Slow travel in Croatia- discovering authentic Croatia
Dubrovnik, Hvar, Split, Plitvice Lakes, Krka Waterfalls, summer beaches, swimming, the Blue Cave on the Island of Vis are well known as some of Croatia’s best known hot spots and most sought-after activities. Having worked in tourism throughout my entire career, I have personally witnessed these incredible places and activities, slowly lose some of their magic as more and more visitors crowd in every year.
Don’t get me wrong, these places and experiences are still worthwhile and beautiful to witness, there is no denying that the burden of overtourism is having a negative impact on the environments themselves, the visitor experience, the local communities, and infrastructure.
How to travel more sustainably in Croatia?
Which is why AndAdventure is hoping to encourage more visitors to experience Croatia through a different lens and join us for a more immersive, slow-paced, offseason travel style to help ensure tourism in our beautiful country is more sustainable.
Croatia is often perceived as an exclusively summer destination. Because of that, many potential visitors avoid visiting us outside of the peak summer season or avoid putting Croatia on their bucket list all together because of “summer vibe” misconceptions. However, those who visit our country in the offseason are given the opportunity to make a deeper connection with people they meet and the places they visit. Because slow travel is all about connections – with people, places, nature, and most importantly, with yourself. Slow travel sparks curiosity and gives you plenty of time for relaxation, as well as time for learning new things.
Of course, we still expect people will want to visit the most popular cities to visit in Croatia – after all, there is good reason they are the most popular – such as Dubrovnik, Hvar, Split, AndAdventure will ensure that your experience of these cities feels as authentic as possible as we share our local stories and get you away from the beaten track and into the heart of the lesser-known Croatia.
But if we have grabbed your curiosity about slow travel, we wanted to share the follow slow travel in Croatia experience. We recently welcomed two guests, Kat and Toni, for a 45-day Croatia trip that touched on… well almost everything. We had such a great time building out Kat and Toni’s extensive Croatia trip and working together with them that we wanted to talk to them more about the experience exploring our beloved country.
We think it provides some great insight from a couple truly avid and considerate travelers, and incredible guests! Like their trip, it’s long, but it gives you a real look into what AndAdventure and Croatia have to offer you if you want to take things slowly.
A Conversation with Two AndAdventure Guests After a 45-Day Croatia Vacation
How would you describe yourself as a traveler?
Kat: How I travel has changed over the years, in particular after I stopped having a full-time desk job. In the beginning, I wanted to see everything and would squeeze as much as I could in the time I had, and that was fun. But as I saw more of the World and had more time to spend overseas, I began to be more selective in where I went and how much time I would spend on any 1 place. My full-time career ended in 2018, and in 2019 we spent a month each in Venice, Milan and Cuba. I had visited Venice 6 times before for varying lengths of time (2 days-2 weeks), so this was my chance to really get to know the city. We joined a gym, got to know our neighbours, had favourite restaurants where the staff knew us. We shopped at local markets and even had favourite vendors for the produce we enjoyed, and they took the time to explain where their produce came from and introduced me to varieties I had never seen, complete with preferred recipes! By the time we left Venice, I was navigating the calles largely without the help of Google maps, which was a tremendous feat for me. It made me truly feel like a local. My Italian wasn’t bad either. We had a similar experience in Milan, and even received marriage proposals from 2 cheeky vegetable vendors we frequented at their weekly outdoor market.
That immersive experience is what I seek when I travel now. I’m always interested in the historical and cultural sites of a city or town, but just as important for me is to mingle with the locals and shop at the markets. This was the experience we wanted from our trip to Croatia, and AndAdventures delivered this in spades!
From their recommendation of towns to visit, their guides and the experiences they arranged, we feel we really got a good understanding of Croatia, its tumultuous history, the many cultures that have influenced their food and language and the mind and hearts of its people, from the Dalmatians to the Istrians to the Continentals. Yes, it did surprise us how each considered themselves different from the others in fairly fundamental ways for such a small country.
I would add that our way of traveling requires the luxury of time, as we spent 6 weeks in Croatia with AndAdventures, and it was still not enough.
Toni: I enjoy making travel a culturally rich experience. I like to have, at the very least, an overview of a destination’s history and geography, which I will obtain through research before travel. In the ideal situation, before taking off I’ll have gotten some insight into contemporary life in a given country, along with some knowledge of key characteristics for which that place is known. These will be in such areas as religion, philosophy, architecture, the arts, historical sites, cuisine, language, or traditions.
And yes, this type of preparation does take time; but I find that the amount of “homework” I’m able to do before travel is directly proportional to the quality of the experience I will have while moving about and meeting people in a new place.
How did you learn about AndAdventure?
Kat: I came across an article about women owned/operated travel companies and Veselka was featured. We try to support such business when we can, so I got in touch.
Toni: I learned about AndAdventure from Kat.
Why do you feel AndAdventure was the right tour operator for you?
Kat: I wasn’t sure at first because they advertised essentially as an outdoor adventure company, and while we enjoy the odd (easy!) hike, we weren’t outdoor adventurers by a longshot. But I was very impressed by how genuine they were in wanting us to properly experience their beloved country. I ask a lot of questions as I plan for a trip, and Dajana from AndAdventures replied to every single one promptly and with great insight. It really helped me understand my options and the planning was as fun as the trip. I thought she might tire of my constant queries and changes, but she seemed to enjoy creating a trip that suited our purpose and personalities. And she was with us every day of our 45 days in Croatia on WhatApp, making sure everything was to our liking and making numerous adjustments to our plans as we travelled. She became a friend and we shared stories and photos with her as we went. We were fortunate to be able to meet up with Dajana in Split.
Do you usually choose to travel with a tour operator? Why or why not?
Toni: Usually, we tailor our trips from scratch, on our own, meaning that Kat, our Director of Finance and Logistics (!) is the architect of most of our programs. I generally research attractions, events, and food and culture, and contribute to the selection of guides.
Because we seek a culture-based experience, we value guides who are local to each city we visit, and these are seldom to be drawn from a single online “clearing house”, if you will. Online one may find a wealth of freelance scholar-guides with solid academic backgrounds, touristic programs and ideas; lots of different types of accommodation arrangements; tons of info on tourist and other attractions; and an enormous amount of material on what and where to eat…And in each of these areas, there are plenty of mechanisms in place for rating quality and cost-effectiveness.
That’s why in most cases, if you’re happy to do the “legwork”, you can put together a very decent program by yourself, knowing it’s been shaped exactly according to your design. Of course, then you have to pray that all the components will be “as advertised” on the ground!
But there are two main reasons we decided to go with a tour operator for our visit to Croatia: 1) The destination was completely outside our realm of experience, which in Europe had involved only countries west of the Adriatic; and 2) As ours was to be a rather ambitious monthlong (first-time!) foray, we planned to cover a considerable amount of territory, and didn’t wish to get bogged down in logistical considerations at every stage.
Where have you travelled previously for tourism purposes?
Toni: In Europe, together we’ve toured in Ireland, England, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Sicily, and Malta. We’ve also explored quite a bit of Asia: Thailand, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Tibet, and Bhutan. Separately we’ve visited other countries, too–Kat’s wanderlust has led her to many more places than I have seen.
Kat: Too many cities/towns to name specifically, so I’m just going to name countries. Obviously, by naming a country I’m not implying I’ve not seen everything or even a majority of what a country has to offer, which is why my list of places to visit includes places I’ve already been to but want to return as I feel I’ve only really scratched the surface. So here goes: Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Malta, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, UK, Republic of Ireland, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, China, Bhutan, India, Japan, most of Southeast Asia, Australia, many parts of the USA, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Peru, and Brazil.
Why did you want to explore Croatia?
Toni: My awareness of Croatia came to me in unrelated bits and pieces over the years.
The few things I knew about Croatia were linked to the Slavic presence in my hometown, Chicago; author James Joyce’s wanderings; very significantly, reportage of the 1990s war; and then, sometime after the war, brightly-colored posters heralding the start of a new age of tourism in Croatia.
These regular campaigns planted a seed somewhere in my head, mainly because of the natural beauty they featured. Then at some point I started reading other people’s glowing accounts of vacationing in Croatia; then on trips to Venice, a city we love, Kat and I began discussing how easy it would be to travel to Istria on such a holiday.
That was a modest goal. Fast-forward to the present, and we find Kat retired from her company; a pandemic wreaking havoc on entry requirements around the world; and amid the tangle of requirements, what appears to be a unique opportunity for extended holiday travel along Croatia’s fabled Adriatic coast and beyond.
From the first bit of research I did in preparation for the trip, I became excited about the prospect in a way I’d never experienced. Everything was pointing to Croatia being, well, a “foreign” destination anyone in the world could come home to.
That doesn’t happen as a matter of course. I think the overriding impression of a new place is that its vibe will likely be very different from what you know; so it is very uncommon, very unexpected for me to sense the degree of comfort or “familiarity” I immediately did for Croatia. (The only other time I experienced this was prior to visiting Portugal, a phenomenon no doubt tied to my long-ago residence in Macau.)
What we actually did encounter in Croatia was so much more intense than the impressions I was forming through research! Actually being among Croatian people – and by that I mean people from south, to north, to the continental region – is to know a level of hospitality that might leave you reeling (and that’s only partly to do with the range of homemade brandies that may be involved).
That, along with an oft-seen outlook in Croatia on how to balance labor and life, family, and friendship, the political and the personal, made for rare travel with elements of both the unique and the familiar.
How would you describe the trip design process and communication with the AndAdventure team as they put together your trip itinerary prior to your arrival in the destination?
Kat: AndAdventure was unusual in that they threw themselves into my planning process, which I admit is quite demanding, as I want lots of information and recommendations, only to ignore them and go my own way. I’m being partly facetious but it’s not too far from the truth, just ask Dajana, who has the patience of Job.
AndAdventure was prompt and very thoughtful in their replies and recommendations, never pushy and always happy to adjust the itinerary even leaving certain activities open that I could decide on later once I was on the ground in Croatia. We worked together over many weeks, and I was surprised that they never asked for a deposit or part payment despite doing quite a lot of work on my behalf. It reinforced my initial impression that they were genuinely interested in putting together the perfect trip for us, and that our interests were their main focus.
What were you most interested in doing in Croatia? Did this experience meet your expectations?
Toni: There are things we consistently hope to do when visiting a country; namely seeing historic sites, monuments, museums, houses of worship, and natural beauty, all while learning something of traditional life and cuisine.
But for Croatia, in addition to these general areas, I was suddenly very interested to experience this much-talked-about practice of enjoying café culture, which was said to be a huge thing all over the country. Indeed, what became central to my packing for this particular trip was the idea of looking spiffy for lounging about in Croatian cafés, though I usually pack quite practically, and I don’t even drink coffee.
I was astounded to learn from our guides and others that you really could go to a café with a book and stay for hours on end, without being shooed off for loitering, or for not spending enough money while there.
In Croatian coffee shops I channelled Audrey Hepburn as best I could, while delighting in more pastries, cakes, and pies than I ever imagined possible. And people-watching was the most fascinating thing! Visitors from all over the world are making their way to cities throughout Croatia; it’s one of the most international places I’ve ever been.
Now, on to traditional cuisine, which subject intrigued me greatly before we ever reached Croatia’s shores. Why? Because virtually all the traditional Croatian foods I was learning about online, for some reason, evoked memories of revelling in the dishes lovingly prepared by my mother, my aunties–the ladies in the churches and the neighbor-ladies…and often by men lording over the grill…Nothing genteel or particularly delicate; just delectable, robust offerings to make the children strong, and to keep the men and women going for another day’s joys and challenges.
But in this kind of food there is such variation, creativity, and comfort! So my pre-travel research yielded 29 dishes to look out for. I didn’t need to try them all; the goal was simply to take every opportunity to experience traditional cooking that happened to be meatless, as I am a vegetarian.
Happily, fresh fruit and vegetables were plentiful everywhere we went in Croatia; and there are many dishes and foods, even traditional ones, that are simply not made with meat. And apart from traditional cuisine, a person can easily find a range of soups and pastas with fresh-vegetable side dishes, along with cheeses of many kinds.
I had the pleasure of eating exquisite blitva na lešo and grilano povrće on a regular basis, sometimes as a side to a risotto. I also had, in no particular order (and please pardon my spelling!), burek sa sirom; trokut sir sa sezamom; istarska supa; pljukanci; juha od gliva; grilano povrće; Zagorski štruklji; knedle od sljiva; kuružnjak bread; Paški sir; kiseli kupus; maneštra (I fished the meat out; it was easy); fuži; soparnik; Samoborska kremšnita; Rudarska greblica; kroštule; fritule; smokva (fresh!!!! I didn’t even like figs before Croatia); žižula; Cedevita; 505 S Crtom; Bajadera chocolates…
… Also had a chance for a “daily marenda special” in Pula, but it was punjene paprike, so no marenda for me this time around!
Now I have a new appreciation for the many varieties of olive oil as we were treated to unique commercial and family blends throughout our travels. Of special interest here was the outstanding tasting experience we had in the home of Ms. Deana Miletić at Klis. After preparing beautiful midday fare and explaining the traditional roots of her home-based business, she schooled us, with samples, in how to become more discerning relative to olive-oil types. I can honestly say her pointers and related experiences in Croatia have already made fuller and more interesting my experience of eating with olive oil. What a gift to take home with me. Or to take wherever I go.
Yes, aside from satisfying my ongoing interest in Roman historical influence on Europe, and my desire to know more about Croatia’s history and people, this trip was all about the joy of learning how Croatians seem to approach life from day to day: with uncommon industry and creativity, but with an equally uncommon way of enjoying dear ones and down-time. And also, with fabulous food.
Why did you choose to explore Croatia for 45 days?
Kat: We would have stayed on for another 3 weeks if we could, but we had other plans. Given that we wanted to see several parts of Croatia during this trip, anything shorter wouldn’t work for us, as it wouldn’t have given us enough time to properly experience each location. A large part of the 45 days was spent just in Dubrovnik where we rented a house for 14 days, just to be part of that community. We got to know several older ladies who would bring their produce to the daily market, they spoke little English, and we spoke little Croatian, and yet we looked forward to seeing them, and they would throw in fruit and vegetables into our bag for free! We hope we added to their lives, even for a short time, as they had added to ours.
Was there enough to see and do to sustain your interest throughout your lengthy trip?
Toni: There were always things to see and do, and outgoing people to exchange ideas with wherever we went. Our guides and drivers greatly enriched our time in each city, as each knew the terrain well and had personal insights and experiences to share along the way.
Kat: We don’t need constant activity or sightseeing for us to enjoy a trip, in fact that’s a nightmare for us. We like to have a good guide give us the lay of the land, then we like to explore on our own and interact with the locals. It’s important for us to have as many free days as tour days to wander and let life happen around us. The unscripted interactions are some of the best. Having the time to re-visit a place and have a different experience each time is also such a pleasure. We’re already planning to go back and for longer.
What were your favorite elements of each region you visited: Istria, Zagreb, Dalmatia, Plitvice National Park?
Kat: They are all so different, which made combining them into 1 trip a great way to get an insight into Croatia. Dalmatia is about the Sea (never say “water”!), Istria its hills and hill towns and Zagreb the sophisticated capital city. We loved the changing landscape and the different nuances in the food.
I was very impressed with the focus on conservation, living close to the land and the importance placed on preserving national parks. We couldn’t fit in a proper exploration of the islands of Dalmatia, but that’s a big part of Dalmatia and on our list for our return. Same with Istria, we visited many hill towns but based ourselves mainly in Rovinj, and I would like to return and stay in Istria proper and hire a car and explore. We also couldn’t fit in the continental parts of Croatia like Varadzin and places nearer the Hungarian border. Next time for sure.
Toni: The element of spontaneity was very important in our travels; our guides were clearly determined that we should have singular experiences, and not just the expected ones along the tourist path.
One example: Maslinka had already taken us to all the key regional tourist spots, and even to visit her own precious goats in their paddock before setting out to show us more still. At the end of one day’s adventures, she brought us to Konoba Santa Terra in Sovinjak for drinks before the drive back to Rovinj.
We were greeted warmly by the proprietress and then seated by a roaring fire. The place was empty, save for a young man who possibly worked there, or was family. When he saw us enter, he greeted us but immediately put away the guitar he’d been strumming by the fireplace, then went off to do something “useful,” I suppose.
But it was he who helped to serve us (Kat, Maslinka, driver Ivan, and me); and through gentle coaxing we soon convinced him to join us with his guitar.
Well, we ended up sitting for I don’t know how long in discussion about many things that late afternoon. As Leo, the guitarist, spoke (excellent English) he also strummed; he shared that he’d been playing since childhood and was now in a popular local band.
At one point Kat and I mentioned Oliver Dragojević, whose name we’d learned from our Split guide, Nives, and before we knew it, Leo, Maslinka, and Ivan were singing together – perhaps a Dragojević song; I cannot remember, and I certainly could not understand – I only know that as autumn’s early darkness descended, I was sitting by the fire on a cold afternoon with good people, listening to beautiful voices and guitar, and having the time of my life.
How would you assess the food and wine offering throughout your trip? Did any particular food or wine stand out? How about vegetarian options?
Kat: The food and wine were brilliant, as good as in any major European capital. The freshness of the food and emphasis on local produce was impressive. That’s the way we prefer to eat. I have never had Croatian wines, so that’s all I drank during the entire trip, enjoying Pošip, Plavac Mali, Malvasia and Teran wines. The liqueurs were very interesting too, almost everyone had a home brew with fruits or herbs! Many were too strong for me as an aperitif but great as a digestif.
Which experiences did you find particularly immersive or engaging during your stay?
Kat: It’s really the sum of many component parts, but I think it begins with having adequate time in each place so we could interact at leisure, and repeatedly, with people, and I think it’s all enhanced by having the right kind of guides.
We tend to book the same guide for 2-4 “tours” that include lunch on us, as it allows for a continuity of experience and the potential for an in-depth understanding of the local mindset, culture and food. For example, in Split, we had a museum day planned with our guide Nives, but she mentioned a special dish of lamb innards served on the island of Brač, which I had to try, so we swapped out a day of Meštrović for a day in Brač. Between Nives and Dajana, they made it happen overnight, complete with transportation on the island and a special order of vitalac at the local Konoba. Similarly, we had a two-hour night tour of Zagreb that we turned into a day in Samobor after talking with Vlatka during our walking tour of the city. I think it’s important to have a plan, but also important to remain flexible.
Overall, I have to say that the guides were what made our journey so special. A shoutout to Anada in Dubrovnik, Nives in Split, Josip who took us to Pag, Vlatka M. in Zadar, Darija in Plitvice, the irrepressible Maslinka in Istria (I hope the goats are well) and Vlatka in Zagreb!
Toni: Having a go at speaking Croatian whenever possible, thanks to Dajana’s invaluable help in this area. Not only did she immediately send along the written translations I requested, but she also even sent me sound files over WhatsApp! With those, I was able to practice pronunciation in an informed way, which was terrific.
I generally reviewed my phrases in the morning before touring. Then when a day of touring was done, I’d switch on DOMA TV, for example, and read subtitles out loud (much to Kat’s consternation) to get more of a feel for what people were saying and how they said it. It was super-fun to listen to commercials toward this same end.
I have to tell you, the pleasure, the excitement, the palpable connections it was possible to experience and generate through attempting to speak the language on our trip, mistakes and all, there’s nothing that compares to this, in my (nerdy little) book.
Which experiences did you most enjoy during your time in Croatia? Why?
Kat: I couldn’t possibly pick one. The interactions with the guides brought a lot to our enjoyment of any place with visited. Their enthusiasm, knowledge of their home and curiosity about us made for wonderful conversations that meandered through many topics on history, culture, humanity, love and loss, yoga and Ayurveda, and dogs.
Was there one place/destination that stands out above the rest? If yes, why?
Kat: No, they are all too wonderful to just pick one.
Toni: Each Croatian destination was remarkable in its own way. I would hardly know where to start choosing an absolute favorite.
How was the AndAdventure support throughout the duration of the trip?
Toni: Super-responsive, always positive, and consistently oriented toward meeting our stated objectives; on several occasions, quite creatively so. We came to feel so confident in the relationship established between AndAdventure and ourselves; it was truly like your team was right there on the road with us, so seamless was the communication and decision-making back and forth.
Kat: I can’t begin to tell you how amazing the support was from AndAdventure. Dajana was always only a message away. She responded late at night, on weekends and on her days off. She was prompt in responding with answers, suggestions, and any changes we might want for our itinerary. We felt very well taken care of and any help we needed was attended to with cheer. I felt like Dajana was on the journey with us.
Did anything about AndAdventures’ support stand out to you?
Kat: Just how flexible and hardworking they are, and their unwavering focus on making this trip special for us. They don’t just plan and book your trip, they are partners in your journey.
Would you recommend Croatia as a tourism destination to friends and family? Why or why not?
Toni: I’d definitely recommend Croatia to anyone wanting a fascinating and meaningful travel experience. Enjoyable travel in Croatia can be done on a range of budgets; the nation is blessed with phenomenal natural beauty; its history is compelling; tourism offerings are extremely expansive and diverse; but personally, I would go back again for the food and the people alone.
Kat: Yes and no. “Yes” because it’s so marvellous and we love it so much. But “no” because, selfishly, we don’t want too many people discovering this special place and spoiling it.
Would you recommend AndAdventure as a tour operator to friends and family? Why or why not?
Toni: I’d definitely recommend AndAdventure’s team and service without reservation.
Kat: Without hesitation, yes!
What kind of traveler do you think Croatia and AndAdventure would most appeal to?
Kat: I get the sense that Croatia attracts backpackers and younger travelers due to the much lower prices for its quality food/accommodations. I hear that in summer, its beaches are quite crowded, and some islands become noisy party-towns.
But I think Croatia also appeals to the discerning traveler who has done the popular, bucket-list European destinations like Italy and France, and is looking for something different. The Balkans in general is such an interesting area of central Europe that would appeal to history buffs and gastronomes.
Toni: People who are curious, interested in the historical journey of others to the present day; people who love sensational food and unrivalled hospitality; wine lovers; and of course, as the name implies, travelers who, basically unlike me, love doing madly physical stuff like sailing, hiking, cycling, and horseback riding would benefit from learning what all your group can arrange for them.
Is there anything else you would like to add regarding your trip throughout Croatia with AndAdventure?
Toni: It would be hard to imagine my not having covered all key issues elsewhere in the body of this interview! My sincere thanks to the experts at AndAdventure for a journey through Croatia that surpassed my every expectation.
Kat: If you’re looking for a tour operator that can help you plan the Croatian trip you desire, don’t hesitate to use AndAdventure. Their local insights, access to high quality guides and full trip support is outstanding, and not only for adventure trips, but cultural and historical trips too. No wonder Condé Nast named them 2021 Croatian Travel Specialist of the Year. Well deserved, Veselka and team!