Coasting Through Croatia

From roadside cafes to plazas and parks, this once war-torn country has plenty to offer adventurous tourists



"These are all nice people. Everybody's nice in my group."

Coming from the big, unsmiling Irene Demsar, our Slovenian tour guide, this sounded a little like a threat - or a warning.

On a Saturday in May, the beginning of our nine-day, eight-night bus tour of Croatia's Dalmatian Coast and a bit of Slovenia, Demsar gathered us into a lounge at the Argosy, a no-nonsense, group-oriented hotel on a fantastically beautiful chunk of Adriatic shore.

Through the magic of travel agencies and the Internet, 40 travelers from Canada, Australia and the United States ended up in that hotel lounge, where a gray-vested waiter served wine and Demsar told everybody what to expect.

Niceness, important as that may be, is only one element, of course. Navigating about 600 miles of unfamiliar country with unfamiliar languages and unfamiliar monetary systems requires firm guidance - either that or a giddy, heedless sense of adventure.

We all were seasoned travelers, but willing to trade some independence for the comforts and protection of a strong leader and a firm itinerary. Ranging in age from teens on up, we had a tendency - at least at first - to grope for something familiar.

Thus the Chicago guy with the notebook instinctively introduced himself first to Laura Dickman, the lawyer from Chicago. And so it went around the room - Aussies met Aussies, Canadians met Canadians, Americans found things in common.

Of course, by the end of our first mass feeding, this time in a sprawling Argosy dining hall, all of us had become, first and foremost, Citizens of the Motor Coach. Nice people, ready for Croatia.

A logical way to do the Dalmatian Coast (our trip was labeled "Dalmatian Sunshine" in the brochures) is to start in the south. That's why we met in Lapad, a suburban resort community next to Dubrovnik, an ancient walled town with modern outskirts.

"Modern" in coastal Croatia means most buildings have beige walls and orange tile rooftops, many of them rebuilt after the war damage inflicted in 1991 and 1992. Who exactly were the villains and the heroes in Croatia's bid for independence and its conflict with the Serbs is still a matter of debate across the former Yugoslavia.

Citizens of the Motor Coach knew for sure only that Dubrovnik and most other places along the Adriatic were peaceful now, with structures almost fully restored.

The next morning, when we arrived at the old, walled sector of Dubrovnik, we found the surrounding streets glutted with other buses. After we disembarked, Demsar introduced us to a couple of local guides, a man and a woman.

"Women can follow the man, and the men can follow the woman," Demsar suggested. "They will show you the main sights, and then you are free to look around all afternoon."

Our vehicle would make a couple of runs back to the Argosy Hotel during the day, but a local bus line went directly from the old city gate area to within about 200 yards of our hotel. Tickets cost 8 kuna (about $1.40). It was handy transportation, but not nearly as comfortable as our motor coach with its plush cloth seats, excellent sound system and soft ride.

The kuna, by the way, is a reference to the pelt of the stone martin, which was the form of currency back when Venice, Italy, dominated that part of the planet.

We followed our local guides through the main gate and found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with other bus passengers from all over the world - cruise ship passengers, mostly, judging by the little Day-Glo badges they wore.

Our first stop at the combination Franciscan monastery and apothecary proved frustrating to those who wanted to learn something. Various guides were shouting at their charges in different languages. Voices bounced chaotically off of cloister pillars and all but rattled the jars in the medieval pharmacy.

Outside again, we admired the beautiful Pieta over the doorway and began to get a feel for this handsome and very old town. Houses climbed two steep hillsides divided by the marble-paved pedestrian thoroughfare. Fountains, a clock tower, churches, cafes - this was like a Tuscany village without the motorbikes.

But the pedestrian traffic can be heavy on the main street, or placa. After visiting the Rector's and Sponza palaces - the only Renaissance buildings left standing after a 17th-century earthquake - Citizens of the Motor Coach dispersed to stroll atop the large wall or explore the side streets.

The quiet Dubrovnik

I wanted a look at tourist-free Dubrovnik, so I took a local bus back to the Argosy and packed for our departure the next day. Just before dark, I returned to the old city and found it relatively quiet. Residents sat at cafe tables. I saw few cameras and found a quiet steakhouse on a secluded alley. The steak, marinated in a wine and gravy sauce and covered with mushrooms, contrasted nicely with the hotel food we ate the night before. The local wine I had with it was a superb Croatian take on Beaujolais.

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