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Trip report: 5 weeks in Italy, Croatia, France - Summer 2019

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Trip report: 5 weeks in Italy, Croatia, France - Summer 2019

Old Oct 18th, 2019, 04:22 PM
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Rovinj sounds lovely. We didn’t have time to visit the Istrian Peninsula in September.
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Old Oct 19th, 2019, 04:26 AM
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PLITVICE LAKES

The drive to Plitvice took about 4 ½ hours including one 15 minute rest stop.We just followed the google maps recommended route which was highway most of the way. The last bit, after you leave the E751, is the D42 to D1. This goes through some beautiful rural landscape, and actually the last half hour or more you are actually IN the Plitvice Lakes National Park and the road is typical national park kind of road, deeply forested, narrow and winding. So while lovely, it took longer than we expected and we had a reserved timed ticket, which, if you missed your time window, would be useless.

Starting this summer (2019) they had on-line timed reservations and implied that if you did not have one it was likely you wouldn't be able to enter. That might be true mid day or on certain days, but when we got there for our 16:00 reserved entrance (price is reduced after 4 pm, and we had read it's much less crowded then) people were certainly just showing up without tickets and were able to buy them on the spot. Even though there was hardly anyone on line to enter, we had to wait till exactly 4pm before they let us in.
If you stay in one of the three 'official' hotels you can get your ticket stamped to go back in the following day for free. We stayed at Hotel Bellevue, great location right near Entrance 2, free parking (and they drove us to Entrance 1 which we had inadvertently booked entrance for - you must enter at the specific entrance you have a ticket for). Booking.com, 82€ night/double. Hotel Bellevue is right out of the 1970s and while it hasn't been updated since, it was clean and comfortable enough. Lots of tour groups staying there. There are not a lot of food options - the hotel next to the Bellevue has an expensive restaurant that serves dinner, both entrances have hamburger type food, and the road leading to Split has several places to eat about 20 minutes away - although we did not know this since we entered from the opposite direction and there were no food options that way at all.


Plitvice Lakes National Park UNESCO World Heritage Site– Beautiful, glad I went, but sorry to say it did not live up to our expectations. Perhaps the problem is that the reviews were so wonderful it was hard to live up to. Or maybe they were all written by people living in Kansas or Houston who have never seen a wooded area with lakes and waterfalls. Some of the water was a very nice shade of turquoise but a lot of it was just ‘normal lake dark greenish’. There are a lot of waterfalls, most of them quite small but a few taller ones. The fact that there are so many, that they link together a lot of small lakes and ponds (and one medium size lake) and the boardwalks connecting it all are certainly nice. It was very pleasant. But words like amazing, extraordinary, and incredible were not words I’d use to describe it. Everything was back lit in the afternoon and there were a lot of clouds around so it wasn’t sunny the whole time (but certainly wasn’t a ‘cloudy day’ either). It’s better in the morning light – the color of the water is probably the best thing and that is better early in the day.
Signage is terrible. Only after you’ve done it does the map make any sense. One entrance the trails are lettered (A, B, etc.) and the other entrance they are numbered. Very few signs on the trails. You just kind of go. We started at Entrance 1 and in about 45 minutes got to the boat which goes across the big lake. Pleasant but unspectacular 20 minute ride. Then you need to take another boat across a much shorter part of the lake (5 minutes) to start the next section of trail. That one loops around back to the boat to return to Entrance 2, or keeps going and there is a shuttle train you can take to get back. Of course you can walk along paths much further but to see most of the water falls you follow the ‘popular’ trails that mostly use boardwalks and some woodland paths.
The good news is that I would hardly call it crowded (a Saturday and Sunday in July). Certain portions of the boardwalks did have people taking selfies or photos of their friends and being inconsiderate of others, and of course some people are just oblivious to others around them and insisted on walking two across. The boardwalk is barely wide enough for one person in each direction to pass without someone being forced to take a swim. But much of the time we were alone on a stretch.
We were actually in the park from 4 to about 7 the first afternoon, and 8 (when it opens) to about 10:30 the next morning and felt this was plenty of time. Obviously you could spend a couple days if you wanted to hike all over but the 'good' parts were easily covered in this amount of time.
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Old Oct 19th, 2019, 06:44 AM
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Such a wonderful, detailed report. Looking forward to more on Croatia, including Dubrovnik, I hope. We haven't been in some time, hope to return but worry about the crowds. Hope your experience there will be as reasonably uncrowded as you found Venice.
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Old Oct 19th, 2019, 11:22 AM
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Originally Posted by JulieVikmanis View Post
Such a wonderful, detailed report. Looking forward to more on Croatia, including Dubrovnik, I hope. We haven't been in some time, hope to return but worry about the crowds. Hope your experience there will be as reasonably uncrowded as you found Venice.
If you wish, you can click on my name to read my trip report for Croatia, too. We were there for 2 weeks in September, and we spent 3 nights in Dubrovnik. If you go to Plitvice Lakes, I can recommend staying at Plitvice Miric Inn. The breakfast buffet is one of the best I have had. They also serve dinner in their restaurant for an additional 20 euros per person, and it was one of the best meals of our trip.
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Old Oct 20th, 2019, 04:08 AM
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Julie - definitely read Karen's trip report. I didn't do Dubrovnik this trip so my memory of it is almost 10 years old. I loved it, but remember thinking as I walked through the beautiful main gate into the old town that it was the most crowded place I have been (and I'm from NYC)! It got better of course, after the cruise ships left for the day, but was still very 'touristy' compared to the rest of Croatia. Definitely still worth seeing, but just be warned about the crowds. We had 4 nights and did day trips two of the three full days - one to Mostar and one to Montenegro so were mainly in Dubrovnik itself evenings - and one full day and that was plenty.
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Old Oct 20th, 2019, 04:09 AM
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ZADAR
Easy drive to Zadar, less than two hours to the airport where we dropped the car, all very well marked on good 2 lane and then 4 lane highway.
Zadar, population 75,000, is surrounded by industrial sprawl but the old center is on a peninsula (rectangular instead of oval like the others) and has a lot of very interesting ‘stuff’. Venetian walls and town gates, Romanesque and Byzantine churches, Roman columns and ruins, a modern ‘sea organ’ and a device that soaks up the sun and then plays lights at night, several interesting churches. It was heavily damaged in WW II and the post war buildings are mixed in among the old buildings so architecturally it’s not an ‘ensemble’ type town, even in the heart of the old town, but it’s pleasant enough and the ‘sights’ are very worthwhile with a nice vibe.
We only spent one night - so about 24 hours - in Zadar which I felt was just about right. I'm glad I had more than a few hour stop over, but I felt after 24 hours I had seen all I wanted to. We stayed at 'Hotel Zara Palace' (booking.com, €72 night/double). It's not exactly a hotel, and it's definitely not a palace, it's a few rooms, but they are very nice, newly renovated and comfortable. And just off the main square. No reception desk but texting with the host he was there to greet us and give us the keys.


Zadar’s walls were originally built to keep out the invading forces from Turkey, and it successfully did its job, allowing the city to maintain its independence, with the walls never being breached. They are now a UNESCO world heritage site. There are still several of the original gates into the old town through the walls. The most impressive is the ‘Port Gate’ (Llucka vrata) fashioned from a Roman triumphal arch into a Renaissance grand entrance topped with a Venetian Lion. It sits beside the little Fosa harbor. Just inside this gate is Five Wells Square, 16th Century, featuring five identical wells in a line. This square, like many places we saw on this trip, was featured in Game of Thrones.
The Riva is a seaside promenade that encircles the old town peninsula and features two interesting things. The Sea Organ (Morske orgulue) (built in 2005) looks like a set of wide steps going down into the sea but is designed so that the action of the waves pushes water through them creating ‘music’ (sounded more like the ‘song’ of a sea creature than actual music). Just past that is the ‘Greeting to the Sun/Pozdrav Suncu’ a 22 meter diameter solar panel in the pavement that ‘charges’ during the day and spews colored light patterns after dark. Zadar is know for it's sunsets. Unfortunately by sunset it was fairly cloudy so certainly not spectacular when we were there, but I really can't see how it could be any better than anywhere else.
The Church of St Donat/Crkva svetog Donata is a 9th century Byzantine round church with remnants of columns and other stone pieces the Romans left behind. The 3 story cavernous interior is beautiful. Just behind it is the bell tower of the Cathedral of St Anastasia/Katedrala svete Stosije, 12th Century Romanesque. Views from the top of the tower include the entire old town (where the Roman street plan is still very evident) and the top of St Donat.



SIBENIK
Šibenik is not one of those places that people mention when listing ‘must see’ destinations in Croatia. Mostly I’d heard about people stopping briefly to see the UNESCO listed cathedral when heading north from Split. But it made a convenient stop over between Zadar and Split and the photos I’d seen made me feel it might be worth it. So since expectations were not that high they were easily met and surpassed. While Šibenik doesn’t quite rank up there with Split or Dubrovnik, I think it is just as impressive as the more popular towns of Trogir and Zadar.
We took a bus from Zadar, having dropped off the car when we arrived there. We had one night, so again, about 24 hours. And like Zadar, I felt that was just about right. I'm glad I saw it in the evening and the morning and had time to explore the town and not just see the Cathedral, but you don't really need more than 24 hours. We stayed at another "room" found on booking.com (€72 night/double). Almost impossible to find, even with google maps, but once we did it was very comfortable. Palace Rialto Rooms. An old building, right in the center of the old town, with a collection of several ensuite rooms. In this case we never saw the 'host', they texted us a code which was used to gain entry.
Šibenik, population 34,000, offers a change of pace from Dalmatia’s strong Italianate influences since its origins are pure Croatian rather than Roman. Šibenik’s old town is described as a typical Mediterranean medieval city, with a collection of churches, noble palaces, and centuries old Dalmatian stone houses separated by narrow alleyways. The old town is very well preserved and totally charming.
The old town is not very large but it’s full of stone streets – narrow, winding and many stepped, lined with stone buildings. Many of the buildings have beautiful detailing, statues, plaques, stone carvings. Lots of tiny churches tucked away. Small squares all over the place. The waterfront has a nice wide riva with restaurants on one side, boats on the other.
But Šibenik is mostly known for the Cathedral of St. James (Katedrala Sv Jakova), a UNESCO World Heritage site built by the Venetians in the 15th and 16th centuries and is made entirely out of stone. In fact it is the only European cathedral constructed using only stone. The exterior of the cathedral is magnificent and the centerpiece of one of the most beautiful squares in Croatia. Across the square lies City Hall (Gradska vijecnica), a 16th century Renaissance building that looks like it was transplanted from Venice. Both the cathedral and the square were settings for Game of Thrones.
The other main ‘sites’ are the fortresses. There are actually 4 of them but a couple are a ways out of town. The main one, St Michael's, sits right above the old town and can be seen from below. Concerts are held there in summer so it’s filled with modern seats. St Nichola's Fortress, a little out of town, is also a site of major importance, protecting the area from invasion after its construction in 1525 and is being listed as a UNESCO site along with the cathedral.

Past the main part of town, the riva becomes a tad shabby, the boats are just small fishing boats and ‘local’ pleasure craft. But continue far enough and around the bend and the view back to the town spilling down the hill from the fortress is amazing. Especially with the sun on it late in the day.
The only real negatives about both Zadar and, to a lesser extent, Sibenik (and probably the reason they aren’t higher up on the ‘tourist’ trail) – is they haven’t done a good job integrating the modern with the old. Within feet of the Roman Forum in Zadar or the UNESCO cathedral in Sibenik you see ugly 1950s style apartment buildings in not very good shape. You can walk around the old towns and find ugly buildings within steps of a church built over a thousand years ago. Makes the ambiance less than it could be. It seems a lot of other places in Europe have done a better job of preserving the ‘flavor’ of their town’s historic centers (though most still have plenty of modern stores, businesses and living quarters). Sibenik's center if much better in this respect than Zadar's, but there is some of that along the water front in Sibenik as well. The outskirts of both towns are industrial sprawl.
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Old Oct 20th, 2019, 04:34 AM
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Hvar Island – Hvar Town and Stari Grad
On our previous trip to Croatia we choose Korcula over Hvar for our ‘island’ experience because of the reviews that Hvar is ‘party central’ and ‘playground for the rich’, etc. But since then I’d read a number of trip reports about staying in Stari Grad instead. I did want to see Hvar, the town of Hvar has some beautiful architecture, and the Stari Grad Plain is a UNESCO world heritage site. So this trip we took the ferry from Split (arrived in Split from Sibenik by bus, the bus station is across the street from the ferry terminal and ferries to Stari Grad are frequent, an hour and a half.) We spent two nights based in Stari Grad and did a day trip by bus to Hvar Town.

Stari Grad is more picturesque than I expected. There’s a small actual stone old town with several lanes and a couple small squares, one with a church and bell tower that can be climbed. There’s a promenade all along the rectangular shaped harbor, the first part of which is full of expensive yachts and sailboats, but then a lot more much smaller little fishing and day boats. Tons of restaurants, few kiosks selling jewelry and clothes but definitely not a shopping mecca. Lots of ice cream, crepe stands, etc. There are two grocery stores and several bakeries. While there were plenty of sleek sailboats/yachts and a few that looked like ‘party’ boats, overall the atmosphere in Stari Grad is quiet. Plenty of families, people on beach holiday. No glitz or glamour at all.

Apartment Lomar is a good 15-20 minute walk from the ferry but the phone got us there. The host didn’t answer either my booking.com-assistant message or the text I sent when we arrived which had us worried that maybe we’d have no place to stay. But as we walked up to the house he came out. He lives downstairs. The apartment is quite nice with plenty of room, vey well appointed with decent little kitchenette, good bathroom, small balcony. AC works great & Wi-Fi works (slow). It’s about a 10-minute walk to the waterfront/old town.

Hvar Island billed as a “lush, sunny Shangri-la, with more hours of sunshine (2,724) than any other place in Croatia.” So it makes sense that after 15 days of total sunshine all day every day, we get a cloudy day (with a bit of drizzle) in Hvar. We took the bus from Stari Grad which takes between 20 and 40 minutes depending on the number of stops it makes. Goes through the beautiful Starti Grad Plain and along the coast. Slightly lusher than most Greek islands but otherwise very similar – grapes, olives, lots of stone walls.

Hvar Town, is famed for it’s party vibe but it is one of the Adriatic's best preserved historic towns. The center is totally pedestrianized and wraps around the harbor with stepped narrow streets, honey colored stone houses and a number of Venetian palaces and a small Renaissance cathedral (St Stephen) which stands on the largest square in Dalmatia. It’s bell tower is Venetian. Overlooking it all is the Fortress. Hvar town is charming even in mid summer –I don’t know about evenings when it is party central, but mid day it’s a typical tourist town. Busier for sure than Stari Grad but it’s larger and has much more of tourist interest. I would say the percentage of “childless 20 and 30 somethings” is about 70% compared to Stari Grad (and other places in Croatia) where it’s more like 30% - the rest being people with kids and people over 40. But otherwise I didn’t see any more evidence of the RAF (rich and famous) than anywhere else. There were plenty of snazzy yachts in Stari Grad (and elsewhere) as well. The other main difference in Hvar Town from elsewhere is the prices. Pizza, ice cream, jewelry – everything was more expensive.

We climbed up to the fortress which is a really nice climb (about 20 minutes) through a “Mediterranean” Garden with lots of giant aloe and cactus and the fortress itself (50 kuna) is very well preserved and the views really are wonderful- even on a cloudy day – offshore are the Pakleni island and Vis is the distance. I especially loved the underground prison.
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Old Oct 21st, 2019, 04:35 AM
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We visited Hvar Town as a day trip from Split, and it was one of the highlights of our trip. Hvar Town is so beautiful! It was definitely not party central when we were there during the day in September. I assume day time is the best time to visit, although by September maybe the partying crowds have gone home, so it might be quieter at night, too. We loved our walk up to the fortress and the views are beautiful.

I enjoyed your description of Sibenik, which we didn't have time to visit. We visited Trogir instead from Split since it is closer. It's always so difficult deciding what to visit and what not to visit.
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Old Oct 21st, 2019, 02:14 PM
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Karen - I visited Trogir on our last trip so skipped it this time. If I had to choose though, I'd probably pick it over Sibenik. I'm glad I got to see both though.


Split
Split was the only place we revisited this trip. We did see a noticeable increase in the crowds from our last visit (almost ten years ago) and also in the number of ‘glitzy’/mall type stores and the number of bars catering to a younger crowd. And while the historic center (a UNESCO world heritage site) is definitely worth seeing, the rest of the old town isn’t any better than other places in Croatia.The three main ‘gates’ into the Diocletian Palace are all interesting, and there are a few picturesque narrow streets. The two main squares just outside the ‘palace’ Narodni Trg and Vocni Trg are both very nice. And the Riva is very pleasant – at least early in the day. But other than that Split really doesn’t have much. Certainly not as charming or picturesque as most of the other towns we’ve visited. And the enormous crowds – and the glitzy stores and discos they’ve inspired – detract from what could be. Lots of Game of Thrones stuff going on – a museum, shop, tours.

We had three nights, one of the two full days we did a day trip to Brac.

Dosud House is right inside the Diocletian Palace, just off Vocni Trg in a lovely old building. There are restaurants in the square outside but not too noisy at least until 9pm when the beat music began. The roomwas decent size with a tiny kitchenette. Our room was on the third (fourth) floor, there are two other identical ones on the second and first floors. So we had to walk up three flights but the view out the window of the rooftops and square was worth it. Pricey but I guess that’s Split. Tied with Venice as the most expensive of the trip (€126/night double)

SUPETAR & PUCISCA BRAC
We took the 9:30 ferry to Supetar on Brac island. We could see pulling in that there wasn’t a lot to it and I really wanted to see Pucisca since it’s on several lists of ‘most beautiful villages’. The bus ride itself – though there was a lot of zigging and zagging was really interesting and went through some lovely countryside of vineyards, olive groves and lots of stone walls. And some fantastic views down to the water and lots of little bays and good views of the mountains on the mainland across the water.

Pucisca was lovely. The buildings themselves are not that interesting – one nice church bell tower – but the harbor is long and has several side shoots and the water was a beautiful clear turquoise. Walked all the way around both sides – mostly sunny and very pleasant. We went up into the small alleys of the town but not a lot there. Still, managed to amuse ourselves for a couple hours.

Back in Supetar we walked around the harbor and out a ways – large beach area (with mini waterpark) and the town itself goes back just a few streets from the water. There is a very nice combination of a church, bell tower and clock tower all-together and all in very white stone. Brac is famous as the source of stone that built Diocletian’s palace and also the White House in DC. In front of the church is a small segment of Roman mosaic flooring from 600 AD. Most of the buildings in the town are from the 1700s and most much later (20th C). Supetar really takes less than an hour to explore so unless you want a meal or to go to the beach there’s not much to do.

But the trip was worth it for Pucisca and for the ferry rides – in both directions it was delicious – sunny, warm breeze but not at all hot and there were sea gulls swooping along side the boat the whole way. Love this kind of ferry ride.

From Split we flew EasyJet to Lyon France (for 45€ each, including ‘upfront seating’). Since I doubt most people are looking to combine Croatia with the cities I visited in France (Lyon, Dijon and Marselle) I’ll do that as a separate report.
Here’s the link to that - 2 weeks in 3 of France's "2nd" cities - Lyon, Dijon, and Marseille
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Old Nov 11th, 2019, 04:05 PM
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My wife and I are seriously considering 2 weeks in Croatia. We are considering an Abnb as a base. What town would you look to base that would enable you to see some special towns and hilltop villages which we love. It is not our intention to cover the entire country a specific area with day trips would be ideal.
Thanks
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Old Nov 11th, 2019, 04:51 PM
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Isabel,
Thx for this. We get too few TRs about that area. Glad to hear that you folks had a good time.
I am done. The end.
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Old Nov 12th, 2019, 10:57 AM
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Hi Isabel thanks for this as usual excellent report. We’ve been wanting to visit Croatia but don’t care for crowds, so that’s been holding us back.
Lovely to see that there are interesting places besides the highly touristed ones. I really appreciate your reports because your interests are similar to ours.
We’re planning to start in Venice, drive to Croatia and finish off with friends in Istanbul. That’s as far as our plan has got so far so this report really is helping to inspire me.
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Old Dec 1st, 2019, 08:57 AM
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Isabel, what are your favorite cities and towns in France? Not only for architecture but vibe too....
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