Jour­ney to the Adri­atic Pearl

Croa­tia of­fers a mediter­ranean hol­i­day at prices lower than those in cen­tral europe. this writer thinks dubrovnik is more ro­man­tic than Venice, as it has equally charm­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and none of the crowds.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TRAVEL - By CHAR­LINI YO­GESWARAN Pho­tos by JULIE WONG star2­travel@thes­

WHEN I broached the idea of go­ing away to Croa­tia with two friends, one asked me sim­ply, where is it? And the other one said, “Isn’t that in East­ern Europe?” A ques­tion loaded with as­sump­tions of derelict cities lined with boxed-shaped func­tional ar­chi­tec­ture as­so­ci­ated with the Soviet Era, no English speak­ers to speak of, and no real beauty or his­tory to im­bibe.

Let’s face it, I didn’t re­ally know any bet­ter. But I did know that a trip there was braved and pi­o­neered by an ex-boss of mine who had won­der­ful things to say about it. The bot­tom line was I didn’t have the money to spend on a Mediter­ranean hol­i­day in Cen­tral Europe and the other sug­ges­tions on the ta­ble were a week in Tus­cany, the Greek is­lands or south of Spain.

So, my sales pitch to my friends was: “Croa­tia is by the coast, has great seafood and will cost us half the price of a Cen­tral Euro­pean trip!”

They bought it! So three childhood friends who never dreamt that they would be trav­el­ling to­gether set off to Croa­tia. Our route: Split–Hvar Is­land–Dubrovnik– Mon­tene­gro: a less tra­versed Mediter­ranean hol­i­day.

Split is a coastal city and the sec­ond big­gest in Croa­tia. The most prom­i­nent fea­ture of Split is its beau­ti­ful palm tree-lined seafront prom­e­nade.

Tourists hap­pily pay a pre­mium to lounge in one of the many cafés that line this prom­e­nade over­look­ing the har­bour, as the en­tire strip ex­udes a re­lax­ing hol­i­day am­biance.

Ris­ing high be­hind the cafés are the walls of an an­cient Dio­cle­tian Palace.

As we strolled down the prom­e­nade, we no­ticed an unas­sum­ing en­trance that led into the mu­seum or specif­i­cally, the sub­ter­ranean struc­ture of the palace.

Wan­der­ing around the dark derelict un­der­ground cham­bers of this Unesco World Her­itage Site, I thought to my­self, “Noth­ing spe­cial, re­ally!”How­ever, when I found out that the Ro­man struc­ture I was in was 1,800 years old, I sud­denly re­alised I was hav­ing a very spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence in­deed. It is funny how per­spec­tive can change one’s ex­pe­ri­ence. But jokes aside, it was spe­cial. Here’s why.

The palace was de­signed much like a fort. Ex­it­ing the sub­ter­ranean cham­ber through the sou­venir stal­llined cor­ri­dors to­wards the palace court­yard, we no­ticed we were in the heart of the city.

It was only when we spot­ted rem­nants of what must have once been a beau­ti­ful fa­cade, that we re­alised the mod­ern city had en­croached into this partly-pre­served an­cient struc­ture. In fact, lo­cal res­i­dents to­day still in­habit parts of the up­per floors of this palace.

As we me­an­dered through the nar­row streets, we could not help notic­ing café af­ter café sell­ing rat­tan bas­kets of deep-fried seafood. That was be­fore we chanced upon the open mar­kets sell­ing mounds of fruit, nuts and an as­sort­ment of home­made prod­ucts. We most def­i­nitely wanted to eat our fill of th­ese be­cause the next day we were tak­ing the ferry to Hvar Is­land where things are a lit­tle dearer.

That evening, we walked up to the high­est point of a hill. Hap­pily chat­ting as we passed a lit­tle old man hob­bling on a stick, we heard him ask aloud: “I won­der where that ac­cent is from? ”When we re­sponded that we were Malaysians, he looked at us and said: “Ah, the coun­try with the three races!”

I was taken aback. Even the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer that morn­ing didn’t know where my coun­try was and here was this lit­tle old man ac­cu­rately de­scrib­ing what was quintessen­tially Malaysian. We asked him how he knew.

He said “Aahh”, tapped his nose, winked at us and said, “I was once a re­con­nais­sance dou­ble agent for both Ser­bia and Bos­nia, and it was my job to know ev­ery­thing!” That got our full at­ten­tion. As we walked down the hill, he re­galed us with sto­ries of the past. It was lovely to learn about Croa­tia from a lo­cal.

The next day, we headed to Hvar by ferry. It was a one-hour ride. As the ferry pulled into the port, we noted its pris­tine blue waters. Who­ever heard of a port with clear blue waters? Well, here it was. Off the side of the bay, you could find small sandy patches atop rocks with steps lead­ing into the sea. This is ro­man­ti­cis­ing at its peak. Who wouldn’t want a “beach” for two?

Hvar port looks like a smaller ver­sion of the one in Split. But this time, in­stead of palace walls, one is greeted by a view of homes built gen­tly into the slopes that rise be­hind the prom­e­nade. Any ac­com­mo­da­tion you book on th­ese slopes will pro­vide you with a pic­ture-per­fect view of a Mediter­ranean seascape – which is what we did!

The most pop­u­lar ac­tiv­ity in Hvar is sail­ing to the many other is­lands in the vicin­ity.

De­pend­ing on your bud­get and time avail­able, sail­ing pack­ages can range from a cou­ple of hours to mul­ti­ple days, usu­ally with lunch thrown in. You can go swim­ming too, if you wish. Prices in spring and au­tumn are usu­ally sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than in sum­mer; how­ever, al­though the wa­ter looks ir­re­sistibly invit­ing, the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture will come as a shock to the senses. Still, it is worth a dip.

We chose to spend an en­tire day sail­ing on the Adri­atic, with the wind in our hair and salt sprays soak­ing our skin. For lunch, we stopped at an is­land and were treated to a hearty tra­di­tional Croa­t­ian stew. Over lunch, we learnt that our (tanned and hand­some) skip­per is a farmer who takes ad­van­tage of the tourist sea­son to earn some ex­tra money.

Just as in­quis­i­tive as we were of his cul­ture, he too had ques­tions for us, as he had never met Malaysian girls be­fore. We re­turned home that evening ex­hausted but tanned and happy.

The rest of our time there was spent walk­ing up to an old hill­top cas­tle, chanc­ing upon a bee­keeper tend­ing to his bees, wan­der­ing along the cob­bled streets, vis­it­ing the many art gal­leries there and re­lax­ing while sip­ping cups of tea. At night, I per­suaded my friends to take a 30-minute stroll along the beach to a quaint lit­tle fam­ily-owned beach restau­rant. It’s pos­si­ble the food was only de­li­cious be­cause we were starv­ing but once we were there, it was mag­i­cal hear­ing the sound of the waves while feast­ing on seafood.

Then it was time to board the ferry again – to Kor­cula. As Kor­cula had noth­ing to of­fer, we booked a car and driver to take us straight to Dubrovnik, a three-hour drive away. The drive there was spec­tac­u­lar as we got to see both the coast­line and the coun­try­side of Croa­tia. By the time we got to Dubrovnik, it was late so we checked into our ac­com­mo­da­tion.

As we were guided to our lofted apart­ment, Mr Grouchy the land­lord took it upon him­self to in­form us that the house was a few hun­dred years old, and sternly warned us to be ex­tra care­ful around the many relics that could be found in it.

As we were min­utes from the old fort and not quite ready to go to bed, we stole into the night to get our first glimpse of the stone city that has cap­tured hearts for cen­turies. As we en­tered the gates of the old city, we felt as if we had been trans­ported back in time.The Gothic-Re­nais­sance ar­chi­tec­ture, with yel­low light­ing that glinted against the me­dieval walls and cob­bled streets, made the en­tire city look like it was made of gold. It was a Unesco World Her­itage “sight” that was mes­meris­ing. We each bought a ge­lato (ice cream) from a nearby ge­la­te­ria and strolled along the streets, en­joy­ing the mu­sic from nearby cafés and soak­ing in the beauty of the city.

The next day, we woke up bright and early and vis­ited the mar­kets for fresh seafood and veg­eta­bles. Our cheeky at­tempts to bar­gain were well re­ceived. Af­ter spend­ing a few hours walk­ing the en­tire breadth of the city and tak­ing pic­tures to our hearts’ con­tent, we headed home to cook our­selves a Mediter­ranean meal. Our land­lord gra­ciously al­lowed us to pick lemons from his tree to com­ple­ment our meal. It was a per­fect way to end the day.

On our penul­ti­mate day, we rented a car and drove along the coast into Mon­tene­gro for the day. With the moun­tains on our left and the sparkling blue bay on our right, it was a spec­tac­u­lar drive. “It was as if the moun­tains were gen­tly dip­ping their toes into the beau­ti­ful Bay of Ko­tor”, said our guide­book. What an apt de­scrip­tion.

The for­ti­fi­ca­tions that we passed along the way could not com­pare to those in Dubrovnik, yet they still had their charm. Feel­ing ad­ven­tur­ous, we de­cided to veer in­land for a quick peek at towns there. It was as if our rose-tinted glasses sud­denly went miss­ing. We ap­proached a town that was drab, “tired” and lined with box-shaped func­tional ar­chi­tec­ture. While it sur­prised us, it made us aware that, like any other coun­try, there was al­ways the other side of the coin.

To sum up, both Croa­tia and Mon­tene­gro are true hid­den gems. Tucked away in the Adri­atic coast and spared from the rav­ages of war, they are both steeped in his­tory and blessed with coast­lines that are a must-see. Go dur­ing off-peak sea­son, though.

No one can ar­gue that a quin­tes­sen­tial Mediter­ranean hol­i­day is so much more en­joy­able when it is also man­age­able on the wal­let.

A hid­den gem: ‘It is as if the moun­tains were gen­tly dip­ping their toes into the bay,’ said a guide­book de­scrib­ing the coastal drive to mon­tene­gro.

Sip­ping cof­fee at the seafront prom­e­nade of Split.

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