In COVID Era, Croatia Becomes Enticing European Vacation Option for US Travelers

by David Perry

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday August 26, 2020

In COVID Era, Croatia Becomes Enticing European Vacation Option for US Travelers
  (Source:Getty Images)

On July 10. Croatia flouted European Union rules and began admitting American tourists. Mind you, it's not like the floodgates have opened; incoming Yankees have to provide not only a negative COVID-19 test no older than 48 hours but also proof of fully-paid accommodation. But clear those hurdles and you'll land in a nation that combines Slavic sophistication with Venetian romance. Not bad for a country only 29 years old.

Grand Split
Split historic architecture of Diocletian's palace.  

Grand Split

For all you sun-worshippers, forego the capital of Zagreb and head for Split, basking on the cerulean shores of the Adriatic. Roman emperor Diocletian fell in love with the place so much he built his walled-in post-retirement hidey-hole there, contently growing cabbages (not lying) till he got peacefully planted himself in 311 AD. And then all hell broke loose.
Roman refugees fleeing barbarian invasions in the sixth and seventh centuries sought refuge behind Diocletian's Palace, recycling the seven-acre mega-villa into a particularly cramped town of 9,000...and a mishmash of hovels, workshops and mansions barely separated by an organic doodle of alleys. Diocletian's tomb became a cathedral, his courtyard the town square, his basement the cesspit (since cleaned up as a museum, and is the setting for Daenarys Targaryen's dungeons on "Game of Thrones").

Only after 1420, when Venice took over, did the city expand with mouthwatering Italian architecture, but the Splicani never lost their ability to maximize square footage. I came across old "trgs," or tiny plazas, taken over as outdoor dining for modern tavernas. The waitstaff at Konoba Korta , a few blocks north of the cathedral, eventually knew me by name.

I set up shop at the Le Meridien Lav hotel (it puts the "lav" in "lavish") but spent most of my time in the old city, and for good, gay reason: Split is Croatia's sun-soaked second city also the biggest gay draw on the Adriatic besides Venice.

Gay life is still finding its footing in Croatia, but Split has a burgeoning scene and its own Pride. The latter is every June , the former, deep in the alleys of Diocletian's Palace, is Academia Club Ghetto , the gay bar of town ("unofficial;" there is a lot of overlap FYI) and the only one I have ever been in with medieval architecture. It's also a great gay gateway to Croatia's storied wine tradition; Split is in the middle of one of the most underrated wine-growing regions in the world. For all the city's history, architecture, you could be forgiven if you went just for the vino.

But Split was a gateway in another sense. Just off the coast is Hvar.

Island Hopping
Hvar  (Source: David Perry)

Island Hopping

More than 1,000 islands spangle Croatia's coast; on Hvar you'll find Hvar Grad, one of the most beautiful, most idyllic fishing villages in Europe -- which is saying something. Like Split, Hvar Grad was also part of the Venetian Republic. Wandering the limestone streets, you could think you were in Italy, and a lot of the mannerisms from "La Serenissima" live on: overlooked by lavender terraces and the old Tvrdava Spanjola fortress, life by day revolves around the Pjaca, the huge town plaza fronted by the rustic St. Stjepan Cathedral. By night, the tavernas spring to life.

My hotel, the super-mod Pharos , looked across tiled roofs and cobblestoned lanes. Dawdling through the side streets, I found all sorts of goodies, like the pastries of Nonica and the town library, whose Renaissance facade is nothing but balconies. On the harbor, Nautica Bar serves the best seafood in town.

Carpe Diem, Hvar  

Under normal circumstances, between June and August, Hvar Grad mutates into the 24-hour party polis of the Mediterranean, with ferryloads of beautiful, EDM-addicted hard-bodies swamping every inch. As COVID-19 put the kibosh on large gatherings, kiss that fleshy fantasy good-bye, but all is not lost: Hvar Grad is, after all, right out of a Venetian wet dream, with the bonus of over 300 days of sunshine per year. Wander the streets, soak up the sun, try the food, cruise the marina-side bars, and a good time will be had by all. Hvar's seasonal nature and small size mean there is no "official" gay hotspot, although Carpe Diem comes close. But as with any straight-ish bar, tap into your gaydar; it will not be difficult to find family even in a herd of thousands.

Getting There
Split is serviced by Split Airport . There are regular Split-Hvar ferries , but you must then catch a taxi or shuttle from the port at Stari Grad to Hvar Grad.

David Perry is a freelance travel and news journalist. In addition to EDGE, his work has appeared on ChinaTopix, Thrillist, and in Next Magazine and Steele Luxury Travel among others. Follow him on Twitter at @GhastEald.

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