Dubrovnik – Split – Rab – Sibenik – Hvar – Korcula – Kotor (Montenegro)
The M/S Callisto departed in the early evening from Dubrovnik: the stunning medieval city was still basking in the sun and its limestone streets were gleaming like marble. It was busy in high season with throngs of tourists walking the circular high city walls in the midday sun and seeking out Game of Thrones locations.
Mobility note – Dubrovnik is built into the cliff with over 4,000 stone steps. And as I was to discover, it is not alone: Croatian towns all have a lot of steps!
An overnight sail took us to Split, where behind the bustling port lay another stunning medieval city with a huge open-air market (the biggest in Dalmatia), and a Diocletian palace dating back over 1700 years.
Locals like to escape from downtown Split by climbing high into the hills and visiting the tropical gardens with forested walks and incredible panoramas. There’s a perfect pitstop bar half way up for a glass of local beer (cheaper than a soft drink!), and a stiff climb is rewarded by a view over the harbour where the M/S Callisto was awaiting our return.
From Split we took an afternoon excursion to Trogir. Another fascinating medieval city with a myriad of narrow streets and an emphasis on food, this is a place to dine in style, as we realised when we saw the mega yachts pull into the harbour. Images and souvenirs of the mythical winged Kairos are to be found everywhere, with his bald head and tufty forelock. According to ancient Greek, he is the God of the fleeting moment which must be seized, namely by his tuft of hair. Carpe Diem as we would say!
The next day found us on the island of Rab, a paradise of immaculate streets, gardens and gentle walks along a promenade which also doubles up as a beach with warm crystal-clear water, perfect for swimming and sun bathing. The medieval festival was due to start the next day and the island was gearing up for a party.
Then onward to Sibenik, located on the coast in central Dalmatia and accessed through a spectacular fjord where the river Krka flows into the Adriatic. The gorge has the effect of keeping out the large cruise ships, and this is probably why the city is less well-known. However, it’s a gem of a place built into the cliff (you’ve guessed, with plenty of stairs), with stunning Venetian architecture, narrow streets packed with stylish boutiques and restaurants and terracotta roofed houses.
In fact with what looked like a pint-sized version of St Mark’s Square and the staggeringly beautiful Cathedral of St. Jakov, it almost felt like being in Venice itself; the cathedral is considered to be most important architectural monument in the whole of Croatia, and is justifiably a Unesco World Heritage site.
The baptistery of the cathedral is a stunning masterpiece by Juraj Dalmatinac, known as Croatia’s Michelangelo, although the translation, George the Dalmatian, makes him sound like a pet pooch! It’s vaulted with corrugated seashells around the upper walls, each one identical and symmetrical; it’s hard to believe they were handmade hundreds of years ago.
Around 20 minutes from Sibenik is the Krka National Park which absolutely should not be missed. The word waterfall does not do justice to the multiple torrents cascading down in every direction, pausing in small lakes and then accelerating off the edge again. It’s mesmerising and beautiful, and there’s even a chance to have a fully immersive experience and swim close to the foot of the falls.
From Sibenik we travelled to Hvar, which is known as the jewel of the Dalmatian islands, and frequented by A list celebrities (Prince Harry and Beyonce to name but two). We didn’t spot any royalty or pop stars on our morning visit there, although a number of glamourous ladies walking micro dogs (not a Dalmatian in sight though) were clearly out to be noticed. It’s a stunning city, immaculately maintained, and resplendent with Venetian architecture. A fairly challenging walk up to the Spanjola Fortress is rewarded by incredible views to the harbour.
However, if I had thought that Hvar was beautiful, it was eclipsed by the next port of call which was the island of Korcula. It’s hard to describe the breath-taking view which greeted us as we arrived in the early evening. The setting sun bathed the walled city in pink glow, the castle towers stood majestic above the port with mountain scenery all around, and the table was set outside for dinner.
A word of praise for the heroic work of the captain who skilfully reversed the M/S Callisto into a small space in the harbour, docking with a wall on one side, and some scarily large motor cruisers on the other. All the guests, and particularly those who find reverse parking something of a challenge, were suitably impressed!
If someone were to design the perfect medieval city, Korcula would be the template. Narrow cobbled streets, cathedral and bell tower and a museum which celebrates the (somewhat disputed by Venetians) birthplace of Marco Polo. What made Korcula even more special was a traditional folk event, a sword-fight in the open-air theatre. Like an extreme form of Morris dancing, the red costumed men fought against their opponents in black. The music got louder and faster, the swords clashed with increasing aggression until finally the reds vanquished the blacks. And all for the love of a lady of course.
The next evening, the unexpected and totally delightful finale of our time in Korcula was a lunar eclipse which took place as we sailed south for Montenegro. With a clear sky and a perfect view, we watched from the front deck as the earth slowly covered the moon until it was totally eclipsed and became pink. We felt so privileged to have this private viewing, including sightings of Mars and Venus with a few satellites and shooting stars to complete the spectacle.
Our final day was spent in Kotor, Montenegro which felt very different to Croatia. Reached through a stunning gorge, Kotor is a long way inland, and for the first time we saw sweaters, leather jackets and boots in the shops rather than summer clothes, and also encountered the first bad weather of the week. We dodged the showers to climb 1500 fairly steep steps up to the ruined fortress, slippery in parts, and were rewarded with stunning views across mountains which felt almost alpine.
Returning to Dubrovnik for disembarkation, I reflected upon a packed week in which Variety Cruises had certainly lived up to its name. We had seen and done so much in 7 days, and only unpacked once! Exploring the Dalmatian coastline in a small ship, and this really is small, is totally addictive.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Variety Cruises