Backpacking and Island-hopping down the Croatian Coastline

Now let me set the scene.  Stu and I had just completed a 7-day cycling trip along the Adriatic coast, starting in Venice and finishing in Porec – a charming, historic, and beautifully compact harbourside town in northern Croatia.  Having not done much cycling at all before, the uphill stretches had really started to take a toll on my knees towards the end, and my bottom was sore, but although I knew I was physically tired, I was also buzzing from the whole experience.

Not only had I been lucky enough to witness some stunning landscapes, traditional villages and pretty little coastal towns along the way, but I’d also achieved something I never thought possible before I began: I’d cycled well over 400 kilometres through 3 different countries, and in all honesty – apart from a couple of uphill sections – I hadn’t found the whole ordeal too difficult.  There hadn’t been any tears or tantrums (although we did have a few heated arguments over the ‘ambiguous’ directions), I hadn’t felt despondent or disillusioned, and not once had I wanted to give up – even though the weather one day had other ideas.  I just kept on powering through.  So, by the end of it all, I was high from the personal physical accomplishment, and I’d discovered that actually I really love cycling.

Porec, where we finished our cycling trip and began backpacking our way along Croatia’s coastline

 

At the end of our self-guided cycling trip – which we’d booked through Exodus – we could have joined some of the other members of the group and caught the boat back to Venice (where we’d began our trip) and then taken a flight back home.  But we were in Croatia: a country I’d fallen in love with when we visited Dubrovnik and its surrounding islands back in 2007.  So we decided that we’d continue south from Porec, but with our backpacks instead of our bicycles.  We’d follow the coastline all the way down to Dubrovnik, perhaps hopping across to a few islands along the way.  If nothing else, I was looking forward to returning to Dubrovnik and walking along its city walls once again. As we set off the next morning, it felt strange being without our bicycles.  We’d said goodbye to them only hours beforehand, and were looking forward to giving our sore bottoms and over-worked knee joints the chance to recover.

However, as we made our way to the bus station in order to start our onward journey to Pula, we desperately wanted to lose our backpacks and yearned to be back in the saddle again.  We were missing the freedom, the fresh air, and the physical exercise.  Yes, backpacking does give you a huge amount of freedom, but as we gazed out of the window from the comfort of our bus seats, we had to keep reminding ourselves that we wouldn’t have that freedom again until we reached our next destination.  The passing sights were simply that: fleeting glimpses of parts of Croatia that – for now – would have to remain unexplored.

Pula

I expected to love Pula.  With its many surviving ancient Roman buildings (the most famous of which is its first century amphitheatre), rich cultural heritage and Mediterranean cuisine and climate, I naively envisioned a city similar to Rome itself, but with fewer tourists.  Sadly I was incredibly underwhelmed.  I attribute that to a number of factors, the first of which was the accommodation we found ourselves in – or rather the location of our accommodation and the distance it was from Pula’s city centre.

Apartments Golubic describe themselves as being “in the quiet touristic suburb [of] Veruda Porat”, well connected to the city centre by regular bus services but only 2km away if you want to walk.  At just £9.29 each per night for our own apartment with fully-equipped kitchen, it sounded perfect.  I imagined we’d take a leisurely stroll into the centre, stopping to take in the scenery and sights along the way, and then maybe catch a bus back later if we didn’t fancy walking. Now don’t get me wrong, the lady who runs the apartments is lovely.  She was incredibly helpful in giving us a comprehensive map, on which she marked the locations of nearby markets and restaurants, as well as advising us from where we should catch the bus and at how many minutes past the hour it leaves.

The apartments themselves – although pleasant enough and perfectly adequate for our needs – were not located in a “touristic” suburb, but rather in the middle of a rather large housing estate on the outskirts of the city, inhabited primarily (aside from other guests in the remaining 4 apartments) by locals.  The fact we were staying in an area not frequented by other tourists was not a problem in itself.  However, the fact that the walk into the centre (which is actually nearer 3km) takes you through some really rough, run-down areas (areas that I did not feel comfortable passing through even in daylight hours) and that the last bus back up to the estate is around 6pm, was.  Bang goes the night out unless you want to fork out for a taxi, which kind of defeats the object of the bargain priced accommodation.

Yes, I wasn’t happy with where we were based for our two nights in Pula.

I was also surprised to find that – considering Pula’s size – we struggled to find anywhere open to get a bite to eat and a drink during the evening.  We wanted to sample some traditional Istrian fare, but the only place we could find open after dark was a little Pizzeria recommended in our Lonely Planet guide.  Granted, it was delicious as far as pizzas go, with a vast array of topping choices, but even so, nightlife in Pula was distinctly lacking. Thirdly, the weather really got me down.  I’d really hoped to be able to get some stunning shots of the amphitheatre: centuries old stonework against a backdrop of a perfectly blue sky.  But the weather had other ideas.  Pula was encased in a blanket of thick grey cloud for the entirety of our visit.

Pula's Roman Forum, amphitheatre and old town streets

Pula’s Roman Forum, amphitheatre and old town streets

 

On the plus side, we did catch a few glimpses of some patches of blue sky on our last day, and we did confess to liking Pula’s main square, with its imposing Roman Forum and attractive outdoor cafes.  However, overall I just didn’t feel like the city had a lot going for it.  It felt dull, and dirty, and lacking any kind of character or ambiance.  Maybe you’ll want to judge for yourself but personally I feel like there are so many better places in Croatia worthy of 3 days of my time.

Zadar

Zadar is much further along Croatia’s coastline (try 10 hours on a bus further!) and was a world away from our disappointing experience of Pula.  We were based at Old Town Hostel, smack bang in the middle of Zadar’s historic old town, which is packed with Roman ruins, medieval churches, cosmopolitan cafes and quality museums.   Not that long ago, Zadar, as a tourist destination, was little more than a transport hub between the Istrian Peninsula and Southern Dalmatia, but now it really has the feel of being a very up and coming resort in its own right.

Zadar’s biggest attractions are the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation, two unique creations designed by local architect Nikola Basic.  Set within the perforated stone stairs that descend into the sea, the Sea Organ is a system of pipes and whistles that exude wistful sighs when the movement of the sea pushes air through it.  Listening to its harmonic sounds (which increase in volume whenever a boat or ferry passes by) is calming and almost hypnotic.

Whilst the Sea Organ is subtle and mystical, the Sun Salutation is flashy, colourful, and entertaining.  The Sun Salutation is a 22 metre circle cut into the pavement, filled with 300 multi-layered glass plates.   These glass plates gather the sun’s energy during the day and, together with the wave energy that produces the Sea Organ’s sound, delivers this wonderfully trippy light show!

The Sun Salutation, Zadar, Croatia

 

Zadar is worth a visit for the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation alone, but it’s also home to some quality restaurants (enjoyed a delicious fish meal with wine at Na Po Ure), attractive little harbour, and medieval churches and Roman ruins to boot.  Although the weather wasn’t especially kind to us here either, I loved my time in Zadar, and would thoroughly recommend that you drop in on this lovely, compact little town in Northern Dalmatia.

Zadar's nightlife

Zadar’s nightlife

Zadar’s Harbour

Well well well… 😉

 

Split

Split is a coastal city located in Central Dalmatia.  It was originally built around the Diocletian Palace (a palace/fort constructed for the retired Roman Emperor, Diocletian) where locals sought refuge centuries ago, but now extends over a large area well beyond its ancient core, and is the major economic hub of the eastern Adriatic shoreline.   Most of Split’s sights however, are located in and around Diocletian Palace.  This is not a palace in the traditional sense: it’s a living, breathing, self-contained village incorporating well-preserved streets, gothic and renaissance buildings,  4 monumental gates, and now, a wealth of shops, cafes, and restaurants.  What’s more, it’s free to enter and wander around until your heart’s content.

I’d heard good things about Split before I arrived, so I must admit that I had reasonably high expectations of this unofficial ‘capital’ of Dalmatia.  Fortunately the city did not disappoint.  From the moment we arrived, and had our private room with shared bathroom at Hostel Split upgraded to an entire apartment at no extra cost (one of the benefits of travelling slightly off-season), I was smitten with Split. I loved the renovated promenade along the waterfront, paved with marble and flanked with palm trees and inviting cafes with outdoor seating aplenty.

Split’s renovated Riva (waterfront)

 

I loved the rich turquoise blue of the Adriatic sea.

The Adriatic Sea

The Adriatic Sea

 

I loved the atmospheric cobbled streets within the old walls.

Atmospheric streets within Split's old walls

Atmospheric streets within Split’s old walls

 

I loved the traditional trattorias, tucked away down hidden alleyways, brimming with charm and character.

Trattorias, Split

Trattorias, Split

 

I loved the abundance of fresh seafood, the architecture, the colours…

Split's architecture

Split’s architecture

 

And I loved climbing up to Marjan’s peak at dusk to witness this wonderful panorama of the city down below:

View of Split from Marjan’s Peak, Telegrin

 

Hvar

Of all of the destinations we visited whilst backpacking down Croatia’s coastline towards Dubrovnik, Hvar has to be my favourite.  Jadrolinija and Krilo run catamaran services regularly from Split harbour to Hvar Town, and the journey takes approximately an hour.   It’s a journey I’m very glad we made, and I’m also very thankful that we’d chosen to book 3 nights accommodation on this beautiful island.

View of Hvar Town as we stepped off the catamaran

 

As we walked along the harbour front, towards the location of Villa Zorana (sounds a lot grander than the £10 pp/pn charge would suggest), dutifully following the directions provided with our booking confirmation, we were certainly not expecting to be met by the owner of the property, who would personally escort us to our home on Hvar.  We also weren’t expecting our room to have been upgraded at no extra cost (2nd time in the space of a week!), to incorporate our own kitchen/dining area, bathroom, private balcony, and sea view.  And what a view it was.

Our sea view of Hvar town from Villa Zorana

 

The island promotes itself as “the sunniest spot in Europe” with approximately 2715 hours of sunlight in the average year.  Hvar Town also has a bit of a reputation as a party capital during the summer months, so I expected to find the town’s streets overrun with intoxicated tourists who’d come to the island to over-indulge in its bountiful sunshine and late-night drinking options.

That may well be the case in July and August, but we’d visited in late May, and it was a completely different story. Yes there are bars, cafes and restaurants that wrap themselves around the harbour’s edge and spill out into the spacious town square, but they do not overwhelm the place.  They simply create an inviting, vibrant atmosphere, as well as offering the chance to sample some top-notch local food in an authentic, atmospheric, and often quirky environment.

Picturesque Hvar Town

The back streets of Hvar Town

The back streets of Hvar Town

Hvar town's harbour, restaurants, and medieval fortress entrance

Hvar town’s harbour, restaurants, and medieval fortress entrance

 

Konoba Menego is one of these little gems, located half the way up the flight of stone steps that connects the main square to the medieval fortress at the top of the hill.  It started off as a family-run business, and still feels very much so.  The decor is wonderfully rustic, with lots of quirky touches: the menu spines are made of driftwood, hammers and axes, and the bill arrives rolled up and placed through the hole in a pebble.  There is a set menu but the waiter will offer a ‘Chef’s Surprise’ – you tell him what you like and don’t like and he’ll come up with a tapas-style sharing platter for you.  Everything tasted very fresh, and the flavour combinations were perfect.

Konoba Menego, Hvar - and its famous 'Drunken Figs' dessert

Konoba Menego, Hvar – and its famous ‘Drunken Figs’ dessert

 

A memorable meal is often a major contributing factor in my enjoyment of a location or experience, and this one was certainly up there along with our trip up to the hilltop fortress and the stunning views it afforded of the town down below; of tall pine trees, red-tiled roofs, tiny white boats resting on rich blue waters, and fertile islands stretching out into the distance.

View of Hvar Town and its surrounding islands, from the walls of the hilltop fortress

 

Yes, there would have been enough to entertain us in Hvar town, but as our accommodation was situated right next door to a scooter rental outfit, and Villa Zorana guests were offered a rather tidy discount, we simply couldn’t turn down the opportunity of seeing what else the island had to offer.  Yes they were the kind that didn’t require any amount of physical exercise to set them in motion, but we were on two wheels once again.  I liked that alluring sense of freedom that stretched out in front of us. We rode wide tarmac roads over lush green hills, peppered with specks of purple from the countless lavender plants that grow all over the island.  We spotted several cyclists and felt a twinge of jealousy – until we realised just how hilly Hvar is.

As we began our motorcycle tour of Hvar Island

 

The farther we travelled from Hvar Town, the more we really started to appreciate the beauty of the island’s verdant, largely unchartered landscapes.  Towering peaks and rugged mountains, gorgeous beaches with tiny inlets and secluded coves, 15th century villages, abandoned hamlets and stone hideaways, and the aromatic scent of rosemary, heather and lavender  lingering on the breeze.

Looking down on to Velo Grablje

A little stone hideaway and immense mountain and coastal landscapes, Hvar

A little stone hideaway and immense mountain and coastal landscapes, Hvar

 

Hvar’s oldest town is Stari Grad (literally “old town”), on the northern side of the island.  It is also apparently one of the oldest towns in Europe, and it was therefore obligatory that we parked up and had a little wander around.   With its colourful painted houses that line the harbour’s edge, its mountainous backdrop,  its ancient, deserted streets, and its castle (although we had to satisfy ourselves with a peak through its large entrance gates due to it being closed for the afternoon on the day of our visit), I’m very glad we chose to take a couple of hours out of our island tour, to spend here.

Pictureque, historic Stari Grad

Pictureque, historic Stari Grad

Stari Grad's ancient streets

Stari Grad’s ancient streets

 

Hvar is an island that seems to offer a little bit of everything: remote landscapes, isolated coves, ample sunshine, historical towns and settlements, quality local cuisine, and a vibrant nightlife.  I really didn’t want to leave.

Korcula

We were able to catch a ferry here from Hvar, helpfully organised for us by the owner of Villa Zorana.  There is one ferry per day, leaving Hvar Town at 18:15 and arriving into Korcula Town at 19:45.  We found our way to Maria’s Place, right in the centre of Korcula’s old town, and Maria welcomed us by insisting that we sit down and sample some of her homemade biscuits, washed down with a complimentary beer, before heading out to catch one of the best sunsets we’d witnessed throughout the duration of our trip.

Sunset, Korcula Town Harbour

 

Korcula Town reminded me a little of Diocletian Palace in Split: the entirety of its old town is encircled by a pedestrian avenue which looks out on to the sea, and there are a number of gates through which you can enter its labyrinthine streets.  It’s a quiet place at night though.  There are very few bars, so visitors tend to drink in the restaurants at which they choose to eat their meals.  There is, however, one bar you simply must check-in at, if only for one drink, for the pure novelty factor and amazing views from atop.

Cocktail bar, Massimo is lodged in a turret and accessible only by ladder.  Drinks are brought up by pulley.  Yes they’re expensive, but then again, how often do you have the opportunity to experience a drinking establishment quite so unusual?

Cocktail bar Massimo, Korcula

Cocktail bar Massimo, Korcula

Old Town streets, Korcula

Old Town streets, Korcula

 

As we’d enjoyed our island tour of Hvar so much, we decided that doing the same on Korcula would undoubtedly reap the same benefits.  Unfortunately we didn’t do our research beforehand, and later realised that our tour of Korcula would be hindered for a number of reasons:

  • It was Sunday
  • The scooter rental outfit did not open until 11am
  • There are only 2 petrol stations on Korcula: one just outside Korcula Town, and one at the opposite end of the island, at Vela Luka
  • The petrol station at Vela Luka closes at 12 noon on a Sunday
  • We weren’t sure if we could make it to Vela Luka by 12 noon, and if we didn’t, we weren’t sure we could get to Vela Luka and back on one tank of petrol

Consequently our tour of the island was limited to a trip to Lumbarda on the south eastern tip of the island.  The views on route were breathtaking – when I could actually see them.  The scooter rental establishment didn’t have any helmets to fit my stupidly small child-sized head, so I spent an unbearable amount of time on the back of the scooter trying to reverse the effects of the strong winds on my oversized helmet, which continually rattled its way around my skull.  When we stopped for coffee I did question whether there was much point in my wearing a helmet at all.

Bad planning and badly-fitting helmet’s aside, the brief glimpses we did have of Korcula were of an incredibly green island, with a densely wooded appearance.   Surrounded by dramatic, mountainous scenery, and dotted with red-tiled roofed houses and numerous tiny, secluded beaches and bays along its coastline.

Snorkelling in the crystal clear waters of the pebble beach at Lumbarda

Tranquil shores and dramatic mountain scenery, Korcula

Lush green, densely-wooded Korcula

 

Dubrovnik

As we arrived into Dubrovnik’s main bus station and duly mounted one of the buses the directions to our accommodation specified we take, I began to feel a very strong sense of deja-vu.  This feeling increased tenfold when we hopped off the bus near to a small bakery and started to climb the steep stone steps of France Preserna towards our home for the night – Anka Rooms.  As soon as we opened the green metal gate, walked into the colourfully attractive terraced flower garden, and were met by a super smiley Croatian lady who didn’t speak a word of English, I knew this was the same placed we’d stayed at during our first visit to Dubrovnik, 5 years previously.

Hardly surprising really considering that our usual criteria for selecting accommodation on our travels, involves performing a search on either the Hostelbookers or Hostelworld websites, filtering the results to return the least expensive options first and then deciding upon the cheapest option that is reasonably central and has a customer rating of over 80%.  At £12.50pp/pn for a private room in one of the most prominent tourist resorts in the Mediterranean, and extremely favourable reviews, I could deal with the 20 minute walk to Dubrovnik’s old town entrance.

I’m always a little wary about returning to places I have fond memories of from a previous visit.  I like the familiarity of it.  I like the fact that you don’t have to concentrate on finding your way around or getting to know a place (although sometimes that can be half the fun; that exciting sense of anticipation and adventure).  You have the option of returning to that favourite restaurant, bar or cafe, revisiting a favourite viewpoint, retracing your steps along a favourite trail, reliving a particularly memorable experience, or retaking a favourite tour.  Sometimes the second  and successionary times can be as good as the first, sometimes they can be better, but sometimes an initial memory can be tarred by your experiences the second time around.

Certain changes that had been made to Dubrovnik meant that my fondness for the city  was simply not as great the second time around.  Back in 2007, we were able to walk along the city walls completely free of charge.  What’s more, we could hop on and off of the walls at numerous points along their 2km long circumference.  It made the nature of the experience both carefree and fun.  We could dip in and out of certain parts of the wall as and when we found something interesting.  We could be curious, intrigued, playful and adventurous.  It was a wonderfully captivating maze of streets surrounded by rich blue Adriatic waters and unexplored islands.

In 2012, a fee had been introduced to enter the walls, and for that reason, most of the entrances and exits along the walls had been blocked off.  There was only one way on and one way off.  So once you’d paid the extortionately expensive 90 kuna (nearly £10) entrance fee, you could not exit and re-enter the walls throughout the day; once you’d left, the only way of getting back on to the walls was to pay a further 90 kuna entrance fee.  An early morning stroll along the walls could not be combined with a sunset drink at Cafe Buza; you either had to stay on the walls all day or pay nearly £20 for the privilege.

The second – and very major change – to Dubrovnik’s appearance, was the addition of a cable car.  It whisks you from a station just north of the city, up to Mount Srd, in under 4 minutes.  Whilst I think the modern, brash structure imposes distastefully on to Dubrovnik’s charming landscape, I did – along with the thousands of other tourists each year – pay to take a ride on it.  Yes I would much rather have hiked up the mountain under the power of my own steam in order to behold it, but I have to admit that the view from 405 metres above the city, is incredible.  It gives a stupendous perspective of the entire of the old town and its terracotta tiled roofs, encased within the city walls, and of the tree-covered island of Lokrum (which we’d kayaked to on our last visit to Dubrovnik), and the expanse of the Adriatic and distant Elafiti islands filling the horizon.

View of Dubrovnik from the top of Mount Srd

View of Dubrovnik from the top of Mount Srd

 

I still like Dubrovnik a lot – and largely due to the fond memories I have of spending a week here back in 2007.  The marble streets of its old town, the monumental gates, the unusual-shaped shop windows, the fortresses, the nearby islands of Lokrum and Mljet, the opportunities to swim, snorkel, and kayak, the attractive harbour, the boat trips, and the abundance of cats will never fail to delight and entertain me.  However, it is becoming very over-crowded, over-commercialised, and over-priced, which is a shame considering all the good things it has going for it.

Dubrovnik's old town

Dubrovnik’s old town

 

Dubrovnik was our last stop on a cycling and backpacking trip that had taken us through Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia.  We had followed the Adriatic coast throughout our 17-day adventure, and – with the exception of the thunderstorm in Trieste and the resulting action that had to be taken, and our disappointment with Portoroz and Pula – we’d loved every minute of it 🙂

If you’d like to read up on the places we visited in this post, try the following links to a couple of good (in my opinion) guidebooks on Amazon:

Lonely Planet Croatia

Rough Guides: The Southern Dalmatian Islands

Rough Guides Istria

This is part of the #SundayTraveler link up, the spot to be to get the lowdown on all things travel.

**This post contains some affiliate links**

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7 Responses to Backpacking and Island-hopping down the Croatian Coastline

  1. Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 9:50 PM #

    What beautiful photos 🙂 Look like you had a great time in Croatia, your posts has me wanting to see more!

    • Kiara Gallop February 16, 2014 at 9:53 PM #

      Thanks Caitlyn 🙂 Yeah, I had an amazing time there. Croatia is definitely one of my favourite countries.

  2. thriftytravelmama February 17, 2014 at 9:37 AM #

    Most of these places are on our upcoming itinerary to Croatia, so this post is only adding to the anticipation of seeing such gorgeous places in person. And I love that you cycled into Croatia – I would love to do that with our boys sometime.

  3. Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy February 19, 2014 at 9:49 PM #

    You always have great photos Kiara! I really want to get back to Croatia. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler 🙂

  4. Samantha @mytanfeet February 21, 2014 at 3:48 PM #

    Gorgeous! Croatia certainly is a photogenic country and that sounds like a fun trip!

  5. aweekatthebeach February 21, 2014 at 4:00 PM #

    Croatia by bike is on my bucket list! Thanks for sharing amazing pics…

  6. Brit April 9, 2014 at 6:48 AM #

    Kiara – thanks for sharing. Great pics and info. I love this part of the world and am so glad to see you sharing some of the lesser known spots. I agree with you on Dubrovnik. It is becoming over-commercialized. It’s almost inevitable with such a beautiful spot, but still sad.

    Happy journeys!

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