Doing Europe: Croatia

Croatian countryside by scooter
  • Croatian countryside by scooter

After living in Prague for over a year, my Czech girlfriend, Katka, and I wanted to get out of the city and go on a summer holiday.

At the time, in 2000, it was relatively cheap to travel by bus throughout Europe. Of course it’s cheap! It takes hours to get anywhere! So we bought two tickets for a grueling eighteen-hour bus ride to Split, Croatia. The ride was actually quite nice, through eastern Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and into Croatia.

We’d heard that the islands off the Adriatic coast of Split were superb getaway locations. We arrived in Split very early in the morning and waited for the ferry to our first stop, the island of Brac. I was quite apprehensive of ferries, but these ferries seemed relatively safe and the ride wasn’t but only an hour or so.

The ferry dropped us off on Brac at the town of Supetar, the largest town on the island of about three thousand people.

It’s a quiet town, but when we were there, Supetar was quite touristy, with throngs of German, Italian and English cruising the early Christian Era streets. We settled in a quiet campground near the center of town. It was a perfect place to meander around and discover the Croatian culture.

After a couple days we ferried over to Stari Grad on the island of Hvar – one of the oldest settlements in Europe. Stari Grad dates back to 3,500 B.C. It was inhabited by Neolithic tribes, then ancient Greeks took over. Romans came into the picture around 200 B.C. and took control for about 1,000 years.

After the 8th century, Stari Grad was controlled by the Slavs, Venetian Republic, Turks, Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The island offers architectural ruins, churches, winding European cobblestone streets and aesthetically gorgeous views.

We set up camp in a walled-in kiwi vineyard. It was a large square piece of property with kiwi vines winding around poles and wires. If you’ve ever been camping, you know what it means to “rough” it – like sleeping on the ground or using the bathroom outside. We were situated near one of the walls of the compound and I had to go to the bathroom. So I meandered over to the wall to relieve myself.

While I was doing my business, I thought I would take out my flashlight and see what I was peeing on. My light came on and about a foot from my business maker, there was a scorpion chilling out on the wall! I jumped back, and headed back to Katka to inform her to be quite careful cause we had neighbors. (As a matter of fact, the next day we saw several rats and spiders crawling around our tent as well.)

Hvar has crystal-clear blue water perfect for any snorkeler to dive into. Katka and I brought our diving gear, and our second day there we found a great little rock jetty overlooking a small cove with a sunken rowboat in the middle to explore.

Jumping into the azul water, I was taken aback by the clarity of the water and the quantity of animal life. I swam with schools of tropical, colorful fish in twenty or so feet of water, circling around a rowboat that almost seemed like it was sunken on purpose for people like me to feel like Jacques Cousteau.

While on the island, we rented a scooter to explore at our own pace. We managed to get some rough "Hvarian" directions on getting to the other side of the island – which was through a kilometer-long tunnel also known as the “Tunnel of Death.” This tunnel is only wide enough for one car to go through, so a man working at one end of the tunnel calls another guy at the other end to let him know how many vehicles are coming.

I was behind a few cars when I entered the dark tunnel. It was cold and wet. The walls were jagged rock. The road itself was not very smooth, and I had to lower my sunglasses down the ridge of my nose, causing my eyes to water. I tried to keep the handlebars straight and follow the red taillights of the cars in front of me.

However, these cars were going faster than we were, and their red lights soon faded into the darkness. Here we were, deep in a Croatian mountain, cold and wet from water dripping down and our scooter’s headlight pointed at the ceiling of the tunnel! I remember stopping several times because I didn’t know if I was going to hit the side of the jagged walls. Katka clutched onto me like we were about to jump over the Grand Canyon, Evil Knievel-style.

Finally I saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. We rode out into the sunny daylight happy to be alive. I had to stop to allow my hands to stop shaking. That was the most dangerous adventure I’d ever experienced!

Katka and I then explored the southeastern part of the island, finding a quiet, secluded beach to catch some rays. On the ride back I stopped to ask someone which way would bring us around to Stari Grad. They said the only route back was through......the TUNNEL! The second time through was just as bad as the first. Needless to say, it was the second-most dangerous adventure I had ever experienced.

Towards the end of our stay we took a bus from Stari Grad to the port city of Hvar (we did NOT take the T.O.D!). Hvar is a popular tourist attraction, with million-dollar yachts moored up in the harbor and street artists, delicious Mediterranean restaurants and an international mix of people to people-watch.

To get back to our Stari Grad campground, we took the bus around the eastern part of island. This was the third-most dangerous experience I endured! The road cut through the dry desert mountains (similar to East County San Diego), and of course it was barely big enough for one car – much less one bus! I remember sitting in the back with some other English-speaking tourists who were videotaping the bus ride. The bus driver was coming within literally one foot of the side of road, which dropped off down the mountainside.

To add to the proximity of plunging to our demise, the driver was driving like Keanu Reeves in Speed. Katka and I clutched our bus seats as we sped close to death.

Our worst nightmare came when we saw a car approaching us head-on from the opposite end of the road. The bus came to a screeching stop as well as the car. I didn’t think it was possible, but the car squeezed by us with about an inch of room on each side to either fall off the side of the mountain or scrape up against the bus.

After a total of about five days on two islands, we ferried back to the 1,700-year-old city of Split. We ended up camping illegally on the side of a hill outside the city.

We spent our last day in Croatia exploring Split. In the city center is Diocletian’s Palace. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built the massive palace in preparation for his retirement in 305 A.D. The palace encompasses a large portion of the city and is surrounded by a high wall, making it one of the most complete remains of a Roman palace.

Croatia is a place I never thought I’d go to, and during my trip, Croatia was a place I thought I’d never leave.....alive. But in retrospect, it was one of the most interesting and aesthetically pleasing countries I visited.

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