Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina; an Adriatic Sea cruise (part 2 of 2 parts)

Last week we shared initial detail of our “last-minute deal” on a small-ship cruise along the Adriatic Sea coast. The price was attractive (about 1/3 off), the four countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro) and dozen cities we would visit would be decked out in their Christmas finest and we expected the Adriatic Sea coast to be spectacular.

We weren’t disappointed and received an unexpected benefit – 19 days of sunny, mild weather made the vistas spectacular! This week, we’ll continue further down the Adriatic coast of Croatia and Montengro and take you into war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Departing Zadar, Croatia, we cruised through rocky islands to Sibenik, the old Dalmatian coast port city (yes, Dalmatian dogs were originally bred here) with a lovely sheltered harbor and grand historic town on the coastal mountain slopes. A tour of the famous Cathedral of Saint James, (construction begun 1431 and completed 1555) included bullet holes in one of the huge brass doors from the civil war in the 1990s when the country split from the former Yugoslavia. Above the city, a giant, even more ancient fortress rose on the mountain slopes.

Krka National Park features series of raging falls on Krka River in Croatia, home to 200 bird species.

We toured inland by bus to Krka National Park, where water from the Krka River flows over a series of cascading waterfalls and offers home to 200 bird species.  Adjoining is one of the oldest hydroelectric plants in Europe, dating to 1895. Our evening cruise to Split included a lively lesson in the Croatian language.

From our next port of call, the city of Split, we ferried out to visit Hvar, a rocky island 70 km long, occupied over the last 3500 years by Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Austrians and French; in summer the population quadruples, we were almost the only tourists in the old capital city. The Arsenal Building (where many old ships were built) also contains the first public theater in the Mediterranean, on an upper floor.

In the island’s limestone mountains, locals cleared rocks, built terraces and raised lavender. A visit to Pinjata Winery offered a variety of white and red wines, as well as a tour of a fortified church and the little harbor in Vrboska.

Split, with 4.5 million visitors each year, is the third busiest port on the Mediterranean and is served by a variety of oceangoing ferries. Our full day included a two hour tour of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace, constructed AD 300. That evening, we were entertained by the folklore dance group, Jedinstvo, a 100-year-old amateur group with eight dancers and five musicians. They staged urban dances and music with Croatian opera themes, playing the mandolin, tambourine, bass guitar and bass.

Over the only rough seas of the trip, we arrived the fortress city of Dubrovnik on a stunning day, with sunshine and afternoon temperatures to 65°. It’s an ancient city dating back several thousand years; inside the fortress walls are structures from 800 to 500 years old. We toured a Roman Catholic monastery – one of their museum rooms displayed a huge hole in the wall from the rocket attack in 1991 when Yugoslavs, Serbians and Montenegrins attacked the old city.

Kotor, Montenegro's old harbor with ancient city behind.

Next port was Kotor, Montenegro; a picturesque walled city at the head of Europe’s deepest fiord.  Its Old Town features fine Venetian Baroque architecture and one of the best preserved Medieval areas of the Adriatic region. Our tour included a church built on the only man-made island in the Mediterranean, Our Lady of the Rocks, circa 1452.

Kotor's walled fortifications march up mountains above the city; well-illuminated at night.

Other historic ports visited included Korcula, on a Croatian island and Neum. From Neum, we headed inland by bus to Mostar, Bosnia, located at the East/West crossroads of eastern Europe; founded by the Turks it is the second largest town after the capital of Sarajevo.

Our Lady of the Rocks Roman Catholic Church rises on the only man-made island on the Adriatic Sea.

Mostar has been known for its famous Old Bridge over the Neretva River, dividing the town into Muslim and Croat sections, built in the 16th century in the old town amongst forts, towers, mosques and churches. The Old Bridge was totally demolished in the war in 1993; work to reconstruct it began in 2001, led by Prince Charles. Since July, 2005 the Old Bridge area has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Historic Old Bridge, Mostar, Bosnia, built in 16th century, was destroyed in the war in 1993, and rebuilt in 2001-05.

Ninety percent of Mostar was destroyed in the war; we walked by a new cemetery, once a children’s park, now final resting place for many killed in 1993 and after. Mostar is a town only partially reconstructed – with numerous old commercial buildings and homes still with walls and the roof’s blown away.

War cemetary, on site of former children's playground, is final resting place for those killed in Bosnia civil war, from 1993 forward. It's only two blocks from the historic Mostar Old Bridge.

Nearby is the town of Blagaj, where a dervish monastery was founded at a spring on the Buna River, built below a towering limestone cliff almost 1000 feet tall. The dervishes of this Bektashi order celebrate in the practices from the 16th century.

After an all-day, 300 mile bus trip up Croatia’s new Hwy. A-1, we made Opatija, a lovely port city on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula (nearby the boundary of Italy beckons). With wonderful old villas, hotels and shops dating to the 18th-century, it was the country’s first real tourist destination.  That evening, we strolled the Lungomare, famous waterfront promenade – and were treated to the most marvelous of sunsets.

Christmas tree lights grace the courtyard of our hotel In Opitija, Croatia.

Our final night and day took us to Zagreb, where we returned to the US. Four lovely countries, friendly people, perfect weather and a wonderful trip.

Next week, “Updating Your Travel Bucket List”; see more Adriatic Sea photos and detail by reading my blog.

For more information: Our 19 day trip (adding a four-day option in Ljubljana, Slovenia to the 15 day cruise) with airfare, cruise and extension, cost $6,100 total; for info and pricing options, see Grand Circle Cruises, GCT.com. For best deals, go to “Ways to Save”, then scan “Last-minute Deals” (we saved about 1/3 from regular rates; wonderful option for folks who can depart with 3 to 6 weeks notice!).

Contact Tim Viall at tviall@msn.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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