The Dalmatian Trail

Clear blue skies, spellbinding sea-side, Croatia is love at first sight
Buzabar from city walls
Buzabar from city walls

My first glimpse of Croatia was from the skies. Our flight from Bonn, flying over the Alps, descended over the coastal city of Split, our first stop in the Balkan country. And it was love at first sight.

The view was stunning. Clear blue skies, grey and green mountains in the backdrop, and the dark blue waters of the Adriatic Sea as an accompaniment to round off the perfect holiday mood. &ldquoAahs&rdquo and &ldquooohs&rdquo filled the air as passengers craned their necks to have a glimpse of the exotic destination.

The half-hour ride to Split&rsquos Old Town was a royal one &mdash in a wide car owned and driven by a Croatian lady. Cheaper cabs and comfortable public transport options are available, but we didn&rsquot mind paying a little extra for that comfortable ride along the neatly maintained highway to Split City &mdash and then, the small, snaky, cobbled roads to the charming, pedestrianised Old Town, right by the sea.

Our new home was a charming little cottage. After depositing our luggage, we raced towards the seaside as we wanted to catch the dying remnants of the sun before sundown. As we hurtled down the hill towards the sea, just a couple of hundred metres away, we could not hold back our excitement.

There it was &mdash the Riva Promenade, the heart and soul of Split, facing the sparkling blue Adriatic, with its breathtaking harbour, flanked by yachts and ships. A cool breeze made the mood perfect and reinvigorating. We stood in silence, gazing at the sea, soaking in as much freshness as we could. 

We were standing in the People&rsquos Square (Pjaca), right at the centre of the sprawling promenade. To our right was the Republic Square, or Trg Republike, guarded on three sides by a neo-Renaissance palace. To our left was Diocletian&rsquos Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace, which resembles a fort, occupies almost half of the Old Town. Records say the Roman Emperor Diocletian built it as his retirement home between 295 CE and 305 CE, where he lived until his death.

It took us some time to get over the pleasant shock of encountering such pulchritudinous terrain. Close by, bordering the sea was a retention wall, along which ran a parallel walkway, where men, women and kids strolled and chatted. Next was a green area dotted with benches, followed by kiosks selling snacks and souvenirs. And then, the rows of eating joints with patio tables with umbrellas.

Abutting the promenade is Varos, a suburb in Old Town. It is a hilly neighbourhood with small and big stone houses nestled along long, narrow winding alleys with hotels and apartments, cafes, small stores, money-exchange counters, bakeries and gift shops. A local market selling sea fish, meat and exotic fruits and vegetables made it even more neighbourhood-like.

Day 2
... began at the crack of dawn after a good night&rsquos sleep. We had a breakfast of omelette with bread and fresh cheese, coffee and milk. Energised, we set out to explore more of Split. First was a sea cruise to captivating blue caves and lagoons. A three-island tour took us to Bi&scaronevo (with its Blue Cave), where the sea kisses the sky, Vis (Stiniva Bay and the town of Komiža are major attractions) and Ravnik Island (with its Green Cave).

We returned by late afternoon, leaving us sufficient time to explore the Diocletian Palace and Peristyle Square, the 13th-century Sveti Duje (the Cathedral of Saint Domnius), the Temple of Jupiter, Grgur Ninski statue, the Croatian National Theatre, Cindro Palace, Vocni Trg (Fruit Square), among others. Dinner was a wholesome affair&mdashchicken steak with salad and potato wedges for my son, Pljeskavica, a Croatian dish made with minced and grilled meat, stuffed with cheese, for my wife. Brudet, a local broth made from different types of fish, and risotto for myself.

Day 3
Early on day three, we set out early before the onset of the harsh sunlight for our 178-metre climb to the nearby Marjan hill, another must-visit location. One of the most prominent spots along the climb was the&nbspIvan Mestrovic Gallery where, a year after our visit, the Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson-starrer Bliss was to be filmed. Other places worth your time include Me&scarontrovic Ka&scarontelet, a summerhouse, Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments, an old Jewish cemetery and churches. But, for me, the highlights were Telegrin Peak, the highest point, and the Marjan Hill Viewpoint, from where you can have a bird&rsquos-eye view of the spectacular waterfront. The climb was laborious, but the scenic stops made it worth it.

The latter part of the day was well spent at the spotless Plaza Jezinac and Obojena beaches. Luckily for us, only a handful of tourists were present, whereas usually, the beaches are packed.

In these tranquil settings, we lunched on freshly baked pizza with ham, chicken and a variety of toppings to choose from.

Day 4
On the fourth day, we took a bus to another jewel in Croatia&rsquos crown, Dubrovnik. The comfortable Croatia Bus cruised along farmlands, villages and orange orchards on the super-smooth freeway &mdash giving us a glimpse of the beauties of rural Croatia and the ethereal Dalmatian coastline.

The four-and-half-hour journey takes you through a 20-kilometre stretch of coastal Bosnia and Herzegovina, which separates north and south Croatia. This weird division happened when Yugoslavia broke up in the &lsquo90s to form Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The bus made a short stop at the edge of Neum in Bosnia and Herzegovina &mdash an alluring town of a few thousand inhabitants with steep hills and stone-sandy beaches. After a 20-minute break, we left with regret that we could not include Neum in our plans.

The imposing, cable-stayed Franjo Tudman Bridge near the Port of Gruz greeted us on our arrival at Dubrovnik. The trip from the bus stand to our furnished apartment was short, in a local taxi. After a quick snack, we made our way to the nearby medieval Old Town of Dubrovnik, bang on the edge of the sea.

The imposing Old Town houses monuments such as the limestone-paved Stradun, the Pile Gate (a 15th-century entrance to Old Town), the City Walls, Franciscan Church and Monastery, The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, The Rector&rsquos Palace &mdash all familiar landmarks for Game of Thrones fans.

You can take a paid, explanatory tour or just choose to walk around on your own. Moving around, you may feel as if you have been transported to the medieval ages, where many-a-battle was fought when the fort came under attack from marauding enemies. The town also houses souvenir shops, BnBs, cafes and restaurants offering Croatian, Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. But the sea-facing Buza Bar, perched on a rocky ledge beneath the City Walls, took the crown.
As darkness fell, we had a meal of steak and pasta and retired for the night.

Day 5
Our second day at Dubrovnik began with a ride of the Zicara, a cable car that takes you to the top of Srd, a hill which offers panoramic views of the Old Town, the Adriatic Sea and the Dinaric Alps. For hikers, it can be an adventurous climb up. A tour of the nearby Lokrum island, once a holiday home of an emperor, is a must if you prefer some tranquillity. The island hosts a monastery, an old fort, a botanical garden, a natural harbour and a saltwater lake called The Dead Sea.

After returning to Dubrovnik, I went for a walk on the nearly two-kilometre Walls of Dubrovnik, the guardian angel of the Old Town. Prime locations in and around the walls, which were constructed between the 12th and 17th centuries, are the Minceta Tower, Fort Bokar, St. John&rsquos Fortress, Revelin Fortress and the nearby St. Lawrence Fortress or Fort Lovrijenac. The walk required a lot of stamina and good gear, but it offered stunning views of the sea, the mountains and the Old Town. It took a couple of hours to finish the hike, but it was worth every penny.

Day 6

Our last port of call in Croatia was its capital Zagreb. Key attractions in Zagreb&rsquos Upper Town are Dolac Market, St. Mark&rsquos Square, St. Mark&rsquos Church, the Museum of Broken Relationships, Kamenita Vrata (a stone gate), Kaptol, Ban Josip Jelacic Square, the old tram line and the Blue Funicular, a cable car in operation since 1890. The best part was the colourful Dolac Market, where you will find almost everything flowers, fishes, souvenirs, fruits and vegetables &mdash and above all, bakeries offering awesome savouries, which we couldn&rsquot stop devouring.

Other must-visits include
Plitvice Lakes National Park, known for its lakes and waterfalls
Rovinj, a fishing port with 14 islands
Hvar island, a picture-postcard resort
Zadar, known for its Roman and Venetian ruins
&Scaronibenik and Trogir, old coastal towns
Mostar, a historical town in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Montenegro, famed for Kotor and Budva beaches

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