Beautiful Balkans: 10 day itinerary

A vacation in Eastern Europe is still a niche play for Indians since the more popular choices in Europe still remain the ones that are located to the West. After having covered few countries in Western Europe before, we were keen to explore something on the East. Our inspiration to travel to Croatia came in the form of some Instagram pics of Plitvice Lakes National Park which mesmerized us with its beauty. As we read more about it, more we fell in love with it. It is one of the most visited places in Europe, and yet, still lies under the radar of the most. Our research also showed Adriatic coastline offering one of the best drives in the world. Being a huge ‘Game of Throne’ fans, we also looked forward to seeing the walled city of Dubrovnik, one of the main shoot locations. All of these promised for a great experience.

End of May was when we planned for the travel as I could combine it with my US travel. As with the rest of Europe, the summer in Croatia lasts from May to October and is best suited for vacation. Ever since the word got out of Croatia being used for shooting many aspects of ‘Game of Thrones’ series, the country has seen a huge influx of tourists every year. So it pays to pick a time with less crowd than usual for best experience and the month of May did just that for us. The cost of travel in Croatia remains cheaper than the European average, despite the gradual increase in prices over the last few years. While we were planning, we also decided to make day trips to couple of small neighbouring countries – Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Few important information to help you plan

Currency

Croatia’s currency is the ‘Kuna’ (HRK). Bosnia uses the ‘Convertible Mark’ (BAM). Montenegro continues to use ‘Euro’ (EUR). Since we were covering 3 countries with different currencies, we decided to swipe our credit cards wherever possible and keep some small cash for places that accept only cash such as parking, souvenirs etc. We bought some USDs and converted small amounts to local currencies wherever needed. Credit cards are accepted widely including places like tourist entries, restaurants and fuel stations which covers most of your expense while on travel.

Getting by

The best way to experience Croatia is by renting a car as the coastal roads are full of visual spectacles which you would miss if you travel by train. You drive on the right at all 3 countries and there isn’t much difference to driving in rest of Europe. You have to shell out extra if you want an automatic car. The roads in many parts of Croatia, especially nearing the towns, get cramped and so it is better stick to smaller cars unless you have a real need for the bigger ones.

We pre-booked a car with ‘Sixt’ at Rentalcars.com for 9 days which cost us about $150. When we picked it at the Zagreb airport, we were asked to pay extra since we were taking the car across border to different countries. The Collision Waver Damage that came by default had an excess of about 1,000 Euros. We decided to get an external insurance from WorldWideInsure.com to bring it down to zero as it was turning out way cheaper than those offered by Sixt. All in all, we ended up paying about $200 to Sixt and about $80 for excess insurance.

You are unlikely to encounter a cop anywhere on the road, but it still is prudent to stick to your speed limits even though you may find most of the locals exceeding it frequently. Also be ready to pay tolls for faster and smoother journey across places within Croatia, especially if time is of premium. You will find sufficient number of fuel stations on roads, including the toll ways, which also serve as good pit-stop points with convenience stores and attached restaurants at most places.

Food

Croatian food isn’t very famous world around and mostly revolves around sea food. You hardly get anything in vegetarian. Same with Montenegro and Bosnia. But thankfully, because of the proximity to places like Italy, you do get pizzas and pastas almost everywhere you go and we got by just fine.

Language

‘Croatian’ is the official language of Croatia, but you can also see a lot of people speaking other European languages like Italian etc. They speak ‘Montenegrin’ in Montenegro and ‘Bosnian’ in Bosnia. For a tourist like us, we were able to get by with just ‘English’ almost everywhere.

Visa

Croatia was supposed to be under the Schengen region by the time we visited the country, but still wasn’t (as of 2019). The two choices to enter Croatia for Indians would be to either get a Croatian visa or get a multiple entry Schengen visa which Croatia also accepts. Bosnia and Montenegro allow entry with valid Croatia visa or multiple entry Schengen visa or a valid US visa.

For us, it made sense to directly apply for Croatian visa and have free entries to Bosnia and Montenegro with the same. If you are planning to combine Croatia with other parts of Europe, it makes sense to apply for Multiple Entry Schengen visa. Applying for Croatian visa follows same process as that of Schengen Visa and you should get your visa back within a week or two. The primary reason for insisting the multiple entry visas is because of the way the borders are shared between the 3 countries. If you look at the maps of these countries, you will realize that a simple single straight coastal road over the Adriatic sea crosses border between Bosnia and Croatia multiple times. By the end of our trip, we had close to 20 stampings on our passports because of all those crossings across countries.

Our Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive at Zagreb airport in the afternoon. Pick up the rental car and drive to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Explore the beautiful village of Rastoke on the way.
Stay: Plitvice Lakes National Park (Recommended)

Day 2: Explore the lower and upper lakes of Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Stay: Plitvice Lakes National Park

Day 3: Drive from Plitvice to Dubrovnik via the Adriatic Coastal Road. Make quick stops at Omis, Makarska and Ston on the way.
Stay: Dubrovnik (Recommended)

Day 4: Spend the whole day exploring the City walls, Fort Lovrijenac and Old town.
Stay: Dubrovnik

Day 5: Drive to the neighbouring Montenegro for a daytrip. Explore Perast, Kotor and Budva.
Stay: Dubrovnik

Day 6: Explore Lokrum island for first part of the day. Drive to Mt Srd in the evening for amazing views of Dubrovnik.
Stay: Dubrovnik

Day 7: Explore Blagaj Tekija and Mostar (Bosnia) on the way to Split.
Stay: Split (Recommended)

Day 8: Spend the entire day exploring the sights in Split – Diocletian’s palace, Old city, Riva Promenade, Marjan hill.
Stay: Split

Day 9: Explore Klis fortress in the morning and drive to Zagreb to reach by afternoon. Explore the city in the evening.
Stay: Zagreb (Recommended)

Day 10: Fly back to India by the morning flight.

Best memories from Croatia

Rastoke

Rastoke is a picturesque little village located half an hour away from Plitvice Lakes. It is famous for its numerous waterfalls and century-old watermills. It is also known as “Little Plitvice Lakes”. It is worth spending a few hours wandering around the little town, admiring the beautiful views. There is also a tourist center Mirjana & Rastoke, where you can sign on for activities like rafting, kayaking etc. 

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

If we have to recall a single day on our numerous travels so far across the globe that gave us the most joy, I would say it’s the day we spent at Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and records more than a million visitors each year. It is undoubtedly the No 1 attraction of Croatia and the country is well worth the visit just for this alone. There are a total of 16 lakes flowing from top to bottom in a cascading manner and are separated into Upper and Lower lakes. The vibrant colors of the water, the lush green surroundings, the beautiful boardwalks, stunning viewpoints and the magnitude of the whole thing from top to bottom makes up for one hell of an experience, akin to a Disneyland for the nature lovers.

For detailed information on our Plitvice adventure, visit this post.

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Adriatic Coastal Drive

The coastal drive in Croatia that snakes along the Adriatic sea from Zadar to Dubrovnik is probably one of the best drives in the world. Our drive from Plitvice to Dubrovnik could have been much shorter had we taken the express way. But we would have a missed out on a lot of things if we did. You pass by one coastal town after another along the route each beating its predecessor in its beauty, finally taking you to Dubrovnik – the crown jewel among them all. Unfortunately, unlike many of the other beautiful drives around the world, there aren’t many designated stops on route to take a moment to admire the beauty and take pictures in peace. So it’s beauty is mostly for your eyes only. Along the way, we stopped over at a couple of towns for lunch/tea break etc.

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Dubrovnik

Not many knew the charm of Dubrovnik until it suddenly shot to fame as the location of ‘King’s Landing’ in the ‘Game of Thrones’ series. It is a beautiful little town sitting adjacent to the Adriatic Sea, housing vibrant orange top houses inside an old walled city.

The 2 hour walk along the stone walls around the city is the prime attraction while you are in town and so, it’s better to finish it off early in the morning before it gets crowded. The unguided tour around the old city gave us glimpse of the rich culture of the Dubrovnik that existed many centuries ago. There are many islands adjacent to Dubrovnik and we also got good views of it during the walk.

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Fort Lovrijenac is a fortress outside the western wall of the old city and we got some amazing views of the fortress while on the walk. The fortress was also used as filming location in many of the scenes in ‘Game of Thrones’. The entry ticket to the walls includes a free entry to the fortress and we did explore the fortress late afternoon for many more amazing pictures.

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While in Dubrovnik, the next best thing to the walls is to get views of the old city from far – to get one of those post card views of the old city. After researching a lot, we came to the conclusion that Mt Srd offers one of the best views that we seek. There is a restaurant called “Panaroma” which is supposed to be good for dining while giving you excellent night shots of the old town. You can either take a cable car up to the restaurant or do a short drive up Mt Srd to get there. When we were there, the cable car wasn’t functional so we decided to drive to the restaurant. The road is a bit curvy and narrower at some places so be mindful of that if you decide to follow us on this. Unfortunately for us, the restaurant was jam packed and we didn’t have a reservation so we had to head back after taking few shots of the old town. While on our way back, we decided to stop by at a couple of places on route to see if we get better views and we lucked out with awesome views from here, even better than from the restaurant.

There was another viewpoint that was suggested by someone as an alternative and even that turned out to be an excellent choice. Overall we were satisfied with the quality of the pics we got of the old town.

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Island hopping is another popular activity to do while in the city and there are many choices for them. But we settled to explore only the nearest one – the Lokrum island. It is a half day tour starting from a pier near the old town. The boat ride takes about 15 to 20 mins and costs around 200 kuna for a return trip (includes the island entry fee). Once on the island, you are free to explore the entire island on your own.

We spent a couple of hours visiting Botanical Gardens which has variety of trees and plants, the ruins of an old monastery, the Dead Sea – popular place for a swim. We then spent some time relaxing on the rocks by the sea. You can also climb up Fort Royal for views over the old town, but we skipped this.

Lokrum has also been used as shooting location for many of the scenes in Game of Thrones. There is even a replica of the ‘Iron throne’ in one of the rooms in the monastery complex where you can take a photo for free 🙂

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Split

Split was the last stop on our Croatian itinerary. It is probably one of the largest coastal towns in Croatia which has undergone modernization at a much more rapid pace compared to the likes of Dubrovnik. The city itself has developed around the Diocletian’s Palace which continues to be the main attraction while you are there. The palace was built for the retired Roman emperor Diocletian and is considered to be one of the best preserved Roman palaces in the world. We took at stroll on the main streets and the central square of the palace to get a sense of its beauty. There are paid entrances to few places inside such as St. Duje’s Cathedral (which gives access to its bell tower for some great panaromic views of the city) and Jupiter’s temple. Unfortunately for us, the access to belltower was closed as it was undergoing restoration.
Riva Promenade is the main city promenade just outside of the Diocletian palace. It is a beautiful stretch of seafront land overlooking the nicely stacked boats in water. The pathway along the promenade is well decorated with mini gardens and benches for people to take rest/leisure. There are numerous restaurants along the walkway where one can dine.
Marjan hill is another main attraction in the city. It is a short walk from the palace with a few steps to climb to reach the top. It offers some of the best views of the city and its promenade.
While exiting Split, we also paid a short visit to the Klis Fortress situated very close to Split. The medieval fortress was used as filming location of the city of ‘Meereen’ in the Game of Thrones series. Unfortunately for us, that turned out to be a little underwhelming with many parts of the fortress undergoing renovation and nothing much to see for the price we paid.

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Zagreb

We spent one day in Zagreb at the end of our trip before heading back home. There are not a ton of things to do in this city. You can spend a few hours exploring a few sights and streets around the main square like the Cathedral, St Marks Church etc. You can head to Tkalčićeva Street which is filled with cafes, bars and restaurants for a final laid-back Croatian dinner.

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A day in Bosnia

We spent a day in Bosnia on our journey from Dubrovnik to Split. More information can be found here.

A day in Montenegro

We did a day trip to Montenegro from Dubrovnik and information on it can be found here.

 

Parting Thoughts

For us, the 10 days we spent in the 3 countries lived up to it’s billing. I would strongly recommend Croatia to anyone interested. Now that the ‘Game of Thrones’ series has ended, hopefully in the future, people will be able to explore the country in peace.

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