Currency: The currency has recently switched from the Croatian Kuna to the Euro.
This overview of Croatia is from a group hiking trip I booked with Exodus from Sept. 17 - 24, 2022.
Arrival and First Impressions:
Every good thing you’ve heard about Croatia is true. The country lies along the Aegean Sea and the views from the bordering cities and mountains thrill you with the deep turquoise blues surrounding the thousand plus islands off the coast. Yes – over 1000 islands! The people are gracious hosts and are intent on offering you a shot glass of locally created alcohol before you head for dinner, at dinner, after dinner, before lunch, and even mid-afternoon when they spot you returning from a hike. And it’s some pretty delicious stuff, not too sweet and with just enough kick.
The food is amazing – plenty of fresh fish served with potatoes, healthy salads, and fresh baked breads and other pastries offered at small bakery shops and in local markets where you can also buy fresh fruit to munch as you wander the cities.
And of course, there is the hiking. My raison d’etre for my first trip outside the U.S., post Covid travel restrictions, and the topography did not disappoint. Miles of wandering up and down the tree-shaded mountains and scrambling over boulders (being 5'2", I’m always scrambling) to ultimately enjoy the amazing vistas overlooking the coast and the blue waters of the Aegean Sea. The weather in September was perfect – cool mornings and sunny warm afternoons. Although you could feel the change in the air, I think we captured the last few weeks of late summer with the frigid waters of the sea being the give-away for the impending cooler weather of fall and winter. One other note, a good guide makes all the difference. Our guide for the hiking week was Ivan and he was excellent – full of good humor yet very organized and full of information. He handled the group well, despite the normal challenges a group can present – a pre-trip broken foot (have you tried hiking in that kind of boot?), a lost swimsuit, a defective hiking boot, and a forever late client. Ah well!
Day 1 – I arrived in the Dubrovic ariport following a week of hiking in Montenegro. After a week of sweating up and down the mountains and trails of Monetenegro, my plan to do laundry was cancelled due to a lack of local laundromats. A first in my European travels. The only option required a hefty investment (approx $35) and a two day turnaround. It helps to be prepared with a little Woolite! Two nights in one place left plenty of time to dry laundry and my wet hiking boots from the previous day in Montenegro.
First impressions of my hotel and a walk along the coast - the wind was intense! Even a walk to the beach to sit and watch the water was unpleasant. There were weather warnings and constant advisories on rain and thunderstorms. So, time to relax until meeting my new group. Our first dinner was an opportunity to sample some delicious fish on a windy cool night, and meet my new group consisting of Andrew and Francoise (an artist/photographer), Dave and Rachel from Bath, Chris with a beard, Michael from the US, Allen and his sturdy walking poles, Vicki from Canada with the broken foot, Liz the writer from the UK, Zoey from Exodus, and always late Inna from Australia. And a wonderful guide named Ivan (EE-van).
Day 2 – Our first day of hiking in Croatia led us up a steep rocky hill to Strazisce Peak to see the Ronald Brown memorial honoring a group involved in a tragic plane crash in 1996 when delivering aid to the country. Unfortunately, the plane hit the top of a mountain in bad weather and everyone was killed.
As we were descending from the memorial, I noticed a weird sensation when taking each step. Something wasn’t right and when I stopped to examine my foot, I could see I had contracted a dreaded case of "tread-itis," a malady that only affects the rare and avid hiker who has failed to purchase new boots when the old ones seem “fine for one more excursion”. The entire tread on my right boot had broken free, a solid piece of outsole flapping about as I tried to descend amid the rocks. I managed to push it into place but had to continue with a delicate step so that the rubber would not fold back under the boot, possibly leading to a stumble and fall down the hill. Yikes!! Once we were back in Dubrovic, Ivan helped me find some super glue, both of us sincerely hoping it would resolve the issue. Buying new boots in another country on a Sunday for my tiny feet? Not really an option.
After the minor and non-invasive boot surgery, I hopped a bus to explore the old city, known as Stari Grad. High stone walls encircled a treasure of ancient buildings with various shops and restaurants installed to satisfy tourists along with old cathedrals offering their quiet interiors for a few moments of reflection. The city was strategically positioned on the coast overlooking the sea, the day sunny and warm with clear blue skies to create a perfect experience. I wandered up and down multiple series of steps as the city was situated on the side of a hill, poked around the shops, and explored the various vistas, watching the crowds of people and the multiple cats looking for a pat or a handout. I happened on to a wedding as the bride and groom were exiting an old church, surrounded by family and friends cheering for their special day. Then I ran into one of my new travel companions and we sat in the square and enjoyed an aperitif at a small cafe with views of the clock tower before dinner. After meeting the group and ascending the famous (or infamous) Game of Thrones “walk of shame” steps, we settled in for an al fresco dinner. Another delicious meal enjoying the beautiful views as the sun set and lights illuminated the limestone walls and churches, creating a ghostly sense of sitting in the past while documenting everything via smart phones to share via WiFi. Progress?
Day 3 – The question on everyone’s lips today (well, maybe my lips only), “will the glue hold?” Another hike through the Croatian mountains after a long transfer and grabbing sandwiches for a quick lunch. We ended the hike coming down into the village of Makarska just as it began to rain and we ducked for shelter at a cafe along the water, indulging in ice cream as the rain crashed down around us. We were waiting for the ferry that would take us to Bol on the island of Brac. The rain ended shortly before we boarded the ferry and the sun crept from behind the clouds gifting us some glorious rainbows during the hour ride to Bol. As the boat rocked in the gentle sea, the tarp on the top deck dumped buckets of rain water on the group, creating screams of shock and laughter as we rushed to grab our bags and retreat to the drier center of the boat. And yes, the glue held the boot across the rocky dirt trail, and thankfully was not tested by a drenching downpour. We soon arrived in the quaint village of Bol, our home for the next couple of nights.
Day 4 – As our quest to conquer the hills of Croatia continued, I asked myself as I laced my boots before breakfast, “will the glue hold again?” Our long day started by driving to the top of one of the highest points on the island. But we weren’t really at the top. We were going to be walking to the top of Vidova Gora, through lovely forests of pine, soft needles under our feet until we reached the highest point, with fabulous views of the world, the island stretched beneath us. We could hear sheep and goats bleating as we walked through the forest but our footsteps and conversation must have scared them into hiding. We could hear them, along with their bells, but only detected a few shadows betraying their occasional movement behind the trees. Perhaps their daily ritual of grazing in the forest had left them leery of strangers.
Once we reached the vantage point on Vidova Gora, cloudless blue skies and warm sunshine greeted us as we settled on the rocks and boulders to enjoy our well-earned lunch. After a short rest, it was time to begin the long descent, over rocks and rocks and rocks. It was a hot, sweaty day as we followed the switch-backed trail to the bottom. The incline going down was enough to keep everyone’s toes jammed into the front of their boots, and my feet were aching at the bottom. At least the tread was still intact but I wondered if another super glue procedure was eminent….
Once back at the hotel, it was time to change into a swimsuit and dip into the sea, the cold, cold sea at the local beach, a satisfying refreshment for my feet! I ventured slowly into the water, immersing toes, then knees, then thighs, hips, and finally it was time to fully commit and dunk underwater. Shockingly refreshing! I believe I’ve only experienced colder water once or twice in life - once in the Sea of Cortez where I was ensconced in a diving suit complete with hood and boots as a hedge against the cold, and another time on an island in Indonesia, in a pool fed from snow melt where a quick dip left me feeling as if heaters were blasting me with hot air once I popped back out of the water. A true temperature extreme. Liz and I swam around testing our grit in adjusting to the cold. Yikes! I did notice that not too many other people were swimming about. It reminded me of winter in Florida when the only people in the water are assumed to be Canadian.
Our day ended with dinner at a family restaurant where our hosts offered pre-meal shots of homemade liquors (please refer back to my Croatia intro), giving us a chance to sample cherry, walnut, and different herbal varieties. Quite delicious! The night ended with a drop in temperature and a cold and windy walk back to the hotel. Fall was on its way.
Day 5 – We started very early in the morning (defined as anything before 8 a.m.) with a cold and windy walk to catch the catamaran to Split, an hour ride giving us time to eat a packed breakfast. When we arrived at Split, it was cold and breezy but the sun was shining. We wandered through the walled city, hunting for caffeine, and found a small café to sit and enjoy cups of hot coffee and cappuccino, then decided it was time for some good-natured fun and visited the Game of Thrones museum. The best part? Being able to sit for a photo in the Iron Throne. Yes and done! I hadn’t realized so much of the show was filmed in the city and walking through the museum reminded me of the many story lines that built the famous show. After a sit in the throne, we continued wandering the old streets of Split, with a stroll through the market, buying some fresh grapes and other treats.
Back into another bus for a drive to the Skradinski Buk waterfalls at Krka National Park. Although we walked a short distance into the attraction, I was not prepared for the mobs of people who were joining us. Apparently, it was some sort of holiday and with the gorgeous weather, the place seemed a bit overwhelmed with several groups descending from tourist buses, some people a bit old to navigate the terrain very well. We sat at some rather decrepit picnic tables to eat our lunch before walking the acres of waterfalls, surrounded by tourists. The clear water was filled with fish, the trails filled with people, carefully making their way, and we had to fight for photos with tourists not eager to share their spots at the rails for premium photo opportunities. Wait and wait some more. We wrapped up the afternoon with more sunshine and ice cream. After a vigorous day of hiking the day before, it was a nice little break while still stretching our legs and reveling in nature.
Then we continued on to Starigrad Paklenica. An interesting hotel, with confusing linens and a wonderful hostess. My room had a balcony with a table fit for entertaining, and a kitchen and living room. But no top sheet on the bed. I was given a half duvet cover (twin size on a double bed) and a couple of blankets. I referred to it as my “handkerchief” linen as it was barely large enough to cover me at night. But travelers must be adaptable and I quickly adjusted and slept hard, a side effect of the great hiking in the fresh air. It certainly created an interesting topic of conversation at breakfast as I was not alone in the unusual bed linens experience.
Going down to breakfast every day included navigating down a steep hill or attempting a somewhat dodgy climb over a fence into a pile of rubble. I’ll take the long way with less likelihood for an interesting injury. And besides, a steep hill to walk up and down every morning and evening was no problem for a hiker. It was a daily warm-up.
Day 6 – Our last few days were spent in Paklenica National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. The first day’s plan was for a gorge walk, up and up and up winding roads in a jeep to reach the starting point. Our guide, Ivan, teased me as I avoided looking out the window and over the steep drop to the town below. Then our jeep died on a hill, rolling backwards with me praying for an effective parking brake. I did not want to end my trip as a statistic. Our driver was able to brake before we rolled into the jeep behind us, carrying the rest of the group. Our group bailed out and waited for the other driver to shuttle the first group to the starting point while we walked uphill. It was too far to walk the entire way so we waited for the first driver to return, picking an open spot in the road where the driver could turn around. A narrow hill hugging road was not a place for a miscalculated turn-around space! Little did we know we were being shuttled to a pack of aggressive LOOKING dogs, who had chased the first group as the jeep entered their territory, leaving them very leery of descending into the open. But these dogs were familiar with the concept of travelers and quickly befriended the group while they tried to shelter from the wind on the mountain and waited for us.
Then the walk began. According to Ivan, this was to be an uphill day. Unlike the other uphill days. And as we went up and up, encountering the usual rocky bits, we realized we were missing one member of our group - Dave. We called and called with no response. Had he fallen off the trail? Possible, but not likely. Ivan backtracked to the split in the trail that misled him. Dave had stopped to do some research and simply picked the wrong trail. Disaster averted! Group intact, we continued to a windy viewpoint. As in, almost-blow-you-off-your-feet windy.
We did not linger and looked forward to a more gentle descent to stop sometime later, stomachs growling, at a small café/home in the woods where we enjoyed a bean stew in two varieties – vegetarian and with sausage. According to Ivan, in Croatia, this was simply known as “beans” and it was a wonderful hearty stew, perfect after a morning of walking in the mountains. My favorite lunch in Croatia! Other offerings included elderberry juice and tiramusu for dessert.
After stuffing our stomachs, we decided to explore a bit and Dave and I climbed a small hill to visit the resident donkeys who stood calmly on the 45 degree angle that was the yard behind the cafe. They were sedately enjoying the sun, eyes half closed while I offered a little scratch behind the ears. I know horses always enjoy a little attention to an area they cannot reach and I could see the donkeys liked it too. Who doesn't enjoy a good scratch?
After lunch and a brief rest, it was time to begin the journey down to the "commercial" area (where most hikers and day visitors were to be found) – a rough but slick stone “tetra” course to maneuver for many, many steps. I executed tiny careful steps to make sure I did not disrupt my glued sole and to make sure my boots did not slide from beneath me. Finally, the slick stones smoothed out and we had a view of hikers climbing the rock face of the canyon we had descended into. It was a popular spot for rock climbing and we were scanning a rather high cliff face barely able to register the smudges of red and blue that were actually climbers ascending the rocky face. Impressive and adventurous!
As we made our way out of the park, Ivan stopped at a trailside map to show us our progress, tracing our route for the day accompanied by a running “tchuch, tchuch, tchuch” commentary as his finger showed the miles we covered. The hiking that day was spectacular and after our van ride back to the hotel, we cleaned up and walked down the road to devour a delicious steak dinner. Another great meal with good company. And the glued boot continued to be resilient to the daily attacks on its integrity.
Day 7 – As we naively sat to eat our breakfast, Ivan told us that it would be a day of "uphill", a strenuous day, the most challenging yet and one requiring stamina and balance. It seemed to be a loosely veiled warning. I thought he was trying to weed out the weak but the reality was a tough day but not impossible. The goal was to walk to the saddle of Pod Jaginim Kukom. One hiker declined although I did not see that he was trembling in fear. More likely he decided to rest a dodgy knee. And it’s good to understand your limits. Ivan instructed us on the necessity to bring enough water and some food for lunch. But not everyone listens to warnings or good sensible advice - we one group member thought a small bottle of water would do for six plus hours of hiking in the sun. You can’t tell some people what is best for them if they think they know what they can handle. Our poor guide tried to offer good advice and ultimately decided to carry extra water as he knew what would happen after a few hours. Listen to your guide - experience trumps your own naive guesses.
As promised, the trail was the chunkiest rock path yet, requiring balance and stamina. We passed some stone grave markers, known as Mirila. The flat stones were monuments to the dead and an interesting part of the local culture.
It was a beautiful sunny day and we warmed up quickly. And the aforementioned hiker who refused to bring enough water? It soon became apparent it was too sunny for someone to skimp on water. At least Ivan was prepared to fill the hiker’s water bottle.
As the trail led us deeper and deeper into a rather rocky and remote area, we joked about our guide leading us into the unknown, "the unwary tourists, following blindly into a rock maze." Our guide had no evil intentions and we soon arrived at a small boulder-filled clearing at the base of a short climb to a spectacular vista of the coast and the sparkling blue waters of the Aegean Sea. This was his secret lunch spot. As we settled onto our separate rocky rest points, we ate our lunches enjoying the sun, a rest, and the glorious views of the valley from our special viewpoint.
After lunch, we backtracked down the steep rocky hill until we reached a dirt road, a short cut back to our bus. As we made those last steps up the incline to the parking area, Ivan slammed us with “high fives”, to mark our final victory hike. When we returned to the hotel, it was one last chance for Liz and I to test our fortitude and take another dip in the sea. I cannot explain how icy cold the water was – a shock to the system and an invigorating wake up call for a tired body!
At our final dinner, the group asked me to present the group tip to Ivan with a short speech of appreciation and recognition of the laughs and trials the group enjoyed and endured together. As we walked back towards our hotel, we stopped briefly so I could have a ceremonial farewell to my boots and their endurance in a life well lived, carrying me over more continents than most Americans. I let them go, with the knowledge of the joy they had sparked in my hiking adventures, by tossing them one at a time into a large trash bin. We had time for one last drink together where the group dove into a short political discussion (battle?) on BREXIT. We were all well justified in our opinions which is the reality of many political discussions.
Day 8 – Our final breakfast with new friends from the week, saying goodbyes as people left. It always feels a bit strange to say heartfelt goodbyes to people who were strangers a few days ago. But that is the good and bad of traveling with small groups. Sometimes these connections endure for years. I’ve been lucky to stay connected to several people I’ve met traveling over the years, sometimes reconnecting for additional trips together. And that is the really nice part – traveling with friends who are based in cities around the world, exchanging stories and viewpoints and expanding each other's knowledge of the world.
My flight home included an overnight at the airport in Brussels. A little tip – when booking a flight that will be an overnight connection, look for cities with the lowest airport taxes and an airport hotel. I was able to walk across the street from the terminal for my hotel stay and enjoy a late dinner, a shower, and a comfy bed with a complete set of sheets. In fact, the only glitch on the way home was renewing my Global Entry at Newark airport. They could not have been less prepared for the number of people in line - one person to process about 20 waiting applicants, with interviews taking from 5-10 minutes for renewals and 20-30 minutes for new applicants. Let’s face it, the world is still not fully staffed for travel.
Questions on travel? Contact me.