Europe's Latest Party Destination Sleeps it Off

AKA Overwintering in Croatia

On our first Saturday in the town of Stari Grad on the island of Hvar, the sky was pure blue and the sun was warm, so we went for a walk down by the water. The Adriatic Sea dips into Hvar in a long inlet at Stari Grad, and the town rises out of it gradually into a wide, fertile field. Much of the town center is basically at sea level, with the main street doubling as a seaside promenade. A few locals were out and about, but the town was largely quiet since it was the off-season.

Stari Grad

As we walked by one restaurant, the owner stepped out and asked - in English - if we would like a cup of coffee. We accepted and stepped up to the door. Inside, the tables and chairs were stacked up along the wall - clearly not set up for customers. But the owner ushered us out to a table on the patio and brought us our coffee, along with several juice options.

And then he pulled up a chair alongside us and started to chat.

We told him a bit about our travels, and he told us all about his business, the town, the island, the tourism industry there...

We ended up sitting in the sun, sipping our coffee and juice, and talking for a solid 2 hours. In the end, he not only refused to let us pay him, but offered to pick us up in a couple hours to take us on a personalized tour of the ruins in the Stari Grad plain. On top of that, he invited us to his birthday party that night.

Eremitaz The restaurant, with the owner in the doorway.

That afternoon, he drove us all around, taking us to ruins stretching from Ancient Greek times to old farm houses where people lived in rustic fashion up until the late 20th century. We saw ruins of a Roman villa; climbed onto the roof of a dome-shaped, stone hut constructed of nothing but rocks (no mortar); inspected remnants of stone basins for olive oil and wine; ate local clementines off the back of a truck; and got some beautiful views across the valley.

Jakša (as we learned our friend was called) and our experience with him are a wonderful microcosm of what we found all over Croatia. He was friendly and welcoming, and willing to go completely out of his way to make our experience of Croatia better. He was clearly committed to improving the tourism business there - working with an NGO to put up informational signs, pushing the tourism office to offer more hands-on help, and traveling to Split by ferry twice a week to improve his already impressive language skills.

But he, like the rest of Croatia, had to deal with the reality of the low season. From January through March, everything just shuts down. Almost everywhere we went - and we went all over the country - we heard the same message: "Oh, you really have to come back in the summer."

It's true that February in Croatia does not match what you'll see in guide books or online tourism photos of the country. Sunny and warm just doesn't really exist in or near Europe at this time of year. Even in Croatia, where travel tips typically involve finding shade and bringing water, it is cool and wet. Sometimes big storms blew through, and on our last day in Dubrovnik, the sky turned an odd tan-gray and the rain left a grit of Sahara sand on everything. Temperatures ranged from near freezing up to around 16 degrees C (60 degrees F).

While this isn't the right weather for sunbathing and swimming in Croatia's turquoise waters, it was often perfect for hiking and exploring. And certainly compared to the -18 degree C (0 degree F) weather we were coming from in Romania, we were pretty happy. (When it was down near freezing, though, we did miss one thing about Romania - insulation! Especially on Croatia's islands, the homes are just not built for winter occupancy.)

Our first encounter with the phenomenon of the low-season shutdown was on our second day in the country, when we rented a car and drove from Zagreb airport to Rovinj, stopping in a recommended hill town - Motovun. We hiked up to the top of the town, thinking about how similar it felt to Tuscany or Le Marche. But as we walked we found that, one after another, every restaurant and shop we passed was closed. At the very top, we thought we had finally found a place that was open, only to discover that the people there were working on renovations.

Motovun Nobody home.
Motovun

On our arrival in Rovinj later that day, it was more productive for our host to point out the couple of places that were open, rather than the ones that were closed. That cute bakery across the street they mentioned in the Airbnb listing? Every single restaurant within the old town? "Not working," our host explained - i.e., closed.

A few more examples to illustrate this point:

  1. In Rovinj, they had to specially turn the wifi back on at the apartment because they just had not expected anyone to book at the end of January.
  2. The hotel we had booked in Hvar Town canceled on us because they were closed for renovations.
  3. The catamaran that we were counting on to run from Hvar to the next island south, Korčula, almost didn't run that day because of wind.
  4. Most towns on the islands had just one restaurant open.
  5. One Airbnb host had to take the ferry out to let us into the apartment because he only lives there during the summer.
  6. Another Airbnb host discouraged us from booking because it would be unpleasant, in her opinion, to stay at their house at this time of year.

Realizing this would be the case in all smaller towns, we aimed for the country's bigger cities for the longer part of our stay - 10 days in Split, 7 days in Dubrovnik. Even there, however, we dealt with Croatia's off season. No boats were running to Lokrum, the botanic garden island off of Dubrovnik, until April. An archaeological museum in Split was so surprised to have a visitor that they had to turn on all the lights for me.

(We also spent 5 days in Zagreb, but it really deserves, and will receive, its own blog post. Inland and more Central-European feeling, and home to almost 1 in 5 Croatians, it was really the exception to the rule).

There were also upsides - places offered off-season prices on food and coffee, and coaxed us in with free drinks and dessert. We were never fighting for room or a view in any tourist attraction, and in the quieter atmosphere of the off-season, locals like Jakša had more time to chat and show us around. We had heard from friends who had visited Dubrovnik that they really didn't enjoy it because it was so crowded and overpriced - but that wasn't our experience at all. In February, walking Dubrovnik's incredible city walls, it's hard to imagine not loving the city.

Uncrowded Dubrovnik

Our time in Croatia - 6 weeks in total - involved a good deal of jumping from location to location as we continued to pursue our resolution of traveling more. We hit each of Croatia's major sections, from the northern region of Istria, along the coast and islands all the way to Dubrovnik. We went inland to see Plitvice Lakes National Park and the Austrian-influenced capital city of Zagreb. We even took a trip out of the country into Bosnia and Herzegovina to see the city of Mostar.

The country left me bursting with things to tell people, to try to convey to them this nearby and yet exotic place; where kiwis and pomegranates grow in everyone's backyards, but you can't get limes in the winter; where Roman palaces stand next to Yugoslav apartment buildings; where a fort built in the Napoleonic Wars bears the scars of Serbian mortar shells from a war we watched on TV. But so as not to ramble on forever, I will try (largely unsuccessfully) to pare things down to a few comments on each place, and I will limit this post to coastal Croatia.

Istria

Croatia has a long history of changing rule by foreign empires, each bringing its own culture to the area. At different times, all or part of the area was ruled by Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian Republic, the French Empire (under Napoleon), the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Fascist Italy, and Yugoslavia. Istria, as the most northern region, has the closest ties to Venice and Italy. Both Italian and Croatian are official languages of the region, and you can see the Venetian architectural influence in every town.

Rovinj

AKA Rovigno, this is a peaceful harbor town dramatically positioned on an island that was joined to the mainland. The town was very quiet, but we found some good restaurants that were open, and we also discovered San Servolo beer here, Croatia's best beer offering. Another highlight - at the edge of town is a park that was designed to be a 19th-century health retreat, though only the landscaping was ever completed.

Pula and Poreč

Pula is a larger city, and was more negatively aesthetically impacted by Yugoslav development than Rovinj, but it has some great Roman ruins, including an arena where you can walk out into the middle.

Poreč attracted us for a visit on this same day trip because of its UNESCO World Heritage Site Byzantine church. The church has some beautiful details, including mosaics and lots of gold paint.

Split

Split's heart is Diocletian's Palace. Its huge stone walls and the winding alleyways within it are at once an amazing piece of history and the bustling center of a modern city.

View from Diocletian's Palace

In all honesty, though, the rest of the city is a sprawling, confusing, and often ugly place. Our apartment was beautiful and modern inside, but the building and the ones surrounding it were of the deteriorating, Yugoslav variety in dingy yellows and oranges. I didn't take any pictures of this, and indeed it's hard to find pictures showing it when you look up Split online, but I tracked down this one for you:

Ugly Split apartments

What I loved about this city, though, was how authentic our experience felt. Once you get past the ugliness, just as we had to do in Romania, it is an exciting place to be. And of course, the waterfront and Diocletian's palace are still absolutely gorgeous.

Waterfront

Our time in the city overlapped with Carnival - aka Mardi Gras, or as they wrote it in Split, Krnjeval. This week-long celebration was in some ways like their own version of Halloween. Kids dressed up and went door to door for candy or money. Unlike the Halloween outfits we saw in France, this was more like the US - lots of super heroes, princesses, and American Indians. On the last night of Krnjeval, we got to witness a very Croatian piece of the tradition - a nighttime procession of costumed teens and adults that ended in the burning of a large doll, who Wikipedia tells me "is blamed for all the strife of the previous year."

This dude's costume was pretty badass.
Split Krnjeval

We also got some hiking in while in Split. At the west end of the peninsula the city occupies, there is a large park called Marjan that has hiking, biking, and rock climbing opportunities. Our first hike turned into a bushwhacking adventure when we discovered that the trails were more than a bit difficult to find and follow, but we did get this lovely view.

Hiking pano

The Dalmatian Islands

Hvar

Hvar was our first island stay in Croatia, and it was a wonderful introduction to winter island life in Croatia. My story at the beginning of the post captures our time in Stari Grad, the first town we stayed in. We also spent some time exploring the island in a rental car, though, and found that its rugged nature lends itself to some awesome views and some scary, single-lane tunnels like this one:

Hvar

After Stari Grad, we moved on to Hvar Town, which is known in the summer as a major party destination. In the winter, it is quiet like the rest of the island. While we enjoyed the beauty of the town - it is quite dramatic in the way it rises from its protected harbor up to city walls and a fort - it lacks the quaint charm of Stari Grad, and we found it harder to meet locals here. Largely, this was just a stopping point for us on our way to the next island - Korčula.

Korčula

When we spoke to people we met in Split about our planned travels to the islands, we always got the best reaction to Korčula. "Oh, Korčula is special," our host told us. The island seems to have a place in the hearts of the Croatian people, and it won us over, as well.

The main city on Korčula, and the largest on the islands, is Korčula Town, where our ferry from Hvar arrived. Our lodgings, however, were in the smaller and quieter nearby town of Lumbarda. After the somewhat upheaved feeling of our stay in Hvar Town, we enjoyed the quiet, domestic life here, exploring the surrounding fields, forests, and ocean, and appreciating the stunningly turquoise water and the proliferating spring flowers.

Lumbarda has made it into somewhat of its own spotlight because of its unique local wine - Grk. It's not just the name that makes it unusual - it's the fact that it is grown solely in Lumbarda, and that it has only female flowers and so must be co-planted with another variety. A limited number of bottles are made each year, and the local hotels tend to buy up most of them, so we were very lucky to receive a bottle from our host. It was tasty - a golden-colored, dry white with a richness and roundness to it.

Lumbarda

Korčula Town is a draw for tourists because of its beautiful Medieval city walls and fortifications, and its claim to fame as the birthplace of Marco Polo. We made the 5K walk there from Lumbarda one day (and another 5K back!) and enjoyed the more lively atmosphere compared to the other island towns. It was Sunday, and the locals were out enjoying the warmth of the sun at outdoor cafe tables. We stopped in to the cafe twice - once for a coffee and doughnut (everywhere in Croatia the question is the same when you order a doughnut or croissant: "Marmalade or chocolate?" Our answer was almost always, "One of each!"), and again after walking around the fortified old town for a cocktail. We surprised the waitress with the second request, and she had to think about what she even had ingredients for. In Croatia, she explained, cocktails are really just a summer thing.

Our last view of the islands was from a bus on a ferry. To get to Dubrovnik from Korčula, the best route is to take a bus from Korčula Town, but since you are on an island, after all, part of that ride involves the bus driving onto a ferry! The only bus each day leaves at 6:45 am, so our view was lit by the sunrise.

Leaving the islands

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is a dramatic city with a stunning walled center. It is perched on a narrow strip of land between steep hills and the marine-blue sea. To give you an idea of this setting, I took this panorama photo from the top of Srđ, the mountain that the city clings to.

Dubrovnik

The walls of Dubrovnik are unlike any others we saw - they tower 80 feet heigh at their highest and seem to grow out of the natural rock formations.

We had a lot of fun visiting the fort and walking the city walls, which were narrow and low-walled in sections, and wide enough to have bathrooms and a cafe in others.

The city inside the walls is a fun confusion of narrow and steep alleyways, with one central, wide street that serves as the main tourist artery. During our stay, though, it was also serving as the set for a scene in the next Star Wars movie! They were not yet filming, but were constructing the set, adding foam pieces onto the buildings to give them that retro-futuristic look. I took lots of pictures of people just in case one turned out to be a celebrity, but with no luck as far as I know.

Despite the beauty of the old town, though, you can't visit Dubrovnik without noticing the lasting impacts of the Croatian War of Independence, and more specifically, the Siege of Dubrovnik. Abandoned buildings are still prevalent in the city, and the newness of the majority of building roofs reminds you of their recent destruction. Despite its protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, over 50% of buildings in the city were damaged in the siege. We visited Fort Imperial at the top of Srđ, which was an active stronghold during the siege. The fort was not repaired after the siege, so the holes from the Serbian mortar shells still mar the walls. Inside, a new museum remembers the war in photos and film clips. We left the museum feeling the weight of the memory of the war, and saw the city with new eyes.

The gate in the picture above seemed to lead into a fairy tale scene - the overgrown garden of an abandoned mansion. In fact, the building is not totally abandoned as it is now occupied by a university science library. Dubrovnik continues to rebuild and reclaim, just as in much of Eastern Europe, but with its own special character.

All over Croatia, we found a great mix of friendly people, beautiful natural scenery, and impressive, historical buildings and ruins. It was a very different visit than it would have been in the summer, and while I hope to experience Croatia's Adriatic coast in the summer some day, I'm glad we went in February.