Guest Post: Croatia…Who Knew?

As much as I’d like to be able to grab my group and GO EVERYWHERE, time and money, sadly, are not infinite.  Luckily I have like minded friends that I can tap to share the adventures they have with their group.  I have long been admiring Beth Mejia’s adventures from afar.  We share a passion for getting out of our comfort zones,  encouraging our children to experience new cultures, and for getting the most bang for our travel buck by seeking out accommodation gems in private rental homes via VRBO or airbnb.  As such, I invited Beth to contribute my first guest post and she said yes!  Can’t wait to learn all about Croatia from her.  Let’s kick things off in Split.  Bon Voyage Beth and thank you for sharing!  Linda

Entry One:  Arriving in Split

img_2044.jpgYears ago a friend posted some beautiful photos from a biking vacation she took with her husband.  Turns out, she was in Croatia.  Huh?  Well, she didn’t have kids and I don’t bike, so I just put it to the back of my mind. Then, just a few years back, a former colleague posted some photos of her vacation.  No biking — just beautiful water, amazing meals, and quaint villages. Simply breathtaking.  And there it was again…Croatia.

Knowing nothing about the area (other than the words “former Yugoslavia” and “war”), I certainly had never thought about traveling there.  Then my son’s youth orchestra announced they would be traveling to Vienna to perform over the summer.  My first thought was to use the opportunity to visit Italy on our way to Vienna.  Then we checked the map and lo and behold, there it was again….Croatia.  Roman ruins.  Amazing food.  More than 1,000 islands.  Fewer crowds.  Better value.  Croatia was calling.

We picked Split as our point of entry because, quite simply, we could get there from here.  It was an easy one-stop flight from Newark and the simplicity by which we could travel from there to Vienna (trains run daily, rental cars are easy to secure and Croatian roads are in fantastic shape and easy to navigate) sealed the deal.  Dubrovnik is the bigger and more popular city (although Game of Thrones has put both cities on the map for many fans in the US), but Split offers a city that lives and breathes within and around a Roman palace from 300 AD.  Over 2,000 residents still live in Diocletian’s incredible summer residence, which is more intact than most Roman ruins in Italy.  Shops, restaurants, and events intertwine with breathtaking architecture and deep, deep history.  It all works together to create a magical experience.  As it turns out, a lot of Europeans we met during the trip preferred Split for it’s smaller crowds and it’s reputation as a better overall value.

img_2074.jpgWe opted for a VRBO rental just outside the palace, but still in the old city.  There are plenty of residences and small hotels available within the palace itself, but our flat was pretty perfect and cost us about $100 US per night.  It was an 800 square foot studio with a loft for my teen and an outside patio in a courtyard that was perfect for planning the day over espresso or reflecting upon it with some very good (and very cheap) Croatian wine.

A big reason we choose VRBO for international travel is that the owners or property managers usually speak English and they take care of what we call our “start-up” costs.  Maroje, the owner, picked us up at the airport and escorted us to the flat (it was in the pedestrian zone and a cab could only get so close).  He gave us the lay of the land, plenty of brochures and literature for us to peruse at our leisure, pointed out the “do not miss” attractions, the local’s favorite spots, and provided information on safety, money, and language.  Having a local contact like Maroje provided us with a sense of confidence and personalized service that one just cannot get from a hotel.  It makes us feel more like an “insider.”  Plus VRBO makes it easy to communicate with your host ahead of time, change reservations, and make payments.  This trip was no exception.

There were plenty of shops and markets around our flat to feed our morning coffee and afternoon happy hour monkeys—at prices that made us feel like we were in Dubuque, not NYC.  Croatia uses the Kuna as their currency.  It was about 7 Kuna to $1 so the math wasn’t too bad.  Some places also take Euro.  There are plenty of places to change money, lots of ATMs and banks, and everyone speaks English.  Everyone.  It is a mandatory class for all starting in the first grade.

IMG_2059It is easy to spend days on end wandering through the narrow streets of Split where the sounds of Klapa (Croatian A capella music that is protected through UNESCO) echo along the stone walls while the scent of lavender (Croatia is known for their lavender fields) and fresh baked goods (oh, my, try the cherry strudel) surround you.  There are plenty of walking tours that can be booked through the tourist venues or by visiting the main square outside the basement of the palace bell tower.  We opted for a one-hour guided walking tour (English) and a self-guided tour of the palace basement that we booked on the spot.  This gave us plenty of history and context for further meandering on our own.  For many of the attractions my 15 year old son payed a very reduced cost or was free.  Students are welcomed everywhere!

We poured over restaurant reviews before we arrived, but in the end simply picked places that looked interesting when we were hungry.  During the weekdays, we had no issue getting a table and the service was great.  By Friday night, the weekend crowd had grown, the waits got a bit longer, and the service slowed down a bit (my son travels with a deck of Uno cards for just such an emergency).

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We dined on Adriatic fish at practically every meal.  While I am not much of a Blue Fish, Smelt or Mackerel fan at home, in Split they are fresher, smaller, lighter, and incredibly delicious.  For my non-fish eating teen, there were more than enough meat and Italian dishes to keep him happy.  And so much gelato! Our dinner bills for three averaged about $60 US including a bottle of wine and usually at least one dessert.

IMG_2079There are two things, however, that we missed: water and coffee.  Water is not ubiquitous as it is in the US.  Tap water, which is fine to drink, is rarely served at meals— you certainly have to ask to get it (at one location the waitress revealed that she couldn’t serve us tap water because “her boss was watching”).  Bottled water (which is what you will get if you ask for water) usually comes in 8 oz bottles and runs about the same cost as a soda or a glass of wine.  It is best to carry a water bottle with you.  The coffee is wonderful of course, but it is all espresso — even an ‘Americano’ here is one shot espresso and only one shot water.  And it is not so easy to find a place that has “to go” cups.  Coffee is meant to be sipped in cafes, not guzzled on the streets.  So my big cup of coffee which accompanies me most mornings was non-existent.  I drank a lot of little coffees!

Along with the rich history and culture of Split, there were, of course, other activities.  The outdoor market, right outside the back wall of the palace, is a great place for picking up some Croatian art, trinkets, and souvenirs.  The promenade on the harbor is beautiful and bustling with merchants, fisherman, and tourists.  It is a great place for people and yacht watching.  At night there is music all over the city.  On the insistence of our son, we visited Frogglyland, which can only be described as “you gotta see this.” The exhibit of over 500 taxidermy frogs, posed in various dioramas like “In the Courtroom” or “Circus”, is really something to behold.  I guarantee that the 20 minutes you spend here will be well worth the stories you can tell!

We loved our time in Split.  There was literally something to discover around every corner.  It is perfect for those who like to plan ahead or for those who prefer to discover the city as they go.  People are friendly, the city is safe, and while we certainly weren’t the only Americans there, it was lovely to hear a variety of languages and to meet so many folks from around the world.  The other great thing about Split is that it is super easy to visit many of Croatia’s beautiful islands from there.  That is where we head next.

Next time…Exploring Croatia’s islands

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