March 29 – April 28, 2016 (Spring shoulder season)
Greeting: Dobar dan
Currency: Kuna (kn)
Visa: 90 days in 180 RR
Cost of living: Medium
Split is the second-largest city in Croatia and sits squarely in the center of the Dalmatian coast on the shores of the Adriatic. The city sprang from the bones of a massive ancient Roman palace. To visit the palace today, it doesn’t make sense to ask where in the Old Town it is – it essentially is the Old Town. The area has a storied history and was fought over for millennia, most recently during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Croatian War of Independence, the pain of which is still quite fresh to many. Split has embraced its new tourist appeal and related industries, like its reinvigorated enthusiasm for winemaking. From west to east, the city reads as a time capsule: ancient ruins, cobbled streets between old Mediterranean apartments, imposing Communist-era housing blocks, and finally modern malls and sprawling beach-front resorts. And yet, just a bit further, we found what felt like an undiscovered paradise all to ourselves.
Where we stayed
This stay was our first truly impressive Airbnb↗, and let us know our strategy of booking further in advance was paying off. The apartment was well outside the city center, in the nearby suburb of Podstrana. We were drawn to the listing because it promised a commanding view at a reasonable price. It was on the top floor of a building high on the hillside, overlooking the water to the west and the next-nearest town of Stobreč. In Croatia, it is customary for parents to build multi-story homes to provide a place for their children to raise their own families, bringing two or three generations together under the same roof. Our hosts had one daughter who was soon moving overseas for work, so they rented out the extra space to travelers like ourselves. Living in the same building and all, we ran into them often, but we never felt like we lacked privacy as each apartment had its own lock and they gave us plenty of space.
Since it was designed for an entire family, our apartment had more space than we knew what to do with. There were two large bedrooms, two bathrooms, an ample living room and kitchen, and three (!) separate decks to enjoy the views. We made good use of the outdoors, and watching the sun set from our balcony with a glass of wine in hand was a highlight of our stay.
One of the more curious features was the inclusion of storm shutters on every window, which blocked out the sun when closed and turned the apartment into a fortress. Apparently, such precautions are necessary to protect against the bura↗. Fortunately we had only a few mildly breezy days and none of the car-flipping or roof-tile-removing that the local wind is famous for in winter. We also had our first experience with a shower where the curtain or door didn’t actually surround all the places water would reach. The further east we went, the more open the showers became. Croatia seems to fall in the middle of the spectrum – some type of barrier is still expected, but it didn’t have to be fully functional.
Once we climbed down from our lofty hillside perch, we found ourselves in what was charitably “town.” The lone coastal rode broke frequently into winding, uphill jaunts littered with nearly-identical three-story homes. There was almost no flat land at sea level – the other side of the street was just feet from the shore. The main thoroughfare featured some small grocery stores, a bakery, and a couple of sandwich stands popular with the locals. There was also a pharmacy and a drug store, for medications and hygiene products respectively. Everything else, from the high-rise hotels to the expensive seaside restaurants, remained shuttered and dormant before the summer rush.
Getting into the city was easy, with frequent buses in both directions. Various companies plied the route for differing fares, from 13-17 kuna per person. The ride was lengthy, though, at about 25 minutes to the Old Town (barring complications due to traffic). Walking was out of the question. There were few sidewalks; some major roads simply had well-worn shoulders that seemed to be the de facto avenue for pedestrian traffic. We managed trips about town and to Stobreč, plus one ill-advised trek to City Center One, a towering hangar of a mall almost 5 km of highway-side marching away. This was one stay where we were glad for affordable transit.
What we did
The vicinity of our apartment in Podstrana was ideal for privacy, sunsets, and long walks on the beach. We had easy access to sites in either direction, but mostly we were happy with the quiet and low-key vibe of our neighborhood. Most days, we would get a bit of work done – maybe have a bite to eat – and at some point ramble down the incline to the pebbly and (mostly) abandoned beach. We could walk the entire afternoon and not reach an “end” to it. The journey was varied and interesting; some segments in woodlands, some overlapping the paved grounds of seaside resorts, and some weaving around fancy yachts at a popular harbor. The rocks, urchins, and not-yet-summer temps precluded any chance of swimming, but didn’t deter us from spending a lot of time very near the water. We got the impression that summer would not be as much to our tastes, both in temperature and in the quality of clientele that would soon be swarming our beloved personal paradise.
Our first forays in the area naturally began in the Old Town centered around Diocletian’s Palace. The narrow, cobbled streets are inside what used to be the main floor of the Palace, while underneath the modern town are the well-crafted (and recently exhumed) basements. For a few dollars, we explored the arched rooms and domed tunnels where supplies would have been kept and servants carried out much of the work. Over the centuries, the cavernous space made a tempting dumping ground for trash and sewage, and today, some portions have yet to be excavated as the debris prevents the city above from caving in. It was mind-blowing for us to examine the stones and think about how they’d been holding up these roofs since around the year 300. There’s a saying that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while Europeans think 100 miles is a long way; well here, even European time pales. These timescales are more analogous to the rises and falls of religions than nation-states. The streets above were no less impressive, polished smooth (even slippery) by generations of wayfarers and passersby.
Hungry for some hiking, we bussed about half an hour south to Omiš, where Starigrad Fortress sits high atop a ridge overlooking the small town. The trail was steep and rocky, looser than we were used to, and with few switchbacks to moderate the grade. At one point we lost the trail and found ourselves dead in the center of a thicket of brambles. Do we retreat, or push forward? We pushed forward, and popped out onto the ridgeline trail that soared over the thin strip of houses below. Behind us, the river cut a deep canyon. To our right, the outflow interacted with the sandbar and sea to form swirling turquoise vortices. A peregrine falcon dove in front of us, falling from eye-level to distant speck with impossible speed. We turned toward the castle, which from this angle resembled the bow of a ship. The entrance had infrastructure for selling tickets, but there was nobody around for miles to take our money. We walked right in and clambered in and on every structure. Sitting on the ramparts, looking down on the village below, we were the happiest we’d could remember being. We played generals and discussed the tactical advantage of our position, agreeing with the builders that it was a good place for a fortress. Many centuries ago, locals kept attack boats upriver, hidden from the sightlines of passing vessels, and used the castle as a lookout. If an enemy or ripe target got close, they sprang the trap. Once we made our way off the hill, we looked back and were astounded to see that the castle was almost undetectable from ground level. There wasn’t much happening in Omiš on that April afternoon, but we did find the church of St. Michael to be especially photogenic, the facade scattered with purple flowers growing right out of the masonry.
The glistening and gleaming coast of Croatia might be less memorable if not for the beautiful islands scattered across the horizons. We hitched a ride on a convenient and comfortable ferry to Hvar, one of the most popular islands for jet-setters of the “rich and famous” variety. During the summer, anyway. When we got there, the place was essentially deserted, the only activity coming from the touristy rim which buzzed with restaurants and beach-front bars being repainted and renovated for the tourist season, oblivious to the small-fry gawkers in their midst. We stayed at a tiny mother-in-law apartment we found on Airbnb that had a slightly-obstructed view of the bay outside Hvar Town. Peeking into churches and wandering through the staired streets of the town, we ended up at the Španjola Fortress, one of our favorite castles to date. It checked all the boxes – soaring battlements, robust cannons, damp and dingy dungeons, and a breathtaking view of its charge, the picturesque town and its shimmering sapphire harbor.
Of course, we couldn’t leave Split without stopping in some castles and runs. Er, some more castles and ruins. Our host was gracious enough to offer us a ride to Klis Fortress and the nearby Roman ruins at Solin. The fortress was a curiosity until recently, when it was used as (one of the many local) filming locations for the HBO series Game of Thrones. We were oblivious to the phenomenon before arriving in Croatia, but we picked up an HBO NOW sub to catch up and found ourselves enthralled. (Even still, the book was much better than the
movie show, and the real deal better yet.) Klis has clearly taken advantage of their new-found fame with higher admission fees and fantasy-themed exhibits, but at least the additional revenue is being applied to repairs and restorations. In the plains below the fortification are the ruins of Salona/Solin. It was intriguing to see the ancient archways and the footprint of a grand amphitheater butting up against an everyday neighborhood. Solin, like the rest of Split, shows that history isn’t confined to museums and permeates the present; life has grown up, around, and on top of what came before. In the ruined theater, we climbed right down to center stage and imagined ancient plays and gladiatorial battles. Maybe a thousand years from now, folks will climb around the ruins of our stadiums and imagine dramatic matches by Hajduk Split↗.
Perhaps the most magical experience we had during our stay in Spit was to visit Plitvička jezera (Plitvice Lakes National Park), a stunning and ever-evolving maze of waterfalls somewhere between Split and the nation’s capital of Zagreb. The park was beyond magical and far too grand for a one-paragraph summary. Read more about it here↗.
Food & Drink
We came to Croatia expecting a bounty of seafood, but ultimately the theme of our stay in Split was top-notch vegetables. Our hosts welcomed us with a regional specialty called soparnik, a savory flat pastry filled with swiss chard and topped with an obscene amount of garlic. Shortly thereafter, we discovered ajvar, which quickly rocketed up our all-time favorite foods list. A slurry of red peppers, eggplant, garlic and more, it is sometimes called “vegetable caviar.” We adored it, especially the more piquant blends, and it wound up on everything from toast and pretzels to eggs and sandwiches.
With few external dining options available, we ate at home a lot, and found a lot of easy meals using the local frozen vegetables. For whatever reason, the Ledo-brand Mediterranean mix blew away anything we’ve had before or since. Full of peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and even black olives (something we normally despise), they stood up as an independent side or powered tons of easy, flavorful veggie pasta dinners.
That’s not to say that Croatia was devoid of meat. The fish we tried was delicious and affordable. Under recommendation of a fellow traveler, we made sure to try ćevapi from Kantun Paulina, a tiny take-away place on the edge of the Old Town. A standard sandwich features the little tubed meats stuffed into a pita and smothered in ajvar and diced onions. One was large enough for us to share as a near-complete meal. The ćevapi themselves are skinless sausages and basically tasted like a cross between breakfast sausage and ground beef (or in other words, heaven).
Another snack that worked its way under our skin was peanut crisps, puffy little bites that were surprisingly addictive. Hrusk Flips were our preferred brand.
Our local grocery stores were Diskont Mihanović, Ribola, and Tommy, in order from closest (right down the hill from us) to furthest away (10 minutes’ walk up the road). Diskont Mihanović, contrary to its name, was generally the most expensive and offered the least selection, so we usually passed it up for the other two. Ribola, the middle child, won in the seafood category. It had a dedicated counter in front that offered fresh and varied catches daily at reasonable prices. Tommy usually had the best prices for groceries, the best produce, and the best selection. They even sold some utensils and home goods, like the lightweight and travel-friendly cutting board we picked up and have used ever since. They also had an adjacent bakery, but we preferred the independent baker we walked past on the way home.
One of the things we were most looking forward to about Croatia was sampling the wine. We’d heard good things, but it never seems to find its way to the US, so this was our chance. Most famous is Plavac Mali, a tannic, jammy red wine once believed to be an ancestor of Zinfandel, but now known to be a crossbreed between Zin and Dobričić. Babić is even darker on average, but wasn’t as well represented. We even enjoyed a few whites, curiously-named varietals like Malvazija, Debit, and Pošip. We saw the most range with Plavac Mali, from some pretty disheartening lows (one awful specimen was sealed with a bottle cap) to standouts like Zlatan Otok and Ivan Dolac that easily held up against Europe’s heavy hitters. While we splurged a bit here and there, we usually spent $5 or less per bottle. For a more consistent quality at a great value price, we were surprisedly pleased with Macedonian wine. Ezimit aged theirs in amphorae, producing a mineraly and robust product that often ended up on our dinner table. Wine frequently came in 1-liter bottles, the only place we’ve been where this was more common than 750 ml. Going back to the usual size after our stay was kind of a let-down!
Speaking of big containers sizes, Croatian beer had some doozies. The local macrobrews came in 1 L, even 2 L plastic jugs. Maybe this was a way to compensate for the relatively expensive bottle deposit scheme in the country, maybe they were just making up for questionable quality with generous quantity. In any case, more was not necessarily better, and the biggest brands (Karlovačko and Ožujsko) were among the worst we’ve had in Europe. Craft beer was rare, though we did find one decent microbrewer by the name of Zmajska Pivovara in a couple of shops. Probably the best beer we could find with any regularity was Tomislav, which was darker, more flavorful, and 7.3% ABV (which helped us forget how bad all the beers tasted).
Stuff of interest
Tele2 was our mobile provider↗. Two SIMs with 3 gigs of data each were about $15.
Croatia apparently never got the memo to move back on the bus to make room for new passengers. Someone would stop mid-ship, then the space in front of them grew more and more crowded until passengers were turned away. Meanwhile, the entire back of the bus would remain unused. If you get on a crowded bus in Croatia and have the stamina to do so, push through the mob and you will likely find a bevy of seats to choose from.
While we were in town, our only transit options were walking or taking the bus. As with many spots in Eastern Europe, local cabs have a reputation for not treating foreigners fairly. Shortly after we left though, Uber↗ started serving the area, so next time we will have more options.
Croatia was yet another spot where correct change was expected to the point of indignation. Bills were not a problem, but if a cashier had to dig into their stockpile of coins, we were treated like delinquents or ne’er-do-wells.
The local soccer club, Hajduk Split, commands a level of fandom that is truly impressive. Their logo was everywhere – stickers, jerseys, candy bar promotions, painted in murals, painted in graffiti. With more lax laws about sponsorships and childhood innocence, the team was even free to license official an official beer, wine, and hard liquor. Our host mentioned that if we ever got into any kind of trouble, the phrase “volim [I love] Hadjuk” would probably get us out of it and possibly endear us to whoever was doing the hassling.
What we learned
The shoulder season in Croatia is an ideal time for introverts. We adored the stunning natural beauty in almost complete seclusion. Some places were not yet on their full schedules, others weren’t open at all, but the few that remained were of course the authentic spots the locals preferred. It was a more intimate and personal stay than most, and made us feel like this place was ours and ours alone.