Driving the Adriatic Coast: from Venice to Sveti Stefan

Montenegro’s Kotor Serpentine is a single-lane mountain road that snakes its way down 25 hairpin bends, a vertiginous drop on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. It offers breathtaking views of Kotor Bay, and all the way to Italy. Unfortunately, on the day we take this spectacular route, it is pouring. Thick fog is descending. All I can see is the terrifying canyon beside us and a bus lumbering towards us.  I’m suddenly regretting taking the scenic route to the coast. But what would a road trip be without challenges?

Kotor (above) and Kotor’s Serpentine (below). Images: John Fison

A cruise is the obvious choice for visiting the Adriatic, but Mr F and I are spending three weeks on the road – visiting Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro. We sip sparkling rosé on the walls of Ljubljana Castle, row around a fairytale church on Lake Bled, pick fresh figs on the island of Korcula, explore Blue caves in the Bay of Kotor, climb medieval fortifications, and dice with death on a mountain road. 

Lake Bled, Slovenia. Image: John Fison

By the time we’ve backtracked up the coast to our final destination – the breathtaking Croatian walled city of Dubrovnik – we’ve driven 1500 km. It feels like a mini Gap Year. I know that’s for school leavers, but why should kids have all the fun? 

Dubrovnik, Croatia. Image: John Fison

Here’s our itinerary:

Venice. Image: John Fison

Venice, Italy – 3 nights

We start our Adriatic adventure in Venice, and it is every bit as charming as I imagined. Loved all of the big sites: St Mark’s Square, a boat trip to Burano and Murano, the Rialto Bridge, a water taxi ride. But more than anything I loved the soft light on the pastel buildings – just like a Caneletto painting. Bellissimo!

Pula, Croatia – 1 night

We are due to take a ferry from Venice to the Croatian port of Pula, but bad weather means we do the journey by bus. We arrive in the dark, but wake up to clear skies and the most magnificent Roman amphitheatre right on our doorstep.

Ljubljana, Slovenia – 3 nights

After collecting a car, we head inland to neighbouring Slovenia. The capital Ljubljana stands elegantly on the banks of the river, with Baroque buildings lining the cobbled streets and weeping willows competing for space with café umbrellas. A generous smattering of dragon statues, countless picturesque bridges and a 15th century castle, sitting high above the town, complete the fairytale picture. See my story on Ljubljana for restaurants and day trips. And don’t miss the castle at sunset, dinner at Julija and a day trip to beautiful Lake Bled.

Plitvice, Croatia – 1 night

We make our way from Slovenia, through bear country, to the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. If you can drag yourself away from the Dalmatian Coast, this magical series of waterfalls and lakes is worth a visit. We’ve got a day here, but that’s not quite enough to explore all of the lakes and walkways.

Split, Croatia – 1 night

We cut through the Velebit mountains – leaving behind the cold cloudy interior and find ourselves overlooking the fortified villages and bright turquoise waters of the Dalmatian coastline. So spectacular! From here we meander down to Split. This magnificent waterfront city is the jumping off point for Croatia’s islands, but there’s lots to explore while you’re here – including the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace.

Split. Image: John Fison
Primosten, Croatia. Image: John Fison

Korcula Island – 5 nights

From Split, we take a car ferry to the island of Korcula – a large, mountainous island, much of it covered in pine forests. A fortified old town, also called Korcula, occupies a prime position on the eastern end of the island. With its medieval walls and round towers, it looks like a scaled-down Dubrovnik – almost as spectacular and nearly as crowded. Ferries from Split arrive at Vela Luka, a lively port, popular with the yachting crowd. But outside the two main towns, the coastline is dotted with authentic fishing villages that offer a blissful break from Croatia’s manic tourist hot spots. While many tourists choose a sailing holiday to experience Croatia’s coastline, there’s much to be said for settling into a house and feeling like a local. We spend five glorious days hanging out with friends in our own little olive grove by the sea. Think rocky coves, clear blue water, pomegranate trees laden with fruit, insects buzzing around ripe figs, and you’ve got the picture. 

Korcula, Croatia. Images: John Fison

Kotor, Montenegro – 3 nights

The Bay of Kotor – just over the border in Montenegro – has long been a key port in the Adriatic trading route, and has more recently become a favourite with cruise ships and super yachts. But James Bond can take some credit for Montenegro’s appeal. The tiny country will always be associated with the high stakes poker game 007 played in Casino Royale. It doesn’t matter that the scene was filmed in the Czech Republic, not Montenegro, the British spy’s cachet had rubbed off on the former Yugoslav republic. But Kotor has plenty of magic of its own – a World Heritage listed old town, a medieval fortress, Communist era naval caves and a church that appears to float on the bay.

Our Lady of the Rocks, Kotor. Image: John Fison
Blue Caves. Image: John Fison
Kotor serpentine. Image: John Fison

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro – 2 nights

We leave Kotor via the nail-biting Serpentine. It’s wet, cold, and very scary. Full credit to Mr F. He squeezes past buses and cars, avoids landslides and rogue dogs, and finally gets us all the way to the coast. There, we find the 15th century village of Sveti Stefan – possibly the prettiest islet in the entire world. Definitely worth the white-knuckle ride. The entire islet is a resort so it’s substantially cheaper to admire it from a distance!

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro. Image: John Fison

Dubrovnik, Croatia – 3 nights

Dubrovnik might be touristy but there is good reason for its popularity – it’s staggeringly picturesque from every angle. Get into the walled city early to avoid the crowds – take a stroll around the top of the fortifications, jump off the rocks at one of the hole-in-the-wall Buza bars, and rent a kayak to see the city from the water. Just stunning!

There is so much to see along this stretch of coastline, I could have spent months here. But that just means there is plenty to see the next time I visit!

Happy travels.


Published by Julie Fison

Julie Fison is a Brisbane writer and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults ONE PUNCH is a compelling and thought-provoking family drama that follows two mothers forced to make impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Inspired by real events, the story is a sharp study of the complexities of family life and the consequences of being blind to the faults of our loved ones. Julie’s other work includes books for children and young adults – the Hazard River adventure series for young adventure lovers, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series that let the reader decide how the story goes, and a play for secondary school students As the Crow Flies. Julie is also a committed traveller and loves sharing tips for midlife adventurers.

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