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Croatia: The Land of Thrones

Kit Harington who plays Jon Snow in Game of Thrones Photo: Flickr

Sandwiched between a visit to Venice and Florence, my friend Carol and I spent a week in Croatia, which was split (excuse the pun) between the cities of Split and Dubrovnik.

Although I had previously been to Croatia, this was a trip of a different kind. We were our own agents and ordered everything online from flights, to Airbnbs (our first experience), to tours. The itinerary was arranged according to our own specific interests, rather than following a set schedule. It turned out to be much more enjoyable and worthwhile, much more time-efficient and cheaper as well. We used every mode of transport available except for renting a car, and took in the scenery, relaxing on buses, ferries, trains and even planes. The only downside was the schlep and carry, which was considerable but do-able.

Croatia is to the east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea, and shares borders with other former Yugoslavian republics of Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, as well as Hungary. The Republic of Croatia, formed in 1992, has a population of more than 4 million people, spread over almost 57,000 sq km. In comparison, Israel is just over 22,000 sq km with a population of 9.1 million souls (as of Rosh Hashanah this year).

We began our week in Dubrovnik, a small city in southern Croatia, fronting the sea and listed on UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites due to its distinctive Old Town encircled by massive stone walls completed in the 16th century. This must have been a very busy century for building walled cities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East as my travels have repeatedly shown.

Famed as one of the sites for filming the Game of Thrones series, Dubrovnik has become a popular tourist destination despite the significant damage it suffered in the 1991 war following the demise of Yugoslavia. Our Airbnb host, Marina, whose apartment was around the corner from the entrance to the Old Town, complained however that the small city is overrun with tourists, despite bringing in welcome income to the residents and the country.

We started with a walk through the old town early in the morning (the best time to visit before the arrival of the tourist hordes), and enjoyed the charm of its buildings and alleyways before exiting the walls to have a somewhat bitter cappuccino at the harbor. The impressively small yet enchanting port is a must for every visitor to the town. Sailboats, yachts and speedboats of all sizes filled every space, carting tourists out of the harbor to adjacent islands or even just for a jaunt down the stunning coastline.

Located on the second floor, as we were also later to see in Split, the synagogue in the Old Town is the oldest Sephardic synagogue still in use today in the world and the second oldest synagogue in Europe. It is said to have been established in 1352, but only gained legal status in the city in 1408. It still functions as a place of worship for Yomtovim and special occasions, and houses a small display of centuries-old ritual items. It was interesting to overhear a guide telling a large group of tourists about the Jewish influence in the town and the impact the Jews had had on the local community when they lived there.

Lavender and the color purple are synonymous with Dubrovnik and purchasing any of the myriad items on sale for a small sum will bring back intoxicating aromas and also serve as great souvenirs or gifts. They are available in any number of sizes and packaging for a couple of Kunas (2 Kuna = approx. NIS50, the national currency still in use).

We visited a newly-opened museum with the intriguing name of the Red History Museum, which advertises "a walk through life during the Communist era". Aside from a few interesting items, the experience turned out to be a walk down memory lane where household items and furnishings could have been taken from my own parents' home of the 1940's and 1950's. For us, it was display of nostalgia but for the younger crowd there, it was clearly a hit as they giggled and wowed their way through the exhibition.

Boats moored in the medieval town of Budva

Having "done" Dubrovnik, we took a tour down to Montenegro, a Venetian word meaning "black mountain", about an hour's drive south, and then eastwards. We stopped at two picturesque medieval towns, Budva and Kotor, both fronting the sea and replete with old cities surrounded by massive walls and more charming alleyways with shops and eateries everywhere. The views were beautiful and worth the day's outing, especially Kotor which, like China, has a huge and long winding defensive wall that snakes up the surrounding tall mountain range. These fortifications date back to the 6th century and contain ramparts, towers, bastions and a castle at the summit. We were encouraged to hike up if we were interested…. We thought not!

From there, we went on to Split further north, an almost six-hour comfortable ferry ride up the coast. The baggage handlers had a swift and efficient method of stacking the suitcases and we were able to sit in our seats unencumbered by luggage. Split is the second-largest city in Croatia, with about 350,000 people living in its urban area. Home to Diocletian's Palace, built for the Roman emperor in AD 305, the walled city has a different pulse from that of Dubrovnik. More cosmopolitan with greater tourist attractions, Split derives its name from a spiny flower growing in the region. Curiously, it is a twin city to Beit Shemesh in Israel.

While there, we embarked upon a most exciting speedboat tour to the famed Blue Cave and six surrounding islands including the largest one, Hvar. Initially apprehensive of getting seasick, the rides were absolutely exhilarating and total fun and I found myself having a whale of a time amidst the whoops of the twelve passengers. Each of us was ensconced in a seat that bounced up and down in accordance with the boat skimming the waves, and we were bounced high out of our seats several times, but with no mishaps.

The Blue Cave is arrestingly beautiful, shallow with crystal clear waters, even if the visit was no more than a few minutes so as to allow the many tourists an equal chance. We were able to swim and snorkel at several of the islands. I braced myself for a refreshing swim to the shore (the boats docked in the bay) where I tentatively felt out the rocky bottom beneath my feet. One particular island was noted as the locale for filming scenes from the hit, Mamma Mia. I imagined Meryl, Pierce and Colin cavorting down the mountain….

While Carol took a tour to the gorgeous Krka Waterfalls, which I had previously seen, I opted for a hop on/off tour of the peninsula. The live guide was excellent, although I found that the Croatian guides in general were poor in dispensing information and have a long way to go to get even close to their sophisticated and well-versed peers in Italy or Israel. The tour ended without any need to hop on or off at the striking Riva harbor, the heart of the tourist track.

Strolling along, I mused through the very fresh produce in the Green Market and the flea market, all reasonably priced and an enjoyable tourist trap. On Motzei Shabbat, we went down to the harbor and were delighted to see a free performance of traditional songs and dances by various troupes, put on by the municipality so that tourists could soak up some local culture.

A visit to Diocletian's Palace, which today forms about half the old town, should be on everyone's itinerary. Although the palace was intended to be used as the retirement residence of Diocletian, the term can be misleading as the structure is huge and more resembles a large fortress. The Palace was also used as a location for filming the fourth season of Game of Thrones, and memorabilia are everywhere to be found.

A sobering encounter took place when I visited the Split synagogue in the old town, where it is tucked into the western walls of Diocletian's Palace in a narrow lane called Židovski Prolaz (Jewish Passage). This is the third oldest continuously used Sephardic synagogue in the world stemming from the 16th century, when Jews came from the Iberian Peninsula as refugees. It was once a church however and later bought by the Jews who converted it into their place of worship. It is housed on the second floor of two attached medieval houses and does not resemble a synagogue from the outside (in fact, none of the synagogues we saw on second floors were recognizable as such from the outside).

Greeting visitors was a member of the local Jewish community who was born in Split in 1947. I was saddened to hear that the 100-member community does not daven in the shul: most have married out, and only get together to mark the holy days with communal meals. "We don't have a rabbi and we don't believe in God," he said, qualifying this with the oft-posed question, "Where was God in the Holocaust?" Some 50% of the community were killed by the Nazis.

We were lucky to have located an Airbnb in close proximity to the old town, so getting around was very easy. Even catching the airport bus was a cinch, as we crossed pedestrian railway tracks in minutes, saving us a much longer walk around. An added perk was the fabulous view of the harbor from the fifth floor of the apartment building.

Because we had inserted the visit to Croatia between cities in Italy, the differences between the two countries were stark. While clearly tourist-minded with money-changers and luggage drop-offs everywhere, Croatia is still in the diaper stages. Nature sites are mostly undeveloped; restaurants have limited menus, and even if we did not eat 90% of what was offered, the fare was mostly under par. At one place, I returned the tuna twice as it was so heavily salted; at another, I was overcharged for a pizza to the point where it bordered upon theft (and unfortunately realized that too late).

Croatia is still affordable even though it joined the EU in 2013. Despite the minuses, I would heartily recommend a visit there because there is a lot to see, and it can easily be combined with a visit to any one of the neighboring countries.

Bon Voyage! 

Central Split along the Riva promenade


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Saturday, 20 April 2024

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