From Split I continued my adventure by sea and got a ferry to the island of Brač. It’s famous for its radiant white stone which was used to build the Diocletian’s Palace in Split, as well as for the White House in Washington DC. It’s other claim to fame is its stunning long pebble beaches. The ferry arrives into the small harbour of the sleepy old town of Bol on the southern coast of the island. It’s very pretty, but not a whole lot to do apart from relax so I only stayed for a few days and spent most of my time on the beach, but nice to chill for a bit.
From Plitvice I got a bus to Croatia’s second biggest city, Split. The city centre of Split is dominated by the Diocletian’s Palace. It’s not so much a palace as a small town with a labyrinth of streets packed with shops, bars, restaurants and people, and all set within the walls of one of the most imposing and impressive Roman ruins in existence. I stayed at an Airbnb just outside the walls and then went to explore.
Just outside the city walls stands the statue of Gregorius of Nil. Apparently if you rub the big toe of the statue it’s meant to bring you good luck and guarantees that you’ll come back to Split. You can see where it’s been rubbed as it had got shiny with the many hands that had touched it over the years. I don’t really believe in these sort of things but thought I’d give it a go just in case.
After walking round and exploring most of the palace, I bought a ticket in the early evening to go down into the substructure basement of the Diocletian’s Palace. A huge vaulted space of interconnected rooms, it was a welcome cooling relief from the heat above. When I visited it was almost deserted and I had the place mostly to myself. It was very atmospheric and interesting. Any Game of Thrones fans may recognise it as where Daenerys Targaren keeps her dragons while she is in the City of Meereen. I can highly recommend a visit.
After a lovely few days in Zagreb I got a bus down to the Plitvice National Park. I stayed in a lovely little B&B called the Plitvice Miric Inn. You can just do Plitvice as a day trip, but I’d been advised to stay overnight so I could get the most out of it and to avoid the crowds and I’m so glad I did. The park is split into two halves, the upper and lower lakes. I arrived at Plitvice mid afternoon around 3pm and after checking in, I headed into the park around 5pm and started with the upper lakes, it was really quiet and I hardly saw anyone else, the weather was lovely, beautifully sunny, but not too hot. It’s a big area and I finished the circuit of the upper lakes quite late just before the park closed for the evening. I had a nice meal at my hotel that evening and met a lovely Canadian couple and ended up having a slightly later night than I had intended. The next morning I’d been told to go to the park really early as soon as it opened to avoid the crowds, but being lazy and a bit tired I didn’t. Anyway big mistake, it was heaving, a complete contrast to the day before. Coach trips arrive from around 10am and stay til about 4pm and as such it was unpleasantly busy. Literally queuing along the boardwalks unable to pass anyone. So in short yes it’s definitely worth staying overnight at Plitvice and go very early in the morning or late in the afternoon/ early evening.
I started my Croatia trip by flying from London Heathrow to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, on Croatian Airways. The flight which I only booked less than a month in advance was less than £80 (one way) and was significantly cheaper than the normal budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Plus unlike those airlines I got served a free drink and snack on the flight.
I stayed at a delightful little B&B called Studio Kairos, which was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide book. They kindly sent a car to pick me up from the airport. I’d really recommend this place it’s tiny, just four rooms, but it’s centrally located, the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming and helpful, and they do an excellent breakfast.
Zagreb is a a really pretty little city, the main centre is compact and it’s easy to walk around without the need for public transport of any sort. It’s got a beautiful historic centre with a wonderful cathedral and lots of pretty pavement cafes and bars, ideal for a little coffee break or to sample some of the great local beer.
My first night I was keen to try some local Croatian food so I went to Vinodol, a pretty restaurant with beautiful vaulted ceiling and an ivy covered outside terrace. They serve traditional central European food, including many Croatian delicacies and local wines. My waiter was lovely and explained through all the menu and recommended dishes for me. The food was delicious and the Croatian wine surprisingly good.
On a side bar can I just say that I ate REALLY well in Croatia, I was expecting the food to be quite heavy/ very meat and potato based, quite Eastern European, filling but maybe a bit stogy. Anyway I couldn’t have been more wrong, the food in Croatia was stunning. If anything it was more influenced by Italy, than other Eastern European food. I had wonderful meat, fish and seafood. Great pasta and pizzas. Just really wonderful food, some of the best I’ve ever had in Europe.
My favourite meal in Zagreb was at Mali Bar though, I had a wonderful pate and also one of my favourite dishes, Vitella Tonnato, veal in a tuna sauce. Delicious, you must go here if in Zagreb.
At a the other end of the price scale I had excellent pizza at Karijola. It serves authentic crispy, thin crust pizza cooked in proper wood fired clay oven. Great value, washed down with local beer. Both Mali Bar and Karijola are on the same terraced street and are conveniently just a short walk from Studio Kairos.
My personal Zagreb highlight though was probably the Museum of Broken Relationships, a quirky museum that explores the mementoes that remain after a relationship ends. The exhibits were on a world tour for many years before settling up at this permanent site. Apparently it’s been so successful that they recently opened a second site in Hollywood. It started quite light and then went really dark with items to do with suicide, rape, abuse and even murder. Thankfully it ended on funny break ups. It’s not often you go from crying with sadness to laughing out loud. Some of the stories were genuinely heartbreaking. I felt quite drained afterwards.
For my birthday this year my friend Marc very kindly took me for lunch at La Gavroche in Mayfair. I’d been wanting to go to this legendary London restaurant for many many years. I met Marc at the bar where he’d already ordered a very nice bottle of champagne for us both. They actually do a very reasonably priced lunch offer of £49.50 which includes three courses, half a bottle of wine and coffee and petit fours. However as it was my birthday we were splashing out and having the Menu Exceptional. There were nine courses in total so I won’t describe them all, but highlights were definitely the stunning, feather light Soufflé Suisse (apparently the late Princess Diana’s favourite dish) and also the black pudding and crumbed egg dish, which was a cleverly executed, perfectly balanced combination of wonderful ingredients. A really nice touch is that at the end of the meal Michel Roux Jr comes out afterwards and stops by every table to say hello. What with many ‘celebrity’ chefs now rarely actually cooking in their own restaurants it’s nice to see that he was actually in the kitchen and it was lovely to meet him. A stunning meal all in all, I can’t wait to go back.