A beginner’s guide to Dalmatia
Dalmatia is the region of the Adriatic extending from the Croatian town of Zadar in the north down to Kotor, Montenegro in the south. Rising sea levels once drowned the lower parts of glacial valleys leaving a string of islands reminiscent of the spots and splodges on the backs of the dogs which share the region’s name. Long a favourite of the Italians, this beautiful stretch of coastline has become increasingly popular with UK visitors over the past few years, with those in the know finding a Mediterranean holiday at a fraction of the price of more established destinations. The most scenic part of the region links the historic cities of Split and Dubrovnik, so this blog will focus on making a journey between the two.
The region is much better connected than it was a decade ago, emphasising the area’s tourist resurgence. British Airways has direct summer season flights to both Split and Dubrovnik, flying to the latter a couple of times a week in winter. The budget airline easyJet flies to Split and Dubrovnik offering flights to the region from Luton, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol. Ryanair serves Zadar. Other airlines operating flights to Split and/or Dubrovnik include Wizz Air, Thomsonfly, Norwegian, Monarch and Jet2. As with BA, there are considerably more flights in summer. To get to the area with Croatia Airlines you’ll need to hub through Zagreb and change planes. For an up to date list of flight schedules, try http://www.visit-croatia.co.uk/index.php/getting-to-croatia/flights-to-croatia-from-the-uk-ireland/.
If you’re beginning your trip in the Croatian capital, a train service links Zagreb to Split but even the fast train takes almost six hours – strictly a journey for aficionados. A convenient bus network links the mainland towns. The Visit Croatia website is invaluable and lists the bus companies here http://www.visit-croatia.co.uk/index.php/travelling-around-croatia/bus-travel-in-croatia/. Autotrans offer the facility to make online bookings. A fleet of ferries facilitates island hopping. Taxis are cheap in the region but where the old towns are characterised by labyrinthine alleyways, it’s best to explore on foot.
What to see
Split is the Adriatic’s main ferry port, its quayside thronging with workers as well as tourists. The city’s residents are always on the go and business is conducted frenetically and noisily. The mild and sunny climate makes for an outdoor cafe culture in all but the depths of winter.
Undisputedly, the jewel of Split’s crown is Diocletian’s Palace. Roman emperor Diocletian came here to retire, commissioning an elaborate fortified palace which is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Some time after Diocletian’s death, the palace fell into a state of disrepair, but was seized upon by refugees fleeing from the town of Salona, five kilometres inland and a Roman stronghold thought to be the birthplace of the emperor himself. These new residents added their own fortifications to the palace, building on the original two-metre thick walls, towers and keeps of the original design. Split grew steadily, forging trading links with the interior and was eventually absorbed into the Hungaro-Croatian empire in the eleventh century.
Now, Diocletian’s Palace blends almost seamlessly with the mediaeval buildings that crowd its western flank. The narrow alleyways beg to be explored at a snail’s pace before heading back to the waterfront Riva to while away the afternoon over a glass or two of wine.
It’s worth making a detour inland to the town of Mostar in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. A three and a half hour bus ride from the coast (see timetables here http://www.buscroatia.com/split-mostar/), pockmarked buildings still bear the scars of the bullets that so recently ripped out its heart. The conflict in 1993 saw the destruction of the town’s iconic Stari Most bridge, a sixteenth century structure spanning the Nevetna River. In peace time, the town’s young daredevils once dived from its ledge outdoing each other in bravado and skill. The bridge was blown up by the Croats. Some say it was destroyed for strategic reasons, but others believe that it was a deliberate act of vandalism intended to enrage.
Today, the bridge has been rebuilt, a simple engraved stone acting as a reminder to the futility of war. The streets it connects are lined with souvenir shops, selling tin hats and bullets alongside postcards and nick nacks. This old town district was originally settled by Ottomans and the area has a distinctly Turkish feel. Many of Mostar’s mansions were severely damaged by the shelling, but it’s worth checking out the Muslibegovic House which was miraculously untouched. Owner Tadz, will show you round and offer you a room in this museum-guest house hybrid. Book through online agencies such as booking.com or visit the website http://www.muslibegovichouse.com/.
The mountains that hem the coastal strip from the interior force the focus out to sea and it’s hard to spend any length of time looking out at the sparkling Adriatic without resisting the urge to hop on a boat. There’s an island for everyone. Šolta, close to Split, is a sleepy place characterised by quiet lanes and yachts bobbing serenely in tiny inlets. Base yourself near the harbour in Maslinica. Neighbouring Brač is perfect for beach lovers; try those at Zlatni Rat, Bol and Supetar. Better known Hvar has a fashionable old town packed with bars and clubs, palaces and chapels, a kind of offshore mini-Dubrovnik without the cruise ships. Known for its olive groves, Korčula offers a similar variety to Hvar but on a smaller scale. Further off the beaten track, if you want to escape the crowds, try the island of Vis, popular with urban escapees from the Croatian capital, Zagreb.
If you’re based in Dubrovnik, the islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipanhen are all within easy reach. Sold to the city of Dubrovnik in 1333 by the kings of Bosnia, Mljet is do-able as a day trip, but those staying for longer are rewarded with beautiful countryside and much sought after peace and quiet. The west of the island has been designated a national park, the highlights of which are two saltwater lakes framed by pristine woodland. You could even spot a mongoose, imported from India in an attempt to rid Mljet of its persistent snake problems.
Get Dubrovnik wrong, and you battle hordes of cruise ship passengers clogging the narrow streets of the Old Town, tacky souvenirs and unappetising food. That’s not to say don’t visit, just do your homework first. Best in spring or summer (avoid January when many business owners take the month off) the crowds ease when the day trippers leave in late afternoon. Restaurants offering al fresco dining tout for custom, but get off the main drag to avoid inflated prices.
The city has a long history. Originally settled in the seventh century, it became an important trading post, a neutral port between the Ottomans and the West. The money generated by sales of wool, hides, wheat and even slaves underpinned the city’s cultural development. The Sponza Palace, Rector’s Palace and the fountains designed by Onofrio della Cava are evidence of this building boom.
Climb the walls of the fortified Old Town for stunning views across terracotta rooftops to the Adriatic, hidden courtyards revealing themselves to those high enough to peer over their walls. The sea pounds away but is no match for the thick stone that Michelozzo Michelozzi and Juraj Dalmatinac designed to protect the city from the waves. After 1995, war damage was repaired speedily and you’d be forgiven for thinking the city was spared; only newer tiles and patched walls give it away.
The compact Old Town is a delight to wander aimlessly, but accommodation is expensive. It’s worth considering renting an apartment or staying just outside the city walls to achieve better value for money. Some people stay in the resorts of Cavtat or Župa Dubrovačka and visit Dubrovnik just for the day, but it’s worth basing yourself in the city for at least part of your stay.
The pretty town of Kotor to the south of Dubrovnik across the border in Montenegro lies at the head of a fjord. Like Dubrovnik, it has a sprawling Old Town and a thriving cafe culture.
It’s worth taking a boat trip out on the fjord if the weather is fine; there are some pretty churches at the water’s edge. Also, make the effort to climb to the castle at the top of the hill – the views are spectacular on a clear day.
As a beginner’s guide, this blog post isn’t intended to be complete, but there are lots more resources on the web to help you plan a trip. Try the Croatia traveller site here: http://www.croatiatraveller.com/Dalmatia.htm
For Northern Dalmatia, fly into Zadar and then head out from there. Rough Guides have a comprehensive description on their website here: http://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/croatia/northern-dalmatia/
For specific attractions, the Lonely Planet is a good bet. Find the relevant Croatia section here: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/croatia
Finally, for accommodation, I find http://www.booking.com reliable and the reviews generally accurate.