This year, the start of the Easter break saw me, my wife and my daughter board EasyJet’s non-stop flight from Geneva to Split, Croatia. When the idea of visiting Croatia was first proposed, I was unsure. After all, as a student, I had travelled to former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe was not priority. My family, however, got the better of me, and the more I read about Croatia and its Dalmatian coast, I got drawn in.
My Dalmatian sojourn lasted over five days and it was as much an exercise in experiential learning as it was a chilled-out vacation. Dalmatia is a historical region of the Adriatic coast that stretches from the island of Rab in N. Croatia to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro and owes its roots to the Dalmatae tribe who occupied this region in the first century B.C. We spent five nights across Split, Hvar Island and Dubrovnik before returning to Geneva.
Google Map providing an aerial view of the Dalmatian Coast
Split: The Sailing Capital of the Adriatic
Our first stop, Split welcomed us with a generous dose of sunshine to bask in. Split’s biggest attraction is a huge wharf with an ocean-hugging promenade and a medieval-era precinct attached. The Roman influence runs deep as Split at one time belonged to the Roman Empire. We stayed at ‘The View’, an apartment hotel just outside the precinct and perhaps the tallest structure in town. We were provided a grand view of the wharf and could hear the bells toll in the cathedral adjacent to the Diocletian Palace. The promenade was humming with life with abundant boutiques, bars and restaurants and adjacent narrow alleys that belong to an era no more.
The Promenade with the Diocletian Palace and Cathedral in the background
The view from our apartment room. The hills in the background reminded me of Table Mountain in Cape Town
Some of the best conversations I have ever had have been with total strangers be they hotel receptionists or cab drivers. When the receptionist at our hotel enquired whether it was my first time in Croatia I told him of my travels to former Yugoslavia as a student and I recalled my journey from Salzburg to Zagreb via Ljubljana and from there on to Sarajevo. Interestingly, he commented that I had visited all the capitals and it was then that I was reminded of the break-up of Yugoslavia and the bloody war that followed.
Hvar: The Island with the Most UNESCO Heritage in the World
Next day afternoon we set sail for Hvar (pronounced kh-vaar) in a super-fast ferry that got us there in barely an hour. Hvar Island is the largest among the Dalmatian islands; runs 80 km from end to end and hosts six small towns including one with the name Hvar port. Hvar town is super charming and our Air-BNB apartment gave us an aerial view of the Palkeni islands in embracing distance. The island has an abundance of UNESCO heritage tags that include the famous Easter Za Krizen (“following the Cross”) procession; the Stari-Grad plains and the Klapa (Capella) singing tradition.
Luckily, this was Good Friday and I was told about the annual procession following Mass. Rather than wait outside the parish, I decided to attend the service and experience it and an experience it was. The procession that followed had pretty much the whole Hvar island participating. Thanks to my Jesuit-managed high school education, I felt a sense of belonging here.
A view of Hvar port
Footage of the Easter procession (run time 8 seconds)
The overwhelming beauty of the blue caves has to be experienced and cannot be captured adequately in a photo
The following day we took a day long excursion to the Green and Blue caves. These caves are breath-taking in natural beauty and are to be found in the Vis archipelago about an hour from Hvar by speedboat. We were among the first travellers of the season and initially checked into the ‘blue lagoon’ called so because of several shades of blue that its waters sport. The Green cave, on the island of Ravnik, has emerald green water and is an adventure lover’s paradise allowing both scuba diving and rock climbing under one roof. The Blue cave on the island of Bisevo is bewitching and reveals a magical mystery which can’t be put into words.
Dubrovnik: Living a Fairy Tale
On Easter, we took the morning ferry from Hvar to Dubrovnik. This was a three hour journey and we passed several islands and islets on the way. For those of you planning to visit the coast, make sure to travel only by ferry. We reached Dubrovnik at noon and were received by our hotel car. If you are looking at being transported back in time, Dubrovnik’s old town provides competition to Venice. It is perhaps the reason why the Game of Thrones producers chose Dubrovnik as a prime shooting location. Although Split is larger, Dubrovnik offers a greater historical immersion.
Aerial view of Dubrovnik Old Town
A closer view of Old Town from the other side
Our first stop in the old town was the War museum which hosts a permanent collection of war-time photos on “The End of Yugoslavia”. It brought back near-forgotten memories of the disintegration of Yugoslavia after the fall of the Berlin wall. To think that a nation was broken into seven all on ethnic lines was scary. It also got me contemplating on the ironies of life when on one of our Uber journeys, our cab driver lamented that Dubrovnik principality was the first to recognise U.S.A. yet Croatians need a visa to travel to the U.S. The other irony he pointed out, and I don’t know how far this is true, was that whereas in former Yugoslavia, they did not need a visa to enter the U.S. but now that they were a free country a visa was mandatory.
Croatia of Today
Between my visit to Yugoslavia and my recent Dalmatian sojourn, I found Croatia to be a shining country having gone through a painful metamorphosis if only you are to scratch the surface. During our travel, I never came across a single police officer patrolling nor did I once hear a blaring ambulance nor police van. The level of spoken English way surpasses what an average Italian, French or German is capable of. Is the country in a hurry to catch up on development and do Croatians see English fluency as a means to help them propel fast forward? Everywhere we went, we held conversations on soccer and Croatia’s failed attempt at winning the last world cup. There was regret in the air but also satisfaction that after 20 years (when Croatia came third place) the national team made it to the finals.
Although scars of Balkanization remain today, the political climate is better and citizens can travel freely to neighbouring Bosnia and Serbia. As far as real climate goes, the country is blessed with loads of sunshine, ranking among the highest in Europe, and a host of UNESCO heritage sites. If you are fond of natural beauty, vibrant historical towns, good food and warm and friendly people, you can’t go wrong with Croatia. I now ponder as to what I would have missed if I hadn’t made this trip. Although Croatia never was in my bucket list, you can make sure it’s on yours.
Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own
Feature Image of the Green Cave. Image of the Green and Blue cave: Karishma Saran