A Road Trip in the Western Balkans : Part 1, Croatia

The Balkans aren't the first thing that usually comes to mind when you think about hitting the open road, but I met up with my Scottish friend, Rachel, in Zagreb, Croatia to do just that.  Arming ourselves with our little, pink transport (affectionately labeled, The Champagne Dame), we loaded her up, consulted our maps (going old school...no GPS for us!), stocked up on the necessities at the store, and headed out into one of the most beautiful (and traveler-friendly) countries that I've ever been to!

First stop for some camping and hiking through some seriously gorgeous scenery was at Plitvice Lakes National Park:

This magical world was a photographer's/traveler's/hiker's/naturalist's/human's dream come true.  So much so, that it's one of my Travel Treasures and you can see more photos from our time there right here.

From the azure pools and waterfalls of Plitvice, it was only a few hours journey past corn fields and villages to the coastal town of Trogir.  Proving to be quite the theme to our trip, Trogir was the first of many historic stari grads, or walled old towns, that we visited during our time in the Balkans.  Dating back to the 3rd century BC, Trogir, it gained its status as a "modern" town in 1107.  Its history has layers added to it by the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Croats, and Serbs, and is even more impressive when you realize that it has around 2,300 years of continuous urban life to add to its books!

The UNESCO World Heritage site of the walled old town makes for some quaint and curious wanderings, with plenty of tasty treats on sale to keep you nice and fueled:

Luckily for us, the main square turned out to be the perfect venue for watching the final games of the Euro Cup championships, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine:

Here's a travel tip for ya:  If you're setting up to shoot some night shots next to a deep, deep harbor, make sure your rental car keys are in a SAFE place and NOT inside your tripod bag where they can easily fling out and slide right into the waiting waters.  Yes, having your only set of keys swallowed by the sea not only puts a major damper on your trip (with your car, containing most of your belongings, locked and resting in a public parking spot), but also ends up being painfully expensive, fully negating the "budget" aspect of your trip in the first place.  Painful lesson learned the hard way.

At least we had a beautiful campsite in which to play the waiting game while a new set took a few days to be delivered.  Once word of our situation got around the campsite, we were overwhelmed with kindness, from the camp owners giving us some leeways, to our camping neighbors providing us with hot breakfasts and leftover supplies, making us remember that even in the "bad" moments, travel still provides us with plenty of positive connections with people!

Stari grad numero dos of the trip was beautiful Split.  The walled city here was once a part of Roman Emperor Diocletian's Palace.  The younger sister of Trogir, the walled area and harbor are much bigger in size with plenty of quaint cafes and gelaterias dotted amongst its numerous alleyways and wandering passages.

From Split, it's easy to catch a ferry to any of Croatia's pristine Adriatic islands.  Needing to melt some of the stress away from The Key Incident, we headed to Bra─Ź island to sun ourselves on Zlatni Rat beach.  Okay, so it's not the prettiest name , but boy is it a pretty beach poking out into into the warm sea.  Perfecto!

Heading down the Croatian coast and trying to make up a bit of time, we realized that the country has great road side stops that are perfect to spend the night if need be.  Here, we pulled into one in the middle of the night, and awoke to a fruit and preserves stand set-up in front of us in the morning.  Talk about service!

Although the reality of a tent-slash-belongings explosion in the back of the car reminded us of the hilarity that often ensues in these type of road life situations:

Last stop (surprise, another stari grad!) in Croatia for us was popular Dubrovnik in the south. It's one of Croatia's most popular tourist destinations and, despite the hoards of cruise-shipping-day-trippers, it totally lives up to the hype!  My suggestion:  grab a beer or a cappuccino (or both!), find a seat on the main street or any of the side alleys, and spend a good portion of your time people watching and practicing "May I have another" in Croatian.

The must, must, must for your visit (and ours) to Dubrovnik is, without a doubt, a climb up to the city walls that completely surrounds the place.  It takes about an hour to walk around the entire thing if you have a cruise ship to get back to.  Otherwise, it's best to take your time and take in the views waiting for you up there.  They're worth every Croatian kuna it costs.

From this fantastic country, The Champagne Dame took us into Montenegro, where we'll continue the Great Western Balkan road trip...