Sights in Europe

This rambling features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.

Best Art Museum: National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 🙂 The palatial building has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…

Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks waterside, board to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.

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MNAC, Croatian peninsula, view from Dubrovnik’s walls.

Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially if you come across live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.

Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.

Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.

Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.

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Pena Palace, library at Mafra, Trinity College Library.

Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in. The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.

Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.

Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.

Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.

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Village Museum, Red Bull Air Race, tombs at Cemiterio dos Prazeres, La Sagrada Familia.

Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, LisbonGhosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.

Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw.  Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.

Favorite Museum Artwork: Discovering the Body of King Louis II by Bertalan SzekelyIt’s a weird choice, but in person it is impressive and some parts are so realistic that it took me a while to convince myself the canvas was flat.

Most Heartwrenching Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.

Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown. King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.

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Fortress at Omis, Romania’s royal crown, book fountain, gas canisters at Auschwitz.

Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season.  They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 🙂 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.

Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest. Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.

Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, CroatiaWe visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.

Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, DublinThe large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.

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Plitvice Lakes, Chester Beatty Library, Suomenlinna Island.

Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, HelsinkiA small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.

Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania. Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.

City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards. Outside the Gothic Quarter’s  tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.

Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:

Lisbon has a castle downtown! The ruined Carmo Monastery! The less ruined Jeronimos Monastery. Next door to the Pena Palace is the clamberable ruins of the Moorish Castle.

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Carving at Jeronimos Monastery, Carmo Monastery, Solin’s ruined amphitheater.

Barcelona’s Montjuic Castle has dark and checkered history, but beautiful views. Nearby, the Olympic Grounds are a great picnic/frisbee spot.

The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement in Split still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin add to that argument. Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.

The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying out to Lokrum Island also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.

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Lokrum Island, Palace of the Parliament, Peles Castle.

Bucharest has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.

In Dublin, the National Archaeology Museum and St. Patrick’s Cathedral  were my other favorites. And the whole city recalls lots of great literature 🙂 . Across the country, really just a few hours drive, are the Cliffs of Moher. Brave the wind and don’t get too close to the edge.

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Cliffs of Moher, inside St. Patrick’s, Dohany Street Synagogue.

Budapest is impressive all around. The quirky Pinball Museum is great for 5 hours until your wrists give out but the massive Szechenyi Thermal Baths can relieve all those arm cramps. A more sombre visit, the Dohany Street Synagogue is a reminder of how the Holocaust changed Hungary.

In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of Warsaw is a WWII memorial. Walking anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.

Krakow crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.

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Wilanow, Krakow’s Franciscan Church, Lennusadam, Kadriorg Palace.

Tallinn’s St. Olaf church tower is a great way to view the Old Town and reveal a fear of heights. Tucked away in Kadriorg park is the impressive KUMU National Art Museum and the cute Kadriorg Palace (also housing art). The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor has full sized boats and a submarine to explore

Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….

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Seaplane to Dubrovnik

This month we took the classier way of getting from one city to another: seaplane. It didn’t cost much more than a bus ticket, and saved several hours and border crossings in to and out of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Basically European Coastal Airlines is my new favorite transport.

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Our plane to Dubrovnik and some extra legroom.

The “terminal” in Split was a few harbor-front tables. When it was time to board, no gaggles of people waiting around the gate, just a nod from the attendant that we could find our seats. We were two-thirds of three passengers. Everyone got a window. A trainee rounded out the crew of two pilots. A quick safety orientation consisted of pointing out doors and lifevests and asking for a thumbs-up when our seatbelts were buckled.

It was bumpier leaving the harbor than I would have liked, aided by the day’s decent breeze. But once the engines throttled up, it took less than 8 seconds to get airborne.

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Splashes at takeoff, Podstrana with Strobrec’s little peninsula in front, Bosnia’s lone coastal city.

In short order we were over our suburb of Podstrana, Omis’s mountain-top castle, the Makarska Riviera, and dozens of islands. Vineyards, olive groves and fish farms dotted the mountains and sea. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s waterfront city was set back in a beautiful bay. We flew lower than surrounding mountain ranges and were occasionally buffeted by wind, especially where deep valleys cut through. It was worth the extra bit of bounce to be able to admire the Croatian coastline.

Finally came Dubrovnik. It was set perfectly against the Adriatic, its massive, fortified city walls visible from miles away. Newer suburbs accosted the Old Town from all sides, and the neighboring coasts are thick with hotels and resorts.

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Dubrovnik’s Old town, the Croatian-B&H border crossing, coastal windfarm, coastal fields and vineyards.

The seaplane port at Dubrovnik’s harbor is currently under construction, so we landed at the airport south of the city. To my surprise, some seaplanes have landing gear hidden in the pontoons. Being in such a small craft really made clear just how large runways are; we flew over it for quite a while before touching down and it took up the entire front window.

A tiny staircase met us on the tarmac and our luggage was handed directly to us (no annoying waiting for it to pop out on a conveyor belt). It all felt very elegant and exclusive…

We’ve wanted to take a seaplane ever since moving to Seattle and seeing them on Lake Union. We even bought tickets for a aerial tour at one point, but never got to take it. I’m so glad we finally got to cross this off our bucket lists.

Klis and Salona

Our hosts were kind enough to take us to the Klis Fortress during our last week in Split. The fortification sits atop a steep hill near Split; we had seen it from the highway as we headed other places.  Currently it is a popular attraction not just due to its history, but because it was one of Game of Throne’s Croatian filming locations (along with a few other spots in Split and Dubrovnik’s Old Town). The multiple layers of walls and wide paths that double back on themselves would have made it easy to defend and to stage a TV shoot.

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Views around Klis Fortress

The hill Klis sits on has been used as a defensive position since before the Romans arrived. Throughout the centuries it outlasted sieges, served as the seat of Croatian Kings, and held a key defensive position that helped prevent the Ottoman’s attempted invasion of Europe in the 1500s. Looking over the steep cliffs that Klis is built on, I realized how much more fun it must have been to been a defender rather than an invader. (Not that I want to do either; I like modern conveniences and reliable food stores…)

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The church inside the fortress, looking down at the town of Klis, and then out toward the sea.

We also got a side tour of the Roman ruins at Salona just a few miles from Klis. I enjoyed these more than the fortress. We stopped first at the amphitheater. In its heyday it would have had three tiers of seating and room for 17,000 spectators. Thanks to Venetian orders for destruction, only portions of the lowest level remain. A few arches have been preserved and knocked down column are scattered in the weeds. I kept imagining how many ancient plays I’ve read might have been performed there.

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Salona’s Amphitheater, local wildlife, preserved archways.

A five minute walk down the road – apparently a Roman road with some original stones still in place – were a couple of early Christian churches. The smaller church was just a faint outline of stone in a grassy field. The larger church, its baptistry, and its outbuildings were better preserved and their shapes clearly visible. Broken columns were scattered where they fell and I could get a little lost among all the walls that were still taller than I. It was easy to visualize how it might have looked centuries ago.

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Remains of a 4-5th cent. Christian church.

Salona’s ruins are situated in a residential neighborhood; more modern structures use stone taken from the Roman buildings. Homes and yards sit right next to ancient history. It makes it feel almost ordinary.

Omiš

For a birthday adventure I opted for hiking in the nearby town of Omis. The bus ride south follows a coast-hugging road that cuts through churchyards and the middle of tiny towns with streets barely wide enough for two-way traffic. We got off at a stop after crossing the Cetina River near one of Omis’s marinas. Our trail up the peak began along the river and went up through a pine-forested valley.

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Rocky trail up, castle walls, view down to the sea, Oh! The Places You’ll Go! (mostly Omis).

Even at a pace that let us enjoy the surrounding spring flowers (and avoid bees), the trail was a 45 minute battle against a cascade of sliding rocks. The Starigrad Fortress balances on a mountain above Omis, barely visible from the town itself. We couldn’t see it until we were more than half way up. Built in the 1400s as a defense against raiders, it takes full advantage of the terrain. It wouldn’t look good for any potential invaders.

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Starigrad Fortress above Omis, abandoned house along the trail, fences trapping the raptors.

No one else was on the trail, and even the castle’s caretaker seemed to have the day off. Fortunately, the door was left open and we had the place to ourselves. From the top of the tower, there were expansive views of the surrounding mountains and shorelines. A peregrine falcon played at flying on updrafts. The river hid in the valley; centuries ago pirates hid upstream and attacked passing merchant ships.

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Conquering the castle, Croatian War for Independence Memorial, walking street.

The second half of the loop path took us back into Omis. It wasn’t as steep as the first portion, but still rocky enough to make us take our time. Buildings were cozied right up against the mountain and Jurassic Park-style catch fences were the only barrier between rockfalls and the uppermost homes.

The walking street where we ended our hike was mostly still shuttered for winter. The church on the main square was open. It was much less ornate than many churches in Spain and Portugal, but felt more relaxed inside. The poetic exterior had bunches of purple flowers growing out of the stones.

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Churches in Omis, Fortress Mirabela above town.

The waterfront promenade was also undergoing renovations and the beaches were being refilled with sand and stone and new sidewalks laid. A second castle tower, Mirabela, sits right above the old town, but was closed for the day.

We bussed back and Kevin cooked up a delicious supper of ratatouille. We’ve been sampling Dalmatian wine and had some well-made Zweigelt to go with the meal.

 

 

 

 

Hvar

With a lot of sun in the forecast, we decided Tuesday was a good time to take a ferry out to the islands. We ended up on a catamaran from Split to Hvar, a town on Hvar Island nestled under the watchful walls of a centuries-old castle.

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Catamaran and Hvar harbor.

The tourist season doesn’t start on Hvar for another month or so, and it was incredibly quiet. A handful of restaurants around the main square were doing business, but most other tourist-centric places were shut down. Beachfront bars were still in the process of being assembled and given a new coat of paint for the upcoming season.

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Bell tower to an abandoned monastery, growing wine grapes in the backyard, part of the waterfront promenade.

We stayed a 20 minute walk outside town, and though many of the houses have rental rooms, we felt like the only visitors around. It was glorious: we ran into our host in the grocery store and the owner of a shop we stopped at while on the waterfront.

Most of our time was spent meandering the town and the waterfront. Every view had red-roofed buildings, old facades, the sea, and an archipelago of treed islands. Several side streets have abandoned buildings that are slowly crumbling and being taken over by weeds.

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Harbor and castle, an abandoned house.

We visited the Franciscan Monastery and its collection of amphora and clay dinnerware from a 2nd century Roman shipwreck. The dishes and pots looked just like ones I’ve used. I’d be happy to own some of the jars on display, minus tube worms and barnacles.

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Overgrown staircase, bell tower of the Franciscan monastery.

The other main sight is Spanjola Fortress above the town. I think its the only castle I’ve been where the walls functioned perfectly and it saved the entire town from sacking (by a Turkish naval fleet in 1571). Apart from the expansive views, my favorite part was the prison. Down a narrow and slippery staircase were a half-dozen cells barely big enough for a person. Working as a prison guard must also have seemed like punishment. The floors and ceilings were growing stalagmites and stalactites. It must have been chilly in winter wind and stifling in summer heat. It must have been particularly cruel with the sounds of the waves drifting up in summer.

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Cannon at Spanjola Fortress, ceramics from a 2nd century shipwreck, the sea-facing castle walls.

A small shop full of local flavors sat just behind the main square. Though we only purchased a single bottle of island-grown wine, the owner fed us olives, prosciutto, figs, and local cheeses. I think he was happy to have customers during the slow season, but he told us we needed to come back “when we grow up” so that we can show our kids the island. I think we agree that lines up with our current plans…

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It was hard to leave such great views…

 

 

 

Split, Croatia

New month, new country! We’ve moved on from Barcelona to the smaller, more relaxed Split, Croatia. Rather than being in the center of the crowded Old Town, we rented an apartment with a luxurious view in the suburb of Podstrana.

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Shorebirds and a sunset from one of our decks.

Split is an ancient town, and Roman ruins of an even older city are nearby. The oldest portions of Split are inside the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, the Roman Emperor’s retirement villa. Street-level lanes are narrow and puzzling; many buildings are constructed out of the palace ruins. But underground, the original foundations are largely intact. Entering into the Old Town from the waterfront, we passed through a subterranean gallery of small shops. On either side are entrances to the rest of the basement levels.

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Lots of beige today – Diocletian himself, the plan of his retirement home (now the core of the Old Town), and Roman craftsmanship in the walls and pillars.

For hundreds of years, many of the rooms were full of rubble, but excavations started in the 1950s. Now dozens of rooms and halls are open. Many blocks are from the original construction around the year 300. Even some of the ceilings remain, with circular or angled patterns of stone. Some areas are still inaccessible – the foundations of street-level buildings rest completely on the rubble. Like a lot of other basements, the rooms are cold and damp. An assortment of green mosses seems to be colonizing the brighter areas.

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Original basement ceiling under the Old Town, arches near the church, the Iron Gate, and a subterranean hall.

Coming out the other side of the underground passage, the bell tower and Cathedral of St. Domnius sit on a small square. To the right is one of the old palace gates, the Iron Gate. The ruins merge seamlessly with the current structures; in some places there are even apartments inside the palace’s walls.

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Imposing bell tower and one of many narrow streets.

Claustrophobic streets open up to small squares or courtyards crowded with restaurants. We are here during the off-season, but outdoor tables, especially along the Riva waterfront promenade are still packed. It is clearly an area made for tourists, shopping, and eating.

Split was under Venetian control for portions of its history, and it feels very Venetian to us. The architecture, culture, and abundance of gelato stands remind us of northern Italy.

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Back street shrine, shoring up some buildings, a Venetian-like square facing the waterfront.

We really like the slower pace here – an afternoon of beach walking or watching a sunset is a perfectly acceptable way to spend time. Smaller towns, islands, and national parks also are beckoning us, but it is also nice to have a quiet place to relax after Barcelona.