Croatia

Šibenik, Croatia

You might have thought Croatia – Dalmatia especially – was starting to become old news. Game of Thrones has finally tipped Dubrovnik over into being a theme park and a tourist trap, with some unpalatable western-feeling prices for tourist attractions and restaurant dining. While the place may have registered a glimmer a decade ago among the more discerning, virtually every man and his dog knows about it. Meanwhile, several other of the major towns have joined the cheap flight network, with Split especially being a hub for American, Australian and British backpackers.

The surge in popularity for Croatia as a destination is perfectly understandable. With an ever-evolving dramatic unspoilt coastline of rocky clifftops and island archipelagos, a cuisine that offers fresh seafood, very affordable good quality Italian food and Yugoslavian grilled meats, a rugged landscape dotted with ruined fortresses, remote churches and fascinating remnants from the still recent war, there’s a lot to dig into and in the main it is accessible and affordable.

Why Šibenik then, in particular?

Šibenik may come as a surprise, even if you partake in a little research before your visit. While there are certain advantages to being situated in Split or Dubrovnik, Šibenik puts you within shooting distance of a number of otherwise difficult to access activities, while being a charming and atmospheric town in its own right.

What may not be apparent straight away is the lay of the land. Šibenik is a hill town, meaning objects may be further away than they appear on your map, as I discovered booking an apartment I thought was merely 20 minutes walk from town. Choose your location carefully.

However, often the great thing about such towns is their aesthetic, with sloped snaky streets leading into the hills out of town, and a fascinating rabbit warren of an old town leading directly into people’s back yards in a similar way to Robin Hood’s Bay and the like. Wandering through these little yards and urban gardens, climbing up the hill from the main square rewards you with a terrific view. Of any of the major towns on the coast, it is Šibenik that has the prettiest coastline, with an array of beautiful forested islands in which seem to make up a smaller scale world map in themselves. The waters are clear and blue, and you’ll feel like jumping on a hang glider or charging up a jet pack to get a full view. For those of us without such equipment, carry on climbing and you will meet the first of three fortresses in Šibenik itself. For a fair price you can gain entry to a recently modernised and restored fortress, and a ticket that allows you access to Barone Fortress, the highest up and hardest to reach, but as you’d expect, one with a jaw-dropping view. In addition to the three mainland fortresses there is Saint Nikole’s dramatic island fortress based on an island accessible via stepping stones (and a few splashes in the sea) a cycle ride south of the town.

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Looks good, so where are the tourists?

Šibenik felt to me like a city starting to gear itself up to being a major destination. Many of the alleys through the old town area still have an ungentrified look that treads a line between rustic and dilapidated, but this is slowly – at Croatia’s usual pedestrian speed – starting to change. The town’s normal tourism is derived from backpackers and those on boating holidays who anchor at the sea front, but they are starting to pick up more middle class, middle aged, monied tourists as well as word spreads. The town is starting to put on a ‘face’, in the same way as its more illustrious neighbours.

However, this is a long way off. For the time being you can enjoy relative peace and quiet exploring a wonderful historic centre without the choked feeling of crowds, dozens of souvenir stands and people bothering you.

What are the main sights?

Other than the three fortresses mentioned above and the mazy old town, there is a 15th century cathedral with a UNESCO inscription, an atmospheric central square, a typical ‘Riva’ (the promenade on the seafront), as well a small but pleasant beach. A walk from the beach into town gives you a fantastic view of the place as well as being a truly relaxing and pleasant stroll.

In addition to Šibenik itself, you may take boat trips to the nearby islands, which out of season you may find unerringly quiet, although for peace and natural beauty you could hardly go wrong. Šibenik is also a jumping off point for a day trip to Krka National Park an essential trip on your stay here.

The national park is accessible via one public bus at 11am and returning at 5pm, which gives you the chance to walk from the town of Skradin to the park, and enjoy a good 3 hours there before walking back and getting the bus to Šibenik. The park is famous for a series of cascades and waterfalls, an old hydroelectric power plant, monastery and huge plant and animal diversity. Entry is relatively expensive but no-one who visits will ever say it isn’t worthwhile. To top it off, the pool at the bottom of Skradinski Buk, Krka’s most famous waterfall is shallow and in the spring and summer warm enough to swim in. Bring some swimming clothes and take a dip for one of the most amazing experiences of your life. If I’m honest you could spent all week just around Krka itself and never get bored, it’s a paradise.

Okay well…yes, I’ll be going then. What about nightlife though?

Those of you who have visited Croatia before will be aware of the curse of the Caffe Bar, one cultural tradition that certainly won’t be missed if it ever dies down. Caffe Bars are generic mediocrity writ large and almost a watchword for predictability and lack of atmosphere or character. During the day or early evening it’s fine sitting out in one of these places, but when the day turns colder and thoughts turn to having a drink in an interesting place, you’ll struggle to find many places that don’t have interiors like the UK’s dreadful period of the late nineties through to the mid-noughties, where old pubs were gutted and replaced by tacky modern furnishings that lasted barely a few years before ageing incredibly badly.  However, there is one diamond in the rough, and that’s Azimut, an alternative bar/club set in the basement under the steps to the main square, a pleasingly offbeat venue with character, good decor, better beer than usual and a sprinkling of young life. Just the antidote to the whiff of desperation and resigned mediocrity about most of the rest of them.

Walking back at night was also a little interesting as there are little to no street lights in the neighbourhoods west of town, and plenty of youngsters bombing around on mopeds and cars at a loose end, which might make you feel a little more like you’re in backstreet Naples or Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless, outside of that it does feel like a relaxed and safe place, and exercising caution and downloading a map will see you right.

It would be a shame to only stop off in Šibenik for lunch or as a temporary transit point to Krka National Park. There is enough there and in the surroundings to last at least 72 hours with a full itinerary, yet enough peace and beauty to want to stretch it out even longer, as you will discover for yourself if you give this excellent town a try.  You can access the town via a bus from Zadar, or by travelling north from Split

 

 

Zadar, Croatia

Halfway up the Dalmatian coastline, the port town of Zadar is relatively far detached from the leading lights of Dubrovnik and Split to attract much passing trade, while the larger Istrian towns of Pula and Rijeka in the north are similarly distant. Zadar stands alone with only its wealth of neighbouring attractions and intrepid backpackers for company.

In spite of its solitude Zadar is an singularly enjoyable, interesting, quirky place in its own right, as well as a terrific jumping off point for a series of trips to islands, national parks, and historic villages. There is no shortage of things to do nor local life to sample.. Strange as it may seem, your 4-5 day trip may leave you feeling as though you left half of it behind, unexplored.

The town itself isn’t crap though, right?

Rather like a miniature Split, the town is one part roman walls, smooth marble, white stone and narrow streets with tiny squares and shady lamp-lit lanes, one part 80s era concrete, crumbling edifices with a legacy of garish/appalling designs, and one part busy port with a combination of industry and tourism fighting to get out of each other’s way. It all adds up to an enjoyable, busy but not always entirely sympathetic blend.

On the bus in from the airport you might spend a small amount of time wondering where the historic old town and harbour actually is, so different is the rest of the town to it. It doesn’t help that most of it is sheltered behind its ring wall, but it does make the effect when you actually get there more dramatic – and relieving.

On arrival at the harbour, walking across the footbridge takes you through the gate into the old town proper, where the atmosphere suddenly changes, with the traffic and port noises vanishing, and the ambience changing into a relaxed tippy-tappy market town atmosphere, with echoes of footsteps and the murmur of lively conversation. It does feel, provincially at least, like the place to be.

Zadar, for all its Roman history is a relatively ‘young’ town, you will see many kids, students and so on lounging around the squares and the sea front. There is no beach in Zadar itself, but do not despair, there are a million other ways to get sand up your crack in the near vicinity, if that’s your thing. Zadar’s centre is a disorganised ‘square’ with the central 9th century church St. Donatus and ruins of a roman forum that are sadly no more than foundations now, but those with a vivid imagination can easily picture how dominant this must have been. Those without can visit the archaeology museum right next door where some of the pieces from that forum are better taken care of. Nevertheless, chunks from the pillars lie outside as they have done for centuries (give or take the odd vandal) gathering moss and allowing children and dickheads to stand on them and kick them until one by one they return to the soil.

 

In addition to the historical features there are also some quirky modern art installations, such as a ‘sea organ‘ – driven by the waves of the sea, emitting a series of groans and discordance which ought to appeal to artists, fans of minimalism, avant-garde music etc, but may well get on everyone else’s tits after a while. On a calm day it does create a gentle swaying sensation that is quite relaxing. Many people sit out on the steps for the famous sunset, described by Alfred Hitchcock as the most beautiful in the world. The sea organ is accompanied by the ‘Monument to the Sun’, a circular solar panel array that spends the day harvesting solar energy only for it to turn into an alfresco disco at night. On a rare snow day it could reasonably be said to be one of the most remarkable sights in the world.

Sod going to Croatia in the snow. Anyway, I’m hungry.

Fair enough.

Zadar’s food concentrates heavily on what the boats bring in- unsurprisingly, but equally dominated by pizza, and coastal Croatia’s great love of Italian food,  legacy from a time where Zadar was part of the republic of Venice. It’s one of the cheapest places around you get a genuinely authentic italian pizza – even from a restaurant we clocked a simple marguerita at being £2. It was so cheap we ordered a whole different main of dalmatian squid and added it onto the pizza as a topping. The other side of Slavic life is grilled meat, and it’s just as easy to find the ubiquitous cevapi and pljeskavica, the two meatiest staples of Yugoslavian cooking. Outstanding cevapi isn’t always easy to find but the ‘Croatian burger’, pljeskavica, which is seasoned and spiced differently depending on the region you’re in, is done well in most places.

I’m parched. Sort me out with a beer, would you?

All that salt, I would imagine. Unfortunately Croatia is a bit behind with beers so you are largely stuck between the drab metallic Karlovacko, which we had to politely state was ‘good’ to a waiter keen for praise, and Ozjuzko a sweeter but gradually less enjoyable lager. Amazingly it can get even worse if neither of those are available, and PAN- one of the worst lagers ever brewed- is the option. It’s enough to question the purpose of drinking beer itself. However, all is not lost- we did find some local ales – and although one of them was absolutely rubbish (Velebitsko, brewed reasonably close in a town called Gospic) there was a nice, albeit heavy going red ale available in one place. There is a more mainstream dark beer called Tomislav which is actually very nice if you can find it on tap. Zadar is also the home of Maraska, and the chief output, especially in the Duty Free shops is its cherry firewater Maraschino which I happily consume due to loving the flavour of cherries. It also produces various brands of slivovitz. As you are in Croatia it is inevitable you will be invited to drink some rakija at some point. Be aware it comes in a million different flavours so choose one you think will dampen the drain cleaner aftertaste as best as possible. Butterscotch worked nicely. Be aware the stuff is lethal and a common tactic by locals to transform Mr. Englishman into a dribbling wreck.

The nightlife is pretty lively with plenty of terrace bars and a couple of bustling little places, one of which had, almost for perversity a great dane as the bar’s mascot lolloping around sedately looking for food and a pet. It’s a fun place to be but you can expect with such a seasonal trade to get more out of it in Spring, Summer and early autumn.

What about all these islands and villages and all that?

You see?  I haven’t even begun to discuss all of this yet…

It will become apparent on the flight in there is a string of islands off the coast, which make a pretty sight from almost any angle you approach. These aren’t tiddly either, a couple have mountains in their own right and probably deserve a holiday dedicated to their closer exploration. There are regular ferry journeys via the state company that are really very cheap, and you can be on the nearest island in half an hour. If you get more adventurous and want to visit the nature reserve on the fringe of the islands you’re talking about a full day trip. The islands are all brimming with natural biodiversity and on a calm day the archipelago is like a small paradise in itself. The only drawback is the way tourism has pushed local life off the islands. Granted, the locals were dirt poor, shockingly poor in fact, but the way they have had their homes stolen off them simply because foreigners have the money to pay for an entire property they only live in 6 weeks a year is unfair, and disgusting. As a result you may find the reason for the quiet is because these places have been scooped up and hollowed out by selfish Westerners.

One of the more interesting islands is Pag, a treeless moonscape inhabited largely by sheep, and the origin of the delicious and moreish cheese Paski sir. It is the type of exquisitely tasty food creation whole religions could be founded on.

That’s just the islands. Zadar is also close by two major national parks, Krka and Plitvice which I won’t spend too much time on here only to iterate they are nationally, even internationally famous and draw dedicated tourist crowds. Krka is the less well known, but when you take a look you may find yourself writing a whole new bucket list from scratch.

In addition to this you have the beautiful historic Nin , an island ‘town’, birthplace of the Croatian kings of old, which is a very flat and achievable bike ride from Zadar. The cycle path there is parallel to the main road so you don’t need to worry about being flattened by the often drunk/bezerk drivers stalking Croatia’s roads. Nin is very attractive with a natural harbour and a series of dunes and beaches nearby, just another layer on the already established layers of attractions available.

I want to go there.

I think I might just have talked myself into going back too.

Zadar has its own airport. You really have no excuse now. Neither do I…

Varaždin, Croatia

Far away from the grey stone walls and rugged islands of the Dalmatian coast, and far enough away from Zagreb and anywhere else as to be genuinely off the beaten track lies the pretty town of Varazdin. Nearest city North? Graz. Nearest city East? Pecs. Nearest City West? Ljubljana. Getting the message? Yes, it’s quite far out of the way. Not that difficult to get to, but among Europe’s more unfortunately overlooked destinations.

Varazdin was accessible to us via a trip from Budapest on the train. Obtaining a ticket for anywhere other than Zagreb appears to be impossible so we were left buying a ticket to a border outpost by the name of Gyekenyes, and hoping the ticket inspector would kindly look past the fact we could not pay in Croatian Kuna. It appeared we had to then buy a ticket to Koprivnica, a very dull Croatian border town and switch there for the bus to Varazdin. Despite printing out online bus timetables when we reached the autobus station it quickly transpired none of the printed times corresponded at all, though the station master was kind to usher us onto the next bus going without much delay.

The countryside around Varazdin is a uniform of flat corn fields and intermittent advertising billboards. Once every ten minutes we would quickly skirt through a village, the neighbours absently spectating, shirtless on park benches. Laid back wouldn’t quite cut it as a description. Barely sentient might.

Closer to Varazdin and it appeared that the town itself was quite sizeable, again one of these places with a normal folks’ residential area skirting around the more preserved old town. It was also strangely busy, or at least seemed that way after hours of rural travel. Something was going on.

What’s the appeal?

Varazdin has a pedestrianized old town, impressive moated castle and appeals as an alternative to the capital and the Dalmatian/Istrian coast. In truth there aren’t a lot of competitors to that crown but it gives a different flavour of Croatian life than most will be familiar with.

Being the one-time capital of Croatia has given the place a sense of importance it perhaps no longer deserves- on objective analysis Varazdin’s whole sense of importance is based on ephemera and redundance. It happens to be in a geographical backwater, and has no huge significance in terms of trade and industry. Yet all the same, the market town bustles. From the outer ring road to the centre there was evidence that the usually so laid-back it’s horizontal Croatia does contain a second gear.

In addition to an inheritance of baroque architecture, Varazdin is known for a large central castle with a moat. There are several castles in Northern Croatia that are residual evidence of the general lawlessness and ill-defined borders of the past. It is land well used to being conquered and reconquered, and Varazdin castle seems to have been a kind of hostel for whichever military units happened to be passing through. The castle itself is a sizeable, whitewashed blocky structure with turrets and terra-cotta roof. The structure is fairly defensive but also seems just about homely enough to imagine it accommodating nobles and a retinue of staff. Just as impressive is a steep grass banked moat. A stroll around the perimeter and the castle courtyard was really pleasant and absolutely free.

One reason for Varazdin being so busy was Spancirfest (or ‘festival of good emotions’), something I had glanced at before the trip, but mentally allocated as ‘most likely a few stalls selling embroidery’. As it happens, it encompassed everything (targeting as many good emotions as possible) including embroidery of course, and wasn’t minor at all- indeed we had just missed a performance by Blondie, who had performed at a sizeable stage erected adjacent to the castle. Finding out we had missed Blondie wasn’t the best start to a festival devoted to good emotions.

Varazdin is well off the hostel trail, and there is only a selection of hotels and guesthouses or Pansions (nearly the same as the Pension system in Italy). Naturally these are more expensive, and most research led me to the aggressively marketed and not overly cheap Hotel Turist, an unappealing towerblock. The Pansions all looked better, with some home comforts and still reasonable rooms. ‘B&B Garestin’ was considered to also have a reasonable restaurant- and with breakfast thrown in too, that sealed it.

In the evening the town centre came alive with street music, heaving crowds and the odd macabre carnival show. As you would expect, every restaurant was fully booked and the best recommended choice closed altogether. In fact it wasn’t very obvious at all how to get in to that particular place. This meant street food would be the obvious choice, and in Croatia that means cevapi.

Croatian cuisine, particularly inland, leans heavily towards barbecued red meat. This is something people have wildly different reactions to. I personally love it, but others quickly tire of being served the same fare. Cevapi is found across all the former Yugoslavian nations who treat it as easy fallback food and comprises grilled minced beef packed into small pellet sizes roughly the same size as a camera film case. The accompaniments are a huge bread bap and kaymak– salty soft cheese that despite the dubious description goes with it perfectly. Although it is ubiquitous and not especially well thought of (most folks suggest trying pljeskavica instead, which is better quality meat- a luxury hamburger really), it easily beats most British takeaway food, and fills you up to the brim.

Another quirk of the Balkans is their equivalent to Coca-cola, ‘Cockta’- a drink with more of a Dandelion & Burdock flavour, but still with this rather analogous fizzy phosphoric aftertaste. The company are busy fighting a war with Coca Cola for market share (that on visual evidence they are losing). In Eastern Europe, there is still a residual sense that western products are automatically advanced or superior, so with them also being indicative of a higher social status, the pull towards these brands is irresistible. Most people we saw were drinking Coca-cola, so we immediately resolved to drink Cockta whenever possible.

Beer!? In Croatia beer largely revolves around Karlovacko and Ojzusko, mass-produced and below average Euro Lager. Unfortunately in Varazdin matters sunk below even that watermark as the entirely unacceptable PAN, a mass-produced awful lager from Koprivnica held sway. Even at £1.50 a bottle this was not good stuff, but there was little else.

Extra-curricular

The castle is lit up in a half-light at night, which lends it a slight ghoulishness even when there’s a festival going on right next to it. A quick wander around the side revealed that most of Varazdin’s youths were having fun making out, chasing each other around and drinking booze in the dark. Fair enough. In the streets various bands, largely of a rural or twee nature were playing either on stages or ad hoc on the pavement.

We picked up a couple of t-shirts local art students had designed, and in the typical fashion of such an evening, took a fancy to a terrace we’d seen through an alleyway and discovered Garden Henry– a close relative to a ruin bar! With no visible bar area, but an atrium, and a porch on the far side with benches, the rest of the place was covered in ivy, and umbrellas, and old bicycles. It appeared to be some refuge for the bicycle-riding contingent of Varazdin, while having no real visual clues. A local informed us that it is illegal to ride in the city centre, something they objected to (I can see why). There seemed to be some discussion over whether we were allowed to be around. It was a rather strange set-up all told, but we were eventually offered a drink, and the man returned with two cans of beer (PAN again), shaking his head when we tried to pay. Another secret place discovered. I don’t think they had a license to serve alcohol.

I think I would like to return to Varazdin again. Overall I did experience Spancir, drummed up by the festival atmosphere, and despite missing Blondie, being bitten by a horse fly, missing out on the best restaurant and only having appalling lager to drink, we had a merry time.

Getting there

From Zagreb – train or bus, not long. From Budapest or Pecs, train to Gyekenyes, train to Koprivnica, change to bus to Varazdin. From Graz, train to Ptuj then bus to Varazdin.