Croatia is a country that can be hard to believe actually exists on this planet. Located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, there’s no doubt the “land of a thousand islands” will leave you speechless and addicted with a single visit. Emerald lakes hide between mountainous locales. Otherworldly waterfalls rage down stepped terraces forming some of the most surreal natural scenery on Earth. Not forgetting to mention the 5,835 kilometres of sparkling coastline, lined with ancient port towns. So it comes as no surprise that it’s one of the most sought-after road trip destinations in Europe, and somewhere you definitely can’t afford to miss.
Croatia is so often spoken of because of its stunning beaches and islands. That means much of the country is unbeknownst to most, including us. So, we decided to investigate further…
Marta and I loosely planned a 7-day road trip that took us to every corner of the land. To make things more interesting, we went full-nostalgic and hired a car that took us right back to our childhoods of the ’90’s; a 1988 Volkswagen Golf Mk 1, named Vučko. Keeping with Lions Detour traditions, we ditched any luxuries and creature comforts, instead opting for a roof-tent as our means of accommodation. We are more than familiar with camping; however, this would be our first time camping in this kind of tent. It proved to be a great choice, giving us the privilege of waking up sleepy-eyed to views not even the most prestigious of 5 star hotels could compete with.
By no means have I written this account with the intention of it being a formal travel guide or “do this, do that” itinerary; nonetheless, I have provided locations, tips and tricks that we discovered along the way, should you wish to experience similarly incredible moments for your own road trip.
Heck, you can even fly to Croatia and rent Vučko too, if you like, or choose one of many VW campervans from the fantastic Balkan Campers, and have the road trip of a lifetime.
For An Unforgettable Road Trip
Collecting the Car
Arriving in Rijeka international airport, located on the nearby Krk island, Vucko was kindly delivered to the airport for Marta to collect. From there, it’s a short drive across the bridge which teases you with a first glimpse of the beautiful ocean on both sides.
Marta arrived in the small city of Rijeka mid afternoon. Since I was on a motorcycle journey at the time, we did exactly as we had done in the summer of 2019 when first being reunited, we headed straight for the beach! I chose our meeting spot as a location I’d fallen in love with over the past few days, Pećine beach (Javna plaža Pećine).
Hitting the beach in Rijeka
Pećine beach is a stunning little section of the coast with a hip little book bar called Pajol bar. It’s amazing to have a beach bar with views over one of the beaches. The staff are friendly, speak great English and are always up for some conversation. The music they play really harmonizes with the scenery and the drinks are affordable too! There is seating in the sun, or you can simply take your drinks down to the beach and enjoy them right beside the gentle waves lapping on the shore (just remember to return your glasses to the bar!). If you want to get out of the sun for a while, you can relax under the shady terrace, complete with comfortable seating, tables and places to charge any devices.
They don’t serve food at the beach bar, but if you find that you’re getting hungry you don’t have to travel far to try some tasty traditional snacks. If you walk up the stairs that lead you from the beach back to the street at the top of the hill, to your left as you reach the road, you will see a small kiosk bakery. Head inside and you’ll have a freshly baked assortment of homemade pastries and small pizzas. We especially recommend trying some Burek, it’s a hearty pie made from flaky pastry with either a cheese or meat filling. Most of the pastries cost 1€ or less and you can take them back down to the beach if you wish.
The Old Town Road
With the beach setting spirits high for the rest of the day, it was time to start really exploring. We headed out of Rijeka in the direction of the capital, Zagreb. Since it wasn’t permitted to take Vucko on the paid motorway – E65 (not that we’d want to), we followed Route 3 out of Rijeka.
Route 3 is the old town road to Zagreb, built before the motorway. It’s a fantastic little secret I was shown by some of my biker friends from Rijeka, back in 2018. The road snakes up the mountain, zig-zagging back and forth with breathtaking views of Rijeka before you head into the forest for a scenic route around the mountainside. The roadside nature is idyllic, and anywhere is a great place to stop for a break and appreciate the surroundings.
Gathering supplies in Delnice
The small town of Delnice is a useful place to stock up on some supplies for the first night as there are 2 supermarkets there. We grabbed anything we thought we would need and rejoined Route 3 until we noticed signs for a natural park surrounding a lake. We turned off Route 3 following signs to a village called Homer and that lead us to Lokve lake. The word for lake in Croat is “jezero”. So if you ever see that on a sign, chances are it will be well worth your time to have a look.
Arriving at Lokve Lake
The lake itself was huge, and surrounded by beautiful woodland. The water was so clear, and because the lake bed consisted of white stones, it gave a shimmering emerald appearance which added to it’s enchanting appeal. We parked the car at a picnic area called Poj-Boj where we found a nice old-style map of the area. Wandering down to the lake we met a friendly dog, followed by a few locals that started conversation and invited us to join them if we wanted to.
We were so amazed by the beauty and tranquility of Lokve lake, we decided we’d stay there for our first night. We collected some wood to start a fire and then couldn’t resist taking a swim! The water wasn’t cold like we thought it would be, it was shallow and a warm temperature. We could see people enjoying the lake by canoe and some others taking a swim in the distance. We parked Vučko with stunning views over the lake and set up the roof tent for the first time. Setup was such a speedy process, in less than 60 seconds it was ready for us to lay the bedding and put some night essentials inside. We were surprised by how much quicker and easier it was to set up a roof tent, compared to a regular tent on the ground.
Waking up to the calmness of the lake was a truly special experience. There wasn’t a single soul that we could see, just a thin layer of mist lingering on the surface of the water. The roof tent had allowed us to sleep in complete comfort, with a stunning view, and all totally free. Now it was time to pack our things back in Vučko, throw away our rubbish and get back on the road. Next stop, Zagreb!
A Day in Zagreb
150 kilometres of mountain roads later and we arrived in the capital city, Zagreb. Now in almost all European countries during the warmer months, the capital city is the epicenter of tourism. What’s different about Croatia is that quite often the capital is overlooked by visitors, instead opting for cities situated on the coast like Split or Zadar. That’s one thing we really loved about exploring Zagreb, there weren’t any tourists to overcrowd the streets and spoil the experience for us.
With a population of just over 1 million people, Zagreb is a city full of life, thankfully without feeling overcrowded. With origins dating back to Roman times, sprawling markets, grand architecture and hip bars are all within easy reach from the picturesque old town. The quality of living in Zagreb seems good at a surprisingly low cost. We spent a day exploring different districts of the city, with much of it accessible by foot. When your legs get tired, take a ride on one of the many trams that connect the city. You really won’t run out of things to see and do in Zagreb. From the non-stop atmosphere of Ban Jelačić Square to the tranquility of King Tomislav square and the art pavillion, Zagreb is home to some unmissable locations for any kind of traveller.
While we were in Zagreb, we wanted to meet up with some friends that lived not far from the centre. We knew that they were both interested in camping and nature, so we thought we would try to convince them to come camping with us for the night. The afternoon would soon become evening and we were still without a plan for the night, that’s when they suggested a location just on the outskirts of the city that they’d been wanting to visit, but was just out of their reach without a means of transport.
Camping just outside the city
And just like that, we had a plan, and 2 explorers became 4. They loaded their equipment into Vucko and we drove to the edges of the city. As we started to climb the hilly terrain, the road slowly disappeared, turning into a muddy, stony trail with lush vegetation all around. The tree canopy was so dense it felt like someone had switched off the lights.
We drove further along the trail for a kilometre or so until we reached a point that was nearly impassable. A flowing stream crossed over the broken, rocky path saw us turn the car around and settle on a grassy clearing beside the trail. The ground was almost flat and there was ample space for us to build a fire and set up camp for the night without blocking the trail. From what I can remember, the area was within the Gračec Lukovica Rebar Nature Preserve.
Considering we had only driven for 15 minutes or so from the city centre, it was both surprising and pleasing to see such wilderness all around us. There were numerous species of plants and flowers growing we had never seen. Bright butterflies, giant snails and shiny beetles all moved around the forest floor. Just to make the ambience more enchanting, freshwater gushed beneath the foliage beside our camp. Luckily, there were no biting insects to intrude on our evening and other than one brave mountain-biker, we didn’t see a single person all night.
One challenge the shady forest presented us with, was a lack of dry firewood. We collected as much wood as we thought we’d need, but considering we don’t like to use firelighters or other aids too much, lighting the fire took some time. What’s interesting about working together as a team, is that everyone has a different approach to survival techniques. After trying many things, Marta and Jorge found that dousing the wood in some olive oil proved to be almost as effective as traditional firelighters, what a refreshing discovery that was! After 30-45 minutes of struggling for solutions, the fire was steady at last, and providing us with some warmth. I cooked us a pot of stew with fresh squid and red wine – a traditional Portuguese dish that everyone loved until the very last spoonful had been consumed.
The next morning graced our camp with the sound of birds singing and warm beams of light streaming through the tree canopy. We leisurely packed our camp away, collected our waste and started to leave the forest, feeling fulfilled and loving life.
Upon exiting the forest, we were amazed at a flower meadow just outside one of the villages. It seemed like someone here had the idea of growing a variety of flowers instead of traditional crops. We had never seen anything like it, so naturally we had to stop and take a closer look.
Lost in the woods
Returning our friends home to their apartment in Zagreb, we said our goodbyes, knowing that we’d see them again soon. Later we’d discover that the amazing evening we all had camping together in the forests of Zagreb’s outskirts would inspire them to purchase a car, source a suitable roof-tent and prepare to join the vast community of car-campers. What an incredible feeling it is knowing that you’ve inspired others to start doing something they never expected to love.
We got back on the road, armed with new information about a beautiful lake where we could most likely stop for the night. The place was called Most Keići, and it was just a 2-hour drive from Zagreb.
When we arrived however, the lake was a bit more popular than we’d have anticipated. Families using kayaks were situated across the small lake, and on top of that, several campers sat in the field just a stones throw from where we had parked. Beautiful it was, but the night was due to be a cold one, and we had every intention of starting a fire to keep ourselves warm. We hung around there for a while, scouring the map to see if there was anywhere else we could easily drive to with some more privacy. It was at that point that a local man strolled up to us and told us we’d have to leave unless we parked with the other campers.
Camping right beside others was something we didn’t embark on this trip to do. We wanted to be alone with nature, to find a spot so obscure and special, that we were the only inhabitants for that night. We duly agreed to push on for another option.
Driving through the small country roads in Karlovac county was interesting. Online maps didn’t prove useful at this point as we we kept losing signal and at one point, we ended up at a dead end were an elderly couple were living in a farmhouse. Confused by our arrival, they emerged and approached us in the car. We tried to ask them how we could reach a specific point of the Mreznica river, but the language barrier really made this difficult. With Marta attempting to speak to the couple in Polish, we didn’t get any closer to understanding what they were telling us. So the man was kind enough to draw us a map that we could follow.
We tried our best to follow the directions, but we only ended up finding ourselves even more lost. As daylight faded,we knew we were running out of time to find a good place to stop for the night; and once it was dark, it would only become even more difficult. At one point we drove into a small village hidden among the undergrowth, a place that looked abandoned and quite interesting. As we started to drive into this tiny village to take a closer look, a few vicious dogs emerged, barking and walking closer to the car. Suddenly a large topless man emerged from behind one of the abandoned houses. He took a quick glimpse at us then briskly walked back behind the houses. We looked at each other startled, and decided it was time to get out of there, fast! We weren’t about to wait and see what would happen next.
Finally we found our way out of the eerie countryside and back onto a road with other vehicles on it. Some signs of civilization arrived in the form of road signs for a town called Duga Resa.
Once we arrived at Duga Resa, we accepted defeat and decided to use an app called Park4Night to aid us in finding a spot to camp safely for the night. Park4Night is a useful community-driven app that allows you to find reviews of wild camping spots, submitted by other happy campers. We headed for a picnic spot located atop a steep hill that was said to offer stunning views of the surrounding scenery. The only trouble was, the road was more of a rocky trail and what looked like recent heavy rain had left the road in a state of disrepair. Vucko struggled up the hill for about 100 metres until we simply could not go any further. No matter how hard we tried, the tyres just wouldn’t grip the sodden, mulchy surface. And so, we had no other option than to slowly reverse the car all the way back down the hill to avoid getting completely stuck.
Running out of time, and options, we decided to give the app one more shot. This time the location was something we really wouldn’t have expected to provide safe shelter for the night – a parking area on top a hill, right beside a cemetery. We arrived there in less than 10 minutes with no problems whatsoever. In fact, it was such a serene location to spend the night. As the light finally disappeared and darkness arrived, we felt compelled to actually walk through the cemetery, drawn in by the twinkling red candlelit graves. What we expected could be a scary experience, we actually felt something so very peaceful and humbling about walking through the enormous cemetery, completely enveloped in darkness. All around us were pristine marble constructions, with fresh flowers and red lights twinkling away. That night, we had probably the best sleep of the entire trip.
The road to Plitviče Lakes
Another day, another adventure. Today was one we’d looked forward to for so long. We would make our way to the surreal landscapes of Plitviče Lakes National Park.
We brushed our teeth to the stunning, peach and pink skies of Duga Resa and got on the road so that we could have as much time at Plitviče as possible. The roads offered sensational views as the sun rose and illuminated the foliage all around us. We decided to use Route 42 as it looked like a more exciting road with sharp turns and many interesting sounding towns and villages along the way – and we weren’t wrong about that.
Not long after joining Route 42, we arrived at a lake so spotless and perfect, we just had to stop to admire it’s elegance. The lake was called Sabljak Selo, and it had water so clean and clear, you could see fish and small creatures beneath the surface in the finest detail. We parked up beside the road and unpacked some of the basics from the car, for breakfast with the most awe-inspiring view.
Croatia seems to have so many lakes that are out-of-this-world beautiful for a country that really isn’t so big. Every lake has it’s own charms and they really are kept in the most outstanding condition. So if you don’t like the idea of paying for entry to some lakes such as Plitviče, there really isn’t any need to feel left out. Simply visit one of the many other lakes situated all around the country.
With some much-needed breakfast in our tummies, and a healthy dose of sunshine on our skin, we set-off once more on a quest to reach the most enchanting place in Croatia. The excitement we felt was reaching fever pitch as we saw the kilometres pass-by. Not a minute went by on Route 42 where we didn’t see something to take our breath away. Everywhere we went, we were waved at, and greeted by locals who seemed to love the idea of roadtrippin’ the country in a old car full of character.
Stay tuned for the second part of this monumental road trip, it’s going to be quite a ride!