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Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast by Car

Dalmatian dogs originated on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, hence the name, and we saw plenty of them strutting around. I saw a postcard which would make the perfect cover photo for this post: a Dalmatian sitting tall and proud on an ancient stone wall overlooking the Adriatic Sea. I would have loved to Google that photo and stick it in here but that would be strictly against our rule of only posting our own photos so you’ll just have to live with imagining it (or Google it yourself).

Our first stop on the Adriatic Coast was Zadar. But let’s start with the drive from Zagreb to Zadar (via Ptlice Lakes) where we first discovered what insane maniacs Croatian drivers are. It is impossible to drive for more than ten seconds on a main road without being tail-gated. You could be going 80km/hr in a 60 zone and someone will be on your ass. On top of tail-gating and aggressive driving in general, motorcycles and cars alike pass completely in the blind: going into a corner or from behind a semi-truck, often relying on oncoming traffic to slow down for them. The further along the coast you go, the scary it gets – the roads narrow and the corners sharpen, the only thing that doesn’t change is the drivers invincible attitudes.

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Old town Zadar

Like almost all Croatian cities, Zadar has an “Old Town” surrounded by an ancient defensive wall. Of course, this is where all the action happens and where all the tourists flock to. Our Airbnb was just outside the city walls, where parking was still free, and was walking distance to everything we needed. Zadar has done an interesting job of blending in modern architectural and aesthetic additions with ancient ruins. Two of Zadar’s most popular modern icons are its ‘Sea Organ’ and ‘Greeting to the Sun’ platform. The Sea Organ is an architectural instrument that depends on the waves of the sea¬† to push air through instrumental pipes installed beneath the surface. Therefore, the sea creates amazing sounds, almost as it were alive; making it a great spot to enjoy the sunset. The Greeting to the Sun consists of three hundred multi-layer glass plates installed at the same level as the paving stone which are lit up as soon as the sun sets.

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People sitting on the stairs above the Sea Organ and listening to the music created by the waves

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Zadar’s “Greeting to the Sun”

We chose to visit Croatia in mid-September to avoid boiling hot days and humid nights. The average historical high for September is 23 degrees. Over our three days in Zadar the average high was 33 degrees with almost 100% humidity. Needless to say, it was way too hot to do much. And it was too humid to get any decent photos. The sunsets were crap and the landscapes looked bland and washed out.

We visited Nin one day, taking advantage of the fact we had a rental car. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances just explained, we didn’t stay long and it doesn’t look that beautiful as shown in the photo below.

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Beach in Nin

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Our trusty Ford Fiesta and Dan in front of the gorgeous Adriatic Sea

After Zadar, we drove all the way to Dubrovnik. The A1 highway which is highly tolled, yet worth every penny if you’re in a rush, is speedy and can get you there in under four hours. But we really couldn’t miss driving along the slower and free Adriatic Highway. The drive included crossing the Bosnian border, yes, you actually need to cross through Bosnia for 50 km in order to drive along the Croatian coast. Why they even bother putting up borders is beyond me. It would be more efficient to patrol the T-intersection in the road where the coastal highway meets the only road leading north into Bosnia. But instead, we lined up for a border control where the officer merely glanced at the “Canada” on our passports and our rental car and let us through.

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Another coastal town along the Adriatic highway

The drive was probably my favourite part of Croatia, and having a rental car made it that much more enjoyable. We pulled over countless times with our mouths gaping at just how blue and clear the ocean was. When we first planned to visit Croatia, we were unsure if we were going to even go to Dubrovnik; we’d heard that the city is incredibly touristy and is very crowded. I’ve had enough of barely being able to walk down small roads and alleys because there are so many damn people. But a couple friends convinced me to make the trip, if only for the drive. And if only for the drive, it was completely worth it! Although the city turned out to be quite a gem itself, but more on that later. So, if you ever have the chance to visit Croatia, I highly recommend renting a car – even if it’s just for one day to drive parts of the coast between Split and Dubrovnik.

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Pull-out somewhere along the Dalmatian Coast

Just before we reached Dubrovnik we stopped in the small town of Mali Ston, for some of their “world-famous” – according to other blogs – oysters and shellfish. Mali Ston is a quaint seaside village on the Peljesac Peninsular. The small town is dwarfed by the 13th century medieval city walls that extend five kilometers from Ston down to Mali Ston. And the entire coast of the village is filled with oyster, mussels and other shellfish farms: rows and rows of floats as far as the eye can see. Interestingly enough, the Dalmatian coast has a very long history of mariculture with traces of primitive oyster farming even noted by Roman chroniclers.

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We sat down for a late lunch at one of the seaside restaurants. Our lunch started with an appetizer of fish pate and bread. Annoyingly, the appetizer we were brought (without ordering) was charged for – typical in this part of the world and yet unheard of in North America. Additionally, our bottle of water cost as much as four oysters; the waiter looked at us like we were aliens when we asked for tap water…

We ordered the famous oysters next: four raw and two fried – just to taste both. Following our oysters we ordered a bowl of seashells: white mussels, black mussels and clams cooked in the traditional way with tomato, garlic, wine and parsley. I had never before eaten (or seen) white mussels and was concerned when none of the shells were opened. They looked like scaly rocks that might be decorative parts of the dish but the waiter assured me they were save to eat and showed us how to pry them open with our knife.

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Fish pate appetizer

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Ston oysters: four raw and two fried

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Mixed seashells dish: black and white mussels with clams in a traditional white wine sauce

The Walls of Ston are actually listed in almost every account of the ten most famous walls in the world. At a length of 5.5km, the Walls of Ston are significant but hardly comparable to the Great Wall of China which stretches for tens of thousands of kilometers.

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Ston Walls

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We arrived in Dubrovnik just as the sun was setting

Due to the extreme-tourist/cruise-ship-town warnings we had regarding Dubrovnik, we opted to stay about a 10 minute drive out of town, which worked fine as we still had our rental car. We had a private room in an Airbnb. Slavica ran the place like a mini-hostel renting out three rooms and we had the nicest room with a sea-view balcony.

All the houses along this stretch are built just below the highway. You pull-off onto a small driveway or parking spot essentially on the house’s roof and then walk down the slope to the entrance. Meaning: great views, close to the main road, and close to private beaches with very limited access! We were pretty excited about the beautiful private beach just a few steps away from us. We went down on our second day with two beers in hand, a beach towel and our swimsuits. Before dipping into the water I sat down on the beach for a few minutes to sift through the rocks which were scattered with more beach glass than I’ve ever seen. I started feeling itchy and assumed it was just the heat and called Dan over to go for a swim. Suddenly I started noticing bumps all over me. I asked him to look at my back inquiring if there were any bites and he said “Yup, everywhere.” By that point my entire body was itching like crazy and by our count I had over 35 bites. I rushed back upstairs to take a cool shower, turn on the A/C and take an anti-histamine to control the itching. Needless to say, we have no pictures of our tiny (and beautiful) beach and I am trying to forget this incident. Oddly enough, half a dozen others were sitting comfortably on the beach this entire time and didn’t appear to be effected by bites (including Dan who was beside me)…

We spent one day (well, about four hours) in the city of Dubrovnik itself. We managed to find free parking on the side of the highway above the city. Pretty much anywhere not directly on the road was game and we noticed cars parked in the most ridiculous places, partially understandably due to the high parking fees in the city but completely illegal in North American standards. Our fears of Dubrovnik being overly crowded were immediately confirmed when we crossed through the first entrance into the old town through the city walls.

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Entrance to Dubrovnik Old Town

We had planned on walking on top of the city walls until we found out you had to pay for this, which is ridiculous on it’s own and even more so when we found out just how much you had to pay. But that’s a cruise ship town for you, they’ll charge for anything and everything with a massive markup because if you’re on a cruise ship and have only a few hours to explore the country you’ll pretty much pay anything for anything. Too bad. It was also in the mid-thirties that day and there is no shade on top of the wall….

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The layout of Dubrovnik Old Town makes you realize why it is so popular (not just because it is the set of ‘Game of Thrones’). First, you have the ancient wall surrounding the city. Secondly, the inner part is filled with beautiful, small roads – pedestrian only – that wind up and down and in every direction scattered with restaurants, cafes and shops. Lastly, just outside the walls is the ocean where there are ladders and stairs set up to get in and out of the water along with public showers for rinsing off. There are roped off areas for swimming just around the corner from the small marina and beautiful crystal clear waters all around.

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Can you believe how clear that water is?!

To get the classic shot over looking the city of Dubrovnik we continued driving south past the city. Everyday we were there was overly humid and we never got the chance for a picture that does the city justice but here’s our best try:

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Looking out over the city of Dubrovnik

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Dan on a bench soaking in the view

From Dubrovnik, we doubled back to Split where our flight left from. We decided that driving along the Adriatic highway once was enough and took the speedy A1 highway back to Split. We found another “entire home” Airbnb in Split for a super reasonable price just outside the Old Town. We spent time wandering through the city, enjoying our apartment and took a short road trip to Trogir one day. To be honest, we took less and less photos in each town – you can only have so many photos of ancient defensive city walls, clock towers, churches, statues, cobble stone roads, etc.

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Split, Croatia

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Cushions to sit on and enjoy the ruins while being served wine, among other beverages

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A castle in Trogir

IMG_6167 IMG_6168When I see covered up shop-stands at night, I’ve always assumed they’re empty and restocked in the morning. Not so much. We saw these stands simply pull drapes around all their “precious” (and overpriced) goods for the evening and walk away leaving it to the fates of the hundreds of stumbling and drunk locals and tourists. Um…. made me think, either the trinkets and souvenirs housed in there are absolutely worthless or these people are incredibly trusting (and most people assume they’re empty?)

3 thoughts on “Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast by Car

  1. Anna Jean Msllinson says:

    I loved this, it’s sop vivid! I remember being in a bus outside Dubrovnik, thinking we would surely die on a narrow mountain road in an old vehicle driven by a madman. I remember the entrance to the old city, which you photographed. Anthea and i walked around on the top of the city walls. There were cloisters, too. A lot of the city was rebuild after a severe earthquake in the seventeenth century. I remember the old protected harbour. I am amazed that the Adriatic is still so clear after centuries of sea trading and now the heavy tourist traffic. Interesting but not surprising that people have been practising mariculture for centuries. You photograph food so well. You are right about just posting your own photographs. They have a special aura and interest because you have been there, have taken them.

    • Anna Jean Msllinson says:

      Darling, I forgot to comment on the attack of bites or hives! It reminded me of poor Michelle and the bee stings but was not nearly as bad. I’m glad you have antihistamines handy!

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