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Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're navigating
the Adriatic and a lot more. It's Croatia. Thanks for joining us.
Croatia is a fascinating land with a hard-fought history in a complex corner of Europe. And
as travelers are rediscovering its charms, it's emerging as one of Europe's top destinations.
Exploring Croatia, we'll see the Pearl of the Adriatic, sample some island charm, wander
Roman ruins, and hike through a watery wonderland. We'll enjoy its thriving capital city, the
Italian-like charm of Istria, and that peninsula's enchanting port town.
Yugoslavia filled much of Europe's Balkan Peninsula during most of the 20th century.
When Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries in the 1990s, Croatia wound up with most of
its coastline. We start south in Dubrovnik, sail along the Dalmatian Coast, stopping at
Korcula and Hvar en route to Split. After exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park and
the capital city of Zagreb, we travel to the Istrian peninsula, to Rovinj.
Spectacularly set Dubrovnik is both historic and a hit with tourists. It's understandably
Croatia's top draw.
Whether surveying its stout walls, joining the promenade along its main drag, or appreciating
its former glory, it's clear this city was a major power in the past and is a major draw
today. Exploring its evocative back lanes, relaxing on its pebbly beaches, or just pondering
its majestic setting...Dubrovnik is simply delightful.
Dubrovnik is the Pearl of the Adriatic. In fact, we'll cover it in more detail in another
episode. For this program, we'll leave the crowds of Dubrovnik and explore the less-appreciated
corners of Croatia.
Boats, big and small, connect Dubrovnik to the rest of Croatia. We're setting sail along
the scenic Dalmatian Coast with its countless islands. They're all variations on the same
theme - rugged limestone features with historic port towns and sparsely populated interiors.
The rocky soil and persistent sun are good for grapes. And the pebbly beaches with crystal
clear water are both pristine and inviting.
We're visiting two islands and first up is Korčula. Visitors enjoy its "mini-Dubrovnik"
vibe. You'll find a fortified peninsula under a striking mountain backdrop. In the Old Town,
narrow lanes come with an easygoing charm.
Like other Croatian coastal towns, Korčula has two parts: The functional, practical side
- where most people park, eat, and sleep - and the time-warp old town.
Rather than stay in a big resort hotel, I'm staying in a sobe - that's a room rented in
a private home. I called ahead and my hosts, Lenni and Peter, met me at the boat. They
rent six rooms in their house buried deep in Korcula's old town. A 500 year old building
can be tight.
This room may be small, but it's comfortable, air-conditioned, and half the price of a hotel.
And a great location...they claim Marco Polo lived just up the street.
The town's charms are all within a few steps. The historic gate is a reminder that Korcula
was once a mighty little place. Façades recall its 14th century trading heyday. Each lane
contributes to the evocative medieval townscape, dripping with drying laundry and local character.
You can savor it all over a cup of coffee.
If you want to enjoy the Croatian café scene, it helps to know a few words. For a latte,
it's Beila Kava. That's white coffee.
We're setting sail again. Both lumbering car ferries and sleek cruise ships carry Dalmatia's
many visitors efficiently from port to port.
In ancient times Greeks and Romans sailed up and down this coastline - establishing
many trade settlements. The island of Hvar was settled and named by the Greeks in the
4th century BC.
The island's main town, also named Hvar, nestles under its formidable fortress. Its handy boat
connections make this a popular stop. While mobbed with tourists in peak season, we're
here in late May and it's more sleepy than chic.
Like most major towns along the Adriatic coastline, the fortified harbor of Hvar was a strategic
link in a vast 16th century Venetian trading Empire. Its fortress, walls, tower, and palaces
all built by and for the Venetians.
Activities are low energy. Expertly enjoying this town, seemingly made for relaxing, yachters
stern tie into the good life. Visitors nurse drinks on the main square. Stroll the back
lanes...where you may come upon a musical surprise.
Local a cappella choirs perform Klapa music - the quintessential Dalmatian folk music.
Every town has their all male Klapa choir. These songs of seafaring life, of loves lost
and loves found, stir the souls of Croatians and visitors alike.
(A capella choir singing.) Rick: Bravo. Yeah.
When it comes to mealtime, here on the coast, it's gotta be seafood. Hardworking restaurants
seem to abide by the local creed: eating meat is food...eating fish, that's pleasure. Our
waiter reminded us that a fish should swim three times: first in the sea, then in olive
oil, and finally in wine.
After a little island-hopping, approaching urban Split - Croatia's "second city" - feels
like a return to civilization. So many Dalmatian Coast towns feel tailor made for tourism,
Split is a serious port. It's vibrant with or without its visitors.
Split feels modern. But, a close look at the surviving façade of a Roman palace fronting
its harbor reveals the city's ancient roots. Today's residents are literally living in
a Roman emperor's palace. In the fourth century a.d., when Roman Emperor Diocletian retired,
he built a vast residence for his golden years here in his native Dalmatia. When Rome fell,
Diocletian's palace was abandoned. Eventually, a medieval town sprouted from its abandoned
shell. And, to this day, the maze of narrow alleys - once literally Diocletian's hallways
- makes up the core of Split.
Local guide Maya Benzon is joining us to help explain the story behind her hometown.
Maya: The palace was huge, 200 meters on each side and these were just the basements so
you can imagine what was on the upper floor. Roman engineers could build anything.
Rick: So they had concrete, they had bricks round arches, they had the technology.
Maya: Yes, they had the technology and they had the slaves.
Rick: Cheap labor. Maya: Yes.
Nearby a grand underground hallway now used as a shopping arcade leads to Diocletian's
Maya: This is the grand entryway towards Diocletian's private area, private quarters. Roman emperors
called themselves the gods. And Diocletian called himself Jovius, son of the god Jupiter.
People worship him so they were kissing his robe. They treated him like a god on earth.
Diocletian's mausoleum dominated the center of the palace complex. Much of the original
Roman building survives - the impressive dome, columns and capitals, and fine carved reliefs.
Diocletian was notorious for persecuting Christians. But centuries later, in the Middle Ages his
mausoleum was converted into a cathedral. And so, ironically, what Diocletian built
to glorify his memory is used instead to remember his victims - Christian this
one who was tied to a mill stone and tossed into the sea.
A few steps away is a temple dedicated to Jupiter.
Rick: This is all part of Diocletian's Palace complex?
Maya: Yes, we are still walking in the area of Diocletian's palace and you know Diocletian
was Jovius. And here in the middle of the palace he erected the house for his father,
this is Jupiter's temple and for a Roman building it's very rare that it's completely preserved
with the ceiling, with the roof. So on the ceiling you can see really nice Roman carvings.
You can see some faces, some flowers. Later on during the history of the Middle Ages this
was converted into the church so this was the medieval baptistery. We have St. John
the Baptist and here we have the baptismal font. And we have this curious panel here
in the front. We have Croatian king from the 11th century. We have a bishop standing just
next to him and underneath his feet we have a citizen.
Rick: So you've got the secular power, the religious power and the people respecting
the power. Maya: That would be it. Because this is a
baptistery, here we have a statue of St. John the Baptist. This is a modern work of the
20th century made by the greatest Croatian sculpturist ever, Ivan Musturich.
A highlight for me is simply people watching. The sea of Croatian humanity laps at the walls
of Diocletian's Palace along the pedestrian promenade or Riva. As on similar promenades
throughout the Mediterranean world, the cars have made way for the people. Strolling locals
finish their days in good style...just enjoying life's simple pleasures in a city made friendly
for its residents.
While the coast is Croatia's main draw, some of its best attractions are inland. We're
delving into the Croatian heartland.
One of Europe's top natural wonders is Plitvice Lakes National Park. Imagine Niagara Falls
sliced and diced and sprinkled over a vast and heavily forested canyon. It's a lush and
unforgettable valley of 16 terraced lakes, laced together by waterfalls and miles of
pleasant plank walks.
Boats glide visitors into the heart of the park. Countless cascades and water that's
strangely clear yet full of vibrant colors make Plitvice a misty natural wonderland.
Fish seem to know there's not a hook for miles. Carefully maintained trails and boardwalks
let you get intimate with the wonder of the place. Observant nature lovers can choose
from hundreds of flower types to assemble a photographic bouquet.
The stony formations drip down like the foliage because the grass and moss both direct the
flow of the water and provide a kind of scaffolding for the slow and steady calcification process.
Naturalists call Plitvice a "perfect storm" of geological, climatic, and biological features.
The magic ingredient: calcium carbonate, a mineral deposit from the limestone that gets
dissolved into the water, then re-deposited - continually breaking down natural travertine
dams...and building up new ones.
Tranquil as this park is, it was here, in 1991, that the first shots of Croatia's war
with Yugoslavia were fired. And, if you know where to look, evidence of the war survives.
When Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, its Serb minority - about
10 percent of the population - was concerned about its rights. So they broke away from
the new state of Croatia, which plunged the region into four years of war.
While the war barely touched the coastline, here in the interior - which had a sizable
Serb minority - the fighting was devastating.
In towns like Otocac bullet holes still mar facades. These scars reflect the brutal house-to-house
fighting that characterized the war. Seeing bomb-damaged homes rebuilt, makes you ponder
loss, resilience and hope. The Croats' Catholic Church, once shelled and now repaired, has
a poignant memorial in its garden: Christ crucified on a cross of artillery shells.
Taking a little extra time to wander through town gives an insight into people moving on
with their lives.
While a few Serbs are returning, the reality is the war changed the ethnic make-up of Croatia
forever. As disturbing as these reminders of war are, it is uplifting to be here and
to actually see how well the country's putting itself back together.
Our next stop: the capital city...Zagreb. You can't get a complete picture of modern
Croatia without a visit here. This lively and livable city is home to one out of every
six Croatians.
Jelačić Square - the "Times Square" of Zagreb - is boisterous with modern commerce and local
life. The statue depicts the square's namesake, Josip Jelačić - the 19th-century national
hero who still inspires Croatians today.
Seeing the city buzz with activity, you feel the energy of urban Croatia. Night or day,
the streets are a parade of stylish locals - confident and looking good. The people-friendly
business zone comes with the energy and bustle you'd expect to find in any prosperous European
capital. Whether you're enjoying an outdoor café, window-shopping, or just lounging in
one of the city's many inviting parks, Zagreb makes you wonder "where are all the tourists."
Zagreb's historic upper town blankets a hill. Its main square is home to Croatia's government.
The national parliament building flies both the Croatian and European flags. Dominating
the square is the Church of St. Mark - with the colorfully tiled roof depicting both the
coat of arms of Croatia and the city seal of Zagreb.
Nearby is the Croatian Museum of Naive Art. This charming collection features lyrical
landscapes and village scenes painted in the mid-20th-century by self-taught peasant artists.
While some are on canvas, most are painted on glass - a cheap and readily available material
that was easier to work on.
Naïve art is created by untrained artists isolated from the artistic mainstream. They
painted in a figurative way while the rest of the artistic world was embracing an increasingly
abstract style.
Generalic, shown here in a self-portrait, was the father of the Croatian Naive art movement.
In 1953, he took his art to a show in Paris as a relative unknown. He was a huge hit,
sold everything, and came home rich and famous.
These Croatian Naïve artists were outsiders - sought out by art world insiders to validate
their notion that artistic ability was more than a learned skill, it was an inborn talent.
In places such as rural Croatia, medieval lifestyles survived well into the 20th century.
You see a lot of winter scenes because these artists were farmers first...busy tending
their fields through the growing season. They painted their village world...isolated from
the modern world. In a complex age, many urbanites found this art refreshing for its brute simplicity.
Tucked inside Zagreb's only surviving town gate is an evocative chapel. The focal point
is a painting of Mary that miraculously survived a fire in 1731. People, young and old, passing
through, stop here briefly to worship. Pausing reverently, the faithful bring their concerns
to Mary. The many candles represent Zagrebian prayers. Smoke-stained plaques on the wall
give thanks - hvala - for prayers answered.
Just down the road, is a thriving pedestrian zone - Zagreb's main café street and urban
promenade. Comfy seating encourages people to slow down and enjoy each other's company.
Sitting here, it's clear...Zagrebians love their city.
Thanks to new freeways, the Istrian Peninsula, in Croatia's northwest corner, is just a couple
hours drive from the capital.
In the Istrian interior you'll find a thickly forested landscape of rolling hills and family
farms. Istria is dotted with picturesque hill towns, striped with vineyards, and busy with
hard-working farmers.
Dramatically situated high above the vineyards, Motovun is Istria's most popular hill town.
Its modest main square is the only flat place in town - ideal for budding soccer stars.
The church's crenellated tower is a reminder that these towns were built on hilltops not
for the view but for protection. But today, strolling the ramparts, it's clear: the panorama
is a big part of the town's appeal. As the day ends, the square is made to order for
al fresco dining.
I find that, sometimes, the best experiences don't come to need to find them.
An after dinner stroll with a sense of curiosity gets me a seat at the rehearsal of the local
klapa group.
(A capella choir singing.)
A short drive to the coast takes us to Rovinj - my favorite stop between Dubrovnik and Venice.
The town rises dramatically from the Adriatic - as if being pulled up to heaven by its grand
bell tower.
The church that crowns Rovinj is dedicated to the 4th century martyr St. Euphemia - her
statue functions as a weather vane. Scaling the church bell tower's creaky wooden stairway
requires an enduring faith in the reliability of wood. From the top is a commanding view...and,
if you're here at high noon, an ear-splitting memory.
The town's history created its current shape: Medieval Rovinj was a walled island. Because
it offered safe harbor from both pirates and the plague, Rovinj became extremely crowded.
That explains today's pleasantly claustrophobic Old Town.
Like the rest of the Croatian coast, Rovinj was part of the Venetian Empire for centuries.
And Istria remained part of Italy until after WWII. That's why this region is enthusiastically
bi-lingual an engaging mix of Croatia and Italy.
Rovinj's vibrant market is a fun place to shop for a picnic and snack on free samples.
Rick: Ora? Ora. Saleswoman: Ora.
Rick: ...Nice, thank you.
It also has a gifty corner where salesmen tempt visiting tourists with the local specialties.
Rick: So white truffle paste. Salesman: Yes, white truffle, yes
Rick: Very nice. Dobro. Salesman: Thank you.
Rick: No souvenir, eat it, okay? Salesman: Alright thank you.
The twisting back lanes of crumbling old Rovinj seem designed for a photo safari: arches span
narrow alleys which open into hidden courtyards. The "main drag" leading up to the top of the
island is lined with art galleries. Understandably, artists love Rovinj.
And so do romantics. At the Valentino Bar the Old Town tumbles right into the sea. It's
a memorable place to cap your Rovinj day. Grab a cushion and settle into a cozy stone
nook. Enjoy a drink, your travel partner...and the Adriatic sunset.
Croatia is clearly coming into its own. With each visit I'm impressed by its complexity,
its natural wonders, and its vibrant spirit. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until
next time, keep on travelin'.
This time we're trying to figure out how to eat the scampi in Croatia.
They painted in a figurative style.
They pained in a figurative way while the rest of the art world was embracing an increasingly
abstract style [laugh].
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Croatia: Adriatic Delights

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稲葉白兎 published on November 1, 2014
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