Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Croatia is a '10' and we're coming back!

Not just to the old town of Dubrovnik, which on a warm summer evening is about as good as it gets; but also to the island of Hvar and Split.

We arrived in Croatia with few preconceptions other than the understanding that this was a country that had seen more than its fair share of war. We didn't know any Croatian people, and for some reason hadn't seen many images of the country. So we were very pleasantly surprised with what we found. This is a surprisingly beautiful and in places, very sophisticated country.

We booked a hotel in Dubrovnik through the Internet. This time we relied on 'tripadvisor.com', which provides guest reviews and ratings of different properties around the world. We booked The Neptune Hotel, since it had the highest guest rating of all the hotels in our price bracket. It turned out to be an excellent choice. The hotel was located on the Lapad waterfront, about 15 minutes from the old city, with a swimming pool style ladder leading directly from the swimming pools into the ocean. While the waves made it a bit challenging to climb up and down at times, it was a feature I had never seen before.

Dubrovnik is a 'must see', especially for anyone with an interest in architecture and development. It is a very special place, thanks in part to UNESCO which provided significant funds to repair the damage from Croatia’s most recent war. You can tell which buildings have been recently reconstructed by the colour of the clay roof tiles. The city is paved in white marble, and is most beautiful both by day and night.

Dubrovnik is over 1300 years old, with an amazing history. For centuries it rivaled Venice as a major maritime centre, but lost much of its power in 1667 when it was severely damaged by an earthquake. In 1806, it was conquered by Napoleon, and went through many occupations until attacked by Yugoslavia in 1991.

One of the best ways to see the city is to walk along the top of the medieval city walls with an electronic guide. You can then wander along the pedestrian oriented main street, and the maze of narrow medieval streets, many of which are lined with restaurant and café tables. In addition to seeing numerous churches and monasteries, I took a tour of ‘the Jewish quarter’ which included a visit to the second oldest synagogue in Europe, dating back to the 16th century.

After two nights in Dubrovnik, we got on the coastal ferry for a 6 hour trip to the island of Hvar, just one of hundreds of islands on the Dalmatian Coast. We decided to come here based on its write-up in our Lonely Planet guidebook, which described it as the ‘island of choice for a swanky international crowd’. We were also attracted by the description of its Gothic palaces, lavender fields, and seaside promenade. Conde Nast magazine also voted it one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the world.

The medieval Hvar town, like Budva, Kotor and Dubrovnik, is a primarily pedestrian zone with white marble pavements lined with harmonious buildings. Although they were designed in various styles, and built over hundreds of years, they seem to complement one another through the use of common materials and colours. There's a lot to be said for architectural controls, whether formally prescribed or adopted as tradition over time.

We stayed at Pharos, an older resort property that needs serious work. But it was set in an olive grove overlooking the town and ocean. It was one of a dozen properties controlled by the Suncanihvar Hotels group which we were told is spending $300 million around the island. Other than our hotel, I would recommend any of their properties, especially the Adriana, which is the only Croatian member of 'the leading small hotels of the world'.

A highlight of our stay in Hvar was a concert in the courtyard of the Franciscan Church featuring a Czech cellist, accompanied by an accordion player. While at times the accordion sounded like....well, an accordion, the cellist was superb, and exhilarating to both watch and listen to.

We also took a day trip across the island which in some areas was covered with a lattice of rock walls. I have never seen anything quite like them. I assumed they were constructed to minimize erosion; however there might well be another explanation. Unfortunately, no one I spoke with seemed to know.

On Saturday morning, we got on a fast catamaran for Split, the largest Croatian city on the Adriatic Coast. The boat docked in the centre of the city, which has been improved with a beautiful polished concrete waterfront promenade. Normally, I think polished concrete is a poor exterior material choice, but here it really worked, and complemented the white marble of the old town. Split is a city of contrasts. On one hand, some of the newer areas are quite ugly, with very mundane buildings made all the more distasteful by the extensive graffiti. On the other hand, the centre of town is dominated by Diocletian’s Palace, which was built by the Romans in the third and fourth centuries. A surprising amount of the early Roman construction remains, and serves as the focus for a medieval town which is unlike anything we have seen on our travels. Fortunately, we had arranged for a private tour by a historian who helped bring it alive.

On Sunday, we set off for Trogir, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were attracted by its description as a ‘mini Venice’. While it is not Venice, it is a most attractive place with a mix of Romanesque and Renaissance architectural styles in a waterfront setting.

That evening, we boarded an overnight ferry for Rijeka, a northerly port in Croatia, from where we planned to take a train to Ljubljana. While the boat was not as attractive as the Greek ship we took from Rhodes to Marmaris, it was a good trip, and we were set for the next stage of our travels.

Our stops in Croatia turned out to be an unexpected delight, and we can wholeheartedly recommend Dubrovnik, Hvar, and portions of Split. We’ll be back to see them again, and all the islands that we missed. I also want to see what Suncanihvar managed to accomplish with its $300 million.


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