This week, editorial director Kelly Regan and author Karen Olsen take us on a virtual tour of Croatia. While its history may lead us to believe otherwise, Croatia has made an amazing recovery from civil war, and the people of Croatia are generous, eager and welcoming to visitors from around the world. What makes Croatia special, beyond the spirit of the people, is the boundless natural beauty, diversity of landscape and the rich history it possesses. Join us for our Croatia podcast and learn about how to get there, the best times to go, how to find the most beautiful beaches on the Adriatic, and where to eat your own freshly caught fish!
To listen this episode, click the "play" button on the MP3 player below.
Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- "The Season": Most tourism occurs in July & August, so to avoid crowds travel in June or September.
- Bora Winds: Avoid traveling in winter, as hurricane strength winds sweep up and down the coastline.
- Island Travel: To save money, take the ferries.
- Getting There: Connect in Europe and take either budget flight to Croatia, or take the train from Italy.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com Travel Podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit us at www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to All Things Travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides; I'll be your host.
My guest today is Karen Olson, the author of our new book, "Frommer's Croatia," which is on sale now. She's here to talk about Croatia as one of Europe's hottest and most affordable destinations. Karen, welcome.
Karen Olson: Thank you.
Kelly: So, let's start with the basics. For people who might not be familiar with Croatia, obviously itï¿½s one of the former Yugoslav Republics. It's on the Adriatic, right across from Italy, stretching down the coast. Give me a snapshot of what makes Croatia such a memorable travel destination for you.
Karen: Well, for me, Croatia was a total unknown, and I had an image of this country as a big, gray, socialistic place with people who were very grim walking around the streets, but that's not what it is at all. In fact, Croatia has been a destination for Italian and German travelers for more than a century. And I can see why, it's absolutely gorgeous. The natural beauty, the diversity of different kinds of historical sites, the coastal landscape; it's just something that is almost indescribable.
Kelly: I understand that there's a lot of medieval fortresses and castles -- a lot of things that have been preserved over more than 500 years.
Karen: That's true. Of course, the Turks were trying to move through Europe, and Croatia was one of the places where they did overrun, in some areas. Castles, fortifications, things that are left over from that era are still standing in a lot of places, especially in Istria and in Eastern Croatia.
Kelly: Well, for folks in the US, many people probably associate Croatia with the destruction caused during the civil war in what was once Yugoslavia. What do think people find now when they visit the country? Are there still reminders of the war?
Karen: There are, but not in the most traveled tourist areas. If people go to the east, to Vukovar, to Ilok, to the place that borders Serbia, they will see some pretty significant damage that's left over. But, if they go anywhere else, they're unlikely to see anything that they recognized as war.
Kelly: Does it feel like the people have moved beyond it as well?
Karen: Absolutely. The people are open, they're jovial, they're welcoming, they love Americans and they love visitors. We've ran into some fabulous personalities, who didn't know us from Adam, and they were so generous in helping us find our way and suggesting things that we could see. They were really eager to show off their country.
Kelly: Oh, that's great! On that note, how hard is it to get around the country if you don't speak the language?
Karen: It's not difficult at all. A second language has always been a requirement in Croatian schools, but up until the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that second language was Russian or German. Since then, most schools require that children take English language as a second language. So, if you want to find someone who you're almost certain will speak English, either from that or from watching MTV, then find someone who is under 30!
Kelly: If they don't speak the language they'll be able to sing some English songs, perhaps!
Karen: Oh! Better than some of the people you see on American Idol!
Kelly: Right! Well, one thing I find fascinating about Croatia is that this country has over 900 miles of coastline, and when you look at the map, there are a thousand or so islands just off the shore. I imagine that just makes for some spectacular scenery. What are some ways that people can explore this part of the country?
Karen: Well, besides the usual excursions, which you can book in almost any port, we've seen several families riding around in their private yachts, with complete crews.
Karen: Shocking! That was amazing!
Kelly: That sounds very impressive!
Karen: That's the way I want to do it to -- if I ever hit the lottery! That's great, but from what I hear they are not worldly expensive to rent, at least if you're considering a European vacation. It's doable for a lot of people. But then there are people like my son, who spend almost no money. He can get around with a backpack and going as a foot passenger -- a pedestrian -- on the ferries from island to island.
Kelly: As you have said, and I think is mentioned in the book, the ferry system is pretty extensive in this part of the country.
Karen: It is. In fact, ferries are pretty much like our buses. They get people from place to place, from work to home on a regular basis. The only thing that stops the ferries, in certain parts of Croatia, are the bora winds, which are almost hurricane force winds that sweep up and down the coastline every now and again.
Kelly: Do they come at all times of the year, or is it just a seasonal thing?
Karen: They are most often in winter, but every once in a while you're going to see a bridge closed or you're going to see a ferry stopped because it's a little bit too windy for them to travel safely. Croatians are very, very concerned about safety, and they're not going to put people out there if there's a chance that something will happen.
Kelly: These winds will happen when the weather is quite pleasant, when it's warm and sunny? It's not like being caught in a hurricane?
Karen: Oh no, not at all, although it's not very pleasant to be in them, because they are very strong.
Kelly: As you were researching this book and traveling around the country, tell me what you thought was the most surprising thing that you encountered while you were there? You talked already about this preconception that you had that was really turned on its head about Croatians as people. What was something that you encountered that was really surprising to you?
Karen: Well, I live in Chicago and I have Lake Michigan, and the most surprising thing to me was the water in the Adriatic is crystal clear and warm. No matter how far out you are, you can look down and see bottom.
Karen: We were in 20 feet of water and we could see every little detail at the bottom of the sea, and it was absolutely amazing. I have never seen anything like that. It's that way in the shallows; it's that way in the deep. Croatians are very proud of this; they give blue flags to the beaches that are the cleanest, and the people that are responsible try to keep them that way.
Kelly: It's interesting that is the case in the Adriatic, because I know, when I was traveling in Turkey, the Mediterranean has had a lot of problems with pollution. But it's great to hear that when you're going there, and you're really experiencing the coast and the beach, that you're having a great experience.
Karen: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, if it weren't salt water, I would have had a drink of it!
Kelly: Maybe that wouldn't have been so advisable! So, tell us what the travel season is for Croatia -- the most popular season? With all of the beaches and the coastline, I imagine that summertime is a really popular time to go.
Karen: If you go to Croatia, you will hear people speaking about "The Season," and "The Season," in capital letters means something a little bit different to everyone depending on where they are in Croatia. But for the most part the season is July and August, because traditionally, people in Europe get August off in France and Germany.
Karen: And the Italians have kind of a rotating basis. So this is when they get their biggest influx of tourism, and it can be overwhelming. It's in the millions of people who come from Hungary, who come from Germany, and now we saw planeloads of people from France coming in, but they all descend on this country at the same time. All the hotels, all the restaurants really beef up their staffs during this time.
Kelly: So do you recommend going slightly before or slightly after, like June or September?
Karen: Well, because I'm not crazy about huge crowds I probably would, but we were there during July and August and we never encountered anything that was really off-putting. Yes, there are hordes of people running through Dubrovnik, but it wasn't so impossible to get through and to see things.
Kelly: Right, right. Well, so tell me about, apart from the beach and apart from the coastline, I know that some of your favorite places that you visited when you were there were more inland some of the places that weren't perhaps, the ones that everybody's heard about, like Dubrovnik, like Split, like the Dalmatian Coast. Tell me about one or two of your other favorite places that you encountered while you were traveling.
Karen: Well, Istria is one of my favorite parts of Croatia. Istria is a little triangle-shaped peninsula that sticks out into the Adriatic from the northern part of Croatia. So three-quarters of it is coastline. The season may not be quite as long up there because it is quite a bit further north, but Istria is just a fabulous place. Some people, I believe, have called it the "Croatian Tuscany", and it really is a lot like Tuscany.
Karen: And it has an Italian sensibility. In fact, there is a protected national population of Italians in Istria because Istria was once part of Italy, Venice anyway, part of the kingdom of Venice. And you'll see a lot of Venetian architecture, most of the signs are in Italian and in Croatian, the menus are in Italian and Croatian, people speak a funny combination of Croatian and Italian, it's really not Italian but it's not Croatian, it's just kind of a combination. It's very interesting.
Kelly: Now, I can imagine that with a country that has such a long coastline that, when it comes to typical Croatian cuisines, seafood probably figures prominently.
Karen: It does along the coast, yes.
Kelly: Do they have a lot of restaurants on the water where you can go up and pick your fish that was caught that day? Is that the kind of experience that people can look to have?
Karen: Frankly, you can catch your own, too, if you want to.
Kelly: If you were so inclined.
Karen: In Rovinj, for example, in Istria, if you go out early enough, you can go out to the harbor and see the fishermen coming in with their huge nets, just full of fish, and you can point to the one that you want and take them home. Some of them are still wiggling, and you know they're fresh.
Kelly: You know they're fresh because they're still moving!
Karen: All lot of restaurants have their tables set so close to the water that the spray just goes right over you during the meal. Which can be good on a hot day, and can be a little annoying in the nighttime. Depending on the weather, it's very atmospheric.
They also have a lot of fish on the menu that you shouldn't be too timid to order, but you won't know what they are. There's one in particular called dentax, and I wasn't able to get a good translation of what that is, exactly, other than "it has big teeth," but it turned out to be a little whitefish, and it was excellent.
Kelly: Oh, that's great. And you also mention in the book quite a bit, you talk about, I hope I'm pronouncing this right, a "Konoba."
Karen: A konoba.
Kelly: Konoba. Tell me about that, it's a family-run restaurant?
Karen: Generally mom and dad and whatever kids they have available help run it. It's akin to an Irish pub, or to some sort of family restaurant that you would see here where everybody in the family pitches in. Sometimes it has music, sometimes not. Mostly, the menu is very limited, because mom and dad cook whatever is good that day. They make traditional Croatian food.
They also generally have prosciutto, which is Croatian ham, they have cheeses and little fried fish, we call them "smelt" here, they call them "sardines" there, or "sardillia", or sometimes they call them "anchovies." But they're really all the same thing, where you eat them whole after they've been breaded and fried.
It's typical pub food, basically, and usually they'll come and talk to you, and you'll feel like part of the family.
Kelly: Seems like a kind of neighborhood gathering place.
Karen: It is.
Kelly: That's great. Well, let's end on a more practical note. So, for those listeners who are so excited by what you're saying that they want to get on the next plane and go, what's the best way to get to Croatia from the U.S.?
Karen: Well, many airlines will link up to Croatia Air, and a lot of hubs in Europe, but so far, there is no direct flight from Chicago, New York, or any other major city in the U.S. to Croatia. You can change in Rome, or Paris, or Zurich, or a lot of other places within the continental part of Europe, and London as well, and actually, it's not bad, because you can spend a night there on the way to or on the way from Croatia.
Kelly: Right. And I know that there are several of Europe's budget carriers, for example, EasyJet, or there's a new airline that flies to a lot of European destinations called Wizz Air, it's another way you can link up. You can fly to Europe, and for example, I was looking on the Wizz Air website, and they fly out of London Luton airport and they go into Zagreb. They were quoting ridiculously low fares of four pounds one way, which would maybe be about seven dollars. So those definitely other options that you'd want to check out.
Karen: They definitely are. You do want to check to make sure that those aren't just seasonal flights. Some of them are just seasonal and run during the summer only.
Kelly: Right, during the high season.
Karen: Right. Another thing that you can do, which I have actually done, is that you can take the train from Venice or from any other part of Italy into Trieste, which is literally across the border from Slovenia, and it's less than an hour into Croatia from that route, if you're driving.
Kelly: Oh wow. What's the train trip like? It is a pleasant trip? Is it along the water?
Karen: Very pleasant. Some of it's along the water. Most of it is going through tiny little Italian villages, which is very interesting.
Kelly: All right, wonderful. Well, that's all we have for today. Again, I've been talking with Karen Olsen, the author of our new book, "Frommer's Croatia", which is on sale now. Karen, thanks so much for coming in to talk with us today. It's been a really enlightening conversation and I think I, for one, am going to definitely put Croatia on my itinerary.
Karen: I hope you do.
Kelly: Yes. So join us next week for another conversation about All Things Travel. I'm Kelly Regan and we'll talk again soon.
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