Dalmatian Sensations: Observations from a Croatian Vacation

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 | Korčula, Croatia (map)

Croatia's Dalmatian coast is supremely relaxing. Above, Korčula town.
Coming from Algeria or anywhere else, you can do a lot worse than ten days on Croatia's Dalmatian coast. Here's why:

The island of Korčula was almost certainly my favorite destination; the rugged feeling there reminded me of the Adirondacks.
Views | The first thing you notice about Croatia is that it's gorgeous. Sure, a little run-down in some parts, like a charming West-Virginia-on-the-Adriatic, but more often than not just lovely. It would take me a long time to tire of biking around the next curve to find yet another little village with its stone church and farmhouses, and the sea just beyond.

Pebbles: I'm a fan of the sea without the sand.
Pebble beaches, cloudy skies | While most holiday-goers madly seek sun and sand, finding the gritty stuff in my clothes, hair, and bags for weeks after I leave the beach brings me no joy. And, being as blond as I am, over the years my skin has learned to appreciate an overcast day. But I exaggerate; while I was genuinely happy to visit some pebble beaches, I had to convince myself not to be disappointed at the cloudy skies and rains that we encountered for about half our trip (an unseasonable aberration, the Croatians uniformly assured us). But what does travel teach us if not to be positive (sometimes absurdly so) about our surroundings if we wish to enjoy our journey? Maybe I'm learning.

Dubrovnik's old town.
King's Landing | Fans of the show "Game of Thrones" will recognize the southern Croatian tourist hub of Dubrovnik as the real-life King's Landing. Even without the special effects, Dubrovnik looks the part—a medieval seaside port of stone walls and tile roofs, complete with ramparts and a foreboding watchtower. In the twenty-first century, old town Dubrovnik is full of tourists, not Lannisters and Starks, but is still pleasant to explore on foot, with plentiful restaurants, shops, and historical relics.

An old retriever keeps watch in Korčula town.
Dogs | What could be better? Unlike in much of the Arab world, four-legged friends abound and are much beloved in Croatia. While they tended toward the smaller, yappier side of the scale, we met plenty of real dogs as well. (Our kayak guide had it right: he introduced us to an awesome St. Bernard, then later sneered at a rat dog as it yapped at him: "Time to change the batteries in that thing.") Sadly, though I kept a close watch, I did not spot (get it?) a single one of the speckled hounds to whom the Dalmation Coast lends its name.

Rollei enthusiasts and fellow film-lovers will find themselves in good company in Croatia.
Film is not dead! | Long-forgotten are the days when I worried whether my antique Rolleicord was suitable for travel, but life on the road does take its toll. I started off the trip by prowling the streets of Zagreb for an old-school photo studio—the kind that still knows a Rolleicord from a harpsichord—and found quite a few. My new friend behind the counter at Foto Studio Centar disassembled part of my camera to try to fix a knob that, after 63 years, had given out. Failing to do so, he referred me to another shop for the repair, and refused payment. ("But I did not fix anything!") Back in Zagreb on our return, he pulled off a real miracle, developing and scanning eight rolls of film in just two hours (most studios I've used would ask for two days). The speedy turnaround saved me a long wait, and probably an expensive future trip to Europe.

Croatia's ferry network links the many islands along the Dalmatian coast.
Stress-free ease | In contrast to many places I've traveled, Croatia is a remarkably easy destination, and a welcome break from challenging travel. The country is easy to navigate, with frequent buses, trains, and ferries connecting seemingly ever little village and island. There are plentiful hotels, plus little old ladies offering apartments at every bus stop and ferry port. In each town, it is easy to find a tourist office staffed by people who are actually helpful. Day trips are easy to organize on the fly. Everywhere you turn there's somewhere to buy a beer. What's not to like?

Seaside village on the north shore of Korčula island.
Scrubbed but not sterile | While I don't seek difficult travel per se, I do enjoy places with some rough edges. In leaving the unbeaten track for a more conventional destination, I worried that I might find a country scrubbed of all that makes it interesting. Croatia's tourist sites are even better maintained than I expected. There were plenty of handrails, rules, and other trappings of organized tourism, and you can't scramble hand and foot over the medieval ruins like you can in the Middle East. But ultimately I felt the trade-off was worth it; Croatia felt scrubbed but not sterile. I found enough things-that-would-never-be-allowed-in-America-because-of-fear-of-lawsuits to keep it interesting.

A break from kayaking to cliff dive on Šipan Island.
Active tourism | Croatia is an easy place to stay active, with plenty of hiking, snorkeling, and swimming opportunities all along the coast. It was simple to rent mountain bikes and find great trails on Lokrum Island, and fun to spend an afternoon rafting down the Cetina River above Omiš. A one-day kayaking trip among the islands near Dubrovnik with Outdoor Croatia outfitters (highly recommended) was also a highlight of the trip, and included jumping off very high cliffs into the sea, diving into a partially submerged cave, and lunching on delicious seafood at a port on Šipan Island.

Apparently I did not take a single picture of the food in Croatia; as soon as it hit the table it was on its way to my mouth. So here instead is a picture of me daring a Croatian peacock to guess in which hand I am holding a treat. No, I did not eat the peacock.
Great food | The active vacation apparently did not suffice, however, to outweigh the effects of Croatian food. When he picked me up at the Algiers airport upon my return, my friend Youcef immediately pointed out that I had gotten fat. In my defense, it was hard not to with amazing salamis, cheeses, fresh seafood dishes, and gelato all around. Plus ajvar, a delicious local spread of roasted red peppers and spices.

"My family has been making grk here for 500 years," said Korčula Island winemaker Mr. Popić, above at his vineyard. He beamed with pride when he told me his son was taking over the family business.
Even better drinks | Orahovac, where have you been all my life? This sweet green walnut liqueur, concocted in the southern port of Maraska, makes the perfect dessert. Croatian beer is also just fine, especially at the end of—or all throughout—an ambitious day of exploring. Grk was a new discovery, and a welcome one after years of thinking to myself, "This wine tastes great, but there's just too many vowels in its name." This sparkling white wine with a peculiar taste is made exclusively of grapes from female vines grown on a few square miles of Korčula Island. What variety of grape, you ask? An Italian couple posed this very question to the winemaker at a tasting one afternoon, and were told simply, "It is delicious grape, good for grk. Delicious wine. Wine for enjoying." Good enough for me. Croatia's most iconic national drink is rakija, a local firewater that comes in dozens of syrupy flavors. Croatians love so much to make visitors taste it that they often give it out for free—even, in my experience, at 9:00 in the morning to a whole ferry full of tourists.

Street performers, Zagreb.
Croatians | My time in Croatia was brief, but I nonetheless came away with a pretty uniform opinion of Croatians: these are good-natured, industrious people. (Hard to understand, yes, as their language doesn't resemble anything I speak, but fortunately most of them speak impressive English.) After a lost reservation, a Zagreb hotel desk clerk drove us to a nearby competitor to find a room. In Omiš, a particularly charming and deft waiter named Zoran lured us back for three consecutive nights at Restaurant Kampanel, even joining our table for rakija shots on the last night. On an uninhabited corner of Korčula Island, a veritable Adriatic paradise, workers pounded away at a construction site in the midday heat, their boss nowhere in sight. No slackers, these. The young Croatians I met throughout the trip, though all employed, all expressed a desire to leave to find better jobs elsewhere.

Me? No, this satisfied tourist sure didn't want to go anywhere else.

More of my Rolleicord pictures from Croatia are available here.

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