moon over Split harbor, Croatia

Nowhere in the southern Balkans has a region been so coveted by empires than Croatia with over 1,100 miles of photogenic Adriatic coastline. Although the ethnic Croats were themselves 7th century northern invaders, they could not stop a historical process that would come to an end only in late 20th century. The Romans, Venetians, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans, Mussolini’s Italy and Serbs all lusted over this beautiful and strategic land akin to the biblical neighbor’s wife.

Today Croatia is invaded not by empires but by golden hordes of tourists. Since the end of the Yugoslav Civil War in 1995 that secured Croatia’s independence the country has steadily become a much sought after tourist mecca with 2017 statistics as of the end of July indicating the year will easily top 2016s record of nearly 17 million visitors. In a year that has already generated a tourist backlash in such popular destinations as Barcelona and Venice, rumblings in Croatia’s Dubrovnik while I was just there were evident.

Crowded Dubrovnik, July 2017

As a professional travel journalist my penchant to avoid high season was not possible during this recent July visit and perhaps that was an auspicious circumstance. Even before news of anti-tourist graffiti on ancient Dubrovnik’s walls I had conversations with many in Croatia that depend on tourism for their annual income who did not share in the criticism. The crowds of summer evaporate during the cold of winter and so does income.

Jostling with crowds on the narrow walkways of breathtaking Plitvice Lakes National Park and the ancient streets of Split and Dubrovnik did become annoying. So was the pounding throb of hip-hop and pop music from many cafes and along the beautiful seaside pedestrian walkways. Yet these are only three destinations in this varied land and like any top ten list, the ones that most tourist are aware. Equally fascinating Pula and the historic inland capital of Zagreb had no such crowds during the same three-week period of my June/July visit.

Traveling by comfortable buses on Croatia’s excellent roads I passed achingly beautiful villages surrounded by lush forests and wished I had a car to make constant stops. The modern five hour high-speed ferry from Split to Dubrovnik sailed past towering Adriatic cliffs with towns nestled in coves and valleys. As in the Aegean, dozens of islands seemed virtually empty yet equally beautiful as the popular party island of Zadar.

Fort Lovrijenac, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Just a short walk from the mass of humanity that streamed through Dubrovnik’s main gate is another postcard perfect fortress any fan of the Game of Thrones would recognize as the Red Keep in King’s Landing. The austere stone pile of Fort Lovrijenac is dramatically perched on a massive rock cliff offering panoramic views of the ancient walled city it has protected since the 11th century. Yet its real history exceeds fiction.

Built within three months in the 11th century by the Kingdom of Regusa (Dubrovnik) Fort Lovrijenac successfully prevented powerful Venice from adding Dubrovnik to its empire. Despite being within a stone’s throw of the UNESCO World Heritage old city, virtually no one visits. A young man sat quietly on the edge of a cliff meditating. The easy pleasant tree lined assent to the fortress was a cool alternative to the blistering July heat radiating off stonewalls within crowded Luza Square. In the cove below children swam in the clear Adriatic and small shaded cafes were literally carved into the craggy limestone cliffs.

Dubrovnik old city from Fort Lovrijenac

I spent less than an hour that day within the walls of old Dubrovnik, enough to glimpse the 15th century clock tower in Luza Square and hear it being mechanically struck by its two huge bronze male sculptures. Luza Square has been the market center for the old city and continues since it’s lined with cafes and the type of shops found in most tourist meccas. I returned in the cool of evening when the cruise ships had departed. The narrow side streets quietly hummed with dinners and most of the canned music was replaced with live musicians entertaining in the streets.

Dubrovnik may be known for its historic core, but this sprawling city’s Babin Kuk neighborhood, an easy 10-minute public bus ride from the old city gate, has a peaceful and attractive tree and cafe lined pedestrian promenade that extends along a scenic seaside cliff walking path and no jostling crowds. From the cliff walk Lighthouse Grebeni (1872) was easily visible and still functions today protecting Lapad Bay, yet it’s a five bedroom villa as well that’s an ideal rental for sea lovers and scuba enthusiasts.

Of the many cafes on the promenade my favorites were Tutto Bene and Agora Restaurant. Tutto Bene may advertise itself as a pizzeria and fast food cafe but it’s fast simply because it’s organized. Otherwise its premium beef burgers are superbly grilled, thin crust pizzas brim with fresh ingredients and a salad with tender grilled steak was as good as it gets. A tasty well seasoned Croatian mixed grill at Agora restaurant in the Hotel Perla showed off the pan-Mediterranean influences on Croatian cuisine.

The view from my balcony at the charming hillside Guesthouse Niko on the first of six nights included the rising full moon illuminating the surrounding new city and commercial port. The only noise was the comfortable live music from the cafes several blocks below on the promenade.

The south wall of Diocletian’s Palace & Cathedral tower from the Promenade, Split, Croatia

Split also teemed with crowds in July, but then it did as well when it was constructed at the end of the 3rd century. The strategic Roman province of Dalmatia (Croatia) linked trade routes between the eastern and western halves of the empire. Roman Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305) was born in Dalmatia and chose the deep, island-protected harbor of Split to construct a palatial fortified military and commercial city as his retirement home. Yes, he actually retired as emperor in 305 and lived in this palace city until his natural death.

Visitors expecting to see a restored Roman Empire palace will be disappointed. Even in Diocletian’s time it was a fortified complex housing up to 9,000 inhabitants catering to the emperor’s family, entourage and a military garrison securing essential trade routes. By the 7th century Split was already morphing into a Byzantine city of narrow streets with some apartments and shops built into the thick walls themselves. Later as an important port in the Venetian Empire today’s compact historic core took on the characteristics that are considered by UNESCO World Heritage to be a remarkable preservation of Roman through Venetian architecture with narrow streets reminiscent of a Muslim Medina.

The Peristyle, Split, Croatia

The Peristyle was the large public courtyard of Diocletian’s residence and was preserved by succeeding generations of ruling powers to this day remaining the focal point of the historic palace city. It contains his mausoleum, which in the 7th century was expanded into the Catholic Cathedral of Split, and a rare black Egyptian sphinx. The Cathedral’s impressive bell tower – visitors can climb the stairs to the top for a panoramic view of the city – was added in the 12th century.

In the 15th century a classic Venetian mansion was constructed opposite the mausoleum incorporating Roman architectural artifacts. The Peristyle remains a popular gathering spot with seating on the surrounding stone steps. Beverages from the cafe in the hotel that occupies the Venetian mansion can be ordered from waiters that circulate the compact square. Owing to its excellent acoustics live music concerts entertain every evening in the summer season.

Pjaca Clock Tower in Pjaca Square, Split

To me the Peristyle embodies the reason to visit Split – successive layers from all its history are visible and a living part of the 21st century city. A couple hundred feet from the Peristyle is the 15th century Pjaca Clock Tower (still ticking) in Pjaca Square at the West Gate of Diocletian’s Palace. My room in the Private Apartments in Diocletian’s Palace was on the top floor of another Venetian mansion abutting the walls of the palace with a nice view of both the square and the clock almost close enough to touch.

As in Dubrovnik the crowds thin considerably at night and the atmosphere becomes festive rather than frenetic. In the case of Split, the action and noise moves to the attractively designed and landscaped wide waterfront promenade, which becomes a riot of color, loud music and jammed cafes. It’s a vibrant musical party from early evening and the focal point of Split’s busy music festival season. But the thick south wall of Diocletian’s Palace mitigates the noise within the old city.

Sunlight reflecting through Roman Arena, Pula, Croatia

Pula, on the northern Adriatic coast in Istria, the heart of Croatia’s wine and truffle country, is a gem! It was not teeming with crowds when I visited. It’s a compact, walkable city that was favored by Rome as well.

Within one block from my quiet, modern accommodations in Capitan Emo City Apartments, the late afternoon sun illuminated the honey colored stone of the magnificent 2,000-year-old Pula Arena reflecting golden light as if the Roman gods were showering favor down on the city. Construction started in 27AD, and it has all its exterior walls intact. The Arena has been protected from plundering by law since the 13th century when Pula was part of the Venetian Empire.

Forum Square, Pula

Restoration commenced in the late 1700s. Since 1932 it has been a popular venue for concerts and cultural events. It seats 7,500 with additional standing room for 5,500. That evening the Arena was packed for a concert by the acclaimed 2Cellos.

The pedestrian only cobblestone streets of Pula’s ancient core are entered through one of the original Roman gates. Empires and nations come and go, but life goes on. In Forum Square the Temple of Augustus (c. 12 AD) is remarkably preserved because it became a Christian church in the 4th century and a museum in the 20th. Next door is the 13th century Communal Palace (City Hall) still in use today and its back wall was part of the Temple of Diana.

Dante’s Fountain in Dante Alighieri Square, just yards from the Forum, is one of many peaceful cafe lined plazas in the city. This one is named after the great Italian poet Dante who visited Pula and mentioned the city in the Divine Comedy. The excellent Bistro Alighieri serves superb dishes from breakfast to dinner including an impressive grilled swordfish fillet smothered in truffles.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Although open all year, because it is in the middle of lush forested mountains, Plitvice Lakes National Park is most beautiful visited in the warm months. This UNESCO World Heritage site is justifiably one of Europe’s most beautiful natural wonders. Sixteen lakes of turquoise water cascade down 400 feet through five miles of forested gorge in a series of steps that create fascinating waterfalls. The lush surrounding vegetation appears nearly sub-tropical.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Park trams take visitors to the park’s three levels or you can hike it all. Even using the trams, allow six to eight hours hiking/walking if you want to explore the entire park and ride the boat through one of the largest lakes. Paths lead visitors down to the lake levels where wooden walkways take you through the lakes into the heart of this beauty.

With over one million annual visitors, most in the summer months, arrive before the 7:00 a.m. opening to avoid excessively long ticket lines. There is a hotel within the park, but most accommodations and restaurants are scattered among the quiet towns surrounding the park. In Grabovac, Rene House provided friendly, comfortable accommodations with a spacious private covered terrace offering mountain views with only the sounds of nature to break the calm.

Next door at House Tina an excellent breakfast and dinner could be enjoyed in their beautiful pool-side restaurant, which far exceeded the tourist menus offered in too many Croatian cafes. Most convenient, Tina House is authorized to sell admission tickets to Plitvice Lakes National Park – no commission fee – allowing you to avoid the long lines at the park gates.

1895 Opera House/Croatian National Theater, Zagreb

Zagreb, the thousand-year-old capital of Croatia, is a major metropolitan city with a different vibe than the countryside. The historic core, built at the city’s highest elevation naturally, is dominated by the country’s tallest building, the 13th century Cathedral of Zagreb. Like all good medieval cathedrals it has scaffolding on a section undergoing one of many maintenance needs when you’re over 700 years old. It has survived numerous wars and earthquakes while never totally falling down and gleams just like the fashionable Upper Town it dominates.

The city is peppered with parks from intimate squares such as Zrinjevac Park with its festive Saturday market to the vast, heavily wooded Maksimir Park and its huge lake. For a foodie, Dolac Market is a shopping center for all Croatia has to offer. My accommodation in Corner Apartments Zagreb gave me the opportunity to savor products from this cornucopia of Croatia.

Life is a series of choices. For many a short summer vacation or a desire to see iconic treasures on a seven-day cruise is all that’s possible. Despite my aversion to crowds and sympathy for locals that despise the noise, not all was shoulder to shoulder even in Dubrovnik, Split and Plitvice Lakes. After three weeks I had no guilt coveting Croatia.

sculling at sunset, Pula harbor, Croatia

Travel with Pen and Palate every month to Greece and the world in the Hellenic News of America.

Travel with Pen and Palate returns to Greece September and October 2017. Follow his new Greek series starting with the October issue of the Hellenic News of America.

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