June 1, 2020 — Croatia adjusted expectations for the 2020 tourist season to match the coronavirus era. Planes are mostly out, cars are in. Yet its advertising campaigns and promo videos never mention the two-lane, 818 kilometer asphalt gem running along the spine of its coast.
My Renault Clio struggled at the 80 km/h threshold as it puttered along the 20 kilometer stretch of asphalt connecting Rudelici and Karlobag. The driver-side window framed a glamor shot of Pag’s Bura-swept barren surface, looking as if a chunk of the moon fell into the Adriatic Sea. I spun my steering wheel left, hugging a turn as the crappy little heap leaned right and gave a false sense speed. My inner 12-year-old giggled.
In less than an hour, a lifetime’s-worth of gorgeous vistas scrolled by my window while I traversed bending roads that can make any vehicle feel like a sports car. How I was the only person driving along this bewitching artery called the Jadranska Magistrala?
Road tripping guests are the Goldilocks of visitors: low-maintenance big-spenders on food, fuel, snacks, experiences and accommodation, dispersing cash across several locations. An unfortunate few even spend on mechanical repairs. They pack light, value lesser-known locations and often stay longer. Serendipity is their guide, and a unique experience their reward. The few who dash down the Croatian coastline experience a side of the country not offered in any travel brochure.
“Driving roads” make up small but potent niche in the travel world, offering a weird marriage of the automotive and travel industries. The internet abounds with lists of the “Top Roads,” listing father-flung corners of Romania to bucolic English countrysides and scenic Tuscan plains. Croatia’s coastal road could be a magnet for guests wary of long, boring slogs along highways, and petrol heads looking for legal fun.
I first discovered the Jadranksa Magistrala, or state road D8, five years ago, driving from Zadar to Dubrovnik to meet friends. I picked them up, spent a night in the Pearl of the Adriatic then boomeranged back along the same route — a well-worn path.
The Magistrala formally opened to taffic 55 years ago. Previous roads were perilous or non-existent. The best way to get from one end of the coast to the other was often boat — or not bothering to make the trip at all. Even neighboring villages were isolated. This fed many of the micro-societies dotting the coast, a chain of unique dialects, food and customs separated sometimes by a few kilometers. Countless generations of Dalmatian residents were born, lived, and died hearing of Split, Dubrovnik and Zadar, without ever seeing them. How could they before the Magistrala?
With few exceptions, the Dalmatian coast’s topography challenges civil engineers. Mountains and seaside cliffs make flat stretches rare. A mule or perhaps a tractor could navigate the jagged karst hillsides between settlements.
Engineers designed the Magistrala well before gigantic machines bore holes through hills and mountains. They instead built a road using the existing terrain, building a long terraces onto undulating cliff sides zigging and zagging at the lip of steep drops (most locals of a certain age and driving experience can tell an “Once I almost fell off the Magistrala” story).
The resulting road feels like anachronistic. No modern infrastructure would so blatantly disregard safety codes, weaving along such steep drops into water. Even today, a few square stones stand between drivers and oblivion at some stretches. That nobody in the texting-and-driving, #hasthtagging age has flown over the edge may testify to the attention-grabbing peril the Magistrala presents — or how few people actually use it.
I felt this sense of wreckless abandonment years ago, plowing ahead through the lowlands of the Neretva Valley, then peering at the Peljesac Peninsula to my left as I drove with my friends on an itinerary that included Hvar, Split and Zadar. Our golden rule: if it looks interesting, we stop. That’s when I learned the Magistrala’s magic.
We passed a constellation of larger cities and humble villages, tucked-away beaches. Places I’d heard of but never saw: Igrane, Primošten, Sukošan and Rogoznica, unfurled before me. Even better were the spots that Google couldn’t name.
I would not have found many of these places had I swung up to the new-ish A1 motorway, hurtling in a straight line through mountains.
I kept asking myself why on earth I needed a whim to discover my home country has such a gem of a road. Why didn’t anyone tell me?
The “best drives” category of tourism is a mainstay for other countries. Scotland, Norway, Australia, and the U.S., among many others, laud their scenic routes and offer road trip suggestions and maps. Croatia’s page by comparison offers little to actual road-trippers, merely redirecting to other parts of the Tourism Board’s site.
I was not surprised the locals neglected to tell me. Croats abandoned the coastal roads after an infrastructure boom in 2000 created speedier, duller highways connecting the country from corner to corner. This had the dual effect of shortening travel tines while also shifting bulkier, slower trucks away from the Magistrala, making it even more of a driver’s paradise.
Croatia’s A1 motorway, by comparison, is an express ride past worthwhile stops. By comparison, the Magistrala’s dips and sharp turns satiate the petrol head at the steering wheel while passengers can enjoy a slideshow of Dalmatia’s greatest hits outside their window. Best of all, no tolls.
And perhaps that’s why the Magistrala remains an off-the-radar destination for driving fanatics. Croatia’s government rakes in HRK 3 billion a year on tolls, as tourists flock like sheep to the pulsating dots on their GPS screens instead of following the low road to paradise. If one-tenth of that traffic shifted to the toll-free coastal roads, the government would lose millions.
I ended my drive up the southern half of the Magistrala starving for more.
Within a year, my now-wife and I took a similar road trip along the coast, this time bound north for Istria along what locals call the “stara cesta” or “Old Highway” — the previous best route to get to Zagreb.
Same Renault Clio (always on the verge of dying) and the same principle of stopping at whatever looks interesting. The cliffsides and bucolic vistas revealed a world completely unrelated to the southern half of the coast. Small settlements of a few houses are tucked into inlets and bays, naturally shielded from a direct hit by the infamous Bura winds that sweeps down the Velebit Mountains. There were fewer beaches, but more personality in the tough mentality required to survive in these rocky outcrops year round.
I saw new towns I didn’t know existed. The Magistrala’s arrival brought about a boom for many towns, such as Sveti Juraj and Senj. These small municipalities used the new road to connect and trade, specialize and distribute what they’d been making for years. Tourists bound for magnets like Split stumbled upon new locations — Kaštel, Primošten and Pirovac, among others, and benefited from the connection.
The arrival of airplanes and then the A1 motorway’s opening decades later undid much of that progress. Tourists started taking the faster routes to the big hubs: Split, Dubrovnik, Zadar. Biograd Na Moru, Šibenik, Primošten, Sveti Juraj and many others fell by the wayside.
But perhaps Croatia ignores its coastal highways for what it represents. Over 10,000 workers built the Magistrala in the former Yugoslavia, going well beyond Dubrovnik and into Montenegro. That state and its accomplishments are now stain as oppressive eras, its few accomplishments best-ignored. But the post-Yugoslavia answer — the A1 motorway — was a boondoggle of mismanagement, missed deadlines and graft. In other words, an apt metaphor for the country which created it.
The nation’s second attempt at a megalith infrastructure project, the Peljesac Bridge, was mythologized, started then dropped then started, promised, then killed again. The country wasted three decades before the European Union finally provided the funds needed to pay for China’s bargain-bin offer.
Perhaps Croats and their tourism apparatus ignore the Magistrala because it truly is a slower, more dangerous way to get around. Or maybe, it reminds them of everything Croatia used to be, but isn’t anymore.
Petrol heads in neighboring countries and car-bound visiters can find the charming asphalt snake running up the nation’s coast any time. Just hid “avoid tolls” in your GPS settings, and leave the rest to luck.
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