Croatia – Sun, Sea and Ancient History

If your holiday reveries consist of dreamy turquoise coasts and wandering in the shade of ancient monuments, then Croatia is for you. Katie Thomson journeyed on… 

Croatia captures something in the heart – it is at once so perfectly beautiful and so ramshackled – the coastline undulates and twinkles, great bays of deep blue level off to form exquisite pools of emerald, teal and aquamarine, punctuated by rocky outcrops and rugged terrain. The coastal towns are filled with rows of bleached houses with terracotta roofs, sunbaked and dilapidated, some otherworldly, the gentle pace of life articulated by the gentle bump of fishing boats in stony bays. Hikes uncover swathes of wildflowers, lilacs, custard yellows – the delicacy so at odds with the terrain; the towns themselves bear the marks of this its complex history as a land conquered by kingdoms and republics – a land on the edge of Empires.

As a part of my undergraduate degree, I was lucky enough to spend three months studying in Venice. As well as learning about the Italian masters, much of the course comprised of Venice as a political powerhouse, its influence stretching over vast regions and other countries around it. The appeal of discovering what lay on the other side of the Adriatic never left me, and so it was with great excitement that I embarked on a trip to Croatia to engross myself in the food, culture and the dramatic scenery I’d heard so much about.

Croatia itself has seen seismic shifts over its complicated history, and this is especially true of Pula, our first stop, which wears its distinct periods of occupation in the very fabric of the city. The Romans are certainly responsible for the most prolific period of building in the city, including beautiful arches said to have inspired Michelangelo. The city’s history literally unfolds around you and the bricolage of architectural styles is worth exploration on foot – we then rewarded ourselves with lunch in the forum square, complete with classic Istrian ham and truffle pasta – made all the better by the surroundings.

Architectural Gems

Alongside some truly lovely architectural gems, Pula’s primary attraction is the astonishing 1st century Roman Arena, foreboding and beautiful, the crowning glory of the cityscape. The Romans recognised Pula’s important strategic position, and the relative similarities of its terrain and climate, not least to create wonderful wine and famous Istrian olive oil. As well as exploring the arena (you can scrabble around the rocks and imaging what it might have been like to be a spectator here 2,000 years ago), the site has an excellent exhibition on this history, including the olive oil trade.

The Alluring City

As alluring as the city is, we wanted to stay on Istria’s world-famous coastline, so the base for the first four nights of our Croatian adventure was the Park Plaza Arena Hotel, nestled on its own stretch of glorious coast in the Verudela Peninsula. Flanked by a sheltered cove on one side and a marina on the other, the hotel enjoys a constant sea breeze, scented with the pine from its gardens – creating a haven for true relaxation. The hotel itself is modern and fresh, and perfectly located as a base to explore Pula, but lovely enough to entice you to really chill by the pool.

The Cuisine

The food in the hotel blends lots of national cuisines, but also has a great Croatian point of view – generous portions of grilled meats served with classic red pepper sauce and deliciously light filo bureks and strudels. The dining area overlooks this beautiful bay and on two evenings we were lucky enough to spot pods of dolphins cresting the crystalline waters – not your usual accompaniment to dinner.

Ideal for families (and the ever inquisitive), the hotel is only 5 minutes walk from one of the area’s premier attractions – the aquarium and turtle rescue centre. Sometimes aquariums can feel like commercial places but that is not the case here. As well as being in a very unusual setting – a 19th century fortress – this aquarium primarily functions as a turtle rescue centre and celebrates the aquatic life of the waterways and seas of Croatia. We spent over two and a half hours here without even noticing the time passing!

After four lovely days relaxing, we were ready to explore Croatia’s famous national parks. Although this is a country with deliriously beautiful coastlines, it was the freshwater that was calling. We set out toward Krka National Park, significantly smaller than its more famous sister Plitviče Lakes, but with the added bonus of being able to swim in the aquamarine waters. We hired a car, but the drive was still a long one – touching five hours. It does take you through some truly special viewpoints though and is certainly worth the journey – take the full day to do it and explore at leisure. Highlights of our roadtrip included visiting the ‘world’s smallest town’ of Hum (the last 2015 census lists 21 inhabitants) with its mountain-top church and small smattering of shop and Opatija, the stunning coastal town that looked like it could slot easily into the Côte d’Azur – pastel buildings, seawater bathing pools and a café-strewn promenade.

The thing we really appreciated on every venture into a new town was the amazing food and generous hospitality of our hosts – food is central to Croatian life and from cafés to roadside taverns, the dishes were consistently delicious, fresh and home-cooked. Meals are often accompanied by cries of “jedi, jedi” – “eat, eat” – sharing food and drink plays a big part in the culture here, which speaks both to the nature of Croatian hospitality out from these dishes and the cuisine changes with the districts – fresh platters loaded with seafood, hearty pasta like Fuži and needle macaroni, delectable filled pastry štrukli, grilled meats on skewers and fresh vibrant salads of shredded vegetables – utterly delicious.

From Krka we travelled back in the direction of Pula to head to the Plitviče Lakes – perhaps a misleading name as the real draw here are the incredible network of waterfalls. As beautiful as Krka park is, by far the most astounding sights were within Plitviče; made up of over 90 waterfalls and dozens of lakes and pools, this sparkling dream world is near biblical in beauty. Teaming with life, including shimmering carp and ephemeral dragonflies, the gentle hum of frogs and the calls of birds fighting to be heard above the roar of the waterfalls.

During the final drive along the coast, I began to say goodbye to these glorious shores, having fallen in love with Croatia in only a week. Something about this country touched a deep nerve – it has so much to offer – breathtaking landscapes, great natural swimming, glorious sunshine, bountiful history, interesting architecture, incredible wine, delicious seafood…I could go on, but instead I’ll just implore you to see it for yourself.

Katie Thomson