Croa­tia’s Adri­atic High­way

The Adri­atic High­way stretches nearly 400 miles along Croa­tia’s coast and pro­vides a front-row seat for 1,185 is­lands, an em­bar­rass­ment of cul­tural riches and slow food prow­ess.

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Journal - by ALEX CREVAR @AlexCre­var

My first brush with Croa­tia came 20 years ago on the Jad­ran­ska Magis­trala, or Adri­atic High­way, which hugs the coun­try’s shore­line from Ri­jeka, in the north, to the bor­der with Mon­tene­gro. It passes nearly 1,200 is­lands, end­less vine­yards, UNESCO sites, na­tional parks and olive groves. But I knew none of this at the time. I was just cruis­ing the sea.

On that ini­tial drive, the two-lane rib­bon of road – part of the E65 road­way fun­nel­ing into the smaller D8 – un­furled be­neath my rented, yellow Fiat as I drove between the Di­naric Alps, a string of jagged lime­stone cliffs tee­ter­ing above me on one side, and the sea be­low on the other. Zen-filled open roads, ex­tend­ing to the hori­zon, would sud­denly give way to white-knuckle hair­pins and crawl­ing along in first gear as a rain­bow of sail­boats ap­peared on the rocky beach be­low.

In those nascent days as a travel jour­nal­ist, my sopho­moric goal was to choose one of the many se­cluded vil­lages and hole up in a writer’s bun­ga­low. There I would craft some­thing spe­cial to stag­ger my nonex­is­tent edi­tors. Salty fish­er­men sit­ting in the sun mend­ing nets while puff­ing cig­a­rettes would be a bonus.

Per­haps skiffs would be scat­tered along a peb­ble beach, the deep-blue Adri­atic slap­ping at their weath­ered sterns. I knew I was in the right place when I had to slow to a snail’s pace be­hind a man, rope in hand, coax­ing along his donkey loaded with bas­kets of grapes.

There were fish­er­men, by the way. And twice each day I joined the pro­ces­sion of vil­lagers fill­ing jugs with fresh spring water that flowed from a pipe stick­ing out of a rock wall. Dur­ing those com­mu­nal mo­ments, I learned of se­cret beaches, caves, and where to go for ac­tiv­i­ties I had, un­til then, not as­so­ci­ated with the re­cently in­de­pen­dent coun­try.

Not much has changed, for me, over the past two decades. Every year I use the Adri­atic High­way both for busi­ness, as a jour­nal­ist, and for plea­sure. But Croa­tia is no longer a se­cret. In many ways, the East­ern Euro­pean coun­try’s pop­u­lar­ity makes this road of slow dis­cov­ery even more spe­cial.

These days, as time-pressed tourists rush to reach their must-see spots, those with a slower pace in mind, trav­el­ers in search of au­then­tic ad­ven­ture, know bet­ter.

“Driv­ing along this high­way – or even bet­ter, rid­ing on a mo­tor­bike – is a great way to experience the di­ver­sity of Croa­tia,” says Ve­selka Huljic, the gen­eral man­ager of & Ad­ven­ture. The Split-based ad­ven­ture tourism op­er­a­tor of­fers trips and ex­cur­sions that in­clude ac­tiv­i­ties such as sea kayak­ing, hik­ing and cy­cling, but spe­cial­izes in tai­lor-made tours. “You can’t re­ally get to know the depth of this coun­try un­til you travel with­out a sched­ule,” Huljic says. “Stop as you please along the coast, take in amaz­ing views of the sea, and hop onto is­lands to experience cul­ture, the parks, the in­cred­i­ble food and wine. At this speed the coun­try starts to feel like yours.”

Over the years, the Adri­atic High­way has be­come the ul­ti­mate in­sider ref­er­ence tool for me as I learned about the coun­try’s an­gles and tra­di­tions. It would also be a sure­fire sug­ges­tion for the con­tin­u­ous stream of vis­it­ing friends and fam­ily.

For in­stance, the high­way pro­vides ac­cess to five na­tional parks, which each open a win­dow into the char­ac­ter of the coast. North­ern Velebit Na­tional Park, with sweep­ing sea views, is a jump­ing-off spot for long-dis­tance hik­ers head­ing into the Velebit moun­tains, part of the trans-Balkan Via Di­nar­ica trail run­ning from Slove­nia to Mace­do­nia. Pak­lenica Na­tional Park, a con­flu­ence of sheer canyons, is a fa­mous climb­ing des­ti­na­tion. Krka Na­tional Park takes vis­i­tors to some of the con­ti­nent’s most beau­ti­ful wa­ter­falls. And the is­land­based Kor­nati and Ml­jet Na­tional Parks give trav­el­ers a sense of the coast’s hall­mark re­mote­ness.

There are four UNESCO World Her­itage along the high­way: the Cathe­dral of St. James in Šibenik, the his­toric town of

Tro­gir, the Dio­cle­tian’s Palace in Split, and Dubrovnik’s walled Old City. Each of­fers an in­sight into the time­line of the Adri­atic. And this doesn’t even in­clude the Ro­man and Hel­lenic ru­ins strewn along the route with such non­cha­lance that it’s com­mon to pass by peo­ple milling about atop an­cient blocks. The city of Zadar, for ex­am­ple, acts as an open-air mu­seum with the orig­i­nal Ro­man fo­rum and streets still in daily use.

For those who have heard that Croa­tia is a gas­tro­nomic won­der­land, the Jad­ran­ska Magis­trala is as much a pro­gres­sive din­ner as it is a road trip. The is­land of Pag, in the coastal re­gion of North­ern Dal­ma­tia, is Croa­tia’s sheep’s milk cheese cap­i­tal and spe­cial­izes in a sort – paški sir – that is fla­vored by the salty grasses and herbs the an­i­mals graze upon.

The road then passes through the vil­lage of Posedarje, known for its pršut (dry-cured ham). Far­ther south, trav­el­ers wheel past the Pel­ješac Penin­sula, where driver­sturned-din­ers pair oys­ters, pulled di­rectly from the bay mo­ments ear­lier, with some of the re­gion’s best red wine, from a lo­cal va­ri­ety called plavac mali.

Two decades ago, the tastes and the im­ages and the note­books filled with il­leg­i­ble chicken scratch stayed with me long af­ter I pulled off the Adri­atic High­way and re­turned the yellow Fiat rental. I can’t re­mem­ber if I sold a sin­gle mag­a­zine story from the trip. I know, for cer­tain, that it was the be­gin­ning of my life as a writer. More im­por­tantly, the drive changed me for­ever as a trav­eler.


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