Our time in Croatia is split into three sections – Istria (see our post here), the South (which basically includes the tourist trafficked Split and Dubrovnik and the islands in between, and the middle bit. The middle bit primarily served the purpose of getting us from Istria to the south, and also to visit some national parks, but we were pleasantly surprised.
We based ourselves in Zadar, which is about a 4-hour drive south of Rovinj. The old town is on a peninsula, accessible by bridge from the rest of the city. It’s not overly touristy, and is known mainly for its roman ruins and “sea organ”.
The sea organ was designed by architect Nikola Basic, and uses the motion of the ocean (i.e. waves) to create “music” through holes in the boardwalk. While not exactly musical, it was pretty cool and does seem to attract a lot of people. It is also known as the best place in town to view the sunset, although we preferred the balcony of our AirBnB.
On our first day in Zadar, we explored the Old Town and noticed some posters on a wall advertising the Davis Cup semi-finals of Croatia vs France. We stopped to take a look and couldn’t believe our luck – the semi-finals were taking place just a 20 minute walk from our rental apartment – and were in an indoor stadium, which was key because the forecast for that Sunday was all rain.
A great day trip from Zadar is Pag island. It’s known primarily for its cheese, olive oil and Zrce Beach – the Ibiza of Croatia (at least from late June to late August).
Pag is a long strip of fairly barren land, mixed with small fishing villages and beaches, about an hour drive from Zadar. We first went to Gligora Dairy, the most famous cheese producer on the island, who offer tours every hour on the hour. If you buy a cheese tasting plate (we can’t recommend this highly enough!), you get the tour for free. They can also pair the cheese with wine, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Their most famous cheese is a 100% sheep milk cheese called Paski Sir. The unique taste comes from the fact that the sheep on the island eat an indigenous type of sage and that the microclimate deposits significant amounts of salt from the ocean on the fields, which then gets ingested by the sheep. Since we both love cheese, this sort of thing was right up our alley.
We had great weather, so also stopped by the famous Zrce Beach. While Pag has many beaches, this one is known as one of the best. During high season, it is popular for the dance clubs that line the beach and the thump-thump-thump of house music at all hours. In early September, it’s completely shut down with only a few people on the beach. Given that our raving days are mostly behind us, that worked out!
Unfortunately, we had poor weather in Zadar, so didn’t visit the nearby Kornati Islands, one of the main tourist attractions with multiple day-trip cruises leaving every morning from the harbour. We managed, however, to go on a very rain-soaked hike in the Paklenica National Park nearby.
Krka National Park
The big question when visiting this part of Croatia is how much time to spend at the famous waterfall national parks – Plitvice and Krka. Plitvice has magnificent waterfalls, beautiful lakes, and elevated boardwalks to help you enjoy the former. The famous guidebook author Rick Steves lists it as a must-do. An Aussie girl we met in Slovenia described Plitvice as “the most beautiful place [she’d] ever been.”
However, we didn’t go. It is also known to be jam packed with tourists, even during shoulder season. An Aussie friend of ours that visited a month earlier described how she waited over an hour just to get into the park. Once in, she could barely walk around the narrow boardwalks because of slow walkers, young kids, and numerous strollers. Rick Steves recommends you try to get there by 7:30am to enjoy the park. Who doesn’t want to get up super early on vacation because of impending tourist hordes? Another friend who did visit Plitvice around the same time said the best part of their visit was the guesthouse they stayed in.
Instead of driving the 2 hours to Plitvice, we went to Krka National Park. Krka is only a slight detour on our drive down the coast to Split. The waterfalls are apparently not quite as impressive, but hey…we used to live 90 minutes away from Niagara Falls, so we weren’t convinced Plitvice would awe us anyway.
Krka was beautiful
Similar to Plitvice, you walk along elevated boardwalks as you take in gushing waterfalls and lake vistas. Unfortunately, also like Plitvice, you do so while trying not to be bumped off those elevated boardwalks by the many tour groups who overrun the park. At first we were amazed that the entry price was HRK110 (about US$15/C$22), but seeing how many people still pay to go, we bet they could charge even more.
The scenery was beautiful, and it was a great pitstop on our drive from Zadar. We’re also glad we chose to go to Krka and not Plitvice. When any attraction gets that overrun it’s difficult to have a good time, especially when the whole point is to enjoy nature. Considering that Plitvice is apparently even more crowded and overrun, Krka is probably a better option. Krka is also a much easier destination to get to, and the weather is generally better than Plitvice. But if you don’t have a lot of time, don’t feel too bad if you don’t see either. Once you’ve seen the waterfalls of Niagara Falls, it really sets the bar sky-high!
Zadar was a pleasant surprise. The town itself was interesting to walk around, and there were plenty of easy day trips. It’s a town that seems to be skipped by many tourists, but is a great stopping-off point when exploring the country.