Our adventure to Croatia and Back Again began its life sat on the sofa at home as my husband and I dreamt of amazing places to visit as we explored Google Maps. We had 10 days holiday coming up in October, and we wanted to go somewhere we could drive. You see, there are so many wonderful places in Europe that we had always wanted to visit and we just couldn’t make our minds up where to go. So, we decided to take a mini european tour and capture a small snapshot of each place on our journey to gauge which might deserve a longer stay in holidays to come. I guess you could call it a ‘try before you buy’ kind of holiday.
We took another look at the map of Europe and decided that in an ideal world we’d like to see as much as possible, cross as many countries as possible but not tire ourselves out doing so. This meant that we had a long car journey (9 hours or so) at the start and end of the holiday but shorter stints (3-4 hours) in between. We planned our route out, working out how far we could get and finally settled on a plan.
Leaving the UK
After a busy week at work we clocked off at 4pm to start out on our adventure, catching the night ferry from Dover to Dunkirk. We arrived in France at about 1am and had pre-booked a budget Formule1 hotel near the ferry port. Not luxurious, but somewhere convenient to lay down our heads and rest before our epic journey started the next day.
Our next day started early as we knew we had a 9-10 hour drive ahead to get to Chamonix in the French Alps. French roads are reliable, predictable and pretty swift so we made good progress. We reached near Reims by lunchtime and got to our destination at around 6pm. I can’t really say much about the roads, whilst France is a beautiful country if you stick to the motorways and toll roads you don’t really see much, but you do make great progress. Now, I’d never been to Chamonix before. My husband had visited with his family years ago and was singing its praises. When we arrived it was out of ski season so the place was quite quiet but wow, the views! I was bowled away by just how close we were to the top of the highest peak in Europe. The views at nighttime with the moon peaking over the top of mountains was something just breathtaking. We stayed at a skiing/walking lodge right in the centre of Chamonix (Chamonix Lodge), it was great value, comfortable and even had a hot tub in the garden! That evening we took a wander through the town and stumbled across a really friendly restaurant called Bighorn Bistro & Bakery, very close to the centre. We had a lovely evening but then took an early night to prepare for a big day getting a better view of Mont Blanc.
I can’t even begin to describe how great this day was! We took the cable car (which freaked me out) all the way to the Aiguille du Midi, some 3842 metres high. It’s a popular tourist attraction and it’s not difficult to see why. From the top you get the most spectacular views of mountain peaks, snowy valleys and expansive glaciers. Everywhere you look it’s just unbelievable! Lunch in the cafe was with a view of Mont Blanc itself. We spent hours there, freezing our little cheeks and ears, just soaking up the views but at some point we needed to make a move – we had accommodation booked somewhere new that evening…
The journey from France to Italy is pretty quick through the Mont Blanc tunnel, it’s just a little expensive on the tolls. If you have time we’d recommend going another scenic route along the mountain roads. Then we arrived in Italy, I love Italy! After a few hours the Alps started to disappear in our rear view mirror and a new landscape awaited us, the Italian Lakes and our next destination: Lake Como! We had booked accommodation in Lecco on the other side to Como town and had found a small studio apartment with hob, microwave etc. for a nice quiet night in. The accommodation was just brilliant, it was called the Pescalina and was a small complex of apartments in a very grand old house. The owner was very welcoming, the apartment was really well laid out and we even had a little terrace to enjoy breakfast outside in the morning.
Neither of us had ever been to the Italian Lakes and we had heard great things about Lake Como so we started out our day with great anticipation and we weren’t to be disappointed. We had planned a small route to explore the shores of the lake, driving from Lecco to Bellagio and then on our way to our next destination. First thing that has to be said for Lake Como was just how Italian it felt. The views along the shores were just beautiful and because we were out of season the roads weren’t too busy and places didn’t seem very touristy. We just drove and ended up parking in the cute little square at the back of Belaggio down a road called Via Pescallo. This was a great find, there were a couple of lovely little beaches and a winding footpath over the hill to Belaggio. We soaked in the gorgeous scenery, had a slice of pizza and Peroni sitting on a bench by the lake and then ambled our way back to the car for our onward journey.
We couldn’t drive through the North of Italy without stopping at Lake Garda, family and friends had raved about it for so long and we needed to see what the fuss was about. We stayed in a really lovely Agriturismo called Cascina Roveri, which was about 30 minutes drive to the South of Lake Garda. The farm was great, really peaceful in the middle of vineyards. They had a lovely outside seating area where we prepared our own meal and had some of the farm’s own brewed beer. The next day was all about exploring Sirmione, a beautiful Italian old town on the banks of the lake. We thought that Garda would be similar to Como, but actually the scenery and atmosphere are completely different. Whilst Como was quiet and relaxing with houses set into the hills, Garda was bustling and lively with buildings along the shore. We walked into the old town or Sirmione and spent the morning walking along the banks of the lake following the ancient walls of the town. The water was clear and blue and the day just happened to be wonderfully sunny. We finished off our brief tour of Lake Garda by enjoying a delicious Gelato in the sunshine whilst sitting on a jetty over the lake.
That afternoon we had a little farther to travel, from Lake Garda, through the North of Italy into Slovenia (very briefly) and just into the North of Croatia where we had the luxury of 2 nights’ accommodation. There was a stark difference travelling from Italy to Croatia in terms of quality of roads and surrounding areas, there was even a physical border crossing between Slovenia and Croatia, which was no trouble at all. Croatia is obviously in a very different situation to Italy, in recent history Croatia has come out of terrible war and dictatorship and over the last years of freedom it has been rebuilding itself, this is evident in the state of old buildings left in states of disrepair. However, on our first evening’s drive through to just outside of Pula, Croatia was drawing us in the an enviable coastline and friendly atmosphere. We had an apartment booked in a small place called Stinian, just 400 yards walk to a lovely beach and campsite, where we took in our first ever Croatian sunset!
It was amazing how just 3 days before we were wrapped up warm in just above freezing temperatures a top of mountain in the Alps and now we were enjoying 30+ and stunning sunshine in a country we had never explored before. We had made sure that we had a full day to explore the wonders of northern Croatia and our main stop for the day was a national park, Kamenjak. Again, because we were out of season the park was free to enter and fairly quiet. I can imagine that in peak season the place gets packed. You drive along this long peninsula on dusty roads and can choose to take various turnings to beaches and bars/restaurants until you find the one that is right for you. We parked somewhere near the end and then walked down to the beach, which on this side of the peninsula was actually flat rocky outcrops leading into crystal clear water. We then just walked along the rocks for a good while until we found a little cove all to ourselves to settle down and soak up the sun all day. It was bliss! We watched the boats go by, took a dip in the sea and even managed to catch a pod of dolphins jumping around over the shore. Once we’d had enough sun we headed off to see what Pula had to offer. We arrived in Pula just as the sun was setting and the ancient amphitheatre look stunning against the red sky. Pula is brimming with history, much of it traced back to its days as part of the Roman Empire and it’s definitely worth an explore. We finished the day enjoying a tipple on the balcony of our apartment and just realising how much we loved life right now.
Onwards to Slovenia
From now on we began our return journey to the UK but not without a few interesting stops along the way. The first of which, I had been really looking forward to – Lake Bled in Slovenia. Again, we had heard great things about Slovenia from friends and wanted to see for ourselves. On arrival at Lake Bled the weather was pretty awful but that didn’t dampen (excuse the pun) our spirits or the brilliant views. Being October, the colours of the trees had started to change and the hillsides seemed like a patchwork of rusty colours as the mist rose from the forest canopy. It was entirely magical. Lake Bled lived up to my expectations, it was a beautiful mirrored lake surrounded by forest-clad hills, a stunning castle and a beautiful church nestled on an island in the middle. We stayed in Carman B&B with a view over the lake, they were really friendly and hired out rowing boats for the lake. The evening we ate at a newly renovated restaurant next door to our B&B and the food was excellent! The next morning we managed to find an opportunity without rain to take a rowing boat out onto the lake and see the church on an island. Then we were off to the next country…
I don’t know why but I’ve never really considered Austria as a holiday destination, but I will be from now on! We had the most wonderful drive through into Austria towards a place called Zell am See and we stopped off at one of the best driving experiences on the way – the Grossglockner High Alpine Road. This mountain pass snakes through 48km of stunning Alpine scenery taking you up as high as 2504 metres and it’s a sight to behold. There are 36 bends on this relatively short stretch of road, each one offering a new view. My husband quite possibly felt like the happiest man alive as we explored this road. We were actually really lucky, it was -3 and snowing and the previous day the pass had been closed. We stayed the night in the CLC Alpine Center near Zell am See and were really impressed with its warm welcome and brilliant facilities. Our room had a little kitchenette, lounge that transformed very cleverly into a bedroom and bathroom. There was a swimming pool, sauna and gym. The next day was going to be a big drive, so we had a relaxing night in the hotel.
Through to Luxembourg
Setting out early our mission for the day was to drive almost all the way across Germany on the Autobahn to see Luxembourg for the final night of our holiday. Travelling took us a lot longer than expected due to road works near pretty much every city we passed but we arrived in Luxembourg around 10 hours later (phew). Our hotel for the night was the Mandarina Hotel just outside the main city and we had a great room. We ventured into the city by car, parking for free in the Town Hall car park. I didn’t really have any expectations of Luxembourg, I (wrongly) thought that it was a modern city, generic city and that is far from the truth. Winding cobbled streets, gorgeous architecture and a wonderful mix of French/German/Flemish cultures that is effortlessly stylish. We thoroughly enjoyed our evening exploring this city. The next day we had some time to relax and we booked into a local spa where they have a dizzying number of different types of sauna for you to try out. It was the perfect way to end a very action-packed, fun-filled, adventurous but also relaxing holiday.
Reflections on the Return Journey
The journey back was pretty straight forward and it gave us time to reflect over the last 10 days and the 9 countries that we had seen along the way and which, if any, we would go back to. We very quickly decided that, despite other people’s fears, this time away felt like a holiday, we felt relaxed and refreshed and like we’d seen enough of each place to get a feel for it. Adventuring together is what we love to do and without a doubt we would return to each of the places we visited for a longer stay. In fact, neither of us could decide what our favourite part of the trip was. There were moments in each place that we will treasure. So, to the people who thought we were mad – well, we were a little but that’s just who we are. To the people who worried about our travelling – it was fine, no hiccups at all. To the people who thought we wouldn’t relax – we did. To the people who want to follow in our footsteps – do it!