When we started planning our trip, my friend Brian and his girlfriend had just moved from London to Milan for a study abroad program. As they quickly learned, the fashion capital of the world has little to offer and much to take (for Brian, at the rate of three stolen bikes a week). So, rather than spend any time there, Richelle and I thought it best to fly into Milan, rent a car, and get out as quickly as possible, meeting up with Brian in the Lombardy region on the way back from Croatia.Getting through passport control and customs in Milan was the easiest and fastest border crossing to date, but picking up a car from Hertz was another matter altogether. Early this year, Hertz started doing something radical with their check-in counter — they outsourced the hell out of it. So, rather than interact with a human, clients have to pick up a phone at a kiosk, which initiates a video chat with someone hundreds of miles or more away. The most ridiculous thing about it is that the agent on the other end of the line is unable to complete all aspects of the booking and needs to speak to a local representative periodically, who flutters about from one kiosk to another, “helping” clients use the system. Eventually, Hertz put us in what turned out to be an ancient Fiat on the last stretch of its life, which quickly began exhibiting troubling signs. Only ten minutes into the drive we noticed that an interior light was stuck on despite being in the "off" mode, fifteen minutes into the drive we were noticing the brakes screeched at the slightest touch of the brake peddle, and twenty minutes in, the transmission started rattling in the most dreadful way. There is a Bulgarian saying, “купи си Фиат да те е яд,” which is a poetic way of saying: “don't buy a Fiat unless you want to have problems.” With such a long drive ahead of us, now was the time to change the car. But finding the nearest Hertz in the outskirts of Milan without speaking a word of Italian proved quite a challenge. We eventually gave up and decided to head to the Hertz at the second airport in Milan, even though it was farther away, which thankfully had local service agents who were more than willing to help us out, offering us a brand new Fiat 500x. They were dismayed when we asked if they had any Fords instead. Clearly, we were undeserving of this brand new marvel of Italian engineering with more headroom. With no other option available, we grudgingly took the new 500x and prayed we would not have any problems.
Ready for a nap and reluctant to leave this little gem of Lombardy, we knew we had to press on if we were to make it to our hotel in Opatija that night, so we said goodbye, hoping to come back on the way home. After one or two unnecessary loops around Trieste and a short segue through Slovenia, we made it to Opatija late in the evening.
OpatijaWe checked into the Remisens Hotel Ambassador in Opatija, which was a well-kept, high-end but affordable option that is conveniently located just a short walk along the main street to the town center. The main street is lined with great restaurants, tourist shops and other stores, and at night, we felt a welcoming vibe from the young locals, who like many Europeans, like to stay up late. We dined at a seafood restaurant right on the water whose seafood was mediocre and whose waiter had the curious habit of answering “why not?” to every order we placed. To clear our tastebuds, we stopped at Pizzeria Roko, a cozy grotto with a wonderful ambiance, where we shared a decadent tiramisu with Moscato. Due to a small currency conversion error, Richelle paid in tip more than double what our bill was, which got us some complimentary sour cherry brandy and a giddy waiter. This was our first tasting of the national liquor, and we got rather hooked on it for the remainder of the vacation.
We woke up early enough to take a quaint stroll along the coastline and enjoy the fresh Adriatic breeze. By mid-morning however, the Germans had invaded. The streets, now loud and crowded, made the town feel more like a tourist attraction than the dreamy town we had experienced the night before. There was more German spoken than Croatian, and we soon discovered that all over the country, by default, locals will address visitors in German. After quickly snapping a few final photos of the town, we packed up and started our journey inland through the Croatian mountains.
The park features a series of sixteen cascading lakes of magnificent, turquoise water, clustering into an upper and lower section. One can easily explore the entire park at a leisurely pace in one day. Our guide, Rick Steves, was right in that it gets crowded quickly and the best time to arrive is no later than 8am. The narrow boardwalks often have foot-traffic jams on account of people stopping to take photos (I myself was often guilty of this). Rick was wrong, however, in claiming the upper section was the most beautiful and that one could easily skip the lower section. Not to diminish the grandeur of the upper lakes, but we found the lower lakes to be the most beautiful by far, and coincidentally the starting point of a short, steep trail that takes you to a lookout that is the signature view of the lakes.We had seen the stunning top-down view of the lakes before we even started planning the trip, but at the park it was not immediately obvious where such an excellent vista point would be found. At an informational office, we even asked “where was this picture taken” but the ranger simply replied: “from a helicopter.” Disappointed, we continued on to the lower lakes. It was purely by chance that we took a random turn to the right, following a sign indicating a cave entrance, that we found ourselves at the top of the lower lakes, giving us the view we had been praying for. We couldn't believe how literal the park ranger was in his response, not even mentioning the vista point as another option. We also were amazed that there were no signs directing visitors to the vantage point. Nevertheless, we felt very content having found this special spot.
It was surprising to find the park so self service oriented. When we asked for a trail map, the rangers told us we really do not need one: “just follow the trail markers.” And in America, a beautiful park like this would be adorned with informative signs on what visitors are looking at, from the flora to the fauna and even a bit of history to boot. Other than the self service aspect, the park is very well kept and run. There is a ferry that takes you across one of the lakes to the upper and lower section, and a bus that goes between the two, so if you find the walk to be too taxing (or are running out of time), you can take the bus on the way back. The trails and boardwalks are immaculate and the lakes are pristine, brimming with trout as fishing is forbidden.
Makarska RivieraThe small stretch of coastline from Split to Dubrovnik is so stunning that it has its own name: the Makarska Riviera. If you are traveling between Split and Dubrovnik, definitey do not take the A1 freeway — Route 8 hugs the shoreline the whole way, meandering as fancifully as the Adriatic dictates, offering postcard views around every turn. Complementing the scenery, the natural scent is indescribable: a melody of lavender, unidentifiable brush, pine, honey, and sweet sea air.
As we slowly made our way towards Dubrovnik, stopping for photo opportunities at every lookout, hunger set upon us, and we found ourselves, quite by chance, at the most charming coastal town we had seen: Drvenik. A mere 480 people live in this picturesque paradise, and they all know how to relax. The main street along the beach is dead quiet. The occasional car every hour or so will turn heads briefly and be quickly forgotten. Time here stands still.
We ordered a mixed grill and pasta at the Hani hotel, and it was delicious. The wine, however, reminded us of Belize. It appears Croatia has not yet refined its wine palate, for not only does the wine taste awful, but the Croatians do not seem to know how to keep or serve it. At another restaurant, without hesitation, a waiter prepared to serve champagne with ice as the bottle had not been chilled. Croatian beer does not get any accolades either, but it is much better than the wine. Though, with the beer too there is uncertainty about how best to serve it. To our delight, we found a restaurant that served Chimay but were shocked when the waiter asked if we wanted it cold. “Of course!” we replied and immediately began to wonder whether it might appear before us with an ice cube in the stein.
DubrovnikIf there is one place in Croatia where tourists seem to outnumber the locals, it is Dubrovnik. Pods of giant cruise ships unload their passengers onto the dense, stone walled city every day, and the main street is packed, even at night.
We arrived just in time to check into the Hotel Adria and head to the city to catch the sunset. The Adria is not far from the city center, offers great views and is well kept and trendy. Like many other hotels on the hill, the Adria has the unusual property that the lobby is the highest floor of the hotel — all other floors are assigned negative numbers.
We found that a full day in Dubrovink is more than enough time to explore the city, hike up to Mount Srd for tremendous views, and take a quick ferry to the island of Lokrum. We only recommend a visit to Lokrum if you are bored with Dubrovnik. The tiny island has little to offer: a church, rocky outcrops, a nudist “beach” and a pride of peacocks. At night, when the heat and humidity have subsided, Dubrovnik is a little more attractive. There are fun outdoor jazz bars to visit, and the steep, narrow streets become mysterious.
Dubrovnik to UmagWe had set aside two days for Dubrovnik and were planning on visiting Hvar next, but on our second day a persistent rain storm set in, so we decided to spend the day in the car instead, making our way back up north to Umag, Croatia's northernmost town. At 435 miles from Dubrovnik, Umag is Croatia's northernmost town along the coast and our destination for our last two days on account of a more favorable weather forecast.
The drive was a long one: seven and a half hours according to Google, but a lot longer in practice. We stopped for lunch at Split and walked along the main touristy streets, but most of the town is industrial and unattractive. After just a few hours, we were ready to split. As we continued north, climbing up the mountains, we were treated to a dazzling sunset that set the entire sky ablaze.
Unlike nearby Opatija, Umag is not quaint. It seems more geared towards nature and sports lovers than the typical tourist. We also learned that Umag is a famous tennis training ground, and nearly every major hotel boasts tennis courts. If you are not here for the tennis or biking, however, it is a great place to relax.
On our last night in Croatia, Richelle was determined to find us a nice restaurant for dinner, and on our first walk to town, she succeeded: Mare e Monti, right on the water. We made reservations expecting it to be packed by dinner time as it appeared to be the only nice restaurant in town, but when we arrived for dinner, we were surprised to have the whole place to ourselves, especially considering this was easily the best meal we had had in Croatia, and possibly ever. Course, after course of decadent dishes left us feeling overindulged and in absolute wonder as to why our hotel full of Germans would choose the hotel food over the ambrosia we were being served. After a couple of hours of the finest dining, we felt like lion cubs on the National Geographic who had feasted, lying on their backs with paws in the air.
As we left Croatia, satisfied and inspired, we vowed to return to this vibrant country and even explore the numerous picturesque islands.
Lago di GardaOn the tail end of our trip, we met up with Brian in Verona. It is easy to see how this town came to be the setting for Romeo and Juliet's story, even though the famed balcony is a cheap tourist ploy. The cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, and live musicians set a romantic mood under the full moon.
After catching up over a lovely dinner, the three of us enjoyed a gelato and a bottle of Croatian cherry brandy in the town square, taking in the playful sounds of the live jazz performance.
The next day, we drove along Lago di Garda to Malcesine and took the cable car up to Monte Baldo for some excellent views, hiking down along bucolic pastures. We lunched at the lake shore by the castle and decided on a whim to visit my namesake town, a three hour drive away, according to Google's estimate.
LuccaWhat Google does not take into account in its driving estimates is expensive wrong turns. A wrong turn in Italy can put you on a toll road going in the wrong direction for 25km before the first available exit to turn around. That costly mistake combined with the rain and related traffic congestion put us in Lucca around sunset.
With a long drive back to Milan and an early morning flight home awaiting us, we had little time to explore, but this thousand year old town was full of magic, even in the dark. Its city wall is still intact, and the maze of narrow streets and canals is a treat. We regretted not being able to spend more time here but left with a coffee table book on Lucca as a constant reminder to come back in the near future.