Dubrovnik, Split and Zagreb are world-class cities, each reachable by air. However, much of the balance, particularly north of Split, is best savored via car. On a recent return visit, my wife Barbara and I rented a car as we left Split, then took nine days to wend through smaller towns until we reached Zagreb.
We started our trip in Dubrovnik, founded by seventh century residents who built imposing walls for protection against barbarian invaders. Then-named Ragusa thrived for centuries as a maritime power, often challenging and sometimes thwarting the forces of Venice who generally dominated Adriatic Sea trade and commerce.
Dubrovnik not only survived but also thrived. Indeed, its growth was only stymied by natural disasters and historical events. For example, a 1667 earthquake leveled almost everything. However, the city quickly rebuilt, and many of the elegant structures you see today date from that 17th century baroque period. In 1979, Dubrovnik earned the UNESCO World Heritage status and was the first to claim this title in Croatia.
Today, with the damage repaired, Dubrovnik’s streets appear magical. Highlights abound including the elegant Sponza Palace and Rectors Palace, both of which survived the great earthquake. In reality, it’s the white-flat-stone-paved city itself that captures visitors’ imaginations. Even when packed with cruise ship day-trippers, there are always places where, a short stroll off the main drag, you feel you’ve literally stepped back in time.
Highlights included Azur, an Asian/fusion restaurant, a concert in the courtyard of the Rector’s Palace, and the day trip to Montenegro. This let us sample the historic cities of Kotor and Budva, and enjoy wonderful Adriatic coast views.
Split was next, and because we wouldn’t want a car there we decided to get there by bus. During high season daily ferries connect the two cities. But on the day of our trip, the bus was our only option. After a four-hour ride with limited stops en route, we reached the terminal that was a ten-minute walk from the heart of the city.
Split started life in 305 AD as the seaside retirement home of Roman Emperor Diocletian. Having ruled over the Western Roman Empire from his home in what today is Salona, four miles from present-day Split, he lived in his new palace until his death in 313. In succeeding years Salona, like so much of the territory Rome once dominated, came under attack by invading tribes. That caused many refugees to head for Diocletian’s Palace, deeming it likely to be much safer. That’s how what today is Croatia’s second largest city started a steady period of growth.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Split is surrounded by sturdy walls, and its ancient core is totally car-free. One of the more amazing sights is the tower of the Cathedral of St. Domnius, the heart of which initially served as Diocletian’s mausoleum. Its conversion was the work of seventh century refugees from Salona. Within the palace you can also see areas where Diocletian actually lived, as well as warehouses in the basement.
Ultimately, many other nobles built their own places close to or incorporating parts of Diocletian’s original palace. As a result, Split is a festival of streets and byways wending up down, around and through narrow passageways, all of which add to its intrigue. Split is particularly fascinating at night, after daytime crowds
Split is also the perfect take off place for excursions to uber-trendy Hvar, or Korcula, famous for its exquisitely preserved old town. Having visited both on an earlier trip, we departed Split via car rented at the airport
ROAD TRIP HIGHLIGHTS
In Sibenik we saw the extraordinary baptistery of the Church of St. James, and the exterior frontal sculpture dominated by a frieze with carvings of 71 heads. Our guide told us they were some of the people who refused to donate to the
Next was the popular cruise and ferry seaport of Zadar which features the round, ninth century Byzantine church of St. Donatus. Built on the site of a Roman forum, some of the original stone pillars were used to build the foundation of the church. Not only are these extensive Roman ruins next to the church, you’ll find them also scattered around the city. Also fun was the very popular sea organ, built under waterside steps. Some 32 underwater organ pipes make a variety of sounds as they are hit by waves.
We made an intriguing short stop in Nin, located on a small island in the middle of a shallow lagoon. Boasting a lovely old stone paved quarter it’s connected to the mainland by two stone bridges. Just outside is the tiny, ninth century Church of
Driving through the Istrian Peninsula, surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, Pula and Porec proved to be absolutely must-sees.At the peninsula’s southernmost tip, Pula’s prime draw is its amazingly preserved, 20,000 seat Roman amphitheater. Where gladiatorial fights were once staged, today concerts and a summertime film festival take place. Sitting in the quiet of this amazing structure, you can get a real sense of times past. And, don’t leave without exploring the basement museum. There you’ll see an ancient live olive oil press, and a display of amphora, carriers of olive oil and other liquids that were used for transport throughout the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas.
We were also fascinated by Pula’s main square, once a Roman forum. There, two amazing structures built roughly 1,300 years apart--the Temple of Jupiter, dedicated to Octavius Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, and a Venetian era town hall stand side by side.
Porec was our favorite Istrian stop. We were particularly intrigued by the sixth century St. Euphrasius Basilica that sits atop centuries-older foundations. Via a self-guided tour that included an octagonal baptistery and the bishop’s palace, we ended at the prime draw--extraordinary Byzantine mosaics, particularly a semicircular mosaic over the main altarpiece.
Zagreb, Croatia’s capital and our final stop was a three-hour ride to the east. Zagreb’s historic old town is fascinating. Starting above the central Trg Jelacic (or Jelacic Square), it is a ten-minute walk from the Esplanade, the square is full of people, shops and restaurants and is a major transportation hub. The old, original city features a grand cathedral, Croatia’s federal parliament, bustling marketplaces, well preserved old streets and a truly bizarre tale of origin. What now is Zagreb started life as two dueling hilltop medieval towns divided by a river. Indeed, until 1899, you crossed the river via what once was dubbed “the bloody bridge”, due to it’s being the site of major battles between residents of the two towns. Though the bridge is now just a regular street, the strife it saw lasted until 15th century threats from Ottoman invaders arose. Then both communities had to shelve their feuds and band together for mutual defense.
Zagreb’s focus changed significantly starting in the 19th century when businesses, arts institutions and wealthy residents moved down from the hills to establish a “new” city. The Esplanade and rows of spacious homes typify the city’s 19th and 20th century urban shift.
We loved prowling the twisty streets, outdoor dining spots, and unexpected encounters such as a 14th century pharmacy, and a host of quirky museums. Our favorites were the vast Zagreb City Museum, and the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art featuring intriguing works by untrained artists. There’s also a Torture Museum, and the Museum of Broken Relationships. You can climb up to the old town, or take what is billed as the world’s shortest funicular. It climbs the steep grade in less than a minute.
We enjoyed an excellent Mozart/Mahler concert in the city’s comfortable modern hall, and a ballet at Zagreb’s elegant opera house. For a total change of pace, we also thrilled to the speed and conflict of a Kontinental League hockey game. Zagreb has one of the Russian-operated, professional league’s teams. It was great not just to watch the action but also to mingle with the locals who were great fans.