Highlights: Zagreb, Postojna Caves, Prejama Castle, Rovinj and hill towns of the Istrian Peninsula, Plitvice Lakes National Park, and Split (our 1st stop on Croatia’s famous Dalmatian Coast).
In Zagreb (ZAH-greb), we met our friends with whom we traveled for the rest of our trip in the former Yugoslavia. Together at a nearby cafe, we ate a traditional northern Croatian “snack” often associated with the Zagreb area, called Strukli (dough and various fillings, particularly cheese–very heavy). The 4 of us took a private walking tour of Zagreb for 1.5 hours, focused on the Upper Town then we rode the funicular to the top of the hill where our tour ended. This was plenty of time since there was not much “pretty” to see and do in Croatia’s capital.
On the way to our next stop, Rovinj (ro-VEEN) on the Istrian Peninsula in northwestern Croatia, we visited both Postojna Caves and Predjama Castle. The Postojna Caves are all connected, plowing into the earth for 15 miles (24km). I’ve seen stalagmites and stalactites in caves in the U.S. and China, and nothing compares. We took open rail cars over 2 miles in, then were guided (with a huge group) over fairly strenuous up-and-down, slippery paths for another 1.5 miles to several different colored caverns with unique formations unlike any I had ever seen.
This Renaissance Predjama Castle’s claim to fame is that it is literally built into a mountainside, which makes for a dramatic picture. Initiated in the 13th century, it was supposedly the hiding place of a knight fleeing the Habsburg Empire in the 15th century, which laid siege to Predjama. It’s worth a quick stop to see this setting if visiting Postojna Caves.
Then we were driven to Rovinj on the lovely Istrian Peninsula, which is heavily influenced by the Venetians who “owned” it off and on for centuries. Nearby are picturesque hill towns (like northern Italy), Roman ruins, good wine, and delicious seafood. Rovinj–not far from Trieste, Italy–is where we met our guide for the next 1.5 days, Maslinka, who initially toured us around the Old Town and sights in Rovinj for 2 hours. The next day we visited the picture-book hill towns of Motovun and Groznjan, where we sampled wine (the local red grape Teran made good wine) and Grappa (the honey-flavored was actually tasty). Then we visited the Roman Coliseum (one of the most well-preserved in Europe!) and other ruins remaining in the industrial port of Pula.
When we left Rovinj, our next stop was Plitvice Lakes National Park with its prolific waterfalls, cascades, gorges–a natural water wonderland. It took us at least 4 hours to trek the park’s wooden boardwalk through / near waterfalls, cascades, gorges, narrow canyons with water roaring or trickling or plunging almost everywhere you look. We’ve never seen so much dramatic water flowing all throughout a park. Indeed, Plitvice, Bled, and the Julian Alps rival the scenery of the Western U.S.
In the 1.5 hours of our Split private walking tour, we covered: Diocletian palace, Jupiter’s temple, Cathedral, Golden Gate, Understructures of Diocletian’s palace, the statue of the Bishop of Nin (defender of Croatian language for Catholic service), and St. Dominus Bell Tower.
By far the most fascinating part of Split and our city tour was the Diocletian Palace, an impressive survivor of the Roman-era and considered to be one of the most imposing and valuable Roman ruins along the Adriatic coast. It is certainly the main attraction in Split. After Emperor Diocletian had voluntarily given up the throne of the Roman Empire, he built the palace complex with multiple buildings and storage below. With his retirement in 305 A.D., he settled here along the coast in the Illyrian province of Rome, now part of Croatia. The understructures of Diocletian Palace provide insight into the Roman period but now are occupied by souvenirs shops–which “ruin” the experience. Underneath the Palace complex is the level where the Roman Emperor used to dock his ship and step off to the main level of his home. It is no longer under the Adriatic Sea, so it is interesting to see the structures that remain.