Croatia: An epic road trip from Zagreb to Dubrovnik
Updated: Mar 11
After one month in Nice, France we had a little more exploring to do before leaving. We'd never spent time in Provence, so we jumped in a car and drove through the towns and cities of Provence for one week before catching a flight to Zagreb, Croatia from Lyon. It was a week filled with the small medieval hilltop villages of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and Gordes, which were stunning, and the larger cities of Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Grenoble, and Lyon. The verdict of our week winding through expansive lavender fields, mountains, and highways? Loved the small towns and Lyon - which was a really beautiful and happening city with amazing restaurants and one of the most spectacular parks we've ever biked around.
Marseille, on the water, was much more city-like that we'd anticipated, Grenoble was surrounded by the Alps, and it was fun taking the gondola up to hike around, but Lyon with the Rhône and Saône rivers running through it was our favorite large city we visited on our road trip. And Aix-en-Provence? Well, if it wasn't for the fact that La Chambreaux aux Confitures has a store there and we wanted to pick up some amazing jam that we'd found in Paris last summer, we could have skipped it altogether (sorry, Aix-en-Provence!).
We knew it was bound to happen sooner or later, and on our flight from Lyon to Zagreb it did...on our stop-over in Paris. We had plenty of time to make our connection but, with a mere TWO people ahead of us in the passport control line, the entire passport system at Charles de Gaulle airport went down. For the next 90 minutes we watched as they tried to get the system back on-line (although the passport people didn't look like they cared all that much how quickly that happened), the entire time just feet from making it through to our gate. Of course, we missed our flight and spent the next two hours in another line trying to get a new one that would get us to Croatia (again, the Air France staff didn't seem that concerned about the growing line of unhappy passengers). Lots of fun, as you can imagine.
Finally, eight hours after we were supposed to originally land, we arrived in Zagreb...our bags did not. We each had a carry-on with enough stuff to last us a few days, so we crossed our fingers that at some point our luggage would catch up with us. We'd had great luck with all of our travels until that point, so we hoped this ticked the box for bad travel karma for months to come.
We had a whirlwind month planned for Croatia - one city, three seaside towns, and two islands before finishing up in Dubrovnik (and a few days in Slovenia in the middle, more on that later). Our time in Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia, was spent roaming the streets of the old town and the new, enjoying the green horseshoe, a U-shaped area of connected parks and squares with beautiful old buildings and Austro-Hungarian architecture, cheering on Dinamo Zagreb vs. Salzburg in a super important football match (Zagreb lost...), and checking out one of the most unique and captivating museums we've ever been to - the Museum of Broken Relationships.
It was amazing. We actually read every single description of every single item in the museum and still wanted more. This museum of heartbreak is filled with crowd-sourced items and the stories behind the symbolic possessions - from the disgusting (the 27-year old crust from a first love's wound from someone in Austria) to the odd (an empty bag of fortune cookies attached to a Starbucks cup from Italy). It was impossible not to be enthralled by every single story. This place was a must go (we hear there's also one in LA).
A few days before we embarked on our epic road trip through Croatia (our luggage had arrived, yay!) we picked up our rental car and took a day trip to one of the most beautiful and unique places we've ever been, Plitviče Lakes National Park. Just two hours from Zagreb, this park is the oldest and largest in Croatia and absolutely cannot be missed. With 16 cascading lakes connected by 90 waterfalls, we spent the day exploring on wood plank walkways that wound over the lakes and beside the waterfalls throughout 113 square miles of forest.
Just when we thought we'd seen the most beautiful vista with the bluest-green water, there was another one around the bend. This was an absolutely beautiful way to spend the day and such an easy drive from Zagreb.
From Zagreb we drove to Slovenia for the weekend and then re-entered Croatia for some time in the town of Rovinj in the region of Istria, the largest peninsula within the Adriatic Sea. Rovinj is a tiny town that swells with tourists in the summer because of its beautiful location and sweet cobblestone streets, but we were there just after the high season so there weren't many tourists and we still got to enjoy the beaches, sunsets, and fun side trips without fighting the crowds.
In addition to a short boat ride to picnic on the nearby small island of Sveti Andrija, we also went into the mountains for a local specialty - truffles. Truffles are a big thing in Istria, as is wine, and it's one of the reasons the whole region reminded us a lot of Tuscany.
We spent one morning in the forest of Istria in Motovun, a small medieval town perched on a hill overlooking green rolling hills and vineyards.
With three trusty truffle-sniffing dogs and a guide, we traipsed through the forest in search of white truffles...and we found one!
Well, Roxy, the brown Labrador, found one and it was very exciting. After our hunt we went for an amazing truffle meal up in the hill town at Konoba Mondo. Wow. Now we get all the excitement over white truffles. Our pasta and risotto with truffles lunch was one of the best ever and was accompanied by local wine from Tomaz, a vineyard right down the road. This meant we knew where we were headed next - to taste more of the local wines at the Tomaz vineyard!
Next stop on our Croatian road trip: The small (as in really, really small-one-restaurant-no stores) town of Šilo on the island of Krk.
There was lots of down time here and we just enjoyed hiking the olive groves, watching everyone harvesting the olives to make oil, exploring the rocky shoreline, and visiting local vineyards. We even found these crazy horned sheep in a very rural part of the island, who just preferred to go about their grazing instead of paying attention to us. Our rental house had a heated pool, so we enjoyed that a lot, especially since it had started to get cooler at night and more like autumn.
Once the summer high season is over, Croatian islands and the seaside towns (and sheep) really start to wind down, so that's just what we did, too, before setting off for our next stop, Zadar.
Located on the Adriatic Sea, Zadar is the oldest continuously inhabited Croatian city. Its old town is safely ensconced inside city walls that contain Roman and Venetian ruins. It's also known for something more modern: A sea organ. Completed in 2005, this architectural sound art is an experimental musical instrument that plays music via tubes located beneath marble steps along the sea.
When waves enter and exit the tubes, they make music...well, more like deep, hollow, organ-like sounds. Take a listen.
Our next location, Šibenik, is known as the gateway to the Kornati islands. It's also near Krka National Park, another great place for hiking and waterfalls. So, we decided to explore both!! One day we hired a boat to take us to a few of the islands, which were small and very quiet but also beautiful.
When we arrived at the first island, Zlarin, around noon we went to the only open place, a konoba (tavern) right near the harbor, where several people were seated outside enjoying the weather, beers, coffee, and cigarettes (something we'd come to call the Croatia Trifecta...everyone seems to always be sitting outside at konobas drinking beers and coffee while smoking cigarettes no matter if it's 9:30am or 9:30pm).
When we asked the proprietor if they served food he answered: "No more until April." We guess the entire population of Zlarin will have to subsist on beer, coffee, and cigarettes until then.
While Krka National Park is smaller than Plitviče , it is also quite beautiful. Fun fact: The Krka waterfalls area has the second highest density of lavender in Europe, so there are lots of wasps and bees in the area. There are also cats. We saw so many cats in Croatia we started to believe that they are the country's national mascots. We made a few feline friends while hiking around Krka and even shared our picnic lunch with one who seemed to enjoy a little Italian prosciutto.
Our month in Croatia was almost over! But we had one more island to visit. Brač is the longest island in Croatia and it also has the highest elevation, something we experienced first hand on our drive from the ferry to the town of Bol. This island is all soaring craggy rock and beautiful views out to the Adriatic Sea. We stayed in the town of Bol with views out to the island of Hvar, an awesome island we loved on our first trip to Croatia last year. You can read more about that here.
Our apartment was right on the water in the center of this sweet town that was on the verge of closing down for the season. In fact, our last night there was the last open night for all but one restaurant (before that we had two to choose from!). We lucked out with the weather and got to enjoy a few last days at the beach, which was deserted. While Bol is known for Zlatni rat beach, known as the golden horn for the way it juts out into the sea, we preferred to spend the day alone on a beach that looked up at a beautiful church that rang its bells to remind us of the time. The early setting sun (we turned our clocks back one week before the US does) also reminded us that summer, and our time in this amazing country, was truly coming to an end.
We ended our time in Croatia in the exact way we started our love affair with Croatia over one year ago, in Dubrovnik. There's so much to share about this gorgeous, historic, and special place, and you can learn more in our previous blog about Dubrovnik This time around, we didn't explore the old town or try to take in everything that Dubrovnik has to offer (which is a lot). Instead, we enjoyed one final night on our balcony watching the sun set into the Adriatic for the last time (with a color-matched gin and passionfruit cocktail to go with it).
The next morning, we were leaving for one month in Montenegro, but we were so glad we got to experience Croatia from all the way up North in Zagreb down the coast to Dubrovnik in the South. The second time around Croatia lived up to our memories, and we made a bunch of new memories along the way.
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