With LuxairTours now flying to Zadar (and Dubrovnik) in southern Croatia, it was time to sample the new destination courtesy of a press trip there; the four-day excursion included an itinerary that would involve a lot of travel and enable us to see many of the sights, providing a close-up glimpse of this beautiful and relatively undiscovered country.
With its dramatic coastline onto the Adriatic Sea and renowned forests and nature inland, my preconceptions were of an unspoilt haven, ideal for lovers of nautical sports and the outdoors; I have holidayed there once before, staying close to the border with Slovenia and enjoying the grayling and rainbow trout fishing in the unspoilt rivers there. We had flown that time into Ljubiana and driven through the Slovenian forests, coming across a couple of massive red deer along the way to the Croatian border. Another memory of that trip had been listening to locals recounting stories of the Balkan conflict that had let to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and their views of the economic, rather than religious, reasons for the origin of the war.
Back to the future and this week's trip, taking the red-eye Luxair Boeing 737-800 departing Luxembourg at 06:20 for Zadar and then on to Dubrovnik. Great service on board, with ample space in the seats and an appetising and tasty breakfast. Just 100 minutes later we came into land at Zadar, with great views of the blue sea and islands complete with sandy beaches, on the right, and extensive green forests on the left. 45 minutes later we took off for the 600km, 40-minute hop to Dubrovnik. Flying in to land, the islands dotted the blue sea, with the historic town a splendid sight; it was only when landing that the hilly terrain became apparent - still very green but with more sand and stone showing through the foliage. Dubrovnik's airport is small so the bags arrived quickly, but not before we had an opportunity to notice the tourism leaflets which included, not only walking tours of the town, but also tours of the ship used in the making of the Game of Thrones tv series.
Just 5 minutes away by road from the airport, the 5-star Hotel Croatia has 480 rooms and is open from March to November each year; almost all guests arrive by air. It has a spa and health centre, with both indoor and outdoor swimming pools, it is surrounded by cypress trees and is very popular as a MICE destination.
From the hotel we took a stroll through a quaint seaside down, Cavtat, on the outskirts of Dubrovnik, which allowed us to appreciate the crystal clear water on one side, with a small harbour with small pleasure craft and fishing boats, and the stone buildings with tile rooves on the other, with rows of palm trees on the quayside.
Relaxing in a waterfront café it became clear very quickly that Croatia still allows smoking in cafés, but not restaurants. Apparently, when the no-smoking law was introduced, café owners revolted and achieve a derogation of sorts, allowing smoking in ventilated areas; in practice the concept of ventilation does not seem to be applied stringently.
Reflecting on a film screened at the British & Irish Film Season in Luxembourg in 2014, A Dangerous Game, in which film-maker Anthony Baxter investigated local opposition to Donald Trump planning golf courses in Scotland, the US, Co Clare in Ireland, and Dubrovnik in Croatia, in which the issue of democracy was featured strongly, I talked to some of the locals who seemed openly relieved such a project has not gone ahead, although another investment project for a 9-hole course has just received Unesco approval to proceed.
A boat ride aboard a passenger ferry catamaran across the bay brought us to Dubrovnik itself which has a population of around 45k, which is more than doubled to 110k when taking in its surrounding neighbourhoods, a bit like Luxembourg city. The old city, with the monstrous city walls, is predominately a huge pedestrian zone, with a relatively small harbour. We were informed that tourism has not yet reached its peak in Dubrovnik and Croatia as a whole, which focuses on adventure, exploration snd getaways, also encompassing history and cultural heritage; it is now focusing on attracting families too.
A walking tour of the city, a former medieval trading port, revealed a mix of architectural styles, which is still recovering in some ways from the early 1990s war, as well as the earthquake which struck in 1979 (there was also a massive quake back in 1667). The city is spotless, helped no end by the cleaned stone walls, with narrow alleyways (not unlike Venice) and steps everywhere. Taking a step back to appreciate the ornate buildings, one cannot help but marvel at the hillside backdrops.
Pre-dinner drinks that evening were at the Panorama restaurant, situated at the top of the 400m-high hill overlooking the city, and reached by cable-car. The view allows one to marvel at the coastline, the islands and the walled city of Dubrovnik, with its various neighbourhoods outside the walls too. No photos or videos could do the view justice, a sentiment to feature regularly throughout the trip.
We stayed at the magnificent Kompas Hotel, overlooking a small bay around 15 minutes to the north of Dubrovnik. Wonderful staff, spacious, modern and comfortable rooms, with a great view over the bay. Indicative of such buildings and the steep cliffs and rocky terrain, one enters the reception at level 10 (at the top of the cliff), with rooms on that floor or below, down to level 0 where one finds the restaurant. Strange but true...
The Dalmatian Coast
Driving north from Dubrovnik along the coast allowed us to appreciate once more the impressive stone walls, stone buildings and tile rooves. Twisting and turning, climbing and falling, drivers need 100% concentration at all times; the main distraction, though, is the scenery with spectacular view after spectacular view, of bays and islands, with dark green vegetation and deep blue seas, with one inlet acting as a harbour for outsized cruise ships while their passengers enjoyed some time ashore. Seriously impressive.
At Ston, the 14th century town is still surrounded by a magnificent 5.5km long high wall - it used to be much longer - and a 1km stretch is open to the public to walk along; entrance tickets go towards restoration. It is described as second only to the Great Wall of China. A nearby bay is a source of oysters and mussels, and surrounding areas have been used fir centuries to cultivate olives, grapes and even salt.
A trip out into the 28km-long bay in an old-fashioned transport boat (65 years old), refurbished to accommodate tourists, revealed the oyster beds and the significant marine aquaculture industry active in this area. The oysters are initially incubated on nets, then matured on vertical strings as they get older, strung out over 100m lengths, each accommodating 250 oysters, between buoys, and are harvested in spring and autumn. The water in the bay is 10-11m deep and is a mix of salt water and fresh water (from underwater springs), an ideal ecosystem in which the oysters can thrive.
Back in the minibus for a 2.5 hour drive, including a short detour into and out of Bosnia, towards Skradin. The scenery continue to cast its spell, with another wondrous landscape or pretty village around every corner of the long and winding road that eventually gives way to a dual carriageway, then a motorway. The hills get bigger and, after a couple of short tunnels, the terrain changes to ensure the drive becomes flatter. The terrain is beyond rugged but it is still amazingly covered in rich green foliage. Sometimes we get a view of a large plain surrounded by rocks, hills and mountains, and these fertile lands are farmed for agricultural produce. Eventually the ruggedness of the mountains evolved into a more rolling countryside, but one which is still based on rock and stone, and green trees and shrubs.
Croatia has preserved a number of natural areas of beauty, rich in flora and fauna, in the form of national parks, one of which is Krka which was formed in 1985 and spans 109km2. Taking a boat from Skradin, it follows the contours of the River Krka, meandering upstream to the natural waterfalls, a sight to behold.
Park rangers are out in force and are easily identifiable in their khaki uniforms. The national park has been equipped with bridges, wooden walkways, stone steps and viewing platforms from which to admire the beauty of the natural phenomena which have formed over centuries and millennia out of the limestone bedrock. As a result, the water is a bright and clear turquoise, which only turns white when being aerated as it cascades. The wildlife here includes amphibians, reptiles and fish, and especially birds.
Walking up along the cascading water, one comes across the original turbine from the hydro-electric power station which dated from 1895, as well as the watermills which were so important to the local economy.
The area also offers Roman remains, including catacombs and a military camp, a Franciscan monastery on an island, an Orthodox monastery and caves.
In Sibenik, at the mouth of the Krka river, and situated beside the Jezina Palace, the Cathedral of St James, the dome of which is currently being renovated both inside and out, is very ornate from the outside, including statues of the twelve apostles surrounding the main doorway. Inside, the baptismal font, including the architecture of the small chamber in which it is situated, is of specific interest regarding its historical and cultural heritage.
Next door to the cathedral is another church, the one with a most unusual 24-hour analogue clock.
We also visited the renovated gardens of the monastery of St Lawrence, and also saw where noble families had 4 wells dug to be able to draw water from a large underground cistern.
The town is very animal-friendly, with the streets having built-in stone drinking vessels for stray dogs and cats. It also has a public bicycle rental scheme, like Luxembourg's Vel'Oh!, and a number of yachts were tethered to the harbour wall.
One observation of interest here is that many buildings are constructed of brick rather than of stone, a change from earlier in this trip when all were of stone.
For Part I of Destination Croatia - Discovery and Exploration, see http://www.chronicle.lu/categoriestravelopinion/item/16915-geoff-thompson-destination-croatia-discovery-and-exploration-part-ii
How to get there: Luxair / LuxairTours fly weekly Luxembourg-Zadar-Dubrovnik-Luxembourg: see www.luxairtours.lu or www.luxair.lu. This enables visitors to avail of a choice to base themselves at either destination, or start at one and work their way along the coastline to the other, exploring and discovering along the way. The only restriction here is that the LuxairTours / Luxair flights are on Mondays only - at least, at present - so for those who prefer to return another day can take in Plitvice on the way to Zagreb airport, as we did.
Photos by Geoff Thompson (for full photo album (on Facebook) see https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.873158812795425.1073741908.238112732966706&type=3)