Sun in Croatia

26. Jul, 2018

After the hot dusty and cramped conditions in Budapest, Camping Slapic was paradise.  It is set on the banks of the river Mreznica several miles from Duga Resa along a long single track road.  As we drove along we did not know what to expect, and the further from civilisation we got the more nervous we became.  However the welcome from the site was so friendly and we saw a proud certificate in reception proclaiming that the Croatian tourist board had voted this the best campsite in Croatia 2012.  As this was our first Croatian campsite we did not know the quality of the competition, but felt it must mean something.  We were given a free choice of pitches, either in the new part where there was a spanking new facilities block, but not yet much shade, or in the old part where there was plenty of shade and the old toilet block had been fully refurbished.  We chose the latter, in spite of the potential downside of being quite close to the bar/restaurant and the playground, with its potential for noise.  There was indeed a bit of noise, but from the bar it was that gentle murmur of evening conversation, and from the playground the sound of kids enjoying themselves with very little of the screaming and arguing and tears so often found on English sites. 
  
It had been a long drive that day so after we had set up camp we sat with a beer or two then enjoyed a proper shower before going over to the restaurant to eat.  Again the welcome was very friendly and the food excellent value.  I had steak with a mushroom in white wine sauce; Lesley had squid stuffed with cheese. Both came with chips and a salad and together with two half litres of beer and two coffees the bill was less than £15.  We found this value regularly during our stay here.  A scoop of home made ice cream or a 33ml draft beer were 6 Kuna each, about 65p. 

Next morning we slipped out to the supermarket for supplies then spent the day relaxing.  The river by the campsite was ideal for swimming.  It had a rocky gravely bed with a series of wooden steps down into it.  It was quite fast flowing in places and quite deep (about 10 ft) in the centre.  The flow was such that a gentle breaststroke upstream kept you stationary, a faster swim took you up to the rapids at the end of the campsite.  Above the rapids was a wide deep lagoon, ideal for a gentle swim.  Beyond this was a waterfall which created a natural Jacuzzi. The water was clear and full of fish.  Lesley even spotted a snake swimming in the reeds and water lilies one morning.    We had intended to stay three or four nights, breaking our journey to the coast, but it was so pleasant and relaxing here we spent a week.  The river set the pattern for us for our stay.  Housework, shopping washing took up an hour or so each morning, then a coffee in the bar followed by a swim.  After lunch, a swim, a laze in the sun drying off, an ice cream, another swim, another laze, a shower then dinner.  It’s a hard life.

The sun shone every day, it was hot.  A number of the campers there had come up from the coast to escape the heat there, but it was not much cooler here. We had a couple of short trips out, one to the supermarket in Duga Resa, one to Karlovac, a historic city nearby which seems to have lost most of its history to industrialisation.  It does however have an excellent brewery!  What it does not have is a shop that sells maps.  If we were going to spend some time in Croatia I needed a decent map.  The campsite reception had provided me with a tourist map, which was as much use as a chocolate frying pan.  However it does have a mass of factoids about Croatia, some of which are quite amusing, some quite surprising.  I cannot be held responsible for their veracity. 

Factoid number one. 
The local name for Croatia is Hrvatska; hence the international registration plate and internet suffix HR.   What most people do not know though is that in the 17th century the Croatian army wore a wide silk scarf or tie as part of their uniform.  Louis XIV of France liked this so much he formed his own regiment, wearing the scarf, and it became fashionable among Parisians to wear their ties and scarves “a la Hrvatska”, or like a cravat. 


I noticed one morning that there was a plastic bag under the passenger side windscreen wiper  which I had not noticed before.  On examination it looked suspiciously like a parking ticket.  I took it into the campsite reception for translation. Yes, it was a ticket, issued that Tuesday for parking in the car park in front of the supermarket.  Innocently I had assumed that it was the supermarket car park. It was equipped with a trolley park, there seemed to be no other signs, but it was remarkably empty.  It turns out the council owns the land in front of the supermarket and had recently put up a pay and display machine.  The locals are a bit upset.  The fine was 50 Kuna (about£6), which was annoying but I was willing to pay.  The receptionist asked how long I would be in Croatia.  If less than a week, ignore it! I told him we would be around for another six weeks or so, so he advised me to pay it.  More annoying was the fact that I had to pay a parking meter outside the post office and a fee to the post office for processing it.  Still, the total cost was still less than a couple of hours parking in Leeds! 

Factoid number two. 
Croatians invented their own script,Glagolitic.  It was used nationally until the eighteenth century.  It is still used in Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia, but is more commonly known as Cyrillic, named after its inventor the Croatian Saint Cyril.  It was invented as a means of making the Bible more intelligible to the Slavs.  

After a week it was time to move on.  The call of the sea was becoming so strong we could no longer ignore it.  As the coast was so hot we decided to start at the northern end and move south as the weather cooled.  So we set off for the Istrian Peninsula, the bit to the northwest that juts out into the Adriatic.  Istria has a long and interesting history.  Originally Illyria, it was conquered and civilised by the Romans, then by Byzantium, then Venice, then the Austro Hungarian Empire (our old friends the Habsburgs appear again) then as a rather unsteady part of Yugoslavia.  All these have left their influence, with Roman remains next to Venetian palaces and, of course, a coast to die for.  
 
We opted for the town of Rovinj (Rovigno), and for Camping Amarin, a resort right on the beach.  What a contrast to Slapic!  700 touring pitches sharing 13 toilet blocks, 800 apartments, a hotel complex,  three restaurants, a supermarket, takeaway pizza, swimming pool with slide, crazy golf, trampolines, tennis courts, beach volleyball courts, water sports and, of course, a rocky beach. We arrived in the heat of the midday sun, were given a list of vacant pitches and told to go take our pick.  We wandered round this huge site, looking for a pitch that combined flatness, shade and quiet neighbours and came up with a shortlist of three.  Back at reception we were told that they had all been taken.  Sensing our frustration he said why not try this one, bring the caravan in, if you don’t like it we’ll have another look.  We did so and the allotted pitch, whilst not perfect, was good enough, so we stayed put.  A week later we are still here, so it can’t be too bad.

Factoid number three. 
Croatia was an early source of electrical investigation.  Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia and went on to “invent” alternating current (AC). Where would we be without AC/DC?  Rock on. The world’s first hydro electric power plant opened in Croatia in August 1895. 

 
Our main reason for picking Rovinj is its position, midway between Porec and Pula and an easy drive to each.  We have carefully divided up our time to share equally between a day relaxing by the beach and a day exploring one of these three towns.  The beach, to be honest, is not a beach, more of a rocky gravely cove, backed by a low promenade and pine gardens.  Given the size and population of the resort it is amazing that each time we have gone down we have managed to find a few square inches to lay our bods, but as the week has gone on the season is drawing to a close and people are drifting back home.  The sea is lovely.  Crystal clear, calm and just the right temperature.  We have not tried the pool.  Every time we have gone past it  there has been something going on, water polo, aqua aerobics or otherwise just too full of kids and balls. 

Factoid number four. 
There are many naturist resorts in Croatia, but the island of Rab managed to avoid the “epidemic” until 1936 when the future King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor was given special dispensation to bathe naked with his escort.  


Our first trip out was to Rovinj.  The resort runs a half hourly taxi boat from the campsite pier to Rovinj so off we set.  We could see the cathedral with its bell tower, a copy of St Mark’s in Venice, from the campsite, but approaching it across the water was a wonderful experience.  The old medieval town clustered around its base, still very much intact, presented a very Italian, backs to the water, view.  We landed close to a very colourful market, selling fruit and veg, oil and truffles, and great garlands of interwoven peppers and garlic.   We sat in a café on the harbour front supping a macchiato and listening to the amazing mixture of Croatian and Italian spoken by the locals.  A very harsh Croatian dialect with musical Italian words thrown in at random.  Most seem to be bilingual, but use this sort of cross speech as a matter of course.  

After coffee we wandered slowly up the hill, cobbled with very shiny polished marble slabs, lined with ancient old houses and tenements, all with their picturesque yards glimpsed through archways, nearly all dedicated to the production and sale of art.  Here must be Europe’s largest concentration of tacky galleries.  When we finally reached the cathedral at the top the views over the two harbours were splendid.  But there was better to come.  We toured the cathedral, which is dedicated to St Euphemia and found her tomb at the back.  Her bones are contained in a Roman sepulchre, which had been in Constantinople, but miraculously found its way over the sea to Rovinj when Constantinople was sacked.  Then we spotted the entrance to the bell tower, paid our dues and ascended several hundred very narrow and very thin wooden steps to the top.  WOW. The views were excellent, and to crown it all we happened to be there at noon when the bells started to ring. 
 
On the way back down the hill we stopped at a bar for a drink.  It was a proper local’s bar, with very few tourists and it was nice to sit outside watching life pass by.  The pub even had the statutory old gimmer parked on a chair by the door holding forth about everyone and everything and generally organising the world.  I think the brewery supplies them along with the rest of the furnishings.   
 
After further wanderings round the town, during which I finally found a map but Lesley still did not find a newspaper, we had an excellent lunch on the harbour side, a huge plate of mixed fried seafood and chips, washed down with some local white wine.  Then it was back to the boat for a very choppy trip home and a swim when we got back.

Factoid number five. 
The appropriately named Slavoljub Penkala of Zagreb invented the mechanical pencil and the fountain pen in 1906.  

Our next visit was to Porec.  Porec, as Colonia Julia Parentum, was a prosperous Roman town for many centuries until it was sacked by the Goths.  We saw several Goths still hanging around.  They looked so very uncomfortable dressed in black in that heat.    There is very little Roman stuff left, but strangely the town has retained its Roman layout, with the two main streets still called Decumanus and Cardo.  It is the Venetians who have left the greatest mark on the streets, which are lined with Venetian Palaces, in various states of repair.  

However the Byzantines occupied the town for some time and they left a gem, the Basilica of Euphrasius. This church was originally built in the 4th century, dedicated to St Maurus.  In the 6th century it was enlarged to form the basilica, then in the 13th Century it was enlarged again. The entrance courtyard was almost Moorish in its architecture and cool atmosphere, whilst the octagonal 6th  century baptistry was bare of its mosaics and decoration.  This led us to the 16th century bell tower, on a smaller scale than at Rovinj but still with good views over the town.  Fortunately we escaped the bell ringing this time.  The tour then took us into the former archbishop’s palace, containing various archaeological fragments of pottery, mosaics and stuff.  The floor mosaics in the older churches were excellent, and we saw large fragments both on display and in situ.  Most interesting were the excavations which showed how each successive church had been built over the previous one, leaving the mosaics intact underneath.  Then we entered the church itself, to be gob smacked by the wonderful blue and gold mosaics in the apse.
 
Factoid number six. This is not from the Croatia guide; it is from my text message from BT. Received on 16 July:  “Welcome to France. Calls to UK/EU are 28ppm”.  Received on 18 August: “Welcome to Croatia.  Calls back to the UK are 81ppm”.  Croatia is not yet in the EU so the EU directive to mobile phone companies does not apply. 

Our next day out was to Pula.  On the way we stopped off at two lovely old villages.  The first one, Bale (Valle) had a huge old castle. Originally built by the Illyrians, then fortified by the Romans, it became the seat of the Bembo family and was “Venetianised”.   The castle presents a majestic frontage, and through a small archway still contains the old medieval streets and many of the buildings.  Like many places round here, some of the buildings were really smart and well kept, others were in varying states of dilapidation. 

The second village was Vodnjan, another Illyrian/Roman/Venetian fortress,  and, although the fortress element has long gone, the village retains its medieval form.  At its centre is the church of St Blaize, with the now typical bell tower and the most amazing (and disturbing) collection of mummies and relics. We saw what is alleged to be the mummified head, spinal column, scapula and neck muscles of Saint Sebastian, although why such an obviously famous relic should have found itself in this village church was not explained. There were also the full mummified bodies of the blessed Leon Bembo, St Nicolasa Bursa (whose skin is, apparently still elastic) and St Johannes Olini.  Also on display were the lower leg of St Barbara and the preserved tongue of St Mary of Egypt.  Weird. Nearby was a town square with a lovely old red town hall and a number of other Venetian Gothic buildings.

In Pula we parked close to the Amphitheatre, the sixth largest surviving in the world.  Like many amphitheatres it currently serves a dual purpose, as a tourist attraction and as a concert venue.  Our view of it was obstructed in many places by scaffolding and temporary seating, which meant that it did not have the atmosphere that others have had.  We were reminded of the amphitheatre at Italica, near Seville, where there was absolutely nothing to detract from the feeling that the gladiators were waiting to come back on.  In Pula it was just a Roman ruin, albeit a most impressive one.  It was not helped by the fact that it was baking hot, there was no shade and it was quite crowded.Pula was an important port in Roman times and has many reminders of that era.  No less than three Roman arches, a mosaic villa floor, a theatre and a beautifully preserved temple of Augustus all stand to remind us of this.  As a port is was the Adriatic base for the Byzantine fleet, for the Venetians and later the base for the Austrian fleet when it was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire.  That it is still an important port was evidenced by the huge container ship that was being built just yards away from the temple of Augustus. 

We managed to see most of the notable remains, but not all as we could not find them.  The Tourist Information Office was unable to give directions, just to hand out maps which were so schematic as to be useless.  Only the main streets were shown, not all were named, and the monuments were shown in such large graphics that they covered two or three hundred square yards each, with no telling where they actually were.  I had a large map,Lesley a small one, and each had the monuments numbered with different numbers.  When we found a monument we saw that the board explaining it had yet another number.  We threw the maps into the nearest recycling bin.  We did see two of the three gates,the theatre and the temple, but more, I think, by luck than by map reading skills.

The rest of our week here has been spent relaxing, swimming and sheltering either from the intense sun, with temperatures well  into the thirties most days, or from the resultant thunderstorms.  It is wonderful sitting on the beach late evening watching the lightning flashing on the horizon, listening to the distant rumbles, and then knowing you have about ten minutes to get back to the caravan before the heavens open.   Most evenings we wander up to the café-bar for a coffee and a nip of something stronger.  I have become rather partial to the local honey infused Grappa as well as Slivovica.   WiFi is not cheap here, so we limit ourselves to a short burst each evening.  Not like the last few sites where it has been free!

We start our trek south in a couple of days, aiming for Dubrovnik in a couple of weeks. 

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