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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Top End - June 05

The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia

Wednesday 20th Sept 2005

I have the feeling that earlier in the summer, Croatia would have been overrun with German and Italian tourists and I can't help but feel we picked exactly the right time to visit (early September). During our stay it rained only once, was hot and sunny most days, we never had trouble finding accommodation and the ferry timetables were only just changing to their winter schedule.

Enough has been said in guide books about Croatia's war-torn recent past so I'll leave that subject as homework for the eager. Suffice to say that I saw no visible signs of the war and people were remarkably cheerful and friendly for a country that was wracked with conflict not fifteen years ago.

One other useful thing the guidebooks do say is that the country can be considered in two halves. The inland half, around the capital Zagreb, owes much of its heritage to its days in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The coastal half is firmly Mediterranean.

Since we were coming from another bastion of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Czech Republic, we opted to head for the islands in Dalmatia, the central Croatian coast.

During the summer months a special train, the Jadran express, runs from Prague to Split. We jumped on in Breclav, near the Austrian border. From there the train runs down into Austria, along the Alps and out through Slovenia before reaching Croatia. The Alpine scenery is beautiful and sleeper carriages are a relaxing alternative to sardine-like aeroplanes.

We reached Split at 9am and staggered off the train to confront the Croatian sunshine. Now, while Croatian is a Slavic language, it 'aint Czech. My Czech girlfriend tried three times to negotiate with a hotel tout on the train platform before I interjected with "Can we do this in English ?" The tout replied, "Certainly, the rooms are 130 Kuna a night per person." Most places we went, the tourist savvy Croatians spoke a smattering of French, German and English.

Eventually we opted for rooms from the tourist bureau for about 150 Kuna a night per person, 30 Kuna more than the touts had been offering. Later in the trip we happily approached touts but we were a little cautious at the start.

We staggered out of the train station and into the middle of a summer storm. We sat it out in a cafe and I had my first real espresso in a couple of years. No one makes coffee like the Italians and the Croats seem to have inherited the skill from their Adriatic neighbours along with the ability to make sublime ice cream.

Split's premier attraction is the well preserved walls of Diocletian's Palace. The Roman emperor had the palace built in about AD30 as a retirement home. The city grew up around it. Within the walls you can find the Peristil, a a sunken Roman square, and the Cathedral of St Domnius. There are also a few restaurants and hotels within the walls but most are clustered outside, but within a stones throw, of the Palace.

Just out the 'back' of the Palace you'll find a giant statue of Grgur Ninski, a ninth century bishop, and they say if you rub his shiny brass toe you'll return to Split someday (like the Trevi Fountain in Rome).

Split, like most of Croatia is built out of marble. They make the walls out of it, the stairs out of it and the street out of it and when it's wet, it's very, very slippery. I fuond this out by throwing myself down a flight of stairs. So our last couple of hours in Split were spent in an apathetic casualty ward while I got patched up.

The next morning we departed for a rendezvous on the island of Korcula (pronounced Kor-chew-la). Split is organised so that the train, bus and ferry terminals are all within a hundred metres of each other and within walking distance of the town centre. We strolled back to the quayside, dodging the hotel touts, and stepped onto a ferry for a four hour journey to Vela Luka on the west end of Korcula.

On this, our first ferry trip, we sat outside and came away reasonably scorched by the sun. On future trips we queue-jumped in order to secure an air-conditioned seat inside, a minor luxury.

Vela Luka is described as the 'industrial heart' of Korcula and there may be some truth to this. There is a large and ungainly fish factory in the harbour but there was little sign of industry while we were there.

We took a twenty minute walk around the bay and found our friends at the dive centre near the hotel Posejdon (I'm not a diver but my friends described the diving on the island as good but not stunning). The dive centre had organised our accommodation and the owner came down to pick us up.

There were seven of us and we managed to score a beautiful little villa, within spitting distance of the water. The owner was an Australian-Croat who lives Perth for six months of the year and shuttles back to Croatia in the southern winter to look after his house on Korcula.

Vela Luka has a number of 'tourist attractions' but is more a magnet for beaches and swimming than anything else. Day trips to nearby Proizd island are rewarded with nice beaches and good snorkelling and nestled in the hills above the town is the the "Big Cave" (Vela Spilja) which is more impressive for its views of town than its cave.

On the opposite hill from the cave (towards 'Hum') is a small ruined fortress which is also worth visiting for the stunning views of the island. To reach either you'll need a car and a lot of courage (tiny, one lane roads) or a pair of legs and a lot of energy.

We spent three days in Vela Luka, starting each morning with a swim at our own secluded beach, followed by some morning sightseeing, a siesta, a late lunch and a lazy dinner.

The siesta is part of all good Mediterranean cultures and in Croatia we found it lasted from 12-4pm and nearly everything would be closed during this time. It was the best time to retreat to a bar for a thirst quenching beer or to retire to the villa for a snooze. The sun was simply too hot to consider doing anything else.

We had two memorable dinners in Vela Luka. The first was at a little place on the harbour which was run by a frantic husband and wife team. They were stretched to the limit by five tables of people but still managed to deliver decent food including some fantastic grilled squid.

The husband dripped with sweat throughout the whole meal and convery the impression he was delivering a baby, and not dinner and drinks.

The second place we went was the 'Konoba Lucia', slightly uphill from town post office. They coped with numbers a lot better here and were packed to capacity even on a Tuesday night. The food there was excellent and our waiter was helpful and entertaining. At the end of the meal he presented us with a complimentary bottle of grappa (jet fuel) and joined us in a drink. We tipped heavily.

The best ice creams in Vela Luka can be found in the pekarstvi (bakery) just near the main square. And the best pizzas from the pub just behind the fuel wharf, but we warned, the big pizzas are really, really big.

On the fourth day we left Vela Luka and hired a local mini bus to takes us to Korcula town on the other end of the island. The journey took about fifty minutes and cost us 420 Kuna split seven ways. Arriving in Korcula we dropped into the tourist information bureau and organised some accommodation at 'Costionica Hajduk', 1.5km from the centre of town.

Hajduk, a family run business, charged us a measly 103 Kuna per person, for air conditioned rooms with satellite TV and a pool just outside the door. The pool itself was particularly special, set amongst a garden of fragrant fig, olive and lime trees, vines of red and white grapes and the odd pomegranate tree. There was even a kiwi fruit vine in one corner and a pair of squeaky rutting tortoises in the garden bed.

In the evening we ate simply but well at their family restaurant and whiled away the evenings, sitting under the vines and playing poker and drinking wine.

Korcula is a pretty little town with a well preserved fortified centre. Inside you'll find the Church of St Nicholas, the town museum and St Mark's Cathedral. Beyond Korcula are the towering headlands of granite on the Peljesac peninsula and little boats zip back and forth between the two and Orebic on the mainland.

One thing lacked was a bakery but we found takeaway pastries could be ordered over the counter at most cafes and there was a market in town where you could get fresh fruit cheaply. The nearby beaches are pretty disappointing. They're rocky, a little slimy and almost completely without shade. We left the beaches behind and opted for a round of comedy mini golf instead.

After two days in Korcula our group split up. My friends had to return to Dubrovnik to catch flights back to London and we had to go north to Split, to catch our train back to Prague. On the way back to Split we broke the trip up with a stop off on the island of Hvar at Stari Grad (Old Town). Stari Grad is another beautifully preserved old town with nice people, nice food and beautiful sunsets.

The ferry terminal is 2km from town and we jumped on the bus. At the bus stop a politely spoken young man offered us rooms in the middle of Stari Grad for 100 Kuna a night. We followed him for five minutes into the winding centre of town and he showed us a beautiful little room in a private house which was literally in the shadow of the town's historic church. We chatted to him for a while and pumped him for information on where the best beaches were before heading out for a late afternoon swim.

That night we ate in a tiny little restaurant in the equally tiny side streets of the old town. Called 'Antika' the menu was a little more varied than we'd come to expect and offered tempting alternatives like 'fish pate', carpaccio and squid ink pasta. We tried both the fish pate and the tuna carpaccio and found them both excellent. Anitka was easily the best meal I had in Croatia although the prices were a little steep (30-50 Kuna for an entree, 65-100 for a main).

For desert, we retired to the rooftop terrace of our pension with a bar of chocolate and a blanket and watched the stars come out over the Dalmation coast of Croatia.