BUDAPEST AND CROATIA – SEPTEMBER 2009
9/3 – 9/4 BUDAPEST – Opera House, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Parliament,
Dohany Synagogue, Hungarian National Museum
9/4 – 9/6 ZAGREB – Archaeological Museum, Ethnographic Museum,
Mimara Museum, Cathedral of the Assumption,St. Mark’s Square,
9/6 PULA – Amphitheater, Archaeological Museum of Istria,
Cathedral of the Assumption, Forum, St. Francis Monastery
9/7 ROVINJ – St. Euphemia Cathedral, Franciscan Monastery
POREC – Euphrasian Basilica, Bishop’s Palace museum, 13th C Romanesque house, Trg Marafor (square)
9/8 LABIN – Fortress, Municipal Museum, Tower
LOVRAN – St. George’s Church
OPATIJA - Lungomare, building architecture
9/9 PLITVICKA JEZERA – Upper and Lower Lakes, waterfalls
9/10 ZADAR – St. Donatus, Archaeological Museum, Narodni Trg,
St. Anastasia, St. Simeon – silver repousse sarcophagus,
St. Mary’s Museum of Sacred Art, Roman Forum
9/11 SIBENIK – Sv Jakov (St. James) Cathedral
TROGIR- Sv Lovran (St. Lawrence) Cathedral & Bell Tower,
Clock Tower & Loggia, Kamerlengo Castle and 15th C City Walls,
St. Mark’s Tower, Cathedral Museum (2 Bellini paintings)
9/11-9/12 SPLIT – Cathedral of St. Domnius, Treasury & Bell Tower, Peristil,
Subterranean Halls of Diocletian’s Palace,
Ethnographic Museum, Temple of Jupiter/Baptistery, Golden,
Silver, Bronze and Iron Gates, Mestrovic Gallery and Kastelet
9/13 HVAR – Hvar Town: Cathedral of St. Stephen, 16th C Fortress,
Franciscan Monastery & Museum; Vrboska – fishing village
9/14-16 DUBROVNIK – City Walls, Dubrovnik Cathedral, Rector’s
Palace, Dominican Monastery & Museum, St. Blaise Church,
Franciscan Monastery, Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius, Maritime Museum,
Ethnographic Museum, harbor boat ride
9/17 CAVTAT – St. Nicholas Church
9/18-19 BUDAPEST – St. Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion,
Golden Eagle Pharmacy, Royal Palace, Andrassy,
Heroes Square, Museum of Fine Arts
I have wanted to visit Croatia since the early 80’s when a friend used to visit Yugoslavia every year and return with stories about how beautiful it was. It’s taken many years to plan a trip to at least one area in what was once Yugoslavia, but I have to agree that the part that we visited was very beautiful indeed. We started and ended our sojourn in Budapest, but spent the majority of the time in Croatia, so I’ll start there.
We expected to marvel at Budapest’s magnificent churches and public buildings, and to be captivated by the walled cities of the Croatian coast, but the major surprise of the trip was Zagreb. It’s generally referred to as a place to pass through on your way to the national parks and coastal region, but it’s a lovely city with more than enough attractions to warrant a longer stay than I had arranged. We arrived in the evening, enjoyed a refined dinner at Zinfandel’s, and had the next day to explore the city.
The young man who transported us from the airport to our hotel told us that the mayor of Zagreb stimulated the creation of many parks and beautiful public spaces, and as proof, the town center is attractively landscaped. The main square, Trg Bana Jelacica, separates the more contemporary lower town, Donji Grad, from the historic upper town, Gornji Grad. The walk from the Regent Esplanade to Trg Bana Jelacica took us through 3 lovely squares linked by a long verdant park lined with ornate buildings. After a rainy night, clouds obscured the dawn, gradually dissipating as the day progressed.
Our first stop was the Archaeological Museum with a relatively small but intelligently displayed and annotated collection that ranged from the Stone Age to about the 3rd C AD. The museum far exceeded our expectations, even including Egyptian sarcophagi and mummies among many fascinating artifacts. Next was a brief visit to the Ethnographic Museum, which had some interesting exhibits, but which could stand some renovation and improved displays.
The Mimara Museum was nearby in a grand square that included the handsome yellow National Theater and a profusion of flowers. We could have easily spent the entire day at the Mimara, and it was only our insistent hunger that forced us to leave to get some lunch. The paintings alone were worth a visit, including 2 each by Bosch and Botticelli, plus glorious canvases by Titian, Caravaggio, Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Murillo, Dou, Renoir, Manet, Delacroix and Corot. There were light-filled rooms filled with statues and a wide variety of art objects. We missed the floor with the Greek and Roman collections, but managed to catch a whimsical temporary collection of marionettes in the basement.
We passed through the vast Trg Bana Jelacica on our way to Gornji Grad and stopped at a pretty good restaurant across from the Cathedral. After lunch we toured the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a magnificent twin-spired Gothic church replete with skilled stone and marble carvings, brilliant stained glass windows, gilded paintings and a deluxe silver repoussé altar. It was not overly ornate in the style of some cathedrals, but managed to appear simply elegant while still richly decorated.
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sights of the old town, climbing Lotrscak Tower for the views, admiring the colorfully tiled roof of St. Mark’s Church and strolling up Tkalciceva Ulica, the main tourist drag, where footballers in jester-like garb were noisily toasting their team. On Saturday most of the museums in Donji Grad close at 1 pm, so we missed the Strossmayer Gallery, nor did we have time to visit the Dolac market or the lushly landscaped Botanical Gardens which were near the Regent. One more day in Zagreb would have been just right for us. We had a good dinner at a casual restaurant named Gallo, with a cozy cellar dining room and inner courtyard garden.
The next morning we picked up a rental car and drove to Pula in the Istria region. We got lost trying to find our hotel because our GPS and Google Map both directed us to the wrong place, but we called Valsabbion and eventually found it with their guidance. Our room wasn’t ready so we had a simple but delicious lunch at the hotel while waiting. After settling into our room and wondering whether we should just spend the next couple of days on our balcony enjoying the gorgeous view, we decided to head into Pula.
We started our tour at the modest archaeological museum since it closes early on Sunday. The Roman amphitheater, begun by Augustus during his reign from 31-14 BC and finished by Flavian (69-96AD), is the most famous attraction in Pula. The outer wall is almost entirely intact and affords wide-ranging views of the town and coast from the upper seats. There’s an informative museum in the subterranean gallery featuring an antique olive oil press and describing the wine and olive oil industry in Istria, which was the second most important oil producer for quality and quantity during the Roman Empire (1st C AD). Terra cotta amphorae were stamped with the names of workshops and potters, an early example of product branding.
The old Roman Forum now constitutes Pula’s main square where you can find remains of the Temple of Augustus, the 13th C Gothic town hall and the Monastery of St. Francis (1227 AD), which contains a magnificent 15th C gilded wooden polyptych depicting Mary with the baby Jesus in the center frame surrounded by the 12 apostles and the grown-up Christ. We also visited the 5th C Cathedral of the Assumption. Dinner at Valsabbion was fabulous including fine Croatian wine pairings.
After a first-rate buffet breakfast, we headed up the coast to Rovinj, a fortified town on what used to be an island that is now joined to the mainland. The view of Rovinj, like a fairy-tale castle jutting into the Adriatic, is so splendid that it attracts a large number of visitors given its relatively small size. It’s fun just wandering its narrow cobblestoned streets and browsing in the art shops, but it’s worth spending some time in the Venetian St. Euphemia Cathedral (1725-36), where the tomb of the martyred St. Euphemia (805 AD) resides in a rich chapel. The exterior is drab and the stained glass windows surprisingly modern, but a dramatic statue of St. George slaying the dragon graces the altar and there are some lovely paintings and statues, not to mention an opulent silver chapel. The Rovinj Heritage Museum is closed on Monday, but we also took a look in the St. Francis Monastery before continuing our road trip to Porec.
We had delicious risotto and fish at Sv. Nikola restaurant on the pier, where an ostentatious yacht had just docked and its owners were relaxing on-deck with champagne and snacks. The best reason to visit Porec is for the Euphrasian Basilica (543-554 BC) with its marvelous 6th C Byzantine mosaics. The plainness of the rest of the church allows the mosaics to really stand out. There’s a museum in the Bishop’s Palace with more mosaics, including a fish mosaic from the 4th C in blue, red, brown and earth tones, as well as the 6th C marble altar of Bishop Euphrasius, a carved gilded wooden Vivarini altarpiece (1499) with the figures of St. John the Baptist, Mary with the young Jesus, the grown Christ and scenes from his life. We climbed the 16th C campanile for the views and wandered the streets admiring the fine architecture, including a 15th C Romanesque house and the grand square, Trg Marafor, with its Venetian palaces. Another scrumptious dinner on the outdoor patio at Valsabbion capped a terrific day in Istria.
On the drive to Opatija, we stopped off at the adorable old town of Labin. The churches don’t compare to Rovinj or Porec, but we fell in love with the quiet charm of this town with its hilltop fortress and lovely buildings, such as a small church with a griffin carving and 2 bells. The municipal museum is in a lovingly restored Baroque mansion. It tells the story of the city, including the life of the miners, once a key industry, with an opportunity to tour mine tunnels and experience miners’ working conditions. In a small gift shop, we stopped to listen while the owner expertly played melodious tunes on his guitar. We also had the opportunity to climb a tower for the panoramic views, a common experience in Croatian towns, and a good way to work off some of the calories we were consuming.
We had an excellent whole grilled fish in a small restaurant across the square from St. George’s Church in Lovran before arriving in Opatija. We were thrilled by the view of the Kvarner Bay from the balcony in our room, but we tore ourselves away and took a walk along the Lungomare, the seaside promenade that Opatija is known for, as well as exploring a park with a statue of a young woman holding a seagull. The town is a collection of fancy beaux-arts buildings, each one seemingly trying to outdo the next in grandiosity, and upscale boutiques and cafés. For dinner, we drove to Volosko for the best meal of the trip at the exceptional restaurant Le Mandrac.
Istrians are as proud of their olive oils as their wines and offer samples of their finest along with the meal, describing their character – buttery, spicy, touch of bitterness, fruity, etc. Discussing Croatian wine, our waiter suggested that Croatian wine is not exported because, as a result of low production, the wines are more expensive than Italian wines of equal or superior quality. Whatever the reason, the wines were delicious and paired perfectly with the food.
We had a long distance to go the next day and we were still stuffed from dinner, so we arose early, skipped breakfast, and drove straight to Plitvicka Jezera (Plitvice Lakes) to visit the renowned national park. We dropped our things at Guest House Mutinje and met the lovely and personable Helena, who gave us a good grounding on the park before we set out.
There are several routes that you can take in the park. If you have a very short amount of time, you can spend a couple of hours touring the lower lakes and viewing Veliki Slap, the largest of the many waterfalls. We had nearly a full day, so we were able to explore both the lower and upper lakes, and get in a fair amount of hiking. We hopped a boat across Lake Kozjak and ate some quite good grilled chicken from a park café on an outdoor bench before beginning our trek. It’s useful to layer clothing as the temperature can be brisk, but you warm up climbing the steeper trails.
The trails and wooden boardwalks that traverse the park are crowded with visitors as this is an extremely popular destination for Croatian and foreign tourists. The lakes are a clear, sparkling glacial blue and there are waterfalls everywhere you look. The scenery is as beautiful as you expect and there are plenty of opportunities to find a somewhat secluded spot to stop and soak it all in. When we got back to the guest house, I treated myself to a relaxing massage courtesy of Helena, (who seems to do everything) and a sauna before dinner. Dinner was far better than we’d imagined with very fresh ingredients and really good home-style cooking.
We were happy with the amount of time that we’d spent in the national park, so after breakfast we sadly bade farewell to Helena and charted our course to Zadar. On the way we stopped at an overlook for a terrific view of distant lakes. Locals had set up fruit and candy stands for tourists taking a break and we bought some exceptionally sweet figs to snack on.
We found the Hotel Niko, which is in a nearby beach area, after some searching. We had to wait for our room, so by the time we reached the walled old town, it was nearing the time when most of the attractions close for an extended afternoon siesta. This reminded us of Sicily where this practice is also common. Despite the rest, people in Zadar seemed grumpier than in most of the other places we visited.
We had enough time to visit 9th C St. Donatus, which resides among the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum. The most interesting aspect of St. Donatus is its unusual shape, because it’s completely unornamented, and hasn’t been used as a house of worship for centuries. We popped into the Archaeological Museum across the street which had a somewhat intesting collection of prehistoric artifacts along with stone carvings and sarcophagi from various churches in the area.
We had plenty of time for lunch, at an undistinguished outdoor restaurant, and to acquaint ourselves with the towering gates, ancient streets and handsome squares while waiting for the churches to reopen. There are lots of tourist gift shops and modern stores, as we found in most of the major towns that we visited, and there seem to be ice cream stores every 20 or 30 ft., so if you’re a chain ice cream cone-eater you never have to find yourself empty-handed.
When the city reawakened, we visited St. Anastasia, which is sparsely adorned with the exception of a chapel with a lovely Della Robbia-style ceramic rendition of Jesus surrounded by cherub heads in shades of green, rose and ochre. We didn’t climb its unattached campanile. The church we most enjoyed in Zadar was St. Simeon due to its impressive 14th C silver coffin containing the remains of the saint. The coffin is supported by 3 bronze angels, 2 large ones on each side and a smaller one beneath.
The most compelling museum in Zadar, and the one not to be missed, is the Treasury attached to St. Mary’s Church, which contains a spectacular collection of religious artifacts, much of which are crafted of silver or gold and many studded with semi-precious and precious gems. There are silver reliquaries in the form of hands and feet, silver boxes, chalices, a breathtaking carved gold bishop’s croisier, richly encrusted crucifixes and life-size wooden sculptures of Jesus and the apostles originally from St. Anastasia.
We were heading to Split, but made two important stops on the way. The town of Sibenik is the site of the UNESCO World Heritage Renaissance Sv. Jakov Cathedral (1431 – 1536). Mass was in progress when we arrived, so we admired the fantastic carvings on the exterior, which include lions, statues of Adam and Eve, and a frieze of 74 heads that capture the expressive physiognomies of local characters during the era that the church was built. With 3 apses and a cupola, the cathedral has a unique shape and design. After circumnavigating the cathedral, we set out uphill to expore the winding stone streets. After mass was over, we entered the cathedral to view the gorgeous round peacock stained glass window, the elaborate altar, and side chapels replete with wood carvings, paintings and rose and white marble.
We were traveling in the shoulder season after the summer crush, which was ideal because most attractions were open during the longer summer hours, but there were far less tourists. I mention this because we found that we rarely had trouble finding parking in the vicinity of the old towns, but realized that during the high season it may be nearly impossible to get near the most popular sights. Traffic on the well-maintained roads was also fairly light most of the time.
Trogir is an attractive 13th C fortified town not far from Sibenik. We parked in a large municipal lot and crossed a short bridge into the old town. The pier was lined with palm trees forming a lovely promenade area by the water (the Riva). We visted Sv Lovran (St. Lawrence) Cathedral with its divine chapels and magnificent crypt, and ascended its belltower for expansive views of the harbor and the main square with its clock tower, loggia and Duke’s palace.
It’s worth visiting Kamerlengo Fortress to climb its crenellated walls for another great vista of the town and sea. The most pleasant surprise was in a museum in the Cathedral Square where, among its many religious artifacts, we found two exquisite Bellini paintings of St. Gerome and St. John the Baptist which had originally been in Sv Lovran. I didn’t find any mention of the museum or Bellinis in any guidebooks, we were just lucky to have decided to take a look.
We were ready for lunch by this time and sat in the outdoor café of the Kamerlengo Grill, where we were treated to an excellent lunch of a toothy grilled bream with vegetables.
We arrived in Split in the late afternoon. The Marmont Hotel had advised us to park in front of the Bellevue Hotel and call them. They immediately sent a housemaid to guide us to our reserved parking spot (requires a key to enter) and help us carry our bags to the hotel. The front desk agent, Ante, was friendly and helpful.
We had sufficient time to begin exploring Diocletian’s Palace (305 AD), the walled section of town just a couple of blocks from the hotel. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built this huge complex as a retirement home. Entry is via 4 impressive stone gates (Bronze, Siver, Golden and Iron) and the interior includes churches, palaces, temples, markets, staff domiciles as well as the Peristil, the main palace courtyard where the emperor received visitors. People live within the palace walls now and it has shops and banks and other commerce in addition to the historical structures and museums.
We started out at St. Domnius Cathedral, which was originally Diocletian’s mausoleum, built in the 3rd C. In a stunning act of defiance, a Christian cathedral was built on top of the tomb of an emperor who had persecuted and slaughtered Christians, and the martyrs’ bones rest in his extravagant sarcophagus. As a result, the cathedral isn’t structured like most churches, though the use of the octagonal space is very interesting and quite beautiful, in part due to the mystical lighting. The space is crammed with altars, tombstones, paintings, carvings and all manner of decoration. The altar and tomb of St. Domnius, the patron saint of Split, resides in a semicircular niche. The life of Christ is illustrated on 28 framed panels on the massive walnut doors. A Romanesque pulpit from the 13th C is a masterpiece of mulicolored marble and elaborately carved column capitals.
The treasury associated with the cathedral contains many precious religious artifacts, including reliquaries of some of the Christians martyred by Diocletian, and very rare manuscripts. The fellow collecting tickets seemed quite indifferent to visitors until we asked him about some of the artifacts. He completely opened up and shared information about the collection with obvious pride, pointing out treasures that are unmatched in other cathedrals, including the Evangeliarum Spalatense, a codex from the 7th & 8th C, and the 11th C Supetar Register. We ended our visit by climbing the cathedral campanile for a view across the terra cotta tiled rooftops.
Among the most interesting sights is the Podrum, the vaulted subterranean chambers of the palace. They were built to support the daily activity of the palace and for centuries afterwards served as a garbage dump. This actually helped to preserve them as they were discovered virtually intact after the garbage was hauled away. Helpful information is posted to guide you through the halls.
We wandered around orienting ourselves with the area before heading back to the hotel to clean up and change. We dined at an outdoor table at the restaurant of the Hotel Vestibul Palace which occupies what was once Diocletian’s boudoir. Although there were rowdy crowds nearby in the Peristil, the Vestibul was remarkably private, quiet, and even romantic, tucked behind the main courtyard. The food and wine were excellent, perhaps a bit overpriced, though we didn’t mind because we really enjoyed the experience.
We almost booked a room at this hotel, but weren’t pleased with the room that was available relative to the price. In the end, we were happy with the Marmont, though the location of the Vestibul Palace is unparalleled.
We ventured outside the palace walls the next morning to tour the Split Archaeological Museum with its embarrassment of riches. Greek and Roman treasures are well displayed in cases on the ground floor of the museum and beneath arcades in the front garden of the property. Among the fine objects were Attic vases, jewelry, glassware, coins, bronze containers and sculptures, oil lamps, medical equipment, bone vessels, clever unguentariums modeling an African head and the squat god Bes, marble figures and reliefs, mosaics, stone carvings, and intricately carved marble sarcophagi from the 2nd – 5th C depicting hunting scenes, the Israelis being pursued across the Red Sea by the Egyptians, Amazons, centaurs in battle, and much more.
We walked back to Diocletian’s Palace to visit the Ethnographic Museum, which may the best one that we encountered within Croatia. The space was airy and light and the exhibits were interesting and expertly displayed. The elaborate traditional costumes, hats and jewelry were among our favorites, but there were also meticulously hand-crafted lace from the island of Pag, expressive wooden carvings of native folks, paintings, friezes and household objects. Entry to the museum includes access to a rooftop with a view of the Vestibul and surroundings.
A fractured black Egyptian Sphinx stands sentry at the door of the Roman Temple of Jupiter which has been converted into St. John’s Baptistry. The dramatically lit interior contains a statue of St. John standing behind a cross-shaped baptismal font. While wandering around to visit each of the gates and admire the architecture, we discovered Nadalina Chocolates and felt that it was our duty to sample their luscious handmade chocolates so we could report on their excellent quality.
We had good, though not extraordinary, pizza for lunch at Galija, a dark tavern type of place that is popular with locals as well as tourists. From there we walked to the Mestrovic Gallery. Ivan Mestrovic (1883-1962) is Croatia’s most illustrious artist and we saw samples of his work throughout the country. The eponymous museum in Split is housed in a grand mansion with well-landscaped gardens that feature his eloquent sculptures and a few drawings. The museum entrance fee includes the Kastelet Chapel, just down the road, where Mestrovic’s powerful wooden Stations of the Cross and crucifix adorn the simple structure. The chapel overlooks the sea in a tranquil, cloistered setting. It was drizzling as we walked back to the Marmont. On the way we stopped at the ferry terminal to check out the schedules and pricing.
We asked Ante for a restaurant suggestion and he wangled us a table at the extremely popular fish joint, Nostromo. Tables are clustered on 3 levels and the atmosphere is lively. The meal was good, but nothing special for the price, and they don’t take credit cards, so you need to bring a lot of cash. The service was perfunctory. We wouldn’t recommend it.
We didn’t have time for breakfast the next morning since we wanted to catch an early ferry, so we bought some pastry at a nearby bakery before picking up our car and heading over to the pier. We bought round-trip tickets at the ferry kiosk and joined the line of cars waiting to board the boat to Hvar, scarfing down the flaky croissants while passing the time.
It was a pleasant ride to the island, under 2 hours, and there was lots of room on the ferry to relax. The ferry docks at Stari Grad but we drove straight to Hvar Town, about a half hour away via a narrow, twisting mountain road. St. Stephen’s square was bustling with activity on a Sunday morning and mass was in progress at the cathedral. We took a wallk along the waterfront and spied the Franciscan Monastery and Museum perched on a hill. We started in the museum, which had a somewhat paltry collection, though some appealing pieces such as a carved wooden dragon. The church was far more interesting, with a striking gilded polyptych altarpiece featuring the Virgin Mary on the main altar, and a stunning chapel with a crucifix suspended above gold-framed paintings and a pair of multi-colored marble altars. The town is attractively laid out and we wandered the narrow streets just window shopping.
We climbed the opposite hill to the 16th C Spanjol fortress, built on a site that has been used since the 1st millennium BC and was earlier a 6th C fort erected by Justinian. In 1282 the Venetians began the current configuration of the fort, finishing it in 1545. There are outstanding views of Hvar Town harbor from these heights that make the hike up worthwhile. By the time we descended, it was raining lightly on and off, so we ducked into St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where a couple of parishoners were consulting the priest after mass. It’s surprisingly luxurious for an island church, with dove gray walls and a harmonious abundance of marble, statuary and gilded paintings.
We liked the menus at a couple of restaurants, unfortunately they were both open for dinner only. A waiter at one of these places intimated that the fish today might not be totally fresh because the fishermen had not returned for the day yet due to the weather. We settled for mediocre pizza in one of the outdoor cafés in the main square. We were fortunate to be situated beneath a large umbrella because it began to rain harder near the end of our meal.
We decided to drive around a bit and headed to Stari Grad. There wasn’t much to see there, so we continued farther to Vrboska, a picturesque fishing village. The rain had let up some so we strolled around and stopped for ice cream until it was time to head over to the ferry.
We arrived an hour early because we wanted to be sure to get on, and were surprised when we were waved onto a ferry already sitting there. It turned out that a ferry from Italy was stopping at Hvar on its way to Split and other destinations and they had room for our car, so we boarded. The advantage was that this ferry was not only earlier, but faster, being much larger. The disadvantage was that it was completely packed. Most seats were taken and people were sitting on the floor in corridors. We managed to find 2 free seats and squeeze in across the table from another couple. Despite the fact that people were obliged to sit on the floor, some people were hogging seats with their paraphernalia.
The way that the roads are designed in Split, getting to the old section of town is a bit of a challenge, and you have to pass through a tunnel. We didn’t bring our GPS because we thought we knew how to get from the pier to our parking space. Big mistake. We were lost in winding back streets for quite awhile until we finally called the hotel to get help navigating our way back. By the time we arrived at the hotel, frustrated and bedraggled, it was getting late and we weren’t sure where to eat. We would have gone back to the Hotel Vestibul Palace gladly, but their restaurant is closed on Sunday. In the end we skipped dinner and turned in early after packing.
Driving from Split to Dubrovnik, you must pass through a minuscule section of Bosnia & Herzegovina, all of about 17 minutes by car, which provides B&H with direct access to the sea along the long Croatian coastline. The guards waved us through the checkpoint entering and departing, perhaps because we were driving a car with Croatian license plates.
We found the Bellevue Hotel without too much difficulty, though the traffic was clogged at that hour. The hotel sits at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea and a small pebbly beach cove. The lobby is on the top floor with the rooms and restaurant cascading down the cliff beneath it, and the view from the lobby is jaw-dropping. We had booked a deluxe room with sea view and were delighted to be upgraded to a spacious suite with separate living and bed rooms and a long balcony with the same spectacular view. The front desk staff could not be kinder or more efficient.
It was lunch time so we decided to eat at Vapor, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant. That way we could test it out to decide about booking it for dinner. The restaurant is very elegant and features an outdoor patio, though they also serve a lighter menu at the bar. Lunch was so good, and our server so personable, that we went right ahead then and reserved a table for dinner, requesting one by the window.
It’s about a 10 minute walk downhill to the walled section of Dubrovnik, which we entered via the Pile Gate. You walk over a drawbridge dating back to 1537 and though the towering stone gate which features a Mestrovic statue of the patron saint of Dubrovnik, St. Blaise (Sv Vlaho), in a niche above the arched entry. Stradun, the main avenue in the old town, stretches out beyond the gate, its pale paving stones worn smooth and shiny by years of foot traffic. We thought that it was fairly crowded at this hour, though a local jeweler and her husband whom we later met told us that during high season the crowd is so thick that it can take up to a half hour to walk from one end of Stradun to the other, a distance just over a third of a mile.
Immediately to the right inside the gate is The Great Fountain by Neapolitan architect Onofrio de la Cava, built in 1444 to tap the Dubrovacka River and supply water to the city. The round gray stone fountain with its brick dome is a popular resting spot for tourists and you have to arrive very early or very late in the day to capture it without people perched on it.
Adjacent to this church is the far grander Franciscan Monastery, built in 1317, which houses the oldest continuously operated pharmacy, opened the same year as the monastery. The interior cloister features columns with faces carved on the capitals and lovely frescoes. Religious artifacts in the museum include a gold Pieta from the 15th C, two moving Ecce Homo paintings, one by Francesco Francia from the 15th C and the other by an unknown 11th C artist, ornate chalices, and a lavish collection of gold votive jewelry. The Apothecary displays antique scales, jars, books, folk remedies and other ancient paraphernalia along with the modern medicine that it now dispenses.
As you stroll along the Stradun, narrow streets branch off to the right and left crammed with shops and restaurants and people enjoying the atmosphere and mild weather. There’s no denying that Dubrovnik is overrun with tourists, however, it’s no wonder considering its extraordinary beauty and compelling history.
At the other end of Stradun, Orlando’s Column is the centerpiece of the Square of the Loggia and another spot where weary tourists habitually sit down to rest. It stands in front of the Church of St. Blaise, whose Baroque façade is graced by a lovely stone Pieta above the door with the supplemental figures of St. John, St. Gerome and the heavenly Father. The column is surrounded by the 1480 Loggia of the Bells, a 15th C clock tower and the small fountain of Onofrio.
We continued on to the Rector’s Palace, another Onofrio design originally that is now a hodgepodge of late Gothic and early Renaissance elements due to devastating damage, and subsequent repairs, in different eras. The façade features columns with exquisitely carved capitals and there’s a colonnaded courtyard within. The city museum inside is not especially well stocked.
Not far from the Rector’s Palace is the main Cathedral of Dubrovnik (1672-1713). Its simple white interior is accented by sumptuous marble chapels and beautiful paintings, such as the glorious polyptych above the altar depicting the Assumption of the Virgin that is credited to Titian. A square stained glass window illustrates the Holy Spirit framed by cherubs. The cathedral treasury contains a remarkable collection of 12th C reliquaries, including a gold arm, leg and skull retaining the remains of St. Blaise.
The weather was balmy with the sun obliquely illuminating the city, so we decided that it would be an ideal time to take a walk on the city walls. Constructed in the 14th C and encircling the old town, the walls cover 2 kilometers and provide fantastic views of the interior, the Minceta Tower (1319) to the north, Revelin Fortress (1462) to the east, the Fortress of St. John (16th C) to the southeast, Tower Bokar (1463) and Lovrijenac Fortress to the west, as well as the harbor and the city beyond the gates. We stopped often for photos, to admire the scenery, to watch boys playing soccer in a courtyard and to drink sweet freshly squeezed orange juice from a café on the route. We stopped by Nautika, located just outside Pile Gate to book a table for dinner the following night.
The walk back to the Bellevue was all uphill, but still not difficult, and we relaxed on our balcony until it was time to get ready for dinner. We feasted on a selection of small dishes in an excellently prepared tasting menu paired with yummy Croatian wines at Vapor in the hotel, reconfirming our positive impression from lunch.
The breakfast buffet at the Bellevue had a wide selection of tasty food, and the atmosphere was enhanced by seating on the outdoor patio. We were the only ones out there so it was a peaceful start to the day. We arrived in the old town early before the hordes descend, and had the pleasure of wandering the streets accompanied almost exclusively by natives preparing for the day. We stopped in Gundulic Square to buy fresh figs at the open-air fruit and vegetable market and had a look at the statue of the poet Gundulic with its bronze reliefs on all 4 sides of the base.
We climbed a wide staircase up to St. Ignatius, an extravagantly Baroque church with a rose marble altar and painted half dome ceiling. Murals reveal the glory of St. Ignatius, but the stained glass windows were the most beautiful feature of the church.
By the time we finished, the Dominican Monastery & Museum was just opening its doors. Constructed in the 14th – 15th C, the monastery is situated near the Ploce Gate. Its serene colonnaded cloister is enlivened with short palm trees and creeping vines. The collection in the museum is stunning and includes a 1513 triptych of the Annunciation by Bozidarovic, an 11th C handwritten illustrated Bible, 15th C silver incense boats, many ivory objects, a 1448 Marinov polyptych of Christ baptized, gold votive gifts and jewelry, an illustrated translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics from the 13th or14th C, and our favorite piece of the trip, a haunting, realistic 19th C ivory carving of Christ on the cross, about 9 inches tall and inspired in every detail.
The attached church mixed modern and old decorations with Gothic arches, a magnificent round stained glass window featuring Jesus and Mary, an eloquent painting of St. Dominic healing a sick child and a gilded crucifix.
In the Sponza Palace there’s an informative exhibit about the war for independence (1990-95) and its devastating impact on the city and its citizens, including photos of the Serbian attack and of the soldiers fallen in battle. I had read good things about a restaurant called Rosarij so we headed over there for lunch and took a table out front. The young woman who took our order seemed annoyed to have to serve us. When we asked for the difference between two types of unfamiliar fish, she told us that they were both white fish and all of the fish on the menu were the same. The food was sufficient to curb our hunger, but I’d never recommend this place.
We were looking for the Maritime Museum and came across an archaeological exhibit in the Revelin Fortress and decided to take a look. It was not worth going out of your way to see, and probably not the price of admission, but we found a few pieces that drew our attention. The Maritime Museum is in St. John’s Fortress and contains a pleasing collection of nautical objects including very detailed ship models. Text and photo exhibits relate the maritime history of Dubrovnik and there are videos and other informational aids.
For dinner at Nautika we were seated at a perfect table on the outdoor deck with an incredible view of the Adriatic and the Bokar and Lovrijenac Fortresses. This is widely cited as the finest dining venue in Dubrovnik. We sprung for a tasting menu to give them a chance to show off their finest creations. The food and wine were excellent, though some courses were not up to the same standard as others. It lacked overall consistency, which we look for at that price point, but it still offered a very fine dining experience. The service was formal, but cheerful and helpful. We preferred Vapor, but are still glad to have tried this place. The terrace at Nautika is tiered and we overlooked a lower section where a boorish, unattractive man was seated with his much younger, and indiscreetly dressed, date. For much of the time they were each speaking on their mobiles to different parties, never even glancing at each other. It makes you wonder why someone would pay big bucks for a meal at a romantic restaurant with a great view only to spend most of the time talking to someone else. And what was the point of all that cleavage if it didn’t attract his attention? It would have been hugely amusing if it weren’t so sad.
It was quite late by the time we finished dinner and we took a stroll through the walled town. People were scattered at tables conversing over post-prandial drinks, but the streets were blissfully free of crowds. A jazz band was entertaining nightowls at a café club in one of the inner squares. The illuminated town is stunning and so peaceful after most of the visitors have toddled back to their hotels, accentuating the solemn medieval ambiance.
We had originally planned to take a day trip, either to the island of Mljet or to Montenegro, but we just felt like hanging out, so we slept in the next day. It was much more crowded at breakfast at this later hour than the day before, but we still managed to snag a table on the patio. We headed into town because we thought it might be fun to take a short boat ride and we arranged to go for a harbor cruise in a glass bottom boat. There’s really nothing to see underwater in the area we motored to except a lot of vegetation, but we had wonderful views of the city from the sea and it was a relaxing way to pass some time. We decided to check out the ethnography museum while we were there. They cleverly converted an old granary into a handsome space with a small but nicely selected collection of looms, farm implements, traditional costumes and other homespun artifacts and we learned something about the agricultural history of the city.
We decided to try Mea Culpa for pizza, but weren’t terribly impressed. However, I’d read that Dolce Vita, a small shop in a narrow alley, made delicious ice cream, so we had to find out if they lived up to their reputation. Stu, our frozen dessert expert, can testify that they serve a creamy, very satisfying gelato, our favorite of the trip. We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the small beach at the hotel and reading. I dipped my toes in the water and ran quickly back to my chaise longue. I’m a total wimp when it comes to cold water. Remember, I’m the one who is perfectly cozy in a 5mm wetsuit when scuba diving in the tropics. We browsed around the shops and met the creative jewelry makers referenced earlier in their shop, Dubrovnik Treasures. Their work is unusual, very attractive, and reasonably priced for its quality. They had lived in Australia many years and just returned to Dalmatia. The wife, Simona, told us that her father had painted their shop, and she introduced us to her parents, who stopped by briefly.
That evening we took the easy route and dined at Vapor again, though we thought it was best not to attempt another tasting menu. Service wasn’t quite as good as the previous visits, but it was still a memorable meal.
Our flight to Zagreb wasn’t scheduled until 4:15 pm so we wanted to find something fun to do for the rest of the day. We checked out of the hotel and on the recommendation of the concierge headed to Trsteno to visit the Arboretum. Originally the summer residence of Ivan Marinov Gucetic-Gozze during the Renaissance, the property maintains the luxuriant gardens with a wide range of plant species, and some of the original structures, such as a stone chapel, an aqueduct, and a grand fountain complete with a statue of Neptune and other mythic figures.
Two misguided couples were harassing a sleepy-faced painted turtle sunning itself on the fountain ledge, trying to force it into the water, apparently unaware that cold-blooded animals tend to sun themselves for warmth during the day. The turtle was not stranded and could have easily slipped into the water at will. We finally convinced them to leave the poor creature alone to enjoy his sunbathing. He high-fived us and then calmly applied sunblock to his nose.
From the Arboretum, we drove to the town of Cavtat, located conveniently near the airport. The view of Dubrovnik from the high road just outside the town on the way to the airport is amazing and worth seeking out. The Cavtat waterfront area is a tangle of families enjoying a holiday by the sea, frequenting the cafés and tacky souvenir shops. The main area of town radiates upwards from the harbor with modest homes clustered on narrow lanes. We regret not making it up to the cemetery where a mausoleum decorated by Mestrovic can be visited. We saw signs for the mausoleum in our wanderings but didn’t know anything about it at the time or we’d have made a greater effort to reach it. We did, however, visit a lovely small church on the waterfront dedicated to St. Nicholas with beautiful murals.
We knew we’d have nothing to eat but plane snacks until arriving in Budapest, so we decided to spend the rest of the time enjoying a long, lazy lunch. We found a quite good place near the water that served some exceedingly tasty oysters and we shared a moist, flavorful salt-baked branzino. We had to rush a bit after dropping the rental car, which took a bit longer than we expected, but still made our flight with no problem. We connected to a Budapest flight in Zagreb after a relatively short and painless layover, arriving at the airport around 8 pm. Our driver didn’t know how to find the hotel (in his defense it’s relatively new), but eventually figured it out with our help.
We were extremely pleased with the hotels that we selected. Even the ones we liked the least were comfortable and met our basic needs, as well as some higher level needs, such as providing a beautiful view. Booking was easy, all done via the internet.
BUDAPEST: We stayed at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace in Pest and a boutique hotel in Buda, Lanchid 19, to get the perspective from both banks of the Danube, and to experience old-world and modern styles. Both were excellent and afforded spectacular views of the Danube. Lanchid 19 was a better value, though service was better at the Four Seasons, as you would expect. At L19 we had a top floor suite that featured a large balcony with a garden overlooking the river and Pest, fabulous bathroom, including separate rainfall shower and a whirlpool tub with a view of the river, for less than half the price of an average-sized room with narrow balcony at the FSGP. L19 furnishings were very stylish, but functional and comfortable. Good storage space and lighting, and staff were very nice. Excellent concierge service at the FSGP, plush furnishings, and the public spaces are spectacular.
ZAGREB: Regent Esplanade – convenient location, huge well-appointed bathroom, excellent restaurant – Zinfandel’s. Wonderful breakfast. Good value. http://www.regenthotels.com/zagreb
PJESCANA UVALA: Valsabbion. Very special place to stay. It’s a gourmet restaurant with a small boutique hotel attached. Highly recommend room 22 – large room and balcony overlooking the sea. Small but adequate bathroom. Gracious, helpful staff. Exceptional restaurant. Suffers a bit from style over substance issues as some of the design choices were not functional, but the effect is visually striking. http://www.valsabbion.hr/?lang=eng&cat=2
OPATIJA: Astoria Design Hotel. Maybe the only modern boutique hotel in a town brimming with beaux-arts beauties. Functional and a very good value for an overnight stay. The views from our balcony were gorgeous and staff were nice and helpful. If you stay here, arrange for a parking spot, they only have a few and parking is impossible in this part of town.
PLITVICKA JEZERA: Guest House Mukinje There are a number of guest houses about ½ mile from the park entrance, but this is probably the best. It’s comfortable and basic, but what distinguishes it are the truly warm and helpful Helena and the kind owner. Very good home-cooked style meals in huge portions. Nice sauna and massage.
PUNTAMIKA: Hotel Niko – least charismatic hotel of the trip. Room was fine and we had a partial view of the water and the old town in the distance. The restaurant is extremely popular, but we found it to be disappointing.
SPLIT: Marmont Hotel – new modern boutique hotel just outside Diocletian’s Palace. Tremendous value. Lovely room and wonderful staff. Good breakfast. Also pays to arrange parking with them in advance.
DUBROVNIK: Bellevue Hotel – spring for a room with a balcony overlooking the sea, it’s worth the cost. We were upgraded to a junior suite which was more like a suite since it had separate living and bed rooms, as well as a double sized balcony. We kept the sliding doors open at night and slept to the sound of the waves. Pleasant walk to the old town and there’s a small but lovely beach for hotel guests. Excellent restaurant and best breakfasts of the trip. Highly recommended.
In general, most of the Croatian restaurants tended to have much the same menu, grilled fish, risotto, seafood, prosciutto, cheese, pasta, etc. We hugely enjoy Mediterranean style food, but it was good to discover some restaurants that offered finer variations on the standards. Croatia passed a no-smoking law in restaurants earlier this year, however, outdoor dining appears to be exempt, and the definition of outdoors is very loose. For example, a completely enclosed room with one wall open is treated as outdoors. In some cases the smoke levels were asphyxiating and interfered with the enjoyment of meals. We found that some excellent restaurants that are typically fully booked in advance during the high season were fairly empty in September, though we had booked some in advance via the internet. We weren’t as pleased with the food that we tried in Budapest (or the service), but the Tokaji Aszu is heavenly, especially if you’re willing to spring for the really good stuff (#6). These were some of our favorites:
Le Mandrac - in Volosko, near Opatija. Best restaurant that we tried during the trip. We had a very refined and exceptional tasting menu paired with delicious Croatian wines. Fabulous olive oils. Worth a visit to this part of Istria just to eat at this place if you appreciate fine dining. Glassed-in terrace overlooking the harbor, romantic atmosphere, professional and charming service. Not inexpensive, but great value for a meal that compares favorably with higher priced gourmet dinners in other countries.
Valsabbion – near Pula, Pjescana Uvala. We booked one dinner at the hotel restaurant when we reserved the room, but thought we might want to try a different place the other night. The food was so good that we decided not to bother going elsewhere. We had grilled branzino and veggies for lunch the day we arrived, an opulent tasting menu with wine pairings the first night, and a 3 course dinner the second night. Wine and olive oils were also superb. All of the meals were wonderful and the staff is delightful.
Vapor – in Bellevue Hotel Dubrovnik. We tried tasting and regular menus and were pleased in all cases. Lovely room overlooking the sea with an outdoor terrace. Service varied from excellent to adequate depending on who was working at the time. Better than the more renowned alternatives in the old town in our opinion, but probably suffers due to its distance from the main tourist area.
Zinfandel’s – Regent Esplanade Hotel in Zagreb. Food is a bit heavier than on the coast, but very good. Old world style with elegant room and service.
Hotel Vestibul Palace – Split. The restaurant associated with this trendy boutique hotel was the best that we tried in Split. It’s a bit overpriced for the quality, but still provides a lovely dining experience in a stunning setting. Service is very good. Except for a pretty good pizzeria, Galija, and this place, we weren’t impressed with the food in Split.
Guest House Mukinje – Plitvicka Jezera (Plitvice Lakes). Delicious home cooking served with great warmth and care. After a first course of charcuterie, we enjoyed ultra-fresh and perfectly cooked salmon trout (a whole fish that Helena de-boned for us) along with vegetables and potatoes.
Restaurant Kamerlengo – Trogir. Usual menu, but done very well. We had a highly enoyable lunch of grilled bream here.
Sv Nikola – Porec. If you’re in Porec, you can treat yourself to a very good meal at this restaurant on the wharf named for its charming owner (though we suspect he’s not a real saint). We had a wonderful lunch here.
I set up the airport transfers via the internet and was very pleased with both of the services. They were competitively priced and service was prompt and courteous. We especially liked the driver in Zagreb, who took the time to point out sights along the way and tell us a bit about the city. I also booked the Hertz rental car via the internet with no problem.
FOX Transfer in Budapest www.foxtransfer.eu
JAM Transfer in Zagreb www.jamtransfer.com