Warning: This is a photo-heavy post from a photo-crazy woman.

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We weren’t originally supposed to drive through Croatia. We were only doing Zagreb and Plitvice with a flight to Dubrovnik. A chance read of a couple’s drive through Croatia (Thanks to Savi and Vid from bruised passports) and we did an about turn. The itinerary was promptly changed, more cities were added, loads more research about car rental agencies and insurance done, and a gleaming red Volkwagon Polo Golf booked. Ok, I admit, I didn’t want a Golf, I wanted a convertible sports car.

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We picked up the car at Zagreb Unirent (no complaints with Unirent from us) and drove to Plitvice Lakes. Naturally we had to be careful with hotel/ apartment bookings to ensure car parking was available, and also that we had the Bon-bon card for internet. We also had to keep reminding ourselves to drive on the right and take short right turns and wide lefts, unlike India which is a left-hand drive country. Yet, we were tremendously excited about this leg of our journey.

 

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Gorgeous super-smooth roads

 

Croatia has an outstanding road network. Smooth roads, excellent road signs, even the road itself is marked as straight or left or right. Initials of the larger cities were marked on the roads at all junctions. Not a single speed breaker was there on any of the roads. Lane discipline was well maintained. Even on single carriageway roads, if the road was closed for repair work, everyone would wait politely one behind the other, till the block was opened out. No honking, no yelling, no crossing over to the other side, nothing. Amazing!

The drive to Plitvice was through half an hour of stressful city driving followed by a fast 2 hour run through the highway. Once we got over the initial stress, we thoroughly enjoyed the drive with the lush green trees as the only company. Once we crossed Rastoke, little wooden villas dotted the countryside, making me wish I had stayed there. Sharp valleys could be seen on the side, with more trees and small hamlets all over.

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From Plitvice to Zadar I drove, and I admit I was terrified. I also found it difficult to judge the extent of the car, driving through narrow single carriage way roads, with large trucks thundering down from the opposite side. I almost drove off the road several times! I also missed taking lots of pictures of the beautiful trees of different hues.

Till the kid was awake, she took plenty of pictures, but once she slept, no pics were taken. We drove through tunnel after tunnel as we made our way through the mountains, some tunnels so long that the end was nowhere in sight. There was one tunnel with runway like lights on each side and at the top. I can only imagine how much my dad would have loved this drive and this tunnel.

And then suddenly, as we got out of a series of tunnels, progressively going down side after side of the mountain, we saw it. A flash of the brilliant – est blue. One that would have put Dumbledore’s twinkling eyes to shame (what’s it with me and Harry Potter ).

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Barren, steep, white mountains, the clear blue cloudless sky and the deep brilliant blue of the sea. Right beyond the tall, white, bare limestone cliffs was the Adriatic sea. Oh! What a view! The bluest sea that I’d ever seen. The sea that made me want to stop the car and fling myself off the nearest cliff straight into it.

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I forgot to get to Pag island on the way, which has a drive through these tall cliffs into the famous “salt island”, more popularly known as party island in summer. The drive is over many suspension bridges and always parallel to the sea, but as we caught up with the sea later on, we didn’t miss too much (that’s how I console myself).

Driving into Zadar was pleasant enough till we crossed from the mainland of Zadar into the small island-like old town. this old town was made up of super narrow and crowded streets. You could only drive around the periphery of it, and that too in just one direction. So, naturally, we missed our apartment. Luckily the owner made us follow her car, took us on a full circle around Zadar and then drove our car through the tiny entry into the car park.

Getting out of that gate the next day needed the owner’s help again, and this time hubby drove. I was relieved, partly because I didn’t enjoy the drive and partly because I wanted to take pictures. I was very excited about this drive (Zadar to Split) as from now on till Dubrovnik, the beautiful blue sea was to be our constant companion. Gps all set, we left the gorgeous city of Zadar.

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All of  a sudden, the road turned and left the sea behind. Now tall mountains loomed. Surprised, I wondered aloud where the sea was, though the husband thought we would see it soon again. But I was doubtful. All the reviews and blogs said that the road ran alongside the sea. The road widened and tolls came up. That’s when alarm bells rang and rang loud.

GPS still didn’t show the coastal road. It didn’t show any alternatives. But I knew that the highway was called highway 8 and we had to get onto it somehow. The problem was that we were far from the coast and Google maps was not helping. That’s when reading tons of blogs came in handy. I remembered the town of Sibenik and thought that that would be the gateway to the coast. With no gps or offline maps to help and no human being on the road, but with the all important support from the kid and assurance from the hubby not to yell if we got lost, we took the offshoot to Sibenik and then wonder of wonders, gps picked up the coastal road to the nearest coastal town Primosten. And we were set on the right road. To say the truth, I felt more relief than happiness.

 

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Light at the end of the tunnel (for me)

 

 

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The sea at long last!

 

Was it worth it? Certainly. It was a gorgeous drive with few clouds in an otherwise prussian blue sky. The stunning Adriatic sea with the beautiful islands dotting the waters was to one side of the road, the tall cliffs ,half-green, half-white on the other. Every bay along the cliffs had a small pretty town with orange roofed small houses extending from the edge of the road all along the hill slopes down till the water. Each town had its own church.

 

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Charming little “villages” all along

 

Little harbors stuck out into the clear waters with boats anchored to them. What a life to lead. To wake up every morning to see the sun glistening over the sea and sleep at night with the lullaby of the waves. A place where time must surely stand still.

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It was so stunning that we couldn’t help stopping to take in the views and stand and stare. Or simply click thousands of pictures. When we passed Primosten, we got off to see the beautiful town with the narrow bridge connection to the islandic old town, a little diamond of orange roofs in the blue sea. There was a small walkway amidst scores of wild flowers down till the water, but hubby was in a rush to get to Split, so we just moved on.

 

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Primosten, an island town. See the narrow road leading to it

 

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The yellow and purple wildflowers that grew alongside the road, simply added to the rush of colors. I tucked a few into the kid’s hair, but wished I had time to make her a flower tiara. The next time I am in Croatia, I will keep a fortnight for this drive alone.

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3 hours after starting, we drove into Split (via Solin). The island town of Trogir was enroute but we didn’t have time for it. One more place for next time! After another good day at Split, we finally started out on the much awaited coastal drive from Split to Dubrovnik. The reason for renting the car. We left early, with good reason, rain was predicted. This time I was smarter with gps and found the coastal road, gps still wanting to take us by the motor way. So off we set. The sky was filled with grey clouds but none threatening to rain yet, so we hoped that the weather forecast would be wrong as it had for the past 3 days, but it wasn’t. Except for not letting me drive, the weather did us no harm. In fact it just made the drive more pleasant.

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It was our best ever drive. All along we had the mountains to our left and the sea to our right. Town after town we passed, along the coast, all with small low stone piers jutting into the sea, tempting me to just jump off and rush there for at least a pic.

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Each town was small, with a little church and small houses. Sobes littered the towns and even the road sides. There were sobes at the edge of the sea, just a cluster of 4 or 5 houses, nothing else around. What a place to unwind. I could happily live here too.

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Everything was so clean and inviting. The water itself was just as inviting, different shades of blue and right alongside the road.

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As we drove through the adventure sport town of Omis, we were almost at the water’s edge, it was all so close. A low bridge took us over an extension of the sea as a creek into the town. It was an amazing drive with water on both sides and the sea looming up in front, with yachts and larger boars anchored.

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There were places where the water came upto the edge of the road. The road ended and the small strip of rocky beach began. There were places where there was no beach also, directly water beside the road, the road being slightly elevated.  But the Golf refused to stop for me to jump onto (and maybe off) the pier. Grrrrrrrr. Just for the hurry to reach. What’s the purpose of a road trip and your own car if you don’t stop to enjoy the tiny places on the way.

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About half an hour into the drive, we started ascending some mountains. Part green part barren, the road was totally winding along the  coast. The views got even prettier.

 

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The road ascends along the cliff

 

The towns actually began at road level and sloped all the way down to the water’s edge. Steep offshoots from the highway provided entry to the towns, that curved even more steeply lower down. It seemed challenging to get in and out of the towns, but for the inhabitants, what a place to live. It’s like having the entire sea as your front yard.

 

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As we took gentle bend after gentle bend, the view of the sea at the edge of the cliffs, the waves crashing against the stones, and the different shades of the sea were breathtaking. The colors of the sea were unbelievable, a light teal near the shore, totally transparent so you could see the sea bed below, then a deeper teal blending into a deeper greenish blue and finally a deep blue of the open sea. Not the deep deep blue of the Adriatic at Zadar, that we never saw again, but a lighter yet amazing shade of blue. Aquamarine blue?

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The road wound higher and higher and now I knew I couldn’t step onto any piers, we were too far from sea level. At this dizzying height, the whole of the sea stretched out ahead of us, with islands dotting it all along.

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Now those grey clouds, our constant companions from the start, opened up and gently splattered their contents onto a beautiful land to make it totally ethereal. The trees looked greener, the sea bluer, the wind made patterns on the surface of the sea. Rain, shine, or cloud, nothing could lessen the beauty of the Dalmatian coast. Maybe it was good that we didn’t stop much. I might not have moved ahead.

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Beyond Makarska, the highway turns away from the coast for a while as it passes through a lush green country side, a fertile land where grow all sorts of fruits and mainly grapes. This is wine land. At regular intervals on the highway, are small outposts where a large fruit stall is present. All types of fruits, in all sorts of colors, arranged so alluringly that hunger strikes at once. The oranges were so large and orange, we’d never seen such before. It was our misfortune that we had bought so much fruit from Split market that we just couldn’t buy more. 

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Huge fields after fields could be seen from the highway occupying the valley below. If there were an easy route down, I could have run down, arms outstretched, singing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music. “

 

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Panorama from the roadside of the wine and orchard valley

 

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I never thought that leaving the coast could have such stunning views, but Croatia proved me wrong. Leaving behind the orchards and vineyards, we now drove round a bend and found our jaws drop open. Nestled in between 2 dark green mountains of tall fir trees, was a lake of the deepest blue imaginable, with a small Creek continuing between the mountains. A look out was provided with amazing photo opportunity that we naturally missed, because we were too busy staring beyond. By the time we stopped for the pic, the direction was different and it didn’t look the same, but it has been captured on the mind’s camera.

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From here we passed a lot of lake towns, again all centered about a breathtakingly beautiful lake with boats and small yachts over them. Just like the coastal towns, all the houses were small and quaint with green shutters and orange tiled roofs. They also looked just as tempting to settle in. The peace in the place was amazing. The rain had slowed to a light drizzle, the sun was peeping out from behind the clouds, a cool breeze filled the air. We were all alone on the road. It was almost as though this place was only for us. 

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Soon we left behind the lakes and headed back along the coast. Once again, we saw the sea and then came the Neum corridor, the short drive through Bosnia. We had been really woried about this crossing, that we might need a visa for it, and had even called the Bosnia embassy to confirm, but all this fear was unfounded.

 

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The blue colored “border” between Croatia and Bosnia

 

Passports stamped, we drove on the same road through a totally different country before re-entering Croatia. Suddenly, sign boards were different, costs were in euros and even though the scenery was identical, the houses and hotels looked older and somehow less orange. The boats and ferries looked smaller and less posh. This place looked poorer somehow. Probably this tiny share of the coast was not marketed as well as Mostar and other parts of Bosnia were and cash inflow was lesser. Or I was prejudiced.

 

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The coastal town of Neum, the only coast that Bosnia has

 

Finally, we saw sign boards indicating Dubrovnik and though I was tremendously excited about being in Dubrovnik, this was one time where the journey could have gone on and on. A journey where the road is better than the destination, I thought. But that wasn’t true. Dubrovnik, pearl of the Adriatic, well lived upto the journey it took to reach it. In no way was it a disappointment. No. In fact, it was the feather in the cap or the jewel in the crown of Croatia.

 

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The suspension bridge you drive over to reach Dubrovnik (pic from Lapad bay)

 

The entry to Dubrovnik was marked by a tall suspension bridge with large cruise ships and smaller boats anchored in the harbor below. A stunning sight with the blue sky as the canvas. Driving across the bridge took us around a corner from where we could see a sea of  orange preceding the actual blue sea. At the elevation that we were at, we could see the entire curve of the Lapad bay with its huge five-star hotels dotting the entire water front and the sun glistening off the water.

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What a welcome from the pearl of the Adriatic. Driving further ahead, we passed through stone gates amongst old stone buildings and thick stone walls, as we drove alongside the old walled city of Dubrovnik.

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The walled old town of Dubrovnik

 

And when we finally reached the road on which our apartment was some steps down, we could see a most alluring view of the entire walled old town with its harbor and then the blue blue sea and the turquoise and teal blue of the Banje beach.

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And so ended our great drive, and began a wonderful 3 days in Dubrovnik. Some day, I will rent a bright red convertible, stop at multiple places along the coast and stay in tiny sobes on the way. Someday, not too far away.

 

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