This coastal Slavic nation has two distinct personalities: one a hardy mountain kind reminiscent of its Slavic cousins, the other an ancient and laid-back Mediterranean culture seeped in sunlight.
Geography is to blame for Croatia’s split personality. The mountains that run through the country make movement between the two areas difficult. Highways are limited to the few tunnels that cut through the mountains, and the ancient wind whips through them, making high speeds dangerous. Do not trust Google maps estimated time of arrival, because you will often drive below the speed limit and if you miss one exit you could be put over an hour off-course.
Mountains and time
Roads in the mountain region are small two-lane highways. They frequently cut through small towns, each distinctly marked, so vehicles must constantly speed up and slow down. People sell honey and cheese along these highways as well. Even if you don’t stop, the people in front of you might. Again, don’t trust your ETA.
Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is in the northern region. It boasts a castle and mixture of old and new. Be sure to try the regional dish- Strukli– it’s made with cheese, get it savory or sweet. Wash it down with some plum “wine” (liquor, it’s liquor, they will laugh at you).
The mountain region is also home to Croatia’s turquoise jewel- Plitvice Lakes National Park. You can wander through this magical lake complex, marvel at waterfalls and the unearthly blue of the water. In the summer you will be joined by hundreds of friends waiting in hours-long lines to enter or to go to the bathroom, or even just get a souvenir. You may need to go multiple times to see anything.
Sun and Sea
Crossing the mountains brings you to the second face of Croatia, the Mediterranean. Here the sun shines bright off the water. There are so many islands and ancient cities to explore. And so much seafood to eat.
The city of Split houses Diocletian’s Palace which is more like a mini walled-city than a palace. There are restaurants, shops, and even houses down every passageway. You can also see the cathedral and tombs. If you want to go exploring some of the islands, Split is a good base of operations. But beware- the ships are often full and the harbor is not tourist-friendly.
If you manage to get yourself on a ship to an island, Hvar is an excellent choice. Eat, swim, and be merry on its sun-soaked shores. Smell of lavender. Have a drink near the sea. Hike up to the castle. Get low grade heat exhaustion.
Like Croatia itself, a trip to the country can be double-sided. On one side, it is magical, vibrant, and delicious. On the other, it is difficult, flighty, and unhelpful. It’s best to navigate Croatia with good friends because nothing strengthens a friendship like overcoming difficulties and sharing beautiful moments.
For Chelsey and Ashley: thank you for commiserating and co-admiring. (TT and T, you guys are cool too, I guess)