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Touring Beautiful Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro

Author: Bob W.
Date of Trip: June 2011

Before leaving for Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro, friends asked skeptical questions. Why would we want to go to Croatia? Is it safe? Where is Slovenia? Won’t there be a language problem? Except for cruise passengers who stop in Dubrovnik, relatively few Americans get to explore Croatia or Slovenia. So, let’s deal with those questions.

Croatia has long been a favorite destination for European vacationers because of its beauty, affordability and historic sites. Germans make up the largest number of tourists in northern Croatia and drive there. Brits are the largest contingent in southern Croatia and fly there. The coast of Croatia is exceptionally beautiful. Mountains slope to the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic. The climate is semi-tropical — hot in mid-summer but devoid of snow in coastal areas. Slovenia is an alpine setting reminiscent of Austria and Switzerland. As for safety, the conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia into six separate nations ended many years ago. Although some bitterness remains, relations are now very civil.

There is no language problem. Because so little of the world speaks Serbo-Croatian, much of the population of the former Yugoslavia have learned English as a second language. This is particularly true in areas tourists visit. Croatian children begin learning English in early elementary grades. Signs and menus are in both Croatian and English. Equally important, most people you meet will be friendly and helpful.

Our trip began with a week’s stay in Dubrovnik, Croatia, using the city as home base for exploration of surrounding areas. Our side trips included Montenegro (particularly the old city of Kotor), the Croatian walled island of Corcula, and the coastal town of Cavtat. From there we spent a night in Split, Croatia, where we enjoyed a guided exploration of the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Next, we took the scenic drive to the beautiful and popular coastal city of Opatija where we spent four nights and took a day trip to the towns of Rovinj and Pula on the Istrian Peninsula. Our trip concluded with four nights in Bled, Slovenia, on the shore of pristine Lake Bled in the Julian Alps. We stopped en route to explore the impressive Postojna Caves. Side trips from Bled took us to historic Skofa Loka and to Slovenia’s delightful capital city of Ljubljana.

Dubrovnik

The walled coastal city of Dubrovnik (Stari Grad) was an independent city-state from 1358 to 1808 and rivaled Venice. The well-preserved defensive walls of the old city are impressive in height and thickness. We took a very crowded public bus form the Posta Delapat bus stop near our hotel, Grand Hotel Park. The drive of less than 30 minutes took us from modern surroundings to an exceptionally well-preserved place that has changed little over the centuries. The old residential areas within the city are three stories high and have shops at street level, living quarters on the second story and bedrooms on the third.

Several wide avenues stretch the length of the old city, intersected by narrow alleys. Umbrellas and awnings shelter the many tables of cafes and restaurants located along most of the arteries of this compact city. Crowds were gathered to purchase many flavors of ice cream (gelato). Delicious! Two spring-fed fountains in the wider avenues provided a source of clean, cold water to refill tourists’ water bottles.

Aside from the many shops and eating places, we toured the historic church, clock tower and Rector’s Palace on our first visit to the old city with the help of our informative guide, Inga. The beautiful and ornate palace houses outstanding period art and furnishings and one of the world’s first pharmacies. Days later we returned to climb to the top of the walls and walk their perimeter, giving us a sweeping view of the city and its surroundings. Then we decided to climb to the cliff-top stone fort that overlooks and once protected the city. The climb to and through the fort is demanding. From the fort, the views of the city, the harbor and the clear waters of the Adriatic are spectacular.

Dubrovnik is more than an historic city that hosts cruise ship tours. The red tile roofs and limestone walls of the old city and newer suburbs stretch along the shore and in tiers of housing dotting the steep hills. Where we stayed, some miles from the old city, modern hotels are concentrated near what we came to call the Promenade — a pedestrian-only street lined with street-side cafes, restaurants, bars and small shops leading the way to a public beach. Croation families, many pushing strollers, walked the four or five blocks to the free beach, some stopping to permit youngsters to splash in a fountain. The beach of small pebbles fronted the clean, Caribbean-hued waters of the Adriatic — so clear that the bottom could be seen clearly at any depth.

Beyond the beach, a walking trail leads to the tip of the peninsula, great for a night stroll. While the old city is living history, the new city is a place of joy and relaxation for Croatians and tourists alike.

Restaurants along the promenade offer a variety of meals. We ate lots of pizza (about $7 for a medium pie) at one umbrella shaded restaurant and got to know one very pleasant waiter rather well. He was in his last year of college, studying business management. The restaurant we highly recommend for delicious meals in a special setting is Eden, located on a street on the steep hillside above and parallel to the promenade. To reach Eden we climbed what seemed like hundreds of stone steps from the promenade. Only later, when we planned a return to Eden, did we discover that we could reach the restaurant without a climb by entering a hotel on the promenade level and taking their elevator to the top floor which connected with the upper street about 100 feet from the restaurant! Not only was the food and service excellent in Eden, we also struck up conversations with some delightful English and Russian diners.

Korcula Island

While based in Dubrovnik, we traveled by van and, finally, a 10-minute boat ride to Korcula Island, north of Dubrovnik. Along the coast we saw many oyster and black mussel farms, each marked with their own distinctive colored buoys. En route we stopped briefly in Ston, a former salt-mining town with long protective stonewalls on the surrounding high hills. Today, the operation has been reduced to the sale of small bags of salt to tourists. Korcula Island is an old walled town. Highlights of the island include an old church, a museum with exhibits and relics of the city, a waterside walkway around the compact island, the remains of walls and watch towers, waterside restaurants and many small shops making and selling jewelry. We had a delightful lunch at a waterside restaurant.

On our return from Korcula, our Grand Circle Travel guide, Inga, stopped to show us the lovely hillside villa she and her husband rent and the sandy crescent beach below. Then, we stopped at the vineyards and tiny winery her husband operates. Wine and snacks topped off the visit. Many of the vineyards and wineries in the area are also small family affairs.

Cavtat

Another excursion was our trip to the small coastal town of Cavtat — a place of lovely homes and coves. The center of town is a crescent walkway along the bay, lined with open-air restaurants and shops. Just beyond the commercial area, several hundred feet up the hillside, is an historic catholic church. A stiff breeze was entering the narrow bay, making it challenging for sailboats to dock.

Montenegro

Lying south of Croatia, the country of Montenegro shares the coastal beauty of Croatia. Although Montenegro is part of the European Union (and euro zone), Croatia is not expected to achieve membership until 2013. Thus, passports are still necessary to enter Montenegro or reenter Croatia.

We took a day trip to the old city of Kotor and along the Bay of Kotor. Rocky mountains, up to 5,000 feet high, plunge to the fjord-like bay. Decorating the foothills are cypress, fig, olive, cedar, palm and pine trees and grape arbors. Kotor, like Dubrovnik, has become a popular stop for smaller cruise ships. Kotor was jammed with tourists at mid-day. Its ancient catholic and orthodox churches, old city walls and museum attracted their share of visitors on this hot day in June. Some of Kotor dates back 1,000 years. Because we would eventually visit Slovenia, which, like Montenegro, uses the euro for currency, we took the opportunity to visit an ATM to stock up on euros.

After leaving Kotor, we stopped for a tasty lunch in the seaside town of Budva , afterwards wandering along Budva’s long stretches of sand beach. Regrettably, our bathing suits were still in our hotel in Dubrovnik where we had used the large salt water pool. On our return trip to Croatia, our bus paused to permit a group of horseback riders of various ages to cross the road. They were dressed in elegant native costumes, the men in red caps and black riding pants and jackets and white long-sleeve shirts, the women in white dresses and embroidered vests.

Wanting a day of poolside relaxation, we passed up a planned trip to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. While we were sad to miss that trip and the famous bridge at Mostar, we needed a breather in our schedule.

Split

The next day, we drove to Split via a winding, twisting coastal road carved into steep mountainsides and offering a succession of dramatic mountain, Adriatic and inland lake views. The active port of Split is home to the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian, built in 305 AD. After the Roman Empire became Christian, Diocletian’s Temple of Jupiter was converted into a Christian baptistery and his mausoleum was converted into a cathedral — a fitting memorial for a man who executed his wife and daughter after they converted to Christianity. The palace is considered to be one of the greatest Roman ruins in Europe. The high brick and stone arches now house many small businesses. The palace complex is impressive in size. Its fortress-like walls enclose an area 590 feet by 705 feet. Being open to pedestrians and the flow of commerce, the impressive ruins have suffered some graffiti. The front wall of the palace has become the back wall of a row of taverns, cafes and shops. Surprisingly, the historic site and retail outlets blend fairly seamlessly.

A local guide provided us with excellent insights into the site’s history. We spent the night in the outskirts of Split at the beautiful President Hotel, located adjacent to a small park.

Opatija

The next day, we drove to Opatija, using the modern national highway that passes through many tunnels (the largest being 3 miles long). The national highway is inland and provides views of mountain ranges, long valleys, tall forests and fields of crops. Eventually, we had to leave the national highway system to head for the coast. Again we were traveling on narrow, twisting roads. We stopped for lunch at the Restaurant Martina, perched on a rock ledge overlooking the Adriatic. We walked nearby to view a marker informing passersby that they are on the 45th parallel, equidistant (5000 kilometers) from the north pole and the equator.

We arrived at the Grand Hotel Four Flowers complex of four buildings overlooking the Adriatic in the seaside resort of Opatija. Our section of the hotel — Camelia — provided a view of the Adriatic, the city’s seaside promenade (Lungo Mare) and a small boat harbor. The miles-long seaside promenade passes in front of graceful and historic resort hotels, some dating from the late 1800’s but remaining top-rated luxury hotels. In their midst is a free museum displaying photos of the hotels and city life during the 19th century. Beyond the gracious old hotels lie blocks of waterfront restaurants, gelato stands, shops and boat trip concessions. A group of us hired a boat and crew for a very pleasant hour-long tour of the coast. A larger commercial district lies a block distant from the water and parallel to the shore.

On Friday night, Opatija was swinging. Seaside restaurants and shops were open and busy. Some hotels featured live music and dancing at their outdoor dining areas. Unfortunately, one restaurant near our hotel continued to play loud disco music until 4 AM or later. Powerful speakers seemed to be aimed directly at our hotel. After hours of this loud assault, we finally managed some exhausted sleep. Saturday, we skipped a planned trip to KRK Island and, instead, enjoyed (now quiet) time on the seaside promenade. This time a breeze was sending small white caps crashing onto the rocks from which swimmers had been launching themselves a day before.

The next day we traveled across the Istrian Peninsula (the largest Croatian peninsula and one shared with neighboring Italy and Slovenia). We first visited the Italian-influenced coastal town of Rovinj. This picturesque town has both a north and south harbor. After viewing both harbors, we took a steep uphill walk to the imposing eighteenth century church of St. Euphemia, patron saint of Rovinj. The pedestrian-only route to the church is a narrow cobblestone street, intersected by cobblestone alleys on either side, most filled with small shops and vendors selling quality artworks, jewelry and souvenirs.

Leaving Rovinj, our group stopped at a countryside farmhouse for a tasty meal of Istrian specialties. Our final stop on the peninsula was Pula, location of the world’s sixth largest Roman amphitheater. This well-preserved arena, constructed over a period of 40 years, around 200 AD, could seat over 20,000 spectators. After our return to Opatija, we dined on an excellent buffet in the beautiful dining room of the Milenij Hotel, located on the waterfront.

Slovenia

After four nights in Opatija, we were driven to Bled, Slovenia for the final four days of our trip. Slovenia is a peaceful and stable nation of 2 million people. Passports at the ready, we entered Slovenia and stopped to see the extensive underground caverns at Postojna. One enters and exits these impressively large caves seated in a small, open train. After disembarking, passengers are organized into linguistic groups and are guided up and down one kilometer of fairly steep ramps to see the wonders of the largest area of the caves.

On our drive within Slovenia we were impressed with the nice homes, lawns and gardens and the luxuriant greenery of mountains and valleys. Building designs, flowering window boxes and the general neatness of the homes and communities showed a clear Austrian influence.

Lake Bled

When we entered the town of Bled, on Lake Bled in the Julian Alps, we were dazzled by the almost fairy tale images of pristine waters set against mountains up to 9,000 feet high.

The walkway around the entire perimeter of Lake Bled is less than 4 miles long. What makes the view so spectacular is contrast. There is the sharp relief of the 1,000 year-old castle (Byski Grad) perched on the ledge of a 400 foot cliff. An ornate catholic church with tall white steeple, metal-clad spire and patterned slate roof is set against mountains and greenery. There is the tall steeple of the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary on Bled Island and its mirror image reflected in the lake. Oarsmen in canopied boats row tourists (us included) to Bled Island to visit the church and its museum. Massive, distant mountains frame the whole of this beautiful scene. After settling in our hotel (Hotel Park), we enjoyed a walk along the lake and surrounding gardens. Swans swim gracefully along the edge of the lake, happy to accept handouts from passersby.

The following afternoon, we visited Skofa Loka, dating to 1513 and said to be the oldest town in Slovenia. One of the town’s well preserved churches dates back to 1532. About 1,000 people reside in the old town and 21,000 others live in outlying, newer sections of town. A local guide acquainted us with the history and features of the old town. We continued on to the so-called “black house” — a 15th century residence once housing three families and a tavern. The house features a large ceramic heater drawing heat from a kitchen oven. The house gained its “black” name because it lacks a chimney to vent black cooking smoke tar.

The following day, using Lake Bled as our base camp, we drove to Ljublijana, which is Slovenia’s capital, a college town, a place of considerable architectural beauty, and a major tourist attraction. Restaurants and outside dining areas line pedestrian-only streets and waterways. Open -air shops and kiosks offer lace table runners, jewelry and a wide variety of craft items. We enjoyed a pizza lunch under a canopy overlooking a canal. Delightful!

On our final full vacation day, we traveled to Kropa Village in the Bled region, historically a center for the manufacture of wrought iron items. There were demonstrations of the iron working art and a tour of the village museum housing a range of wrought iron items, from artistic items to nails. The display included a replica of the meager housing available to workers and their families and provided a glimpse into the hard lives endured by craftsmen and their families.

In the evening, we traveled to a picturesque, nearby town where we enjoyed a farewell dinner, complete with musical entertainment and a chance to say goodbye to new friends. We heartily recommend Croatia and Slovenia as travel destinations. Both nations are beautiful, hospitable and affordable.

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