Two days in Croatia — and the border crossing to Bosnia & Herzegovina

Waiting in the queue at the border to drive into Bosnia and Herzegovina, I anxiously tapped my fingers on the steering wheel and wondered what sort of prying questions they might ask about why we’re entering their land.

Being part of the EU, I’m used to being able to roll between France, Germany, Belgium to Spain with only needing to stop for tolls and re-fuelling — stopping at a physical border guarded by Bosnian-speaking men with guns on their hips wanting to check our ID was something I’d not experienced before (is this what it feels like going between Mexico and America?!).

Aside from the long queue eating into our day, it was actually relatively simple and we earned no questions from these serious-looking border agents. They scanned our passports whilst I sat and sweated in my seat, and then we were on our way.

The border itself is in a beautiful place between the craggy Croatian mountains and the beautiful rolling hills of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Licence plates from both countries, as well as from Austria and Bulgaria, joined us in the queue. Wild dogs napped in the shade of buildings to our right.

Visiting B&H wasn’t really part of the plan when we first booked our flights to the city of Zadar in Croatia. In fact, Zadar really wasn’t part of our plan when booking flights to Zadar either. Our flights were about £40. My real desire, Dubrovnik, cost about £160 (which is totally unacceptable in my world now). I figured it couldn’t be that bad of a drive down the coastal road to reach the famous Game of Thrones filming locations, but upon reading that there is practically zero parking in Dubrovnik I gave up on the idea.

I turned my focus to Zadar, and I was inspired to read many articles stating it to be Croatia’s unsung hero; just as glorious and rustic as the bigger cities but less discovered – and less touristy.

We landed at the teeny tiny Zadar airport late on Thursday evening. The air was warm as we stepped off the plane — a promising sign as I’d had enough of the nippy British wind. After collecting our hire car, we made the relatively easy drive into Zadar — our accommodation was on the outskirts of Old Town so I comfortably parked our Renault Megane along the wide bays at the waterfront. It was near midnight by this point, so we flopped on the bed and promptly fell asleep.

Waking bright and early Friday morning (though unfortunately missing the 6am sunrise), finding breakfast proved to be a mission. Old Town Zadar was bustling — jam packed full of locals determinedly making their way through town. Few tourists there seemed to be. There were locals walking around with disposable coffee cups. Locals sitting outside cafés drinking coffee. But no one actually eating.

We weaved practically around every corner in Old Town but not a single person was eating. Eventually we bit the bullet and seated ourselves outside a very empty café bar located in a small shaded square directly outside the courts. The courts were in a blush pink building, very grand, and plenty of suited and booted workers entered through the main entrance, alongside several other ‘civvies’ in labourer clothing clutching folders of documents. A waiter came to take our order and seemed a bit surprised that we wanted food. There were four options on their breakfast menu and we both asked for the “Proscuitto Sendvic” — supposedly a Croatian breakfast consisting of prosciutto and cheese in bread. Our server glanced back towards the restaurant and announced they may not be able to accommodate that request as they needed to go out to get pastries for it. It baffled me that they weren’t prepared to serve breakfast to people.

Trying to be easy, since ordering food was clearly a weird thing to do at 9am, we opted for the omelette instead if they couldn’t do the prosciutto option. Returning 10 minutes later, our server brought back with him two giant plates of what looked like a calzone pizza — chef was able to throw something together for us, we were told, and inside our pizzary giant was mounds of prosciutto and thick stringy cheese and salad leaves. It was delicious and way too much food for so early in the day but — YUM!! I was so impressed they’d put this together for us, considering people must just not do breakfast in this town.

The rest of our morning consisted of visiting the decorative Land Gate (the main entrance to the fortress) at the edge of town, meandering through the bustling market stalls selling fruits and veggies, walking along the pretty waterfront watching all the fish in the Adriatic Sea, taking in the sun at the Roman Forum (originally commissioned by Emperor Augustus and the biggest remaining Forum in Croatia that still has preserved temple ruins), climbing to the very tip of St Anastasia’s Cathedral bell tower and consuming gelato. You’d be amazed at how quickly you can do all this, and more, in Zadar. Albeit yes, we didn’t venture much into mainland Zadar, but supposedly Old Town is the place to be. It was barely midday and we’d already seen so much (bar a few important things such as the Monument to the Sun that I wanted to save for sunset and the museums, but it was too lovely outside to spend excessive time inside). We’d wandered around the entirety of the old fortress walls and multiple times tread up and down the glossy sparkling pedestrianised streets of Old Town.

Zadar is supposedly the centre, the capital, of Dalmatia. In total it has under 80,000 inhabitants and is the fifth largest city in Croatia. Zadar, a city dating back to the Stone Age, is home to several islands within the archipelago, which all sit within the Adriatic Sea and the Zadar Strait but it has most influence by the Romans who fortified the Old Town with large stone walls. On the other side of the archipelago, Italy is so close on the map you swear you can almost touch it (you can actually get a ferry from Zadar to Ancona, but I hadn’t worked out how to do this).

Zadar history is a mixture Medieval and Roman, with architecture showcasing Greek, Venetia, Dalmatia and modern day — just look at the Monument to the Sun built in 2008. Bombing ruined much of the city in World War II, hence the many new buildings, but it is amazing how much was able to be restored or is still standing. Old rubs shoulders with new in Zadar.

**did you know** Croatian residents are called Croats?

Zadar is a strange and hip place, with a mixture of brightly coloured Venetian-style properties versus some….less-photoworthy houses. But every place seems to tell a story. That grubby-walled five story block of flats looked like it may have once been a mansion. Some properties that look like they may have once been impressive are just destroyed. One building near our flat was literally just missing half of itself — it had fallen to rubble and not been replaced. And nothing seems to tell a story more than St Donatus’ Church and its surrounding stone remains that are laid out strategically in the grass in front of it.

The Church of St. Donatus’ was built in the 9th Century and still stands elegantly and well-composed to this day. Its purpose over the years has varied from warehouse to museum to concert venue. The foundations of the building are really unusual – you can see how they’ve repurposed bits of Roman pillars to build up the various levels (and they clearly didn’t care about hiding this fact as the pillar feet are obvious and stand out within the huge foundations).

getting out of the city.

Wanting to enjoy the freedom that having a car provides, we decided to explore inland Croatia. The Krka National Park was only an hour south and I’d read some amazing things about the cascading waterfalls there. As a bonus, you’re able to swim and paddle in some of the lazier pools. Being so sticky and hot, it sounded like bliss.

And it was great. The whole place is stunning, as you wander along man-made wooden boards strategically placed amongst the fast moving falls. Every pool had fish of various sizes. Tall pine trees were abundant around the lakes, furnishing the surrounding mountains with a green glow. Dragonflies danced atop the emerald water’s surface. And true to form there was a huge pool at the climax of the place, Skradinski Buk — the pool that every waterfall from higher-up seeped down to — which had wading visitors. Even some brave souls were swimming in the centre, despite warning signs that you are to swim at your own risk.

instagram ‘in it for the gram’ confession.

I won’t hide the fact that water was absolutely freezing. The weather was warm but that pool was way too cold to enjoy being in it. I got in up to my knees out of courtesy, a “for the’ gram” endeavour, but it was far more enjoyable to just sit and dangle our legs on the side or just sunbathe whilst listening to the crashing waters.

We’d wasted a good four hours there. From the descriptions of the place conveying that it only takes 10 minutes to get to the waterfalls from the car park, you’d be under the impression that you’d be in and out within an hour. It definitely took at least 20 minutes to get from the main visitor centre down to the start of the waterfalls. You can get a coach down but it was far more pleasant to walk in the warm sun (and at the bottom we felt we’d earned the ice cream we purchased). It took a further two hours to actually walk through the whole park. Yes, I stopped plenty to look at things, and take photos. But you *neeed* to do this. There’s no way you’d just walk that trail without stopping and taking in the breathtaking waters or the turquoise pools or watching out for the wildlife (did you know they have otters here?!).

It is an easy drive from Zadar Old Town to Krka. Zadar isn’t too bad to navigate out of (and indeed most of the traffic was heading into the city rather than out of it) and we were on the E65 for most of it, which is a super maintained road. No pot holes — yay! It is easy to park at the Krka National Park entrance — in April there was an abundance of parking and we guessed only a handful of people would be in the waterfalls itself. We drove to the Lozovac entrance which is a super pretty drive, but I think there is also an entrance north-er of this, whereby you can take a ferry ride down to the main entrance.

The whole area is known for its abundance of wildlife and plants — there are over 800 species of natural fauna and flora and to walk through on a warm spring day, underneath the dappled sunlight rippling through the leafy trees was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

As I said, it was a bit too chilly to enjoy swimming in the Skradinski Buk but what a place to paddle in and rest our feet, whilst listening to those gushing waterfalls. I would come back here in an instant. Entry to the park was about £12, and was well worth the cost considering how long we spent here.

back to town.

We got back to Zadar for 6pm and dined at a small pizzaria two minutes from our apartment. The pizzas were huge and juicy and our whole meal, including beers, came to less than £15. I just love how cheap Croatia is.

Hightailing it down to the waterfront after we’d paid our bill, we were SO LUCKY to arrive just as sun was setting. Three minutes later and we would’ve missed the whole spectacle. It is true what they (specifically Alfred Hitchcock) say(s) — sunsets are to be seen in Zadar. I’m not sure what it is about this part of the world, but the sun setting just complements the sky in the most amazing way. We were treated to pink and purpley skies and a fiery amber horizon as we walked towards the Monument to the Sun.

The Monument is a dance floor of panels embedded in the pavement that light up. I couldn’t tell if the lights were random and at-will, or if we actually had control over it by walking around. It appeared random, but either way it was a pretty cool thing to see. Neighbouring this is the Sea Organ — probably Zadar’s most famous tourist trap. Thankfully the noise of tourists is overridden by the sounds emanating from the stone steps — looking beneath your feet are the outlets that provide the moaning tones, like an organ in a church. Appearing repetitive at first, we were soon treated to a whole new melody as the boats start going past, disrupting the wave patterns which affect the sea organ. It really is a magical thing to sit and listen to and we stayed there long after the sun had set. The organ was built and finished in 2005 and is a series of 30-40 pipes of varying sizes that make sounds depending on the tide and water ripples.

The whole waterfront was packed with tourists. Children playing with souvenir light up toys, and couples taking cute selfies above the blinking floor panels. It’s totally a tourist trap. But it’s absolutely soo worth it just to be involved in the bizarre daily ritual of watching the sun set as a large group of strangers, each appreciating it in a completely different way.

My favourite stranger here was an elderly gentleman, enjoying a can of beer whilst perched on a stone pillar. The Yank reckoned he’d just finished a hard day’s work and was unwinding before heading home. I guessed he was retired and this is what he likes to do with this spare time. Not a bad life, is it?

checking out.

Day two and we had a road trip ahead of us. A fellow Instagrammer told me that the Plitvice National Park was a MUST DO. I’d been vaguely considering adding it to my agenda but that closed the case. Packing up our AirBnB and handing back the keys, we headed north out of Zadar and waved goodbye to that rustic little city.

It was a super easy drive to Plitvice, as we headed almost directly north going up through the sweet deserted towns of Sveti Rok, Bjelopolje, Jošan and Korenica. The ten winding country miles leading up to Jezerce (just before Plitvice), there were an abundance of roadside stalls selling honey and cheese. Really specifically just those two things. On our way there, we struggled to work out if these stalls were for locals or for tourists — after all, the roads were dead and seemed devoid of any tourists.

**awkward traveller confesssions: sooo somewhere between the villages of Sveti Rok and Jošan I was desperate to pull the car over as the views of the mountains to the east were amazing — I needed photos. Coming off the main roads, we drove through little side roads of a town that bordered lots of fields, offering a landscape picturesque view. “There’s a good place to pull over!” I exclaimed, nipping the car into what turned out to be a dirt track. A long, narrow winding dirt track with no place to turn around. I forgot to mention, when we picked the car up at the airport, there was a sign explicitly stating that if we returned the car in a less-than-clean state, we’d be charged 100 Euro for cleaning costs. This dirt track managed to turn our Megane into an absolute filth monster (but at least I got my photo). And so ensued a lonnnng hunt for a fuel station that offered self-service car cleaning and I had great fun watching Steven trying to jetwash the mud that had acquired on the car. Fortunately it worked, and we didn’t get charged.**

Arriving at Plitvice National Park entrance 2, we were straightway charged 250 kuna (~ £30) for entry for both of us to this natural landmark and were given a ticket to be charged later for parking too (which was about £1 per hour). This is probably the most expensive thing we’ve done so far — this entry cost more than all our meals. The entry fee provided access to the upper and lower lakes.

It took many steps and about 20 minutes from the car park to arrive at the ferry jetty that took visitors across the lake to the start of one of the main trails. There was a longer option to walk if you didn’t want a ferry. The trails were totally easy to follow and you can choose which lakes to walk around depending on how long you wanted to be walking. In total there is a network of 16 interlocking lakes of various depths and shapes, and there is about 100m difference in altitude between the highest lake and the lowest.

Short on time, we opted for Trail E (we think! It was confusing working out where we were), a 5 km walk which the sign suggested would take between 2 and 3 hours to complete. The longest man-made trail is K — almost 20km that visits both upper and lower lakes, proposing 7+ hours of walking.

After a short ferry ride, the first thing you come to is a set of steps that barely covers fast rushing falls and, at the top, a ripple-less emerald green lake brimming with fish and various flora. We reached Lake Gradinsko within 10 minutes and enjoyed the slow looping wooden trail that circled around this glimmering lake. This area reminded me of some of the national parks of Colorado, what with the vast pine tree forest in every direction collecting up every hillside and the beautiful clarity of the waters.

Along this trail you get to see several gorgeous waterfalls from beneath — be prepared to get wet. I gingerly walked away trying to carefully wipe my camera lens from all the water mist. We were lucky to have this area almost completely to ourselves despite it being the middle of the day when the tour groups were hot on our tails. It seemed to take an awfully long time to warp around the series of lakes and waterfalls. Well over an hour had gone by and my camera’s memory card was dangerously low on space.

Before reaching Lake Galovac where the path splits so you can continue further into the park, we headed south to turn back. Galovac had a reputation at being one of the largest lakes at almost 13 hectares and we didn’t have the time to walk around it. It took another hour to return to the ferry and we reached the jetty just as the battery on my camera died.

Spring is a great time to visit the waterfall parks of Croatia because the snow melt from the hills means water levels are much higher. The parks are also much less touristy. I was amazed how many people gathered here, since it was out of season, but it seemed to be a hotspot for Croatians to come and visit. And they were probably trying to fit in their fill of local landmarks before the touristy hoards appear in July.

From our short time in Croatia I was very impressed. Zadar — despite it being so small (particularly Old Town) — I think I could have easily wiled away a couple of weeks at — sampling the different café and gelato options. Trying different Croatian seafood and chilling in the sunshine whilst listening to the sounds of the sea. And also exploring mainland Zadar which we really hadn’t seen enough of.

The countryside of Croatia is absolutely stunning — rolling green hills with mountainous views to the east, and lakes in abundance. The roads are impeccable. I drove the entire trip, and this was only my second time driving in a country that drives on the right hand side of the road, so despite my nerves (and the American constantly going “right hand side of the road!!”) it went surprisingly smoothly. Junctions are clear, traffic doesn’t seem to be too bad anywhere and road signs are obvious.

Bosnia wasn’t quite as wonderfully easy for me. I’m embarrassed to admit (since visiting B&H was such a last minute impulse decision) I wasn’t aware it was predominantly a Muslim country. The first thing we saw when leaving the border and coming across a town was a beautiful gleaming white Mosque sat atop a very big hill. Ohhh how I wanted to stop and walk up to it and photograph it, but it seemed disrespectful, so we managed to capture one from a distance. I later learned it was the Džamija Izačić Mosque, in the town of Prnjavor.

The roads weren’t quite as well-kept in B&H and I didn’t understand many road signs with them being written in Cyrillic (though I think if I’d studied this alphabet for weeks I still wouldn’t understand it), but the countryside was absolutely beautiful, with wonderfully green lawns and fields peppered with farm animals. The houses in these B&H villages were bright and colourful. One house near the border even had painted across their exterior walls the flag of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

We ended up in the outskirts of Bihać, a city near the border, and found ourselves eating a pre-airport dinner at a diner that had a big sheep turning on a spit outside its front doors.

There wasn’t a tourist in sight. We were definitely out of place, but it was nice to be surrounded by local people, families and friends, just enjoying their Saturday night out at a restaurant. No one was taking selfies. No one asking the waiters to take their photos to capture their trips out. This meal was more pricey than what we’d had the previous days, and came to about £40 for both of us with soft drinks, so it wasn’t the best value for money and seemed so much more expensive than Croatia. We’d read that many restaurants here may not take card, and they definitely don’t take Euros or Croatian Kuna. It took us a while to find an ATM to withdraw some Bosnian Marks and the currency conversion couldn’t be further from the kuna (which was easy – 100 kuna is just over £10).

Despite the mediocre dinner experience, I would 100% come back to see more of B&H. My dream is now to see more of the Bosnian countryside and particularly to visit Sarajevo, for its mix of Medieval, Ottoman, and Romanesque architecture and eat more local cuisine.

So there you have it! Our 40 hours spent between Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, wrapped up in one (longish blog post). I would highly recommend a roadtrip through these countries as they are super easy to drive – the mountains, waterfalls and lakes are particularly spectacular to visit, especially out of season.

Have you visited Croatia before? Where did you go? Let me know below!

***

Trip details:

Accommodation was:
AirBnB with seaview, Old Town Zadar, Croatia – we stayed at this stunning studio flat on the edge of Old Town, with easy parking (not free unfortunately but cost less than £4 per day) and easy access to the centre. It has a stunning balcony to sit and watch the boats go up and down the waters that sit between Old Town and mainland.

Breakfast at:
Tribunal, Zadar, Croatia – rubbish reviews online but our breakfast experience here was amazing. The Macciato is soo good too. ~£4 for breakfast and coffee for two.

Dinner at:
Pizzeria Tri Bunara, Zadar, Croatia – superb pizzas! ~£15 for pizzas and beers (and a Coke) for two.
Panache, Bihać, B&H – unfortunately pretty mediocre. ~£40 for platter of roasted lamb, fries, salads and Cokes for two.

Cocktails at:
La Bodega Zadar, Zadar, Croatia – I think this place is actually a wine bar but it had some pretty good cocktails, but unfortunately slow and confusing service. ~£2 per cocktail.

Takeaway coffee at:
Cognito Coffee, Zadar, Croatia – really yummy filter coffee and Macciato. ~£1 for two coffees.

Pastries at:
Pekara, Zadar, Croatia – think this was a chain but it had really yummy pastries – our favourite was the cheese strudel — soooo good! ~£4 for a big bag of various pastries, including two cheese strudels, apple strudel, chocolate doughnut and pretzel.

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