A few months ago I traveled to Croatia for the first time, a place I had long wanted to see. While some things were expected, many more surprised me including a few things that I wish I knew before my first visit.
1. Cities I had never heard of – I’d like to think I’m fairly well versed in geography and that I’ve at least heard of most major cities, even if I don’t know anything about them. Apparently I was very mistaken. Cities like Zadar and Split sounded like entries from a fantasy novel instead of real places on the map, but even though I wasn’t familiar with them prior to my trip, I ended up falling deeply in love with their beauty and romance. Zadar was a particular favorite, its strange name gave me the chance to believe I was walking through a Game of Thrones scene instead of a beautiful city on the Adriatic Sea. Croatia taught me that I certainly don’t know as much as I think I do and reignited that thrilling feeling of discovery that makes travel so much fun.
2. Food is excellent – I was bad, I made certain assumptions before visiting Croatia and I shouldn’t have. One of those assumptions was that the food would be bland, as in a post-communist, boiled potatoes kind of way. I was wrong, very wrong. Croatia has a long and proud culinary history that not even decades of oppressive, Communist rule could destroy and which is on proud display today around the country. From the hearty stews and meat dishes of the inland regions to the seafood and Italian influenced cuisines found along the coast, the food was varied, fresh and delicious. In fact rather than just necessary sustenance, the foodie aspect of my trip around Croatia quickly became a very important part of the experience. My favorite delicacy was Pag cheese, the best in Croatia and made on the small island of Pag near Zadar. There a unique set of weather conditions produces one of the best sheep’s milk cheeses you’ll ever try; especially great when paired with prosciutto and some Croatian wine, or in the risotto pictured above.
3. Plitvice was nice but… – If people know anything about Croatia, it usually includes the famous Plitvice Lakes National Park. An undeniable natural wonder, images of these cascading lakes are the stuff of travel dreams for millions. So I was understandably excited when I arrived at the park early in the morning, ready for a day of hiking and exploration. And it was fun, but the experience didn’t provide the moment of emotional intensity that I had anticipated. I mean, the lakes were nice, very pretty, but they didn’t take my breath away and the sheer crush of tourists really did eliminate from any chance of quiet introspection as I had hoped. Don’t get me wrong, the lakes are great and you should go, but it’s not the only natural wonder in Croatia, indeed there are many other beautiful natural sights around the country that may be just as pretty and which do provide the oneness with nature that Plitvice just cannot guarantee.
4. Dubrovnik is indeed amazing – Dubrovnik is Croatia’s number one tourist attraction, a rare example of a medieval walled city and one that is visited by millions of people every year. I knew it would be nice, but before I first stepped through the city gates I had no idea just how nice it really is. Turns out all of those tourists are on to something; Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. If I thought Zadar evoked images of Game of Thrones, Dubrovnik went even further since several scenes from the series were actually filmed there. Aside from the familiar scenery, the city is beautiful in every way. The best way to really see Dubrovnik is by walking along the city walls, affording a bird’s eye view of the labyrinthine alleys and streets of the old city. So if you were thinking of skipping Dubrovnik because it’s too touristy, don’t! You must see it; you must live it in order to truly understand what makes it so very special.
5. Needs more time – This is a common refrain, but I needed much more than the ten days allotted to explore Croatia. Even with this generous amount of time, I was only able to skim the best parts of the nation, not even visiting entire regions. The trip though was a great introduction, a travel first date as it were and left me with a deep desire to return. I’m not alone either, most people I talk to who have visited share a similar sentiment, there’s just something about Croatia that grabs on dearly and refuses to let go.
Have you been to Croatia? What surprised you?