunas! There were also some service charges on the bill, or charges for something we were not sure of, perhaps bread. So all in all, what she added on cost more than the pizzas, and the pizzas weren’t even good. While most waiting staff in Croatia are not as pushy as this lady was, it’s worth remembering to be firm when they offer you extras you don’t really want, and to check the price before. Don’t feel rude to say no to their offers.
After this annoying experience, we continued our lovely coastal drive until we arrived on the island of Krk (also joined to the mainland by a bridge). It was 9pm and we had to find a room to rent for the night. It was a still night, frogs and insects were singing, there were pretty little houses and apartments in the winding streets but everything was silent, nobody seemed to be home. In the end by knocking on a few of the doors in Njivice where there were “Apartmani” signs, J found a place to stay. After moving our things inside we went for a walk along the beachfront, noticing with excitement how clear the water was there too, and planning our swimming for the next day.
Day 6: Beaches at Njivice (Krk), the Soča river / Tolmin gorges, the Julian Alps and a long drive back to Czech republic
The day dawned warm and sunny, so we packed, put our swimming costumes on and headed down to the beaches of Njivice. Before swimming we walked a fair distance along the coast, checking out the different possibilities: there were beaches with big pebbles, beaches with little pebbles (almost sand), rocky seats to sit on, places in the shade, places in the sun. Eventually we got hot and picked a pebble beach close by. It was a lovely swim in the deep green sea. We had coffee and a delicious cheesecake back at one of the cafes near the sea, then headed off for our long drive back to Czech.
At some point on the drive, the borders of Croatia, Italy and Slovenia are all close by. We ended up going a bit more towards Italy than we’d planned, but on the bright side we got to stop for gelato at Gorizia, an Italian town bordering Slovenia. Then we headed into Slovenia and towards the Julian Alps. Although it was getting a bit late, we decided to visit the Tolmin gorges on the Soča river, as it was on the way, and the beautiful blue-green waters of the Soča river we saw while driving along were just too alluring. At the Tolmin gorges you do about an hour long walk up and down rocky steps, taking in different views of the gorge and the river, and stopping at a cave along the way. The colour of the water is an almost unbelievable clear green-blue colour throughout the length of the river. The whole area of Tolmin and around is also very picturesque, with charming houses and lovely countryside tucked away in mountain valleys.
Leaving Tolmin we began our epic drive into the Julian Alps: we had to go through a mountain pass called Vršič, with an elevation of 1611m and 50 labelled hairpin bends (not to mention other unlabelled bends that were almost as bad). At the top we hopped out to take a look at the surrounding Alps, a magnificent sight, walls of rock looming around us.
It was cold up there, in winter the area is basically unpassable due to snow. Then we drove down the other side of the pass (the 50 labelled bends includes both up ones and down ones) and had dinner (our first proper meal of the day actually) on the other side at a Slovenian pension/restaurant (I had gnocchi with cheese sauce, which was delicious). By the time we were finished it was already 9:30pm, and we had about a 7.5 hour drive ahead of us according to Google maps. We’d taken a bit more time on the first part of the trip than we’d hoped. We thought perhaps we’d stop for the night in Salzburg or Linz, but in the end we just drove and drove and drove all the way back through Slovenia, Austria and Czech back to the farm, arriving at 5am. We fell into bed, slept till noon, and woke up in the peaceful countryside, finding it hard to believe that just the day before we’d been swimming in aquamarine waters and climbing the Alps in our little green rental car.