I'll be honest, Croatia has been a bit of a letdown. Based on what we'd heard (or chosen to hear), we thought of Croatia as this amazing, relatively undiscovered Mediterranean country with a fantastic coastline and incredible seafood. The undiscovered part is completely off the mark. Perhaps undiscovered by Americans, but this country is thick with European tourists. Early dining or reservations are a must at any popular restaurant, for example. And speaking of restaurants, the seafood is very good here, but it's all the same. Virtually every restaurant has a menu 90% identical to every other restaurant. And that's true in every city we've seen (9 in total). Further, there are almost no ethnic restaurants to chose from to get some variety, unlike every other region we've visited. The coastline is gorgeous, for sure, but the rocky beaches make it harder to enjoy (shame on us, though, we had heard of the rocky beaches).
The bigger problem, I think, is the difficulty in continuing to be impressed on a trip of this length that hits so many high points. Croatia has an amazing coastline, but it doesn't quite measure up to Norway around the Arctic Circle. The squid and octopus are great here, but the fish in Scandanavia was amazing, to say nothing of the sushi in Japan. Diocletian's Palace and the Walls of Dubrovnik are incredible, but Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius were as well and without quite as much of a "Disneyland" feel. This is a hard thing to write without sounding extremely whiny. I'm absolutely not looking for sympathy or pity. But an interesting and unexpected side effect of the trip has been something of a desensitization to new sights.
With that downer of an introduction out of the way, we really have enjoyed our time in Croatia. We started off in Istria, a peninsula that sits just below Slovenia and close to Italy. It felt very Italian, especially the hilltop villages that brought back memories of Sienna. We picked up our rental car close to the border with Slovenia and then headed first to the village of Porec. Porec is a very popular tourist destination and the old town was absolutely clogged with gift shops. We enjoyed walking around but were very relieved when we arrived in Rovinj and found it far less overtly touristy. We stayed in a pretty neat apartment in the old town of Rovinj, though unfortunately did not have a sea view. We were right off the main square, though, so we were only steps from excellent dining options and a great jetty where we could watch the sunset. We spent part of two days there, mostly swimming and walking the old town. On our first day we swam right off the old town, climbing down a rocky embankment to swim in the amazingly clear waters of the Adriatic. The second day we walked over to a more family friendly (but still rocky) beach where they had a wipeout-style obstacle course floating a short way offshore. Walter and I spent a fun-filled and exhausting hour running all over it, though sadly only Walter was able to cross the rotating cylinder "moonwalk." I was just lucky to escape from it without bruised ribs. On our way out of Istria we stopped at the hilltop village of Motovun. Motovun is close to the truffle-producing region in Istria and we ate at an excellent little restaurant that is apparently famous enough that Anthony Bourdain hung out with the owner when he did a show in Croatia. Motovun was incredibly picturesque and we were very happy to have stopped off there on our way out of Istria and into Croatia proper.
We drove east, stopping relatively close to the Bosnian border at the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Plitvice is one of the earliest UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a beautiful series of lakes and waterfalls. The water is extremely high in calcium carbonate, giving the lakes an amazing blue glow. As the water flows down the falls between lakes it loses carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and deposits calcium on the plants and rocks it passes over. The calcium hardens over time, extending the falls further. So you have a beautiful and evolving landscape of lakes and waterfalls where the lakebottoms and falls are quite literally made of travertine. Fascinating stuff. Unfortunately this has been a hot and dry year for the southern half of Europe so the falls were somewhat underwhelming (and in a few isolated areas, completely dry). Regardless, it was impressive terrain and easy to imagine what it must look like in a normal or wet year. We got up and did the falls early, thus avoiding most of the crowds, then hit the road for Split, our first stop along the southern portion of the Croatian coast.
Again in Split we stayed in the old town, inside the 1700 year old Diocletian's Palace area and just steps from the Peristil, the primary square. We spent our full day in Split exploring the palace and walking up to the park that overlooks the city. The park was filled with the sound of cicadas and covered in pine trees, making it feel an awful lot like Texas for our little homesick family. Split is much larger and more of a "normal" city than anywhere else we visited in Croatia, with working locals intermixed with all the tourists, and we encountered a number of rude locals there. Beyond the pushy waiters trying to force us to buy drinks for sitting in a public square in the Peristil, we also witnessed locals rudely pushing tourists out of the way at the grocery store and in the streets. Definitely a different vibe. After two nights in Split we excited to board our ferry and head on to the islands.