** CROATIA 2008 - Weeks 1~2 **
CROATIA 2008 - Istria and the Islands of Cres and Krk:
Channel gales and striking French ferry crews potentially delayed departure for our Croatia 2008 trip. Heavy traffic and mis-managed road works on German autobahns meant late arrival for our customary annual re-visit to Yachthavn Bar in the Mosel Valley village of Brodenbach, but Giselda's excellent Mosel wine and lively banter with locals soon restored frayed nerves after a long drive from Dunkerque. The second day's drive, contending with lashing rain, poor visibility and convoys of East European trucks, brought us to our usual overnight camp on this route at Bad Feilnbach beyond Munich. And on a bright sunny Spring morning of the third travelling day, we crossed the snow-covered Austrian Alps (Photo 1- approaching the Tauern Tunnel) to reach our favourite of European countries, Slovenia.
Campsites open in March are a rarity, but we were welcomed again by the Voga family at Kamp Kamne in the Julian Alps. The small campsite, terraced up the hillside near the village of Mojstrana, overlooks the heaven-inspired Vrata Valley, with the majestic three peaks of Triglav (Slovenia's iconic highest mountain, climbed by us in 1974) standing clear (Photo 2 - Kamp Kamne and Triglav). We had planned a nostalgic day's walking up at Lake Bohinj, but the weather had other ideas: valley-level impenetrable cloud and driving mountain rain were not to be argued with. Despite a soaking and mountain scenery totally obscured by rain clouds, it was so good to tread again the ground which had figured so significantly in earlier years of travels and which today was brightened with Spring wild flowers (Photo 3 - Spring wild crocus).
After a bitterly cold night with fresh snow on the mountains, we set off on the final stage of our journey, crossing the Croatian border at Rupa. The contrast in road conditions either side of the frontier seemed to symbolise the 2 countries mutual regard: on the Slovene side (now comfortably ensconced in the EU, Euro-adopted with Schengen borders), a narrow ill-maintained lane betrayed a studied indifference towards their southern Slavic neighbours; while across the border in Croatia, a brand new, ultra-streamlined motorway (? EU development funds) seemed to thrust with eager anticipation north towards the benefits of EU wealth.
Heading south towards Rijeka, we saw our first glimpse of the Adriatic sparkling in the afternoon sun, and the misty distant mountainous outline of the Island of Cres, our home for the week after. But first we had to pay at least a token visit to Istria, that heart-shaped part of NW Croatia which projects into the Adriatic close to Italy and in fact occupied by Mussolini's fascist Italy between the two World Wars. The highway across Istria tunnels for 5kms through the Mount Učka massif, heading across the high plateau towards the west coast towns. Most of these are over-developed tourist resorts, but two were worthy of visit. Speed limit signs are intermittent in Croatia, but 2 facts are emphatically certain: a) the speeding indifference of Croatian drivers to whatever the speed limit, and b) the reported zeal with which Croat police pursue foreign vehicles alleged to be speeding. So we drove with caution towards Rovinj and Camping Porton Biondi for our first night in Hrvatska. Wonderfully flat pitches terraced the hillside, an enviable setting overlooking the bay with wood-peckers tapping among the pine trees and an hospitable welcome made this a campsite to be recommended. The site is within walking distance of Rovinj, the most Italianate of all the Istrian towns, reflecting centuries of Venetian heritage. Italian is still widely spoken, and bilingual signs make Croat wording easier to grasp with the aid of an Italian crib. The old town straggles over a seaward prominence, crowned by the bulky Baroque church of St Euphemia, its bell-tower topped with the saint's statue. We ambled along the waterfront, deserted on a cold, wet March morning; the harbour, lined with fishing boats, was lined with fish restaurants, all closed at this time of year. But we did find an excellent grilled squid lunch (lignje na žaru) by the cosy log fire at Al Gastaldo, just up into the old town (Stari Grad). We wandered happily around the narrow cobbled alleyways up to the church and campanile; the rain eased and we experienced our first Bura, the bitterly cold NE wind which blew the storm clouds out to sea to give a clear evening (Photo 4 - Rovinj, after the storm).
Just up the coast, the steep sided Linski Fjord is now used for cultivation of mussels and oysters and the turquoise waters glistened in the morning sun. Inland, across the Karstic limestone plateau-land planted with vines and olives, we visited the medieval hill-village of Bale and larger town of Vodnjan with its elegantly tall campanile. The Italian population of both towns abandoned their homes after WW2 when Istria was at last incorporated into Tito's Yugoslavia. The towns are still bilingual, and although our Croat was at this stage limited, we could converse easily with locals in Italian.
And so on to Pula, Istria's largest town, to stay at Stoja Camping, a huge site covering an entire peninsula south of the town but thankfully peaceful in late March. The #1 bus for Pula conveniently stops outside the campsite, and within 10 minutes, we were standing in the centre amid Pula's splendid Roman heritage: a triumphal arch, theatre, wall and gates, mosaics, and a well-preserved temple dedicated to the Imperial Cult. And modern-day Pulans walked past, largely indifferent to these ancient monuments which graced their shopping streets. Threading our way through the modern city's traffic, there ahead was Pula's greatest surviving Roman monument, the 1st century AD Amphitheatre which seated over 20,000 spectators (Photo 5 - Pula's Roman Amphitheatre). The lofty arched skeletal remains of the outer curtilage walls of this splendid structure stand intact after 2,000 years, although the interior has long since been plundered for building stone. Standing in the deserted arena, where the lions generally beat the Christians 2-1, it was an overwhelming feeling envisaging the tiers of seating towering upwards and the roar of 20,000 blood-thirsty voices. And we ended our day in Pula sat with a beer in the town square, formerly the Roman forum, before catching our evening bus back to camp at Stoje where lights twinkled across the harbour.
Before leaving Istria, we had to visit the northern hill-villages of Pazin, Hum and Roč, long associated with the Slavic Christian tradition of the Glagolitic script. Now never let it be said that this web site leaves obscurities unexplored: the 38 letter Glagolitic alphabet was devised by the 9th century monks, Cyril and Methodius, to assist their mission to convert the Slavs to Eastern Christianity. The new script, better suited to the intricacies of Slavic speech than Greek or Latin, became known as Glagolitic since many of the manuscripts began with the Slavic words: U ono vrijeme glagolja Isus (And Jesus then said). The ornate script flourished in the churches of Istria and the Dalmatian sea-board with traces still surviving on inscriptions. Its usage lasted until the 19th century, identified with Croatian nationalism, and only died out as secular education spread using the Roman alphabet. The derivative of Glagolitic still survives in the Orthodox Slavic countries (eg Serbia and Russia) as modern Cyrillic.
Moving on to Istria's SE coast, we passed through Labin, once centre of Croatia's coal production. The town's aspects sit uncomfortably side by side: the medieval old town clusters around the hill top, while the 20th century mining township sprawls across the valley below. The last pits closed in the 1990s, and the only traces now of mining activity are one set of surviving head-stocks (topped with wrought iron lettering TITO) and the impoverished, neglected apartment blocks. The road sloped down to the coast, where we camped at Mošćenička Draga in a glorious setting overlooking the small bay and harbour village. But it was now time for the trip's next phase, crossing to the Islands of Cres and Krk. The long archipelago of Dalmatian islands is well-served by a network of ferry services operated by the Jadrolinija shipping line - see their excellent web site for details Jadrolinija ferry services We crossed from Brestova to Porozina on northern Cres. The island and its southern neighbour Lošinj is formed by the elongated spur of a narrow mountain ridge running south into the Adriatic. From the ferry port, the road climbed airily above the cliffs, and an unnervingly narrow side lane led to the tiny remote hamlet of Beli. Here soaring around high above us was the reason for our visit, a lone pair of Cres' native population of Griffon Vultures foraging for sheep carrion. At Beli, a Griffon sanctuary rescues birds poisoned by farmers or shot by illicit hunters. The Griffons are huge with a wing-span of 2.8m. Seen on the ground, they are ungainly and unattractive birds with scrawny bald head and neck and a mantle of shaggy loose wing feathers; but when soaring aloft on thermals, they are a truly magnificent sight.
Our base on Cres was Camping Kovačine 15 minutes walk from the island's main town also called Cres which was a sheer delight: the harbour was filled with fishing craft, and lined with buildings reflecting Cres' Venetian past and waterside cafés where you could sit and watch the world go by; and we did (Photo 6 - Cres town harbour side). But not for long; we had a walk planned up through the stony olive groves to a small chapel perched high above the coast, and back through the tangled wilderness of stones and scrub where wild cyclamen flowers sheltered timidly in damp corners. The dramatic but barren Karstic scrub-covered landscape of Cres has been cleared over centuries of toil of the stones which now form walls (called gromače) enclosing endless olive groves, grazed by sheep (Photo 7 - the stony olive groves of Cres). Along with fishing, olive oil production is Cres' staple means of living, now supplemented by tourism. Camping Kovačine spread among olive groves was delightfully quiet in March, with its small shop, hospitable staff and very good value prices. And the view from our pitch among the olives, looking out across the shingle beach and crystal clear blue waters of the Adriatic was an inspiration (Photo 8 - beach and blue waters at Camping Kovačine). But with warm daytime sun, it was easy to forget it was still March; that evening, the air was chill, the sky darkened ominously, thunder rumbled around the bay, and slushy snow coated the ground.
But morning sun melted the snow; we drove south along the island's high spinal ridge 1000 feet above the sea, and turned off down to the tiny fishing village of Valun. Colourful houses clustered around the harbour (Photo 9 - Valun fishing harbour), and in the village church we found the Valun Tablet, an 11th century tombstone naming 3 generations of a family and written in the Glagolitic script with a translation in Latin for the Glagolitically-challenged. Further into the depopulated western fringes of the island, a narrow lane ended at the ramshackle medieval village of Lubenice, set precariously atop wind-swept cliffs 1,200 feet above the shoreline (Photo 10 - cliff-top village of Lubenice). Just a handful of elderly residents remain in this isolated settlement; we met 2 enterprising elderly ladies who sold us a litre of their home-produced olive oil.
At the small harbour of Martinišćica, the girl in the mini-market taught us to pronounce the tongue-twister of a name - Martinish-chitsa. Descending from the wilderness of Karst juniper scrub criss-crossed with Gromača dry stone walls, we reached the village of Osor separated by a narrow channel from the southern island of Lošinj. Once Cres' capital and flourishing cathedral town renowned for its Glagolitic manuscripts, Osor is now a charmingly peaceful village with just 70 inhabitants. After the harsh natural beauty of Cres, we felt that Lošinj was a tourist trap not worth a visit, and after 3 delightful days on Cres we crossed by ferry from Merag to Valbiska on the Island of Krk (Photo 11 - ferry crossing from Cres to Krk), a broader plateau than Cres, to stay at Bor Camping near to Krk town. Memories of Krk are of sampling the exquisitely dry white Vrbnička Žlahtina wine from Vrbnik on the east coast, walking the mountainous coastline around Baška in the south of the island, and a glorious Spring day visiting the old harbour town of Krk.
Long shall we remember our time on Cres and Krk, and particularly
the sunsets across the Adriatic viewed from our camp at Kovačine (Photo 12 - sunset over
the Adriatic). But it was now time to move back to the mainland,
and to continue our journey south along the Dalmatian coast to visit
more of the islands, coming soon on this channel