Croatia with Insight Vacations
Story & photos by Gerrie Summers
On my recent Dalmatian Riviera trip with Insight Vacations, we explored Croatia.
We cruise past scenic coastline in a comfy and roomy coach with business class seating. The windows are large and provide unobstructed views of the countryside. Our Insight escort/tour director Karin Kollarova gives us historical and cultural tidbits along the way, giving us enough moments of silence to soak in the experience.
Our first stop is Split, the second largest city in Croatia (after Zagreb) and a film location of the popular “Game of Thrones” series. At first glance, it looks like a modern cosmopolitan city. Ferries that take passengers to nearby islands, yachts and other vessels float in the vibrant turquoise Adriatic Sea. Cafes line the waterfront and people stroll along a marble walkway. Look up and you’ll notice that beyond the line of cafes is the ancient palace of Emperor Diocletian. As we begin a brief tour our tour guide Damir Grgas, explains that the walking tour of the palace normally takes an hour and 30 minutes. Due to time constraints, our abbreviated, yet still comprehensive tour, seemed no more than a breezy half hour (too bad, because Grgas was very entertaining.)
Diocletian’s palace is considered the greatest Roman ruin in western Europe. It was built as the retirement home (and military fortress) of the Roman emperor. It is fascinating to note that the palace grounds is now the heart of the city, a maze of passageways to explore, with bars, shops, galleries and restaurants. Basement halls are filled with stalls and merchants selling local crafts. Private residences and businesses are housed within impressive gothic and renaissance buildings.
The palace is divided into four quarters with four ornamental gates (Golden, Bronze, Silver and Iron) that lead down to the Peristil (the central square). A statue of medieval bishop Grgur Ninski (Gregory of Nin) which some belives resembles Merlin, guards the Golden Gate. Touching his big stone toe, some say, will bring you luck.
Artifacts can be found throughout, including two original 3,500 year old sphinxes brought in from Egypt. One is located on Peristil Square and the other is in front of Jupiter’s Temple, an ancient Roman temple that is now St. John’s Church. The Cathedral of St. Domnius, originally constructed as the palace mausoleum, has several monuments inside and a steep bell tower that can be climbed for views over the fortified city.
Unfortunately, time flies by, and after exploring as much as we can, we continue along the Dalmatian coast to Ston, where the walls of Ston, also called the Great Wall of Croatia, stretches across a narrow isthmus. The walls surrounded and protected the city of Ston as well as the precious salt pans, which was a source of wealth for Dubrovnik. The walls extend to Mali Ston (Little Ston), a smaller town at the end of the Bay of Mali Ston.
The area is growing as a tourist spot. In addition to just simply being charming, it is the place to enjoy oysters. These waters have been well-known for shellfish for centuries, which have been considered delicacies dating back to Roman times and enjoyed by Roman emperors and such historical figures as Napoleon. They were consumed in honor of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who was said to have been born from a shell and no doubt one reason why oysters are considered an aphrodisiac. Oyster tasting is a must, so we stop at a local oyster farm and board a boat for a leisurely ride to an oyster bed where fresh oysters were drawn from the sea, shucked and prepared. I had to depend on my colleagues to tell me whether the oysters were delicious. I won’t even eat sushi. The verdict was “mmmm.”
We are treated to more seafood at Bota Sare, a taverna on the shores of Mali Ston. Bota Sare is located within an old medieval castle and is one of four restaurants owned by Bozidar Sare. It serves Dalmatian specialties including seafood dishes using old south Dalmatian recipes some of which were found in two old dusty books filled with recipes and found in the basement of the family home.
We then drive to Orebic where we set sail on a ferry for Korcula, the biggest of the more than one thousand islands in Croatia. The town of Korcula is the main town and a popular tourist attraction for at least two major reasons: Its Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval towns. It’s also where the locals will tell you is the birthplace of famed Venetian explorer Marco Polo. It’s believed that his family originated in Dalmatia and then settled in Venice.
We met up with a tour guide for a walk through the town. One great aspect of an Insight Vacation is that Whisper radio systems are used for the guided tours. If you wander off to take photos or linger at a site while the tour moves on, you can still hear the commentary.
There’s a lot to take in. Old Town’s narrow stone-paved streets are designed into a fishbone shape, meant to reduce the effects of wind. The Venetian Renaissance influence can be seen. The most notable historic sites are the Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of St. Mark and the 15th century Franciscan monastery. If you’re lucky you might see the Moreska Sword Dance, which dates back to the middle ages and apparently this is the only place where the weapons dance is still performed. Near the Hotel Marco Polo, there are jogging paths. It is beautiful and serene, but in areas, bunkers can be seen beneath overgrowth.
After spending two nights in Korcula, we begin our journey to Dubrovnik. We travel through the famous Croatian wine region, past vineyards along the Peljesac peninsula. We stop at a local vineyard Vina Vukas in the village of Ponkve. Vintner Dubravko Vukas explains aspects of viniculture with a wine tasting of Mato, red wine made from the plavac mali grape, and a white wine Rukatac (also called marastina) from the island of Korcula.
Later we arrive in Dubrovnik and have dinner within the medieval walls of the Old Town, which is magical at night. The following morning, Malaysian journalist Evelyn Kok and I decide to walk the famed Dubrovnik walls. To walk the ancient walls costs 100 Croatian Kuna, which is about $15 US. There are check points at the different entrances to the wall, so don’t lose your ticket and don’t exit if you want to walk the entire length. Once you leave you have to pay again. It takes about an hour to walk the entire wall, but our leisurely stroll, stopping for photos and to soak in the views, took a little over two hours.
There are picturesque views of the old town and reddish-orange rooftops that look incredible against the blue sky and sea. It’s easy to forget that you are walking above residential homes. Laundry sways on clothing lines. Mothers chase energetic toddlers and go about their daily activities and chores oblivious to gawking tourists and the clicking sounds of camera shutters. It’s also easy to forget that while the walls are stunning as they contrast sharply with the deep blue sea, the stone barriers and forts were constructed to guard against invasion and that these walls were tested as recently as 1991. During the Croatian War of Independence, the walls sustained 650 hits by artillery rounds. There was a major restoration of the Old Town by UNESCO from 1995 – 1999.
In April, it is pleasant to walk the entire length, but during warmer months you’ll need water and sunscreen. Just be aware that there are no bathrooms along the walls.
Along the way we run into other journalists from our group who have finished the Game of Thrones walking tour. Dubrovnik is used as the fictional capital city of Westeros, King’s Landing in HBO’s Game of Thrones. The two-hour tour is 180 KN and takes you through parts of the Old City where the most memorable scenes were filmed.
In the evening we took a cruise across the harbor before heading to our farewell dinner.
Split – Atrium Hotel Split (www.hotel-atrium.hr)
Korcula – Hotel Marko Polo (www.korcula-hotels.com)
Dubrovnik – Dubrovnik Palace Hotel (www.adriaticluxuryhotels.com/hotel-dubrovnik-palace)
Insight Vacations (www.insightvacations.com) 800-582-8380
Croatian Tourism Board – www.croatia.hr