By Arlene Larsen / Photos by Thor A. Larsen
‘Jewels of the Adriatic’ was how our tour company, smarTours, billed this consummate journey and they were true to their word. Slovenia and Croatia present an interesting diversity of Eastern and Western Europe. Essentially, the areas we visited are two of the six countries that formerly made up Yugoslavia. All these six countries are now independent nations. While our tour spent some time in five of these countries, that is Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, we chose to spend our time exclusively in Slovenia and Croatia to see them in more depth.
In summary, a trip to Croatia and Slovenia provides you with the best that Europe has to offer; historic sites, lavish churches, magnificent works of art, empty beaches with crystal clear water, baroque cities with fine museums, beautiful parks, fine concert halls, and a full range of restaurants at reasonable prices. In addition, touring through Slovenia and Croatia in early June was perfection since the weather was consistently sunny and in the mid ‘70’s and the tourist crowds were modest, unlike those found in Italy, France or Spain.
Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is a cultural city with a large university, 12 museums, numerous historic churches, most surrounded by colorful gardens. The city is situated on two hills that started out as two different towns in the middle ages. At the top of the ‘Kapitol’ district stands the imposing neo-gothic cathedral of St, Stevens, originally built in 1094, destroyed by the Mongols in the 1200’s and rebuilt several times in the last seven hundred years. At the other high point of the upper town, the ‘Gradec’, is the most recognizable site in all Zagreb, the colorful church of St. Mark. Its distinctive roof of bright red, white and blue tiles is emblazed with the four coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, Slovenia and Zagreb. A perfect respite from serious sight-seeing was a detour to Slasticarinca Vincek, which happens to be near the main square and has the very best desserts in town.
We visited the home and gardens of world famous sculptor, Atelje Mestrovic, which had been converted to a museum of some of his works. We were lucky to be given an in-depth tour of his sculptures by a PhD student working there as a docent. A number of Mr. Mestrovics’ sculptures are in the U.S. since he spent several years teaching at Syracuse University.
The city of Dubrovnik, often referred to as ‘the Pearl of the Adriatic’ certainly lives up to its press. The most breathtaking view of this lovely city has to be when you approach it from a boat. The old city is surrounded by massive 30 ft. walls that are 6400 ft long, built in the 10th Century. Dubrovnik’s backdrop is a steep mountain with homes along the lower hills, further dramatizing the city’s beauty.
While strolling through the cobblestone streets of this ancient walled city and visiting its monasteries, churches, (an historic synagogue), and palaces , you get an insight to the various empires that had taken up residence here, including the Romans, the Venetians, the Austro-Hungarians, the Byzantines, etc. Today, this ancient and beautiful walled city remains a functional community for residents and tourists.
After shopping and sightseeing, one can hop on tour boats or ferries to nearby islands for hiking, swimming or snorkeling in crystal-clear water. There is no end of islands, both large and small in the Adriatic and many have ‘mom and pop’ restaurants serving fresh seafood, sometimes prepared in front of the patrons.
The city of Split, on the Adriatic, became an important Roman city when Emperor Diocletian built a massive, walled palace complex as a ‘retirement home’ in early 200 AD. This impressive palace remains today with over 2000 people living or working within the its walls. There are many small, medieval-period buildings, housing shops, businesses and residences that are interconnected with narrow, cobblestone streets. In addition, there are several larger structures, including the Cathedral of St. Domnius, whose entrance has beautiful hand-carved doors from the 1200’s depicting scenes from the gospels. Another exceptional building is the ‘Temple of Jupiter’ which resembles the Pantheon in Rome, and now is known as, the Babtistry of St. John. After exploring this medieval village, we wandered along the waterfront on the beautiful ‘Riva’ promenade, stopping at a café for some gelato and enjoying the view of the clear and calm Adriatic.
Travelling north of Split on the Croatian coast, just before you reach the Italian border, the peninsula of Istria juts out into the Adriatic. Istria is ringed with charming fishing villages along its coast and the inland hills are laced with small family vineyards. Because of Istria’s close proximity to Italy, there are many Italian influences in the region, including the pastel colored buildings and the architecture of the historical structures. There is a spectacular first century, restored Roman Amphitheater in the city of Pula, capable of seating 5000 people, (used today for concerts). Pula also has impressive Roman arches and Roman temples.
Another stop along the Istria coast was the charming fishing village of Rovinj with its many cafes and a large outdoor food market. After completing the Istria tour we spent several days in Opatje, a seaside resort town. This charming city of pastel colored Baroque buildings built in the late 1800’s by wealthy Austrians and Hungarians when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The long boardwalk and beautiful parks reminded us of a small version of the French Riviera.
Slovenia borders Austria so it is no wonder when we stayed at a lodge overlooking Lake Bled, we felt we were in an idyllic ‘Hansel and Gretel’ village. The views include a castle on a very high cliff overlooking the lake, a small island with a quaint church, often used for weddings, and in the distance, the snow covered Julian Alps. A perfect day included eating ’al fresco’ at a restaurant overlooking the lake, a slow boat (Pletna) ride to the island, powered by a gondolier.
Our trip also included a stop at a National Park (Plitvice Lakes), a tour of caves (Postojna), and visits to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, with its riverside promenade and street fair. We also visited the charming cities of Trogier, Croatia, set on a small island on the Adriatic, with monuments from the Greeks and Romans, and Zadar, Croatia with its spectacular Romanesque buildings . We fully agree that this journey was indeed a trip to the ‘Jewels of the Adriatic’ .