Road trip in Croatia
Driving inland from Split, the sturdy Roman walls of Diocletian’s Palace and modern high-rise suburbs merge into the receding seascape as the road climbs steeply uphill, passing the medieval fortress of Klis to take us through a mountain pass and into the rocky hinterland. This is territory fought over for centuries by the Venetian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Turks. Its tumultuous past, complex and ever present, has left its mark on the national psyche.
The motorway runs inland for a while before we turn off to visit the coastal city of Šibenik, a low-profile, but up-and-coming destination with two Unesco World Heritage sites and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Built into a hillside, overlooking a sheltered sea channel, Šibenik’s pedestrian-only old town centers on a lovely square, home to a 15th century Gothic-Renaissance cathedral, with its ornately carved gothic portals and a splendid cupola. Opposite, the Town Hall, built by the Venetians in 1533, now houses Gradska Vijećnica café-restaurant, with tables in the shade of a colonnaded portico.
“Šibenik was the third most important industrial center in Yugoslavia, thanks to the aluminum industry,” ur tour guide Jasenka Ramljak explains. “Then the war came, the factory was damaged and Šibenik turned instead to tourism. A local journalist recently wrote that Dubrovnik and Split have become tourist destinations, while Šibenik is, thank god, still a town. It still has a soul, and I am rediscovering it every day.”
Above the square, looking down onto the cathedral, Pelegrini was awarded a Michelin star in 2018. “We have a rich gastronomic heritage, with French, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Venetian influences,” project manager Lucija Bilandžić says. “Our imperative is to find modern interpretations of traditional dishes, based on fresh local ingredients,” she adds. Chef Rudi Štefan combines delights such as eel with pumpkin, or lamb with beans, to create sophisticated seasonal dishes, beautifully presented and bursting with flavor. From Pelegrini, a ten-minute climb up steep stone steps brings you to the 15th century St. Michael’s Fortress which hosts open-air summer concerts with fantastic views over the town, sea and islands – Róisín Murphy and Bryan Ferry played here last summer, among others.
Holidaymakers love sea and sunshine, but nowadays more and more people are drawn towards experiential tourism. Inland from Šibenik, on the edge of Krka -National Park, Agrotourism Kalpić is run by two sisters, Ivana and Anita. They provide rustic accommodation and serve delicious meals based on their own farm produce, which includes various cheeses, roasted meats and garden vegetables. “It was our father’s idea to offer ‘forgotten food’ to tourists in the Krka area,” Ivana Kalpić Lamešić explains. “At first, the locals were skeptical, as we’re off the beaten track, but now many of them are working with us. Foreign visitors appreciate the nature, traditional architecture, landscape, homemade food and the warmth of our place – one guest said, ‘It’s like home, but better.’”
Gourmet dishes made from local seasonal produce, opposite Šibenik cathedral. Often called Croatia’s best restaurant.
Ul Jurja Dalmatinca 1, Šibenik
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From here, a drive north through the rural inland region of Lika, with its rolling meadows, pine forests and rivers lying in the shadow of Mount Velebit, brings us to Croatia’s most visited inland destination, Plitvice Lakes National Park. You should definitely stay at least one night here, preferably two, giving you one full day exploring this wonderful Unesco World Heritage Site.
Set amid dense woodland, of beech, spruce and fir trees, sixteen turquoise lakes are connected by a series of spectacular waterfalls and thundering cascades, formed by deposits of limestone sediment, which have created travertine dams over several millennia. Follow raised wooden walkways around the park, taking a boat across Lake Kozjak, and don’t miss the biggest waterfall, Veliki Slap, which tumbles 78m into the lower lakes. The colors here are astoundingly intense – azures, blues, turquoises and emerald greens. In winter, covered in snow, Plitvice resembles a dreamscape from a fairytale.
Continuing through Lika, you’ll notice several derelict houses that once belonged to Croatian Serbs, many of whom fled during the War of Independence. They’d lived here since the 16th century, after the Habsburgs invited them to form the vojna krajina (military frontier). Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) came from one such family – he was born in Smiljan, near Gospić, where his father was an Orthodox priest. His house is now the Tesla Memorial Center. There, you can see the little brook where the young Nikola discovered the secrets of nature and began to dream of great inventions. You can also watch a short film about his life and take part in an interactive demo, showing how the Tesla coil (an electrical resonant transformer circuit) can illuminate fluorescent tubes without wire connections.
“We have visitors from all around the world – we’re proud of that. We try to tell them the story of a great mind who changed the world forever,” says Nikolina Krpan, manager of the Tesla -Memorial Center. “Without his inventions, the world would be very different – we live more easily and more comfortably thanks to Tesla.”
Rijeka and Opatja
From Smiljan, the road takes us north through the mountains and pine forests of Gorski Kotar, before we descend to the port city of Rijeka, which has been declared the European Capital of Culture 2020. We see Rijeka’s city center, then climb a 560-step stairway, built in 1531, up to Trsat. Here we stop for coffee at Trsat Castle, a 19th century folly affording sweeping views over the city and the spectacular Kvarner Gulf, with the islands of Krk and Cres rising into the horizon.
West of Rijeka, also overlooking the Kvarner Gulf, Opatija is dubbed the birthplace of Croatian tourism. The elegant neoclassical Hotel Kvarner opened in 1884, making it the oldest hotel on the Adriatic Coast. “Opatija was once the Austrian Riviera, when the Habsburg monarchy ruled,” says -Gabrijela Krmpotić, director of Opatija’s Croatian Museum of Tourism. “We’ve just hosted an exhibition about Gustav Mahler, who stayed in Opatija five times and composed his famous Symphony No. 4 here in 1905.”
Today, Opatija’s grand Vienna Succession hotels, once frequented by nobility, writers and artists, exude an air of faded glory. But the lovely 12km-long seaside promenade, built between 1889 and 1911, remains a delight. You can walk all the way from the fishing harbor of Volosko, through Opatija and Ičići to Lovran, passing hotels, bathing areas, villas set in lush gardens and a marina along the way.
Our journey ends with a drive down the Istrian peninsula to Pula, an industrial port originally founded by the Romans. Ancient monuments here include Forum Square, overlooked by the elegant Temple of Augustus, a proud triumphal arch, and the Arena, a beautifully preserved Roman amphitheatre from 1AD that used to host gladiator fights. Today, some 2,000 years later, it still stages public spectacles – last summer it hosted German pioneers of electronic music -Kraftwerk performing their 3-D show, while American rock band Foo Fighters will play here this year. Since 1954, it has also staged the annual Pula Film Festival. “Watching a movie in the ancient amphitheater is a unique audiovisual experience,” organizer Sanela Pliško says. “Its ancient walls can still withstand contemporary technology,” he proudly adds.
And maybe this is what makes Croatia so special. History is ever-present, but its ancient monuments aren’t museum relics. They’re real living spaces, integrated into contemporary life and today’s cultural reality, all the way from Diocletian’s Palace in Split to the Roman arena in Pula.
Published: March 14, 2019
Last edited: March 14, 2019