The hills are alive with the sound of galloping horses. Peter, our son Jasper, and I are barreling across the Croatian countryside on nearly identical Belgian white horses. The rolling hills and lush green meadows that surround us seem to glow as flowers and trees bloom with new life. Our two-hour ride takes us into valleys, through forests, up and down grassy hillsides. It’s only our second day in Croatia, and already I love this country.
Everyone told us Croatia is stunningly beautiful, and they were right. From its peaceful countryside to its dazzling coastlines, Croatia is a many-sided destination. We are spending nine days here: three days in the countryside, three days on the coast, and three days in the capital city of Zagreb.
Wherever we go in this country of only four million inhabitants, nature is never far away. We feel a sense of timelessness as we drive our rental car through vast forested lands and over tall, rocky mountains that run parallel to the coastline. It’s as if time stands still in Croatia, and my goal is to stand still, too.
Visiting faraway countries offers us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the simpler things in life, like appreciating the beauty of nature, tasting new foods, and feeling connected to ancient cultures. I travel to jumpstart my senses and to savor the spectacular world we live in. Come along with us on our sensory-rich Croatian adventure and find out why it’s been a popular travel destination for centuries.
I discovered Ranch Terra by accident while perusing horseback riding opportunities in Croatia prior to our trip. The ranch is near one of the country’s most popular tourist sites, the Plitvice Lakes, so it’s perfect. Accommodations are simple: a room with three beds, but I love our balcony, which overlooks rolling horse pastures. Nearby restaurants offer excellent dining options.
The ranch owner, Marko, doesn’t speak English, but his daughter Marija, 23, is full of information about the horses and nearby attractions. Marija explains that her father fought in the Croatian War of Independence in the early 90s and returned to find his home destroyed. Marko rebuilt his house and created an agritourism business so he could share his passion for horses with people like us. Ranch Terra is the perfect spot to recover from jetlag, enjoy the beautiful Croatian countryside on horseback, and explore nearby Plitvice Lakes National Park.
A UNESCO Natural Heritage site, the park is Croatia’s oldest and largest and features a series of 12 lakes and multiple waterfalls that slowly descend 436 feet. What makes the lakes so popular is their myriad hues—from azure blue to emerald green, colors that change with the time of day and angle of the sun. Waterfalls are abundant, in some areas overwhelming your senses with the sound of crashing water while elsewhere, gentle falls splash playfully down ravines.
More than a million visitors come to Lake Plitvice National Park, so swarms of tourists are likely. The lower lakes are the most crowded, so next time we’ll head to the upper lakes, where it’s more peaceful. Wearing comfy shoes is a must since hiking is the best way to view the lakes and waterfalls. A boat ride about midway through the park offers time to rest and watch the scenery glide by. There are also terraces where you can enjoy a refreshing Croatian beer as well as buses that ferry you back to the entrance. Our spring visit coincides with an explosion of butterflies in the park. More than 300 species have been recorded here, along with 150 types of birds, and 20 species of bats. Brown bears are indigenous to the area, so keep your eyes open!
The local restaurants are surprisingly good. Our first night we dine at Restaurant Degenija, and I enjoy grilled calamari. Jasper and Peter share a pizza, which is so huge it becomes lunch the next day. The second night we dine at Plum Bistro, and I order Istrian Pasta in Truffle Sauce with bleu and parmesan cheese and shaved black truffles. It’s decadent! Jasper orders a lovely club sandwich and Peter has a Greek salad. We are pleasantly surprised at the quality of the cuisine. Hotels are also available in the region, in case you aren’t keen on staying on a farm.
BLOWING IN THE WIND
The next morning we are off to the coast, and a crazy strong wind is blowing from the north. We stop in a town called Primosten, where my brother and his wife stayed a couple years ago. When we get out of the car to explore the Old Town, we can barely walk, the wind is so intense. In a souvenir shop, the friendly owner tells us that the winds can be a constant presence along the coast and mentions four different winds that stir things up throughout the year. We are experiencing the Bora, which brings cool temps but sunny skies and dry conditions. The Old Town of Primosten juts out on a peninsula, so we find a cafe on the leeward side, where we enjoy a cold beer and a fabulous view of the islands just off the coast.
Our accommodations in Split are in a private apartment we rented online. We love it! From our balcony we can see the Adriatic, but the weather is changing and unfortunately much of our time on the coast will be spent under cloudy, drizzly skies. No matter. While the gorgeous beaches are a big draw in summer, we are here to soak up culture, learn about Split’s history, and enjoy tasty Croatian cuisine.
The first morning, we meet our guide, Dino, who shows us around Diocletian’s palace in the heart of Split. The heavily fortified palace is one of the best-preserved examples of architecture from the Roman period and was built as the retirement home of Roman Emperor Diocletian, who lived from 244 until 312 AD. One reason the castle survived mostly intact is that local residents took refuge behind its walls, building homes and businesses. Today the palace is simply part of the city.
We explore underground areas beneath the palace, where archaeologists have discovered various artifacts, including Diocletian’s dining table, a marble slab that conformed to the length of his body (Factoid: Roman emperors dined while reclining and often practiced bulimia so that they could gorge themselves for hours without eating themselves to death. As a result, Dino explains, the emperors lost all their teeth due to acid erosion. Yuck!).
We love walking through the labyrinthine streets inside the palace, where people hang laundry over peaceful courtyards and cute bars and restaurants coexist with cozy homes and apartments. One night we find a darling little pub inside the palace walls called Marvlvs Library Jazz Bar, dedicated to the father of Croatian literature, Markus Marulic. Stone walls, centuries-old beams, shelves full of books, and jazzy background music give this spot a cozy, authentic vibe.
Another night we dine in a popular restaurant called Bokeria Kitchen and Wine Bar also inside the palace walls. Since 2014, family-owned Bokeria has been specializing in locally sourced ingredients as well as Croatian wine. Peter, Jasper, and I decide on three appetizers to share: lamb croquettes served with a local cheese sauce; beef carpaccio with shaved cheese, arugula, and a spicy sauce; and goose liver crème brulee served with lime caviar, tiny green bubbles of lime flavor that pop in your mouth. We are blown away by the flavorful ingredients.
For our mains, I choose smoked risotto with asparagus and prawns (awesome!), Peter has a gourmet hamburger with black truffle mayo and homemade pickles (fabulous!), and Jasper orders a sea bass filet with cauliflower purée (sublime!). Fekky, our waiter, does a fantastic job helping us select wines to accompany the courses. My favorite is a lush, full-bodied zinfandel, Mimica Pribidrag, from the Omis winegrowing region south of Split.
We learn more about wines when we visit Putalj Winery about 15 minutes from Split. The owner, Anton, has agreed to give us a quick tour to accommodate our schedule, but after hearing about the regular tour, which includes a relaxing vineyard visit, flowing wine, plates of cheese and ham, olive oil tastings, and lots of information about Croatia’s wine history, I am sorry we don’t have more time. Anton does a great job of packing a lot of information into our 45-minute visit.
“Croatia has 1000 years of wine history and is the birthplace of zinfandel grapes,” Anton explains. Sadly the region’s wine growing tradition came to a halt during the Communist era, when people stopped working on the land and went to toil in factories. Fortunately, Anton’s family was able to hold on to the vineyards, and today he is growing grapes on the same land where his father and grandfather tended the vines. “Everything I learned about wine comes from my father and my grandfather,” he says.
Putalj wine is fabulous! Anton, who just returned from a world conference on zinfandel held in Split, gives us a taste of his 2016 zin before and after aging in oak. It’s incredible. We also taste Anton’s homemade olive oil accompanied by bread his mother baked. I want to take home barrels of both the wine and the olive oil, but content myself with two bottles of Putalj zinfandel.
Another evening we dine at Caper, a fine dining restaurant in the upscale Radisson Blu Hotel, which we tour with manager Michael Caspar. Michael shows us around the newly renovated hotel, which features the largest spa in Split, a beach bar, and a soothing aquatic vibe. A new annex is under construction, which will feature sea views from all rooms and state-of-the-art technology. Our dining experience is lovely, and my grilled sea bass is a standout.
Besides Diocletian’s Palace, Split offers lots of other attractions including a city museum and an archaeological museum, as well as a hillside site called Solana, where Roman ruins have been excavated. When we visit, hardly any other tourists are around so it’s easy to enjoy the spectacular views and sense of history here. The amphitheater surrounded by a few extant arches and huge blocks of stone is peaceful, but in fact twenty centuries ago, it was the scene of gladiators fighting to the death as well as the persecution of Christians during Diocletian’s reign. It’s hard to reconcile visions of bloodthirsty Romans with the tranquility of this place.
Wouldn’t you know it? The day we leave Split is the prettiest yet. Blue sky, puffy white clouds, warm temps, and a gentle breeze. Jasper really wants to go for a swim, so on the way out of town, we stop by a beautiful park not far from Diocletian’s castle where empty beaches await.
Only a handful of other beachgoers are here, and we lay our towels on the pebbles and spend a little while soaking up the sun. Jasper takes a dip in the Adriatic Sea—“Brrrr, it’s cold,” he says. We skip flat stones in the water and watch sailboats sail by, leaving the nearby marina and scudding westward toward Croatia’s gorgeous islands. We wanted to explore Hvar, one of the area’s most popular islands, but the windy, rainy weather kept us on the mainland. Now we have a reason to come back!
Meanwhile, it’s on to Zagreb, where more of Croatia’s charm and beauty is waiting to seduce us.
Coming up in July: Part 2 of our Croatian adventure.
For more information, check the following: