You just can't plan everything right. We went into our trip knowing that Croatia would be the country most firmly on the tourist circuit, with all the crowded streets, disintegrated local identities, and price-gouging that always comes with. We also knew the common wisdom of "the only way to see Croatia is by sailboat", but that just wasn't going to work with our itinerary, which included a music festival and meeting up with friends and family.
We planned our route determined to see as much of the fabled coast on public transportation as possible, and I believe we succeeded, but despite having seen some amazing beaches, eaten some delicious food, and experienced some untouched historical and cultural treasures, we left feeling we had missed out on some of the island-covered coast's hidden secrets, tied as we were to the main ports and roadways.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We outraced a thunderstorm on the train/bus/train combo from Budapest to Zagreb, and arrived there late at night and under a low and foreboding sky. Having only a few hours in town the next morning before our bus to the coast, we decided to check out one of the quirkier attractions in the city's old town: the Museum of Broken Relationships. What started as a traveling exhibition of artifacts of failed relationships has grown into a full-fledged museum of carefully curated pieces, each of which was clearly too important for the owner to throw away, but too painful to keep. Alongside their stories, the broken toys, shoes, jewelry, and letters all speak volumes about their former owners and their former owners' lovers. They're meticulously chosen, displayed, preserved, and documented. As all museums should be, it was provocative, evocative, slightly unsettling, and strangely affirming.
The next week or so saw us working our way down the coast by bus, ferry, car, and foot. We ate our fill of fresh seafood, got lost in medieval alleys, swam in crystal-clear waters, and dodged tourists. We were accompanied for some of our time there by two of the most fun travel companions: Claudia's cousin Sara and our friend Chip, who embarked on his own round-the-world trip around the same time we did and who is always up for anything.
Some of the highlights of these few days were:
- Enjoying the two landscape art installations in Zadar. The first, called "Greeting to the Sun" is the visual one, made up of a few hundred square feet of solar tiles set into a large plaza. During the day they soak up the sun's energy, and then at dusk they pay it all back in a brilliant display of shifting colored lights. It's a popular gathering place where kids love running around and playing, and people of all ages gather to have their pictures taken (though the lighting conditions are quite a challenge!) The second installation is an auditory one, called the "Sea Organ". It consists of long subterranean tubes that run from near "Greeting to the Sun" into the ocean. As the sea's waves move in and out, they force air in and out of the long tubes, and across a thin slit to make a tone. Each is "tuned" to a unique tone by its length, making ghostly and beautiful music all day and night.
- Finding our way through some of the area's most ancient and untouched streets to climb up to a church and former leprosy sanitarium with expansive views on the island of Murter.
- Attending a music festival. The whole coast wakes up in the summer with festivals to suit all tastes. The Garden Festival came highly recommended by friends who had been in a past year, and offered the additional incentive of a boat party to take us to and from a "secret island". While the island wasn't as secret as we hoped (it turned out to be a point alongside a public beach where the locals gawked at the weirdos dancing under the shore trees), it was a great day and a unique experience.
- Meeting Claudia's cousin Sara's father and family, who had just finished their bi-annual sailing trip in the Adriatic. We had a wonderful dinner together and they even let us sleep on their sailboat one night in Trogir's harbor!
- Watching a crazy water spout make its way across the bay on a dark and stormy day from our cute balcony in Korčula.
- Walking out of the town of Korčula for 15 minutes to a country restaurant just in time for a tremendous thunderstorm to roll through. We ate one of our best meals in Croatia on a patio surrounded on all sides by sheets of water.
- Hiking through the national park on the island of Mljet and jumping into the crystal waters to swim to an island in a lake on an island, or to get across a straight with super fast-moving water so we could continue our hike. Mljet was the absolute highlight of Croatia, boasting many miles of well-kept trails around two "lakes" that are actually inlets with a very narrow straight connecting them to the sea. Perfect swimming and picnicking opportunities abound, and with little in the way of nightlife or touristy restaurants, the island is as laid back as we could find.
- Walking the city walls of Dubrovnik, where a significant chunk of Game of Thrones is filmed, and looking out over the sea of terra cotta tiles, and then learning about the region's recent violent past in the war photo museum.
Croatia's gorgeous coast line and endless sailing possibilities have certainly earned it a permanent spot on Europe's list of best summer vacations. We hope that we can come back to experience this Adriatic jewel by boat next time. Until then, we'll be dreaming of the salty air, crystal clear waters, thousands of miles of rocky shoreline, and all the hidden treasures that we have yet to discover there.