Peak Season Traffic Leads to Rediscovery of Empty Old Road from Zagreb to Split

Total Croatia News

Romulic and Stojcic

After the freak conditions which caused the travel chaos on July 15, 2016, a chance to rediscover the most interesting way from Zagreb to Split, before a trouble-free motorway journey on empty roads on July 20.

It will go down in history as one of the longest days in my life, full of frustration, dashed hope and stress, but with an ultimate accomplishment of the original goal, albeit some 18.5 hours later.

July 15, 2016 was Croatian motorway chaos, and before you all start to rebook your holidays, let me report that yesterday’s motorway journey from Istria to Split took place on almost empty roads, with not a single delay and a queue of just four cars at the toll booth in front of Split. Perfect.

But July 15 was another matter, although it did provide a rather nice silver lining – the rediscovery of the old road from Zagreb to Split after many years, a journey which actually takes not too much longer than the motorway (about 5.5 hours without speeding). But first we must endure the pain to get to that silver lining.  

The original plan had been to leave Zagreb in the morning, pop into IKEA (oh joy), then drive to Pula to meet my waiting family for a few days break at Aminess Mirami Family Village in Novigrad, Croatia’s first tourism edutainment centre (of which more very soon). A little Croatian logistical problem meant that I had instead to follow my IKEA trip with a drive down to Split to pick up my kids and then up to Istria, a drive of about ten hours according to the route planners.

If only it had been ten hours… Having a day off from social media and with my phone battery dead, I set off down the empty A1 highway from IKEA shortly after midday. Progress was smooth, and it looked as though I would even be there to welcome my girls off the 1600 ferry, before my wife returned on the 2030, and I north to children heaven in Novigrad. A first trip to aquapark Istralandia was the icing on the cake for the little ones.

And then…

Several kilometres before the legendary Sveti Rok tunnel, the mother of all traffic jams greeted me. From fellow motorists, I learned that high winds had closed the motorway and day one of Ultra Europe had been cancelled. On one of the busiest travelling days of the year, Mother Nature had thrown in her strongest seasonal winds for more than a decade. Gridlock. At least the weather was kind and overcast, so that we did not bake in the two hours we crawled along to the diversionary exit. I was still in plenty of time to make the 2030 deadline before the ferry left, but my heart sank as I edged closer to the toll booth. It stayed shut for 25 minutes, simply as there was nowhere for us to go, such was the crowd. 

And when finally, it seemed we were free, cruising along in third gear on roads not built to deal with such traffic, another delay, for reasons again unknown. The holiday was fast disappearing, for if I was not there by 2030, the kids would return on the ferry, the holiday lost. In front of me, a Golf Polo with Osijek plates and beach gear visible in the rear, suddenly pulled out of the queue, reversed and disappeared down an unlikely looking sideroad. Sponaneously I decided to follow, unsure where we were heading, but figuring out that either he was returning home (unlikely) or he had found another way. 

I stayed close, desperate for a sign I would recognise to tell me where in the world I was heading, but there were none, apart from villages whose names I have already forgotten. The roads became bigger, the traffic non-existent, and on we drove, finally onto a proper national road. And finally a sign! My heart sank. Zagreb and Plitvice Lakes! I was heading north, further from my expectant children with every second. Low on options, I decided to invest my faith in Mr. Osijek for 5 more kilometres, and I was just running out of patience when a magical sign appeared – Knin to the right. Off turned Mr. Osijek, and off turned I, forever grateful to this heroic stranger and his GPS.

And what a transformation, and a trip down memory lane. When I first started coming to Croatia in 2002, there was no motorway, and the old road from Zagreb to Split was the main way. Little has changed, except the traffic has disappeared in favour of the more fashionable motorway. And as I drove with renewed hope of saving the kids holiday, I was reminded of just what a fantastic road this is, and an ideal alternative in peak season traffic. For example, the road goes right through UNESCO World Heritage Site Plitvice Lakes, one of the top attractions in Croatia. It is nature, nature, nature all the way, coupled with some true heritage gems, such as the fortress in Knin (above), the second largest fortress in all Europe.  

Did I mention nature? Most people come to Dalmatia for the sea, but a delightful reminder of the region’s inland water attractions. A drive around the spectacular Lake Peruca is included in the itinerary.  

And if you are not in a rush and are looking for a little break before hitting the busy streets of Split, one of Croatia’s most fascinating towns and home of the Alka knights tournament, with accompanying new interactive museum, is a must – fabulous Sinj, just 30 minutes from Split. 

It seems that the gods were smiling on me after all, for the ferry departure was 13 minutes late, just long enough to deal with my 2041 arrival and kid collection. A holiday saved, and two young brave troopers helped Daddy on the next phase of the journey. But that is another story. 

For the latest travel information, check the Croatian Motor Association updates on the TCN homepage

And if the motorway traffic is bad, or you have the time to take in a more relaxed journey to see glimpses of the real Croatia, check out the old road from Zagreb to Split.


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