The main road along the Croatian coast has always been considered one of Europe’s great journeys. Winding its way tortuously along the heavily indented, mountain-fringed shore, the single-lane highway known as the Magistrala (literally ‘main road’ although the Croatian original sounds much more romantic) offers over 500km of astounding views, complex history and - not to be forgotten – an outstanding range of food to be eaten along the way.
In many ways Croatia is a country made for road trips. Whichever way you cross the country, you’ll be moving through a sequence of staggering, often very different landscapes. Travelling from Zagreb to the coast, regardless of whether you take the A1 motorway or one of the many minor-road alternatives, involves an inspirational trip across rolling hills, dense forests, karst plateaus and Mediterranean maquis.
However it is the coast itself that provides most in terms of sheer wonder, with stark grey-brown mountains overlooking the verdant coastal strip and its scattering of islands. Some of these islands are lush and green, others are as otherworldly as moon-rocks dropped randomly in the sea. In the olden days travellers could undertake this journey via a costal ferry that ran from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, stopping off at all ports in-between. Sadly this service is not currently in operation; the Magistrala, however, offers a driveable, stunning alternative.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that a modern asphalt road serving the whole coast came into being. Before then, drivers had to contend with gravel roads and clouds of dust, or simply take the ferry instead. Indeed it wasn’t until the completion of the Magistrala that tourism in the southern parts of Dalmatia could fully blossom. The Magistrala quickly became so busy that it became a by-word for bad traffic, with columns of vehicles winding their way laboriously along a shore that drivers were too bad-tempered to enjoy.
In recent years the pressure has been taken off the coastal route with the extension of the Croatian motorway network – it is faster to get to Dubrovnik by zooming down the highway slightly inland rather than following the long and winding road that is the Magistrala. No longer the Adriatic’s main traffic artery, the Magistrala has gone back to being a great ride, an exhilarating experience that you will want to savour rather than rushing, foot pressed on the pedal, to your final destination. And spectacular it certainly is. Indeed it’s one of the most dramatic road trips in Europe, and will never fail to take your breath away, however many times you might have done it. The fact that you will be passing many of the Adriatic’s most popular holiday resorts ensures that there is plenty of accommodation along the way. A profusion of shoreline campsites, especially in some of the smaller places along the road, is an important part of the route’s charm.
The route gets interesting as soon as you leave Rijeka, curving its way around deep sea inlets before winding along the foot of the mountains that hover above the coast. Indeed winding along below mountains becomes something of a leitmotif for the whole trip. Progress is never going to be a quick on a road like this. Get stuck behind a truck or a caravan and you could be waiting quite a long time before you get to a stretch of road suitable for overtaking. Providing you take it easy and enjoy the views, however, this is not a journey you are going to tire of in a hurry.
Things get really exciting after the cute port of Senj, with the rocky heights of the Velebit range glowering over the coast, and the road zipping its way between outcrops and ravines. Over on the seaward side of the road you will see the bare ochre flanks of the islands of Krk, then Pag. Once densely forested, these islands were denuded of trees in order to feed the shipyards of Venice, hence their stark beauty today.
By the time you get to Zadar, with its multi-layered Roman, medieval Croatian and Venetian heritage, you begin to appreciate that the Magistrala offers an educative voyage through the centuries as well as a mosaic of maritime landscapes. Also home to innovative sound-and-light installations such as the Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun Zadar offers a crash course in where the Croatian Adriatic is going in the future as well as where it has been in the past. Further south, the history lesson goes on: there is Šibenik, with its Renaissance cathedral and Venetian fortresses; the Roman city of Salona at Solin; and Split, home to Roman-Emperor Diocletian’s Palace.
South of Split, the road passes beneath the intimidating grey crags of the Biokovo range, another imposing mountain ridge that stretches for several kilometres along the coast. Set below Biokovo’s western shoulder is Omiš, home to famously fine shingle beaches and starting point for boat trips up the Cetina river, a lush reedy wonderland flanked by tortured rocks. South of Omiš, the road runs along the famed pebble beaches of the Makarska Riviera, any one of which would serve as a quick-dip journey-breaker. Once beyond the Makarska Riviera the Magistrala crosses the Neretva delta, whose bright green patchwork of fruit orchards and irrigation canals comes as something of a shock after all those stark coastal mountains.
It would be a shame to speed through Dalmatia without sampling the local idea of road-trip food. You will pass roadside restaurants roasting lambs over spits, hawkers selling cheeses and honeys, and in the Neretva delta region, stalls selling the mandarins for which the region is famed.
Many travellers will end their journey at Dubrovnik, the perfectly-proportioned Medieval-Baroque city encased within stout sea-splashed walls. However there are abundant reasons to carry on southeastwards towards the Montenegrin border, with the Magistrala carving its way across an inland plain characterized by stone-built villages and fertile green fields. For a final breather consider a side-trip to the seaside village of Molunat, home to a brace of fine pebble beaches and wonderful views of the open sea. Lulled by the sight of crystal clear waters and the sound of crickets in the trees, it’s the perfect place to reflect on how far you have come.