We were just beginning to find our way around Dubrovnik - "jewel of the Adriatic" - when it was time to move on. For most of a week we had explored its maze of narrow streets, poked into dark, mysterious alleyways leading to tiny cafes, admired ancient sculptures tucked into shadowy alcoves in the medieval architecture, and watched folk dancers perform on outdoor patios overlooking the ocean. But there was still so much more to see and we were reluctant to leave.
"Don't worry," Tonia reassured us, "there are lots more things to see between here and Zagreb."
And she was right. Tonia, our multi-lingual Serbian/Canadian friend who had been our companion, guide, and translator since we landed in Belgrade, was leaving us here. From Dubrovnik to Zagreb, armed with a handful of phrases, a rented Toyota, and Betty's high school German, we were on our own.
Tucked into the extreme south-eastern corner of Croatia, the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik was the starting point for our week-long drive up the Dalmatian Coast, across the Dinaric Alps, and inland through the rich farmland surrounding Zagreb, the country's capital and largest city. The Adriatic coast north of Dubrovnik is rugged even by B.C. standards. The narrow road winds across steep, rocky slopes high above the ocean. On our right, the bare craggy slopes of the Dinaric Mountains and on our left, the Dalmatian Islands surrounded by the incredibly blue water of the Adriatic. We took our time, savouring the views until near sunset before heading down to the coast in search of a B&B near Split.
Finding a place to spend the night was a challenge. The Dalmatian coast around Split is a hot destination for German tourists and every B&B was posted with a "Kein Zimmer frei" sign. German is definitely the second language in this part of Croatia. Finally, with the help of a young German woman who spoke some English, Betty got directions to a little place about a half hour's drive up in the hills. It was well after dark when we rolled into Hilda's Place, had some bread, cheese and a beer for dinner, and turned in for the night. At breakfast the next morning we chatted with Hilda about Split's remarkable history.
Back in the third century BC, Rome fought a series of wars with the original inhabitants of the area and by the beginning of the Christian era much of Dalmatia was firmly under Roman control. Emperor Diocletian (AD 245-313) was so taken with the area that he ordered his subjects to build him a retirement palace there. His near-godly status was such that his subjects fell to their knees in his presence and nothing was spared in the construction of his final retreat. Built of lustrous white limestone, accented by marble imported from Italy and Greece, and decorated with sculpture from Egypt, Diocletian's palace is indeed fit for a God. Today, almost 2,000 years after it was built, the palace and the ancient buildings within its defensive wall are still occupied and Split, the city that grew up around it, is now the second largest in Croatia.