A Croatian Odyssey

While planning our Europe trip, I was very conscious that we would need a break in the middle, somewhere to recoup, relax and enjoy the sun. I’ve always been fascinated by Dubrovnik, so in the planning stages, this was where I hoped we’d explore, but big interrail/road trips are all about compromise. We couldn’t make the transfers work, and the train system in Croatia meant that we couldn’t get there fast enough in our tight itinerary. So, in the end, we settled on Split.

I vividly remember the train journey from Zagreb, down through the mountains to Split. The landscape was sublime: mountainous and arid, with patches of gorgeous green and tiny run down farms and houses, all made to seem even smaller by a dangerous black thunderstorm. After 5 or so hours, we arrived, to an incredible downpour - so much for our sunny break on the coast. We couldn’t get a taxi to take us to the Airbnb because of the road systems in town, and so we began a very grumpy and damp walk.

I’m pleased to say that by the time we ventured out to explore that afternoon, we were sitting with slush puppies and pastries in the harbour, legs hanging down towards the smoky grey sea. After catching up on sleep and returning to our normal selves, the next few days were some of the best and most beautiful I’ve ever had.

Split itself is a well developed and fairly touristy town on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. A kind of hybrid of Greek and Italian resorts, the remnants of its Roman past are evident everywhere you look. Diocletian’s palace is fascinating, especially the market hidden in its cellars, and the small winding alleys surrounding it give you a genuine sense of the hustle and bustle of what an ancient town could have felt like. T was like a big kid, debating over which alley to take next, excited by how much it felt like a map in Assassin’s Creed.

But the main joy from our time in Croatia was definitely its natural landscapes, especially the beaches. We walked west from the centre of Split, along the verdant coastline through the hills and down to the rocky edge of the sea. Here we found Bay Ježinac, where all generations meet to enjoy the jewelled sea and mop up some Vitamin D. The old concrete pool reminded me of history too, how many generations of locals had learned to swim on this beach, paddled in this pool? We shared a cider, lying on the sandy pier surrounded by blue.

Later, we wandered on, up to Plaża Kašjuni. There were much fancier facilities, with the beach resembling more of a spa than a resort. We sat on the rocks, facing the sea, both dressed in blue, revelling in the warm breeze and ocean views. We drunk it all up in golden hour; T walked the tightrope of jagged rocks in his new deck shoes, like a heron or a stalk, making fun in that timeless place between the sun and the sea.

Our other hope for Croatia was to embark on a real island adventure. Off the coast from Split, is a group of picturesque islands: blue, green and gold. Their picture-perfect scenery and rustic white villages are echoes of their world-famous Greek cousins. So much so that Mamma Mia was never filmed in Greece, but here on these small islands off the Dalmatian coast.

We took a ferry early one morning, with a picnic and plenty of suncream in our bags. The catamaran arrived in Hvar on the beautiful island by the same name. Made famous by Made In Chelsea, there is definitely a more luxurious feel to the harbour than in Split, but climb into the hills and you’re met with goats and a more rustic way of life. For our island adventure, we wanted more of a Castaway/Treasure Island/The Tempest kind of feel. We hired kayaks from the Amfora hotel, hoping to explore the Paklinski islands, a small group of mostly uninhabited islands across from Hvar.

The man in charge of the kayaks had informed us that the sea was calm, but that as soon as we exited the bay, we would be in a very busy ferry path. His advice here, was to ‘paddle like hell’ until you cleared it. Spurred on by the sense of adventure, and of course the fear of God, we began our exit. For the onlooker, kayaking looks like a fun and sometimes even serene water sport, with an elegant and streamlined boat paddle system. Oh how little I knew, of the burn in your arms, the twinges of your core, the stiffness of your hands. Never mind the headache, anxiousness and constant bickering with your kayak partner. But boy was it exciting. We made it across the path like a pair of bobbing ducks, paddling on, watching for traffic, retreating when a ferry was faster than predicted. It was thrilling. After making it across, we paddled around the coasts of the islands, looking for a good place to rest up. The first island we circled was dotted with nudist sunbathers. I didn’t know where to look, and struggled to keep up with T’s paddling instructions.

The next bay we came to had a little concrete slip on one side, so we paddled towards it and hauled the kayak up onto our ready-made parking spot. We laid out in the sun for hours, eating our lunch and observing the five or so other people in the bay. There was an elderly nudist couple further east, laughing together and eating cherries. To the west was a young family on a dinghy, running along the dilapidated boardwalk, splashing into the sea. We grabbed our snorkels and meandered around the bay, looking into the sandy bottom for tiddlers and crabs. T was fascinated. His first time in the sea abroad, and here he was discovering fish first hand, experiencing the calming quiet of the water. In fact, I couldn’t get him out of the sea, every 5 minutes or so, he’d pop up with ‘Guess what I just saw!’ It kept him absorbed for hours. It really was bliss in this little bay, in the Aegean sea. I felt truly happy, both relaxed and fascinated by the tiny details of the landscape, its wildlife and other visitors.

We got back in our little kayak, and paddled home, a little sleepy and sad that the day was ending. The clouds began to turn a blue-grey, and we increased our pace, not wishing to be caught in a sea storm in a two-man boat. As we drew into the bay in front of the Amfora, I jumped out of the boat to help pull us in. Poor unfortunate T was promptly upturned and landed face first in the sea. Luckily, our belongings were in a water-tight compartment, but my sunglasses lie on the floor of the Aegean sea to this day.

We grabbed ice cream and damply squelched back to the harbour. I slept soundly for the whole ferry ride back, knowing that I’d had one of the best adventures of my travels so far.


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