Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Croatia: Aegean Islands, Ancient Culture, Natural Wonders, Plus Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Split

February 06, 2024 Croatia experts Leila Krešić-Jurić and Antonia Urlic share their insights and memories. Season 1 Episode 102
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Croatia: Aegean Islands, Ancient Culture, Natural Wonders, Plus Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Split
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers


Discover Croatia's allures with travel experts  Leila Krešić-Jurić  and Antonia Urlic,
as we traverse the nation's vibrant history and culture. From ancient cities to contemporary charms, we uncover the reasons behind Croatia's soaring popularity. The 'Pearl of the Adriatic', Dubrovnik, unveils its deep cultural significance and Game of Thrones fame, and a thriving culinary scene.

Zagreb offers festive markets, a cathedral that dominates the skyline, and the quirky  the Museum of Broken Relationships. Indulge in Zagreb's traditional Strukli, a gastronomic gem best savored within the grandeur of the Hotel Esplanade.

From the storied walls of Diocletian's Palace in Split to the cascading beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park.

And for those seeking a connection with nature, we share personal stories including a mesmerizing encounter with a dolphin off the island of Hvar,  in the Adriatic.
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Leila Krešić-Jurić (leila.kresic.us@croatia.hr) is ...,  Antonia Urlic (antonia.urlic@stories-hotels.com) is ....

Podcast host Lea Lane  has traveled to over 100 countries, and  has written nine books, including the award-winning Places I Remember  (Kirkus Reviews star rating, and  'one of the top 100 Indie books of  the year'). She has contributed to many guidebooks and has written thousands of travel articles.
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Our award-winning travel podcast, Places I Remember with Lea Lane, has produced over 100 travel episodes! New podcast episodes drop on the first Tuesday of the month, on Apple, Spotify, and  wherever you listen. Check them out.

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Lea Lane:

Croatia sits across from Italy on the Adriatic Sea. At the junction of central and southeast Europe, it has become a popular destination known for its nature, culture, history and gastronomy. Our guests are the director of Croatian National Tourism in North America, and Antonija Erlich, president of Stories Hotels. Welcome Leila and Antonija to places I remember. Hi, leila.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

It's a very nice meeting here and very happy to get this opportunity to talk to your audience.

Lea Lane:

Let's just talk a little bit about the history of Croatia.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Well, what to say. Croatia has a long, long history. I always like to say that if you wonder how Europe looks like, just come to Croatia. All European empires have been living their footsteps and what footprints actually in Croatia over the last centuries and millennia. We have a city which is 8,000 years old and if you wonder about the Roman culture, the Greek culture and the Hungarian Empire, or even the Ottomans that ruled some parts of Croatia for 500 years, it's actually very easy to understand the culture, the gastronomy and even the way of life, just scrolling through all the parts of Croatia and understand how history melts in this tiny, tiny piece of land in the center of Europe.

Lea Lane:

I would emphasize that Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. It's now celebrated as statehood day. So that takes us up sort of toward the present. Let me just ask you. People know all about the pleasures of the Adriatic coastline and it's absolutely gorgeous. Can you tell us about the numbers of North Americans traveling to Croatia?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Oh well, very proud to say that we already broke all the records this year already. In October, the end of October, we had more American travelers than in 2019, which has been a record year now. So now, until the end of this year, we are forecasting 710,000 people, and it's going to be already more than 2 million overnight, which is really a record for us in terms of American travelers.

Lea Lane:

Wow, I know everybody's talking about Croatia. It's one of the places you hear about all the time now, so everybody's discovering it. If they haven't already, let's talk about what not to miss. First, we have to start with Dubrovnik. It's in southern Croatia, it's on the Adriatic or the Dalmatian coast. It's nicknamed the Pearl of the Adriatic and I've mentioned when I first went there and I took the cable car up and I looked down. I can see why. It looks like it's set on blue velvet. It looks like a pearl, with the beautiful terracotta roofs and the gorgeous blue sea. It's something else. Tell us a little bit about Dubrovnik.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

But Dubrovnik was the independent republic from many years ago. Dubrovnik was one of the first countries that recognized independence of the United States, through the efforts of Francesco Favre, the consul in Paris. It was in July 7th 1783. So it is something that the Dubrovnik people are very proud of. It was the place where the east and the west met, and Dubrovnik was a trade center for them the trade between the Venetians and between the Ottomans. Both of them also wanted to conquer, but Dubrovnik was really the place that resisted all these battles for many, many years. Actually, Dubrovnik is much more than just beautiful stones and buildings that you can see today. When you immerse into the history and to the culture, you understand how much important it was for the development of the European culture.

Lea Lane:

Interesting. Now, Antonija, you don't live in Dubrovnik. I know you live in Zagreb, but when you go there, what do you not want to miss?

Antonia Urlic:

As a tourist in Dubrovnik, I'm sure that you can say that the impression of the beauty of Dubrovnik is something that nobody can miss, because it's such an amazing city. Even to us that are from Croatia, every time we come to Dubrovnik, we are amazed by the beauty of it. Not to be missed are, for sure, the gourmet experience of Dubrovnik and the nice expressions that you can make either to the hinterlands, so to say, or to the nearby islands that surrounds Dubrovnik. It's a great combination of culture, history, gourmet and beautiful nature experiences.

Lea Lane:

One of those islands is Lachram Island. I know I visited that one that's not far. It has peacocks walking around and it has a beautiful monastery dating back to a thousand AD. I think it's very beautiful. And there are beaches nearby. They're pebbly beaches, they're not perfect, but the islands are all around there. You certainly have to go on the walls. You have to get on those walls and look at the old town. What are some of the places in the old town that you want to note?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Just not to forget. On Lachram Island we have the throne of the Game of Thrones. We are very proud of it.

Lea Lane:

The throne itself.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Yes, the throne itself. Exactly, it's on Lachram Island, so now it's overwhelmed with tourists that want to see the throne, not so much the botanical gardens, which are awesome, as you said, the vegetation, everything is very much preserved, thanks to one guy. You know how usually it's someone who wants it to make it nice at its time and then today it's an Indicator heritage as well. However, when you go to the city, beside the old walls and the old town as such, you have Tradun, which is the main street, very long street. You have the fortresses, the big gate called Pilagate as well. There are several gates entering the city. There are two major gates actually, but you can enter the city, of course, from the side, crawling through the small, very, very narrow street, usually hundreds and hundreds of stairs you have to reach. Actually, you have usually people who live there had a good condition. It's like fitness if you have to go up and down 200 stairs many times per day. Then Rector's Palace it's one of practically the most important building in Dubrovnik. Or Minketa Fortress, which is also the one that you can see in all the photos. It's a big one around one very picturesque building in Dubrovnik. All of these buildings I just mentioned a few that are most photographed, but really the landmarks that are very well preserved and restored. If you want to have a gorgeous wedding, you can even think in collaboration with the city. You can practically rent that space for you that day.

Lea Lane:

Good to know. And again, as I mentioned, if you want to go up to the top in a cable car, sunset is the perfect time to go. You can go to a lovely restaurant I remember at the peak.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Panorama restaurant, yes.

Lea Lane:

Panorama restaurant. It's a wonderful way to end the day. Now Antonia you were from Zagreb. Tell us a little bit about the capital, the largest city of Croatia in the north. What is important there to not miss?

Antonia Urlic:

I would say that one of the things not to be missed in Zagreb is one of the most popular Christmas markets in Europe. In addition to this, throughout the whole year, I'd say that Zagreb is the cultural and gourmet capital of Croatia, so it's very good and easy to combine it together with the coast, to come in Zagreb, stay for a couple of nights and discover what Zagreb has to offer as the major city in Croatia and, on the other hand, it is very easily connected with the coast, so you can easily link it.

Lea Lane:

I know the upper town is the older part and the lower town is the more modern part, so you have lots of cafes and so forth below, and then on top you have, of course, the Zagreb Cathedral, which is the tallest building in Croatia, back to the 11th century. I do believe you have many interesting museums. There's one I have to ask you about. I didn't go there, but I've heard of it. It's the Museum of Broken Relationships. What is that?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Yeah, that's something fantastic. It's actually a museum that started because a couple who broke up and they said, 'okay, we are still in good terms, we have all these things that we were given to as a couple. What do we do with them?' And then they decided to open a museum with their old stuff let's call it this way, and also the friends starting bringing them their presents that they have like, have it like, you know, like memory from a relationship. Either someone divorced and then had some memory. So each of these objects there has its own story and this story is written. Of course, it's not a long story. It's usually in like one sentence and two sentences, but when you s to the museum, no matter, it should be like, let's say, a sad museum. Actually it's super fun and super exciting and you have really good time. They open a few franchises like this. Actually, this museum it's also being like hosted at other museums throughout the world and besides the museum of broken relationship, there is one really, really super cool museum that there are a few franchises open in the United States. It's a Museum of Illusions. It's also in Zagreb.

Lea Lane:

Where in Europe?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

It's made illusions. Yeah, museum of illusions. Yeah, there is one in New York as well, I think it's like 9th a 14th D, something like that, but in that area definitely, and there are others also in Vegas recently open. So there are a few cross Washington. I remember in Losier, Chicago. So, yes, there are two crazy franchises from Croatia that are now conquering the world, and it's really super fun, interesting.

Lea Lane:

You think about art and you think about medieval facts and things like that, but to think of these wonderful sort of whimsical places, that's fun to know about. Now you mentioned the gourmet food. In Zagreb there's a marketplace I know that has wonderful foods that you can stroll around. What are some of the classic foods that you would eat when you go there? What should you not miss?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Well, when in Zagreb and in general this northern central area, there is something that is very popular it's actually pastry with cheese, very specific cheese made in these small villages. It's something that you can taste it in the restaurant of the Hotel Esplanada, which is a famous hotel in the city center of Zagreb that was established at the occasion of the Orient Express train that was running at that time, 100 years ago. It's going to be like 100 years. This hotel was open and, for example, the Struckli, the most famous you will try in Esplanada Hotel. Of course, anywhere else you can ask for them, but it's something super, super cool to ask and taste.

Lea Lane:

I think I've heard of it as 'dirty macaroni. That's a way of saying it. I've heard it, but it's kno it tastes delicious, but that's what I've heard it's called. Of course, the grilled fish and the seafood of the area. Also, I remember delicious and your rakia. What is rakia the delicious drink?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

thing, rakia is something super strong. It's a very strong alcohol and there are different kinds of rakia. You can make them with some sort of fruits, so they're like more fruity, but in general, bottom line it's 50% alcohol. So it's really strong.

Lea Lane:

You don't want to walk on the wall when you drink the rakia.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

You toast with them. But it's funny, in the smaller villages people take this. Older people take this in the morning. Okay, just for the morning, to make the day a good day of course.

Lea Lane:

Okay, from rakia, let's move on to another wonderful city, Split. It's the second largest city in Croatia. It's on the coast. What should we not miss? Of course, there's one thing we have to mention, and everyone tries to visit it. It's Diocletian's Palace. Tell us about that.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Well, I'm very proud to be from Split. Actually, Antonia is also coming from Split with a birth, born there. Split is in terms of creation. I will tell you now a little story. It's recognized as Split in the area oh, you are just good looking, smart and lazy. Then of course, everybody wants to be good looking, everybody wants to be smart, but nobody wants to be lazy. But then when you know the history, that our founder, the emperor, Di Euclation, actually who he was, it was the most powerful, not so much known, but the most powerful Roman emperor ever. So at his height, Roman Empire was the largest ever, so large that he said okay, guys, I'm going to retire, I'm going to build a palace for myself at my mother's birthplace, which is Salona. It's just nearby Split, it's literally the village next to split. He said I divided the Roman emperor into four. He actually put four of his people to rule the Roman emperor and he retired. So actually it was also the invention of retirement. The concept of retirement came through t clation. I remember at that time nobody was retired. You either get killed, or you suffer from hunger and you die, or you just, you know, simple, die, but nobody. I mean people were working all the time. So he retired. He asked the architects to construct him a palace at the best place. So he let the sheep eat the grass. Where the sheep didn't want to eat the grass, his council said that this is not a good place. So actually they found the best plot for him to build the palace and it was nearby also the sulphate waters. Because he needed sulphate waters as a cure for his spine, because of course he was after so many battles. He needed a help, actually a health tourism at that time. So today we call it city of Split. It was actually founded, the beautiful palace near the healthy, the healing waters and with the luxurious rooms that were pertaining to the emperor, while the other half of the palace was inhabited by the soldiers and people who were actually coming as traders, etc. Today you still have people living in the palace and we estimate that it is probably the only place, only palace in the world. that people literally live inside. Of course you don't see it as such unless you have a birds view, birds view or you can see it, of course, from the markets that it's a palace. But you can recognize the doors, the gates, you can recognize the buildings, you can recognize many, many fragments that, of course, today were also modernized and, what is important, we have a beautiful hotel inside the palace. And you have a summer festival inside the palace, with the Sphinx, with the Cathedral which is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world as well, that it's passing through Dalmatia, not visiting Split, it's like not being in Croatia.

Lea Lane:

Exactly, and the beaches are pretty good too around there. I have to say that nearby is Plitvice. Am I saying that correctly, or is it Plitvice?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Plitvice. Yes, yes, yes.

Lea Lane:

Plitvice. Whatever I'm saying, it's gorgeous. It's the largest and oldest national park in Croatia. It's a World Heritage Site. It's known throughout the world for its 16 lakes and magnificent waterfalls, upper and lower. Describe it for us, Antonija.

Antonia Urlic:

I would like to share my personal experience with Plitvice Lakes. So every time, whatever season, I come to Plitvice Lakes, I always say, oh my God, I have to come here in each and every season, because whenever I go to Plitvice they are completely different in winter time, spring time, summer time or in autumn. It is just fabulous with such a dramatic nature and it makes us so proud that we have it and that we preserve it. Nowadays, I can share with you a little bit more about Plitvice Lakes, one of the most attractive natural sites in Croatia.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

It was proclaimed as the first national park in April 1949. It was really a long time ago and 30 years after, in 1979, it became inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List. So they are really, together with Dubrovnik, the other first ones, I think, the Dioclation Palace, all the three of them that were inscribed into UNESCO Heritage List in the same year. It's covered with forest vegetation. There are 16 lakes smaller and they are all cascading into one each other. We call them the whole lake system. We call it like upper lakes and lower lakes, where we are names, of course, very, very, very homemade, let's say. Each time of the year you have something different that you can try and you, however, swimming is not allowed anymore. When I was the kid yes, it was many years after.

Lea Lane:

I would say, go each season in your lifetime.

Antonia Urlic:

Each season.

Lea Lane:

Yes, it's all that one very easily right. I have to also mention another beautiful park, Kirka. also has beautiful waterfalls. There are so many of these gorgeous areas beyond the coast. Many people don't go far from the coast, but you have all these inland beautiful areas, and I want to mention the little village, Slunj. Am I pronouncing that right? Slunj? It's one of the 54 best tourist villages in the world, according to the World Tourism Organization. Very charming, with wooden houses and rushing waterfalls, and it's in the neighborhood of Rastoki .

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Yes, it's also very popular for the local people, especially from Zagreb, which is like one hour from, even less with the highway from Zagreb, and it is like a mixture of a little cascades, little lakes, a lot of water, the rivers and the small houses, wooden houses, and it's all like some fairy tale. That's how it looks like in the real world.

Lea Lane:

Kind of a hidden secret, but it isn't so hidden anymore, but it's one of those special places that many people overlook, so try to keep that in mind when you go to Croatia to visit some of the smaller towns that are like fairy tale towns. Let me just ask about lodging. I know, antonio, that that is your specialty. You represent a group called Stories, which is a collection of boutique hotels which acqua guests with the legacy of the heritage, and they're set in coves and in thousand year old buildings, like we've mentioned, in the castles. Just give us an idea, if you can, where you can stay. I mean, we can stay in a B&B or a hostel. There are so many places, five-star hotels, great lodgings, but this is very special. So give us an idea of what you represent.

Antonia Urlic:

Yeah, the hotels within our collection are handpicked, small boutique hotels that each offers a unique experience related either to cultural history, go or nature. What is very special about them is that they have a very strong character and they provide a strong sense of the place. So, for instance, we mentioned already in Split, our member is a Vestibule Palace hotel, which is a small gem hidden in the heart of Emperor Diocletian Palace. Its guests can literally say I slept where Emperor Diocletian used to sleep, because it is located within a previous private corners of Emperor Diocletian and it is a hotel that was created from three palaces, emerging by three palaces from three different eras Roman: gothic Gothic and Renaissance into one hotel with only seven suites. And the hotel has even the original walls from Roman era, from third century that you can feel and sense and touch in the hotel, in some of the suites also. But on the other hand, we also have hotels in all the noble summer houses. For instance, Kazbek Boutique hotel in Dubrovnik is exactly that. It is a noble house that was converted to a small hotel with 13 rooms, telling the story again about the noble men in Dubrovnik that prefer to stay out of the city walls. So they built for themselves, these i erinian erranean summer houses that are now all culturally protected, and Kazbek is, for instance, in is one of those. And then we have something completely different. For instance, in Istria, which is the most famous gourmet region of Croatia in the northern part of the Adriatic, we have wine oasis or olive oil oasis, small gourmet family run hotels or large wine oasis, and, in addition to this, also chic modern hotels like Adriana Hvar on the island of Hvar, that perfectly incorporated all flavors and scents of Hvar island into service they offer. So you have for breakfast, which is known as one of the best breakfasts in Croatia, you can choose from eight types of honey that are done with local herbs from Hvar Island, or you have spa treatments with the oils and scents of Hvar Island.

Lea Lane:

Sounds fabulous. I'd like to go to each one of those as well. I think that's all I need to do is keep going to Croatia, to the islands and to the wonderful places to eat and all of the sounds terrific. Well, the name of the podcast is places I remember. Would each Places you Remember a personal memory of your beautiful country? How about starting with Leila?

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Great. Actually, it's a very tough question because when you asked me the first moment, it was okay. So many times, people whom I know, after they are back from Croatia, they said you know, we had to testify that the photo of the beaches and of the clear blue water, that it's really not photoshopped. Now, I'm sure it's not photoshopped because I've been there and it's something that happened to me literally every year with someone who is traveling and then not sure what they'll be found there. However, the most picturesque experience, I would say happened many years ago when the members, 30 people, members of the Gastronomy Academy of Marbella in Spain they came 30 of them to the islands, so from Split to Dubronik, they were actually sailing the island, but also they stayed like they had two weeks. They were doing this kind of trip. So I remember they were coming to Croatia with so it was in 2021, years ago. They came with wines. They brought wines with them. They brought prosciutto they brought. Everything was, of course, vacuumed because they were afraid what they are going to find in Croatia. They literally didn't open any Spanish wine, they didn't touch the meat, and whatever prosciutto and cheese they actually brought with them, they literally gave it to the cook, just to have it for later times. First they went to see the that's why I remember so vividly the Nabuka opera. So they were eating local, organic, local food, local vegetables, local fruits. Everything was so made local actually made how they visited the Dalmatian coasts and the islands. They wanted to buy the wines and I remember there's a major thing for me was the owner of the little winery in Braciland didn't want to sell them more. He said you are the friends of my friends. I gave you the best wine which I keep for my family. I gave you to you to taste it, one glass for each. You are 30. I'm not going to give you more because I don't have such a quantity and the best. I want to keep it for my family. It was so good that they were ready to buy the whole quantity. It was a time when Croatia really started to build its way on the gourmet scene in Europe. Now we can see that and we witness that we built it on a much global scale, not only Europe, but I would say in the global, in the world. And this little story it remembers me that only 20 years ago people were so surprised to find some good food and good wine here and today. That is the reason why people come to Croatia, especially from the US.

Lea Lane:

Excellent, thank you, Antonija. what about you?

Antonia Urlic:

When I was a kid, I used to spend my summers on the sailing boats sailing all around Adriatic coast, and one of the most memorable experiences that I remember is once when we were sailing from the island of Hvar to the island of Kortula. We were sailing through this large channel that is between these two islands and all of a sudden, a dolphin came by by the side of our boat and for the short period of time we were sailing together, so all you could hear was the engines were off, of course, of the boat, and all the sounds that you can hear is the boat sliding on the surface of the sea and the dolphin swimming by the side. And it was such an amazing emotion. We feel like we were connected, amazing. You felt so small in this large, beautiful nature, connected with this amazing animal, this amazing creature.

Lea Lane:

So often, the simplest of memories are the ones we remember our entire lives. That's beautiful. Croatia is indeed a special country. Thank you, Leila Kresik Jurek, director of the Croatian National Tourism Board in North America, and Antonija Erlek, president of Stories Hotel, for sharing your insights and memories about your beautiful country. Thank you.

Leila Krešić-Jurić :

Thank you, Lea.

Antonia Urlic:

Thank you, Lea, for your time.

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