Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Wish granted!

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I spent nearly two weeks in Croatia with my sons years ago and the place I’d always regretted missing was Plitvice National Park. As far as I was concerned, Plitvice was #1 on my list for this Croatian vacation with David and now, as our trip neared an end, we were finally going to be there…and it was storming. Not just light rain, but a downpour. Aaargh!

The weather in Zadar had been overcast with occasional drizzle, but cleared to sunny the morning we set out on the drive to Plitvice. It’s an easy 2-hour drive from Zadar to Plitvice and the scenery is beautiful as you head into the mountains and cross over impressive bridges spanning wide inlets of water.

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As we climbed higher into seriously rugged mountains, the weather began to deteriorate.

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When we exited the truly impressive Sveti Rok tunnel (over 3.5 miles long!), wind buffeted our car to the point I was getting a little nervous despite the excellent, wide highway. Thankfully traffic was light. By the time we neared Plitvice Jezera, the skies had opened up and we pulled into the parking lot of our AirBnB apartment in the driving rain. Our lovely hostess awaited us in raincoat and hood and we left our luggage to dash inside, umbrellas held high.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, the next day dawned bright and clear and all we could have hoped for for our day at Plitvice. I was as excited as a child!

We got an early start, planning to park at the Hotel Bellevue near Entrance 2 to the park and avoid the less-convenient, paid parking designated for the park. As we turned in a guard stopped our car, asking where we were going. I just looked bemused and answered we were going to the Hotel Bellevue, of course, and he waved us in. Instead of turning left into the main hotel parking, we drove to the end of the short street and parked, near the pedestrian path into the park. This put us not far from a ticket office and park bus stop #2 (“ST2” on the map below). Perfect!

Our AirBnB hostess, Jelena, was a font of knowledge and she’d given us a park map and laid out an optimum walk for us. We followed all her suggestions and could not have been happier. Day tickets to the park were 110 kuna apiece (about $17 each). We caught the park bus (included in our tickets) heading toward Entrance 1 and got off at the bus stop #1 (“ST1” on the map below) to walk along the water (on our left) to view the largest waterfall Veliki Slap (literally “Big Waterfall”) on the far bank.

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Park map posted near Entrance 2 ticket building/bus stop

The path to the waterfall itself was closed, for which I was just as glad. I was happy with the view from the opposite bank and, once I saw the scattered nature of Veliki Slap and a building at the summit of the waterfall, I was even less interested in going. I’m a waterfall junkie of sorts and have been to the top of lots of waterfalls, but I was fine with missing the top of this one. Maybe it was just me. Anyway, there was so much I wanted to see in the lower lakes and we headed back to continue the route Jelena had recommended.

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An early view of Veliki Slap

We hiked down to the water, making our way along the water (now on our right) and past another four wide waterfalls before crossing over to the far bank where Jelena had told us to catch a boat at P3 (also included in our tickets).

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View of wide waterfall from above

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At water level
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Crossing the water
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Boat approaching the dock
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Off the bow of the boat

We got off the boat at P2 (see map above) and began an amazing wander through seemingly-endless waterfalls.

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We spent several hours hiking the park. We found it to be a moderate hike, with occasional steep stretches and some dirt paths getting narrow and muddy from the previous day’s rain. Plitvice Lakes National Park is so large that we never felt crowded and while we did see other people (and there was a fair-sized Asian tour group at the boat stop) we also had plenty of space to take in the incredible, tranquil beauty of the park.

We ended our hike at bus stop 3 (“ST3” on the map above) where we caught the bus back to ST2 where we began our day. From there, we walked the short distance back to the national restaurant “Poljana” for lunch. It’s located just by the Hotel Bellevue with lovely views of the park. Unfortunately, we found both the food and service to be inferior to its sister national restaurant, Licka Kuca, near Entrance 1.

For more information, see: http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/

You can check out our 2-bedroom/1-bath AirBnB apartment at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4699728?sug=50 At $75/night and a 10-minute walk to the park (in good weather), it’s a deal worth considering, especially so if you need two bedrooms.

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

AirBnB: Zadar, Croatia; “Fifi Apartment”

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The listing for our AirBnB apartment in Zadar billed the place as “Fifi apartment.” The name conjured images of a French poodle or maybe even a can-can dancer; definitely female, in any event. When I emailed and WhatsApp’ed with contact Andrej, however, he let me know, in passing, that Fifi was male. Oh. Andrej said “Fifi” spoke little English, hence Andrej’s role as spokesman, but that Fifi himself would meet us.  The apartment included secure on-site parking, a big plus for an apartment inside the old town. Andrej told me that Fifi would be waiting for us by the city gate and lead us to the parking since. Despite the advance info, we were a still a little surprised the first time we saw “Fifi:” a big man of late middle age in a black leather jacket. As promised, he was waiting for us, on foot. When we offered to drive him with us, he declined and proceeded to walk ahead of our car, leading us into the old city, past the open-air market and to the electronic gate to our apartment.

The first glimpse of the parking area was a tad grim: an enclosed courtyard with worn, grafittied walls, scattered trash, weeds, and laundry hanging from various windows. Oh well, I’d seen similar in Russia and elsewhere and the photos of the apartment were pretty, the reviews solid.

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Sure enough, we found the apartment to be immaculate and fresh-smelling, a cleaning lady just finishing up as we arrived. The decor was funky-fun with all the amenities as expected.

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Funky high-heeled chairs in the bedroom

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Fifi gave us a quick recommendation of nearby restaurants in limited English, then showed us the front door to our building, opposite the courtyard. The location was fabulous, an easy walk to all Zadar had to offer, with restaurants, shops and the market square mere steps away. The apartment was quiet and comfortable at night with all the amenities we required: washing machine, full kitchen, a/c, flat screen tv, etc.

At $68/night, all fees and taxes included, we were very happy with this deal.

You can check it out at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1964470?sug=50

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

Krka Park, Croatia–walking on water

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Krka Park pathway

The waterfalls, lakes, rivers and pathways of Krka Park lure visitors from Croatia and beyond. We got up early to start our daytrip to Krka, hoping to avoid the crowds we’d heard could be a problem. The park lies an easy hour’s drive from Split. We drove the vast majority of the way on the excellent A1/E65 highway, then followed signs (and Google Maps) along the equally well-maintained E33 to the park’s main entrance at Lozovac. The enormous parking lot was mostly empty, but cars and tour buses were already beginning to arrive. We bought entrance tickets at the booth in the parking lot then realized we’d just missed the free shuttle bus that takes visitors into the park. [The free shuttle service runs from April to October.] Unwilling to wait for the bus to return, we opted to hike instead downhill through thick forests. The walk is pretty and not overly-difficult for the fit, but views of the lake below are blocked and we actually saw more of that particular vista by riding the bus back to the parking lot at the end of our visit. Our hike deposited us just up the road from the bus drop-off.

A few yards beyond a concession stand we stepped onto the raised wooden path that snakes its way through the myriad waterfalls, streams and lakes of Krka. In mere yards, we’d left the world of parking lots and buses behind to lose ourselves in a fairytale world of green. Water rushed and burbled all around us, even visible between the planks beneath our feet. Small fish darted about or clumped in schools swimming against the currents. Sunlight glinted off moving water and the air smelled deliciously of water, flowers, herbs, grass and trees.

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We caught up to a tour group, but they branched back towards civilization and we soon had the park seemingly to ourselves. We came across other hikers from time to time, but mostly in twos and threes. Paths snake all through the area, sometimes as the raised wooden walkways over water, others as dirt footpaths through the trees. A group of mounted posters along the way describe local flora and fauna. We spent a couple hours exploring this area before we came to a footbridge over a large basin with multiple waterfalls spilling into it. The largest of these is Skradinski buk. Several buildings cluster around this spot, including a restored mill, souvenir shop and a historical display of weaving and traditional costumes. Things got crowded in this part of the park which is evidently easily accessible for tour groups not going as far into the park as we did.

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Stradinski buk waterfall

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Walking across the bridge and past the buildings brought us back to the concession stand and parking circle where the park shuttle bus picked us up. It is a full-sized bus, accommodating far more people than were waiting when we were there. The bus dropped us off at the big parking lot by the Lozovac entrance where we’d left our car.

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View from the shuttle bus that we missed on the hike into Krka

Several small restaurants line one side of the parking lot. We chose one at random, Lapis Alba, and enjoyed a cheap late lunch of hot sandwiches and cold beer before heading back to Split.

There’s lots more to Krka than what we saw, but it would probably take at least two full days to see it all at leisure. Boat rides are available on the river between falls and going out to Vivosac Island, home to a small monastery. You can find out more at: http://www.npkrka.hr/stranice/krka-national-park/2/en.html

AirBnB: Split, Croatia; “Apartment Fonte Split”

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Apartment Fonte Split

Our apartment wish list in Split presented some challenges: We needed parking, but we wanted to be near the pedestrian old town. As always, I wanted value for our money (plus wi-fi, a washing machine, charm, a quiet place to sleep, a good host…). We really lucked out on all fronts in Split and ended up with one of our favorite AirBnB apartments to date…with a tiny caveat I’ll get to below.

Our host Vlatko was very responsive from the moment we booked. As promised, he was waiting in the street for us with his little boy when we arrived from Dubrovnik to “hold a parking place for us.” This was the first inkling that the billed guaranteed parking might not be so guaranteed; that caveat I mentioned. The parking turns out to be sort of a first-come–first-served affair at the end of the dead-end street on which the apartment sits.  David did his usual awesome job of maneuvering our bigger-than-expected rent car into the snug parking. Vlatko explained that there was “usually” parking and, if we happened to come back and there wasn’t any parking, we could just park in the paid lot next door and then look down from the apartment window until a free space opened up and move the car. Hmm. Not how I wanted to spend my time in Split. Despite this potential hitch, we actually didn’t have a problem getting free parking on our return from our one daytrip to Krka, Trogir and Solin.

The apartment itself is brand, spanking new and charmingly decorated. The building is old and has been in Vlatko’s family for generations, but it has been entirely remodeled with high-end appliances and fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom and good linens on the bed. A full-size washing machine was only a week old, still sported a sticker and required a quick turn of a spigot to get the water flowing for the first time. There’s a small restaurant across the street, but otherwise this is primarily a short, residential street and all was quiet at night save for one persistent bird.

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A pretty little park lies across the street that intersects the opening to the apartment street. The walls of the old city abut the park. The walk into the old city is no more than a few minutes.

On the last day during breakfast, I looked out to see a vehicle wedging itself into the deadend parking area of our street. Two couples had been inside, but now one man drove and the other directed him into an ever-more-stuck position. Their wives circled the vehicle, the wife of the driver finally wrapping her scarf around a short pole so that her husband could literally bump it as he reversed then move an inch or so forward as he tried to maneuver his way out. From my vantage point, it was clear that the man giving directions was directing the exact opposite of what should be done. I called David over to the window to witness the show and after watching a few minutes, he couldn’t resist calling down. It turned out the people below were from Canada so “hooray!” English would work. David took over directions and soon got them out of their dilemma, being proclaimed a hero by the ladies below. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo, so here’s a clear shot of, not only their  predicament, but also the free parking situation (ours is the black car to the far left) and the paid parking just up the steps:

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At $86/night, all taxes and fees included, the apartment fit my definition of value, taking into account typical rates for Split.

You can check out this apartment at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/7261473?sug=50

If you’re new to AirBnB and want to give it a try on this or any other apartment, you can use my referral link which should get both of us $30 in AirBnB travel credit: http://www.airbnb.com/c/tcuthrell Let me know if you have any questions.

 

Split, Croatia: Old Town, Diocletian’s palace & Marjan Park

 

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Split had been a favorite of my boys and mine on that first visit to Croatia 13 years ago, and I was excited to return with David. It’s a fascinating place: a medieval city built into and incorporating the ruins of Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace. Happily, Split proved to be one of those places that’s just as good the second time around.

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Narodni Trg (National Square) in Split

As with Dubrovnik, tourism has boomed in Split in recent years and cruise ships periodically dump large crowds on the city, but Split managed to retain the charm I remembered in spite of it all. It’s popular with Croatians from surrounding areas as well and the cafés were filled on sunny weekend days. We ran into our young guide from the Winery Miloš with a girlfriend one evening and caught up with the status of the wine competition in the US. There’s always a kick to actually recognizing a familiar face in a foreign city.

Simply wandering the streets or the waterfront, enjoying a drink or a meal in one of the many cafés or restaurants constitute some of the greatest pleasures of Split. There aren’t a lot of paid must-see destinations in the old city. It’s more a matter of taking in the atmosphere and the most beautiful sights are free. The peristyle of Diocletian’s palace is magnificent and there for anyone to see, and you can wander for free among the vendor’s counters in the dark, cool cellar of the old palace. Likewise, the harbor front is open to everyone. There’s a fee to get into the church and crypt by the peristyle, but I was honestly underwhelmed. There’s a separate 20 Kuna charge to climb the bell tower and a fee to view some of the preserved ruins inside the cellar, neither of which tempted us.

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Diocletian’s peristyle
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Street entertainers by the peristyle
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Shopping in the cellar of the old palace

Another free outing, open to anyone who likes a hike is Marjan Park (“MAR-yan”) which occupies a large hill on a peninsula west of the city. The steps to access the park from the city begin off Marasovica ulica. There’s also an old Jewish cemetery in the park, old churches built into the hill and a zoo (not free). David and I spent hours walking the many steps to the top of the hill where a large cross perches high above the city then wandering footpaths down the other side. The terrace there offers spectacular views of water on three sides and the city. Continuing on small paths through the pine forest on the far side of the hill, we explore an old stone hut where I nearly stepped on a snake. Finally making it to the foot of the far side of the hill, we walked back to our left (west and then south) along the water. Unfortunately, the map we’d brought from our apartment didn’t show topography, so the restaurants we’d hope to stop at for lunch were on a beach far below the road we found ourselves on. It was a long hike back to Split proper and, while we enjoyed it, we were tired and very hungry by the time we made it back. (There were a bus stop or two, but none seemed to be running.)

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View back over Split from the overlook at the top of the first flight of stairs to Marjan Park
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Steps up to the topmost terrace with Croatian flag (and large cross beyond)
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Marjan Park main terrace
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Large cross just beyond main terrace of Marjan Park
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Smaller cross heading down mountain on the far side from Split
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Marjan Park: abandoned hut
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Snake near Marjan Park hut; I nearly stepped on this one

April 15-17, 2016

Making wine the old-fashioned way: Winery Miloš in Ston, Croatia

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At the recommendation of our server at D’Vino in Dubrovnik, we stopped at Winery Miloš in Ston on our way to Split. Ston is on the Pelješac peninsula only a short detour (on the 414) off the main highway about an hour into the 3 hour drive between Dubrovnik and Split.

We dropped in without a reservation, and were greeted by the son of owner, Frano Miloš. The very knowledgeable young man conducted us on a short private tour of the small winery followed by a tasting of several of their wines. Miloš uses only Plavic mali grapes aged in traditional 2000 liter Slavonian oak barrels and the results are excellent, garnering international awards. They were awaiting word from the U.S. regarding a current entry at the time we were there, having won in their class the year before.

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David wanted one of their top wines, a Stagnum 2007, so we ponied up a not-cheap $61 for a bottle. I believe a tasting fee was waived with the purchase of the wine.

Ponikve 15
20230 Ston
Croatia

Tel.: +385 98 9656 880
info@milos.hr
www.milos.hr (The website hasn’t been updated since 2010, but basic info can be found there.)

Dubrovnik wine bar: D’Vino

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D’Vino entrance

We spied D’Vino on our first short stop in Dubrovnik since it was just across from Glam Cafe, the coffee and craft beer bar that David had his heart set on. The proprietress of Glam Cafe was friendly with D’Vino’s owner and recommended it for our return. We were pleased, on our return, to find that D’Vino was also recommended by our AirBnB hostesses.

D’Vino is located in old town Dubrovnik at Palmotićeva ul. 4A, just a short walk from the main pedestrian boulevard, Stradun, near the Pile Gate. It’s cosy and warm and the perfect spot to sample Croatian wine. D’Vino also offers small (and not so small) plates including local cheeses and meats. Their smoked duck was fantastic.

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Our waitress (part owner?) was very knowledgeable about their wines. A native of Dubrovnik, she was funny when I mentioned I’d been there years ago and that much had changed. “Touristy and expensive?” was her instant reply. I couldn’t disagree. She said natives were being driven out of local housing as the prices soared; a sad, but not uncommon story where tourism flourishes. With the economic benefits come downsides as well.

It wasn’t overly crowded when we went, but I understand it can get very busy in peak season. Reservations may be in order then.

Wines we sampled ran around $10/glass. We enjoyed all the wines we sampled; big, bold reds. When I joked that I got a lighter pour than my husband because I was a woman, our server happily topped me up…which made me happy as well!

+385(0)203211230

www.dvino.net

email: info@dvino.net

 

Croatian SIM card: a bargain and a caveat

The trans-Atlantic cruise that launched our Balkan adventure stopped in Dubrovnik before dropping us off in Venice. I’d been to Dubrovnik before and we knew we’d return, so our priority on the cruise stop was to buy a visitor SIM card so we’d be ready to roll when we came back to Croatia 2.5 weeks later. I’d done some research and knew there were no phone stores selling SIM cards in Old Town Dubrovnik, but they are sold at the post office.

Browsing our options at the old town post office, I chose the “Vipme internet,” a fantastic bargain at 20 kuna ($3), including tax. For that price, I got a data SIM card with 2G worth of data at 1G/day (ie., two days’ worth of Internet). The system is set up perfectly for travelers: your gig allotment is in 24 hour increments that begin when you actually access the internet with your card. So, if you don’t need the card for a day, you don’t get charged. I figured we’d use the card that day and then on our first day back in Croatia later in the trip. After that, we could buy charge up slips at any phone store, post office or most convenience stores at a rate of about $1.50/day. What a deal!

The lady who sold me the card at the post office knew very little about them, but did agree to help me with activation since the instructions were in Croatian (a major downside) until you reached a certain web page with English. Unfortunately (and here comes the caveat), she mistakenly exited the page where we were to confirm the plan and activate. I saw what she was doing, but couldn’t stop her in time. I did not realize that a different plan was chosen by default. The result was that she mistakenly registered me for a plan which included other features (calls, texts, etc.) and charged at a much higher usage rate which quickly burned up my 2G credit. I didn’t realize her mistake until after we’d left and I had lost all access to the Internet.

When I did get wi-fi and tried to choose a different plan, I was never sure I’d done things correctly. This meant that when we returned to Dubrovnik we had to catch a short bus ride out of the Old Town to a phone shop and get the whole mess sorted out. The good news is that they did sort it out, and also credited me back for my lost $3; not much compensation for the hassle, but nice of them nonetheless. Thereafter, the SIM card worked perfectly and we had cheap, reliable internet virtually everywhere we went in Croatia at $1.50/day.

Vipme is now offering weekly packages for 80 kuna ($12) with a cheap daily rate option. http://www.vipnet.hr/tourist-offer/en If you activate correctly, the price and product are excellent.

[The post office in Old Town Dubrovnik is a block off the main avenue, Stradun, on the corner of Široka ulica and ulica od Puča. The VIP store is at Vukovarska ul. 7, 20000, Dubrovnik in an old bank building. The bus stop at the Tommy shopping center is the closest. You can ask a bus driver to alert you to the stop.]

 

 

Taking a bus from Kotor, Montenegro, to Dubrovnik, Croatia

Although we planned drive ourselves in Croatia, we opted not to keep the car we’d rented in Montenegro for that trip. My reasoning was 1) we’d avoid cross border charges; and 2) we didn’t want a car for our days in Old Dubrovnik anyway since parking is nonexistent in the old town. The best option appeared to be a motor coach. I bought tickets ahead of time on GetByBus at https://getbybus.com/en/ for 483.5 Croatian kuna ($42.5o) for 2 tickets, tax included. A print-out of the ticket is required and the drive is about 2 hours. We had only one brief stop at a town along the way.

The Kotor bus station is close to old town, but on the opposite side from our apartment. Marjana kindly offered to drive us, and would not accept payment. The bus station is relatively small and easy to navigate. There’s no need to arrive extra early, but do know there’s a station fee that has to be paid before you can board a bus. This wasn’t included in our ticket fee nor did I see any mention ahead of time. This caused a momentary panic when the driver asked to see the receipt for our local payment, but a quick dash inside (and a teller who waved me to the front of the short line) resolved the problem.

The bus itself was a comfortable tour bus/Greyhound-style motor coach. Free wi-fi was supposedly included, but we both had trouble connecting. The border crossing was easy with the driver collecting our passports for a brief stop. The bus stop in Dubrovnik is right by the cruise port. We caught a cab to the Old Dubrovnik main gaten this time because of our luggage, but there’s a bus stop just up on the main road by the newsstand where you can also buy a local bus ticket.

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View from the bus of Croatian countryside and vineyards