Balkan Doživljaj Part V: In which I battle a crowd for lunch and (travel to) Split

I had sworn to not go back to Old Town, especially now knowing that there are literally two boatloads more people in town than there were a week ago. But… There’s a food festival in Old Town, says my host. And I’ll drive you there on my scooter. My boat doesn’t leave until 4. I’ve already booked my ferry ticket. I can’t refuse.

We zip our way through traffic from Port Gruž to Old Town (this is the way to get around here, I think, as I become a little wistful about my own former scooter) and he locals me through the crowded Pile Gate, bypassing all the tourists as if we’ve got the golden ticket. We do, sort of, because living in a place like this earns you a right to skip past massive tour groups. We wander around the Old Town for a little while as he tells me about the war, his thoughts on immigrants (we disagree), his thoughts on the US’s president (we agree, mostly), and general tidbits about Dubrovnik. Then he explains the lay of the land for the food thing: there are tables set up on which the local restaurants and hotels lay out a spread of food. It’s a charity event, so you buy tickets – each ticket entitles you to some food at each restaurant’s table. So if you want to taste a few things, you buy a few tickets. We’re here early under the guise of my host wanting to go to church at 11, but really the game is to scope out the tables as they’re laid out and see which food you want to taste. They hold the back public until noon, but if you line yourself up at your intended mark, you’ll be right in front of the stuff you want to eat when they open the gates.

At a few minutes before noon, the emcee announces it’s time to start, which turns out to be a happy chaos. It also turns out that they don’t really care about the tickets all that much, so I’ve bought 2, plus one for wine, and I’m able to taste a smattering of fabulous seafood dishes plus some decadent desserts. My host is a big guy who has done this before so he’s at the front of the crowd in no time, helping me squeeze my way in to get to the good stuff. It was a funny scene, great food, and I’m glad he talked me into going. With the crowd at hand, the event was over within an hour, and I was back on a bus to Port Gruž in no time, with plenty of time to wander the throngless Port area, pack up, and get ready for the next leg of my journey.


Fast forward 5 hours and I’m some 230 kilometres north. It’s almost 10pm, and I’m wandering around dark streets in a completely new place. Google Maps is telling me the guesthouse should be Right. Here. And it isn’t. And I’m exhausted and I’ve got a head cold and I want a hot shower and a comfortable bed. So without the help of the kind waiter at a local restaurant, I might still be looking for that teeny tiny alley, behind another little restaurant, exactly where Google said it should be. By this point I had begun inventing Croatian expletives (hint: there are not many vowels in use).

The good news was that my Dubrovnik host had made arrangements with my Split host, and she was expecting me. So I was greeted with a smiling face; I had a hot cup of tea, a safe place to crash, and all I needed to do was figure out what to do here for the next few days.

There’s some history in this city. The Roman Emperor, Diocletian, built his retirement palace here in the 3rd Century. It evolved from a palace and fortress to a retreat for Roman royalty into the city itself – to this day Diocletian’s Palace remains the center of this bubbling place, stone archways, labyrinthine streets, narrow alleyways and all!

But I’d had enough of the cruise ship and tourist crowds, so after a day of seeing what Split’s old town was like (Diocletian blah blah, 1000-year-old palace walls, gelato, Egyptian relics, cats, narrow alleys and – WOW – where did that giant statue come from, and why are people rubbing its toe?), I decided to split Split and get me into some nature.

First up was Krka National Park. I get on a tour bus in near dread mode, then lighten at the prospect that I’m not required to stay with the group for more than an hour or so at the beginning, and then I’ve got most of the day to wander the park.

This is labelled as the mini-Plitvice, so the expectation is lakes, waterfalls, lush forest. What the guide, nor the guidebook, adequately describe is this geared-for-tourists place where you walk on a wooden plank path, counterclockwise around the park (follow the arrows; those who go against the grain will be flogged), landing at the prescribed shops and/or viewing stations along the way. There is no wooded trail, per se, and it is virtually impossible to get lost. It’s end of season here as well, which works in my favor: the crowds are smaller, swimming is not permitted (bonus opp for the picture-taking), and there are no lines for the ferry which ferries us from the small town of Skradin, across the lake, to Krka National Park proper.

The lakes here are a mesmerising emerald green and give the impression that some mythical creatures reside in their depths. In fact, there is one such being in Croatian folklore called Vodanoj, a water spirit who lurks by old mills (one still is in operation here), awaiting unsuspecting humans to trap and keep as slaves in their underwater castles…maybe it is he (or she) that helps these lakes give off their mystical hues.

I’ve wandered from the pack at this point, walking the prescribed path to admire the small falls and ponds along the way, and then to stop and gape at the exquisite Skradinski Buk, Krka’s crowning gem. After this, the rest of the park is disappointing, and since I’ve got something like 3 more hours here, I decide to walk the 4kms back to town rather than take the ferry.

Back in town, Skradin turns out to be something of a hideaway for boating types and rich recluses (one of Skradin’s claims to fame is that Bill Gates called it his favourite place in Croatia). There’s a marina, and if you follow the river far enough, you will eventually end up in the Adriatic. For a panorama of my surrounds, I climb to the top of the Turina fortress, built in the 13th century by the Šubićs (one of Croatia’s twelve noble tribes). From this perch, I enjoy the view over the sweet little town. After a while in the hot October sun, I descend in search of gelato. Finding the shop closed, I decide to rest on the sea wall by a park, where a few of the local swans stalk tourists in search of snacks. Unbeknownst to me, the she-swan is jealous and threatens to take me out should I flirt with her mate any further. At least I come away with all digits intact, and a bonus silly photo opp or two.

The next day’s adventure is the farther-flung national park called Plitvice (pronounce it if you dare) Lakes. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site*, and a proverbial Instagrammer’s dream for its teal pools and magnificent waterfalls (Veliki slap is nearly 80 metres high). Again, this park has been plotted (and gridded and girded) for the tourist trade. There is NO hiking here, and one may only travel via the planked paths around the park. Luckily, our group is small-ish and the tour guide bearable, so the few hours of the sheep-like following of the paths is tolerable. I resent the bus/train up from the parking area to the start of our journey (why can’t we walk?); the boat ride down also seems frivolous, but the intent here is to move as many people around the park as efficiently as possible, not to actually experience the nature that surrounds, but to view it and move on. Stopping to gaze for more time than it takes to snap a selfie is mostly frowned-upon, as the group needs to progress on schedule. By the end of the day, I’m feeling a tad like I’ve been a piece of luggage on a baggage carousel, wary of getting bumped by other baggage angling for the perfect angle. Also glad it wasn’t higher season, as I can’t imagine what that experience would be. I get back on the bus more under than whelmed to the overall Plitvice experience. The highlight was probably the restaurant we visited en route home, where we shared road stories over local cheeses and salad and beer (and tea for me – still fighting the bug).

These tour experiences further convince me that group travel is not my thing, though I’d met a couple of other solo travellers this day – a Canadian and an Irish woman, with whom (in search of a currency exchange and some gelato) I’d get lost in the alleys of Split’s old city that evening.

This is the beauty of itinerary-fluid solo adventures: the laughs one has with people you may or may not ever see again; the solidarity and trust forged in fleeting road connections. We laugh as we rub the toe of St. Petar (he was the first to go against the Vatican and deliver mass in Croatian rather than Latin. Heathen!) Lore has it that you rub his big toe and your wish will come true. I rubbed and wished…Jury’s still out on saintly magic.

I’ve got a morning to wander the promenade and the old town, then a bus (and a promise of another stop – and passport stamp – in Bosnia), then back to my guesthouse in Dubrovnik and an early morning flight to Istanbul for a few days to round out the Balkan Doživljaj.

That last evening, I run through the past two weeks in my tired head. I indulge in some brown bread from the little local bakery with some cheese and figs (and Ajvar OMG!) I’ve saved from the fresh market in Split… and I’m going to sleep this last Balkan night sated. I’ve hiked mountains and seen some unbelievable vistas; spent a week making memories with one of my favourite humans, and learnt how to pronounce some words I may never use again (and botched many more!). I’ve nearly filled my passport, adding 3 countries on this trip; and I’ve rekindled a love of seeing the world. I’ll go home with a camera full of photos, a head full of words, and another dose of Fernweh, that farsickness that draws me away when the real world gets to be just too real.

Next stop, Istanbul.


*UNESCO World Heritage Site tally for this trip, 6:

Croatia: Old City of Dubrovnik, Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian, Plitvice Lakes National Park

Montenegro: Bay of Kotor (Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor), Fortification of Kotor (Venetian Works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries), Durmitor National Park, Biogradska Gora (on the tentative list)


Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians | Part IV: Fog and the Road to Hell (sort of)

Balkan Doživljaj Part III: Fleeing the Russians for the countryside

Part I: Arrival and a much-needed holiday | Part II: Into the Mountains

Our view as we approach Budva

The guidebooks do not paint a welcoming picture of Budva (or they do, but perhaps I’m not their target audience): a seaside party town with an exploding club scene (or as explosive a scene as one finds in this part of the world), fuelled by a booming Russian tourist crowd. Welcome to the Daytona Beach of Montenegro. Knowing this, our plan is to find a hotel outside the general hubbub, take a stroll through the old town, and leave early enough in the morning to get into the countryside. This we do, and settle into our surprisingly posh and quite cosy little hotel (booked while we were still atop Petar’s mountain in Lovćen).

The old town is now a familiar formula, with its fortified walls and narrow alleyways. This one is equally charming, but not nearly as big as Kotor’s, nor as bustling as we’d expected. And then we venture down the boardwalk, or the assemblage of the Daytona-esque restaurants and shops that constitute their waterfront. It’s a string of big, over-lit, trying-too-hard-to-look-like-South-Beach seaside restaurant-bars advertising their drink specials, tho it’s the very end of the season and there are literally no customers. We walk by dozens of proprietors who are too done to even bother with their seasonal cat-calls (Where you from? Are you hungry? You look for best dinner? You like feesh?) or to look up from their smartphones to sneer at us as we walk by. The impression it leaves is that of a desperate has-been resort town, where you’d expect a neon sign to pop and fizzle out, or a dangling H from the ‘otel Budva sign to wobble, grab on to a disappearing iota of hope, and fall into the (coarse, cigarette butt-ridden) sand.


Curtain falls on Budva and we wake to have a weird and terrible breakfast at the Hotel Moskva across the street. Had our Russian been better, I think the service might have been too. Budva done and dusted, our next stop is Skadar Lake National Park, where we hope to take a boat ride around this bird sanctuary on the Albanian border.

We drive up another exquisite-yet-harrowing mountain road to the interior of the country and arrive in another end-of-season town where we find a guide ready to serve. Within 30 minutes, we’re on a boat heading into the national park. They’ve supplied us with enough crnogorske priganice (Montenegran fried dough with honey) and cheese (and juice and wine!) to serve a boatload, and it’s late in the season, so we have the entire boat to ourselves.

It’s a treat to be motored through the wetlands and out into the enormous lake. The only problem is that it seems to be late in the season for the birds as well, and we see only a smattering of waterfowl and cormorants. The ride is relaxing enough, but we’re eager to move now… and we’ve got our sights on northern canyons!

Montenegro’s interior is literally littered with mountains and valleys, canyons and rivers. We leave Virpazar and wend our way along what Lonely Planet has dubbed a “thrilling, spectacular stretch of road.”

Morača Canyon; you know, just another horrible roadside view!

Our route, from Podgorica northwards, takes us along the Morača Canyon, over mountains and eventually down an increasingly sketchy dirt road to arrive at a trailhead in the Mrtvica Canyon. We’re greeted by a random guide, waiting for his clients to return from their hike (umm, okay), and he points us the trail with a warning that the locals have not forgotten the war and (oh, by the way) we have Croatian plates on the car. Hike in peace…(and hope our stuff is there when we return)

It was actually the waning daylight that worried me more than his warning as we hiked into a hairy fairy forest so full of greens and blues that photos could not do it justice. The trail, fantastic; the light, not so much, and I was sad to cut this hike short, but relieved to be off the trail before sunset (and to find the car intact – that is not a travel story I wanted to tell).

Another late reservation thanks to international data roaming, and we were off to find a guesthouse in the hills of Kolasin, strategically chosen so we could hike Biogradska Gora in the morning.

The guesthouse owner points us in the direction of Restauran Vodenica, a local place famous for its regional specialties, so we try the kačamak, a potato and cheese dish (this region’s answer to mac and cheese), and cicvara, its partner-in-crime, a polenta and cheese indulgence. We top this off with a local red (pas mal) and wobble back to the guesthouse to crash.

Local specialities served with a pot of “sour milk” (handmade yogurt) on the side. This goes on top of the other stuff. Because, you know, one can never have enough dairy products in one dish. The knives are merely garnish…one barely needs teeth to eat this.

It’s on to Biogradska Gora, and the trail at least 2 locals have professed as the best in the park. I’ll wax poetic about pristine mountain trails, exquisite views and luscious canyon floors. But if I’m honest, the 14+ km slog up a gravel road to a lovely but not fantastic view was not my favourite of the trip thus far. The tea at a trailside farm, with local med (honey) to soothe a creeping cold, did help improve the mood tho.

After tea, we find the trail, finish the hike (shortcuts, yay!), and line up another last-minute guest house. It feels as if we’ve gone 412kms, tho the tally was more like 24, and the only thing I’m looking forward to at this moment in my existence is a hot shower and a comfortable bed in our next stop, a country chalet.

…At which point we reach the Tara Riverside. What they’ve failed to advertise is that the river is alongside the busy local road, and that the chalets are something more like IKEA kit cabins. Too shattered to protest (and, really, for 25€ a night, can one?), we partake in the folly and revel in a tepid shower (the intricate details of which I’ll spare: suffice to say it included a hand-held showerhead and no actual shower enclosure; oddly reminiscent of showering on a boat, or a weird roadside cabin in the middle of nowhere…). We indulge in the local fare for dinner, crash, and high-tail it to Tara Canyon in the morning, wending our way up the switchbacking, windy, foggy roads. Not the way I’d hoped to wake up on C’s birthday, but it is memorable if nothing else.

Chalet #1: so many frightening movies begin with views like this…and one Birthday Celebration.

Next stop: Birthday adventures in Tara Canyon and Durmitor National Park.


Read the other Balkan Doživljaj installments: Part I | Part II