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Anniversary in Croatia

posted Oct 5, 2016, 7:10 AM by Justin P   [ updated Dec 19, 2016, 4:24 PM ]

For our five-year anniversary, Sandy and I spent a week in beautiful Croatia.  We left on Saturday, September 17, our actual anniversary.  Unfortunately, we spent it in the airport.  From RDU, we flew to Washington Dulles and took an overnight flight to Munich.  We arrived in Munich at around 8 AM local time and didn’t fly out to Split until late afternoon.  With such a long layover and the start of Oktoberfest, we decided to leave the airport for a bit.  Knowing it would be a bit crazy in Munich, we took the 635 bus from the airport to Freising, a smaller town very close to the airport.  There was a light rain, but we enjoyed walking around this cute little German town.

The little town had a lovely European small-town feel.  We walked part the St. George's Church to Marienplatz, a little square in the center of town.

They were setting up for a festival, so we decided to come back in a little while.  Next, we walked a nice little stretch of trail following a canal along the edge of the town.

It was Sunday, so many places were closed, but we did some window shopping walking by.  Then we headed back to Marienplatz where the Hops Fest was getting underway.  We got some lunch from the street vendors and ate that while watching dancers on stage with traditional polka music.

And of course, being a Hops Fest, we had to get some good German beer, since we didn't make it all the way into Munich for Oktoberfest.  Sandy picked up a couple airplane bottles of some delicious liquors from one of the vendors.

After lunch and some drinks, we headed back to the bus station and took the bus back to the airport and waited for our flight to Split.  Although there was some rain and storms, our flights were on time.  In Split, we caught a taxi from the airport to the Riva and made the short walk to our hotel – Kastel B&B Split.  The rain managed to hold off until we had checked in, but then there was quite a storm.  We were tired and jetlagged, so went to sleep shortly after checking in.  Monday morning, we woke up and went to Bobis along the Riva Promenade for some pastries for breakfast.  The storm the night before had cleared out and it was just beautiful along the Riva.

I was surprised to see all the beautiful palm trees along here.  After eating, we swung by a bank ATM to withdraw kuna and then headed to Diocletian’s Palace.  As one of the top tourist attractions in Split, it was quite crowded.  Vendors were set up all along the pedestrian streets in the palace, but it was too crowded to really browse.  So we bought tickets to explore the basement areas.  We first walked around the western wing.  This ancient palace was really beautiful and it was just amazing to be walking around such an old structure.

Despite its age, almost 2000 years old, the palace was in remarkably good shape and the supporting columns and structures were beautiful.  A number of old artifacts were laying about in the basement area, including old bowls, stone plaques, and sarcophagi.

A few 3500-year old sphinxes were found in this area, which the emperor had procured from Egypt.  Unfortunately, most were beheaded as later Christians considered them idols.

In a couple spots of the basement, parts of the palace had collapsed, but fortunately, restoration work is in progress. 

We also found a bust of Diocletian himself, though I don't think that dated from his era.

After exploring this side for a while, we headed over to the east wing that had similar features but not as many rooms were open.

Here, we saw a couple of people dressed as Roman soldiers and followed them outside to where they had a short performance with the emperor himself coming out to address the crowd.

Out here in the courtyard was an intact sphinx from Egypt, one of the only that wasn't beheaded.

At one part of the courtyard, beautiful purple flowers were growing up the walls.

Exploring further around the palace, we headed through the vestibule and came across a jewelry shop where a lady was making glass jewelry.

It was interesting watching her work with the glass and I bought Sandy a pendant before we left.  Next, we headed to the cathedral to see some of the other sights.  Our first stop was the treasury that had a number of beautiful artifacts on display, but no photography was permitted.  The relics of Saint Domnius as well as beautiful chalices and and ornate crosses, paintings, and old manuscripts.   Next, we walked though the cathedral which was truly beautiful, inside and out.

There were several altars that were so elaborate.  This is one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the world still in its original structure.

From here, we headed up the bell tower.  Initially, we climbed up some very narrow and steep stone stairs up about half way and then climbed up metal stairs to the top.  It was crowded, but at each point we stopped, the views just kept getting better and better.

First, we ascended to the level of nearby rooftops, then a higher above the roofs and finally to the top with great 360-degree views of Split and the surrounding mountains.  We could see all the buildings with their orange roofs, Marjan hill in the distance and the gorgeous coastline.  A storm was brewing and it was fantastic watching the clouds roll in from here. 

Looking down, I could see the open ceiling of the vestibule we had walked down earlier.

Heading back down the stairs, we descended into the crypt, which was the former mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian.

Finally, we swung by the Temple of Jupiter that had been converted into a baptistery dedicated to St. John.  The ceiling inside the temple was really ornate and beautiful.

As we left the temple, it started raining lightly and we were getting hungry so we got lunch nearby.  Seafood is very popular along the Dalmatian coast, but I'm not a big fan.  Fortunately, there’s a strong Italian influence so I was always able to find something I liked.  After a late lunch, we swung by the office for Portal Tours to pay for our tours for the week and get our vouchers.  Then we started walking towards Marjan Hill.  There were a lot of stairs and uphill through the old Veli Varoš district to Vidilica cafe.

The overlooks here provided great views of Split and the harbor down below, but this is only part of the way up the hill.  Trails and roads lead up the hill and it was a very pleasant hike.  Along the way, we saw lots of enormous aloe plants.

We also passed by the Church of St. Nicholas.

It was a small church and the door was locked so we couldn't go inside, but I put my camera through a hole to get a picture of the interior.

Continuing on, the trail came out at the site of a former zoo and then led up to the top of Marjan Hill where the Croatian flag was flying.

From up here, we had a great view of Split from above, but the view west towards the sunset was blocked.  So after a few pictures, we headed back down and had dinner and cocktails along the Riva.  The harbor was beautiful at night.

After dinner, we headed to bed as we had a long day planned for tomorrow.  Tuesday morning, we woke up early and grabbed some pastries from Bobis before heading to the bus stop for our tour to Plitvice Lakes.  It’s a long drive – 3 to 4 hours – so we had to start early.  Our tour guide was Mario and our driver was Tiho.  We absolutely loved them – our favorite guides of the week.  During the long drive, Mario kept us entertained by teaching us about Croatian history and culture and a few words in Croatian (though he wouldn’t teach us any bad words!).  Right away, we passed by the fortress of Klis, which is where Mereen in Game of Thrones is filmed.  As we headed deeper into hinterland, Mario pointed out how the trees and plantlife were stunted due to high winds coming off the sea.  We made a quick stop for snacks at a gas station near Maslenica where we could see the Velebit Mountains.

We would pass through this mountain shortly.  After our stop, we drove through Sveti Rok Tunnel, passing through the Velebit Mountains.  This was the longest tunnel in Croatia at nearly 6 km.   Through the tunnel, we left the Dalmatia region and entered Lika.  On this side of the mountain, protected from the strong winds by the mountains, the land was all forested.  Amazing what a difference the side of the mountain makes.  We continued for another hour or so, finally arriving at Plitvice Lakes National Park around 11 at entrance 2.  After Mario got our tickets, we entered the park and took a short boat ride across Lake Kozjak to begin our hike around the Upper Lakes.

Boardwalks wrap around the many lakes here, each separated by the most beautiful waterfalls.

The park was very crowded, despite being shoulder season, so walking around on the boardwalks was slow going.  We passed by a few smaller, presumably unnamed waterfalls, and soon arrived at the first named waterfall Veliki Prštavac, at 28 m high.

This is the second highest waterfall in the park.  It was a real beauty, but was flowing strongly and produced a lot of mist.  Continuing on, we then made it to Mali Prštavac, a similar waterfall at 18 m.

Next, we came to Galovački Buk.  Although not particularly high, I thought this was the most beautiful waterfall in the park.  A dozen or more streams of water tumbled down from one lake to the next into the most beautiful turquoise pool of water.

This was such a beautiful scene and truly captured the stunning beauty of Plitvice Lakes.  Heading further up along the lakes, we saw many more small, unnamed waterfalls.

Arriving at essentially the top, we made a short restroom stop and waited a short time for the shuttle bus.  It was a bit chaotic getting on the bus - Mario advised me to use my tripod to whack other tourist and ensure our group go on the bus.  The shuttle took us all the way down to the past the upper lakes and parked at the lower lakes.  From here, we followed gravel road down to lake level.  Another trail, mostly composed of boardwalks led past the lower lakes.  We first passed Milanovački Slap waterfall, which drained into a most beautiful lake.

The water here is so clear and green.  A number of fish, European Chub I believe, could be seen in the water.

Continuing on, we passed more small cascades and between the beautiful lakes of Milanovac, Gavanovac, and Kaluđerovac on boardwalks as we headed to the big waterfall.

Veliki Slap is the highest waterfall in the park at 78 m.  Of course it was very crowded, but we climbed on some rocks to get some good pictures of this massive waterfall.

Then we started heading back towards entrance 1 where Tiho would pick us up.  Heading back up the gorge, we passed a couple more overlooks of Veliki Slap from a distance.  Although the lighting was poor, it was a great view of this waterfall and really put perspective on its massive size.

We could see not only the main drop that we could see from the base, but also additional cascades and drops downstream.
  Back at the bus, we went a short ways to lunch at Vila Velebita.  It was a late lunch by around 4 when we arrived and we were all very hungry.  But the food was really delicious and nice to have something more traditionally Croatian.  After lunch, we started making the long drive back to Split.  On the way, Mario opened the bar so we could purchase beer or wine on the ride back.  I had a Velebitsko Temno.  Mario claimed it was the best beer in Europe, but having been in Munich for Oktoberfest, I was a bit skeptical.  But after tasting it, I agreed – it was great.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can get it back home.  Mario gave us some more information about Croatia’s history on the ride home and we made one more stop for a sunset view over Krka River.

As we approached Split, Mario handed us a note that Tiho was a good singer and we should ask him to sing us a song.  Tiho sang O Sole Mio for us as we drove through Split back to the bus stop.  It had been a long day so we headed back to the hotel after our tour and went to bed.  Wednesday morning we slept in a bit and then had breakfast out on the Riva.  Around 10, we headed to the South Gate of Diocletian’s Palace to get picked up for our canyoneeringadventure.  Our shuttle took us over to the small town of Zadvarje and we had about a 20 minute break to use the restrooms and grab a snack.  Then we headed to the tour office for a safety briefing and to get our gear – wet suits for the cold water, a PFD, and a helmet.  Once we were all geared up, they drove us to the start of our adventure.  It was quite warm in the wet suits, so the cold water was a bit of a relief.  We hike down into the gorge and soon starting canyoneering down Cetina River.  The water was chilly but wearing a wet suit kept us warm enough.  Almost immediately we had to jump into a deep pool and then rock hop and wade further down.  There were several spots to jump into the water as well as a couple water slides to enjoy.  In slow-moving sections of the river, we just floated downstream.  About half way down the river, we stopped for a break on some big rocks and then got out of the water and headed into a narrow tunnel.  This river was used extensively for hydroelectric power generation and the there was evidence all around.  In fact, the tiny village of Zadvarje had power before Split thanks to the river's power.  We used this tunnel to get around Gubavica, a large waterfall on Cetina River.  Back at the river, we headed upstream a bit to the base of Gubavica.  There was a big rock here to climb up and jump into the deep pool at the base of the falls.

After a few jumps here, we continued downstream.  There were a few more rock hop and swimming sections and then we came to another spot where we had to climb a ridge to get around.  There were ropes to assist with the steep climb up and then back down, reminding me of some of the more difficult waterfall hikes back home.  Soon we came back to a rather flat section of the river near the end of our adventure.  We floated downstream a bit and passed a tall waterfall.  It comes from the overflow of the dam, so it’s not a real waterfall, but was really pretty nonetheless.

At this point, we got out of the water and followed a trail to once last wade across the river and then up to the roadwhere the shuttles were waiting to bring us back.  We changed clothes and then headed back toZadvarje and then were shuttled back to Split.  We took showers and then headed to dinner in the evening.  We stopped by a grocery store to pick up some wine and had drinks down by the Riva.  Thursday morning, we woke up early again and ate breakfast down at the Riva.  After breakfast, we headed to the bus stop for our tour of Krka National Park and Ŝibenik.  Our tour guide today was Ernest and our driver was George.  Leaving Split, we first stopped at Trogir to pick up some additional folks.  This is Ernest’s home and he had lots to tell us about this little town.  We continued on away from the coast and into Krka National Park.  We first stopped at Skradinski Buk, Krka’s largest and most well-known waterfall.

This is the last waterfall on Krka River before it flows into the Adriatic Sea.  Our quick stop for a sunset view two days earlier was just a short ways downstream from this waterfall.  We started off near the top and made a clockwise loop on the trail around the waterfall.  The Church of St. Nicholas was near the start.

Skradinski Buk has a number of cascading sections, each one quite beautiful, though I don't there's anywhere to see the entire thing.

Although there were several old mills and other buildings around the falls, I didn’t they distracted much from the scene.

We slowly worked our way down after viewing each of the cascades and drops.  At the bottom, we crossed the footbridge over the river to the base at the pool below the falls.

Unlike Plitvice Lakes, swimming is permitted, and I had to take the opportunity to take a dip.  The water was quite cold and the current was surprisingly strong.  It was hard to stop for a picture without getting swept downstream.  I didn’t stay in long as it was too chilly, however.  After drying off, we started heading back up the other side.  It was more natural on this side with none of the mills or old buildings here.  We saw beautiful travertine cliffs as we were heading up.  There was another really scenic waterfall along the way on a small tributary of Krka River.

Soon we got to probably the best view spot of Skradinski Buk – perched up on a cliff, the waterfall, footbridge, and old buildings made a beautiful scene.  And yet, even here, we could only see a portion of the entire waterfall.

Continuing on, the boardwalk trails looped around past scenic little ponds and small drops, but nothing else too big.  There was one area with a huge number of wildflowers blooming.

Finishing up the loop, we made a quick stop at the old mill.

We then headed back to the bus to continue exploring the park.  Driving north, we made a quick stop to view the Visovak Island, containing a 14th monastery.

The island is not completely natural – the monks added rocks over the years to increase the size of the island.  The views here of the island, monastery, and Krka river were great.

After a couple pictures, we continued on to Roški Slap.  Here we had a traditional buffet lunch with bread, cheese, olives, and meat.  We even had some local sherry and wine.  After lunch we took some time to explore.  First, we hiked the rather steep Niz Ploču trail up to a great overlook of the Krka River.

Although steep and rocky, I stopped a couple times to enjoy the view and check out the chimney bellflower blooming along the trail.

In the distance, the river flowed between two mountains that almost looked like a wall that had been broken by the river.

Heading back down, we swung by the boat dock to see Roški Slap waterfall.  The view wasn’t ideal from here; I think the only way to get a good view of this waterfall would be from a boat.

We swung by the gift shop and picked up a couple little bottles of sherry to take home.  Then we got back in the bus and left the park en route to the historic town of Ŝibenik.  We stopped near the docks and followed Ernest toward the town square and the Cathedral of St. James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ernest provided some history of this beautiful church, pointing out some of the beautiful architectural features.  The building was unfortunately damaged in the war, but was being restored.

We then took a quick walk through the inside of the cathedral to see the beautiful altar and interior.

Outside, I got a picture of many of the stone heads on the side of the building.

Then we headed up to the Medieval Garden of St. Lawrence Monastery.  It's a very small garden, but quite scenic right in the old town of Ŝibenik.

Firethorn and other pretty flowers were blooming in the garden and a small cafe provided a spot to get a drink and relax.

After a few minutes, we headed back to the bus to head back to Split.  It was a lovely drive along the coast between Ŝibenik and Split as we made out way back.  Friday was another early morning as we had a long day heading to Dubrovnik.  Our tour guide today was Igor and our driver was Ivan.  After everyone was boarded on the bus, we headed south.  We made a bathroom and snack break at the highest gas station in Croatia where we could see the towering Biokovo Mountains, the second highest mountain range in Croatia.

From here, we continued south to our first stop in the small town of Ston.  A defensive stone wall was built around the town that looked like a miniature version of China’s Great Wall.

In town, Igor pointed out a couple places to stop.  First we hit up a bakery to pick up some pastries and meat pies to eat.  Then we swung by the wine store to get some Croatian wine to bring home before exploring the small town.  Walking south out of the walls, we could see the salt pans.

We didn't really have enough time to walk through so just got some pictures from the street.  Down one street, we could see the Church of St. Blaise.  Originally built in around 1340, the church has been repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes, most recently in 1996.

And like many times in the preceding centuries, the church was being restored.   We walked around the town a bit more along the walls and spotted some amazing cactus growing up along the city walls.

But then it was time, so we headed back to the bus and continue towards Dubrovnik.  Continuing on, we passed through a small section of Bosnia-Herzegovina and then back into Croatia.  The drive along the coast here was absolutely beautiful and soon we were headed into Dubrovnik.  Dubrovnik is always crowded and a couple cruise ships were in port, so it was even more crowded than usual, despite being shoulder season.  We got dropped off at the bus stop near an interesting fountain with statues of Pan and Nymph.

Starting our exploration of the city, Igor took us around the old town of the city for about an hour.  He provided some fascinating history of the city and pointed out several landmarks throughout the city, including the the stairs where Cersei Lannister did her Walk of Atonement in Game of Thrones.  Dubrovnik is the setting for Kings Landing and we recognized many spots from the show.

He also showed us many of the beautiful churches located in the city.  The Dubrovnik Cathedral was one of the most beautiful.

When Igor was finished, we had some free time to explore the city and headed up to the famous city walls.  Starting out in the eastern end of the walls near the harbor, we headed up and walked around the walls in the counterclockwise direction.  Up here, we had amazing views of the city.

The walls span the perimeter of the city and we spent about an hour and a half walking around.  There were several old cannons up here, indicating the defensive nature of these walls.

The bright orange roofs of the buildings of Dubrovnik made a spectacular sight from the walls.  About halfway through, we stopped at Minčeta Tower.

Climbing up to the top was the highest point on the walls and provided the best views.

Continuing on, we could see Lovrijenac Fort, which is detached from the old town.  Standing tall on a cliff high above the sea, this old fortress was stunningly beautiful.

The last section of the walls was along the coast and we could see the rocky water far below.

At one point high above the rugged rocky coast, we watched some people jump into the ocean from the cliffs.  When we finished the walls, we headed back to the old town.  We visited the Church of St. Ignatius with the most beautiful interior.

The ceiling above the altar was painted with a heavenly scene and reminded me of the Sistine Chapel.  Then we continued through town to Lovrijenac Fort, just outside the old town.

There were many stairs to climb up but the views of the Old Town were great from here.  It really put into perspective the scope of the city walls we had walked earlier.

After some pictures, it was getting to be about time so we headed back, passing the West Harbor of Dubrovnik.

Returning to the bus, we made the long drive home but Igor told us some stories and history of Croatia to pass the time.  Saturday was our last full day in Croatia and today we were doing a boat tour of the many islands off the coast of Split.  We boarded the speedboat at 830 with our guide Martko.

We first stopped at Čiovo island near Trogir to pick up some other visitors and then made the rather long boat ride to the island of Biševo to see the Blue Cave.  The Blue Cave is illuminated from around 11 to 12 so we had to go here first to see the cave under optimal lighting conditions.  The boat was cruising at about 25 MPH so it got a little chilly with the wind.

In about 2 hours, we made it to Biševo and had a quick break.  The views here of Vis in the distance were really nice.

We then boarded a smaller boat to head to the cave.  The Blue Cave has a very small entrance and so larger boats can’t get in.  Even in the small boat, we had to duck down when entering.  Inside the cave, sunlight penetrated the water outside the cave and illuminated the cave in a beautiful blue light.

It was amazing to see and hard to believe that it’s natural lighting.  After a quick run through the cave, we returned to the dock and re-boarded our tour boat.  Martko took us over to the fishing village of Komiža on the island of Vis.

We had about an hour here, so we walked around the town, first visiting Komuna, the fishing museum.  They had some interesting exhibits but the highlight was the view from the top.

Then we stopped by Gusarica beach and relaxed for a bit to enjoy the view of the bay.

Back at the boat, we continued around Vis and made a quick stop at Stiniva beach, rated as the best in Europe.  Tucked back away in cove protected by cliffs, it's no wonder it was rated highly.

Our next stop was at the Green Cave on the island of Ravnik.  This cave is much larger than Blue Cave and bigger boats were able to get in.

A few people were in the water swimming, but with multiple boats in here, swimming didn't seem safe.  A small hole in the roof of the cave allowed sunlight to get in, creating an interesting green spot in the water. 

As we were leaving the cave, we saw some people on top of the cave, jumping into the water.  It was getting into the afternoon and we were getting hungry so our next stop was the small island Budikovac, with a population of one.  A rather eccentric gentleman lives here year round with his donkeys and some other livestock.

We had lunch here and then took some time to swim and snorkel in the beautiful water.  The water was very cold, but so crystal clear and I spotted a few fish while snorkeling.  It was too cold to stay in long though.

Our last stop was the city of Hvar on the island of the same name.

We first walked past the Church of St. Stephen and then made the hike up to the fortress.

Along the way, we passed an old church; I never figured out a name for this one.

At the fortress, we first headed down into the prison.  There were several small cells, including a torture chamber.

Then we went up to the top of the fortress for amazing views overlooking Hvar and the harbor.

After a few pictures, we headed back into town just walked around the beautiful old city for a bit.

Passing the Benedictine Monastery, there was a statue of a monk praying outside.

When it was time, we got back on the boat and headed back to Split.  There was some type of regatta going on and we passed a number of sailboats as we headed back to Split.

For our last dinner in Split, we ate at Fife.  It was buffet style, but the food was really good.  After that, we had one more drink along the Riva to enjoy sunset and then headed back to the room to pack.

Sunday was long day in many airports, but we made it home without any incidents.