Even typing the word makes my heart soar... this place was just.pure.magic. Nothing anyone ever told me could ever have prepared me for this glorious place! Actually, I had never really heard much about Croatia, other than the fact that it had been part of the Yugoslavian war 10 or so years back. I had a vague notion that I might be able to see some aftereffects of war, and I had sort of heard that the beaches were nice and tourism cheap. I am so glad I went in with those preconceived notions, as the reality of Croatia surpassed them by about a thousand percent!! Never before have I seen such gorgeous sea, smelled such clear air (except maybe in Switz), tasted such fresh food, touched such clean water. The people there could not have been kinder or more helpful, and everything we did was simply, breathtakingly, outrageously... perfect.
In chronological order of events:PULA
Tuesday, 21 August
We were actually supposed to fly into Zadar, but by great fortune, that did not work out and we went instead to Pula, in Istria, the northern part of Croatia. We had no idea what to expect, no plan for transportation, and no accommodation. This was *ahem* particularly stressful for me, as I am a Planner and an Organizer. I like things Arranged In Advance, and we had literally nothing but credit cards, a few thousand kuna, and a Lonely Planet guide. (For the record, there is no better way to travel than this! I will go into further detail later.) So we rented ourselves a little Punto (oooh driving manual for the first time in over a year! so fun!), drove to what looked like promising accommodation a little east of the city center, and sort of crossed our fingers. There were no rooms available at the hostel, so we hopped on their computer and randomly booked ourselves into Hotel Riviera, two blocks away from the 1st century Roman amphitheatre in the middle of Pula. Wait, what? 1st century Roman amphitheatre? How did we not know about this? We went to drop our bags at the hotel and were delighted to find that this was no ordinary accommodation, it was a 19th century grand hotel, that just happened to be super cheap! The building was not pristine, maybe even a little ramshackle- carpets threadbare in places, worn curtains, unused cordoned off wings, but oh my goodness was it ever grand! It had a cafe with a giant sea-facing terrace, and what was undoubtably a grand ballroom, but now hosted breakfasts. The ceilings must have reached 5-6 meters EASILY, and the rooms all sported dark wood, crown moulding, stone window sills, and wacky waist-level doorknobs. The staircase was MASSIVE- five storeys of winding heavy wooden bannister and wide, shallow steps. Dramatically draped with dark carpeting, it was exactly the kind of stairs one would walk down in a very fine ball gown.
We walked from the hotel to the Arena- oh my goodness. There was a gentle mist coming down, but it was a fresh feeling drizzle, not a depressing rain like London. The amphitheatre shone fresh with the fading light reflecting off the ancient stones, giving it the most mythological feel. We were allowed to walk anywhere, touch anything, climb any wall in the arena, yet it was remarkably well preserved- in fact, the Pula Arena is supposedly the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in existence! Either way, it was beautiful to walk around this ancient piece of architecture and know that people strolled around in there 2000 years ago wearing togas, that gladiators fought lions and tigers and each other with tridents and nets and swords, that in that arena rulers determined the fate of men with a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
After the Arena closed we wandered into the piazza to find quick dinner, but what we actually found was perfect wine, delicious seafood, fellow Hong Kongers, and the ancient Temple of Augustus! First, the wine. For 70kuna (100hkd, 12usd) we got a liter of the purest, most delicious white wine I've had. 100 honky and no hangover whatsoever! The dinner was out of sight- octopus, squid and fish fresh from the sea with bread soaked in silky olive oil. I've never had such fresh and pure food as I did in Croatia! Either way, as we were eating and drinking this beautiful food and wine our ears pricked up as we heard the distinctive sounds of Cantonese! We went over and struck up a conversation with Dorothy and Sicko (hehe), who were just finishing up their Croatian experience as we were starting ours. In the piazza outside our terrace restaurant was the Temple. The Temple of Augustus was built between 2BC-14AD!!! I stood on the steps of something that was around before Christ! Unbelievable.
The Temple of Augustus:
Wednesday, 22 August
It was honestly just a stroke of extraordinary luck that we ended up in Istria in the first place. If we had not, we would not have been able to see the mummies. Wait, what? Yes, mummies! In the quiet 4,000 person town of Vodnjan, which hails back to a whopping 932AD, the unpreserved and miraculously undecomposed bodies of 6 saints lie in the Cathedral St. Blaz, along with a small museum of other religious artifacts. The museum was totally bizarre- almost entirely comprised of various salvaged body parts (bones, teeth, hair, the undecomposed tongue of St. Mary of Egypt
) of a hundred some-odd other saints, housed in small glass vessels. The mummies were in a separate room- lying in what resembled museum display cases, but were more like Snow White's glass bed. Five out of the six bodies were completely intact, but since they were hundreds of years old, the skin had darkened. They looked like sleeping movie zombies. (why is it that all zombie movies assume that bodies do not decompose after death? i mean come on now, MOST normal bodies do not stay intact after we die! tss.) This whole display was, surprisingly, un-macabre. In fact, I found the church and relics to be quietly reverent, fascinating, and peaceful. Ok I lied- the tongue in a jar? FREAKY. The room full of bones in jars? BIZARRE. But the mummies? Not gross, not creepy, not scary at all.
We actually got kicked out of the Cathedral because a funeral was meant to take place, so we spent some time wandering around the sleepy town. The cobblestone streets were wide enough to fit either 1.5 European cars or .75 of an American car. The buildings were all made of stone and appeared to have survived the centuries untouched, and townspeople were leaning out the windows, carrying on conversations with their passing neighbors. The atmosphere of the whole town was quiet, but friendly; old, but very warm. With twists and turns and hidden courtyards around every corner, one could easily lost in Vodnjan, but it would be an altogether pleasant experience!
After we'd had our fill of mummies and cathedrals, we headed north to Rovinj for the evening. At first blush it did not seem to be anything too spectacular, but then we saw Old Town. Crikey. It had just stopped raining, and the marble streets glistened like crystals in the dwindling light. We strolled around the town, eyes wide in amazement; it was not unlike Vodnjan with its tiny narrow streets and stone facades, but it was much bigger, buildings higher. The passing rain lended a mystical quality to the place; it felt as if magic hung in the air. People spoke in more hushed tones, as though not to disturb whatever sleeping wizard held the city under his enchanting spell; light spilling from gas lamps bounced off raindrops that clung to walls, pipes, chairs, windows, people, matching the shimmering excitement in the air. This town... this town was magic. I can still hardly believe that people actually live there, that they have jobs and televisions and drive cars and talk on mobile phones. It seemed to me that we should feel grossly out of place in modern dress and mannerisms, and if a donkey pulled a hay-laden cart down the rugged stone ground I would not have been at all surprised. I did not want to leave this place.
Thursday, 23 August:
We set out of Istria in a flurry of rain and wind. It had the potential to be quite a gloomy trip, but when we arrived in Opatija we were greated with sunshine and a glorious full rainbow! We did not quite know what was so special about Opatija, we just had a vague notion that there were some nice historic buildings there, and that many famous people used to holiday there. We were in for quite a surprise, as the town was actually the old stomping grounds of the 19th centruy Austro-Hungarian elite, including royalty, celebrities, musicians and that ilk. The buildings were all brightly colored, balconied, adorned with carved mouldings, and sported statues leaping out of the bannisters. (I'm not doing a very good job of describing this, and I'm not an architect, so I don't actually know what I'm talking about.) The houses were all so grand and opulant, but nothing seemed overdone or too extravagent.
One of the more remarkable features of Opatija was the concrete beach. Most of Croatia's coast is quite rocky, so there is very little sand to lay out on. Opatija's concrete beaches are perfect for fashionistas who like to wear high heels with bathing suits- not that I KNOW anyone like that or anything.......... Since the "beaches" were just slabs of concrete steps leading down into the sea (much cooler looking than they sound), when the waves hit the walls the water would fly up into the air with a resounding clap, much to the delight of all the children gathered at the edge.
Across the wide inlet was Rijeka, an industrial city. What a bizarre moment it was to be sprawled in a lounge chair on a concrete beach with a rainbow of 19th century mansions behind me, and a crazy futuristic smoke-stack filled gray Brasil-esque city across the water in front of me!
Friday, 24 August:
After concrete beaching we drove south to Zadar. We pulled into town at dusk with no plan of where to stay, and were uneasy to be greeted by what appeared to be a pseudo-slummy ghetto. I must admit my blood pressure was a bit high with the realization that I might be spending the night in the Punto. As we were driving through the rough-ish looking town a man approached our car with a sign advertising "Sobe," or room to rent. We had read in the Lonely Planet guide that this was kind of how things were done, but it still seemed a bit too sketchy for us. We rolled up into what looked like some sort of booking agency, which turned out to be booking for campsites, but the woman was so helpful and put us in touch with her best friend's mother, who had an apartment to rent. It turned out to be huge- could have easily slept up to 5 people comfortably- with a full kitchen and a balcony! With the balcony door was open we could smell the sea air whipping around, we could hear the cry of birds, we could feel the Adriatic freshness seeping into our pores. The apartment was in Borik, just outside the Old City of Zadar. This is apparently a community almost entirely comprised of vacation sobes; a tourist settlement.
We set out on an unsuccessful quest to find some random restaurant, ended up walking for what seemed like hours, and fortuitously ended up at a place called Stormatija, tucked into a hidden alley, surrounded by the towering stone walls of ancient buildings, floored in uneaven cobblestones. It was perfect. Zadar's Old City is a peninsula connected to the mainland by a low footbridge that is not unlike the Millenium Bridge in London. Walking into Old Town we quickly realized that what we had seen before was not at all indicative of what Zadar was actually about; white marble streets, grand stone gates, city walls thick enough to drive a car on, full of life and magic. Every restaurant and bar has a terrace; it seems the main goal in food and drink consumption is not to fill your belly, (although the food and drink in Croatia are the best I’ve had anywhere in the world) but rather to be around other people, be invigorated by the fresh air, and become part of the old stones of the city. I wish Hong Kong had more of that…
Saturday, 25 August:
Saturday we hopped on a ferry to the nearby island of Dugi Otok. Once there we hopped on a stinky, rickety bus for the port of Bozana, on the opposite side of the island. The village of Bozana is kind of like an extremely old version of Shek O, but much much nicer. The houses were crowded onto a steep hill of cobblestone; they all seemed to be tumbling down into the water. Everything was made from stone, all windows were open, and there were cats lounging in the sun everywhere. Yards were filled with wild olive trees and flowers. When we reached the harbour we were greeted by the coldest, cleanest, most crystal clear water I have ever encountered! It was salty, but I felt like I was bathing in pure liquid sunlight. This is the kind of water that people come to for healing, and indeed I could feel myself getting healthier with each moment I spent in it! Mazen aptly pointed out that these were the waters that spawned the ancient civilizations; Phoenicia, Greece, Rome etc. are all situated on the Aegean/Adriatic/Mediterranean seas. The thing is, we were not swimming at a beach or in the open sea; we were actually just in a harbour. Can you imagine swimming in Victoria Harbour??? You’d come out with an extra arm! This was the cleanest water I’ve ever encountered in my life; we could clearly see our own shadows on the sea floor 6 or 7 meters below us! It was with great reluctance that we left.
On the ferry from Brbinj back to Zadar we sailed through a breathtaking sunset that set the whole sea and land on fire. Magic. When we arrived back to Zadar, salty and refreshed, we took in a bit of the magical city, seeing the sights from atop the bell tower, poking around in the markets. As we searched for a place to have dinner I kept hearing an odd noise, which vaguely resembled the bass sounds of a far-off club. Just outside the city walls, perched atop the Adriatic waves is the Zadar Sea Organ, the best part of my whole month of traveling. The Zadar Sea Organ is the only one in existence. Vented marble steps leading down to the sea cover hundreds of pipes, which lead down to the water. Whereas traditional pipe organs involve pressing keys to push air through the pipes to create sound, the Sea Organ uses the natural force of the water to push the air. The pitch and volume are dependent on the strength of the waves and force of the wind. The resulting sound is an eerie, airy, ethereal tuneless melody, wafting through the night. I have a very difficult time describing this experience; it was not of this world. What was most moving about it was not necessarily the beauty of the sound (and it was indeed beautiful), but the fact that each sequence was totally unique; this was truly the music of the Earth. This was the sound of the wind and the sea, the sound of nature’s music. Unbelievable. I really do not have the words to describe how much it moved me, all I can say is that you need to go there and hear it for yourself. It will change you.
We tore ourselves away from the Sea Organ after what seemed like a lifetime, and found ourselves in the most charming little restaurant; the entrance was set into the thick stone wall of the old city, and the terrace was behind in the open air, again surrounded by soaring walls and rock. I will reiterate that we were originally supposed to fly into Zadar, but I think it was truly providential that this amazing city was saved for the end of the trip!
Moonrise over Zadar Sea Organ:SPLIT
Sunday, 26 August:
Sunday we drove inland to Krka National Park. We had read that there were some nice waterfalls and lakes there, and we had, for the most part, been sticking only to the coast til that point. We drove in and set out for Skradinski Buk, the lowest of a series of 7 “travertine barriers,” (I think this means waterfall… sets… or something?). Skridinski Buk covers a length of 800 meters, and the most stunning bit was the bottom, where the Krka and Cikola Rivers combine in a huge mouth of waterfalls spilling into a swimmable mini-lake. Again, this water was crystal clear, but this was fresh water. It was so clean and clear you could drink from it and feel healthy and refreshed- which I did! It was full of giant rocks, which were sometimes necessary to stand on in order to not get swept by the current, but the area was completely safe and very friendly. This was absolutely a beautiful swimming and sunning day; not a cloud in the sky, beautiful water, perfect temperature.
After this we made our way north through the park to see Roski Slap, another series of waterfalls in the upper portion. By the way, it would take days to see the whole park; I wish we had had more time, because it was so gorgeous! Anyhow, we drove through a few little villages perched on the side of the mountain. And when I say little, I mean like… 15 houses max. One of the villages is said to be the smallest in Europe, with roughly 10 permanent residents. There were handfuls of townspeople sitting outside houses, chatting, playing cards, doing all the things townspeople from a movie might do, and they all turned around to watch as we drove by. Overcome by the beauty and quaintness of the situation, we couldn’t help but grin and wave at everyone we passed. They all smiled and waved back. We arrived at Roski Slap to find a massive smooth lake with distant high waterfalls. We were a little disappointed, as Skradinski Buk had been so breathtaking and spectacular, but soon realized how peaceful and beautiful Roski Slap indeed was.
After this we drove further down the coast to Split. We arrived late- around 9:30, and again, had no accommodation arranged. And again, the city, at first blush, appeared to be G-H-E-T-T-O. We found the Hotel Bellevue, which was a cool old (albeit worn) building on what we later discovered to be the outside of the old city walls, and were dismayed to find that they cost 800 kuna (about 950 honkey) per night. Now this is a totally reasonable sum for a hotel, but we were used to paying about half that amount, and did not feel like splurging. Luckily, the manager had a friend who had a sobe to let, so we took that. Villa Franny. Super super sketchy!!!! This was well outside town, but not terribly so, and in a somewhat rough looking neighborhood. The sobe was a whole apartment, and quite large, but bizarrely decorated- ala creepy old religious woman down the street with candles, lace doilies, dusty iconography, etc. The locked and bolted extra room only contributed to the creepy air, and we were none too pleased to vacate this place the next day!
Monday, 27 August:
We had been told by many friends to go to Hvar Otok, Pag Otok, and a multitude of other islands for the best Dalmatian Island experience. However, being stubborn and independent as I am, I wanted to be different and create unique memories. So we hopped aboard a ferry with all of our stuff for Brac Otok. We arrived in Supetar and were immediately approached by a man advertising a sobe, which we followed him to. By the time we got there (carrying the bags) we were so hot and sweaty we did not even care what the place looked like; we agreed upon it on the spot. Fortunately, it was completely adorable; about 800 years old, stone, small, and comfortable. Then we set out on our newly rented scooter for the town of Bola and its famous beach Zlatni Rat! I had never been on a scooter before; this was SO FUN!! We couldn’t go very fast, but what a thrill it was to scoot over these little windy island roads with mountain on one side and cliffs plunging down to the sea on the other, wind in our faces, sun beating on our bare shoulders and arms.
Zlatni Rat is the most famous beach in Croatia. Like most beaches in the country, it is made of rocks, not sand, but this one extends like a finger out into the sea, its tip only a few meters across. Because of its composition and width, the tip of the beach actually changes the direction it points with the tides! So in the morning it might be pointing East, but in the evening it will curve West. Crazy! Either way, the rocks were perfectly smooth and so comfortable to lie on; we didn’t even need to hire beach chairs, because the rocks themselves were so nice. Again, beautiful clear azure water, so clear we could see little fish swimming around our legs. Observation: every woman wore either a bikini or went topless, and most men wore speedos. We were probably the most covered up people on the beach, despite me sporting my smallest bathing suit imaginable. Skinny, fat, young, old, wrinkly, modelerific, tan, white, whatever. Smallest.bathingsuits.ever. either way, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset scooter ride back to Supetar, where we wandered around the town for the rest of the night. At one point we came upon a small crowd peering into a boat harboured just at the sea wall. As it turns out, they were cooking their catch of the day right on the boat! We got a plate of fresh fresh fresh from the sea calamari, and I’d have to say it was the best squid I’ve had.
View of Adriatic from Bol, 20 meters up:
Tuesday, 28 August:
The sadness began to set in this day. This is the melancholy that can only accompany the feelings of the most intense joy, because with them comes the horrible knowledge that things are coming to a close, and it’s time to go back to reality soon. After another beautiful day in gorgeous Zlatni Rat, we hopped aboard the ferry again and headed back to Split. Upon stepping off the boat we were greeted by one of the most colorful characters we met in Croatia, Queen Malena. She was advertising a sobe in the palace- how could we not look!? As it turns out, this was to be the best of all of our accommodations for the trip. Our room was located in one of the buildings inside Diocletian’s palace in the old city. By the way, we were wrong again. Split was in NO WAY at all a ghetto! In fact, it turned out to be the best of the many cities we visited. After settling into our PALACE ROOM we headed out for our *sniff sniff* last night in Croatia. We could hear piano music playing as we walked out of our PALACE ROOM, so we followed it to a beautiful piazza, surrounded by towering pillars, ruins, and ancient stone buildings. There was a sunken courtyard called the Peristyle with people sitting on its steps, listening to a man playing Schubert on a tiny old piano. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. As it turns out, the café where he was playing owns the courtyard space; its patrons sit on the provided cushions and sip teensy cups of espresso and beautiful wine while listening to live classical music, surrounded by the remains of Diocletian’s 1st century abode. We stayed here for a bit, and then explored the ancient city.
Again, the streets were made of white marble, but these were much cleaner than the other cities. The buildings within the palace were very close together, with supporting arches leaning over the streets from wall to wall. Pockets of noise revealed small restaurant terraces and beer gardens, ice cream shops and buskers. We stopped by the towering statue of Gregory of Nin, and rubbed the toe for good luck (the whole statue is black except the big toe, which is goldish from all the people rubbing it). We strolled through the former sleeping and personal chambers of Emperor Diocletian. We climbed on the outside remains of the Golden Gate (there are four city gates; Gold, Silver, Bronze, and and Copper, I believe). We ate in a restaurant housed in what could only be described as the ruins of the house of a very very wealthy nobleman. Half the restaurant was indoors, half outdoors, not because they had put in a terrace, but because the stone roof had decades ago crumbled away. There was a meters-deep cistern, adorned with a grate full of flowers and candles. The ancient stone floor had been walked smooth after centuries of inhabitants and patrons wore it into submission. It was just a pizza place, but it could have been Narnia. It seemed bizarre and almost sacreligious to be eating something so profane as pizza in such splendour, but it was the end of our trip and quite frankly, we were poor.
Gregorius of Nin:
Wednesday, 29 August:
What a sad day indeed. It was with great solemnity that we bid farewell to Croatia and landed yet again in dismal gray London. And then after a few hours layover at a random pub on the greenish-brown Thames, a Heathrow scare, and a 2.5 hour delay, I boarded my flight back to Hong Kong. I thought I was going to be very sad getting off the plane; I had shed a few quiet tears looking over my Croatia pictures on the flight, but as I walked down the skyway and saw the hazy South China Sea sunset, I was filled with excitement and joy—I AM HOME!!!
Wednesday, 12 September:
So to sum it all up... this was a life changing experience, Croatia. I would say that it was a Once In A Lifetime experience as well, but I know this is not true. I know that I was bitten with the travel bug years ago, and this will certainly not be the last of my trips. This solidified in my mind what kind of traveler I truly am. You can keep your hotels and resorts and spa getaways, keep your private beaches and pedicures, keep the massages and fancy restaurants with expensive cocktails, I want to be uncertain. I want to show up somewhere and figure out where to stay on the spot. I want to see real people, I want to eat at local tuck shops. Keep your room service and televisions! Strap a rucksack on my back and I'll be happy as pigs in mud!
I was trying to think of the best place, the best experience (other than the Sea Organ), the best meal, a picture to best exemplify the wonder and beauty of this trip, but i could not. This country was just pure magic, pure beauty, pure history, pure enjoyment. I cannot wait to go back!
You can find my full Croatia photoset here.