Having touched down at the small airport in Split after a nice flight with magnificent views over the rocky Adriatic coastline with its numerous wooded islands dotting the blue sea, and being herded onto a bus for mere 50m journey from the plane to the terminal, we found ourselves queuing for one of the two immigration desks along with at least two other flight loads of people.
Chaotic scenes ensued as British and Norwegian tourists were swamped by a planeload of Russians with apparently no understanding of the concept of queuing. Having negotiated the passport control, and splashing out on an expensive taxi ride in to Split due to the fact that it was evening and we were starving, we were dropped off at the edge of a maze of pedestrian streets and marched off into them thankfully finding our hostel almost straight away. We were met by the hostel’s ultra friendly host, given a map of the city with various highlighted recommendations, and so the bags were dumped and off we headed.
The Riva (or promenade) was a short walk away, and in the evening twilight it was just about coming alive with bars, cafes, and people busy people watching. Numerous stalls lined the street too, corn on the cob, helium balloons and popcorn being the most prevalent, all backed up by the harbour with many boats both large and small.
Behind the Riva is the Diocletian Palace, the old city of Split. Soon enough we were installed in a bar eating a suitably meaty Croatian meal and supping the first of many beers. In amongst the usual sightseeing we also managed to get charged around £10 for 4 bread rolls (she rang in 47 of the little things instead of a mere 4, which took me a while to cotton on to), get told off by a drunken passer by for climbing up a wall late at night, and I managed to get stuck in a toilet unable to open it from the inside, which was slightly less funny at the time I can assure you.
Split’s harbour is a hive of activity with boats heading here, there and everywhere. Specifically from our point of view there is a regular speedy catamaran to Hvar, a small town on the island of the same name not far off the coast. The catamaran crew proceeded to make everyone dump their bags up at the front of the boat which seemed a reasonable plan at first, until it came to collecting the bags again on arrival in Hvar which turned the front of the boat into a severe bottleneck, all the while with the crew helpfully suggesting that we should exit the boat at the back as quickly as possible! Not without my bag, mate…
Installed in our apartment overlooking the picturesque Hvar town, the view was lovely across the small port which had settled back down a little after the intense activity of the boat’s arrival and departure. Many market stalls line the streets selling one of two things – lavender or jewelry. The smell of lavender is so prevalent that we wonder how the stall holders manage to stay awake all day – it does explain the general laid back feeling though.
The town has a small square lined with bars and cafés, more of which line the coastline in both directions from the town. We do our bit to support the local community by sampling as many of these as possible, not to mention also regularly sampling the magnificent ice cream shops with their huge displays of all sorts of exotic flavours. A nice touch in many of the restaurants was being given a free shot of local brandy as an aperitif whilst perusing the menu.
Hvar was a centre of relaxation for us; numerous rocky beaches and hot weather don’t result in too much activity, although we did also manage a little boat trip to another nearby island and on one astonishing day we managed a swim, a cycle and a run – a Hvar triathlon of sorts!
Hvar was host to holiday-makers from all sorts of places; Italy, Russia, UK, America, Australia, France, and many more accents I was unable to place. This gave it the feel of a busy holiday resort, despite its small size, but it never felt so crowded as to feel claustrophobic. It was always easy to find a more secluded area of beach or place to sit down, the exception being in the evening when many of the restaurants were full for the majority of the evening. Some restaurants even had queues of people waiting which may be a sign of their quality, but it did make those places look as though they’d be rather less relaxing to dine at with crowds of people hovering over you willing you to finish off that last piece of sea bass. There were numerous other options however.
The Croatian people were extremely friendly and welcoming, which was a slight contrast to what we found when heading further south to Montenegro. On the way we had to travel through Split (waiting for a bus with several Italians in full on noisy tantrum mode), a brief pause in Bosnia, and then on to Dubrovnik, of which more later.
The bus from Dubrovnik to Budva in Montenegro was staffed by Montenegrins, and the contrast from the ultra-friendly Croatians was rather stark to say the least. Two grumpy bus drivers with cigarettes hanging from their mouths throw our bags on the bus and proceed to scare everyone on board with their driving along the sheer mountain roads to Montenegro.
The border is quite a strict one which emphasises the differences between the constituent parts of the former Yugoslavia rather well. Passports are scrutinised and a few bags searched before we are on our way, but soon we’re hurtling along the narrow and winding roads around the frankly spectacular Montenegro coastline. Steep green mountains rise up from the clear blue and extremely inviting sea leaving only a small area for the small towns to cram themselves into.
Budva itself is a bit of a resort for Russians and Serbs it seems, with only a smattering of westerners, and the racial difference from the Croats is most evident in the general grumpiness, not just of the hosts but of the Russian and Serb tourists also. I’m not suggesting that the people are deliberately rude, but it can come across that way to someone of Western sensibilities. For example, some staff at the numerous gyros and pizza slice stalls laughing directly at you while telling all their mates whatever it is about the funny Englishman in front of them which is so amusing – strange to say the least.
However, the area is extremely pretty, nearby Kotor being the best example with its old town built up into the mountain overlooking an inlet of the sea. Budva at night turns into the Slavic Ibiza with loud bars complete with table top dancing totty and DJ’s flown in from Moscow. We kept to some more scenic and quieter places, which was probably just as well since our overpowering perfume of mosquito repellent wouldn’t have fitted in too well with the general dolled up night-on-the-town look. Despite all the mozzie spray. I still did my bit for the local wildlife by providing a veritable feast of my blood for the local insects who took a particular liking to me.
Back in Dubrovnik, the standard of old towns goes up a notch again, Dubrovnik’s being particularly impressive. If Split was popcorn and corn on the cob, Hvar was lavender and jewellery, and Budva was pizza slices and loud Russian bars, then Dubrovnik was home to sailor hats, stripy nautical t-shirts, and pizza restaurants. We manage to dine in a little Croatian place, delicious cevapcici spicy sausages and beer (and the free shot of brandy of course), surrounded by pizza restaurants and endless people coming up to the proprietor of our place and saying “Pizza? Pizza?”. But the funniest dining experience remains during a torrential thunder storm one evening, where we sheltered under the canopy of our restaurant munching away while the waiters brought food out balanced on one arm, with an umbrella protecting the food more than themselves in the other – sheer comedy.
While Croatia is certainly more westerner friendly and very geared up for tourism, and its people also add to the welcome, Montenegro felt like a step into an older world with a feeling of a place that hadn’t moved on too much from the communist days. The old furniture in our hostel contrasted to the modern facilities in Croatia, and the bus station was far more hard work with staff members whose approach to customer service was of the shout and point variety which made you feel like an idiot for trying to ask a question, or horror of horrors, even asking to buy a ticket!
But it was an experience for sure. Croatia’s bus stations were well run in contrast, but also notable for the countless apartment touts repeatedly hassling you to ask if you’d like to stay in their house. I swear one woman asked us at least 10 times within the space of about 30 minutes. Surely she realised she was asking the same people again and again?
Croatia and Montenegro both have stunning coastlines, although noticeably different from each other, as are the people and their mannerisms. The towns we visited also all had delightful old towns with narrow streets and hidden restaurants, but no two places were too similar always providing plenty of new experiences along the way.