Driving the roads less travelled in Croatia

Croatia has been an up and coming tourist destination for the past decade thanks to its beautiful resorts, stunning beaches and gorgeous architecture. Inspires contributor Jess Shanahan explores a different side by road; the Croatian Island of Vis.

Most tourists stick to one of the popular coastal destinations but the best way to see Croatia is by road; it affords you the flexibility to go anywhere and explore off the beaten path, something I love to take advantage of. And nothing was more off the beaten path than the island of Vis and its hidden military history.

My journey took me along the coast from Dubrovnik, out to the island of Vis, up along the coast to Starigrad and then inland to Plitvice National Park, before ending our journey on the Istrian peninsula in Pula but it’s that little island of Vis that captured this road tripper’s heart.

All images: Jess Shanahan

Exploring the island’s secrets

As Croatia’s coast is littered with islands, no road trip would be complete without hopping onto a ferry. My choice was the foodie paradise of Vis, a place that’s also full of hidden military history.

Bricked entrance to tunnel

Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was finding an abandoned missile silo left behind by the Yugoslav People’s Army. This is accompanied by a dark, winding military bunker set deep into the hill – complete with gun encampments – and crumbling service buildings hidden among the trees on the surface.

Old gun pointing out from a stoned bunker

The majority of these abandoned delights can be found at these coordinates: 43°00’32.4″N 16°04’23.0″E. You have a few options when it comes to reaching them. With an automatic Audi, we decided not to attempt the loose gravel roads leading down from the main road and chose to park at the very top of the D117 road – at coordinates 43°01’01.2″N 16°05’54.5″E – and walk down.

If you have a slightly more capable car, the easiest route in is past a rubbish tip off the D117 – at coordinates 43°01’31.3″N 16°06’02.0″E – and all the way down through the trees. It’s a long rough road, but not quite as steep or tiring as your other options.

Dirt road surrounded by trees

From either of those roads, the missile silo can’t be missed as it’s a huge tunnel lined with heavy doors that once held some incredible weaponry.

Continue towards the coast and you’ll be able to reach the gun encampments perched on the side of the hill looking out to the small island of Biševo. These are the easiest and safest way into the bunker but do take care inside as it’s very dark.

There are tours starting from Komiža, in case you fancy letting someone else do the driving.

Driving Vis

The mountain roads in Vis are a delight but they’re often narrow in places. On another expedition to find caves that were used as a hideout by former Yugoslav president Tito – coordinates 43°02’13.4″N 16°07’15.0″E – I had my first real experience of these roads.

Walled entrance to cave

If you stick to the main road around the island, you get two-lanes of gorgeous tarmac, hilly sections, fun hairpins and long straights. If you venture off the main roads, you’ll need to be a confident driver but the places they lead to are well worth the effort.

Driving the mainland

For anyone who loves driving, I would recommend the scenic route on the mainland from Starigrad along to Karlobag on the coast road and then up into the hills towards Plitvice National Park.

Curved road by mountain side

The coast road, known as the E65, offers beautiful views of the Croatian coastline set into the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea. The road itself winds up and around the country’s natural lines and curves, so it’s more like driving a wide, quiet mountain road banked by the sea than the kind of coastal drive I’m used to as a Brit.

As you turn inland at Karlobag, the road narrows a little and begins to climb. You’re treated to switchbacks, hairpins and the most stunning vistas of the roads you’ve just traversed. At the top, there’s a lookout point that’s a great place to pause.

View over a valley of green trees

From the top, when you continue to make your way inland, the scenery opens up and looks, bafflingly, like something out of the sound of music. Pale mountain rock lines the horizon, looking like snow-capped peaks, while beautiful green plains stretch out ahead. The roads are long, straight and tempting – a real joy when switching to sport mode in my Audi.

Whether you’re looking for an island adventure or a road trip on a larger scale, I can’t recommend Croatia enough.