The political aftermath of the 1991-1995 Bosnian - Croatian - Serbian war (known to Croats as the Croatian War of Independence) wasn’t really concluded until 2000, when 300,000 Serbian refuges who had fled their homes were allowed to return.
Croatia now has a population of around 4.5 million, mostly Croats but with minorities of Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenes, Italians, Hungarians, Czechs and Albanians.
Another legacy of the war, the landmines, still remain. Up to 2 million mines were laid along the front lines, athough none were placed along the coastline. Since then a massive mine clearance operation has taken place and the remaining areas in Slavonia (obviously well marked and blocked off) are hoped to be clear by the end of 2009.
Latest reports from the Croatian Mine Action Centre (http://www.hcr.hr/ )
Istria, our current regional location, has had a very chequered history - the Romans, the Venetians, the Austrians, the French and the Italians have all had their hands on it over the centuries, before it was absorbed into General Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1945.
Sitting in our Novigrad campsite, watching the rain belt down, we flashed up the MacBook to watch the F1 Grand Prix on Croatian TV. Finding that BBC World was also booming in, we saw our first news of the Swine flu outbreak.
More rain – BBC World occupied us for half the day.
Later we walked along the coast path towards the town as far as the next campsite - very cramped and crowded compared with our green and spacious Camping Mareda site.
Croatia has a huge coastline, a source of inestimable wealth to the country through tourism and fishing. Along the mainland there are 1,777 km of shoreline and a further 4,058 km around its one thousand one hundred and eighty five islands and reefs - forty seven of which are inhabited.
There is a new museum on the Austro-Hungarian navy which looked interesting, but because of the intermittent rain we gave it a miss.
After a wander around and a visit to the tourist office, the darkening skies suddenly let go an almighty cloudburst. We sheltered in a baker’s shop where we consumed a couple of very chewy doughnuts, then decided to make a move.
Minutes later Sue was drenched by a speeding car and ended up on the pavement, collecting a grazed elbow. Fortunately the only other injuries were her pride and composure.
Guess what, the sun came out and stayed out, the chairs came out again and Sue sunned herself. Later we had a longer walk around the campsite and their sports facilities. If you’ve ever wondered how to make a pedalo more appealing, they have the answer here – pedalo’s come complete with four seats and their own water slide (must be for kids, obviously).
Time to move on, we had a lot to see.
There is plenty of Autogas in Croatia and we found some straight away at a new OMV station in town.
A short drive south along the coast brought us to Camping Lanterna. This is a vast campsite which encircles an entire bay the size of your average Cornish Cove. It was voted best in Croatia by the German DDC camping club in 2007, it has two swimming pools, sports centre and any number of restaurants. Free wi-fi is available at reception. (GPS: 45.3101 N, 13.6028 E)
We picked a pitch right on the waters edge (at standard rate) at the extreme northern end which, as I found out later, entails a 25 minute walk back to reception! The only drawback was a stone quarry across the bay which was clanking and banging until late in the evening.
The day started out warm and sunny, with gentle breezes coming off the water. Our pitch now seemed perfect, especially as the quarry opposite was having a Mayday holiday.
Every time we looked up at the road from Novigrad across the bay, we would see 2 or 3 motorhomes driving by, literally hundreds over the course of the day, most of them Italian, I suspect.
Later the wind whipped up, bringing a thunderstorm, and a hurried stowing of the awning.
We moved inland and north again to escape the crowds and stopped at Brtonigla, an old and dilapidated hilltop town in the process of renovation. It had a Tuscan feel, which is not surprising as most of the Istrian region of Croatia was part of Italy until the 1947 peace agreement. If you’re looking for a nice old villa to buy and have the funds to put it to rights, there are a few here up for grabs.
There is a new public car park by the San Rocco Restaurant - very highly rated in one of our free tourist guides. We poked our head in to see if it was ok to stay the night and were assured that it was no problem at all. (GPS: 45.3790 N, 13.6268 E)
Later we returned for an evening meal - scrambled egg with black truffles followed by veal roasted in a wood oven with sauté potatoes and carrot and spinach on polenta. I’m afraid I really couldn’t determine any flavour in the flakes of truffle, perhaps they were a bit old. The veal was tasty but a bit overdone. With a bottle of Teran wine, water and some very nice hot bread, the bill came to 370 Kuna or about £45.
The boss is Italian, a dead ringer for 007 Daniel Craig and looked like he knew it.
We had a peaceful night in the car park and awoke early to the sound of cockerels, wood pigeons and songbirds all vying to outdo each other’s dawn chorus. Otherwise the village was hushed and the air wafting though the back window from the vineyard had a lovely fragrance to it – I wonder how much that overgrown villa is?
Gateway to your new villa?
Our next stop was Buje, a larger hilltop town and the centre of the most well known wine and olive growing district of Istria.
Again very dilapidated in parts, even in ruins, and part lovingly restored elsewhere. Some of the narrowest streets we’ve ever seen in its medieval citadel.
Next up, Groznjan, called “the City of the Artists” by our brochure, it is a tiny medieval town plonked on top of a steep hill, with fantastic views all around. Its centre, accessible only on foot or by bike, is littered with small art and craft galleries and felt very peaceful and pleasant in the warm sun.
The pleasant intimate streets of Groznjan
The main car and coach park for Groznjan is actually higher than the town and even has a sign displaying parking for motorhomes. An Austrian couple in a campervan appeared to be finishing off their breakfast when we arrived.
As in so many countries, the official line in Croatia is that free or wild camping is illegal and punishable, but our view is: as tourists bringing in valuable foreign currency we are unlikely to be tackled as long as we don’t make a nuisance of ourselves or outstay our welcome, at worst we are likely to be asked to move.
An approved car park, especially one like Groznjan with fantastic views, is ideal.
Inland is always easier, especially away from the water - many coastal areas, across Europe, now have total bans on motorhomes at any time.
We slept like babies until the sun's rays hit the curtains around six - one of those mornings that really make you feel glad to be alive. By eight the air was warm and sweet with blossom and the vista from our pitch was sublime - a few workers tending the vines, just the birds and us enjoying the sunshine.
Groznjan basks in the morning sunshine
The road south of Groznjan becomes a tortuous dirt track, so we looked for another route to Motovun. Driving through a series of tiny villages and more lush countryside we came across yet another hilltop town and a string of isolated churches.
Then the road turned to gravel for a few kilometres, but we carried gently on, past vineyards, forest, rows of beehives and the occasional field worker, one of whom gave us a vigorous wave.
Hitting the main road again we felt, regretfully, that we had just emerged from another world, as indeed we had.
Istarske Toplice spar appears in the Womo guide and although fronted by an impressive limestone cliff, it is basically a hotel and a modern "wellness" centre for those who want to be pampered with exotic mud packs and the like.
They have “No camping” signs up in the car park, so we would be reluctant to use it for an overnight.
A small detour to look at Butoniga lake, a newly formed reservoir. No access to the water's edge was visible, though construction work was still going on.
On to Motovun, an ancient fortified hilltop town with fabulous views from the top of its perimeter wall. Obviously gearing up for the tourist season, it was still very quiet.
Truffles, olive oil and wine, the gourmet staples of Istria
At Womo’s recommendation we parked up on the picnic area away from the musem/cave entrance area. We didn’t feel particularly comfortable however and late in the evening a car passed us, tooting aggressively on his horn, which was unsettling.
I think we would have been better off in Visnjan a few kilometres back, which has a large tourist car and coach park, empty as we passed by.
From Nova Vas it is only a short drive to Porec, a former Roman colony on a small peninsula, which was probably inhabited as far back as Neolithic times. Its old town streets are lined with Venetian gothic houses, but its key monument is the Euphrasius Basilica, built in the 6th Century in Byzantine style, with fantastic mosaics on the front and interior – now a UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Well preserved mosaics inside the Euphrasius Basilica
The waterfront is littered with excursion boats, cafes and restaurants and a major hotel renovation is going on at the head of the peninsula.
Porec's waterfront is developing apace, park your yacht here!
Now firmly back on the coast we chose Camping Valkanela, an ACSI site. This is another campsite on a huge scale, encompassing two complete peninsulas and the enclosed bay. We found ourselves a super waterfront pitch at no extra charge off season. Out came the awning, chairs and BBQ, time to relax. (GPS: 45.1659 N, 13.6024 E)
Our best waterfront pitch so far
It’s only a short bike ride into Vrsar from the campsite. We seem to have a thing about hilltop towns and villages, but really it’s hard to avoid them, that’s where people settled and lived. This old fishing town has some particular blind alleys and took some exploring even on a bike.
Vsrar from its large and well equipped marina
All along the marina walls are stone sculptures, the product of summer sculpture workshops at the nearby Montraker quarry.
At the end of the jetty we came across a crowd of German tourists in fits of laughter - the guy behind the counter at an ice cream parlour was tossing scoops of ice cream across the pavement to a waiter, who was catching them in his mouth, at ever increasing distances.
The scooper was obviously a juggler of some skill himself, throwing ice cream balls up into the air and dropping them without fail into an open cone. Did rather make you wonder though, what was in the ice cream to hold it together like that?
Nonetheless, Sue decided she would like the Croatian equivalent of a Pineapple Surprise, which of course turned out to be bigger than her belly, so I was recruited to help finish it off – not the best ice cream we’ve ever had.
Reluctantly, we tore ourselves away from Auto Camp Valkanela, but there was so much more coast to see.
The Limski Kanal is Croatia's only genuine fjord - 11 km long, it is a protected nature area and cultivating ground for mussels and oysters.
We thought we might be able to get a look by visiting Vrsar's private air field which is very close by. There were only a couple of light planes on the field, but a series of small helicopters, looking like models, were circling around.
There was a car park past the field and a 200 metre walk to a café overlooking the canal, but as a crowd of workmen were busy lopping branches off the trees we thought it safer to leave them to it. Potential overnight spot though.
Further on we came across several pig and lamb roasts sizzling away at the roadside in a haze of aromatic smoke, but as we’d had a hearty breakfast we declined that as well, despite the beckoning vendors.
On a corner overlooking the canal we finally got a glimpse of the emerald green water. Several stalls were set up selling grappa, honey and olive oil, we were obviously on a coach tour route.
The Limski Kanal, the photo doesn't do the emerald colour justice
A tripper boat docks at the end of the Lim Canal
Looking for Auto Camp Borton Biondi, some French campers, who we had been following at every stop that day, indicated to us to use the car park above the town. We checked it out, but it was 5 Kuna per hour up till 2300 and then again from 0600. I don't think the French had noticed the pay and display as they had no tickets up.
We opted for the campsite and found a nice pitch on this wooded and steeply terraced site. (GPS: 45.8884 N, 13.6451 E)
When the afternoon had started to cool a bit we strolled into town along the waterfront.
Rovinj, "the most romantic place in the Mediterranean"
The cobbles are slippery, even when not wet!
The sun sets out to sea
The capacious harbour
Back at the campsite, the Scops Owls that we have heard at every site in Croatia were in full song, calls (which sound like the electronic beep of a vehicle reversing warning) echoing backwards and forwards through the pine trees. Dreamy enough for us!