Plitvice National Park, Croatia (Flickr: jvcaff)
Article Words : Clare Wilson | 17 April

Under £250: Larking around lakes, Croatia

Tumbling waterfalls, island hops, flaky pastries and moving museums – Clare Wilson packs a lot into her budget Adriatic adventure

Who? Clare Wilson, 25, Wanderlust's editorial assistant
Why? To see if Croatia was as beautiful as I’d heard
How long? 7 nights
Total spend: £275

I was feeling pretty adventurous trying to do Croatia on £250, but I didn’t expect Split to provide me with motivational background music. I’d flown into the historic Adriatic city that morning, and went for a wander through the remains of Diocletian’s Palace, now the heart of Split’s Old Town. I was just emerging into the sunshine of the seafront when the iconic opening beats of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasted through some speakers, startling the seagulls. It turned out to be a police judo demonstration, and I sat in the sun and watched them chopping boards with their feet.

Later that afternoon, I caught the catamaran to the nearby island of Vis. The boat called in at Hvar, an island famous for its beautiful people and expensive yachts.

I wish I could say I saw billionaires sipping cocktails, but the window of the catamaran was a bit greasy so I buried myself back in my guidebook, making plans for the week.

Vis was peaceful, beautiful – and, on my budget, pricey. My main reason for going there was to visit Modra špilja – the Blue Grotto – which is on an islet called Bisevo, about 45 minutes away. I found myself a sobe (room for rent in a private house) then walked around the bay as dusk fell.

September is the tail-end of the season, and most of the shutters on the sun-bleached stone buildings by the water were closed. There were only a few boats tied up and the scent of wild lavender wafted on the evening breeze as the sun gradually set. Tomas, my waiter, had plenty of time to chat with me; I was the only diner at the restaurant that evening. “September is the best month for Vis,” he told me. “It’s still warm but it’s nice and peaceful.” After a glass of (very cheap) red wine, I agreed. Vis Town was as sleepy as I was.

To get to the Blue Grotto, you catch a boat to Bisevo from Komiza, on the west coast of Vis, then transfer into a smaller vessel to get inside the cave. When the sunlight is reflected off the rock at the bottom of the cave mid-morning, it glows so intensely blue inside that you feel like your eyes have been Photoshopped. I got hit with the unofficial travelling-solo tax, as no one else from Vis Town wanted to go that day (this is when my budget started to spiral out of control...). But it was worth every penny.

Lost in the city

Next, I headed by coach to the capital Zagreb and spent a day wandering around getting my bearings. First I headed for Dolac Market, which sits behind Trg bana Josipa Jelačića, the city’s main square, and munched on a traditional burek­ pastry – mine was stuffed with spinach and cheese.

After that I caught the tram out to Mount Medvednica. Here I found one of the downsides of travelling alone outside high season – there weren’t any signs to the cablecar and no one to ask.

I made a foray into a rather intimidating tunnel, and then walked along a deserted path through the woods. But I decided that, since no one had any idea where I was, looking at tombstones was a better idea than risking being put under one, so I headed back into town to visit Mirogoj Cemetery instead.

Mirogoj was very pretty but I was disappointed with myself for not getting to Medvednica. I heard later that, if I’d carried on up the path, I would have found the cablecar. I consoled myself by tucking into a huge plate of the Zagreb classic Zagrebački odrezak – veal steak stuffed with ham and cheese, then crumbed and fried.

Loving the lakes

Later on I met a few people at my hostel, and we decided to team up to go to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Plitvice is one of those beautiful places that hyperbole doesn’t do justice to, and one of the reasons I wanted to come to Croatia. Even though it was another expensive trip for the budget I was on, it made my week.

We caught the first coach of the day (at 5.30am) from Zagreb’s main bus station. Plitvice is Croatia’s most popular National Park, so getting in early is crucial. (As is finding the toilets before you begin to hike unless you have phenomenal control – there’s a lot of rushing water.)

The park’s 16 interconnected lakes are separated by natural travertine dams, which are tumbled by waterfalls – as beautiful as they are unusual. The largest cascade, which we reached at the end of the day, is 70m tall; it has the rather satisfying name of Veliki Slap – the Big Waterfall.

The path we chose to follow was a four-to six-hour route around the park, which took in all the main sights. The boardwalk trails led us between quiet glades and dripping mosses, via deceptively calm-looking turquoise pools (the fish looked like they’d been paused) and over rushing, gurgling, chutes of crystal-clear water.

We spent the day gasping at the colours, the clarity and the sheer beauty of it all.

Good (and bad) memories

Back in Zagreb, I was on a serious money-conserving mission, but fortunately there are always cheap activities in cities. I lingered over coffee in the sunshine, people-watched with a beer along Tkalčićeva Street and rode all over the tram system with my guidebook, picking out sights. I haggled for souvenirs and ate a hearty plate of traditional Croatian sausage and pečeni krumpir (roast potatoes) at Hrelic Sunday Flea Market.

I also visited the Museum of Broken Relationships. The exhibits here are the relics of heartbreak, donated by people who have stuff they don’t want to keep but can’t bear to throw away; it was brilliant. The stories and the objects ranged from the heartbreaking to the creepy, and it was simultaneously beautiful and weird – as my experience of the rest of the country had been. I loved the idea of its ‘bad memories erasers’; I was really tempted to buy one to send back to Wanderlust as my souvenir but I didn’t want the office to get the wrong impression and compromised on a postcard.

I liked Croatia. And it was gladly that I rubbed the lucky toe of Gregory of Nin – a statue just north of Split’s Old Town, the city’s answer to Rome’s Trevi Fountain – because I’m already planning when I can go back.

Take a trip for under £250

General information:

Access city: Split or Zagreb (capital)
Currency: Kuna (KN)
Language: Croatian
When to go: Travel in spring or autumn to avoid the summer crowds.

Getting there & around:

easyJet flies from Bristol, Stansted and Gatwick to Split (from £28.99; 2hrs 20mins) and Zagreb-Gatwick (from £23; 2hrs 10mins).

A scenic high-speed train runs cross-country and down the coast, linking Zagreb and Split, via Zadar (from £47 one way; 5hrs 30mins). Buses also run along a more direct route (£12 one way; 6hrs 30mins).

Jadrolinija, the national ferry operator, runs services from Split to various islands, including Vis and Hvar. Blue Grotto tours are available for £10-15.

Regular buses run from Zagreb bus station to Plitvice National Park(from £9 one way; 2hrs 30mins). To make the most of the day in the park, take one of the early morning buses. Find out more.

Accommodation:

The author stayed at a range of hostels – there are many beds available throughout the cities to accommodate tourists. On the islands, accommodation agencies and touts lay in wait as you get off the ferry – for the most part these are reliable. If in doubt, the tourist office will have a list of available rooms, though in summer you will have to join the lengthy queue.

A bed at Split Hostel costs from €15. A bed at Hostel Lika, Zagreb, costs from around £9.

Health & safety:

Pack sunscreen and a hat. Crime rates in Croatia are low.

I wish I’d known... That it was possible to visit the Blue Grotto on a day-trip from Split, rather than having to overnight on Vis and travel from there.