This month we are following a scenic route which takes in Croatia’s two largest cities. We are travelling from the capital Zagreb, following the Lika Railway through the rugged hills of the Dalmatian mountains to the popular coastal holiday resort of Split.
Travelling by rail between Zagreb and Split is very easy, unlike some other major cities in Croatia where rail links are very limited. There are one or two excellent daytime trains on this lovely scenic route every day (more in the summer months) operated by Croatian Railways with “RegioSwinger” tilting trains, taking between six and seven hours. There is also a daily overnight service with couchettes and a car-carrying service in the summer which takes around eight hours (it only runs three times a week in the off-peak season). In addition, another night train from Budapest or Prague via Zagreb to Split runs three times a week in summer. This is a popular route for Interrail travellers and trains can get very busy in mid-summer, so advance reservation is essential.
Our starting point is Zagreb Glavni kolodvor, the main railway station for the city and the major hub of the Croatian Railways network. The striking neoclassical style station was once a stop for the Orient Express and a steam engine from its heyday is displayed next to the station. There are daily services from Belgrade, Budapest, Ljubljana, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna and an overnight train from Zürich, making Croatia easily accessible from all over Europe. The station is an easy ten-minute walk from Ban Jelačić Square which is a good starting point for reaching most of the city’s attractions. Compact and easy to navigate, Zagreb has plenty of historic sights including its twin-towered cathedral and Presidential Palace as well as many fascinating museums and art galleries. It also boasts the shortest funicular railway in the world, linking the Lower Town to Upper Town where you can get some of the finest views of the city.
Departing from Zagreb Glavni kolodvor, the first stop is the city of Karlovac in the beautiful forested area of Lika. The city lies at the confluence of four rivers and is surrounded by mountains and untouched forests making it a popular destination for water sports and hiking in one of the many nearby national and natural parks. Karlovac was designed as a defensive town against the Otoman Empire, with fortifications and moats and the old town is quite unique, built
in the shape of a six-pointed star, divided into 24 blocks of equal size. Amongst the star, you will find plenty of examples of Baroque architecture including a monastery and palace.
The next stop is the small village of Oštarije where the train journeys into the hills and joins the Lika Railway. Next is the town of Ouglin, located at the foot of Klek mountain. The region has many walks and bicycle trails where you can explore the natural beauty of the surrounding lakes and mountains which are rich with legends and fairytales. In fact every year, in June, an international festival of Ogulin fairytales is held which attracts many curious visitors! In the town, you can try traditional meals with game, fish, mushrooms, and a range of local produce.
From Ouglin there is an easy connection to Rijeka (Table 1310), Croatia’s third largest city and a major seaport which acts as a jumping off point to visit the many pretty surrounding islands. The city itself has a castle, a bustling produce market and broad promenades full of upmarket shops and cafes and so makes an ideal day trip.
Roughly halfway between Zagreb and Split is the oldest and most visited national park in Croatia, the breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Site of Plitvice Lakes. There is no way of reaching the park by train but it is well worth including a visit on any holiday in this region, so an organised bus tour or private transfer is worth considering. The park includes 16 terraced lakes with more than 90 waterfalls and several kilometres of boardwalks to explore. The lakes are dazzling, very clear and change colour in different light conditions due to the mineral content of the water.
From Oštarije, the line continues south through the arid and sparsely populated Lika region, with stops at stations in the small farming towns of Gospić and Gračac. The next major town is the fortress town of Knin which still bears the scars of its troubled past, having played a major part in the Bosnian War as the epicenter of the Serbian armed rebellion. Nowadays tourists are drawn to its spectacular hilltop fortress, the second-largest in Croatia and the historical seat of Croatian Kings. The hike to the top is worth it for the extraordinary views it offers over the valley to the mountains of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Knin and the surrounding area is also a paradise for cyclists, hikers and water sports lovers due to the nearby Dinara Mountain, the highest peak in Croatia and the various lakes, rivers, and breathtaking waterfalls.
Knin offers a useful bus connection to Zadar, one of Croatia’s oldest cities and historical center of Dalmatia. Zadar is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, attracted by its UNESCO-protected Old Town, Roman ruins, medieval churches, cosmopolitan cafes, and two very modern architectural attractions: the incredible ‘Sea Organ’, a set of steps that makes relaxing sounds with the power of the movement of the sea, and the ‘Sun Salutation’, a solar-powered light show set into the pavement along the harbourside promenade. The city also offers plenty of boat-trips and excursions to remote offshore islands and connections into its beautiful national parks.
Last week we reached Knin, which is less than two hours from Split, but if you are dividing up your journey, you may wish to make a side trip to the coastal town of Sibenik. The town is a popular tourist destination, with two UNESCO protected monuments, Sibenik Cathedral and St. Nicholas Fortress as well as some lovely beaches and easy access to nearby Krka National Park with its beautiful expanse of waterfalls and river canyons.
On the approach to Split, we suggest taking a seat on the right of the train for the best view of the city. The station is situated about one kilometre from the old town and its main historical gems like the Diocletian’s Palace complex. There are also plenty of clean, family-friendly beaches to enjoy with the bonus of the beautiful mountain vista to enjoy, as well the bustling Riva waterfront promenade filled with cafes which are frequented by both locals and tourists. A popular activity with many visitors is a day trip to the islands of Brac and Hvar which are connected to Split via ferry lines or, going further afield, there is a regular connecting bus service to the pretty coastal resorts of Ploče and Dubrovnik (Table 1325) which takes around 4 to 5 hours.