Romance of the Adriatic

Print edition : November 22, 2019

A bird’s-eye view of Dubrovnik, at the southern tip of Croatia. Photo: Dubrovnik Tourist Board

Dubrovnik with Mount Srdj and Fort Imperial in the background. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The Stradum, the limestone walkway between the Ploce Gate (eastern side) and the Pile Gate (western side) of Dubrovnik. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The remnants of the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in Split. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The pharmacy at the Franciscan monastery in Dubrovonik. It is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

A model of the Diocletian palace, Split. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The promenade in Split. One can sit on a bench by the seafront under the bright sun and enjoy watching the world go by and meeting people. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Gregory of Nin, in Split. This statue was sculpted by Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s greatest sculptor. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

At the Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

At the courtyard of the home in Zagreb of the master sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The funicular between Lower Town and Upper Town in Zagreb. This is the world’s shortest funicular journey (64 seconds) and has been in operation since 1890. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The statue of General Josip Jelacic in the square named after him in Zagreb. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Near the Ban Jelacic Square, the neo-Gothic Zagreb Cathedral. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

The Hvar seafront with the Spanjola fortress in the distance Photo: Ranjita Biswas

On the island of Hvar, which is famous for its lavender fields. Photo: Jaksa Kuzmicic

One of the many stalls selling pouches of dried lavender flowers. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

One of the models on display at the boat museum at the Arsenal building in Hvar. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

One of the models on display at the boat museum at the Arsenal building in Hvar. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

One of the models on display at the boat museum at the Arsenal building in Hvar. Photo: Ranjita Biswas

Croatia’s natural beauty, its variety of terrain and its culture make a visit to this history-laden land a sheer delight.

FROM the window of the plane, the Adriatic Sea looked electric blue. Sailboats, fishing boats and cruise ships dotted the water like fine white buttis (embroidery work) on a blue saree. Soon, the ragged coastline of Croatia came into view. So I was going to land in Dubrovnik after all despite the naysayers’ caution against a middle-aged Indian woman travelling alone in this land. The plan was to travel by road from Dubrovnik at the southern tip of Croatia to Zagreb, the capital, in the north.

In this age of digital entertainment, Croatia has become a “must-do” destination as it is the locale of various episodes in the hugely popular Game of Thrones TV series. For those not caught up in the series’ labyrinthine web, including yours truly, the interest lies elsewhere: Croatia’s natural beauty, its variety of terrain and its culture, which were known to Europeans long ago. Records say Croatia’s first hotel catering to tourists, Villa Angiolina, was built in Opatija on the Adriatic coast in 1844. But Croatia’s chequered history during the Second World War and the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s after the break-up of Yugoslavia made it fall out of favour. As if to make up for that period, recent years have seen a surge of visitors from all over the world. In 2018, 19.7 million tourists visited this beautiful land.


The formidable wall of Dubrovnik vindicates its reputation as one of the best-protected medieval cities in Europe. Croatia was a powerful maritime power in the Middle Ages. According to some accounts, the Italian explorer Marco Polo was born here. Another piece of trivia: Croatia is the birthplace of the modern necktie, which was part of its 17th century military uniform.

A walk on the almost two-kilometre-long city wall—be ready to climb up almost a thousand steps—gives one an unhindered view of the red-tiled rooftops of houses and the deep blue sea and makes all the huffing and puffing to get there worthwhile. The cable car journey to Mount Srdj gives one another picture postcard frame of the breathtaking coastline, the little islands and the city below.

The old city of Dubrovnik has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. An unmistakable aura of the medieval city clings to the old quarters, spread between the Ploce Gate (eastern side) and Pile Gate (western side). The gates once had wooden drawbridges that were pulled up at night to prevent intruders from entering the city, but these have now been replaced with stone bridges where visitors often linger.

The limestone walkway between the gates, called the Stradun, has been smoothened by thousands of feet. It was a sea channel in the 12th century and later filled up. The atmosphere on the Stradun is lively with shops, souvenir stalls and restaurants, interspersed with glimpses of lanes leading uphill to homes, hotels and churches and fountains spewing fresh drinking water. Even if it is a bit overcrowded in the tourist season, one does not really mind because that is the charm of the Stradun.

One of the most interesting places here is the Franciscan monastery. It is home to one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, which has been in operation since 1317. Some of the centuries-old recipes are still used in the cosmetic products that are on sale. The monastery also has the oldest preserved piece of written music, dating back to 1106.

Dubrovnik’s patron saint is St. Blaise. At the Church of St. Blaise, there is a model of the city showing how it looked before the devastating earthquake of 1667 that killed 5,000 people. In fact, after the earthquake, the city’s mainly Gothic and Renaissance architecture was replaced by Baroque style buildings.

For foodies, especially fish lovers, the Adriatic offers some fresh marine produce. At the Dubravka restaurant cafe (which has been around since 1836) overlooking the sea, I tried out swordfish carpaccio with arugula salad followed by a king prawn flambe with rice. The restaurant even provides bibs while one is tackling these giants.

Split: Emperor’s retirement home

Reluctant though I was to leave this medieval city, it was time to leave for Split. The drive along the Adriatic coast to this city takes a little over four hours. Its reputation as one of the most scenic drives in the world is richly deserved. On the way, one has to go through passport control as the road briefly crosses into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

When Roman Emperor Diocletian was fed up with work and wanted to retire, an unheard of concept at that time, he abdicated his throne and built a palace in Split in 305 A.D. He could not have chosen a better place for a retirement home. The city gates led straight to the gorgeous Dalmatian coast. The remains show a well-planned and protected palace with wide courtyards; it even has a sphinx from Egypt. It is among the first urban complexes to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site (1979). However, the palace premises is not just an archaeological curiosity. The palace underwent extensive renovation and planning. Its entrance is thriving with shops selling local artefacts and jewellery, and its centre is used to host musical and other events.

The St. Domnius Cathedral, which was built over the emperor’s mausoleum, has a 13th century bell tower that dominates the old city. The cathedral is famous for its 800-year-old walnut wood doors that have 28 carved scenes from the life of Jesus.

At first glance, a visitor might find it difficult to relate the Roman edifice coexisting with the modern promenade, called the Riva, with its multitude of eating places, curio shops and throngs of visitors from cruise ships. But somehow Split merges both with elan.

Near the Golden Gate leading to the walled town is a towering figure. It is the 28-foot-high statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin. The medieval bishop opposed the pope and the Church and fought to introduce the local Slavic and Glagolitic languages for church services. The big toe of the statue has been polished by the touch of many hands. The belief is that touching the toe leads to wishes being fulfilled.

Statistics proclaim that Split has 2,700 sunny hours a year, 15 km of beach and is the birthplace of 80 Olympic medal winners.

Venetians ruled Split from 1420 to 1797, and the Mediterranean influence is obvious. They called the port the “golden link” between the East and Venice. The cuisine also shows this influence with the emphasis on fish.

One can sit on a bench by the seafront under the bright sun and enjoy watching the world go by and meeting people. I exchanged pleasantries in Hindi with women travellers from Pakistan just off a cruise ship, with a voracious reader from America who discussed the book Sapiens and with a couple from Perth, Australia, on their second honeymoon. I also watched a klapa performance, a traditional multipart singing entertainment programme with no musical instruments. It figures on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.


The Split promenade is dotted with kiosks offering visits to the many nearby islands. I chose Hvar, an hour away, which is famous for its lavender fields. The scent of lavender greeted me as I got down from the ferry. The little shops lining the street flaunted pouches with dried lavender flowers. Life around here revolves around the big square and the Spanjola fortress on top of a hill overlooking the town and the serene sea. The residents of the island enjoy a laid-back lifestyle. “We prefer it this way. We like to spend time with family and friends and on weekends go exploring the islands’ rich marine life,” one of them told me.

The Arsenal building, bang on the square, houses a boat museum. The ship models on display are testimony to Croatia’s maritime history. Under the Venetians, the administration on the island was organised as a territorial and ancestry-based community, or commune, governed by a duke. At that time, the commune comprised the islands of Hvar and Vis. The Arsenal building once served as a repair and refitting station for war galleons. Its present incarnation was built in 1611 after the Ottomans destroyed the 14th century building.

On the first floor is the revived historic Hvar Theatre, the oldest public theatre in Europe (1612). The restoration work was carried out between 2000 and 2019. The official information pamphlet at the theatre says: “Chronologically, the Hvar Theatre is the third oldest surviving theatre in Europe. However, because of its social and cultural significance, it is in fact the oldest popular theatre in Europe.... The interior of the Theatre as it is seen today was first created in 1803....” A visionary Venetian ruler opened My next stop was Zagreb.


According to folklore, Zagreb got its name when during a long spell of drought a benevolent Croatian duke ordered his soldiers to “Zagrabite!” (scoop up). He then plunged his sword into the dry earth and fresh water bubbled up.

At the centre of Zagreb is the bustling Ban Jelacic Square dominated by the statue of Ban Josip Jelacic, an army general who led a revolution against Hungarian rule and serfdom. In 1848, Jelacic proclaimed the union of Croatian provinces, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Hungary. A proclamation abolishing serfdom was signed on April 25 of that year.

A market with local products had sprung up at the huge square on the day I arrived, giving me an opportunity to sample local food and buy handicrafts. On one side of the square, trams plied up and down Zagreb’s longest street, called IIica, and a digital clock ticked away announcing the time of the day.

Zagreb is divided into Upper Town (Gradec or Gric—old town) and Lower Town (Kaptol). Walking to the left from the square, one will be able to see the twin spires of the neo-Gothic Zagreb Cathedral reaching up to the sky.

On way to the Upper Town, the whiff of freshly brewed coffee and cookies greeted me at Spica (the peak), a pedestrian walkway between Jelacic Square and Flower Square. Zagreb reportedly has 4,500 cafes, which is a clear indication of the coffee-drinking culture of the populace.

Of the many gates of the walled Upper Town, only the Stone Gate survives. A steep climb leads to St. Mark’s Square, which is home to the seat of the Croatian government. But what immediately catches the eye is the 13th century St. Mark’s Church with its glazed-tile roof. The medieval Lotrscak Tower is intact, and its cannon is still fired every noon, clocking in at a thundering 130 decibels.

Among the interesting museums here, the Museum of Broken Relationships stands out with its unique display of objects symbolising failed relationships between couples such as a pair of shoes and the bicycle a couple used to go exploring; it is part nostalgia, part sadness. It received the Kenneth Hudson Award as the most innovative museum in Europe in 2011.

Another living museum is in the home of Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s greatest sculptor. The Gregory Nin sculpture in Split is his creation. Mestrovic worked with many materials, including bronze, stone and soft siltstone. The courtyard of his home is dominated by female figures in different postures, mostly in bronze but a few in walnut wood.

To travel between Upper Town and Lower Town, one can take the funicular, operative since 1890. At 64 seconds, it is the world’s shortest cable railway ride.

No visit to Zagreb is complete without a visit to the world-famous Plitvice Lakes Natural Park. Turquoise blue lakes at different levels separated by barriers carved out of dolomite rocks (which are called tufa barriers), numerous waterfalls, narrow wooden bridges, all create an ethereal world far away from the urban jungle and make one thankful that there are still such wonderful nooks in this ecologically denuded world.

Ranjita Biswas is an independent journalist,

prize-winning author and translator of fiction based

in Kolkata.

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