Travel in Croatia: The Corner of Europe That Time Forgot

Blue becomes bluer, every shade from sapphire to cobalt. Sea merges with sky. The intensity of blueness is almost too much. It’s as if the Adriatic has fallen into the clutches of a Photoshop enthusiast with an uncontrolled passion for color saturation.

As the ferry approaches Brac Island and Supetar, its toy-town “capital,” the blues fragment into shimmering greens and turquoises.

In the harbor, the water is so crystal clear I can see fish. It’s like gazing into a magic mirror.

Today, Croatia is pulling out all the stops. Trees froth with blossom, fields are speckled gold with wildflowers, and there’s the scent of summer in the air. The sea is still too cold for swimming (by the time you read this it will be just right) but the temperature on this April day is a balmy 68 F. Perfect for boat trips, islands, and exploring fishing ports—the kind where nets dry in the sunlight, cats snooze on doorsteps, and harbor restaurants come with terrace tables brightened by red-checker cloths.

Less than an hour by ferry from Split, Brac lies off Croatia’s Dalmatian stretch of jigsaw-puzzle coastline. As it covers a large section of the country’s 1,100-mile-long littoral and also takes in the cities of Dubrovnik and Split, I spent most of the trip in southern and central Dalmatia. Strung with a necklace of islands of all shapes and sizes. Hand on heart, I have never seen more spellbinding seascapes anywhere in Europe.

Cliffs and a backdrop of karst mountains lend a ruggedness that you don’t get on the Italian side of the Adriatic. Secluded coves of shingle and white-pebble beaches are punctuated by elegant resort towns and tiny ports where you can often purchase supper from the man who caught it. The mountains are forbiddingly bare and gray, but that only accentuates the colors of everything else: russet-roofed towns, spinach-green vegetation, and the hypnotically oh-so-blue sea.

Hitting a zenith in July and August, the vacation season doesn’t really get started until late May.

It helps boost the feeling of having landed in some bygone corner of Europe that time forgot. All along the Dalmatian coast and on many islands, small towns are set like jewel-pieces within medieval walls—and wandering back into history is much more enjoyable when you’re not jostled for every inch of space. There’s been a lot of new construction, certainly, but outside the larger coastal cities it’s not high-rise sprawl.

There are the little things, too. Stopping at an oyster farm for a sampling, and being able to buy a glass of wine from the (unlicensed) farm kitchen. Seeing vegetables that don’t conform to standardized EU size and shape. At the moment, there are few bars where smoking is banned inside, and a lot of Croatians smoke. Of course, things may change in many ways when the country joins the EU as a full member in July.

Delectable food and wine, often home-made, is still incredibly good value. The bill for my first night’s dinner in Split was a pleasant shock. Considering it’s Croatia’s second-largest city, I expected to pay more than a mere $17 for grilled sea bass (two, not one) with a salad and a carafe of local red wine.

Certainly for vacationers, so much in Croatia is good value. A round-trip ferry ticket from Split to Brac: $9.60. A 20-mile bus ride to Trogir, a perfectly-preserved medieval town once under the control of the Venetians: $3.60. In most places, a cone of Italian-style ice cream is $1.20, and coffee averages the same.

If you’re happy with simple accommodation, a room with private bathroom facilities can cost as little as $32 nightly—that’s what I paid at House Sandra in Split. In Makarska, a studio with kitchenette, and easily spacious enough for a couple, was $51 nightly.

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