The first thing that hits you is the smell.
Wild lavender permeates every corner of Croatia in summer. It blends with pine in the forests; scents the streets and is even hinted at on the seashore. Long stems of it reach out from every crevice, from gardens to cracks in the highway.
Croatia is often associated with images taken from Reuters press of refugees struggling down wintry roads, dragging their few last possessions behind them, but the only thing that seems truly behind anyone here is the war.
I myself was not particularly crazy about the idea of heading over to Umag, a small resort town located on a horseshoe shaped peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea, but a hotel shortage in Venice and a need to be close to a sea led me here. It was a scenic three hour drive from Venice, but most people fly into Belgrade or Split and go from there.
Even more encouraging was learning that this place was the vacation spot of choice for ancient Roman nobles, and was once a part of Venice before Italy had to hand it back to Yugoslavia as punishment for being on the wrong side of the Second World War.
Indeed, much of the architecture was exactly what you would find in Venice, minus the canals – elaborate and richly detailed constructions based around cobblestone squares. Unfortunately, most of the hotels were constructed under Communism when plywood and cement were favoured building materials. So popular was cement, apparently, that it was used to pave over the formerly rocky beaches!
All is not lost, though, as the water here is clean, clear, and welcoming. As well as swimming, rollerblading, cycling and taking long strolls along the waterfront kept me from piling on weight from the ridiculously heavy food. The temperatures were well into the 30’s, and yet plates of fatty meats, mayo-laden potato salad, dense white bread and boiled eggs were common staples. For breakfast. I am not kidding! That said, some wonderful seafood can be had at any of the restaurants on the beach, and juicy fruit is abundant in supermarkets and outside stalls.
As a young woman who was traveling alone, I had no major problems during the day. Besides sunbathing and exploring, I attempted some shopping, but here too, the effects of the old Soviet regime were evident: there was very little to buy, save incredibly tacky souvenirs and remarkably sexist postcards.
The majority of people visiting Umag are families, though there was a also a rather dodgy contingent of testosterone fueled football yobs, who drunkenly bellowed their team anthems well into the wee hours of dawn. The discos were full of these types of guys, but are worth going to for the kitsch factor alone. The Human League, Duran Duran and Thomson Twins are all played with great frequency and no irony whatsoever.
I spent three days just relaxing in Umag, and that was enough. But I will never forget the way that it smelled, and the dried lavender that I brought back with me breathes memories of a tired Mediterranean beauty that is glad someone was able to enjoy her.
Places to Stay
There are many hotels lining the beach, all of which charge less than $50 per night for a room, in high season.
Train is the most common way of getting around Croatia. Car rental is also popular. There is no need for Americans or Canadians, or any EU passport holders to get visas.