Burnt-orange rooftops radiant amid the greenery of verdant coastal valleys; kayakers gliding atop glittering aquamarine water; whitewashed homes clustered around pebbled coves. This - the iconic vista of Croatia's coast road - was to be our privileged view for most of the next ten days as we motored along our winding 900 kilometre route from Dubrovnik to Zagreb.
The fatigue brought on by our lengthy journey - 3am wake-up, four-hour layover in Munich, car insurance negotiations with the distracted man inside the Avant motor rental hut - was instantly washed away when we rounded a corner outside Dubrovnik airport and were blindsided by this perfect scene. No amount of research could have prepared us for exactly how striking this panorama would be.
As my boyfriend Phil drove us on towards our first night's accommodation - an Airbnb in Zaton Mali - with that incredible view to our left and our windows rolled down in the balmy 30 degree heat, I felt nothing but optimism for the next two weeks. But my elation soon came crashing down as we got hopelessly lost around Dubrovnik's marina thanks to our insolent Croatian sat nav, which, hired at a cost of ten euros a day, we would later notice had a "void" sticker glued to its back.
This infuriating piece of equipment - which we nicknamed Stjepan - took us to a steep dead-end car park, which we then had to pay to get out of. I showed the attendant the address of our destination, to which he helpfully replied:
"Zaton? That's not here."
After a few circles of the marina, we managed to navigate ourselves to the correct area, but our self-congratulations were premature, as there was no clear way to drive down to the village from the coast road. Following some on-foot exploration, and talking to some more confused locals, we finally managed to get in touch with our host, Mira, who if anything seemed rather put out that we were late.
Zaton Mali: A lesson in Croatian culture
Zaton Mali is situated a half hour bus ride from Dubrovnik's old town, and boasts two restaurants and a camp site. It was here that we would get our first taste of Croatian culture. Five minutes after we arrived in our Volkswagen Polo, a man asked us for a lift home, explaining in a slightly passive-aggressive manner that:
"...people around here like to help each other out."
The restaurants rarely served what was on the menu as high season was yet to arrive and on our first morning we ordered a continental brunch promising meats, cheeses and olives, and were confused when two omelettes were unapologetically slammed down on the table. Asking for directions also proved unyielding, and we spent half an hour stood on the side of the road at what we had been told was a bus stop, watching all the buses zoom past.
All could be forgiven, however, thanks to the heavenly setting. The back of our bungalow looked across turquoise waters to the other side of the cove, and Mira gave us a kayak and a paddle boat on which to explore the bay.
Dubrovnik old town: Swimming off the coast of King's Landing
The gleaming marble jewel in the crown of the Dalmatian Coast, Dubrovnik boasts an old town so perfect that it almost hurts to look. The city welcomes cruise-loads of tourists every day thanks to its unparalleled views, shining white interior, intricate back alleys and hidden bars. Its recent jump in popularity means that it feels a bit like a Disneyland for holidaymakers; old family homes have become Airbnbs and local bars transformed into hip tourist hotspots, while souvenir shops flogging sunglasses and "Game of Thrones" merchandise sit at every corner.
Unlike the towns further up the coast, there's no grittiness here, and if there are hidden depths they're to be found outside the walled town. While undoubtedly the most beautiful city we visited during our trip, those seeking to get under the skin of this destination will be disappointed - its diminutive size and massive popularity mean that whatever you choose to do during your time there, you'll be following in the footsteps of thousands of other tourists.
After inhaling a cheese board in Pizzeria Stella - an eatery just off the main street, Stradun - we decided to get the lay of the land by walking the city walls. Dubrovnik's comprehensive fortifications were first constructed in the early middle ages, although the intact walls we see today were primarily built in the 14th and 15th centuries. Held up among the greatest defensive systems of the middle ages - never once being breached during this era - the ancient walls were called into battle once more during the Yugoslav army siege of the early 1990s, and were credited for protecting the city against modern weaponry more effectively than any of the more contemporary constructions around the old town. To traverse these fortifications and look down on the gleaming treasures below is to gain an understanding of the otherworldly city, protected for aeons against outside influencers that might seek to pollute its perfection. Dubrovnik owes everything to its historic walls.
We handed over 120 kuna (around £14) for our tickets and ascended hundreds of steps to be greeted at the top with a glittering view of Game of Thrones' "King's Landing". This was a spectacular two-hour stroll in the sun, punctuated by a frosty Ozujsko at one of the bars situated atop the walls and only slightly ruined by an American lady in front berating her boyfriend for taking her on such an arduous walk. The views were magnificent, and seeing the Old Town mapped out below helped us to navigate much more easily once we were back at ground level. We ended our trek breathlessly clambering up Tower Minceta's 15th-century steps to the highest point of the walls for a dreamy view of the white city's rooftops, churches and fortresses.
Rewarding ourselves for our amble, we headed to Dubrovnik's famous Buza 1 - a bar balancing precariously on the jagged coastal rocks at the edge of the town. Access is granted through a diminutive tunnel in the city walls. After grabbing a couple of Pans from the disinterested barman, we bypassed the establishment's few tables to join the majority of patrons basking on the lower rocks near the waves. When the heat intensified people began to jump into the refreshing water, with the braver ones diving - or bellyflopping - in from higher peaks. This beer-swim-repeat routine made for a delightful afternoon, with Dubrovnik's golden city walls prodigious behind us as we looked across the water to the nearby island of Lapad; chill-out music playing in the background and the party atmosphere ramping up as the sun descended.
Now refreshed, it was time for dinner, so we dried off and headed to Oliva Pizzeria, situated in one of Dubrovnik's many picturesque alleys. My delicious Pizza Marinara, washed down with a bottle of Croatian wine, was - little did I know - by far the best meal I would enjoy in the country. After-dinner drinks meant gin and tonic at Troubadour Jazz Cafe, where the sultry music starts on the terrace at 8pm sharp, and we watched an older couple slow dance the evening away on the cobbles.
Split: A night in a trendy old town
Next on our itinerary was Split - a large historic town centred around the towering white palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Our three-hour drive - to a playlist embarrassingly named "Let's Split" - included a ten-minute jaunt through Bosnia and Herzegovina, where war wounds from the Yugoslavian missiles were still visible in the run-down seaside town of Neum, and the border guards were delightfully disinterested, waving us on without a passport in sight. The journey also saw us accidentally depart from our charming coastal route and end up on the A1 highway thanks to Stjepan's mischief. This was an eerily vast and empty road that took us from the country's immense grassy plains up to endless tunnels carved out of the craggy blue-grey mountains, and through small towns where stalls selling oranges and olive oil lined the streets, their awnings fluttering in the breeze.
We motored into Split under grey rainclouds, and as we navigated through its dreary industrial district, we feared that the city's reputation as nothing more than a jumping-off point for island-bound tourists could be true. However, when the car emerged at the glistening Riva and we got happily lost in the picturesque backstreets trying to find our Airbnb loft, it was clear that there is more to Split than we'd initially thought.
Our accommodation was a rustic yet chic loft boasting a fantastic terrace where you could sit among the rooftops of Split. Hungry, we dumped our backpacks on the bed and dashed down the stairs to find our closest eatery. We discovered a nearby konoba - all polished mahogany inside and potted palms in the courtyard - and decided to sit in the sun for an authentic Croatian meal and two half-litres of Ozjusko. During our meal we were joined by the most stereotypically Australian man in the world, who talked at length about his love of beer and "Sheilas" as well as a lone Hungarian who claimed to have designed the Burj Khalifa (we checked, he hadn't) so it wasn't an uninteresting meal - but the food wasn't great.
Croatian food looks north, east and west; being influenced by Mediterranean cuisine, the heavy carnivorous dishes of central Europe and the spiced meats of Turkey. Most menus comprise of mixed grills - often spiced with paprika - and a wide array of locally-sourced seafood, with a couple of pizzas thrown in for good measure. For me - a fan of tapas and light bites - this was a bit heavy, and we often took to feasting on bread, cheese and Brac olive oil rather than sitting down to eat.
Having spent enough time wandering near our apartment, it was time to head to the old town - a mere five-minute stroll down the Riva. To enter, we walked through the city walls, which now contain a marketplace selling jewellery and general souvenirs, and emerged from the Bronze Gate into the main square of Diocletian's Palace.
This stunning structure was built at the turn of the fourth century, using local white limestone and high-quality Brac marble. It was originally constructed for the Emperor Diocletian's retirement. Nowadays, it is packed with shops and restaurants, some of which use the steps of the palace as a seating area for diners.
Split's old town is beautiful in a different way to that of Dubrovnik: it feels lived-in and trendy - and is clearly a hotspot for both tourists and locals. After a wander round the well-signposted alleys, we settled on a pizza joint for dinner, tucking into our food under a canopy of foliage. There were too many bars to choose from for our one night in Split, but we eventually settled on a cocktail bar that seemed to be a favourite with backpackers, who were spread out on the steps outside enjoying their drinks and chattering away.
Brac: Olive oil, aquamarine coves and a lesson on Serbian turbo folk
Acknowledging that we should have planned longer in Split, the next morning we left our car behind and hopped on a Jadrolina ferry for the smooth 40-minute crossing to the Brac port of Supetar. At the last minute we'd decided to bypass the party-friendly island of Hvar for a night on its more subdued sister, famed for its thick olive oil and aquamarine coves.
Yolana, our concierge at the new-build apartment block we'd chosen in a hurry that morning, picked us up from the port and drove us through luscious hills and olive groves to our accommodation in the quiet town of Sutivan, where we were the only guests. We took a couple of free rental bikes and went for a cycle along the winding coastal road, which was beautifully lined with white pebble beaches and secluded bays.
As we rode past numerous deserted coves, the lure of the crystal clear water became too much and we parked up and went for a swim. This sea - free of fish, seaweed and other debris, was the most delightful place I'd ever been swimming. When I questioned Yolana as to the lack of wildlife, she ominously explained:
"We like to keep the water clean."
A cycle back took us to a mediocre restaurant for a lacklustre pasta bolognaise and a sharp wine I found difficult to drink, but as usual the scenery more than made up for the meal. The sunset looked incredible with the ships and fishing boats silhouetted against the orange glow. And the Brac olive oil was incredible.
The next morning saw us return to the water for more swimming and a pastry picnic on the rocks before it was time for us to hop back on the ferry to Split, grab the car and journey on up to Zadar.
Yolana gave us a ride back to Supetar and on the way we asked her about "Serbian turbo folk" - a musical genre we'd heard mentioned during our travels. Pulling out her phone, she treated us to a YouTube video of a typical turbo folk band, which she explained was:
"...for girls to listen to and get angry and throw things when they've had their heart broken."
While there is some leftover anger and prejudice between Croatia and Serbia, particularly among the older generation, Yolana explained that this is doesn't apply so much to younger people, who will happily listen to Serbian turbo folk - music taste permitting of course.
Where to next?
Leaving the south of Croatia behind us, we were Zadar-bound as we continued our journey up the stunning coast road. After three days exploring the city's ruins and indulging in its plentiful restaurant and bar scene, we planned to travel on to Pag - an island famed for its lace and cheese - before heading inland to visit the stunning waterfalls of Plitvice National Park. Finally it would be time to motor up to Zagreb - Croatia's capital - which would mark the end of our road trip.
So far Croatia had meant breathtaking coastal scenery, white marble towns bursting with life and living off delicious Brac olive oil. As we journeyed north and left the polished gems of the southern old towns behind, we hoped to experience a deeper, grittier side to Croatia that would enable us to better understand the country's history and culture.