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Help needed with middle section of trip to northern Italy and Croatia

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We’ve begun an itinerary for 2-3 weeks in northern Italy and part of Croatia for late August- September, 2012. We haven’t made plane or hotel reservations yet, with one exception; we’ve booked lodging and bought opera tickets for the Arena in Verona for September 1. We’re planning our itinerary around that venue. We’d like to travel as much as possible in September to lessen crowds, so the opera is very near the beginning of the trip (and at the end of the Arena opera season).

The itinerary below is what we have so far. The big problem is in the middle of the trip: how to travel to Croatia. Should we spend 2-3 days going by train and bus to Trieste, then down the Istrian peninsula to Split, or cross via ferry straight to the Istrian peninsula, or go directly to Split? We have the time to add a few days, but just not sure about it. We’d welcome thoughts on this. I have read all the trip reports and comment others have posted, but I’m still undecided about the Istrian peninsula. We’ll travel using public transportation throughout the entire trip. The two cities in Croatia we want to visit for sure are Split and Dubrovnik. So…

Fly into Venice, then train to Padua, 2 nights (Giotto frescoes).
Train to Verona, 1 night (Opera)
Train to a lake town, 2-3 nights. Not sure which town. We’ve never been to any. Suggestions?
Train to Ravenna, 2 nights (Mosaics)

**Now, trouble with the middle section--getting to Croatia:

Possibility #1
From some city in northern Italy (Trieste?), train or bus to Istrian peninsula (3 nights). Stay in a seaport town. Which one? Then train or bus to Split (3 nights-Diocletian’s palace, day trip to one island) Then bus to Dubrovnik (3 nights), then train or bus to Zagreb (2 nights). Fly home, connecting through some city other than Venice with open jaw ticket, departing from Zagreb.

Or possibility #2
Train to Trieste (1 night), then ferry to the Istrian peninsula. Which city? Then Split, then Dubrovnik, then Zagreb. Fly home.

Or possibility #3
Ferry to Split (overnight trip) If we do this we’d probably need to add a night to Ravenna to then travel the following day to Ancona, right? This would maintain a lot of time for the mosaics in Ravenna. Does the ferry from nearby Rimini cross to Split or just to the Istrian peninsula towns? If so, then after Split, on to Dubrovnik, then Zagreb. Fly home.

Or possibility #4
Ferry to Dubrovnik from Bari ?, (overnight trip) If we do this we’d probably need to add a night to Ravenna then travel the following day to Bari, right? After Dubrovnik, then Split, then Zagreb. Fly home.

Alternative end to trip.
Fly home from Dubrovnik (eliminating Zagreb) Fly back to Venice with a one way ticket and connect with a round trip ticket back to US. Having heard really good things about Zagreb, we’re reluctant to cut it. And, an open jaw ticket to Venice and ending with Zagreb is about the same cost as round trip to Venice. It’s Dubrovnik that seems to add significant costs to the flight.

What would you do?

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