I spent my Easter break travelling around Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Hercegovina. What I learned from my tour around the Balkans I think is interesting enough to relate to you all, and I want to do it while the impressions are fresh.
For a start Croatia and Montenegro, but particularly Croatia as it is already established as a tourist destination for western Europeans as well as being in the EU as well, are missing a rather lucrative trick. Both nations have economies heavily reliant on tourism; both have weather in the spring that would be considered comfortably summery throughout a lot of northern Europe; yet they do not consider the spring part of their season and act accordingly. Therefore, despite blue skies and above-20 degree weather almost every day, the hotels were mostly empty and everywhere close to deserted. Obviously, in the cities this wasn’t the case, but try driving down the Croatian coast from Makarska to Dubrovnik in early April and see if you can find a single restaurant open anywhere.
Part of this was appealing – it’s nice to have an entire beach to yourself – but it also meant that most places were shut, which was less than ideal. I suppose I’m announcing to the respective tourist boards of Croatia and Montenegro that they are missing at least two months of large revenues, if not three or four, by failing to advertise correctly. 19 degrees and a clear blue sky is summer in England; if more people knew how great the weather was in the southern Balkans in April, they would flock to your currently deserted beaches in droves.
We started our tour in Split. I liked Split, which I’d heard previously mixed views on. The palace is great, the marble streets cool, the seaside boardwalk will instantly chill you out a bit. The hotel we stayed at needs special mention: it’s called the Starlight Luxury Rooms, it’s very centrally located, and the room we got there was amazing value. If this sounds like a paid advertisement, it isn’t: I just think credit where its due. Particularly as it was one of the few places we stayed in Croatia that delivered on what it promised in full.
Remember how I said the Croatians think of April as off-season, even though it’s above-20 degrees most days? Well, the other downside to this, apart from not being able to find an open restaurant, is that if you rent a place with a swimming pool thinking you’ll be spending your days splashing about in that glorious weather I’ve just described, you’ll be sadly let down. For they don’t seem to fill the pools until June. Not that this is advertised – I guess they figure any chumps like us naïve enough to come to the Balkans in spring expecting a pool gets what they deserve.
Worse in this vein was to befall us on our next stop, the island of Brac (pronounced “Brash”). We arrived at our rented accommodation to find not only an empty pool, but no landlord either. Turns out they get so few bookings this time of year, they hadn’t noticed we’d bothered to rent the place. They did end up finding us somewhere in lieu – much smaller and in a very different location, mind you – but at least we didn’t need to sleep rough.
Brac was beautiful – but again, deserted. A lot of the restaurants looked quite nice, but I can only guess since they were all shut. I should take this time to describe Croatian food, I suppose. I hate to say this, but a lot of it can be summarised thus: substandard Italian. There are national dishes – and the few I tried were totally amazing – but they are terribly shy about it and would rather feed you not particularly memorable pizza instead.
Next we hit Dubrovnik, which was spectacular, and I recommend everyone go their once in their life. The intact city wall, the marble streets, the view from the top of the mountain. Dubrovnik had less of the seasonal problems we found in other parts of Croatia, but had several of its own: one, its very, very touristy, like Venice on American steroids (although I think Dubrovnik is more beautiful than Venice, myself). Two, it’s very expensive. It’s about as expensive as central London, which given how inexpensive most of Croatia is, really stands out when you’re doing a tour. The food is better, but you pay for the privilege of it being so at high markup. One other thing to beware of in Dubrovnik: if the place you’re staying tells you there is parking available, they are lying. It’s a Dubrovnik racket, telling you to relax about the parking, only for you to have to scramble for someplace to put your car when you arrive. There’s not a lot of parking about (you can’t drive at all in the Old Town, just to be clear) but if you can find it, be prepared to pay around £25 a day.
Next up: Montenegro………….in Part Two……..