Visiting Croatia in August without a hotel reservation is asking for trouble. At bus stations across the country local women hiss a single word at disembarking passengers. “Sobe” means “private room” and the slightest nod is all it takes for them to spring into action.
First, you’re seduced by photos of luxurious lodgings “only a few minutes away”. Next, you negotiate a nightly rate in kuna, a currency you’ve yet to master. Finally – and inevitably – you end up hiking for half an hour to a rundown apartment, miles from anywhere.
A few short years ago boomerang-shaped Croatia was the Med’s best-kept secret. Today it teems with tourists – a side effect of being too gorgeous for its own good.
Besides historic cities, national parks and ski resorts, there are more than a thousand islands to discover. Krk, Pag, Brac and Hvar might sound like someone clearing their throat but these gems of the Adriatic are consistently voted among the world’s dreamiest destinations.
I’ve opted to forgo crowded ferries and plan to stick to the mainland. Guidebooks claim the beaches around the hillside village of Brela are the best in Dalmatia and it’s easy to see why. The rugged coastline is postcard perfect.
Mountains tumble down to rocky coves and pine-fringed bays are lapped by bottle-green seas. The beaches are gravel rather than sand but no one seems to mind.
Brela is entirely given over to tourism. Identical shops sell identical holiday paraphernalia – it’s easier to buy a beach ball than a bunch of bananas in the supermarket.
Kiosks display a wide array of European newspapers, and menus come in a variety of languages and alphabets.
My landlady, Margarita, says the majority of her guests are from Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Bosnia, the Czech Republic and Serbia. Evidently Brela restricts its marketing to citizens of landlocked countries. Perhaps they’re less likely to be disappointed with gravel beaches.
Follow the coast for a few kilometres and you reach Makarska, an attractive resort wedged between a horseshoe- shaped bay and the bleached peaks of the Biokovo mountains. The old town is a warren of narrow streets that open out onto a market square overlooked by a 17thcentury cathedral.
Cafes and restaurants cluster around the photogenic harbour and along the promenade. Unfortunately, Makarska is teetering at the upper limits of its carrying capacity; the beach is invisible under rows of sautéing Slavs and there are even queues at the cafes. Brela feels deserted by comparison.
“School holidays,” Margarita shrugs. “You should try the mountain villages if you want somewhere quiet.
Whatever you do, avoid Dubrovnik. Only an imbecile would go there in August without a reservation.”
It’s Saturday evening and Dubrovnik bus station has an “every-man-for-himself” atmosphere. New arrivals pour off buses in search of sobe ladies in a Balkan version of musical chairs. One by one, landlady and tourist pair off until there is only one unfortunate soul left. In the commotion, I negotiate room rates with a friendly woman, only to discover that she’s a Swiss tourist looking for a connection to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital.
She informs me that I will pay an arm and a leg for an airless cubbyhole with no bathroom, a 20-minute drive away. Overcome with relief, I punch the air. Like an imbecile.
The medieval walled city of Dubrovnik is a soothing fusion of Gothic, Renaissance and baroque monuments that survived centuries of invasions – not to mention the 1991 Croatian war of independence siege, which lasted for seven months – before capitulating to the onslaught of international tourism.
Venture along the marble main street and you’ll be assaulted by a babel of languages, assailed to buy any number of souvenirs and astounded at the sheer beauty of the Unesco World Heritage site. To get a bird’s-eye view of the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, take an evening cable-car ride as the setting sun paints the buildings butterscotch. The cable car leaves from just outside the old walls and climbs 405 metres to the peak of Srdj hill, which overlooks the city.
Prices are as steep as you would expect in a city that receives more tourists than it knows what to do with.
An ice-cream cone costs more than a pint of beer in Lan Kwai Fong and the price is quoted with a take-it-orleave- it stare. I’m tempted to ask the vendor if he does a happy hour.
It’s hard to decide who is more frazzled in the summer heat – the holidaymakers or those catering to them. Staff in the tourist office have the glazed expressions of people who spend their entire working day telling visitors the airport bus times and where to buy ferry tickets. One bemused assistant says a sightseer has just asked her when they take the walls down for winter.
“They think the whole place is a film set,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief.
A walk along the six-metre-thick ramparts feels somewhat voyeuristic. It’s possible to peer into courtyards and houses where people are eating, hanging out laundry and relaxing with their children.
With perseverance you can shake off the hordes and follow ancient alleyways to hidden piazzas and patios.
In one quiet lane I almost fall over a man reading an English novel. Robi has lived in Dubrovnik for most of his life. Does he ever feel that he lives in a zoo?
The Balkan war veteran admits that locals have little privacy during the summer months. His biggest gripe, though, is the lack of consideration displayed by tourists, especially those who rent apartments in the old town, party until late, slam doors and leave a trail of rubbish behind.
“My neighbours have all sold their houses to foreigners while they can get a good price. Croatians have got kuna signs in their eyes nowadays,” he laments.
“You should come back in November. Dubrovnik is like a ghost town. You can stand on the ramparts with the wind, rain and sea air stinging your face. You’ll be the only person up there.”
It sounds wonderful. Hopefully they won’t have taken the walls down for winter by then.
Getting there: British Airways (www.britishairways.com ) flies from Hong Kong to London. Croatia Airlines (www.croatiaairlines.com ) operates flights from the British capital to Zagreb, and from there on to Dubrovnik.