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Croatia: Visions of Illyria

Taken from Hvar on the winding steps up the hill to the Venetian fortress.

The Russian thinker Nicholas Berdiaev said “the idea behind every creative art is the creation of another way of life.” Few places on the planet have married natural geography with architectural aesthetic to achieve another way of life quite like Croatia. Flying above the Dalmatian coast gives a glimpse into a paradise on earth that hits your eyes in a collage of greens, blues, and reds. In Ancient times it was known to the Greeks and Romans as Illyria, both decided wisely to call it home. Even today, sailing across the Adriatic from Split to Hvar, or Korcula to Dubrovnik is reminiscent of island hopping from Rodos to Santorini (Greece).

There is something breathtakingly unique about this place of visual wonder.

My journey started in Split, made famous by Dalmatian born Roman Emperor Diocletian. In search of a peaceful departure from a long reign, Diocletian’s selection for a retirement destination was impeccable. The city of Split remains very much as it was nearly two thousand years ago - a moderately sized palace with well-fortified walls and an interior design of Greco-Roman décor. A walk through the palace submerges you in a sea of antiquity. The inner walls of the city contain a labyrinth of cobble stoned streets that lead to hidden Synagogues and Churches, elegant restaurants and shops, and the inner shrine of Jupiter (Diocletian fashioned himself as Jovius, the son of Jupiter).

Split is nonetheless a historic site masquerading as a beach town; no doubt, Diocletian felt the same way. It is angled on a slope headed down to the beach where the parties rage into the early morning hours. The summer crowds are a who’s who of fetching Europeans: Norwegians and Swedes, Germans and Frenchmen, Fins and Serbs, and of course unmistakably pissed (drunk) Aussies. The local Croats that inhabit the Dalmatian coast are unassuming peoples. In looks, the Croats resemble Greek Gods, tall, frequently blonde, and fit. They are pleasant, happy to speak English, and eager to help a foreign visitor find his way.

The beaches are the main attraction. They suck you in like quick sand, especially because the Roman walls seamlessly blend into the rocky shores of the Adriatic. The summer activities are limitless. There is snorkeling, biking, cliff diving, yachting, fishing, cave diving, lounging, site-seeing, and of course people watching.

Blue water of the Adriatic.
A view of the Dalmatian coast.

Next stop was Stari Grad, the “old city.” The ferry smartly transports you to the most ancient site in Croatia in about 2 hours. It was in Stari Grad where the Greeks first landed over two thousand years ago. This small ancient city is decked out with beautiful red roofed white bricked buildings and streets lined with palm trees. It is quaint, intricate, and easily traversed in under an hour. If you are looking to relax or ease into holiday respite, Stari Grad is the ideal launching pad.

The central hub on the island is the illustrious port city of Hvar. If lost, just follow the bus loads of intoxicated twenty somethings salivating with anticipation. If the country of Croatia is a gold ring, Hvar is its ornate diamond stone. The trail is serpentine as you swerve up and down the mountain roadways from Stari Grad to Hvar. The views become ever more spectacular until you reach the outskirts of the city.

Center city of Hvar Island, a couple hours from the mainland.
A night view of Hvar.

Hvar as we know it today was created as a key trading post by the Venetians. The Venetians built a fortress atop the hill overlooking the port to fortify the city. Walking up the steep hill in the hot summer is rewarded by panoramic views no camera can reproduce. The city walls and tower are no less beautiful than those of Stari Grad or Split. Yachts line the port and a bustle of electricity pervades the clubs, restaurants, and tourist shops. Hotel Adriana in downtown Hvar offers incredible spas and a rooftop bar ideal for peering down at the excitement below, if you are so inclined.

Croatia is one of the more incredible coastal places in the world to visit. Its ancient roots, natural views, incredible ports, cheap prices, and party scene make it attractive to all comers. It is no wonder the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks and Venetians all vied ferociously for its bounty. One of the more famous residents of Croatia was Marco Polo, who supposedly lived in Korcula. This account is treated with much skepticism from historians however, who regard it as a local myth. I side with the skeptics on this one for the simple fact that if Marco Polo were in fact from Korcula, it is unlikely he would have ever left. Why would he want to?

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