Friday, December 6, 2019

Croatia & Slovenia - All you wanted to know!

In January 2017, 8 of us ‘dear’ friends and two kids all went to Africa on safari. It was a magical time. You would have read about that here. Plans were then made to repeat the magic of that holiday. We zeroed in on Croatia and Slovenia. 8 ‘dear’ friends were on, the 2 kids dropped out and 2 additional ‘dear’ friends were added. The oldest of our friendships started as pre-schoolers in 1969, and the most recent in 1994. Yes, we all knew each other well, very well. Dates were aligned and it was to be 11 nights over the Diwali week.

That is the 10 of us

Croatia and Slovenia have some famous personalities. Among sportsmen you have of the charismatic impish footballer Luka Modric, tennis players Marin Cilic and Goran Ivanisevic. The great Nikola Tesla who designed and developed alternating current or AC electricity, was a Croat. The most famous Slovenian is, of course, Melania Trump.

Croatia and Slovenia have had very troubled histories. The entire area has been in constant turmoil with invasions and wars. At first it was the mighty Ottomans who invaded. Then it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which invaded. You will remember that WWI started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip a Bosnian Serb. Post WWII Yugoslavia was created, which, has since itself broken up. The fallout of the break was the creation of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Herzegovina, Slovenia and Macedonia. This was not the end. In 1991 a bitter civil war [or invasion, depending who you ask] started between the Croats and the Serbs. The war was exceedingly cruel and brutal with a lot of ethnic cleansing. Parts of Dubrovnik were severely damaged. Peace and stability have been in place for only post 1995, i.e. the last 25 years.

The relative poverty [to the rest of Western Europe] is obvious, buildings are simple, Churches and Cathedrals humble and not grandiose, few really fancy cars on the street, not many shops with upmarket designer clothes or watches, relatively few international upmarket Hotel chains. However, the roads are absolutely top class with the highways linking to the international European highways seamlessly.

Geographically, Croatia is situated on the Adriatic Sea with a long coastline. Across the Adriatic is Italy, the Eastern coast of Italy. Venice was another one of the Kingdoms that often invaded and plundered Croatia. Today, with the peace in the area, the Dalmatian Coast has become a huge tourist spot. The warm Adriatic Sea is perfect for the hordes of tourists who throng here in the summer months. The Dalmatian Coast is on the itinerary for several Cruise ships.

The logistics of visiting Croatia and Slovenia can be fairly challenging. There are no direct flights from India. You have to either take European carrier like British Airways, or Air France or Lufthansa et al and fly into either Dubrovnik or Zagreb from the Uk or Europe. Alternatively, you could take one of the Gulf based carriers like Emirates [with Fly Dubai the Emirates Low Cost Carrier] or Turkish [not strictly a Gulf airline] and reach Croatia via Dubai or Istanbul. With no direct flights, transit times can be long.

Visas can be confusing. Croatia is NOT a member of Schengen. Slovenia is. However, you can enter Croatia with a Schengen visa only if the visa is for 6 months or more and, is multiple entry. If you don’t have a this, well, you have to apply for a separate Croatian visa and Schengen Visa to enter Slovenia. Keep this in mind.

Now let’s get to what to visit and see in Croatia and Slovenia. Croatia, as I have written earlier, has a long coastline. There is a lot you can see. You need to edit. Obviously, you have to visit Dubrovnik for say 3 nights at least. The castle, the walls and the Game of Thrones tour [if you are a fan] are must do’s. Lake Plitvice is a National Park endorsed by UNESCO. This is a whole day; however, you do need to visit it from either Split or Zadar. Zadar, a coastal town with an ancient Roman centre, quite pretty, is another must visit. The Sea Organ, a must see. Split, you can give a miss, unless of course you are planning to visit Hvar which is an Island accessible from Split. We did not go to Hvar as it was shutting down for winter. Instead we had an all-day island cruise on a superfast yacht from Dubrovnik. With the long and pretty coastline you need to plan for a day on sea when in Croatia.

In Slovenia we visited the beautiful Lake Bled and the stunning Bohinj Lake as well as Ljubljana, the capital.

Croatia has no trains. The best way to get around is either by public bus, or hire your own car. Since there were 10 of us, we chartered a 19-seater Mercedes bus with a driver. The bus had adequate baggage storage, air-conditioning and on-board Wi-Fi. Very convenient. Do remember that when driving there are border crossings, so keep your Passport handy and allow for time at the crossing. 2 bus loads of Chinese tourists ahead of you can seriously damage not only your but also the immigration officer’s mood and delay things. Also bear in mind that some of the drives are 6 hours long.

Our holiday started in Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is a magnificent ancient walled city. The walls have the old town which is extremely charming and beautiful. You should walk in the old town and once you are done you should walk on the walls. Some superb views of the sea are from the walls. There is also a Funicular which takes you all the way up the hill overlooking the walls. The views are fantastic and there is a decent restaurant up there. Once up, we saw there were ATV for hire, so that is just what we did, hired ATVs for a 30 minute ride and 3 pairs set off in the trails with a guide. Boy was that fun, driving on dirt, rocks, potholes to put Mumbai to shame and dust. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and came back with adrenaline pumping and very very dusty.

Sunset with the Dubrovnik walled city in the foreground.

 Fishing at sunset.

Dubrovnik walled city. View from our Hotel, the superbly located Hotel Excelsior

Church in Dubrivnik

The Walls

The main street in Dubrovnik.  Pedestrian only.

A view of the main street from up on the Wall 

The old town Dubrovnik from up on the Wall

The old town Dubrovnik from up on the Wall

All suited up for the ATV ride. The plastic ponchos to keep the dust out

And we are off!!

A view of Dubrovnik harbour from high up

The winter had not set in yet, or, looking at it differently, the summer had not gone. The water temperature was a refreshing 22C. We had hired a yacht for the day. This was a most pleasant day. We lounged on the front deck of the yacht, soaking in the sun being cooled by the breeze as we cruised from island to island and had a look at the Dubrovnik Walls from the sea. At one point we anchored and went swimming to an underwater grotto, much like the Blue Grotto in Capri. The sea was cool crystal clear and an unreal blue. Swimming there was a real pleasure.

The Blue Grotto

Above: Orange groves 

After 4 nights in Dubrovnik we boarded our bus and drove to Split where we had a stop for lunch. Frankly, Split is totally missable, unless you are going to Hvar. In that case you have to spend a night or two in Split. This was a long drive 4 hours. After a frugal and relatively poor lunch, we had a quick walk thru the town and got onto the bus for another 3 hours to reach Zadar. Long drive.

Zadar has fabulous sunsets, that is of course if the weather is good and the sky is clear. Zadar also has the famous Sea Organ. This is, depending on how cynical you are, either you think it's a ridiculous tourist trap or the work of a genius. Basically, a series of pipes of various diameters are built into the sea wall. As the sea water hits the pipes, with the air in the pipes getting compressed creating sound. The sound has different pitches, and volumes which depend on the force of the water. This whole principle is similar to a church organ. The sounds created are reminiscent of the sound whales make. In addition, the pier where the Organ is located has also got the floor illuminated, much like the glass floor at a Disco. The sea water also illuminates the lights in the floor, the lights being obviously multicoloured. Also, obviously, the force of the sea i.e. the turbulence varies the brightness and colours and number of lights coming on an off. Zadar is an old Roman city. The old part of town is quite charming, though small. 

Above: The main gate to Zadar. This was the only way in and out.

On the way back from Plitvice we crossed the rather nice looking bridge

The main reason for going to Zadar is because it is a very convenient place from which to visit Lake Plitvice. Lake Plitvice is a series of lakes and waterfalls. This entire area is beautiful and green, as you will see in the photographs. You definitely have to visit this; however, I must caution you. Visiting Lake Plitvice during the summer months can be very challenging. First, you have hordes of people, and, being jostled and pushed on the narrow paths is no fun. Secondly, in summer, it is bloody hot. Do keep this in mind.

You can see that it is much colder than at Dubrovnik

After 2 nights in Zadar, off we went to Lake Bled in Slovenia. Another long drive, 5 hours at least. We reached Bled, tired, irritated and vowing to do no more long drives.

Lake Bled is very interesting. The Hotel we stayed at, Vila Bled, all the more interesting. Lake Bled is part of the Lower Alps which run thru Slovenia, Austria, France, Switzerland etc. This is ski territory. The whole scenery was very Alpine, naturally, and you could have been in Switzerland and not known the difference, A lake, a Castle, snow peaked mountains, and green hillsides. Slovenia was the former Yugoslavia. Marshal Tito was the “King” of Yugoslavia. He built Vila Bled as his summer retreat. Very Soviet architecture, all square boxes. A superb location right on the lake side, nothing nearby. Wide staircases with low risers and broad steps to that you can descend regally. I could imagine Tito and our very own Indira Gandhi walking these steps, which of course they did.

Above: Vila Bled

The Castle above Lake Bled

Above: Vila Bled another view

We walked around the circumference of Lake Bled, very pleasant. We took a boat to the Church located in the centre of Lake Bled, very nice. There is a Castle overlooking the Lake. We had a wonderful meal up there with beautiful views of the Lake from up high. More of this meal in the next post.

We saw some stunning flowers when walking

And plenty of wild mushroom

And statues

The next day we took a mercifully short bus ride to Lake Bohinj which is much larger than Lake Bled. We walked around the circumference of this lake. A very enjoyable walk made all the more pleasant with the fantastic weather. From the hot [30C] degrees in Dubrovnik we were now at an agreeable 6C.

The walk around Lake Bohinj

After 3 nights in Lake Bled, we left for Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. En route we stopped for lunch in the charming city of Ljubljana. Now, I am not being dismissive in the least, but with Ljubljana you could be in any town Europe. Exceedingly pretty, but, to that extent undistinguishable from another pretty European town. Once again, a Funicular ride up to the Castle, rather disappointing I must say. There was a farmer’s market on in the centre where we bought some excellent cured sausage and smoked Pancetta. Jumbo was immediately drawn to the superb fruit on display and proceeded to buy and eat Persimmon at peak ripeness with Mrs Jumbo and HRH the Queen of Kutch.

Above: All in Ljubljana

We reached Zagreb and checked into a really nice hotel the Esplanade. Zagreb was a stop on the Orient Express and the Hotel was built to cater to these passengers. A short walk from the Hotel was Zagreb old town. Very very beautiful. Splendid buildings, charming squares, nice shopping streets and little alleys. Zagreb was serendipity. People had told us that Zagreb is avoidable, but, honestly, that is wrong. I honestly believe that if you stay in the wrong part of Zagreb, it can be disappointing. We were lucky having chosen the regal elegant grand dame Hotel Esplanade. All of us thought Zagreb was wonderful.

No, not Shivaji

Above: Beautiful Zagreb. Different styles including Art Deco. A lovely city

After 2 nights in Zagreb we all went our separate ways and caught flights back, some to UK, some to Dubai and poor us back to Mumbai.

A fantastic holiday. We all absolutely and unequivocally say you must do what we did. You may change the yacht to a day or two in Hvar. The only note of caution I must give you is that the summer months are hot and crowded, and, consequently, expensive. Do try and travel at the end of summer, a much better experience. To conclude, I must say that our travel agents who are Croatia experts, Memory Makers, did a wonderful job for us. Utterly seamless with no glitches, and every whim met. Do use them if this post persuades you to visit Croatia.

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