Outside Norway: Discovering the jewels of the Adriatic

Photo: Pixabay
A street in Split, a Roman town that beautifully combines the ancient and the modern.

Arlene & Thor Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

“Jewels of the Adriatic” was how our tour company, smarTours, billed this consummate journey, and they were true to their word. A trip to Croatia and Slovenia provides you with the best that Europe has to offer: historic sites, lavish churches, magnificent works of art, beaches with crystal-clear water, baroque cities with fine museums, beautiful parks, fine concert halls, and a full range of restaurants at reasonable prices. In addition, touring through Slovenia and Croatia in early June was perfection; the weather was consistently sunny and in the mid 70s and the tourist crowds were modest—unlike those found in Italy, France, or Spain.

Slovenia and Croatia present an interesting diversity of Eastern and Western Europe as two of the six countries—now independent nations—that formerly made up Yugoslavia. While our tour spent some time in five of these countries (that is, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro), we chose to spend our time exclusively in Slovenia and Croatia to see them in more depth.

Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is a cultural city with a large university, 12 museums, and numerous historic churches, most surrounded by colorful gardens. The city is situated on two hills that started out as two different towns in the Middle Ages. At the top of the Kaptol district stands the imposing Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, formally known as St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The neo-gothic cathedral was originally built in 1094 and destroyed by the Mongols in the 1200s; it has since been rebuilt several times in the last seven hundred years. At the other high point of the upper town, the Gradec, lies the most recognizable site in all of Zagreb: the colorful church of St. Mark. Its distinctive roof of bright red, white, and blue tiles is emblazed with the four coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, Slovenia, and Zagreb.

Photo: Alexander Klink / Wikimedia Commons
St. Mark’s Church, the most distinctive site in Zagreb, Croatia.

A perfect respite from serious sightseeing was a detour to Slastičarnica Vincek, which has the very best desserts in town and happens to be near the main square. We also visited the home and gardens of world famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović, which had been converted to a museum of some of his works.

The city of Dubrovnik, often referred to as “the Pearl of the Adriatic,” certainly lives up to its press. The most breathtaking view of this lovely city has to be when you approach it from a boat. The old city is surrounded by massive walls—6,400 feet long and 30 feet high—that were built in the 10th century. Dubrovnik’s backdrop is a steep mountain with homes along the lower hills, further dramatizing the city’s beauty.

While strolling through the cobblestone streets of this ancient walled city and visiting its monasteries, churches, and palaces, you get an insight to the various empires that had taken up residence here, including the Romans, the Venetians, the Austro-Hungarians, and the Byzantines, among others. Today this ancient and beautiful walled city remains a functional community for residents and tourists.

After shopping and sightseeing, one can hop on tour boats or ferries to nearby islands for hiking, swimming, or snorkeling. There is no end of islands, both large and small, in the Adriatic, and many have mom-and-pop restaurants serving fresh seafood, sometimes prepared in front of the patrons.

Photo: Dennis Jarvis / Flickr
The entrance to St. Domnius Cathedral (Diocletian’s mausoleum) and bell tower, built in the 12th century and restored a hundred years ago.

The city of Split, on the Adriatic, became an important Roman city when Emperor Diocletian built a massive walled palace complex as a “retirement home” in early AD 200. This impressive palace remains in use today with over 2,000 people living or working within its walls. There are many small, medieval-period buildings, housing shops, businesses, and residences that are interconnected with narrow, cobblestone streets. In addition, there are several larger structures, including the Cathedral of St. Dominius, whose entrance has beautiful hand-carved doors from the 1200s depicting scenes from the gospels. Another exceptional building is the Temple of Jupiter, which resembles the Pantheon in Rome. After exploring this medieval village, we wandered along the waterfront on the beautiful Riva promenade, stopping at a café for some gelato and enjoying the view of the clear and calm Adriatic.

Traveling north of Split on the Croatian coast, just before you reach the Italian border, the peninsula of Istria juts out into the Adriatic. Istria is ringed with charming fishing villages along its coast and the inland hills are laced with small family vineyards. Because of Istria’s close proximity to Italy, there are many Italian influences in the region, including the pastel-colored buildings and the architecture of the historical structures. There is a spectacular first-century restored Roman Amphitheater in the city of Pula, capable of seating 5,000 people.

Another stop along the Istria coast was the charming fishing village of Rovinj with its many cafés and a large outdoor food market. After completing the Istria tour, we spent several days in Opatje, a seaside resort town. This charming city of pastel-colored baroque buildings was built in the late 1800s by wealthy Austrians and Hungarians. The long boardwalk and beautiful parks reminded us of a small version of the French Riviera.

Slovenia borders Austria, so it is no wonder that when we stayed at a lodge overlooking Lake Bled, we felt we were in an idyllic Hansel and Gretel village. The views include a castle on a very high cliff overlooking the lake, a small island with a quaint church, and in the distance, the snow-covered Julian Alps. A perfect day included eating al fresco at a restaurant overlooking the lake and a slow boat ride to the island, powered by a gondolier.

Our trip also included a stop at Plitvice Lakes National Park, a tour of the Postojna caves, and visits to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, with its riverside promenade and street fair. We also visited the charming Croatian cities of Trogier, set on a small island with monuments from the Greeks and Romans, and Zadar, with its spectacular Romanesque buildings. We fully agree that this journey was indeed a trip to the “Jewels of the Adriatic.”

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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