Highlights of Croatia
Bob and I enjoyed the highlights of Croatia in July of 2017 when we were celebrating an anniversary aboard Windstar’s ‘Star’ sailing yacht. It was a twelve-day cruise from Athens to Venice and turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and different cruises that we had taken in the Mediterranean. The Wind Star is one of the smallest cruise ships we have sailed on, which made for an intimate and fun experience.
After leaving Kotor, Montenegro, on July 8, 2017, the ship sailed to Dubrovnik, arriving on July 9th. Our tiny ship, dwarfed by other cruise ships, sat anchored about a mile off the old town city wall. A tender took a group of us to the small docks near one of the entrances to the old town. We had booked a Windstar expedition tour of the old town wall and highlights of Dubrovnik.
Bob and I knew little about Croatia besides it was involved in a war for independence in the 1990s. By the time we left Croatia in Rovinj, we knew we wanted to return and experience more than the basic highlights of Croatia.
Highlights of Croatia: Dubrovnik
Old Town Dubrovnik is a fantastic, pedestrian-only, medieval city overlooking the Adriatic Sea with many islands scattered off the coast. It was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979 for its rich history that dates back to the 7th century. The medieval architecture, and its fortified old town are just a few of the reason UNESCO put Dubrovnik on their world heritage list.
Walking its expansive city wall took about 90 minutes with our tour guide. Our guide pointed out the Byzantine and Venetian influences and gave the history of the fort and other interesting sites. Most surprisingly, the town was almost totally destroyed in an earthquake in 1667 and again suffered damage when the Yugoslav Army attacked and shelled it in 1991.
Walking around the wall gave us a great perspective of the town below and the mountainous hills rising from the city on the east side. The colorful red tile rooftops give the town its unique charm.
We were constantly awed by the beauty of the azure sea and islands to the west, the town itself, and the hills to the east. Every step along the way was a great photo opportunity.
Tour Options in Dubrovnik
There is a fee to tour the old town wall, but there are many tour options are available. Our Windstar shore excursion included our tour and entrance to the wall, so I don’t know the cost of accessing the wall. However, I recommend buying tickets ahead of time as we noticed the lines were long during the day. You can purchase tour tickets from Viatour or other local tour guides online.
The main boulevard is the Stradun, which took us through the city’s center past many squares lined with bistros and shops. After our tour, we stopped at a fun restaurant for a great lunch and watched people stroll by. Then we wandered up and down many interesting side streets looking for gifts and interesting merchandise. The streets are pristine and there was a central stage set up near the southern wall where a free concert would be playing that evening. Dubrovnik is definitely one of our favorite cites to walk around. You get a tremendous sense of history and pride from the locals. There are many artisans showing their crafts in the various squares with unique art and goods.
You’ll find Game of Thrones memorabilia shops and tours throughout the city. The series has been great for tourism and the local economy. Many of our fellow passengers took the Game of Throne tour and raved about it, making it one of the highlights of Croatia for many.
Ft. Lovrijenac sits outside the western wall up the hill about 100 feet or more. It was instrumental in keeping the Venetians out throughout history. Today, is known for cliff diving which is a fun thing to do for those who are brave enough to try it.
Back on the Ship
After spending much of the day in the city, we strolled down to the dock and took the tender back to the ship to relax before returning for dinner. Bob had made late dinner reservations at a restaurant outside the west wall at the foot of the fort.
After returning to the ship, we found the crew had the marina opened in the stern of the ship with all the water toys out. So we decided to change and head down to swim in the beautiful blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. The water temperature was perfect as we relaxed on the large float they had in the water while talking with other passengers about their day.
The ship was setting sail at midnight, so we had plenty of time for a romantic anniversary dinner. We sat on the restaurant terrace that featured a different local olive oil amd wine with each course. The waiter explained that Croatia, and not Italy or Greece, had the best Olive Oil in the world. I know the Italians and Greeks would argue that point, but it was all good to us.
The terrace overlooked the rocky cliffs of the sea and the beautifully lit western wall of Old Town and gate. The lights, full moon, and the excellent food served by the restaurant made for a fantastic evening.
You need at least two or three days to see everything Dubrovnik offers. Many beautiful little islands are off the coast, making kayak and boat excursions to these islands popular. Folks from the ship took one of the kayak tours and loved it. They visited several islands and had lunch on one of them.
Highlights of Croatia: Zadar
The Village of Pag
After leaving Dubrovnik, we sailed up the coast past many islands and towns to Zadar. Docked at Zadar, we took an excursion to Pag, which is known for three things:
Pag salt production goes back over 2000 years and has been an important commodity. Today it is known for its high quality due to enrich minerals giving it a lightly sweet taste. There is a Pag salt museum which we did not have time to see but is reportedly very interesting.
Pag Cheese is known for its strong taste that goes well with a glass of red wine. I am not a cheese lover, but Bob told me it was delicious and bought a piece to take back to the ship with us.
Pag Lace is exquisite and dates back over 500 years. Where it started in the Convent of ST. Magaret. In addition to their studies, the nuns taught their students how to make lace which was handed down through the generations.
You can buy beautiful lace table clothes, pillows, doilies, and other items in the museum/store, where we watched a woman dressed in medieval costume work her lace. We toured a small lace museum and watched them work on new pieces.
Cheese Farm and Factory:
Next, we headed to Gilgora, a family-owned cheese factory sourced with milk from their sheep farm. We toured the factory to see how they produce their cheese. After, we were served a fun lunch consisting of cold cuts and cheese and a refreshing local white wine.
After returning to Zadar, we had time to walk around this beautiful town, which Bob said was his favorite. Zadar was built upon Roman Ruins, which are visible beneath existing buildings, and in town squares where below-ground ruins have been preserved and covered with solid plexiglass so people can see them as they walk through the streets. We also visited the Cathedral of St. Anastasia, the largest church along the Dalmatia coast.
One of the most fun things about Zadar is its seaside harbor, where our ship was docked. Townspeople and tourists congregate in this area in the evenings to watch the beautiful sunset, take a swim, and listen to the famous sea organ. Pipes of different sizes were built into the pier that make noise when the sea water washes in and out, forcing air into the pipes.
The water here is so clean that it is classified as a blue ribbon swimming spot, and anyone can jump in and take a swim, which I did after we returned to the ship.
Highlights of Croatia: Rovinj
Rovinj is a beautiful seaside town in northern Croatia on the Istrian Peninsula. Unfortunately, Bob was feeling sick with a cold that day. We walked around Rovinj in the morning for a while, but he decided to pass on our bike-riding excursion in the afternoon. I went without him while he slept and tried to get better, which seemed to work some.
Biking through Croatian Hills
The bike tour picked us up and took us for about a 90-minute drive through the valleys and up into the hills. I couldn’t help to feel like I was riding through Sanoma or Napa Valley areas in California. The gently rolling green hills had a similar feel to the California hills.
Other passengers were going on a truffle hunting excursion in the same general area we would ride our bikes through. Truffles are big business in this area. We arrived at our staging location, where our bikes were waiting for us at the start of old railroad tracks that had been turned into parkland.
Our guides helped us get matched to the proper size bike, adjusted our seats as needed, and found helmets that fit each of us. Next, they gave us an overview of our route, which would take us to the small town of Groznjan, Croatia. Along the way, we would be riding through a few longer railroad tunnels with very little light and were given instructions to follow carefully behind the bike in front of us and not to veer off to either side.
We stopped occasionally to drink water, eat snacks, and enjoy the beautiful countryside. We rode about 15 kilometers with varying degrees of difficulty but nothing too strenuous.
Highlights of Croatia: Groznjan
We arrived at the small medieval town now home to several artists, shop owners, and a few restaurants and bars. Sitting on top of a hill, we had terrific views of the surrounding countryside. The guides gave us 45 minutes of free time to wander through the village and spend a little money in support of the locals. A small group of musicians played, which added to the artsy atmosphere.
It was already nearing 5 pm, so we loaded into the van and headed back to Rovinj to meet up with the ship. As we headed back, we traveled through heavily wooded areas, which the guide pointed out as some of Croatia’s best truffle hunting areas.
Highlights of Croatia: Summary
In speaking with our guides over the few days we toured the highlights of Croatia, we learned that Croatians are proud people who worked hard to recover from the wars in the 1990s. Several of our guides were small children during the war and had sad but interesting tales to tell.
Croatia’s recovery from the war has been astounding. They have built new infrastructure, rebuilt cities such as Dubrovnik, which were damaged by the war, and set aside large areas of land as national parks to preserve their natural resources. Although we only toured a small part of Croatia along the coast, the guides told us many inland areas were also very beautiful and worth visiting.
Our cruise left Croatia and headed for Venice, Italy where we would disembark from the ship. We spent 36 hours Discovering the Charms of Venice, which I covered in a different blog post.
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