© Dr David Wood
The dreamy Dalmatian Coast
A summer sojourn through Dubrovnik and the stunning islands of the Adriatic Sea
The sun drenched Dalmatian Coast of Croatia is one of the most spectacular destinations in Europe. The sparkling Adriatic Sea is dotted with numerous islands, picturesque fishing ports and medieval towns, framed by the coastal mountains. “Those who seek paradise on earth must come to Dubrovnik,” wrote playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Often referred to as the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik is the most stunning city on the coast. Formerly known as the Republic of Ragusa, it maintained its independence while most of Dalmatia was ruled by Venice. For centuries it rivalled Venice with its merchant fleet of 700 ships and built towering ramparts to protect its medieval core. The two-kilometre wall, now protected by UNESCO, forms a perimetre around the Old Town.
Cool drinks and ice cream are available everywhere for refreshment. One charming place we enjoyed was Cool Drinks Bavia, a little bar perched over the sea, literally located through a hole in the wall. The Old Town has some nice museums, a Rector’s Palace and, of course, an ancient cathedral complete with a treasury of relics. The best way to enjoy Dubrovnik is to amble along the marble streets, sample the fabulous fare in the many cafés and restaurants, and cool off in the crystal clear Adriatic. In the evening, the Old Town’s main square bursts with live music and everyone comes out to enjoy the open-air concerts. If you want to indulge, take a tramcar up the mountain and have dinner while you watch the Old Town light up in the setting sun.
We stayed at the Villa Argentina (adriaticluxuryhotels.com/en/grand-villa-argentina), which I would highly recommend. While a little pricier than the average hotel, it’s perched on a cliff and offers spectacular views. The sea swimming is wonderful and there’s also a seaside swimming pool. There are multiple lounge areas and the al fresco dining space looks out over the water. It’s captivating!
Our next stop was on the Peljesac Peninsula, an hour’s drive north of Dubrovnik. This is the heart of some of the best wine making in Croatia and we visited two wineries. At the Frano Milos Estate (milos.hr), we had a tour and tasting with Ivan Milos. The winery makes fabulous big reds from the plavac mali grape, which is closely related to zinfandel, and also a very nice rosé. The samples were generous and the wine is affordable.
The Grgic Winery (grgic-vina.com) was founded by Miljenko Grgich who immigrated to California in the 1960s and established a successful winery in the Napa Valley. His success inspired him to return to Croatia after the war in the 1990s. He makes a beautiful crisp white posip — the grapes are grown on the islands where it’s cooler — and a big delicious red plavac mali. Many of the red grapes are grown at Dingac known for producing the best in Croatia.
From the town of Orebic, it’s a 15-minute ferry ride to the island of Korcula. Korcula’s walled old town sits on a point overlooking the 915-metre hills on the opposite shore. Many of the streets are free of cars and relaxing to wander. The shoreline is dotted with cafés, bars and restaurants — lots of good seafood and Italian risotto. Its cathedral boasts a masterpiece by the Venetian painter Tintoretto as well as a bronze sculpture by the Croatian master Mestrovic. If you like local cultural dances, the Moreska sword dance is worth seeing on Thursday evenings in summer. It commemorates the clash between Christians and Moors in an attempt to free a young kidnapped girl.
In the Bol
Two ferry rides brought us up to the spectacular sun soaked Makarska Coast backed by 1800-metre karst mountains. The town is very pretty, ringed with beaches and nice restaurants, but very crowded.
We headed to the island of Brac. Ferries leave Makarska fairly regularly for the one-hour trip. Here, we went to the town of Bol to enjoy the most famous beach in Croatia, Zlatni Rat (golden horn). A one-kilometre-long sea walk connects the town and beach, and there is a regular shuttle boat service as well. We stayed at the Zlatni Rat Beach Resort (zlatniratbeach.com), which is ideally situated for a beach vacation. The beach is a swimmer’s paradise, and windsurfers and kite boarders abound.
We had one of our best meals in Bol. It happened by chance, after finding a pub overlooking the harbour for lunch. Afterwards, we were offered something off the menu if we returned for dinner: lamb cooked under the “bell.” This turned out to be an incredibly delicious dish with lamb and roasted veggies bathed in a garlic-infused sauce that was so tasty we soaked up every last drop with bread and washed it all down with a good bottle of Dingac red. The restaurant was improbably named The Moby Dick, but this is a tourist town, and the staff were all locals.
An hour ferry ride north from Brac is the cosmopolitan city of Split. With a population of 265,000, Split is the largest city and port on the Dalmatian Coast. This amazing place takes you back in time to the Roman era of Emperor Diocletian, who built his retirement palace here in 280 CE. During the Middle Ages, this vast complex became a refuge for citizens from the invading barbarian tribes from the north. Subsequently, the palace became incorporated into the town, with the buildings being converted into homes, cafés, shops and restaurants. Diocletian’s mausoleum has ironically been converted into a Cathedral (Diocletian ruthlessly persecuted Christians). A cathedral tower built in the seventh century can be scaled on a rickety staircase for a spectacular view of the city and port.
There are several nearby beaches and parks, but a must-see is the Mestrovic Gallery (mestrovic.hr), website in Croatian only). Ivan Mestrovic was a protégé of the French sculptor Rodin a century ago and became the pre-eminent sculptor of the Balkans. His home overlooking the sea was built to showcase his amazing works of art.
Transportation is generally quite easy. We travelled by car and availed ourselves of the excellent Croatian ferry service, Jadrolinija (jadrolinija.hr). I should mention that it’s also becoming popular to stay on small tour boats holding 30 to 40 people to tour the Dalmatian Coast from Zadar to Dubrovnik without having to transfer from hotel to hotel. It’s an appealing option and something we may do in the future.
Zadar is a pleasant port city of 75,000 and in the Middle Ages it was a main base for the Byzantine fleet. The Church of St. Donat, built in the ninth century, is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in Dalmatia. Zadar would become Zara under the Venetians, and after Napoleon in 1815, the Austrians took over until the end of World War I.
Plitvice Lakes National Park (np-plitvicka-jezera.hr) is inland from the coast, north of Zadar. Breathtaking and serene, the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and not to be missed. The series of terraced lakes is connected by beautiful waterfalls spilling over the karst (white limestone) and linked by a network of trails, boardwalks and boats.
To see the park’s main section, you need six to seven hours and a good pair of walking shoes. However, the paths are wide and the walking is not arduous. A shuttle bus takes you up to the top, then you traverse the lakes and spectacular waterfalls on footpaths and boardwalks. At the end of the first series of lakes and falls, a pleasant 20-minute boat ride takes you to a lunch stop with a variety of tasty food and beverages.
Continue on after lunch and you’ll find that there are more trails and footbridges past cascading falls and a large cave, ending with the Great Falls, the highest in Croatia at 78 metres.
We travelled to Dalmatia in July, which guaranteed hot sunny weather. Most days averaged around 35°C, which was great for beaching, but a lot of people might find this too hot for touring. June and September have more moderate temperatures so, depending on your availability and personal preference, I would prescribe a trip to Dalmatia any time from May through October.
For more info on travel to the region, visit Croatia Tourism (croatia.hr).
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