Adventuring in Croatia

Croatia is the land of waterfalls, whiffs, warblers, weed-whackers and war.

Glenn and I recently found ourselves in Croatia to run the first ever Dubrovnik International Half-Marathon and we spent some time after that event to explore this beautiful country. We decided to join an REI Adventures tour that included biking, hiking and kayaking across much of the country and then spent a few days on our own in Split.

After we finished the race event in Dubrovnik we flew further north and inland to the city of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, where we met up with our travel group and guide Mića (sounds like “Mee-cha”).

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Our touring group was made up of people from all over the U.S. (left to right): Glenn and me; Lynne and Barbara – longtime friends; Shannon and Leona – niece and aunt; Ellen and Brenna – mother and daughter; and Mića – our Croatian tour guide extraordinaire.

There are several things I’ll remember about our trip to Croatia…I’ve compiled a few of them below, followed by additional photos from our adventures (for those that like to look at other people’s vacation photos!).

1. Diversity of the landscape.

Glenn and I were both struck by the ever-changing landscape and rugged wilderness, particularly in the inland areas. Our trip started near Zagreb (north central part of the country) and ended along the Dalmatian Coast near Split (central coastline). We hiked and biked through lush forests reminiscent of our beloved Pacific Northwest, up rocky trails into mountains that looked like Yosemite, through rolling hills of planted fields and along scraggly coastlines with turquoise lagoons. Before the trip I had seen pictures of Croatia’s coast dotted with quaint islands and popular beaches. I wasn’t expecting to also encounter the breathtaking landscapes of the mountainous regions of the country.

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Lush forests and the emerald lakes of Plitvice Lakes National Park.

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Rolling hills and pastures of the countryside.

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Rocky ledges and calm pools along the Krupa river.

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Rugged canyons on the southern slopes of the Velebit mountains.

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Pine trees and exposed rock faces of Paklenica National Park.

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Tranquil rivers in Krka National Park.

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Hot and dry olive orchards on the island of Brac.

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Rugged coastlines along the Adriatic Sea.

2. Tremendous natural resources.

Croatia is a land of extensive natural resources with ample opportunity for outdoor recreation – much of which is protected through an extensive array of national parks and other protected areas. From the lush forests to crystal clear rivers and streams, I was in constant awe of the natural beauty that awaited us around every corner. The water in Croatia is some of the best tasting water I’ve ever had and I eagerly refilled my water bottle from their cool crisp springs every chance I got. But by far, the waterfalls and emerald colored lakes are unlike anything I have ever seen. They are definitely worth the trip inland if you ever find yourself in Croatia.

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One of countless waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park.

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The water in all of the lakes and rivers was so crystal clear you didn’t have to look long to see tons of fish. (Plitvice Lakes)

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The Krupa River is beautiful. Glenn and I saw A LOT of it as we endlessly zigzagged back and forth, and often floated backwards, because we couldn’t seem to go in a straight line. We aren’t the most coordinated of couples when it comes to paddling!

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We had to walk around some of the waterfalls on our kayaking trip…

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…but we got to go over some too! I was nervous to try this – since you didn’t get to look at the waterfall before going over it – but I’m so glad I did it. One of my most favorite memories from the trip.

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Paklenica National Park is a magnet for rock climbers because of these soaring rock faces. The walls of the canyons were crawling with climbers.

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This is a zoomed in section from the picture above. Can you find the FOUR rock climbers? Definitely gives you a sense of scale!

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Lynne and Barbara hiking out of Paklenica. There are hiking trails throughout the Velebit, Croatia’s largest mountain range. You can even hike for days by going from hut to hut along a 65 mile long trekking trail through the mountains.

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One of several mountain huts in the Velebit mountains. We enjoyed a phenomenal meal (see “lunch under the bell” pictures below) at this one!

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Glenn and I enjoying even more amazing waterfalls at Krka National Park.

3. A treat for the senses.

Croatia looked, tasted, smelled and sounded amazing. In addition to the stunning scenery and landscapes, we were treated to some spectacular traditional meals prepared by locals. Our lunch and dinner tables were often covered with homemade wine, olive oil, cheeses, prosciutto, olives, honey and pastries.

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Homemade olive oil from one of the open markets.

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“Lunch under a bell,” a traditional Croatian way of cooking, was one of the most memorable meals we had. Bricks are heated by building a fire on them. The ashes are moved away and a dish of food is placed on the hot bricks. The food is covered with a big metal lid (the “bell”) which is then covered with the hot coals from the previous fire. The meal cooks like this for a couple of hours (no peeking!).

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Mario, our mountain hut host, unveils the delicious meal he has spent the day preparing.

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Beef and chicken, potatoes, onions, carrots, white wine and a little bacon fat for good measure. Amazing.

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Homemade rakija – distilled herbal or fruit spirits. I’ll just call it Croatian firewater. They seem to make it out of just about anything. Truffle, olive, carob, walnut, cherry, various herbs. Some of it is strong enough to strip paint.

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Grappa, much like rakija, is a homemade brandy that comes in as many flavors and varieties as those who make it. Here our group, while inside a monastery built in the 1300’s, enjoys some homemade grappa courtesy of the priest’s mother!?! (black dress)

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Fresh wild caught tuna grilled at a beachside bar on the island of Vrgada Island.

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We ate some of the most amazing prosciutto while in Croatia and I couldn’t wait to bring some home to share with friends and family. Unfortunately the customs officers in the Chicago airport had other plans for it.

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One of several homemade meals. During our bike ride through the pastoral countryside around Plitvice Lakes, we dined on a fabulous mushroom and rice dish while enjoying the shade on the patio of a family’s home. Mića is entertaining us with grand stories, as usual.

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Being so close to Italy, the pizza was bound to be amazing.

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Croatian’s may call them Uštipci, but I just call them fried balls of doughy goodness! We dined on these and wine while overlooking the beautiful seaside village of Novigrad.

Many of the flowering plants in Croatia smelled amazing – making a walk through town or along a hiking trail in the mountains a glorious experience. I was so taken with the smell of one particular flowering bush/tree that I had our guide quizzing the locals to try to find the name of it for me. Some ladies in an island village said they use it as wild bayleaf in cooking, but that didn’t really help me find the name.

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This was the enchanting blooming bush/tree that I couldn’t find the name for. It smelled amazing and was found in the coastal areas. If you know what it is – please leave me a comment!

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I encountered all manner of new and different flowers while hiking. This one sort of looked like a mix between a snapdragon and foxglove.

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These beautiful indigo colored dragonflies could be found in swarms around the grasses and flowers along the Krupa River.

Croatia was also awash with sounds, from roaring waterfalls to a cacophony of birds singing. I’m not sure if it was just the time of year we were visiting, or if it always this way, but our tour group joked on a regular basis that the weed-whacker needed to be on Croatia’s flag – as you could nearly always hear one humming in the distance.

Below you’ll find a video I took to capture the birds singing (so be sure your volume is turned up when you watch it!).

 

4. Remnants of war

I’ve never visited a country where the remains of war are found around nearly every corner. Homes were either a) newly rebuilt with pristine lawns and new shutters, b) habitable but still full of bullet holes, or 3) in a complete state of ruin and abandonment. Once working landscapes of orchards and sheep pastures were overrun with vegetation and few grazing animals were to be seen.

I had expected to see more evidence of war during our biking trip to Vietnam than I did in Croatia. Honestly, before this trip I didn’t know very much about the war between Serbia and Croatia some twenty years ago (1991-1995). It started soon after the U.S. fighting in the Persian Gulf War. So, between that and my somewhat myopic worldview as an undergraduate student in college, I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on outside of my dorm room.

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The landscape is dotted with war memorials commemorating the soldiers from the various villages that died in the war.

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Many homes remain in shambles, destroyed by passing armies.

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Other buildings are abandoned as well.

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Bullet holes riddle the sides of many buildings, even in larger towns (this was in Novigrad).

I still don’t fully understand the war between Serbia and Croatia. It seems it was very complex, multi-layered and long in coming. However, I did come away from this trip with a strong sense that there are always two sides to every story, there are good guys and bad guys on both sides, and that no matter the reason for the war everyday families are caught in the middle and experience tremendous losses.

Mića, our guide, told us about his experience of the war. At the time he was a young child of about 9 years old and in his mind the war was sort of a game where he and his friends would playact being soldiers in the barnyards and fields. That all changed one day when the soldiers came to his village and his family had to flee with what little they could carry. They lost their home, their animals and all of the belongings they had to leave behind. Mića and his parents are some of the only people that have returned to their village to rebuild following the war. Most of the families that had to flee have yet to return, often because they don’t have the money needed to repair and rebuild their homes. This has devastated the populations of many of the rural villages. For example, we went through one village that used to have several hundred children in the local school…now, twenty years later, there are only 12 students.

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Our guide Mića. I really appreciated his openness and willingness to share his stories and experiences before, during and after the war with us.

I had a blast in Croatia and would highly recommend it as a holiday destination.

I’d love to go back to spend some more time on a few of the islands and to venture into nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina which look to be equally as stunning. I’ve compiled more pictures from our adventures below. Enjoy!


 

Dubrovnik

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We rode the cablecar up to the viewpoint above Dubrovnik. Made for some amazing views of the old town.

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Looking at the main entry gates from the seaward side of Dubrovnik’s old town.

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Looking north up the Dalmatian Coast, dotted with more islands than you can count.

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Our first sunset in Croatia taken while hiking along some nice nature trails right outside of our hotel.

Plitvice National Park

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At the base of the tallest waterfall in Plitvice Lakes National Park.

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Always amazing vistas of the emerald pools and waterfalls.

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Beautiful fields, tranquil pastoral homes and no cars made for a great day of biking.

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Brilliant bike rack! (Barać’s caves)

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Enjoyed some off road riding as well.

Zrmanja and Krupa Rivers

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The group waiting to disembark to hike around a waterfall.

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Barbara and Lynne navigating a small rapid.

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Ellen and Brenna paddling along on the calm slow river. Everyone else could go in a straight line except me and Glenn!

Novigrad

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Our tour group enjoying the amazing view of the town of Novigrad.

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Novigrad had some of the most amazing sunsets.

Paklenica National Park

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Rock climbers everywhere!

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One of several mountain huts. This one was the home of Rexie…

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…and Rexie was one of the coolest dogs I’ve ever met. Here she sleeps in the shade of a picnic table – carefully positioned to benefit from potential belly rubs from passing hikers.

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One of several stunning views atop the Velebit mountains.

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Lynne took a bit of a stumble on the hike out – but it didn’t keep her down for long!

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Glenn relaxing after a nice morning of hiking.

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Wild figs grew everywhere, even in the most remote of locations.

Krka National Park

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More beautiful waterfalls, this time in Krka National Park.

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There was an old village in the park (pictured here) where you could see traditional methods of grinding flour, baking bread, weaving cloth and softening wool blankets.

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The colorful streets of the town of Skradin near Krka National Park.

Trogir

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Trogir was a quaint, ancient walled city where the streets were like mazes.

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One of several beautiful front steps to a home in the old town area of Trogir.

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Kids playing soccer against the backdrop of an old fortress.

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Timeless beauty.

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Local men gathered in the park to play Italian cards and bocci ball.

Split

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Split, the second largest city in Croatia (next to Zagreb). I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. Here we were hiking (and got lost) in a huge natural park on the edge of the city.

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The bell tower of the Cathedral of St. Domnius – we arrived here early one morning to hike to the top for some grand views.

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Atop the bell tower – quite the climb up some very narrow and disorienting stone stairs.

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In the basement of the the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace (built in ~300 A.D.)

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A tangle of old rooftops in the old town of Split.

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Glenn made the rounds petting all of the lazy kitties in Croatia…and there are a lot of them!

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Men playing Picigin, a game invented on this beach over 100 years ago. It was a fascinating combination of handball and hackie-sack, peppered with elaborate bellyflops. Most entertaining to watch!

Island of Brać

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We got off the ferry from Split in this quaint town of Supetar.

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We rented bikes and toured around the island…which turned out to be a very demanding, hot and hilly adventure.

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Taking in the views…while pulling out the map to try to figure out where we were at! Croatian tourist maps seem to be somewhat aspirational in nature. This road was marked as ‘concrete’ on the map legend. Hmmm…

If these pictures don’t convince you to add Croatia to your list of places to visit someday, then I don’t know what will!

 

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