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Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Beli to Plitvice

15th May
The island of Cres, at 68 km long and 13 km wide, is the biggest in Croatia and is connected to the island of Losinj by a small swing road bridge near the town of Osor - the channel dug by the Liburnians 2000 years ago, before which they were one island.

The islands are also crossed by the 45th Parallel, which is the border between the continental climate and the subtropical climate, hence they have two, or even three distinct climatic zones (depending on whose information you are reading).

In the centre of Cres is lake Vrana, a natural freshwater lake 5.5 km long and 70 metres deep, which provides the whole of the Cres-Losinj island archipelago with fresh water. It fills only with rain water and is an important habitat for fish as well as an ornithological reserve.

The sea around the islands is also an important area for endangered species such as dolphins and sea turtles. The presence of 100 -150 dolphins indicates clean water and enough fish to feed them.

The promise of another hot and sunny day in Beli didn't materialise so under overcast skies we decided to break camp and visit the eco-centre for Griffin vultures just outside the town.
The Griffons from Cres and the other Kvarner islands are unique in that they nest on cliff tops above the sea, rather than high mountain cliffs and river canyons.

Griffon vultures awaiting their new enclosure at Beli

The centre had some interesting information of the ecology of the island, and after absorbing that we were taken to an enclosure to see the recovering vultures. The reduction in the number of these 2.4 to 2.8 metre wingspan birds is mainly due to the decreasing number of flocks of sheep on the island - dead sheep are their main source of food.

To help sustain their flock of young and recovering birds, local people bring dying or recently dead animals to the centre. The young woman, who showed us around the new and spacious enclosure being built for the birds, told a story of a man with a sick donkey who phoned the sanctuary. They collected the animal, but the hardy beast “recovered” and lived with them for another five years before being fed to the birds!
(http://www.supovi.hr/ )

Later we checked into Camping Kovacine at Cres, a vast campsite within easy walking distance of the old town. As well as a long beach front, a mini-marina and slipway, pizzeria and a la carte restaurant, it also doubles as a naturist site with roughly a third of the pitches and half the beach front allocated to the skinny-dippers and sun-worshippers. (44.9617 N, 14.3960 E)
(http://www.camp-kovacine.com/ )

16th May
Another rare beast in Croatia is the campsite washing machine - so far the only sites we had stayed at that had them, kept them locked up until the high season, or offered only a laundry service.

Alas there was no tumble dryer, so we created a drying rack under the awning, and with a month’s worth of jocks and socks suspended underneath it ended up looking like a colony of fruit bats. It got some amazed looks from passers-by anyhow.

The charming old town and harbour of Cres has many late-medieval buildings, built during Venetian rule, and is a 15 minute walk along the easy coast path. There are two small inner harbours and a new large jetty (completed last year) for large yachts and tripper boats. There are also commercial ships, a floating dry-dock (prettily painted to hide its bulk) and further out of down, a large and well equipped marina.

Pizzeria on the waterfront at Cres

There is plenty of tasteful refurbishment going on around the town’s maze of tiny streets and the place still has that lived-in-by-the local’s feel which such tourist towns have often completely lost.

Sitting with an excellent seafood pizza on the waterfront, we watched an old boy (who looked as if he wouldn’t see ninety again), clamber stiffly onto his fishing boat, get out his sandpaper and paintbrush and apply the zillionth coat of paint to his beloved boat – at eight o’clock in the evening!

Walking the coast path back to the Camping Kovacine

17th May
Reluctantly leaving Cres behind we headed down island, having a quick look at Lake Vrana on the way – amazing colour, but only accessible by bike or on foot down a steep track.

At the small hamlet of Belej we passed the Konoba Gromaca, a small restaurant with a young pig roasting on a spit out front. Suddenly it looked like Sunday lunch and after a quick U turn we settled ourselves down with a beer to await the carving up of the animal.

Konoba Gromaca, Sunday lunch in the making

The tasty pork was served up with baked potato segments, a light salad (straight from the garden), huge wedges of dark bread and the most delicious lime green olive oil we have ever tasted – we poured it over the meat and spuds and it lifted them to another dimension. Some very smooth grappa was thrown in gratis to finish off. The bill, with two half litres of beer, came to 166 Kuna (about £20).

Freshly spit-roasted pork - no fighting over the portions!

After a snooze on our ever-ready fixed bed we crossed over the swing bridge to Losinj.
The port and resort of Male Losinj is far more built up than we expected (better map readers than us will have spotted an airport not far away) and is in fact the largest settlement on any island in the Adriatic, as well as the commercial and administrative centre for Cres-Losinj.

Foregoing the huge ACSI Poljana campsite, we found ourselves a more expensive pitch on the waterfront at Camping Cikat, in the Jadranka chain of campsites.
There were plenty of wooded pitches to be had but the rest of the waterfront, if not already taken, was reserved from the last week in May onwards. (GPS: 44.5344 N, 14.4447 E)
(http://www.camps-cres-losinj.com/ )

A pitch on the water front at Camping Cikat

A cooling swim put us to rights, but the noisy surrounding campers and continual promenaders convinced us to move on the next day. One night cost 136 Kuna (about £17)

18th May
We had a quick look at Veli Losinj, which is as far south as you can go in a vehicle, but it wasn’t motorhome territory at all – signs up banning parking of motorhomes: “0-24 hrs”.

Back up island we stopped for a while at the little town of Osor. Quaint and quite quiet, it none the less has a “cathedral”, a legacy of its more important past. Up to the 15th Century it was the main settlement of both islands. There is a waterfront campsite and a few small restaurants.

The ancient streets of Osor

Our next decision was to turn south again to the tip of Cres at Punta Kriza. After a 12 km drive down a single track road we found Camping Baldarin and finally, our camping nirvana.

To quote the website: "This is an oasis of tranquillity with beautiful beaches, hidden coves and crystal clear seas. From the moment you discover the dense Mediterranean forest of coastal oaks with their fauna, you will stop thinking about the narrow and winding road you drove along to get here".

Just about spot on actually.

In the brochure it is billed as a naturist site only, but it does have a small section available to the shy ones, in a small shallow turquoise cove used for their boat hire business.

Camping Baldarin's very busy boat hire business

Although we are not averse to a bit of skinny dipping, I haven't yet tried the Full Monty, so we walked the small, steeply sloping forested area and espied a pitch which we thought was viable for our van.

Our unique pitch under the trees - water and electricity in the yellow post

To be fair we were very lucky to get the pitch we did, most of the other level areas had been taken up by fixed private and rental caravans and during the next week we saw a few motorhomes arrive (having driven the 12 km from Osor) only to give up trying to find a suitable pitch and leave again. (GPS: 44.6152 N, 14.5097 E)
(http://www.camps-cres-losinj.com/ )

19th - 25th May
So began a lovely week of lazy, languorous days swimming and lounging, and breakfast, lunch and dinner eaten alfresco. Every evening we sat outside as the sun disappeared behind the trees and ate our meal in the still, pine scented air.

The only downside was the mozzies, there were some tiny little buggers that even managed to nip us through our socks!
Before lunch we swam, and again as the heat of the day eased. Every day dawned clear and sunny, temperatures reaching 37 degrees some afternoons, a mini heatwave as it turned out.

Even the stick insects are friendly here!

At night it was utterly quiet, there was no road noise, no shipping lanes, no overhead flight paths – when it was finally dark and the birds fell silent, it was so still a footfall on the soft forest floor sounded like the crunch of a hobnail boot on gravel. Only the occasional hoot of an owl broke the silence, raising the hairs on the backs of our necks.

At first light the deafening dawn chorus burst on our ears – you might as well get up and enjoy the sights and sounds of the early morning.

Yet another tranquil morning down on the beach

On the Saturday lunchtime we walked the couple of hundred metres to the Pogana, a waterside restaurant on another tree lined, crystal clear inlet.
A couple of locals were making an ancient style of fish trap out of stiff green reeds - the woman explained that it took many years of practice to produce the perfect shape crafted by her older mentor.

A few yards away on the shore, a fisherman was gutting the day’s catch surrounded by children who had arrived on a tripper boat.

The fisherman gives a lesson in fish gutting

On Sunday evening we returned to Pogana for a fish platter – mixed fish in this case meant exactly that, three whole different fish on one plate, not your usual meagre fillets with a few tired prawns and bits of calamari thrown on top.

Now, thats what we call a fish platter!

The fish was firm and perfectly cooked – by the fisherman, and served with salted boiled potatoes and spinach. With a little salt, lemon juice and olive oil, the flesh was just perfect, I don’t know how it could have been bettered.

Pogana, only the freshest fish and Cres lamb

Pogana has been established for 35 years and serves only fresh fish and meat. No bookings are taken, they open at six in the evening - turn up early if you want a waterside seat and the pick of the produce.

26th May
It was time to tear ourselves away. As it was, our timing was just right – the weather broke the next day. We drove up island towards the ferry terminal for the island of Krk at Merag.
We did think about looking at the small hamlets of Lubenice and Valun to which we had been recommended by many, but realising we wouldn’t have time in the day we headed for the ferry.

In actual fact we arrived 90 minutes early and cooled ourselves down with an ice cream from one of two cafes on the quayside.

Official - no camping outside of campsites

A large sign at the terminal gives a strong reminder that camping is only permitted on campsites. Over the course of our travels on Cres-Losinj we found two of the Womo guide “overnight stops” still usable and a few more ourselves, but they were all by well used roads.

Interestingly a Slovenian motorhome plonked himself on the waterfront 50 metres from the Baldarin campsite for a couple of days, chocks out and bikes off, lounging on the beach. According to a Belgian who we chatted to at the Pogana, the police came to move him on half an hour after he had left!
The same Belgian (who had been coming to Punta Kriza for twenty years and seemed to know everyone) said the Police will normally give vans 24 hrs grace. The Womo guide talks about a possible 1000 Kuna (140 Euro) fine, though one campsite receptionist told us a 2000 Euro fine can be levied - so you either pays for your campsite or takes your chances. Personally we didn’t feel it was appropriate on such an island.

A state of the art ferry for Jadrolinija line

The ferry was an elegant vessel less than a year old, built locally at Rijeka, and it runs from 0630 to 2330. From 1st October to 31st May the frequency is every 2 to 2 ½ hrs, from 1st June to 30th September every 1 ½ hrs during the busy part of the day.
(http://www.jadrolinija.hr/ )

Ashore on Krk, it felt very different – like being back on the mainland, which practically it now is, because of the bridge on the other side.
We headed for Camping Glavotok, an ACSI site which promised good swimming and camping amongst the trees. There are some very narrow sections of road to get to it and the site pitches themselves are fairly tightly packed, however we squeezed ourselves onto a waterfront patch.

Just across from us was a British registered Rapido owned by Andy and Rosemary. Contact made, we were soon swapping Rapido data and inspecting each other’s “rubber bands” - as they put it.
The swimming was good but Sue still managed to carve up her knees on a shallow rock – no serious damage. (GPS: 45.0937 N, 14.4403 E)
(http://www.kamp-glavotok.hr/ )

Skiing into the sunset - the last of the serene weather

27th May
A distinct change in the weather - high winds, a severe drop in temperature and the odd shower, so we decided to stay put. A very fiery sunset though. Later we sunk another bottle of wine with Andy and Rosemary.

28th May
The Camper service station at Glavotok must be one on the worst we have ever come across. We are not a large van but access was very difficult because of the low walls around it and trees behind. The base was flat and water did not flow to the drain so, unable to get our valve over the grate, our waste water ran down the hill. The final irritation was having to use jetons to get water (at very low pressure) and for flushing out the cassette. Pump and dump took an hour.

We visited the town of Krk but didn’t linger. The road to the mainland bridge is new from Krk and we were soon off the island, no toll is payable when leaving.

It was a fine and sunny, if rather windy day, and we felt the van shift from side to side as we drove down the coast - later we heard that parts of the coast road had been closed.
We passed several small inviting looking Auto Camps tucked around small bays.
We had decided to have a break from blue sea and shingle and move inland over the mountains to the Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest of Croatia’s eight national parks and a UNESCO site since 1979.

At Otocac, thinking we were well out in the sticks we were surprised to come across a brand new Lidls and a Maxi Konzum. A big stock-up thus ensued, our supplies of Lidl’s excellent tinned fish, our lunchtime staples, were well depleted. A few tens of kilos heavier as we passed through the town, we suddenly realised that several large buildings were scarred and pock marked with bullet holes – the evidence of the 1991- 95 war was still around us.

As we drove on through lush countryside and sweeping plains it became commonplace to see residential houses still spattered with holes, some abandoned, even a burned out church. It was disturbing to see the signs of warfare so fresh.

Our site for the night was Camping Korana, a few kilometres from the entrances to the national park. They arrange buses for campers to get to the park, a 20 Kuna round trip, leaving at 0900, returning at 1700. (GPS: 44.9464 N, 15.6394. E)
(http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/ )

29th May
The Plitvice lakes or Plitvicka Jezera are a series of sixteen lakes interconnected by cascading waterfalls, set in forest and falling from open rock faces, or through lush vegetation.

Plitvice National Park

Our Croatian brochure describes them as the “pinnacle” of lake landscapes in Europe, the special factor being the active formation of a porous carbonate rock called Tufa or Travertine from the sedimentation of calcium carbonate in the water. This continually builds barriers, sills and other formations, constantly changing the form and position of the waterfalls.
The virgin beech-fir forest is also home to brown bears.

The boardwalks take you there

A 110 Kuna entry ticket includes a trip on an electric boat across a lake and a road train trip back to the entrance. There are several different routes you can walk, but the “C” route was the campsite’s recommendation.

The lakes are teeming with fish

It’s hard to sum up the spectacle of this park, it’s like some endless private water garden, created at impossible cost by a megalomaniac 18th Century baron – half a dozen Capability Browns on overtime. Though enhanced and lovingly maintained by men and women, it’s better, far better than anything man could create.

Not your average water garden

The key to fully appreciating its beauty are the miles of boardwalks, which take you over the pools, close by the falls, even over them – water gurgling up through the rough hewn wooden staithes of the walkways. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s another wonderful vista opening up in front of you.

How close can you get

The more we travel, the easier it is to cast a jaundiced eye over major tourist attractions, but we thought this was one of those places than lived up to or exceeded its billing, one you could visit again and again when you needed some refreshment for your soul. Sue summed it up with: "it puts a smile on your face that's hard to wipe off", it really is a magical place.

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