The last week before my MA thesis was due, Joel kept giddily dropping hints about a secret celebration trip he planned for me. The hints were especially vague, and it had to be somewhere where I (having a South African passport) already had a visa for, aka in the Schengen area. Then, on the morning of my due date, after a quick (not) spring clean for our Airbnb renters, we set out to Stansted Airport at 3am, where Joel scanned me through the security turnstiles. I waited on putting on my glasses until we got to the boarding gate, and the surprise was revealed: We were going to Dubrovnik, Croatia!
So exciting! What a great way to be surprised and celebrate me moving out of the library and back into my own home! (For now.)
Both of us were absolutely blown away by what we’ve seen of Croatia so far – the snaking coastline, the forested hills, the crystal-clear azure-blue waters of the Adriatic sea, lush wine valleys, fortressed medieval towns, freshly cracked oysters, and the list goes on and on. Our trip was deeply enriched by tips from our Croatian friends, who basically came up with the perfect 5-day itinerary.
So here’s what you should look forward to on your next Croatian adventure
(don’t take it from us, take it from the Croatians themselves… )
DUBROVNIK OLD TOWN
The pedestrian-only Old Town of Dubrovnik must the most charming Old Town we’ve ever seen. Buttressed by its medieval walls, it overlooks the gently lapping waters of the Adriatic sea and is peppered with elegant Baroque churches, aristocratic mansions, and quaint squares, its ancient cobblestones polished smooth by centuries’ worth of wear.
Walk the Wall
If you do one thing in the Old Town, it must be this: walking along the medieval walls. The white stone wall that has encased the city for centuries is largely responsible for Dubrovnik’s nickname – the Pearl of the Adriatic – and runs for 2kms, ranging in width from 1.5 to 6 meters. From the walls you get the best views of the town, with its rolling sea of red terracotta roofs, and the sea, changing from deep blue to bright turquoise when it meets the rocky city borders.
When? The wall offers no shade against the Mediterranean sun, so if you’re worried about heat or sunburn, go when it’s coolest.
How much? The cost of the wall-entrance is about 150 kuna (£19), but if there’s one tourist attraction in this city totally worth spending money on, it’s this. (no student discount).
Old City At Night
We first entered the Old City at night and it was just magical – lit up everywhere in soft yellow light, musicians on accordions and cellos, people sitting back in squares eating ice cream and drinking wine. Spend time roaming around in the cool air, and find a square for some Croatian wine, oysters and seafood when you get hungry.
Did someone say sushi? WE LOVE SUSHI! But good sushi is just so expensssssive in London, so we were all over, Bota, the sushi restaurant recommendation given to us by our Croatian friends. Also, eat as much oysters as you can – Croatian coast is oyster country. It’s a bit more expensive in Dubrovnik, but still fairly well priced. We had to wait 15 to 20 mins for our table, but we just grabbed a drink next door and soaked up some more of that Dubrovnik magic in the meantime.
HINT – OLD TOWN IS CROWDED. So crowded, in fact, that it will soon impose ticketing to curb visitor numbers. Apparently, the local population dwindled from 5000 to 500 in about ten years, so there are more tourists than locals. We visited at the perfect time – late September – when the sun and sea are still hot, but the summer tourists have mostly departed.
HINT – PARKING SUCKS. The Old Town is pedestrian-only, so small parking lots hug the hill-side city walls, but it was always full when we showed up. Your best bet is the large parking lot right outside of Old Town, but it’s very expensive – we had to pay 120 kuna, about £15, for 3 hours (compared to 20 kuna in Cavtat).
WHEN TO GO? See above. Go in September! Great weather, less tourists, and the prices have started to drop.
WHERE TO STAY? If you have a rental car, we would highly recommend you stay in one of the neighbouring villages next to Dubrovnik. Parking spaces are rare, and the demand is high, so you’ll spend most of your budget on parking your car. We stayed in the picturesque Cavtat, and from there you can take a water taxi to the Old Town harbour.
DAY TRIP TO CAVTAT
Or, even better, base yourself in Cavtat. It’s only about 45mins from Dubrovnik by car and water taxi, and has all the ease, charming beauty, and laid-back atmosphere of an Adriatic coastal village. The town is hugged in tightly around some bays, so the water is always in sight/reach. Among the colourful houses and cobblestone streets are some really great restaurants too, serving mouth-watering seafood and salads, and a local produce market. It was heaven coming back to Cavtat after the hustle of the Old Town.
WHERE TO EAT? Our favourite restaurant was Rokotin, which sits on Šetalište rat, the pathway that runs around Cavtat’s Rat peninsula, and serves DELICIOUS avocado salad and black cuttlefish risotto with a view of the Dubrovnik riviera.
Also, stock up on some fresh watermelon at the market!
THE DUBROVNIK RIVIERA
Another plus about visiting Cavtat is that you’ll get to drive down the stunningly beautiful ‘Dubrovnik Riviera’, that stretch of coast between Dubrovnik and Cavtat. The mountains descend to the sea, where it is met by turquoise water, and small, tree-lined villages. Stop on any one of the bends to take in the gorgeous landscape.
THE CROATIAN WINE VALLEY
We were directed to Potomje by our Croatian friends, and we just want to pass on this gift to everyone else. Potomje is about a 1h30/2hr impressively scenic drive from Dubrovnik, and it is dotted with tons of small wineries and oyster stands.
Just over halfway there, you will drive through Mali Ston, a teeny tiny village known for its fresh and cheap oysters, where you have to stop for fresh and cheap oysters. Mali Ston is connected to another medieval village, Ston, by thick, fortified stone walls.
Then, the road snaked through the awesome wine valleys, before taking us up over a mountain, through some clouds, and down out of the clouds and into the heart of Potomje. Madirazza winery came recommended to us, and we stopped for a little (eight wines) roadtrip wine tasting. We’ve never had Croatian wine before (as a South African, I admit I always just want to drink South African wine), but it was really very good! I have since started looking for it elsewhere, but with no avail, which makes wine tasting in Croatia even more of a must.
Our friends told us about this tunnel, which leads from the valley through the mountains onto the coastline, where you can stop for sweeping views of the sea and lush green mountains. The tunnel is not mapped on Google maps, but we did find it on Map.me, my new favourite navigation app, followed its one-way darkness to the other end and stopped in front of a breathtaking view of our surroundings.
I would happily come back to Croatia, and I would happily come back its wine valleys and just spend a day or two drinking wine and staring at and exploring the landscape.
A trip to Southern Croatia is not complete without visiting one of the many islands dotted around its coast. We headed to Mljet island with bellies full of wine, squid and oyster from the Prapratno ferry port. The rain let up just at the right time and we docked in the Sobra port in a quick 30/40 mins.
Mljet National Park
Mljet is a long, skinny island close to the coast and the most northern end of it is a protected nature reserve most famous for its crystal-clear, bluest blue saltwater lakes around which you can hike, kayak, swim, or take a small boat to St. Mary island and visit the monastery. We didn’t have much time, so after a stroll around the aqua-blue, we headed out to find the Odysseus cave.
WHERE TO STAY? Pomena village is a teeny tiny tiny quiet (save for some boat parties) village in the national park – it has one hotel and a couple of apartments to rent and is the perfect base for exploring the lakes. We can recommend the Apartments Slavica, which had great service and sea-view balconies.
Around the little town of Babino Polje lies Odysseus Cave, rumoured to be the site where Odysseus was nursed back to health by the nymph Calypso after being shipwrecked on Mljet. It’s quite easy to find, despite being a bit off-road, but luckily maps.me comes through again where Google fails, and has the paths mapped down to the cave. WHERE’S THE CAVE? Basically you park just across the road from the Tommy market store, and head down the little dirt path. The road to the cave has now been marked quite clearly with signs and paint, it’s hard to miss. Follow these and the path will soon open up to the sea, after which you will see the gaping mouth of the cave. This first town-side entrance has been closed (probably because of erosion), but you just follow the path around to the sea-side, through some entrepreneurial guy’s house/café, and then you can just jump off the cliffs into the sea.
This must have been our favourite moment in Croatia. We have never seen anything like this, and the photos do not do it justice (they are actually pretty terrible). We immediately jumped into the blue of the Adriatic, drifting around in the clearest blue water I’ve ever seen. But then you swim through the cave entrance, pop your head underwater, and the water is suddenly electric blue. It looks like someone has switched on a blue light, or dropped a whole bucket of blue colouring into the cave – incredibly blue. We almost couldn’t believe our eyes. And here we spent our afternoon, drifting, diving, staring, cliff-jumping, and not-believing-our-eyes, until we headed on South.
Finally, end off your long-weekend on the sunset beaches of the other end of Mljet island. Most visitors to Mljet stay in Saplunara – it is far bigger and is host to soft, sandy beaches. We only had one night here, and most of our time was spent digesting the incredible food we had Konoba Stermasi.
Our Croatian friends told us we have to eat here, and we have to get the specialty – octopus ‘under the bell’, which you have to order like 3 hours ahead. Having no idea what that even meant, we headed down to make a reservation and put in our order. And we were duly rewarded.
‘Under the bell’ is a style of traditional cooking, where the food is slowly stewed for hours in a deep pan covered with coals. When its ready to be served, the coals get brushed off and the pan comes straight to your table. The lid was lifted and FOUR OCTOPUS (Octopi?) was revealed on a bed of potatoes and vegetables in a rich meaty sauce. It was very good, but very a lot of octopus also. We ate and ate and ate and hid the rest under some potatoes, and we left full and satisfied.
WHERE TO EAT? The road to Konoba Stermasi has yet to be mapped on Google, but, ONCE AGAIN (get the picture?), Maps.me had it all figured out. There’s not a whole lot of roads, so you’ll find it eventually if you try one of them. HINT: Get the cheese pasta dish. OMG. Home made cheese, home made pasta, I’m salivating right now.
SUGGESTED LONG-WEEKEND ITINERARY
2 days: Dubrovnik Riviera area – enough time for quality Old-Town-Time and a bit of Lazing-Around-A-Quaint-Little-Beach-Time.
2-3 days: Potomje Wine Valley and Mljet Island. I would have liked to spend more time there; we didn’t quite have enough time to exhaust the value of the salt lakes area in the National Park, or the beaches in Saplunara. We also would have liked to drink lots more wine. Actually, we might just move to Croatia.
BONUS: Spend a day and head inland to historical Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or spend more time on the coast in Montenegro! (visa-permitting). We haven’t been there, but it’s on our list