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Catherine Sweeney Dubrovnik

A Taste of Croatia from Dubrovnik to Zagreb

Catherine Sweeney
by Catherine Sweeney

October 30, 2022

11 minute read

Six days in Croatia — beautiful, diverse, and flavorful

Our 15-day “Taste of the Balkans” tour began and ended in Croatia, with destinations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Montenegro (also former regions of Yugoslavia) also woven into this great itinerary. But our time in Croatia is where we’ll begin sharing our trip highlights with you. Here’s a sampling of what we loved about Croatia.

Discovering Dubrovnik

Walking tour of Old Town Dubrovnik, Croatia

Walking tour of Old Town Dubrovnik

Perhaps the most well-known of the Croatian cities is Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast where our Collette explorations tour began. After a very informative included walking tour of Old Town and its historic landmarks, we took off on our own and packed the day full of activities, but these were our three favorite experiences.

Walking the city walls

City walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

City walls, Dubrovnik

Our top Dubrovnik experience was walking the ancient city walls originally built in the 13th century. The views of the sea and the old city below are amazing. There are parts of the walk that can be challenging for people with mobility or health issues as there is considerable uphill climbing, uneven stone steps, and the full circuit takes one to two hours to walk though there are places to exit enabling one to go about halfway.

Walking on the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Walking the city walls, Dubrovnik

Riding the cable car up Mount Srd

When in Dubrovnik, don’t miss a chance to take the cable car to the top of Mount Srd. The ride is fun, the views are stunning, and you can enjoy lunch or a drink in the restaurant, too. You can also see a portion of the city walls from above in the photo below.

Cable car ride view from above Dubrovnik, a highlight of six days in Croatia

Cable car ride view from above Dubrovnik

Finding “Game of Thrones” filming locations

Dubrovnik, Croatia staircase -- Walk of Shame on the Jesuit Steps, a highlight of six days in Croatia

“Game of Thrones” filming location on the Jesuit Steps

As a Game of Thrones fan, Mr. TWS was thrilled to find the filming locations in Dubrovnik such as the city walls, Fort Minčeta, Lokrum Island, and the Jesuit Steps. I did the “walk of shame” on the Jesuit Steps — but since I kept my clothes on it was a version rated appropriate for all audiences. You can see the video in our Instagram gallery.

From Venice to Tuscany in Croatia’s Istria region

As we drove into the Istria region in northwestern Croatia, it was easy to picture it as part of Italy — which it actually was until 1947. You’ll find landscapes, cuisine, and traditions reminiscent of Venice in the coastal towns and of Tuscany in the rolling hills and hilltop villages further inland.

“Venetian Croatia”

Rovinj

We thought of our visits to Venice when we entered Rovinj, the cultural center of Istria. Not only because of the setting on the water and Venetian-style architecture, but we could also hear snippets of Italian being spoken as we strolled along the waterfront. Shops, restaurants, and galleries line some of the stairways and alleys leading to the top of the city where the cathedral stands.

Rovinj, Croatia -- Venetian style in the Balkans, a highlight of six days in Croatia

Venetian-style Rovinj, Croatia

Mr. TWS and I felt that Rovinj had a strong feeling of romance and on this beautiful sunny day we had a nice romantic light lunch at a restaurant along one of the cobblestone streets.

Colorful buildings along the stairways and lanes of Rovinj, Croatia

Rovinj, Croatia

If you look down some of the narrow lanes as you pass, you’ll find areas that are quieter and seem more residential with flower pots on windowsills, laundry hanging on lines above, and bicycles leaning against doorways.

Quiet narrow residential street in Rovinj, Croatia

Quiet residential lane in Rovinj

“Tuscan Croatia”

We felt like we were transported to Tuscany surrounded by vineyards and olive groves on the rolling hills when we traveled to inland Istria. Signature features of this part of Croatia are the picturesque hilltop towns crowned with medieval city walls and towers, with homes lining the roads winding down the hillsides.

Hilltop town of the Istria region of Croatia

Hilltop town of Istria

Motovun

Motovun, the highest hilltop town in Istria, was our home for three nights at Roxanich Winery and Design Hotel. It was a great base for our tour activities, including our visit to Rovinj, truffle hunting, and olive oil tasting.

Motovun, Croatia from the top of the hill

Motovun from the city walls on top of the hill

In our free time, we also went to the hilltop to walk the medieval city walls and enjoy the panoramic views. There is a shuttle bus that runs up and down the hill. We chose to ride it up, but enjoyed the walk down.

Motovun scenes from the old hilltop city, Croatia

Motovun city center and ancient walls

Truffle hunting

At Prodan Tartufi we spent a delightful morning with the owners of this family run business and two of their truffle-hunting dogs in the woods on the family’s property in Buzet. We followed along as the dogs sniffed their way through the woods until a black truffle treasure was found. Delicious brunch dishes like scrambled eggs with truffle shavings on top were prepared and served to us in the beautiful hilltop setting topping off a perfect experience.

Truffle hunt and brunch at Prodan Tartufi in Buzet, a highlight of six days in Croatia

Truffle hunt and brunch at Prodan Tartufi

Olive oil tasting

Olive oil production is important to the people of Istria. The mostly small family-run operations produce what is considered some of the best oils in the world. The area’s particular climate extremes — hot and dry seasons, cool nights, and the wind are reasons for the high quality of the olives and olive oil. Our visit to Oleum Vitae in Krasica included instruction about how to best sample the oil to fully appreciate the quality and freshness. We tasted two oils, one which had just been pressed the night before.

Olive oil tasting experience at Oleum Vitae, a highlight of six days in Croatia

Olive oil tasting at Oleum Vitae with owner, Nino Činić

People and traditions

At our hotel in Licko Petrovo Selo, Hotel Lyra near Plitvice Lakes, we were introduced to Sonja Leka of the Tara Association. The association was founded after the 1990s war when refugees returned to the area. Sonja told us about those difficult times and the work of the association which provides purpose and income for the women. Mostly older ladies, they knit various woolen items like gloves, socks, and hats; and make jams and other traditional food products. Some in the Tara community are also employed by the hotel.

Sonja Leka of Tara Association and local products and handicrafts in Licko Petrovo Selo, Croatia

Sonja Leka of Tara Association and local products and handicrafts

You might be surprised to learn that the most popular of their woolen items is the  nakurnjak (codpiece). Although now a fun and unusual souvenir for tourists, the “willie warmer” was very practical when there was little protection from the elements for sensitive parts before the introduction of modern men’s underwear.

Natural beauty

Plitvice Lakes National Park

50 shades of green -- Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia, a highlight of six days in Croatia

50 shades of green — Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes is the most well-known of Croatia’s national parks and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were delighted that Sonja Leka was our guide here.

“50 shades of green” is one way that Sonja described this gorgeous national park during our three-hour walk. Peace and tranquility can be found in the lush forests and among the 16 clear emerald-hued lakes. Step by step we walked the paths of the park in awe of every sight. We walked on the wooden plank paths high up on the cliffs and down below alongside the clear lakes among the forest’s wildflowers.

Catherine and husband at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia

The TWS duo at Plitvice Lakes

We were told that the park’s beautiful waterfalls were not as voluminous this year because of drier than normal seasons, but they captivated us nonetheless.

Fall foliage and emerald lakes of Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia

Fall foliage and an emerald lake of Plitvice Lakes National Park

It was lovely to be there in autumn to see the beginning of the foliage color changes.

Walking around the park tip: You can start your walk/hike from either Entrance 1 or Entrance 2. If you begin at Entrance 1, as we did, you will be facing the best waterfall scenes along the way.

Wine and spirits

I was surprised and delighted to find that Croatia produces some great wines, especially whites. The primary wines produced in Istria are Malvazija (dry white) and Teran (red). Other wines we enjoyed were Pošip from the island of Korčula, and Graševina from the Slavonia region of Croatia.

Roxanich Winery and Design Hotel produces its own creative vintages using long aging, natural processes, different from those I’ve come across in the U.S. and other wine regions of Europe. We had a great tour of the winery (all four levels of it) and then a tasting of several of their varietals, some of them named after the six daughters of owner Mladen Rožanić. The eye-catching amber-hued glass of wine in the photo below is named after Lara.

Wine and spirits of Croatia -- Roxanich amber-hued wine called “Lara”, plum rakija, Travarica bottle, Sweeney with a glass of Pošip in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Roxanich amber-hued wine called “Lara”, plum rakija, Travarica rakija, Sweeney with a glass of Pošip at Hotel More in Dubrovnik

A delightful and potent traditional liqueur of Croatia is rakija, a brandy made with fermented fruit like plums. It is a staple of the Croatian diet and is often served as a welcoming drink for guests. The glass with clear rakija in the photo above was served to us by Sonja at the lakes. Travarica (which we had at our welcome dinner in Dubrovnik) is a type of rakija that is infused with aromatic herbs and is served mostly in coastal Croatia.

Dining experiences

We enjoyed fresh seafood, especially fresh white fish which was among many common offerings on menus along the coast. Although seafood is not at the top of my list of favorite foods, I enjoyed sea bass prepared in parchment on our first night in Dubrovnik, and Mr. TWS had sea bass several times. I also enjoyed the fresh lake trout served whole at Hotel Lyra near Plitvice Lakes.

Hearty meat dishes were more common inland. A Croatian specialty is the “under the bell” meal, hearty dishes consisting of lamb or beef that have been roasted in their own juices for hours under a large iron bell-shaped cover. Following our hike around Plitvice Lakes, our lunch was served in Licka Kuca, a cozy and rustic restaurant nearby. Our main course was the Lika Bundle, lamb with vegetables and potatoes, which was followed by dessert of apple and plum strudel.

"Under the Bell" meal of lamb and potatoes, and strudel for dessert at Licka Kuca at Plitvice Lakes , Croatia

“Under the Bell” meal of lamb and potatoes, and strudel for dessert at Licka Kuca at Plitvice Lakes

While in Motovun one evening, we drove up into the hills to Agroturizam Štefanic,  a family-owned restaurant since 1780 serving delectable dishes made with ingredients produced on their property. The main courses of homemade pasta and tender ox were paired with their own special wine and followed by fried dough pastries.

Traditional dishes at Agroturizam Stefanic in Motovun, Croatia

Traditional dishes at Agroturizam Stefanic

Our final day on the tour, we had one more delicious taste of the Croatia — a creamy baked dish called strukli that is particularly associated with Zagreb. On our own, we ate at La Štruk, known as a top spot for this quintessential Zagreb dish. They make it all to order here so give enough time in your schedule (about 30 minutes to prepare the dish). We shared the original version as well as the pumpkin seed version. Both were excellent. Sweet strukli is also popular, but we didn’t have time (or room) to try it.

Strukli at La Struk in Zagreb, Croatia

Strukli at La Struk in Zagreb — original on top, pumpkin on bottom

Farewell to Croatia in Zagreb

We were quite taken with Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, although we were there for only a short time, one day before our flights back home. A city of parks and striking architecture, it has Austro-Hungarian history and influences giving it a very Vienna-style ambiance. We took an included tour of the old city when we arrived and then spent some time enjoying one of the lovely parks before our farewell dinner with our Collette tour manager Djukan Djukanovic and new friends.

Glavni Kolodvor at Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera, Zagreb, Croatia

Glavni Kolodvor at Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera

More to come about our Collette Taste of the Balkans tour, including our stays in Montenegro, Bosnia, and Slovenia.

Disclosure: Our wonderful Balkans experience was sponsored by Collette, but the views and perspectives we’ve shared are totally our own, as always.

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