Croatia and Slovenia

Croatia

Since visiting Dubrovnik in October 2017, I wanted to see more of Croatia and researched various options. I’ve written a post (Thoughts on choosing a tour) that includes information on how my sister and I chose Gate 1 for our 2019 Croatia Slovenia trip as well as the good, the bad and the ugly of the tour.

One of the major issues I had early on was getting accurate information on where and when to meet our group in Venice. Despite those hassles, I wrote in my journal: ‘Yesterday went as smoothly as we could have hoped. We checked out of our Venice hotel (Ca d’Oro) between 8:15 and 8:30 am and were at Piazzale  Roma by 9:00am. After standing in the wrong spot for a few, I realized an airport bus was loading. We got right on and were at the airport by 9:30am. TYJ I decided to check out the arrivals hall ‘cause Gate 1 was already there and we got on the 10:00am bus.

Opatija

Everyone else on our bus had just flown in and went to sleep immediately. I was glad that I’d been in Italy for two weeks so I could enjoy the beautiful scenery, writing, ‘The drive through the mountains of Slovenia was stunning and seeing Opatija and the Adriatic equally so. We arrived at the hotel about 2:00pm. Then we took a walk on the promenade with a couple of other women whom I thought it might be nice to get to know. The promenade was lovely and we got some beautiful photos. We split from Pat and Deborah at the bank and walked back to the promenade where we had a vino.’

I’ve written a separate section at the end of this post on our various hotels and restaurants but I’ll include brief mentions of the hotels and some restaurants in each of the ‘city sections.’  We stayed at the Grand Hotel Adriatic which was fairly close to the promenade and about 15-20 minutes from restaurants on the main street–although there was a steep walk up to (or down from) the hotel to the promenade.

The Istrian Peninsula

For an additional fee, Gate 1 offered a tour of the Istrian Peninsula, specifically the towns of Pula and Rovinj.

I read either online or in one of my guide books, (probably DK Eyewitness, Croatia) that the Istrian Peninsula is the new Italy. Personally I think it has a ways to go but it is lovely, especially along the coast. From Opatija we drove along the coast then passed through a mountain range to a plateau where there were vineyards, olive groves and various types of small farms.

Pula

We had a guide for each city stop including Pula, and I thought all of them, except our guide in Zagreb, were quite good; interesting and informative and in some cases, very funny. We started at the Roman amphitheater and I wrote: ‘The amphitheater and other Roman ruins in Pula are stunning’ and the gallery speaks for itself

After walking through the amphitheater, including the lower level which contained amphorae and even a wine or olive oil press, we walked to a small park and then along the edge of the city center past the Gate of Hercules, erected in the first century BC to the Arch of Sergie also built in the first century BC.

As the tour ended just inside the Arch, our guide pointed out a statue of James Joyce seated outside a small coffee bar.  She said he lived in Pula briefly and hated it.  At that point we were given about an hour and a half of free time, and from the arch my sister and I (and the rest of the group) walked along what our guide called the main shopping street, Serquievaca, to the People’s Square. The forum sits along one end and the rest is taken up with bars and restaurants, all with outside seating. It was a holiday in Croatia–their equivalent to our 4th of July–so there were lots of people sitting in the square.

As we walked around looking for a place we could have a light lunch, we got our first introduction to something I saw throughout Croatia and found rather odd. Unlike bars in Italy, which usually serve panini or pizzas or meat and cheese trays, most bars in Croatia serve strictly drinks and have 30-40 page cocktail menus with every type of drink from beer and wine to shots like Sex on the Beach plus smoothies and ice cream. We only found one bar that offered a sandwich; the only other option being full service restaurants. Still it was a lovely day and we enjoyed sitting in the square with our ham and cheese sandwiches.

Since large parts of Croatia, including the Istrian Peninsula, have been ruled by the Italians and the Hapsburgs, I expected the city to have more charm but the Soviet era concrete block apartments overpower the remaining Hapsburg era buildings, many of which haven’t been well maintained.

Rovinj

Rovinj is tiny but charming and I, for one, would have been happy with a map and some time to wander and explore. But our guide started another mind numbing explanation of the local saint and local produce. So I forced my sister to peel off early and after taking some pictures on the waterfront, we found a sheltered outdoor bar where a very cute waiter gave us big glasses of wine. When some of our group came by on the way to the meeting point, they called out, ‘you look very European.’ ‘That’s the goal.’

Zadar

We stopped in Zadar on the way to Split and I think we had about 2 hours to wander and have lunch. Looking at the city map, I think we entered at the Sea Gate, along the harbor.    Zadar harbor

We walked up a narrow street that came out by St. Anastasia continuing to a street with a large square.  Two sides of the square are lined with the forum, the facade of St. Mary’s, and  the back of St. Donat and St. Anastasia. There were several open air bars along the other sides but once again they served drinks only.

 

 

My sister and I wandered around looking for some place to eat and stumbled on a tiny bistro. We were attracted by their menu which had Croque Monsieur sandwiches but then decided to have a  meat and cheese tray which was very good.

After lunch we walked back to St. Donat where I left my sister to explore the church while I returned to the square to see the forum. My guide book didn’t have a lot of information on Zadar or the forum so I looked it up online and found an interesting article at The Roman Forum Zadar  which says that it was once a temple to Jupiter, Minerva and Mars, but ‘today only the original pavement and stairs remain, as well as two monumental columns one of which is still on its original site. It once served as pillory (pillar of shame) evidenced by chains from that period.’

I  finished the break, sitting in the sun having a gelato.

Split

We arrived in Split, late afternoon, after our stop in Zadar. We stayed at Hotel Briig, which I loved, (see below) and for reasons not disclosed to us, Gate 1, decided to spring for a free dinner at a restaurant called Epetium just outside Split. I’ve written about it in my Hotels and Restaurants section below, as well as in my  Places to Eat post but I want to include my journal entry here.

We were only given about an hour to get to our rooms, unpack, clean up and meet for the drive to the restaurant. But it was worth it. The next morning I wrote, “Anyway last night was super fun (in fact the most fun night of the tour). We had a choice of fish or meat and I chose fish but asked to substitute something else for the octopus salad. They cheerfully gave me a very nice meat and cheese tray and along with that we were served fresh tomatoes and greens. I’m not sure what type of fish we had but it had a very interest smoky flavor. It was served with steamed potatoes and spinach. We also had generous servings of wine plus dessert trays of crepes and petits fours.

The best part was a three man band of an accordion and 2 guitars. They were very good and had everyone singing and clapping along to old Neil Diamond songs. Then Bob from our group got everyone dancing. What a blast!! Even people who’d barely spoken talked and laughed.”  I’ve added a video link to my discussion on Epetium, in the restaurant section.

After returning to the hotel my sister and I had a glass of wine on the terrace, taking      pictures of the moon over the city.

The next morning we started with a tour of Diocletian’s Palace in Split and I thought it was phenomenal. Our guide was exceptionally good; knowledgeable and funny. We met her across from the Brass Gate which faces the harbor and promenade.  The Brass GateShe first gave us background on how and why Diocletian built the palace/fortress, how the sea used to come directly up to the gate and how, after the death/murder of Diocletian (who had murdered hundreds if not thousands of people including his wife and daughter), his body was eventually removed from his mausoleum and thrown into the sea.

Eventually refugees from wars in the 7th century moved into the palace and created apartments inside the walls. The influx was the impetus for Split to become a city. Before the refugees moved into the palace, it stood alone. These apartments were handed down through generations of families and in recent years the government granted those families property rights which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (or kunas), especially those on the southern side with its stunning views of the promenade and harbor.

Along the RivaOur tour started in the underground area which for many years was full of waste from the people living in the apartments on the ground level. I thought our guide said that UNESCO along with a major U.S. university helped clean up the waste but I found an article at this web site https://www.wmf.org/project/diocletians-palace stating that the World Monument Fund with the assistance of American Express did numerous projects between 2002 and 2010 repairing and stabilizing much of the palace so it may have also helped with the clean up of the lower level.

Beneath Ciocletian's Palace
Beneath Diocletian’s Palace

From the lower level we went to the crossroads (Peristyle) where along the east side you can still see one of the original Sphinxes which Diocletian brought from Egypt. On the other side of the Peristyle there are shops and restaurants.

 

 

From the Peristyle we climbed up to a rooftop area where we had beautiful views, including the Cathedral of St. Dominius, which originally was Diocletian’s mausoleum. Our guide pointed out the irony of his mausoleum becoming a cathedral given Diocletian’s hatred of Christians. Not being familiar with Diocletian, I looked up some information online and found an interesting article at https://www.ancient.eu/Diocletian/ which describes his persecution of Christians:

However, part of the problem[of Christians] also stemmed from Diocletian’s ego. He began to consider himself a living god, demanding people prostrate themselves before him and kiss the hem of his robe. He wore a jeweled diadem and sat upon a magnificent, elevated throne. In 297 CE he demanded that all soldiers and members of the administration sacrifice to the gods; those who would not were immediately forced to resign. Next, in 303 CE he ordered the destruction of all churches and Christian texts. All of these edicts were encouraged by Galerius. However, throughout this Great Persecution the Christians refused to yield and sacrifice to the Roman gods. Leading members of the clergy were arrested and ordered to sacrifice or die and a bishop in Nicomedia who refused was beheaded. Finally, any Christian who refused was tortured and killed. At long last, the persecution came to an end in 305 CE.

When we came back down from the upper level, we walked into the vestibule (Vestibulum) where there was a group of men singing traditional Croatian songs. Beautiful!!  (Check out the video in the link to the left.)

We exited through the Gold Gate where you can see the statue of Gregory of Nin.  I thought this site https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/gregory-of-nins-big-toe had an interesting article about Gregory saying in part that ‘today he is remembered for defying the Catholic church in Rome, which opposed his call to introduce the national language into religious services in 926 so that worshipers would better understand the word of God.’  Gregory’s toe has been rubbed smooth by generations of Croatians who believe it brings good luck.

From there we walked down a street along the west side of the palace to Navodni Trg (or People’s Square) which is quite pleasant with the Town Hall and its  graceful loggia on one side.  There were multiple restaurants around the square but our guide said if we wanted traditional rather than tourist food, we should try the small side streets leading out of the square.

Navodni Trg

Since it was still fairly early my sister and I decided to walk the perimeter of the Palace, continuing south from Navodni Trg to Brače Radicà Square with the Marina Tower, all that remains of a Venetian castle.  In the center of the square is the Statue of Marko Marulic, writer and founder of literature in the Croatian language.

 

 

We then walked along the promenade or Riva, enjoying the spectacular views of the harbor.

We wandered through a large open air market on the east side of the Palace and back to the Gold Gate eventually returning to Navodni Trg.  Taking our guide’s suggestion seriously,  we angled west off  the square past the fish market and happened into  a pretty ‘piazza’, the Republike Trg (or the Republic Square) where we had giant glasses of wine and got royally toasted.

Afterwards we started looking for a lunch place and stumbled on a pretty little outdoor spot, Mia Fiaba.  (See more below.)

We walked back to the bus and since we were 15 minutes early, I asked to run back to a ‘shop’ in the open air market to see if I could negotiate for a linen shirt I’d seen. The owner said ‘no” and I decided not to blow 180 kunas on a shirt but wish I had now.

Then it was another mind numbing 4 ½ hour drive to Dubrovnik. We arrived at Hotel Argosy, the grounds of which are beautiful, (see photos and description below) between 5:00 and 5:30 pm and I was pretty annoyed that we had to meet the group for a buffet dinner at 7:00 pm.  But we had an enjoyable evening talking with people from the group then finished with a drink on the terrace.

‘Panorama’ tour of Dubrovnik

I wrote a grumpy entry in my journal about having to get up early for the ‘panorama tour’ but the beautiful views were definitely worth the early wake up call.

Dubrovnik

I wrote in my  The Greek Islands and the Dalmatian Coast  post that Dubrovnik was the most stunningly beautiful city I’d ever seen and it was the driving force of our taking the tour.

We met our guide at Pile Gate and walked from there to the square with the Big Onofrio Fountain. According to our guide the Fountain along with Dubrovnik’s water system was designed by the Neopolitan architect, Onofrio.

From there we walked up the main street of Placa to a square that is surrounded by Orlando’s Column, the Bell Tower, Small Onofrio Fountain, St. Blaise and the City Hall. Before continuing on to Gundulić Square our guide, who was both funny and interesting, talked extensively about the war and the Serbians shelling Dubrovnik, much of which was destroyed but eventually restored with the help of UNESCO.  The amount of work and money it must have taken to restore this square to its original beauty is unimaginable.

We proceeded towards Gundulić Square, encountering, oddly enough, a group of baton twirlers performing a show in the square. Our guide also pointed out places where Game of Thrones filmed and I think that’s a major cause of Dubrovnik’s over tourism which has become as bad if not worse than Venice. It is unbelievably crowded with masses of tourists and surly locals. He mentioned that the producers (I think) wanted to use the steps of the cathedral for a nude scene which I thought was so culturally insensitive that it verged on hilarious.  (And I was surprised that so many people on our tour were huge Game of Thrones fans and requested a separate Game of Thrones tour.  One of the funnier guys acted like he was devastated when our guide said the  dragons were puppets.)

Near Ploce Gate
Near Ploce Gate

From the square we walked to the old port, along the harbor area near Ploĉe Gate, stopping for a gelato courtesy of Gate 1.      Dubrovnik harborAfter our guide handed out our tickets for the wall, I pressed my sister to leave the tour, not wanting to walk around the wall with a big group especially when added to the thousands of other tourists who filled the streets.

First we walked back through Gundulić Square and down a side street to Tavulin for a cappuccino. We discovered this little café  in 2017 and loved their cappuccino and brioche.

After a delicious and much needed cappuccino, we fought our way through the crowds for a while walking down Od Puča, then coming back up a side street to the square, looking for a lunch spot to stop at later.

At that point we decided to walk the wall, starting up around noon. While it was less crowded by then, it was still difficult to take pictures; at least until we got to the sea wall.

We were hot, sweaty messes by the time we got down. So we went to a little restaurant in one of the narrow (and cooler) side streets. While we sat at the restaurant eating very good tuna salads, I took some pictures which show how beautiful Dubrovnik can be if you block out the crowds.

We did a little shopping (and were disappointed to find that the shop that used to sell hand made Croatian items, now sells junk) then walked slowly through the crowds to the Pile Gate, taking lots of pictures, especially of the side streets.

We were back at the hotel by about 3:20 pm and strolled around the grounds taking more pictures.

Home Hosted dinner

I’m writing  about our home hosted dinner here (rather than in the Restaurant section) because it was such a lovely evening. (And as an aside, like our Istrian Peninsula tour, this had to be booked separately for an additional fee.) My sister said our host’s name is Kameni Dvori and I found this web site that seems to be the agritourismo home we went to: https://www.holiday-village-konavle.com/kameni-dvori-tavern-inn/ It was a good 50 minute bus drive to the location and then we had to walk up a very steep road in the pitch black to the inn. So I couldn’t tell from the pictures on this web site if it’s the right place.

Our hosts (a large family of 3 brothers, their wives and children) greeted us with a chocolate brandy. Kameni did all the talking, describing the family and how the farm had been in the family since the 15th century. 

There was another Gate 1 group there so the inn was packed but service was seamless and generous. We had a wonderful meal of homemade bread, meats and cheeses, fresh tomatoes and peppers, pasta with meat sauce, salad, cake and wine.

We had to forgo our usual prosecco on the hotel terrace after the home hosted dinner since it was well after 10:00 pm before we arrived at the hotel and we had a 6:00 am wake up call.

The Drive to Sibenik

We were on the bus at 7:45 am (up @ 6:00) driving ‘til almost 1:30 pm before stopping for lunch at Etnoland a somewhat odd tourist spot which on its website (http://www.dalmati.com/index.php) says it’s the most awarded tourist attraction in Croatia. Hmm, not sure about that. The owner and his wife met us in traditional dress and gave us a shot of cherry brandy, while describing the operation of Etnoland.

The owners, then, took us to a dining area for lunch where we were served family style. As discussed in the hotel/restaurant section the food was actually very good (and free). After lunch, people wandered around the grounds.  In addition to the large building that contains the kitchen and dining room, there is some outside seating plus several small buildings, one of which is a shop where the owners sell their own products. Some of our group got pretty silly but we were just happy to be off the bus.

Krka National Park

We drove another 15-20 minutes to Krka Park where we had almost another half hour wait before meeting our guide then driving to the falls, presumably because the road to the trail around the falls is one way. But it was worth it. Stunningly beautiful. We took a boardwalk trail that circled the waterfalls and I wish we’d had more time to explore. After crossing a bridge below one of the falls we, then, had a steep hike up to the park facilities where we’d started our hike. (And later that evening my daughter said, ‘wow that’s beautiful’ when I sent her a picture of the waterfalls.)

From Krka we went to the Amadria Park Hotel on the coast just outside of Sibenik. Next to the Kompas Hotel in Bled, this was probably my least favorite hotel (see below). We were at the hotel around 5:30 pm and when we were getting cleaned up we found that the hairdryer was bolted into the drawer–which garnered a lot of laughs later.

We met the group for dinner at 7:30 pm. After a welcome drink we were told to find our own table. The restaurant was packed with a surprising number of families and we had to sit at a high top. The food was weird and the wine weirder.

Terrace of Hotel Amadria
outside Hotel Amadria Park Sibenik

The best part of the evening was sitting outside with a glass of Freixenet,  listening to a very good band.  Check out the link to the left.

Zagreb

If I thought Saturday was a long day, it was nothing compared to Sunday. We drove for hours taking brief breaks at truck stops so I dubbed it the tour de toilette.

We didn’t get to Zagreb until 2:30 pm, meeting our guide just outside the city center. From reading my guide books I had a much different visual than the reality or at least the reality you get from a less than great tour of just over an hour. We walked to Ilica Street where they were just finishing the Zagreb Marathon, then walked up Tomiĉiva Street to the funicular, taking a very short ride to the Upper Town. After a photo op for the skyline of Zagreb we continued to St. Mark’s square. 

Tour group in St. Mark’s Square, Zagreb

There are several museums in this area– including the Museum of Broken Relationships which my sister wanted to see–the Croatian government buildings and of course the church of St. Mark. Nothing was open so we settled for a group photo in front of the church.

We took winding streets down from the Upper Town, eventually coming to the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin which has some very unique architecture that seems to merge Gothic with Eastern Orthodox.

 

 

 

The statues with red ties that you can see in the gallery represent the fact that the tie or cravat was created in Croatia.

We ended the ‘tour’ in a large square, Trg Bana Josipa Jelačica, where our guide attempted to show us where to meet after our free time using a large bas relief map. Luckily our Gate 1 guide had maps or I’d probably still be in Zagreb. We spent our brief free time having wine, then met the group, getting to the hotel (Westin Zagreb) about 5:30pm.

Skyline of Zagreb as seen from the Upper Town

Overall I was disappointed in Zagreb, writing in my journal that it was ‘like a larger version of Pula; ugly 60’s concrete buildings mixed with Hapsburg era buildings that haven’t been maintained and are covered in graffiti. Very very odd.’ Not surprisingly I didn’t take any photos of the communist era buildings but you can get a feel for the strange mixture in the photo to the left.

That evening my sister and I walked to Le Bistro, about 15 minutes from the hotel, near the Botanical Gardens, and had what I thought was a lovely meal. (see below) We ended the evening with a glass of ‘brut’ at the hotel.

 

Slovenia

Ljubljana

along Art Nouveau Street

We reached Ljubljana after an interminable drive that included a 2 hour stop at the border control. But the city is absolutely stunning. Everyone felt the same; that we should have skipped Zagreb and spent a couple of nights in Ljubljana. We walked along  Art Nouveau Street to Preseren Square (or Trg, named after a Slovenian poet) next to the Three Bridges that cross the Ljubljanica River.

We had another excellent guide who first described the buildings around the square which include a Franciscan monastery across from an upscale department store.

We, then, crossed the bridge to the ‘old town,’ standing for a while in front of the Town Hall where there’s a lovely fountain.  Fountain in Ljbuljana

We walked behind the Church of St. Nicholas through a flower market area and to another bridge–The Dragon Bridge–where we could see the Central Market, a large open air market. The bridge had hundreds of locks like some of those in Florence meant to declare love between couples.

 

 

On the other side of the bridge is a promenade with multiple restaurants, all with outside seating. Eventually we crossed the bridge and walked past the restaurants seeing some really funny signs like, ‘unattended children will be given a shot of tequila and a free puppy,’ returning to our starting point.

We, then, had close to 2 hours of ‘free time’ and my sister and I first went back to one of the outdoor restaurants and had huge sandwiches, fries and drinks while people watching and taking pictures.

Then we crossed back over the Dragon Bridge, partly so that my sister could see the front of St. Nicholas, did some window shopping and circled around to another bridge where we could take pictures along the river. We walked down a couple of other streets but didn’t really see anything of interest. We met up with the group, headed back to the bus and on to Bled.

Lake Bled

It was a relatively short drive to Bled, and after we checked into Kompas Hotel, see below, (definitely the worst of our hotels) and cleaned up, we took some pictures from our small balcony and the views were the best part of the hotel, along with a nice terrace.

Then we decided to try to find the local laundromat. It’s a small town and we walked what Google maps said was the route from the hotel to the laundromat but didn’t go far enough. As we left the hotel, we ran into a nice couple from the Chicago area, I think, and they recommended a restaurant called The Grill not far from the hotel.

We went to The Grill after our laundromat excursion finding another couple from the hotel in the restaurant. A third couple came in later, but the majority of people went to a dinner in a village nearby. We’d had enough of the bus and were glad we didn’t go when another woman said the food wasn’t very good. We had a pleasant dinner, see below, and our usual glass of wine on the terrace afterwards, even though it was chilly and damp.

Our last day started with a trip to Bled Castle which sits high above the lake. The grounds and museum were beautiful

as well as the views of the lake and its island from the walls of the castle.

I had been a bit stressed before leaving for the castle, since I hadn’t heard from our shared transfer to Venice, GoOpti, but we had a message when we got back with our pick up time. Given that we had 10 more days in Italy, we grabbed our laundry and took a cab to the laundromat. (TYJ ‘cause we would never have found it otherwise.) It took about an hour and a half and 15 euros but was so worth it. It was an easy walk back and after re-packing for the millionth time, we had a glass of wine on the terrace.

On our last evening Gate 1 held a cocktail party for the group. I actually had more fun pre-party talking with lots of people in the reception area  Still it was pleasant but would have been much more fun if Gate 1 hadn’t skimped on both wine and food. Everyone wrote down their email addresses and the youngest member of the group who came with her grandfather said she’d set up a google photo page. And she actually did and here’s the link:

https://photos.google.comshareAF1QipP2D8EAdz_e4LecVE6PP6HGAWjXYHSbk6V4FwpIIOkeSslojrNY5zNK7vgOMjWdYg?key=T1FWNURCLXoyVXRyYXpYVkoyQm81Nk41RVVSWHlR

Hotels

Grand Adriatic, Opatija

This looks to be a 70’s or 80’s era hotel, at least from the outside. The reception area is a 2-3 story atrium with a bar, several seating areas, and, oddly enough,  an aquarium.  The staff did make a restaurant reservation for us our second evening but I would  not describe them as the warmest staff I’ve ever met.  The buffet (both breakfast and dinner) was mediocre at best (with the exception of made to order omelets.) I don’t remember much about our room except that it seemed huge and modern after our tiny, cold and dreary room in Venice.

The hotel sits fairly high above Opatija’s promenade and has  beautiful views of the town and the Adriatic as you can see in the gallery below.

Briig, Split