Croatia is a wonderland of waterfalls, ancient kingdoms with waterfront castles, scrubby landscape and the clearest sea water I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to see why many of Game of Thrones’ filming locations are here (our travels are actually THE reason I braved the violence and arguable misogyny of the series). But in real life, it’s hard to believe that it was the setting for the bloody civil war and subsequent genocide following the breakup of Yugoslavia. We saw moving monuments to the dead in almost every small village we passed. These days, tourism in Croatia is booming – as well it should. We visited two stunning national parks, historic and scenic fortified towns and stayed for a week on an idyllic island in Dalmatia. And, best of all, it’s affordable.
The impetus for our trip was meeting my sister and her family for week at a rented waterfront villa. (It was fabulous, but more on that later). To get there, we drove from Switzerland through Bavaria and Slovenia, and met up with them at Krka National Park. It’s sometimes described as a mini-Plitvice Lakes National Park (the beautiful “poster child” of non-coastal Croatia), but as a bonus, you can actually swim at the base of the waterfalls (which you cannot do in Plitvice). It was a great place to kick off our Croatian experience! We Hatches spent the night in the village of Skradin, which is a bit of a grubby backpacker-type town. Our lodging was great though! Spacious, clean and with a friendly host who offered us his homemade cherry brandy upon check in. Anyway, the next morning, lo and behold, my sister Alex, her husband and their lil darlins’ appeared as promised, so we could all take the ferry into the park together. Really fun reunion! They live in San Francisco, so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like, and our kids are the same ages. They’d just flown in the day before, using the cute town of Trogir as their temporary base.
Krka was a great place to catch up with them. It’s an excellent kid-friendly destination: small and compact, with very do-able “hike” (more of a walk) that makes a circuit around the stunning waterfalls, beginning and ending with a swimming area at the base of the falls. We were VERY happy we caught the first ferry in, as when we left the park, the crowds had grown exponentially.
We parted ways after Krka – they went back to Trogir, and we had a significant drive to Dubrovnik… I had deliberated as to whether it was worth the extra hours in the car (already LONG) versus missing this iconic city. Unfortunately, it was a difficult drive, because that day, there were high winds and resulting fires that contributed to road closures and traffic, in addition to some festival going on in Split, making traffic around that city almost unbearable (a certain driver hit his breaking point… good times!). We ended up foregoing the scenic coastal route in favor of the faster highway. However, when we reached our AirBnB, the view from the window made it all worth it. As new watchers of Game of Thrones (at that point, we were about halfway through the series), we were thrilled to check out King’s Landing. Dubrovnik was awesome! Loved it. The whole walled city has a medieval, mystical quality, and even the more modern surrounding city was manageable and nice. We liked it much better than Split (more on that later). Of course, it gets crowded, but honestly, it was very bearable.
Apparently, Dubrovnik suffered bombing and damage in 1991, including the next door neighbors to our AirBnB getting killed from a bomb hitting their house). According to our host, people still feel bitterness and resentment toward their former enemies (the Yugoslav People’s Army, or JNA); her husband still refuses to travel to next door Montenegro. It was a very complicated war made worse by the U.S. and others’ reluctance to get involved, even when it was becoming clear that a genocide was occurring – IN EUROPE.
The next day, we headed to the island of Korcula in Dalmatia, where we’d be for the next six days at our rented house. The drive was pleasant and pretty, and we had a lovely lunch in Mali Ston, famous for its salt and oysters. The plan was for my sister and her family to arrive by ferry from Split, beating us to the house. Unfortunately, the ferry process ended up being a nightmare. Despite having bought tickets far in advance AND arriving very early (she’s a planner like I am!), they missed the ferry by a few cars. Apparently, the process was unusually chaotic and crowded, due to the fires of the previous day. In addition, Saturdays are the rental turnover day, so it’s always the most crowded day of the week. Bottom line is that we arrived first, and they arrived beleaguered and irritated at about 10pm.
All was right in the world in the days that followed though: lazy days full of swimming in the crystalline water and the pool, reading in lounge chairs and cooking up good meals. The cousins had a blast hanging out with each other, and the adults never ran out of conversation and card playing. It was a great week! Korcula is wild and scrubby with a couple of cute towns – but mostly mountainous and rugged.
We reluctantly parted ways after successfully catching the ferry and grabbing a nice lunch in Split. The site of Diocletian’s Palace (which Fritz was keen to see, due to its appearance in Rick Riordan’s House of Hades book), Split is scenic but very crowded and quite hot that day. The sprawl outside the city seemed to go on forever. Our destination for that night was Trogir, about 45 minutes away. Trogir is much smaller and very charming… but also hot and crowded (at least the traffic). PapaHatch had had enough of hot, crowded Croatian towns by that point, but I thought Trogir was delightful (at least in the shade). I loved seeing the similarities with Venice, as they were all part of the Venetian Empire until Napoleon put an end to that. I was very glad we chose to stay there rather than Split.
Our last stop in Croatia was inland: the magnificent Plitvice Lakes National Park. Much bigger than Krka with many more visitors (and sadly, no swimming), Plitvice deserves its notoriety. Stunning vistas abound around every corner. Once again, we were happy to have gotten there early, as the crowds only increased throughout the day, as did the heat.
Plus, that allowed us to be back at our awesome AirBnB by early afternoon to chill out. Literally… in the shade, the climate was very pleasant. We read, played cards, relaxed. Looking out on the peaceful hills and valleys, I forced myself to imagine gunshots and war coming to the doorsteps of people who had lived in these villages for generations. The first fatality of the war was right in Plitvice National Park, of all places. I found the war memorials in each village very moving.
Our itinerary in Croatia was too rushed with a lot of driving, but we certainly saw and experienced a lot – including plenty of downtime to offset the travel time. There’s so much to see and do – of course, we just scratched the surface (leaving for another trip the Istria Peninsula and some of the other islands). But we also experienced many different aspects of the country… in addition to imagining ourselves in Westeros… and in more sobering moments, reflecting on all that was lost during the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s.