I’m moving to France in nine days, and planning for what lies ahead is in full swing. The full impenetrability of French bureaucracy smacked me full in the face this morning when I realised that it’s nigh on impossible to open a French bank account without actually being in France; many people have told me that this is the case and yet, even though all of those people know more about it than I do, I stubbornly continued to hope that they were wrong. They weren’t.
That aside, what I really want to write about here is how I’ve spent the past fortnight: interrailing around Croatia with Will, one of my best friends. Even though we study the same subject at Oxford, we met in Peru last year (a year ago tomorrow, coinci-mental) and, after having travelled to various locations within the country together over the five weeks I spent there, became the very firmest of friends. He spent several more months there and in other South American countries as the Spanish part of his year abroad, but we kept in touch and met up every time he visited Oxford. I then went to visit Will in Paris at Easter and we decided that we should do another trip together. After many, MANY discussions, during which Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Venice, and Prague were all considered, we finally settled on Croatia. Together, we make a great team for travelling, and invariably end up taking selfies with landmarks, such as this:
and so, given the success of our previous trips, I was extremely excited to go somewhere new as one half of what we have affectionately coined “the squad”.
I was not to be disappointed. Overall, it was a brilliant two weeks during which many discussions, ranging from the macabre and deadly serious to the ridiculous, and laughs were had; indeed, our prediction that we would never stop laughing seemed to almost literally come true. To add to the fabulous company, Croatia as a country is mind-blowingly beautiful, perfectly striking the balance between city, countryside, and coast, and, being relatively small, is the ideal size for interrailing as there is no need to endure soul destroyingly long train journeys. Life there is also noticeably cheaper which, as students, was just what we were hoping for.
If time, space, and boredom on the reader’s part weren’t all potential pitfalls of a blog, I would love nothing more than to give a blow by blow account of every single day of the holiday; alas, I fear that doing so would be a long and tedious endeavour. Instead, here is a list of each of the cities we visited (Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, Rijeka, and Zagreb) with recommendations for things to do and places to eat and stay.
After a hideous solo journey to Dubrovnik involving a six-hour overnight stopover in Stockholm (tip: don’t do it), meeting Will at the airport and arriving at the studio we’d found through Airbnb (shout out to Zovko for being an absolutely first-class host) was somewhat of a relief. The old city, which encompasses basically the whole of Dubrovnik, is beautiful, boasting crowds of bright red roofs and a glittering, blue harbour. Famous for being one of the locations used in Game of Thrones (Will could barely contain his excitement), it was the most touristy city we visited – but this did nothing to hinder our enjoyment of it.
Accommodation: I would massively recommend looking into Airbnb because hostels are considerably more expensive in Dubrovnik than in other parts of Croatia. We had a studio consisting of a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, and it was about 15 minutes by foot to the city centre. With a discount code sent to me by Interrail after I’d bought my pass, it worked out at about £16 each per night – which was at least the amount that the hostels were asking for.
Activities: exploring the old city by foot can really take as long as you want it to: it’s not very big but, equally, there is a lot to see. There is a cable car from just north of the city walls to a height of 405m, offering spectacular views of the city:
Several agencies based in Dubrovnik offer tours to surrounding areas, including Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. We took a day trip to Mostar, which is the main city in the Herzegovina part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which set us back by about £33 but was well worth it.
Memories of the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia to pieces are still very real, and evidence of the ruins left were, sadly, clear to see in Mostar.
Food and drink: my favourite restaurant of the whole trip was in Dubrovnik, largely because it was the first place offering solely vegetarian food I’ve ever been to. Nishta offers imaginative vegetarian (and often vegan and gluten free) fare at very reasonable prices, including falafel, soups, salads, and, for clean eating fanatics, several raw dishes. It was so good that we ended up going there for both lunch and dinner on the same day!
Top tip: prepare yourself for the heat. At close to 40 degrees, Dubrovnik is not easy for those (such as myself) who find extreme heat a challenge. Thankfully, a lot of restaurants and bars have air conditioning (another shout out to Zovko for installing it in the studio).
Two words: absolute fave. The lengthy bus journey (usefully, Dubrovnik doesn’t have a train station) was 100% worth it: Split is a vibrant city that has far more to it than just the old city, which is contained within an area known as the Diocletian’s Palace. The vibe is more party-ish, the transport links are excellent, and the whole city centres around a buzzing port, from which it is possible to catch cheap ferries to various of Croatia’s renowned islands.
Accommodation: we stayed in a hostel called Hostel Manuela, based just outside of the city centre and chosen on the basis that it was amongst the cheapest. Despite initial reservations, we grew very fond of it and its friendly owners, and met some people of a similar age including, almost unbelievably, a girl who went to Magdalen College School with some people from New College. Small world. There are numerous hostels in the old town for slightly more money; however, Manuela was perfect for us as we spent almost all of our time out anyway.
Activities: if you’re keen to visit an island, Split is the place to do it from. The most famous is Hvar, described to us by someone in the hostel as “one massive party” and, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, crawling with wealthy tourists. I can neither confirm or deny whether any of that is true as we didn’t go; instead, we opted for Brač, the largest island in central Dalmatia. The ferry costs 33 kuna (£3.30) each way and then we caught a bus to Bol, an attractive old town and home to Zlatni Rat, a glorious beach. This was the only beach day of the holiday, and, despite being very popular, the beach and sea were both remarkably clean.
Various historical sights are scattered around the old town, including temples and cathedrals, and wandering through the quaint streets admiring the architecture is an ideal way to spend a morning or afternoon.
Food and drink: we spent three nights in Split, and on two of them we ate in the same restaurant. Villa Spiza, endorsed by both Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor (both of which I was borderline obsessed with by the end of the trip) is tiny and inconspicuous, and offers mainly fresh seafood along with cheap drinks.
On the third night, we cooked in the hostel, and I can confirm that spinach and ricotta tortellini tastes exactly the same in Croatia as it does here.
Top tip: look online or in a guidebook for places to eat, drink, and go out. As beautiful as it is, the harbour is rammed with very average establishments looking to trap unsuspecting tourists (quote from the trip: “these two tourists will not be trapped”).
Going from Split to Zadar was our first train journey, and consisted of a train to a small transit town, Knin, followed by a bus to Zadar. I was expecting Zadar to be more of a party town, and, although we found a great bar, was not altogether unpleasantly surprised to discover its polished cobbled streets and pretty stone buildings.
Accommodation: our hostel, Old Town Backpackers, was, for me, the worst of the trip. It was woefully lacking in security – you could walk right into the rooms without passing the reception – and its kitchen, rather bizarrely, was only available for staff to use – something that only came to light on arrival, after we had already been food shopping. The air conditioning was broken for the first night, which was less than ideal in the sweltering heat. However, the location was ideal – right in the middle of the old town – and the price was very reasonable. Being a smaller town, the hostel selection in Zadar isn’t enormous, but if we had known about the kitchen and security situation, we may well have chosen a different one.
Activities: far and away the highlight of our stay in Zadar, and one of the best parts of the whole holiday, was a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. We spontaneously decided to go the night before after one of the hostel’s employees recommended a particular company offering a taxi service there and back, and I really feel that we would have massively regretted not going. The other people in the car with us were friendly and chatty – thus hugely contrasting our companions in Mostar – and we ended up staying with them for the whole day. The water is incredibly blue and surrounded by picturesque woodland, and the whole park feels remarkably untouched. Trains and ferries within the park, the use of which is included in the ticket price, offer a relaxing way to break up what would otherwise be a very lengthy walk.
Food and drink: we purposely ate very cheaply in Zadar, getting authentic pizza slices (mistranslated as “pizza cuts” in every pizzeria without exception, much to my amusement) for just 10 kuna (£1) on both nights.
We also discovered an amazing bar named Garden overlooking the waterfront. It had a huge cocktail menu so I was immediately sold; if you know me, you’ll know that I love cocktails.
Top tip: two days in Zadar is more than enough if you plan to use one of them by visiting Plitvice. The town isn’t very big but is nevertheless well worth a visit.
We arrived in Rijeka after a gruelling overnight train, featuring seats that were designed in such a way that it was literally impossible to contort yourself into a comfortable position, expecting to treat the town, apparently Croatia’s third largest, as little more than a convenient place for breaking up the journey to Zagreb. It actually turned out to be rather pleasant, despite the slightly grim weather on our first day (see above photo).
Accommodation: we rocked up to Hostel Rijeka at 7.30am, fully believing that we were in the right place, only to realise that we weren’t: the hostel we had booked was, in fact, on the other side of town. The man on reception in Hostel Rijeka, despite his best attempts to be neutral, put us right off Hostel Ana Rijeka, where we were meant to be staying, and we made it about 100m down the road before deciding to cut our losses and turn back to the other hostel. A quick look on TripAdvisor was enough to confirm that we’d made the right choice: Ana Rijeka was apparently insecure and dirty, whilst Hostel Rijeka was the exact opposite: well equipped, clean, comfortable, and offering a free breakfast into the bargain. If it were in a town with slightly more going on, it would have been the backpacker’s dream.
Activities: there’s not really a whole lot in Rijeka except for a fairly British-looking main street and a castle which is at the top of many, MANY steps and offers nice views over the town. That’s about as exciting as it gets, but it’s free and, on balance, worth the breathlessness and aching calves triggered by the steps.
Food: we didn’t eat out at all in Rijeka, so cafes are the best I can offer. Filodrammatica Bookshop Cafe, on the town’s main street, has a wide selection of coffees, as well as freshly squeezed juices and (according to Will) good hot chocolate. The deal breaker, for me at least, was the fact that it houses a bookshop and library in the back – T H E D R E A M. Another cafe we visited was called CukariKafe where, to my delight, there was a plethora of types of tea on offer. In Will’s words, it was “kitsch”, full of mismatching furniture and patterns.
Coffee is a massive thing in Croatia, but you have to be fairly hardcore to be able to indulge: a combination of my status as a new coffee drinker and the fact that they serve it espresso-style, I found it far too strong.
Top tip: a day in Rijeka really is plenty, but there are worse places to treat as a stopover (looking at you, Knin).
It kind of felt like the whole trip was building up to this, the grand finale, the capital of Croatia and, by all accounts, a great city. The capital since 1991, the same year that the country became independent, Zagreb can justifiably be described as metropolitan, an image boosted by the presence of an efficient and frequent tram service (which also turned out to be unintentionally free as there was never anyone checking the tickets, ever) and a developed commercial area. Unlike the other four places, it isn’t coastal, but this was no disadvantage – there are tonnes of things to see and do, and it was truly a great city to bring the trip to a close.
Accommodation: Mali Mrak Hostel is a five minute walk from the end of line 6 on the tram, and was honestly completely unlike any hostel I’ve stayed in before. Its page on HostelWorld is full of sparkling reviews, and yet I was still surprised by how good it was, especially considering the price. We paid less than 500 kuna (£50) each for a private double room for three nights, and the bed was really comfortable – you can’t beat a cloud-like pillow. There were two kitchens – although they mysteriously lacked tea towels – and a patio with tables, which was great for socialising. The only drawback was the bathrooms, which got soaking wet every time anyone took a shower and were kind of grim, but I’m prepared to overlook that given how great everything else was. There are lots of hostels in Zagreb, many of which are closer to the centre than Mali Mrak, but, honestly, I’m not sure that the tradeoff would have been worth it.
Activities: Zagreb is home to a whole host of museums and galleries and, culture vultures that we are, Will and I were very keen to check some of them out. The top pick was, without a doubt, the Museum of Broken Relationships, which housed donations from around the world. Each object had an explanation next to it, making clear the nature of the broken relationship in question and why that particular object served as a memento of the relationship. Some of them were moving, some memorable, some puzzling; as a whole, they were mesmerising. I cannot emphasise enough how much I enjoyed and was fascinated by this little museum and the glimpse it offered into the complex life of the individual.
Two other museums worth mentioning are the Museum of Torture, grisly and yet morbidly fascinating, and the Museum of Illusions. The latter proved particularly entertaining:
and both were small enough to thoroughly go round in about an hour. As well as museums, we saw the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, beautiful but, according to Lonely Planet, “seemingly permanently under repair”, and a slightly bemusing changing of the guard ceremony outside St Mark’s Church. Zagreb may not be an enormous city, but it certainly has a lot to offer.
Food and drink: we only properly ate out once in Zagreb, and it was at the other branch of my fave: Nishta. Even though the menu was basically the same as the Dubrovnik branch, our enjoyment was by no means depleted. The falafel was to die for. Authentic Croatian it was not, but Croatian food is very meaty, and it seemed that cheap, high quality, local food was hard to come by. We also stumbled upon a cafe called The Cookie Factory, which was every bit as good as it sounded and offered more than just cookies: brownies, ice cream, smoothies, and cupcakes were all on offer too. As somewhat of a brownie enthusiast, I can confirm that the ones sold at The Cookie Factory are excellent.
Top tip: just to reiterate, DO NOT OVERLOOK THE MUSEUMS!!! They almost all offer a student rate, typically around 20 kuna (£2), and the variety of subject matter is incredibly wide.
This post has ended up being considerably longer than I intended, so well done and thank you if you’ve made it to the end! Croatia was a fab final holiday before year abroad and, in an uncharacteristically soppy manner, I want to say a massive THANK YOU to Will for making it so brilliant and for putting up with me for a whole fortnight! I’m already looking forward to our next trip, and I fully intend to hold you to that deal we made (sorry, inside joke)…
I’m hoping to write another post sometime between now and next Thursday, when I move to France, but, if not, I’ll definitely write one very soon after arriving. À bientot!