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Friday, 26 June 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Plitvice to Trogir

30th May
After the previous days overcast skies, it dawned bright and sunny, great weather for our trip back over the mountains from Plitvice to the coast.

At Otocac we took a different route through Svica and Krasno Polje. The road is undergoing widening and improvements but it still took us through some interesting countryside - the last bit down to the sea gave us fantastic views of the islands of Krk, Prvic and Rab in the piercing sunlight.

The island of Krk gleams in the sunlight

Rab is supposedly the birthplace of Marin the stone mason, who is said to have founded and given his name to the city and republic of San Marino, across the Adriatic near Rimini.

The ferry to Rab from Jablanac is run by a different company, Rapska-Plovidba, and runs all day, virtually every hour in June and continuously in high season. 173 Kuna (about €25) for a 7 metre motorhome and two persons.

First impressions as you drive off the ferry is that you have landed on the moon - it is totally barren and rugged, but as you get into the interior it greens up a lot and there are some forested and cultivated areas amongst all the developments.

Auto Camp San Marino is at the top of the island at the end of the road, just after the town of Lopar.
It’s an ACSI site but when we arrived the reductions were off for the holiday week. The site employs the common, but tiresome, routine of requiring you to park outside, walk around and select your pitch, then report back and register with reception. When it’s busy the whole process of selecting a pitch can take an hour or more.
Tourist tax and registration fee added 25 Kuna to the listed prices, bringing the total for one night to 132.20 Kuna (about €19). (GPS: 44.8238 N, 14.7368 E)

Auto Camp San Marino - the white stuff gets everywhere!

The big attraction of this site is the vast shallow bay it surrounds - unusually for Croatia it is all yellow sand. It is a paradise for kids as you can walk through the water over the smooth sand for a hundred metres or more and still only be in up to your knees - though if you want a swim the attraction soon wanes, just as you think it’s getting deeper and plunge in your knees touch bottom again!

The rest of the site was dusty and scruffy with very little grass anywhere, under the trees the ground was covered with white fluffy blossom which drifted everywhere and stuck to our shoes. Add in the noise of screaming children and motor scooters zinging up and down – we soon knew that we wouldn’t be staying for a second night.

31st May
We drove down to the celebrated Rab town with its four church towers, but the only parking available was through lifting barriers and very tight, so we gave it a miss.

Rab town - as near as we could get in a motorhome!

Apart from its cathedral, Rab doesn't appear to have much in the way of assets historical, ethnic cultural or naturally wild - it is a holiday island pure and simple, bring your swimming trunks and even your boat, but be prepared to share your space with lots of others.
Claiming 120 years of hospitality, we felt that the island was rather tired of that burden.

By midday we were off Rab and waiting for the ferry to Pag, a Jadrolinija ferry service again - 188 Kuna (about €27).

No, its not the Gobi desert -its Pag

Pag, like Rab, has a bleak, barren entry from the ferry - devoid of vegetation, but it doesn’t green up as much, there are myriad dry stone walls enclosing fields of scrub used for grazing sheep and virtually no trees, though some olive groves and vineyards.
As on Rab, we drove to the northernmost tip, a 20 km run up its narrow spine from the rapidly expanding and uninspiring resort town of Novalja.

The upmarket village of Lun

The village of Lun has a small waterfront away from the main settlement and now has a one way system for accessing it. Fifty metres down the road we were confronted with a newly placed “No motorhomes” sign! Rather than reverse back up the road we carried on and negotiated the waterfront without great difficulty, though we did collect a few stony glares.

Oops! - we are now in a one way traffic system

However, we think the Womo guide was crazy to suggest over-nighting or even parking down there, the stream of motorhomes trying to do exactly that has obviously caused some agitation. There is another sign as you leave the village appearing to either warn of cattle on the road, or ban motorhomes, for 20 km. We felt the chill of the local populace anyhow.

Is that a warning of cattle for 20 Km or No motorhomes for 20 Km (or both)?

Still in search of some quiet camping near the sea we turned down a narrow track to Auto Camp Skovrdara. The long steep gravel track down to the camp had been wasted by the heavy rains and more resembled a dried up river bed - a tortuous drive - whilst Sue was concentrating on getting me to miss the olive trees, I was more focused on not putting a hole in the sump pan!

A waterfront terrace at Camp Skovrdara

It turned out to be a very basic, newly set up site (the water heater was an old wood burner!) but the owner was very friendly and had good English. 10 Euro or 150 Kuna a night, with no electricity - but peace and a sea view with a private beach. (GPS: 44.6279 N, 14.7925 E).

The site, as we found out later, has an entry in the German Bord Atlas for motorhomes and we were amazed to see a huge German Phoenix double-axle overcab van turn up - he must have had some fun coming down the hill! Manoeuvring down the slope onto one of the terraces involved building a ramp out of his levelling blocks to clear his long overhang from the stony ground.
Still intent on upstaging everybody, they rolled not one, but two identical scooters out of their garage, donned their identical helmets (kids on the back as well) and roared off back up the dusty track.

1st June
The weather took a turn for the worse again, very blustery with showers, so we stayed put.

The butterflies like it here, anyhow
2nd June
Gritting our teeth for the scramble back up the river bed (the owner did promise to get it fixed soon) we headed down island for the 15th century Renaissance town of Pag - however it is now submerged in a cordon of new developments.

Pag town on a windswept day

Parking appeared to be limited so we moved on, some very high winds and heavy showers reinforcing our decision not to seek out the town’s ancient stonework and “Mediterranean hustle and bustle” as the guide has it. If you are around at the end of July there is a traditional carnival in the town with local folk costumes and brass bands.

Pag island seems to have set itself up as another “fun” resort destination for the younger generation and despite its bleaker, more remote parts, we personally wouldn’t bother with either Rab or Pag again.
Nonetheless we stopped off at a farmhouse for some Paski Sir, the famed Pag sheep’s milk cheese. The dear old lady in the house didn't have much English and unfortunately there wasn't any cheese available for tasting, though Sue did ascertain that the price was 150 Kuna (€21)/kg. Wine, grappa and olive oil were also for sale.

The wind and rain continued and soon we were over the single span, toll free bridge to the mainland. Shortly after, near Razanac, we took a right turn onto a minor road towards the ancient town of Nin.
Nin is situated on a 500 metre wide island in a shallow lagoon and is Croatia’s oldest royal town. In its 3000 year old history it has been abandoned twice due to devastations and destructions and now has around 1700 inhabitants. The tourist office proudly displays its membership of the “Walled Towns Friendship Circle” of which Tenby in Wales was the founder.

Our ACSI book had thrown up Kamp Ninska Laguna on the north side of town and we squeezed into its narrow access to be met by an irascible and impatient old man.

Campsites often ask to retain our passports but we always politely refuse, offering our International Camping Cards instead (of which we carry one each, alternating the renewals each year).
The cards hold all the relevant details that our passports do and up until now they have always been accepted. (The reason we don't leave our passports are twofold: one, in most countries and that includes Croatia, you are required to carry verifiable ID at all times - so we always carry our passports with us, secondly, in these days of ID fraud it just seems an unnecessary additional risk).
Anyhow, this was not enough for the old man at Kamp Ninska Laguna who kept shouting over Sue's explanations: "I want documents". Eventually he very rudely suggested we take ourselves, our van and our cards to Zadar, 14 km away: “go to Zadar, lady!”

We didn't, we paid a visit to the tourist office (who said the rain had probably upset him!) and went to Kamp Dispet on the other side of town.
This small and pleasant autocamp is right by the water, closer to town and far more spacious. The lady accepted a single ICC with a smile, and for only a couple of euros more than the cramped and muddy Kamp Ninska Laguna, we had ourselves a far nicer pitch. No registration fee was charged either - it's included in the price, which makes it even better value. (GPS: 44.2466 N, 15.1900 E)

The smallest "Cathedral" in the world!

Nicely ensconced, we walked around one side of the lagoon and over one of the two ancient bridges into town. Nin lays claim to ownership of the “smallest cathedral in the world” - the 11th Century Church of the Holy Cross being only 36 paces from end to end.

They are busy rebuilding (and re-creating) some of the town walls and covering the concrete streets with stone paving. A new memorial park has been built next to the cemetery - so far so tasteful.
However, parts of the original wall run through the front gardens of people’s homes and the remnants of the wall have here been put to different uses, the stones even used to build a barbeque!

Nin sheds its medieval ambiance

Nin is a nice place, with a lot of history if you want to go into it, but it has far too many modern concrete homes for it to recover any real “ancient” charm.

3rd June
has been the capital and economic and cultural centre of Dalmatia for millennia. The Croats arrived in the 7th Century and formed the first Croatian kingdom. However from 13th Century the city came under Venetian control, whilst the hinterland was under the Turkish Empire.
Then under Austrian rule from the 19th Century until the end of WW1 (except while Napoleon had his hands on it for eight years), it passed to Italy in 1920 before becoming part of the former Yugoslavia in 1947.

As we waited for the bus to Zadar outside the campsite (13 Kuna each way), the sun gave notice that the day was going to be a hot one, and after a ten minute wait we were glad to get on board.

The bridge to Zadar's old town was a short walk from the bus stop and we were soon wandering its narrow, stone paved streets.
Cutting through to the seaward side of the peninsular we found ourselves on the south-western waterfront promenade, claimed to be the most beautiful town quay in the world. A further accolade - no less a cinematographer than Alfred Hitchcock is said to have declared the sunsets from there the best in the world!

Hitchcocks favourite setting for a sunset

Originally the site of seaward facing fortifications, the quay was constructed during 1871-74 whilst the city was under redevelopment by the Austrians. It became the focal point of the town but was then comprehensively bombed by the Allies in 1943-44. Most of the elegant Austrian buildings were destroyed and have not been replaced, instead a green belt of parks shades virtually the whole length of the quay.

At the tip of the town peninsula and seaward end of the quay there is a newly paved area of the waterfront with shallow steps gradually going down to the waters edge. Cut into the steps there are hundreds of small slots, like air vents, and hidden below the stone slabs at water level are “Organ pipes” skilfully created in the reconstruction of the jetty.

Listen to the (natural) music

Emanating from these vents was a low and melodic sound - think Pan Pipes made for a supernatural musician - the notes were eerie, powerful, with deep mournful base and effortless, fluting mid range. Subtly changing with the arrival of every wave, it was quite entrancing random music from the sea, akin to the recorded sound of whales calling from the deep ocean.
Some visitors were lying in the sun on the broad steps, their ears a few inches from the vents - away in some magical place perhaps? Others still had their MP3 players plugged in - counterpoint, or cultural isolation?

Between the pipes and the ferry terminal there is a huge glass faced compass set into the paving, and around the periphery are the names and distance to famous places of worship. There also appeared to be a ring of lights under the glass slabs, and a constant clicking sound - we’ll have to go back one day to find out what its all about, and see one of those special sunsets.

The enigmatic compass set into the town quay

The iconic building for Zadar is the 9th Century Church of St Donatus, adjacent to the remains of a large Roman forum built in the 1st Century BC.
The cathedral was bare inside, but interesting for the evident use of sections of old fluted stone column and decorated lintels for the foundations - clearly plundered from the Roman forum next door!

Some early re-cycling of Roman stonework

We had a break for coffee and a slice of fruit strudel under the umbrellas next to the cathedral, and later at the large covered market square we finally tasted some Pag sheep's milk cheese.
It came in three different strengths, mild, tangy and eye-wateringly tangy, depending on its maturity. We settled for the merely tangy, mid-priced offering, which still came to 56 Kuna for a 250 gram slice (€32/kg)
As we discovered later, the local Plodine supermarket sells the dark mature stuff for €18/kg, so we know where to buy it from next time!

4th June
Again in bright sunshine we headed south along the coast road out of Zadar towards Sibenik. There are literally dozens of small waterfront Auto Kamps to choose from along this road if you need a cheaper stop-over.
Inland there is the emerald green of Lake Vrana (another one), part of another national park and with a large campsite.
At Prosika there is a loop of road which gives direct access to the coast and there are several parking spots by the water, possible over-nighters out of season.

Next we turned off to the pretty, unspoilt island of Murter. This is connected to the mainland by a swing bridge, no toll is levied. After a drive to the fishing port and resort/marina of Murter at the top of the island we selected Autokamp Plitka Vala. (GPS: 43.8053 N, 15.6139 E)

This is a great site with a sheltered bay of its own, complete with a couple of jetties for small boats. There is a small restaurant and bar and the quaint little fishing village of Betina is just a short cycle ride along the coast path.

The unusual streets of Betina

Further along the road out of Betina you soon come to Murter which is also a base for boat trips out to the Kornati national park, a beautiful archipelago of 150 islands.

The view of Betina from our waterfront pitch

Again we managed to find ourselves a pitch only yards from the waters edge. The rest of the site was almost full of German vans, with a sprinkling of Austrian and Dutch.
It’s their favourite spot to return to year after year it would seem, as many had boat trailers, some with large double-axle jobs carrying 20 ft sports boats. Attached to their bulky vans, they make a road going ensemble 50 ft long or more - not for me, brother!
As the only Brits, we certainly seemed to arouse some interest and a very pleasant German couple in a large A class held us in conversation for an hour or so.

5th June
Reluctantly we decided that we should move on and made our way to the huge Solaris campsite and tourist resort/convention centre 4 km from Sibenik. It is a vast complex with its own shuttle bus service into town, but the campsite facilities are excellent, with fully serviced pitches under shady trees and quick access to the beach.
We found a vacant pitch a few steps from the gravely beach and a lovely “infinity” sea water swimming pool. Including tax, one night came to 150 Kuna (about €21). (GPS: 43.6978 N, 15.8786 E)

Sibenik lies in the most protected natural harbour in the Adriatic, a single, steep sided narrow channel allowing access. It was the first genuinely Croatian coastal city, emerging in the 11th Century rather than growing on the foundations of cities of antiquity.

Its best known monument is the UNESCO listed Gothic-Renaissance cathedral of St Jacob. Its construction took over a century, and as well as a frieze of 84 startling carved heads around the outer walls of the apse, it is noted for its barrel vault and dome which is made entirely of carved stone blocks, weighing several tons each, fitted into grooves in stone ribs – a technological first and amazing achievement for the 15th Century.

The fascinating carved heads on the cathedral apse

The atmospheric and steep narrow streets also lead the way to a partially restored 12th Century fort which overlooks the town (entry 20 Kuna).
On the way down from the fort Sue decided that I really did need a haircut and I popped into the Croatian equivalent of the Gentleman’s Barber. After half an hour of manic cutting and shaving by a very intense young man I was left severely (though not catastrophically) shorn and 35 Kuna (€5) poorer.

6th June
We departed the Solaris site in high winds, white crests breaking in clouds of spray on rocks at the end of the beach, and water lifting in droplets off the surface of the infinity pool.

We stopped for a quick look at Primosten, but the wind had reached the strength that you could almost stand against it. The swell whipped up by the wind was crashing into the south facing harbour and several posh motor yachts moored stern-to were leaping about and in danger of damaging themselves on the jetty.

Its hang on to your hat time in Primosten

Amazingly, the gravel beach on its northern side, sheltered by the hill on which the village stands, was perfectly tranquil.

Primosten is a seafront village that has obviously been on the tourist trail for some years, its surrounding vineyards its main claim to fame.
Architecturally unremarkable except for its church (firmly locked as so often has been the case in Croatia), we didn’t find anything else to make us linger, especially as a rather flaky youth – prone to jiving with himself – was taking 10 Kuna an hour from us in the car park above the town (you do wonder if this was a scam, we’ll ask for ID next time).

So onto Camping Belvedere, 5 km north of Trogir. It is a large, old established site with high terraced pitches down to the rocky seafront, with a man-made beach up past the restaurant. There is a reasonable supermarket on site but no access to the washing machines, only a laundry service. (GPS: 43.5102 N, 16.1948 E)

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