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Trip report: 5 weeks in Italy, Croatia, France - Summer 2019

For most of the past two decades I've been fortunate to be able to spend several weeks each summer traveling around Europe. The past few years my trips have been about 5 weeks which I find to be the perfect amount of time - long enough to make the 'agony' and expense of transatlantic flights worth it, but not so long that I get tired. When my trips were less than that I found when it was time to come home I wasn't 'ready', but after five weeks I'm usually content. When I left France I felt ‘ready’ to come home, 1 week later (and after going through the photos) I was (almost) ready to go back.

This trip report will be a summary of where we went, what we did and some logistics. I find reading trip reports helps me so much in the planning stages. The photos are at – Croatia: Italy/Emilia Romagna: France:

The 32 night itinerary turned out to be perfect for us: (This was my 10th trip to France, 14th to Italy, only our 2nd to Croatia)
Bologna Italy - 5 nights with day trips to Modena, Parma, Ferrara, and Brisinghella
Venice - 1 night (but this was the 6th trip there)
Rovinj Croatia - 6 nights with day trips to Pula, Porec, and several Istrian hill towns
Plitvice Lakes - 1 night
Zadar - 1 night
Sebinik - 1 night
Stari Grad, Hvar Island - 2 nights
Split 3 nights (with day trip to Brac island)
Lyon, France 3 nights
Marseille - 6 nights with day trips to Nimes, Cassis, and the Calanques
Dijon - 2 nights
Paris -1 night

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Whenever possible I try to visit UNESCO world heritage sites. This trip included 12 (plus 2 on the nominated list) – Venice, Modena, and Ferrara Italy (Bologna has been nominated); In Croatia - Porec Basilica, Plitvice National Park, Hvar Stari Gard Plain, Sibenik Cathedral, Zadar Venetian Walls, Split Diocletian Palace and town center; In France - Vieux Lyon, Dijon, Nimes Roman sites, (Marseille is on the tentative list).

Weather – 33 days and only 2 had substantial clouds and each about 5 minutes of drizzle, even they were half sunny. Few thunderstorms at night. Hot but not hotter than back home. with most temps in the 80s. But the first and last 3 days were major heat waves with temps hitting 100 at times and last 3 all over 100 with last day in Paris all time Paris record ever 42.6/108.6 Clearly there are both pros and cons to traveling to Europe in high season/mid summer.

Transportation and Accommodation -

We rented a car for 4 days in Croatia, all other transportation was train, bus, ferry, and one plane.

All accommodations were through

I book several months in advance and I find is very easy to make changes if needed (for example, Aer LIngus changed my flight home several months after I booked it and I needed to rearrange things a bit). Every place we stayed was exactly as advertised. I don't usually care about apartment/vs hotel - in fact usually prefer hotels, this trip due to some recent dietary requirements, I wanted to have a kitchenette. Also, in Croatia, small apartments are more common than hotels. has a new feature where they will take payment (by credit card) for these small properties which I found really convenient (rather than having to pay the host in cash). The only problem with these type of properties is that you need to arrange arrival time with the host so they can meet you as there is no 'reception desk’. This requires a phone. So - I switched from ATT to T-Mobile so I could use my phone freely without outrageous charges and I LOVED it. Previously I always either got a local sim card (so didn't have my same phone number) or limped along with communicating via WI-fi to avoid ATT charges (and on my last trip in March I got hit with $400 without even using the feaking phone!!!) And the phone map app worked great for both driving and walking to find these little places.

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Expenses – Not counting transatlantic air, we spent about €165/day for both of us (130€/day for the solo portion). This included lodging (averaged €83/night), food, admissions, and transportation (car rental, parking, ferries, buses, trains). More than a third of our transportation costs were spent in just the four day we had the rental car.

Pet Peeve - People saying 'how can you afford 5 weeks in Europe, must be nice'. Well, for the answer see above - use mostly public transportation - we spent as much for the 4 days with the car as we did for the whole rest of the trip for transportation. And stay in modest properties - every place we stayed was clean, well located, and for the most part really lovely and our average per night was under €83. Since we did all breakfasts and many lunches and dinners as well in, our costs for meals was not a whole lot more than it would have been for 5 weeks at home. We're not into 'fine dining' but people who are probably spend more on food at home than we do too. So much of what there is to see and do in Europe is free - wandering the towns, exploring, soaking up the ambiance. Many churches and lots of museums are either free or extremely cheap (€2-3). We certainly spent money to do things when we needed to, I find it foolish not to, but we don't feel you have to do every single site in a city. And I do extensive research before a trip (it is my hobby after all) so don't need to pay for organized tours.

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Five Days based in Bologna – First of all I have to say we loved where we stayed. B&B Ambra is a 10 minute walk from the train station, 15 minutes from Piazza Maggorie in the center. On a main street, just off Via Independzia. The owner, Ambra, was there to greet us (we emailed her approximate time in advance). She speaks almost no English but tried really hard to explain things to us (and DH’s attempts to speak Italian had them both having a good time). The B&B consists of about 6 individual ensuite guest rooms and one shared kitchen/dining space. Everything is brand new and immaculate. Ambra makes breakfast each morning – yogurt, bread/toast, coffee, tea, juice, cakes, fresh fruit. All this is also available throughout the day if you want, and there is a separate fridge to store food you buy elsewhere. The B&B is on the 5th floor of the building (102 steps) but there is a lift – although it’s old and a little hard to figure out. €76 night/double

We chose Bologna partly because I really like it and DH had never been, but also because it makes a good base for some other towns I’d been to (but he hadn’t) and that I wanted to see again. Three of our full days we did day trips and the fourth we stayed in Bologna.

Modena and Parma – Trains between Bologna and Modena and Parma are frequent – usually 3 per hour so didn’t have to worry about schedules. We took Regionals and they vary between fairly modern, air-conditioned trains to the older blue/green boxy shaped trains that supposedly now are also air-conditioned but aren’t really so people open the windows and the blue curtains flap in the wind and during a heat wave can be really uncomfortable.Although I loved Modena the first time I was there, the Duomo was undergoing extensive renovation and I wanted to see it completed. And I had been underwhelmed by Parma, which many people love so wanted to give that a second chance.

Modena’s town center is a UNESCO site (“12th century architectural complex of a medieval Christian town”). It feels much smaller than it’s population (185,000) suggests, a ten minute walk from the train to the town center, filled with arcaded streets, kind of a mini Bologna. We explored the town and went I went into the cathedral. During five hours there we saw one small tour group and very few other tourists.

Parma – (population 194,000) Famous for prosciutto ham and parmagiano cheese is one of the most prosperous cities in Italy. Piazza Garibaldi, the main square, is home to Palazzo del Governatore, Baroque and Neoclassical, begun in the 1200s a major government building for hundreds of years. It spans the whole width of the square – the central bell tower has an interesting clock face. The other main building on the square is crenelated and feels castle like. Nearby Piazza del Duomo contains the cathedral (Romanesque, 11th-12th C, with two stone lions guarding the main door) and the Battistero, and the Palazzo del Vescovado (Bishop's Palace). The Duomo, especially the dome painting and some of the fescos are gorgeous. But I had the same impression I did the last time I was there – when it was also very hot and sunny – the town has no vibe to it. The center is clean and there are some nice buildings but that it’s. We wandered around looking for shops selling parma cheese and ham but surprisingly didn’t find any till we were heading back to the station and found the large enclosed market – which was a really nice (but very modern) place. The train ride home was very hot (one of the old trains).

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Another day we did a day trip to Ferrara, only ½ hour train from Bologna, is another town I had previously visited and really loved. Only a 20-minute walk to the center. The main street, Via Cavour, which is the way Google says to go and is the obvious way, is a busy street and less pleasant than Via Cassoli & Via Garibaldi which is mostly pedestrianized and comes out right opposite the cathedral. I liked Ferrara, population 132,000, as much as I did the last time, nice vibe, lots of bicycles, busy enough but not too much so. Although it certainly has a tourism industry, Ferrara is not on the typical itinerary, which makes it perfect for those who want to get off the beaten path of Venice-Florence-Rome and soak in some authentic northern Italian culture. It's characterized by twisting medieval cobble stoned streets, a Duomo with a Gothic facade, and a castle complete with towers, moat, and drawbridges. The genuine masterpiece though is the city itself. Half medieval, half Renaissance.

The Palazzo Communale, the Duomo, the Castle, and especially the main piazza, Trento e Trieste are gorgeous. The Cathedral Museum has a beautiful (free) cloister. We explored the whole center, walked around and through the courtyard of the castle (but didn’t pay the €12 to go inside or climb the tower), walked down to the Via delle Volte, one of the best preserved medieval streets in Europe. Full of arches (volte means arches) over a narrow cobblestone alley, the arches originally joined the merchant’s houses on the south side of the street with the warehouses on the north. The street used to run parallel to the River Po, which is now much further away. Unfortunately Casa Romei was closed on Thursday morning. Fortunately I visited it the last time so didn’t care that much (but it's a great building definitely worth seeing). But the other palazzo which I had wanted to but didn’t get to on my last visit, Palazzo Schifanoi, was closed for renovations this time. And it’s about a mile each way walk from the center. Oh well.

Before a visit to Ferrara I highly recommend reading Sarah Durant's Novel, Sacred Hearts, which takes place there and really brings the city alive.

The best ‘find’ in Ferrara, on this day when it was already 38C/101F at noon, was a café called Pappare (just past the cathedral museum) – great air conditioning, fabulous food (croissant sandwiches, pizza, more substantial lunch type food), cold brew coffee !!!!!!, comfortable, clean rest room, decent prices. Perfect. We spent just over 4 ½ hours in Ferrera.

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Looking forward to your next report, particularly the Croatia part. I enjoyed your Greek report from a year or two ago , and I visited the same four islands in the western Cyclades (Santorini, Folegandros, Milos, Sifnos) on my trip a few months ago.

I have a friend (he teaches at the same university as me) that is Croatian and has been asking me for years to visit and to maybe overlap when he is there. He's from Zagreb (his father is still there) and his family have a cottage near Zadar.

I'm still in daydreaming stage for next summer. I might spend a few weeks in Greece again and then fly to Zagreb to coincide with my friend's visit, or maybe fly to Vienna and base my holiday on eastern Austria/Slovenia/northern Croatia (my friend is a big fan of both Graz and Ljubljana).

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Isabel, Ferrara is on my list of potential towns for next year’s visit to Italy. Thanks so much for sharing what you enjoyed!

I agree with your comments of Parma. It has my absolute favorite Italian Cathedral (and I want to see it again) but the rest of the visit there was as you describe.

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windowoffice - Depending on how much time you have, I would think you could do a nice trip that would include Graz, which isn't far from Ljubljana, which isn't far from Croatia. I have done both Ljubljana and Graz on separate trips but when I looked at a map I was surprised how close they were to each other.

Jean - glad to hear someone else felt the same way about Parma. It seems most people love it and I can't help thinking I'm missing something.

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During our week in Italy, the only place we went that I had not been to before was Brisighella (and Faenza). It had been on our itinerary during a previous trip but we ran out of time and it sounded interesting so I was determined we’d get to it this time. Trains from Bologna to Faenza are frequent (30-45 minutes) but although the train from there to Brisighella is only about 10 minutes, they are not frequent, so some planning was involved to make it work.

FAENZA – A town of about 60,000, half an hour from Bologna is virtually unknown by tourists except for it’s one claim to fame - The ceramics of Faenza is called majolica-ware (or “Faenza glazed”), referring to ceramics with a glassy coating made opaque with tin oxide. The style originated on the Spanish island of Mallorca and the name has become synonymous with ceramics in various languages. The International Museum of Ceramics is there but surprisingly there were only a few shops selling ceramics. Besides ceramics, Faenza's architectural attractions are concentrated in the two contiguous main squares: Piazza del Popolo, lined with porticoes, the Palazzo del Podesta and the town hall, and Piazza della Libert with the Tuscan style Renaissance cathedral (1474), There is also a nice bell tower and an especially nice fountain– instead of the usual fish and cherubs there were four impressive lions and dragons - beautiful.

Brisighella, (population 7,800) town center is just a 5 minute or so walk from the tiny (unmanned) train station. A medieval spa town, also virtually unknown to Americans. The medieval quarter has an unusual silhouette, surrounded by three rocky pinnacles one topped by the rocca (fortress), another by an unusual clock tower (only 6 numbers), and the third, a small church, amidst the greenery of the Romagna Apennines. It’s “One of Italy’s Most Beautiful Villages”. It really is a cute village with some atmospheric buildings forming a curved main street. There’s a small TI, which was open and had very friendly people in it who kept commenting on how unusual it was to have American visitors. Turns out the Rocco and Clock Tower are only open on weekends except in July and August, and while the close to 100 degree temperatures certainly felt like mid summer, it was still June.

Other than the three hills, the main attraction is the Via degli Asini,(Street of the Donkey) aka Antica Via del Borgo, a street built into the town wall (which is composed of houses) with light provided by open arches. This raised, covered passageway was built in the 12th century to protect the donkeys carrying chalk/gypsum from the quarries. It has heavy wooden beamed ceiling and brick/cobbled pavement. Very nice, about 2 minutes long.

Then we marched in the blazing heat up 400+ steps to the closed clock tower. There are nice views and I’d read there was nothing significant inside the clock tower anyway. It’s way up high (thus the 400+ steps) but the tower itself is not very tall. Nice view of the Rocco across the town (1310, restored by the Venetians in the 16th C) on the next hill, and the chapel (18th C) on the third.

We started hiking up to the Rocco but decided it wasn’t worth it given the heat and the fact that we’d just seen the view from the clock tower. This all took just over an hour and of course the choice of trains back were in one hour (not enough) or 3 or 5 hours. So we went to one of the few bars/cafes that was open for a drink and wandered around the largely deserted village a bit more getting back to the station only about 15 minutes early. Only the train was delayed so it was over a half hour. Back in Faenza we got a ticket for the next train to Bologna only it required a change in Imola. So a lot of waiting for and being on trains. Some were

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isabel, I always look forward to your trip reports & photos. It's another winner! Can hardly wait for the rest. Special interest in an area we have not visited (Bologna and day trips to Modena, Parma, Ferrara..). I am bookmarking. Thanks so much!

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Venice en route to Croatia

We had decided that the most efficient way to get to Croatia was to take the ferry from Venice. Originally I though it would be a ‘slow’ ferry, like many of the ones we’ve taken between islands in Greece. I had visions of sitting out on the deck, watching Venice go by and enjoying a few hours of sailing the Adriatic with the wind in my hair. Turns out that wasn’t the case. It’s a hydrofoil with dirty windows. Four rows a cross of 4 airplane style seats, hundreds of them. Almost full. Luggage thrown in a massive pile that can’t be access during the trip. Oh well. Takes over 3 hours. Nonetheless it was better than other options such as flying or train/bus.

Since the ferry didn’t leave till 5pm we could have just taken the train from Bologna that day but since we were going to be passing through anyway we decided to add a day and spend one night. Who doesn’t want a couple days in Venice. Since it was our sixth trip to Venice, in order to give the trip ‘focus’, we decided to spend our just over 24 hours seeing if we could find the ‘less crowded’ parts. The last couple trips we had stayed at a wonderful hotel, Palazzo Odoni in the Santa Croce section. Unfortunately it was booked for our dates this time so we stayed at another place close by – nowhere near as good so I won’t recommend it. But I do recommend that area – it’s very quiet (for Venice) yet only about 10-15 minute walk from either the train station or Piazzale Roma where the airport bus drops off and also not that far from where the ferry departs for Croatia.

Surprisingly, I felt Venice overall was less crowded than our last summer trip (2016) – though more crowded of course than my most recent trip, which was in March (2017). The San Marco side was more crowded than the Dorsoduro side but not as bad as I expected. The Santa Croce, San Palo and Dorsoduro sections (south of the Grand Canal) were totally un-crowded, many parts completely empty till you got right near the Rialto, even then not too bad. Even the Rialto bridge itself a lot less jammed than I remembered, though certainly plenty busy. From there to San Marco is shoulder to shoulder. People are just window shopping in boring clothes stores. You could be anywhere, not necessarily Venice. Definitely way more ‘mall type’ stores than there used to be. If that’s all you do (and it seems as if it is for many) what’s the point. Piazza San Marco was 2/3 full of chairs and scaffolding for speakers for concerts or whatever. The rest was pretty jammed. But other than the “Train Station to Rialto to San Marco to Academia” route it really was possible to get away from the crowds and enjoy wandering the back canals. We walked down past the Arsenale and the garden beyond (where the some exhibits of the Biennale Arte was being held). I’m sure most day trippers don’t get anywhere near there. In general we really enjoyed being in Venice and felt it is possible to get away from the crowds, even in summer. I’m sure a lot depends on how many giant cruise ships are there at one time, and I hope their plans to try and regulate it work out.

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We arrived fairly late, close to 10 pm, and on the other side of the little peninsula Rovinj sits on than I had anticipated. We hadn't eaten since lunch and all the restaurants looked to be closing down. And since it was an apartment we were staying in we still had to call the contact number to meet the host and then find our way to the meeting point. But things got better. Lucca met us and led us up stone steps through one of the old entrance arches into the old town to our apartment.

Volti Studios Apartment – 5 minutes from main square, extremely charming stone street through stone arch to get to it. Apartment is lovely and huge with couch, loveseat, huge TV, modern kitchen, comfortable bed. Lots of space to spread out. All very recently renovated and super clean. Window looks out on a stone air shaft so no view (of anything) but if you look up you can at least see sky and daylight gets in, and at least there are no stairs to climb. One of the most comfortable places we stayed on a trip where almost all our accommodations were great.

ROVINJ (population 13,000) certainly is rather charming. From the air, its location on a promontory makes it look like a fairy-tale village suspended on a pillow of bright blue sea; at ground level, it looks like the quintessential Italian fishing village. Central Rovinj once was an islet, in 1763 the channel separating it from the mainland was filled in. Shiny smooth stone ‘streets’ (pedestrianized) all lead up to converge at the St. Euphemia. Almost all the buildings are stores or ‘sobe’s /apartments but everything is very well kept. If you don’t shop you can pretty much cover the center in an hour. The harbor is jammed with small boats, almost can’t see the water there are so many of them. The promenade leads all the way around and into the newer parts of town with nice views back to the old town/ peninsula. Also lined with restaurants. Looked to be way more shops and restaurants than tourists. Part of the Venetian Republic for over 500 years, Rovinj is the most Italian town in Croatia: there's an Italian high school, Italian is widely spoken, and street signs are bilingual.

There are wide waterfront promenades almost all around the old ‘island’ part (and extending onto the mainland) – except one section where the old houses reach right down to the water. The main square is Trg M. Tita featuring the Balbi Arch (1679) entrance way into the old town. Due to the war between the Venetians and the Turks it has the Venetian Lion on one side and a Turkish face on the other. This is the most elaborate of what were once 7 gates into the old town. A little ways along the waterfront promenade from the main square are two remaining stone archways (gates), St. Benedict gate (seashore gate) and St. Cross gate, (naval gate), both 1589.

“Modern” Rovinj stretches onto the mainland, and along a larger harbor, then onto some beach area. And opposite the old town on the peninsula is "The hill’, covered with a group of five luxury hotels with shared pools, waterfront, tennis courts, lawns, etc. A long promenade connects this area with old Rovinj. I think this is where most tourists stay, only coming over to the old town for the restaurants. The only reason we even explored that area is that you had to walk all the way through it to get to the rental car office. I'm really glad we stayed in the old town.

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We had 6 nights but just five full days. One day we spent in Rovinj just enjoying the town, took a boat ride out into the surrounding islands. The other four days we did day trips but which worked out great as Rovinj itself is the best (I think) place on the Istrian peninsula to base. Great selection of restaurants for dinner, beautiful sunsets, and a lovely vibe in the evening along the waterfront and through the golden cobblestone lanes. My favorite time of day though was early morning. Each day I'd get up and go out to one of the little bakeries or the small grocery market for fresh bread, and while I was out I'd wander the almost deserted streets taking photos. Mornings and evenings were definitely the most enjoyable.

The bus station in Rovinj is just off the peninsula into the 'modern' town, less than a ten minute walk. There's a fairly frequent schedule of buses to the other main towns in Istria and to the rest of Croatia. Not so much to the hill towns in the interior of the Istrian peninsula. There's a window to buy tickets (cash only).

One day we took the bus to PULA. It's about a 45 minute bus ride through some olive groves and vineyards but mostly rural/suburban areas, with occasional glimpses of the sea. We spent about 5 hours there including a quick lunch.

PULA is a small city (population 59,000) and not terribly attractive, and the vistas of the sea are ruined by shipping cranes and industrial stuff. But the sites are definitely worth seeing, and the pedestrianized center is pleasant enough.

The Roman amphitheater is clearly the highlight. Both from the outside and walking around inside it’s just gorgeou, very complete and quite large and on several lists of the "Ten best Roman arenas in the world". And, unusual for an amphitheater in Europe in the summer, there were no seats/staging set up to detract from the ambiance. The Temple of Augustus and town square were also impressive. The other sites, the Cathedral of Svete Marije, the Franciscian Monastery and cloister, the byzantine Basilica of Marija formoza, and the Triumphal Arch were average at best. The Citadel and the view from it were not even that. I know, I'm a jaded traveler, there are so many outstanding sites in Europe that they can't all be the best. These were 'nice', glad I saw them, but except for the arena and the temple I probably won't even remember them in a year. Good things I take all those photos.

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The next day we took the bus to Porec. The bus ride was about an hour and went past the Lim Canal. The Lim bay is a fijord like bay between Rovinj and Porec. The name comes from the Latin for "limit", referring to it's position at the border of two Roman provinces: Dalmatia and Italia. We had seen several boat trips offered from Rovinj but didn't have time so I was glad the view from the bus was actually pretty good.

POREC (population 17,000) Also on a little peninsula like Rovinj but no hill so not quite as striking a profile and less ‘charming’ but very well kept, lots of flowers, totally pedestrian. Some very nice Venetian buildings and one great “Roman” house. Also a few remnants of Roman columns. A nice ‘riva’ promenade all the way around the old town.

The main event is the UNESO listed 6th Century Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica where Christianity was established as early as the 4th Century." It constitutes the most complete surviving complex of its type. The basilica, atrium, baptistery and episcopal palace are outstanding examples of religious architecture, while the basilica itself combines classical and Byzantine elements in an exceptional manner." The glittering mosaics in the apse of the church are the highlights. I really like the atrium entrance way. We also climbed the tower, but it's not very high and the view not that great. There were also a lot of Roman floor mosaics in addition to the 6th century ones in the main church.

Buses returning to Rovinj were not all that frequent so we ended up with about 4 hours

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Guide books claim Istria is like “Tuscany 20 years ago before being spoiled by the tourists”. We wanted to see the hill towns and interior and the only practical way to do this is with a car. I though rental prices were outrageous, compared to our other rentals in Italy and Spain in recent years but sometimes you have to spend money to see what you want so we did. We only had the car for four days but it allowed us two days of exploring the hilltowns in Istria and got us efficiently to the Plitvice Lakes, then we dropped it in Zadar and did the rest of the trip by public transportation.

The Istrian interior is lovely, some of the scenery is very pretty and there are several interesting, pretty hill towns. But the scenery is not as dramatic as Tuscany – think long vistas with vineyards and fields of sunflowers broken by curving roads lined with cypress trees and a stone house in the distance. Didn’t see any of that. And while the hill towns do have charm, and pretty stone buildings on pretty stone streets, many of the Italian hill towns have more interesting buildings, piazzas, and settings – the ‘bones’ of a town need to be there to give it that certain something – although the atmosphere can certainly be lessened by groups of tourists and too many post card shops.

The distances between towns in Istria are short and the roads good, but many of the little towns are not easy to get to from each other so takes a lot longer than you might think. The Google maps app can be annoying and with “directions” turned on it seems almost worse than useless. But by just following the route to the destination (little blue ball showing where you are) it does help. We found the first town, Groznyan with no trouble, parking was free and easy – lots of spaces along the approach road (and a small lot at the top).

Grožnjan is certainly charming, all honey colored stone – the streets and the buildings. There are a few stores with local crafts/ jewelry and several with olive oil and truffle products. Not the absolute best hill town but it’s up there. Quite small though and not many tourists, usually just a few on each street. In the 1950's Grožnjan was almost a ghost town when a group of artists decided to renovate the houses and started to live in the town. Today most of inhabitants are artists and there are almost 200 of them. But obviously the town is almost entirely given over to tourists. No tour groups. We were done in about an hour.

We got a little lost looking for the next town, Montovun, (I’m actually blaming that on google maps, in this case would have been better just following the signs). The approach road here is very new and widened – we suspected for tour buses - and there were indeed at least a couple. First thing you come to is a fairly large parking lot that seemed to be filling up quickly. There is a booth across the street to pay (20 krona) and right next to it a booth to buy shuttle bus tickets (another 20 krona, each) to avoid the 20-minute up hill walk.

Montovun is the quintessential hill town as you approach with a wall and a bell tower and houses spilling down the hillside. It also has a more interesting history – Roman and medieval – and is surrounded by ramparts which you can pay to walk on although you can get the views without paying. There is an impressive entrance gate, then another smaller one. A large watch/bell tower that is impressive but not open to climb. Several restaurants. And one long nice street with no shops or restaurants. Lots more tourists here, though nothing you could call crowded, but they all remained by the gates and restaurants because walking down (and I do mean down) the long street we only saw a couple people (and some cats). We had lunch at one of the restaurants by the main gate – fabulous views of the surrounding valley and river and hills on the other side.

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Almost directly across the valley from Montovun is Opratalj, which gets almost no tourists at all. It’s a very narrow winding road, takes 20 minutes to go 6km but it was worth it. One small parking lot (about 20 spaces, only 4 cars in it) and then a short flat walk to the main ‘feature’, a pink Venetian style loggia. Very nice, great views of vineyards and olive groves. Then a rather nice yellow gate into the town. We loved this town, probably our favorite of the six we visited.

The town is mostly still in ruins, only a very few buildings have been restored and are lived in. About 3 or 4 small shops (only one was open). But very atmospheric, the whole place. Loved it. We talked to the woman in the one shop – she makes all the crafts and takes photos which she makes into post cards. I bought two cards for 25 krona and she said it was her first sale of the day (it was 4 pm). She said volunteers of townspeople are slowly cleaning up the ruins and actually left her shop (open) to show us a path to what once was a street with houses – you could still see wall paintings in what were once buildings but are now ruins.

The following day we hiked back to where we left the car (obviously no parking in old town Rovinj) and headed out to another 3 towns. This time we did take the 'highway' a ways, despite being the main 'autostrada' type road, it is only limited access 2 lanes each way for part of it, the rest is a one lane each way 'regular' road. Looks like they are still building it.

First stop was HUM. Once you leave the highway it's a short distance to Hum but though paved the road is as narrow as a driveway. About 20 minutes from the highway, we didn’t see another car the whole time till just before the town. But they do expect tourists, there is a guy manning a booth as you enter the town collecting 10 kona, then you park wherever. There were about 4 other cars there. We did see a significant sized dirt ‘lot’ and a sign for tour buses so they must get them at times. Today however there were literally less than a dozen other tourists (2 couples, 2 families with a couple kids). It’s cute enough but if it weren’t in the Guinness Book of World Records for “World’s smallest town” no one would bother cause there are plenty of other towns just as cute. There were three shops selling truffle related items (cheese, oils, beer) – also had nice body oils and lotions, Istrian brandy, and a few local crafts. DH, who is a beer snob and samples beer everywhere he goes, could not even drink the truffle beer, it was so bad.

Then on to Draguc – back to the highway, one exit (10 minutes) and then another 15 minutes up a slightly wider approach road than the road to Hum. Draguc is also moderately cute but wouldn’t be worth the effort except that one tiny chapel, at the far end of town (meaning a 5 minute walk from where you enter) has amazing frescoes covering the walls and ceilings. I had read about this in a trip report somewhere, if you didn’t know about it you’d never find it. The church was locked but there were windows with just iron bars so you could look inside. If I didn’t have a good camera to get shots of it though I wouldn’t have been able to really see good enough to appreciate it. The photos came out pretty good.

Then another ½ hour (the map app on the phone has turned out to be very useful here, not sure we could have done it with paper maps and signs alone) on to Gračišće. This was the least interesting (all of yesterday’s were more interesting than any of today’s towns). There is one nice loggia and a few charming buildings but the pavement in the whole town is new and the streets fairly wide and the charm is just not there. There are some great views in the distance though.

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The drive to Plitvice took about 4 ½ hours including one 15 minute rest stop.We just followed the google maps recommended route which was highway most of the way. The last bit, after you leave the E751, is the D42 to D1. This goes through some beautiful rural landscape, and actually the last half hour or more you are actually IN the Plitvice Lakes National Park and the road is typical national park kind of road, deeply forested, narrow and winding. So while lovely, it took longer than we expected and we had a reserved timed ticket, which, if you missed your time window, would be useless.

Starting this summer (2019) they had on-line timed reservations and implied that if you did not have one it was likely you wouldn't be able to enter. That might be true mid day or on certain days, but when we got there for our 16:00 reserved entrance (price is reduced after 4 pm, and we had read it's much less crowded then) people were certainly just showing up without tickets and were able to buy them on the spot. Even though there was hardly anyone on line to enter, we had to wait till exactly 4pm before they let us in.

If you stay in one of the three 'official' hotels you can get your ticket stamped to go back in the following day for free. We stayed at Hotel Bellevue, great location right near Entrance 2, free parking (and they drove us to Entrance 1 which we had inadvertently booked entrance for - you must enter at the specific entrance you have a ticket for)., 82€ night/double. Hotel Bellevue is right out of the 1970s and while it hasn't been updated since, it was clean and comfortable enough. Lots of tour groups staying there. There are not a lot of food options - the hotel next to the Bellevue has an expensive restaurant that serves dinner, both entrances have hamburger type food, and the road leading to Split has several places to eat about 20 minutes away - although we did not know this since we entered from the opposite direction and there were no food options that way at all.

Plitvice Lakes National Park UNESCO World Heritage Site– Beautiful, glad I went, but sorry to say it did not live up to our expectations. Perhaps the problem is that the reviews were so wonderful it was hard to live up to. Or maybe they were all written by people living in Kansas or Houston who have never seen a wooded area with lakes and waterfalls. Some of the water was a very nice shade of turquoise but a lot of it was just ‘normal lake dark greenish’. There are a lot of waterfalls, most of them quite small but a few taller ones. The fact that there are so many, that they link together a lot of small lakes and ponds (and one medium size lake) and the boardwalks connecting it all are certainly nice. It was very pleasant. But words like amazing, extraordinary, and incredible were not words I’d use to describe it. Everything was back lit in the afternoon and there were a lot of clouds around so it wasn’t sunny the whole time (but certainly wasn’t a ‘cloudy day’ either). It’s better in the morning light – the color of the water is probably the best thing and that is better early in the day.

Signage is terrible. Only after you’ve done it does the map make any sense. One entrance the trails are lettered (A, B, etc.) and the other entrance they are numbered. Very few signs on the trails. You just kind of go. We started at Entrance 1 and in about 45 minutes got to the boat which goes across the big lake. Pleasant but unspectacular 20 minute ride. Then you need to take another boat across a much shorter part of the lake (5 minutes) to start the next section of trail. That one loops around back to the boat to return to Entrance 2, or keeps going and there is a shuttle train you can take to get back. Of course you can walk along paths much further but to see most of the water falls you follow the ‘popular’ trails that mostly use boardwalks and some woodland paths.

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The good news is that I would hardly call it crowded (a Saturday and Sunday in July). Certain portions of the boardwalks did have people taking selfies or photos of their friends and being inconsiderate of others, and of course some people are just oblivious to others around them and insisted on walking two across. The boardwalk is barely wide enough for one person in each direction to pass without someone being forced to take a swim. But much of the time we were alone on a stretch.

We were actually in the park from 4 to about 7 the first afternoon, and 8 (when it opens) to about 10:30 the next morning and felt this was plenty of time. Obviously you could spend a couple days if you wanted to hike all over but the 'good' parts were easily covered in this amount of time.

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Easy drive to Zadar, less than two hours to the airport where we dropped the car, all very well marked on good 2 lane and then 4 lane highway.

Zadar, population 75,000, is surrounded by industrial sprawl but the old center is on a peninsula (rectangular instead of oval like the others) and has a lot of very interesting ‘stuff’. Venetian walls and town gates, Romanesque and Byzantine churches, Roman columns and ruins, a modern ‘sea organ’ and a device that soaks up the sun and then plays lights at night, several interesting churches. It was heavily damaged in WW II and the post war buildings are mixed in among the old buildings so architecturally it’s not an ‘ensemble’ type town, even in the heart of the old town, but it’s pleasant enough and the ‘sights’ are very worthwhile with a nice vibe.

We only spent one night - so about 24 hours - in Zadar which I felt was just about right. I'm glad I had more than a few hour stop over, but I felt after 24 hours I had seen all I wanted to. We stayed at 'Hotel Zara Palace' (, €72 night/double). It's not exactly a hotel, and it's definitely not a palace, it's a few rooms, but they are very nice, newly renovated and comfortable. And just off the main square. No reception desk but texting with the host he was there to greet us and give us the keys.

Zadar’s walls were originally built to keep out the invading forces from Turkey, and it successfully did its job, allowing the city to maintain its independence, with the walls never being breached. They are now a UNESCO world heritage site. There are still several of the original gates into the old town through the walls. The most impressive is the ‘Port Gate’ (Llucka vrata) fashioned from a Roman triumphal arch into a Renaissance grand entrance topped with a Venetian Lion. It sits beside the little Fosa harbor. Just inside this gate is Five Wells Square, 16th Century, featuring five identical wells in a line. This square, like many places we saw on this trip, was featured in Game of Thrones.

The Riva is a seaside promenade that encircles the old town peninsula and features two interesting things. The Sea Organ (Morske orgulue) (built in 2005) looks like a set of wide steps going down into the sea but is designed so that the action of the waves pushes water through them creating ‘music’ (sounded more like the ‘song’ of a sea creature than actual music). Just past that is the ‘Greeting to the Sun/Pozdrav Suncu’ a 22 meter diameter solar panel in the pavement that ‘charges’ during the day and spews colored light patterns after dark. Zadar is know for it's sunsets. Unfortunately by sunset it was fairly cloudy so certainly not spectacular when we were there, but I really can't see how it could be any better than anywhere else.

The Church of St Donat/Crkva svetog Donata is a 9th century Byzantine round church with remnants of columns and other stone pieces the Romans left behind. The 3 story cavernous interior is beautiful. Just behind it is the bell tower of the Cathedral of St Anastasia/Katedrala svete Stosije, 12th Century Romanesque. Views from the top of the tower include the entire old town (where the Roman street plan is still very evident) and the top of St Donat.

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Šibenik is not one of those places that people mention when listing ‘must see’ destinations in Croatia. Mostly I’d heard about people stopping briefly to see the UNESCO listed cathedral when heading north from Split. But it made a convenient stop over between Zadar and Split and the photos I’d seen made me feel it might be worth it. So since expectations were not that high they were easily met and surpassed. While Šibenik doesn’t quite rank up there with Split or Dubrovnik, I think it is just as impressive as the more popular towns of Trogir and Zadar.

We took a bus from Zadar, having dropped off the car when we arrived there. We had one night, so again, about 24 hours. And like Zadar, I felt that was just about right. I'm glad I saw it in the evening and the morning and had time to explore the town and not just see the Cathedral, but you don't really need more than 24 hours. We stayed at another "room" found on (€72 night/double). Almost impossible to find, even with google maps, but once we did it was very comfortable. Palace Rialto Rooms. An old building, right in the center of the old town, with a collection of several ensuite rooms. In this case we never saw the 'host', they texted us a code which was used to gain entry.

Šibenik, population 34,000, offers a change of pace from Dalmatia’s strong Italianate influences since its origins are pure Croatian rather than Roman. Šibenik’s old town is described as a typical Mediterranean medieval city, with a collection of churches, noble palaces, and centuries old Dalmatian stone houses separated by narrow alleyways. The old town is very well preserved and totally charming.

The old town is not very large but it’s full of stone streets – narrow, winding and many stepped, lined with stone buildings. Many of the buildings have beautiful detailing, statues, plaques, stone carvings. Lots of tiny churches tucked away. Small squares all over the place. The waterfront has a nice wide riva with restaurants on one side, boats on the other.

But Šibenik is mostly known for the Cathedral of St. James (Katedrala Sv Jakova), a UNESCO World Heritage site built by the Venetians in the 15th and 16th centuries and is made entirely out of stone. In fact it is the only European cathedral constructed using only stone. The exterior of the cathedral is magnificent and the centerpiece of one of the most beautiful squares in Croatia. Across the square lies City Hall (Gradska vijecnica), a 16th century Renaissance building that looks like it was transplanted from Venice. Both the cathedral and the square were settings for Game of Thrones.

The other main ‘sites’ are the fortresses. There are actually 4 of them but a couple are a ways out of town. The main one, St Michael's, sits right above the old town and can be seen from below. Concerts are held there in summer so it’s filled with modern seats. St Nichola's Fortress, a little out of town, is also a site of major importance, protecting the area from invasion after its construction in 1525 and is being listed as a UNESCO site along with the cathedral.

Past the main part of town, the riva becomes a tad shabby, the boats are just small fishing boats and ‘local’ pleasure craft. But continue far enough and around the bend and the view back to the town spilling down the hill from the fortress is amazing.

The only real negatives about both Zadar and, to a lesser extent, Sibenik (and probably the reason they aren’t higher up on the ‘tourist’ trail) – is they haven’t done a good job integrating the modern with the old. Within feet of the Roman Forum in Zadar or the UNESCO cathedral in Sibenik you see ugly 1950s style apartment buildings in not very good shape. You can walk around the old towns and find ugly buildings within steps of a church built over a thousand years ago. Makes the ambiance less than it could be. It seems a lot of other places in Europe have done a better job of preserving historic centers.

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Hvar Island – Hvar Town and Stari Grad
On our previous trip to Croatia we choose Korcula over Hvar for our ‘island’ experience because of the reviews that Hvar is ‘party central’ and ‘playground for the rich’, etc. But since then I’d read a number of trip reports about staying in Stari Grad instead. I did want to see Hvar, the town of Hvar has some beautiful architecture, and the Stari Grad Plain is a UNESCO world heritage site. So this trip we took the ferry from Split (arrived in Split from Sibenik by bus, the bus station is across the street from the ferry terminal and ferries to Stari Grad are frequent, an hour and a half.) We spent two nights based in Stari Grad and did a day trip by bus to Hvar Town.
Stari Grad is more picturesque than I expected. There’s a small actual stone old town with several lanes and a couple small squares, one with a church and bell tower that can be climbed. There’s a promenade all along the rectangular shaped harbor, the first part of which is full of expensive yachts and sailboats, but then a lot more much smaller little fishing and day boats. Tons of restaurants, few kiosks selling jewelry and clothes but definitely not a shopping mecca. Lots of ice cream, crepe stands, etc. There are two grocery stores and several bakeries. While there were plenty of sleek sailboats/yachts and a few that looked like ‘party’ boats, overall the atmosphere in Stari Grad is quiet. Plenty of families, people on beach holiday. No glitz or glamour at all.
Apartment Lomar is a good 15-20 minute walk from the ferry but the phone got us there. The host didn’t answer either my message or the text I sent when we arrived which had us worried that maybe we’d have no place to stay. But as we walked up to the house he came out. He lives downstairs. The apartment is quite nice with plenty of room, vey well appointed with decent little kitchenette, good bathroom, small balcony. AC works great & Wi-Fi works (slow). It’s about a 10-minute walk to the waterfront/old town.
Hvar Island billed as a “lush, sunny Shangri-la, with more hours of sunshine (2,724) than any other place in Croatia.” So it makes sense that after 15 days of total sunshine, we get clouds in Hvar. We took the bus from Stari Grad (20 -40 minutes depending on the number of stops). Goes through the beautiful Starti Grad Plain and along the coast. Slightly lusher than most Greek islands but otherwise similar – grapes, olives, lots of stone walls.

Hvar Town, is famed for it’s party vibe but it is one of the Adriatic's best preserved historic towns. The center is totally pedestrianized and wraps around the harbor with stepped narrow streets, honey colored stone houses and a number of Venetian palaces and a small Renaissance cathedral (St Stephen) which stands on the largest square in Dalmatia. It’s bell tower is Venetian. Overlooking it all is the Fortress. Hvar town is charming even in mid summer –I don’t know about evenings when it is party central, but mid day it’s a typical tourist town. Busier for sure than Stari Grad but it’s larger and has much more of tourist interest. I would say the percentage of “childless 20 and 30 somethings” is about 70% compared to Stari Grad (and other places in Croatia) where it’s more like 30% - the rest being people with kids and people over 40. But otherwise I didn’t see any more evidence of the RAF (rich and famous) than anywhere else. There were plenty of snazzy yachts in Stari Grad (and elsewhere) as well. The other main difference in Hvar Town from elsewhere is the prices. Pizza, ice cream, jewelry – everything was more expensive.
We climbed up to the fortress which is a really nice climb (about 20 minutes) through a “Mediterranean” Garden with lots of giant aloe and cactus and the fortress itself (50 kuna) is very well preserved and the views really are wonderful- even on a cloudy day – offshore are the Pakleni islands. Especially loved the underground prisons.

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Split was the only place we revisited this trip. We did see a noticeable increase in the crowds from our last visit (almost ten years ago) and also in the number of ‘glitzy’/mall type stores and the number of bars catering to a younger crowd. And while the historic center (a UNESCO world heritage site) is definitely worth seeing, the rest of the old town isn’t any better than other places in Croatia.The three main ‘gates’ into the Diocletian Palace are all interesting, and there are a few picturesque narrow streets. The two main squares just outside the ‘palace’ Narodni Trg and Vocni Trg are both very nice. And the Riva is very pleasant – at least early in the day. But other than that Split really doesn’t have much. Certainly not as charming or picturesque as most of the other towns we’ve visited. And the enormous crowds – and the glitzy stores and discos they’ve inspired – detract from what could be. Lots of Game of Thrones stuff going on – a museum, shop, tours.

We had three nights, one of the two full days we did a day trip to Brac.

Dosud House is right inside the Diocletian Palace, just off Vocni Trg in a lovely old building. There are restaurants in the square outside but not too noisy at least until 9pm when the beat music began. The roomwas decent size with a tiny kitchenette. Our room was on the third (fourth) floor, there are two other identical ones on the second and first floors. So we had to walk up three flights but the view out the window of the rooftops and square was worth it. Pricey but I guess that’s Split. Tied with Venice as the most expensive of the trip (€126/night double)

We took the 9:30 ferry to Supetar on Brac island. We could see pulling in that there wasn’t a lot to it and I really wanted to see Pucisca since it’s on several lists of ‘most beautiful villages’. The bus ride itself – though there was a lot of zigging and zagging was really interesting and went through some lovely countryside of vineyards, olive groves and lots of stone walls. And some fantastic views down to the water and lots of little bays and good views of the mountains on the mainland across the water.
Pucisca was lovely. The buildings themselves are not that interesting – one nice church bell tower – but the harbor is long and has several side shoots and the water was a beautiful clear turquoise. Walked all the way around both sides – mostly sunny and very pleasant. We went up into the small alleys of the town but not a lot there. Still, managed to amuse ourselves for a couple hours.
Back in Supetar we walked around the harbor and out a ways – large beach area (with mini waterpark) and the town itself goes back just a few streets from the water. There is a very nice combination of a church, bell tower and clock tower all-together and all in very white stone. Brac is famous as the source of stone that built Diocletian’s palace and also the White House in DC. In front of the church is a small segment of Roman mosaic flooring from 600 AD. Most of the buildings in the town are from the 1700s and most much later (20th C). Supetar really takes less than an hour to explore so unless you want a meal or to go to the beach there’s not much to do.

But the trip was worth it for Pucisca and for the ferry rides – in both directions it was delicious – sunny, warm breeze but not at all hot and there were sea gulls swooping along side the boat the whole way. Love this kind of ferry ride.

From Split we flew EasyJet to Lyon France (for 45€ each, including ‘upfront seating’). Since I doubt most people are looking to combine Croatia with the cities I visited in France (Lyon, Dijon and Marselle) I’ll do that as a separate report.

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Fabulous report. I totally agree with your pet peeve. If travelers have to eat out for nourishment, travel will indeed cost a fortune - just like it does in the USA. All the places we stay are not 4-star. But they are clean and convenient.