It has been great to see the positive reception to the tweets we posted while on our Croatian holidays, our summary “Top 10” photos that we post on Facebook and Google+, and the photo essay of our trip. It seems like everyone wants to visit Croatia (Hrvatska) and its Dalmatian Coast.
“Get there while it’s still undiscovered. The euro is coming soon, and the golden days will be over.”
I’ve been listening to urgent exhortations about Croatia for nearly a decade. “What Italy used to be,” “won’t last long,” “unspoilt Mediterranean.” How could I not be chomping at the bit to visit nearly 2500 miles of coastline and 1185 islands situated between Italy and Greece? After all, wasn’t this a favorite dive spot of Jacques Cousteau himself because of its gorgeous, clear waters?
As friend after friend either went or knew somebody traveling to Croatia, I seemed to stumble repeatedly upon gushing articles like this which made me feel like I was missing out on the last unspoiled place in the northern Mediterranean.
This month we finally made it there, road-tripping to the Plitvice Lakes National Park and then down along the Dalmatian Coast. (On a map of Croatia, roughly the area south of Zadar is Dalmatia. We toured Plitvice, Vodice, Zaton, Split, Dubrovnik, Cavtat, Korcula and the Peljesac Peninsula.)
My straight-up, honest opinion? Croatia was a let-down. Yes, my expectations were sky-high. Even so, if I had only one more chance to revisit favorite European destinations (which has some validity since we move to Asia in less than a year), the Dalmatian Coast wouldn’t make it onto my bucket list. And since so many people have limited time to explore Europe, I can’t recommend Croatia travel.
Stop. First things first. Visit the Mediterranean in July?! Unless you enjoy 100° weather and the claustrophobic press of August tourism (or unless you’re a die-hard club fanatic looking for the summer scene), you won’t be happy in ever-so-slightly-less-packed July. Each year we swear we won’t repeat the mistake, but schedules invariably get the best of us. (Our second mistake? Visiting the country’s most popular destinations at the busiest time of year.)
Two major disclaimers aside and moving straight to the point, several myths about Croatia are blatantly untrue:
This is one myth about which I suffered no illusions prior to visiting, but I know that other people still believe it to be true. Friends from Spain have lamented that fewer Italian tourists visit, heading to their eastern neighbor instead; I had heard that the island of Hvar was an “it” spot and always seemed full of Australians, and that Americans on cruise stopovers in Dubrovnik clogged the city streets.
What I didn’t realize is that Croatia is and long has been a top holiday destination for people of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, seemingly more to avoid the inland heat than for cultural tourism reasons. You’ll see them in droves, lingering by the sea morning to night to avoid stuffy vacation apartments, letting it all hang out as they walk through towns in speedos and bikinis, nary a cover-up in sight.
(I could have added a photo here, but I’ll spare you!)
Want to really get to know Bosnians, Slovenians or Poles (up close and very personal)? Head to Croatia.
Is it cheaper than Venice? Yes. But so is Verona. We didn’t find any noticeable savings over the majority of Western Europe.
No: coastal monstrosities and soulless tourism abound.
We all have ire-inducers, and these are mine: communities that don’t act to responsibly manage tourism and the tourists that indiscriminately support them. I blame them for block after block of gray concrete buildings that stretch along the coast, ready to house people looking for the cheapest way to get near the beach.
Several of the old towns are completely given over to tourism, rather than integrating an active community into a tourism-based economy. Take Korcula, which has been described as a “mini-Dubrovnik without the crowds,” and is nothing more than (admittedly gorgeous) old buildings housing a latticework of tourist shops and tourist restaurants. (Locals in Split couldn’t recommend one single worthwhile restaurant in the Old City!) Compare this to places like Barcelona or Paris, whose oldest districts are heavily frequented by tourists but still incubate fantastic tiny eateries and thriving art galleries.
Who knows? Maybe what we saw was a holdover from the Tito era, and they’re doing their best to recover and renew. We’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, and tried to mitigate our impact by staying in private homes, historical buildings, or hotels with character. If we’re going to get preachy, we better put it into practice.
Last but not least, the biggest disappointment about Croatia was that it didn’t transmit a distinctive character.
Think about Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Morocco: instant recognition of a strong cultural identity. I couldn’t wait to discover Croatia’s, which I imagined would be another distinct facet of the gem that is the Mediterranean. But it eluded discovery.
Maybe theirs is more understated and was covered up by the strong personality of the tourists, or maybe my perceptions of other Mediterranean countries are in fact based on what I knew (or thought I knew) about them before ever stepping foot there. Then again, maybe Croatia is a small country that has been fractured and absorbed by so many other strong cultures throughout the years that its identity shifts based on the eye of the beholder.
One last word to the wise: Croatia hotels are not up to par with those of Western European countries. They tend to be Spartan and air conditioning is rare (if it’s not mentioned – even with rental cars – it’s not there). That’s not the kind of thing that would deter me from visiting, but I mention it here in the interests of full disclosure.
If you have the time, by all means go and check it out for yourself. But us? We plan to make our way to Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, in the north of the country, which is reportedly less touristy, more bohemian, and home to the best gastronomical traditions that we came across on our trip (think aromatic truffles and smooth, delicate wines).
Time for the third and final disclaimer: we did manage to find some incredible spots during our trip (As always! We like to think of it as great travel karma.), and we look forward to sharing them with you. What’s ahead in the following weeks? We’ll tell you about what we liked most, the hotel that knocked our socks off (it now ranks as our favorite hotel), plus two amazing, hidden Croatian seaside towns.
See photos from the trip in the photo gallery
Croatia is a coastal Mediterranean country located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It is bordered by Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.