So I didn’t realize until I got here that Game of Thrones filmed in Dubrovnik, among other places in Croatia, which now totally explains at least in part why this has become such a popular destination. You laugh, but Udaipur is still cashing in on being featured in Octopussy more than 30 years ago.
It’s not that Croatia isn’t a nice place to visit, but someone in the tourism department has been working really hard. Which, you know, hats off to them for effective marketing. It got me to go. Most people I know who’ve been to Croatia loved it, so I realize I’m about to enter the minority here, and it’s not that I didn’t like it. It just needs some work. They’ve clearly made a decision that they want tourism to be a big income generator for them, and that’s great. But they’ve crossed the threshold from well-known destination to booming tourism hub, and they haven’t quite figured out how to navigate that yet. Anyway, let’s go to the tape.
Ljubljana—Split, 290 miles
Things in Croatia didn’t get off to a pleasant start. My border crossing into the country ended with the customs woman literally throwing all my documents at me through the car window after a mild, minor confusion and essentially telling me to drive away before she could change her mind. All because I accidentally handed her the wrong documentation papers for the car, an error I promptly corrected. So they’re not exactly rolling out the welcome mat, and unfortunately this was not an isolated incident. More on that later.
Split is the hot spot in Croatia right now, in small part due to the fact that the cruise shippers have already come in and ruined Dubrovnik, a town I didn’t visit for that exact reason. The area was originally Greek until, guess who, the Romans rolled into town and set up shop. The Byzantines controlled the area for a while until the Venetians showed up, followed by Napoleon.
The main “attraction” in Split is Diocletian’s Palace, a stone fortress along the water built in the fourth century by the Roman emperor Diocletian who planned to retire there, the only Roman emperor to do so. I put “attraction” in quotes because the palace isn’t so much a thing to go see as a thing you can’t escape. The entire city center of Split (at least the only part of any real interest) is built inside the walls of the former palace. It’s hard to fully describe exactly what this means. Diocletian’s Palace was huge; at one point, more than 9,000 people lived inside its many different buildings. So when it came time to build a city long after the Romans had left, they clearly didn’t want to waste all that waterfront space, so they just partially gutted the palace and built the city in it. This makes the city center an interesting place to visit, as the buildings are very cohesive and cobbled together in an interesting way, interspersed with a wall here and there from the Romans or the Byzantines. But it means that you never really “see” the palace. This is one of the few things to do in Split, and it’s not even really something to do.
I was not a fan of Split at first. It is definitely on the road to backpacker scumbag town a la half of Thailand, but it did grow on me. Once the study abroad weekend trippers have hunkered down at Charlie’s Backpacker Bar for the evening, the city has some charm. In the peristyle, the main square of the former palace complex, a restaurant has brilliantly set up little tables with floor pillows around the square and has live music and drinks every night. On Saturday, they had tango and it was packed. The crowd is a mix of locals and tourists, but it’s pleasantly atmospheric. At one point, a group of Serbian bikers and the one-man band du jour were leading everyone in a horribly out-of-tune rendition of “One Love.” It’s hard to be mad at that.
The food here was definitely the dark horse. Mercifully they’ve looked to the Mediterranean and their Italian brethren across the Adriatic for inspiration, so the local food, when done well, is actually really good and employs the usual Mediterranean staples: a lot of olive oil, fish, goat cheese, fresh vegetables. There’s really no excuse for not eating well in Split.
While in Split, I planned to make a side trip to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is not a country whose name provokes a lot of positive feeling, and you visit for the sake of confronting its turbulent, very recent past. Mostar is an old Ottoman city, but suffered heavy damage during the war, and it hasn’t been hastily rebuilt, to put it delicately. There’s a bridge in the city center that spans the Neretva River, a white arching engineering feat courtesy of the Ottomans…that was rebuilt when it was leveled in 1993. So that was set to be an interesting excursion, and then this happened.
All things considered, this was relatively minor. I was back on the road quickly, particularly when you consider that I was having to communicate with the tow truck driver while he spoke Italian and I spoke Spanish. But it did mean Bosnia didn’t happen. So, onward.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Split—Plitvicka Jezera, 158 miles
When you get away from the coast, there’s not a lot going on in Croatia, but there is Plitvice Lakes National Park. As the name suggests, the park is known for its lakes, 16 of them, and its series of interconnecting waterfalls. This is a good example of nature that’s not astoundingly dramatic. The scale of everything here is not particularly impressive; the falls aren’t that tall, the lakes not that big, but the overall effect is still very pleasant.
Plitvice is where Croatia’s lack of central organization begins to show. This is a tiny national park, 115 square miles (Yosemite is 10 times the size). The trail network is relatively limited, but well designed in that it gives you several different perspectives on the waterfalls. At the moment, about 40 percent of the trail network is closed because the water level is high and the paths have been submerged or washed away…
Does this not happen every year? Is this a surprise? May is a popular month to travel and having half your park closed because of ill-conceived construction is ridiculous. In the interest of fairness, I’ll point out that the Italians in all their nuttiness have let what appears to be a relatively minor landslide in Cinque Terre close the most popular trail along the coast for two years. It’s hard to fully appreciate how stupid this is without seeing the problem first-hand, but I’m fairly convinced a team of guys and a backhoe could have this fixed in a few months.
Getting back to Plitvice, this is an interesting area to visit if you’re already here. It’s a little bit like Victoria Falls to me. If you’re visiting nearby, it’s absolutely worth a detour. If you flew halfway around the world to get here exclusively for this, I don’t think you’re going to be too pleased. Plitvice is not off the beaten track, so the tour bus crowd is in hot pursuit. If, however, you’re capable of walking more than 200 paces without needing to sit down, take a picture, and have a snack, then you’ll outpace the average Plitvice visitor in no time.
Croatia is maddening because like anywhere, the overwhelming majority of people are very friendly and welcoming. At the same time, the meanest people I’ve met in eight months of traveling have been Croatians. Not just not friendly, openly hostile, and it happened enough in different situations that I can’t just write it off as one person in a bad mood one time. I think a lot of Eastern European cultures tend to be wary of outsiders, particularly Westerners, and I can understand that cautiousness completely. At the same time, if you want to actively and aggressively promote tourism—as Croatia does—then you’re going to have to be okay with a bunch of foreigners showing up in your country. This general abrasiveness was not something I experienced with the majority of people by any means, but you never know when you’re going to run into that one in five person, and it can significantly hamper your experience.
The fact that I have French license plates on my car is not helping me, and I think that tells you a lot about the relationship between this country and the rest of the EU. Much as other European nations have rivalries and don’t get along, I’m having trouble imagining someone in Paris or Berlin spitting on someone’s car because they have, say, British plates (this did happen to me in Split, while I was sitting in the car).
Dalmatia, the coastal area in Croatia, is supposed to be beautiful and there’s a lot to see here that I didn’t explore, so that’s a pretty big asterisk to my account. But I wasn’t being tempted to go back. Traveling in Eastern Europe is a shockingly different experience than in the rest of Europe, and that’s precisely the appeal. You come to this part of the world to experience totally different cultures and a completely different mindset than you see in the western and central part of the continent. But I don’t quite get why you would come here for the scenery. I would never go out of my way to tell someone not to go to Croatia (unlike, say, Dubai—for the sake of humanity, please never, ever go and tell all your friends). But I’m not going to champion Croatia either. There’s just too much else I think is worth seeing first, or seeing again. Travel is not easy and often uncomfortable, and if you’re never willing to be uncomfortable, you should never go anywhere but an all-inclusive resort in Turks and Caicos. But there’s “I’m experiencing a new place and culture and it’s very alien compared to what I’m used to and it’s taking me out of my comfort zone.” And then there’s “Why am I being made to feel openly hated for entering this grocery store?” I had the latter experience in Croatia more than I would have liked.
Being welcoming is not a matter of cultural nuance. While a lot of cultures are not as exuberant and in-your-face as the Americans or the Italians or the Irish, hospitality is universally recognized. I understand basically nothing about Japanese culture in all its enigmatic formality, but they are incredibly hospitable. Language barriers and cultural confusion do not get in the way of this.
While the negative experiences I had in Croatia were by no means a majority of the interactions I had, when I started to think about it, I struggled to come up with more than three or four unpleasant encounters I’ve had with people in eight months across nearly 40 countries on five continents, let alone that many in one country in six days.
I realize this could be completely a matter of bad luck, in which case I’ve formed an opinion on a country based on bad timing. But given how much I’ve traveled, statistically it just doesn’t add up. I’ve been to a lot of places where the people would have a lot of good reasons to not like Americans—Vietnam or Cambodia, for instance—and have never been once made to feel unwelcome. If Croatia is the place of your dreams, I’ll never talk you out of it. But there are a lot of beautiful and interesting places in the world, and a lot of countries that could really use your tourism dollars. This one won’t be topping my list.
Next stop: Austria. The hills were very alive.