Split, Croatia September 13, 2012
When we first arrived at Camping Amarin the grass was brown and dead after a hot, dry summer, and there were notices everywhere telling us to be economical with water as Istria was experiencing a drought. However, we are legendary for bringing
rain with us wherever we go. In fact, we're thinking of hiring ourselves out to drought-stricken countries as the solution to their problems. During our stay at Amarin there were several impressive thunderstorms, accompanied by torrential rain.
As a result the desert began to bloom – green shoots appeared, and by the time we left it was looking quite verdant!
Our next destination was the island of Krk. Croatia has a very long, indented coast with hundreds of islands, which are the tops of a long-submerged mountain range. We’re gradually working our way down the coast towards Split and then Dubrovnik, but distances are such that we need several stops en route. Krk is the largest of the islands and is easy to reach as there’s a bridge, which dispenses with all the hassle and expense of a car ferry. It was an easy journey, mostly on the motorway, and we arrived in good time. Choosing a campsite is always a bit of a lottery, but this time we picked a winner, Camping Pila at Punat. Although quite large, it had nothing like the Butlins-type atmosphere of Amarin. We chose a nice pitch with plenty of shade from pine trees and our very own fig-tree. The facilities were good, and although there was no swimming pool it was right on the seafront, so it didn’t matter. And in contrast to the last site, wifi was free and available throughout.
In the evening we went for a walk along the "prom" which stretched for about a mile in each direction. We were pleased to find a good selection of beach bars, cafes, ice cream kiosks and souvenir shops. For the first time in ages I had a silly cocktail, complete with umbrella (a “Caribbean Cruise”.) There’s nothing like sitting outside on a warm Mediterranean night, watching the lights twinkle across the bay, and drinking something luridly-coloured and alcoholic.
There are not a lot of sights to see on Krk but the next day we went to one of them, Krk Town, just a few kilometres from the campsite. This was founded by the Romans who called it Curicum, but with great economy the Croats turned this into Krk. It certainly saves time when writing. Perhaps we could follow their example, and say we moved from Yrk to Sfrd, which is between Brghtn and Stbrn.
After the Romans, Krk Town came under Frankish, Byzantine and Venetian rule and has many historic buildings. There’s a pretty little harbour, a fine Romanesque church, narrow medieval streets, and a small castle. This belonged to the Frankopan family, a powerful Croatian dynasty (there was also an Italian branch of the family called Frangipane) and their castles crop up all over the place.
We also visited Baska, in the south of the island. Nowadays it’s an attractive resort with a long beach and a rather Italian feel, but it played an important role in Croatian history. This is where the Baska Tablet was found, the oldest document to be written in the Glagolitic script (the forerunner of Cyrillic). The original is now in the National Archives in Zagreb. From Baska we drove to a small town on the east coast called Vrbnik (the Croatians really don’t like vowels!) This reminded us of one of the Cinque Terre – a little old town of narrow streets climbing up the side of a hill, with a harbour far below. It’s no exaggeration to say the streets are narrow, one of them is only 43 cm wide! Like the Cinque Terre the inhabitants make their living from fishing and wine-making.
Apart from these brief sight-seeing trips we spent our time relaxing and swimming. There were two options at Pila, both typical of the Croatian coast – swimming off a concrete platform, accessing the sea via metal ladders like in a swimming pool; or walking a hundred yards to a series of small rock-and-shingle coves. As at Amarin, our beach shoes were very useful for protecting our feet.
However, life isn’t all fun and games and the need to do some serious laundry became pressing. We were getting so short of clean clothes we were almost reduced to using fig leaves from our handy tree. Normally campsites have coin-operated washing machines, but at Pila there was a much more complicated system. You had to take your washing to the laundry room between 8 and 10 a.m. and deliver it into the hands of a member of staff, who gave you a chitty. This was made more difficult by the fact that the lady spoke only Croatian. Then by a pantomime of gestures she established what temperature you wanted it washed at, and when it would be ready. You then took the chitty to reception to pay, got an A4-sized computer printed receipt, and took it to the laundry at the appointed hour to collect the finished product. However it was worth the hassle to get 2 loads of towels, underwear and bedding washed and dried!
On our last night I had a final cocktail (well, if you must know, it was called After Sex and consisted of vodka, banana liqueur, grenadine and orange juice – yum!) Then it was up early next morning and, resplendent in our clean clothes, we set off for a long drive to our next stopover, Camp Peros at Zaton.
The journey was very interesting. We took the scenic coast road, which in places resembles a corniche, as far as Senj, before heading inland to the motorway. En route we encountered the dreaded Bora of Senj. This sounds like something out of an Edward Lear poem –
Its name causes terror from Portsmouth to Penge,
The Bora, the Bora, the Bora of Senj!
In fact it’s a cold, dry wind which comes down off the Velebit massif and blows up the narrow channel between the mainland and the islands of Krk, Rab and Pag. It scours their eastern coasts of vegetation, leaving a lunar landscape of bare white rock. The caravan was being buffeted on open stretches of the road, and the sea was a mass of white horses and flying spray. There was not a boat to be seen anywhere. It was quite a relief to turn inland, even if though the road was steep with lots of hairpin bends. We finally reached the motorway and from then on it was plain sailing.
Camp Peros was another site that proves not all Croatian sites are massive holiday camps. With only 50 pitches, a small bar and swimming pool, it was just the right size for us. We had a large, shady pitch with views over open countryside. There were just two drawbacks: the swimming pool was an alarming shade of emerald green, as a recent heavy shower had caused it to become contaminated with bacteria, so it was out of use; and there was a neighbouring campsite of the Butlins variety which used an annoyingly loud PA system to broadcast their “entertainment” all over Zaton. However, on the plus side there was a resident cat family. The mum was shy and we hardly ever saw her, but her six lively and inquisitive kittens were soon exploring our caravan and enjoying titbits from our meals.
This part of the Croatian coast is rather different from what we’ve seen so far. The sea is very shallow and, instead of rocks and pebbles, there is actually sand. Going for a swim is quite an expedition. It involves wading out for about half a mile before the water even reaches thigh level, then collapsing into the water in exhaustion and floundering about in an attempt to avoid hitting one’s knees on the bottom. It must be excellent exercise for the leg muscles. The water is crystal clear and full of friendly small fish. There are a lot of shells, too, which we haven’t found before, but every one of them is home to a little hermit crab!
About a mile from the campsite is the tiny walled city of Nin, surrounded by water and approached by an old stone bridge. It was prosperous in Roman times, when it was called Aenona, and from the 9th to the 12th century it played an important role in the religious life of the country by promoting the use of the Glagolitic script. The tiny pre-Romanesque church of Holy Cross dates from this period and claims to be the world’s smallest cathedral. You could probably get about twenty people in at a pinch. It’s no longer in use, having been replaced by the larger, but almost as old, church of St Anselm, where the kings of Croatia used to be crowned. Since its glory days in the Middle Ages, modern life has passed Nin by, making it a pleasant little place in which to while away an hour or two.
Between Nin and the campsite is another minuscule old church, St Nicholas, built in the 12th century on top of an Illyrian tumulus. It’s hard to believe that this humble little church in the middle of a field once held the tombs of the royal family of Croatia.
The main attraction in this area, however, is Zadar, another ancient city founded by the Illyrians, enlarged by the Romans and later an outpost of the Venetian empire. Today it’s one of Croatia’s largest cities, an important port and commercial centre, but at its heart is the original old walled town surrounded on three sides by sea. Serious damage sustained in World War Two and again in the war of 1991 has been repaired and there are interesting buildings of all periods. The Roman forum is still an open square, with some of the original paving stones still in place. In the 9th century the Byzantine church of St Donat was built on the forum, using stone taken from the ancient buildings. It’s a strange, tall, circular building with just a few tiny windows, no longer in use as a church but a popular venue for concerts because of the good acoustics. Also in the forum is the much larger church of St Anastasia, containing the ancient sarcophagus of the saint. The town has many reminders of Venetian rule – the fortifications, a number of elaborate wells, the Land Gate and the Sea Gate, and some elegant palaces. (We had lunch in a narrow street between two of them, a delicious meal of lamb chops and sauté potatoes.)
The most recent addition to the old town’s attractions is the world’s first sea organ, on the waterfront. Within stone steps descending to the sea is a system of pipes. The waves push air through the pipes and it emerges through holes in the pavement as a series of musical notes. Actually I found the effect disappointing, rather like someone gently blowing on a bottle, but it’s become a popular place for people to sit and sunbathe, or in the evening watch the sunset. Alfred Hitchcock claimed that the sunset in Zadar is the most beautiful in the world, but as we left mid-afternoon we had to take his word for it.
Before leaving I visited the Museum of Ancient Glass. Zadar has an extensive collection of Roman glassware, found in excavations in and around the city. I’m always impressed by Roman glass – firstly by the technical skill required to make it, and secondly by the fact that such fragile artefacts have managed to survive for 2,000 years (in our house, glassware is lucky if it lasts one year!) However I realise this is something of a minority interest. John finds it marginally less exciting than watching paint dry, so I left him sitting at a pavement café while I indulged my weird interest.
Apart from visiting Nin and Zadar we spent our time sitting in the shade at the campsite, reading, using the free wifi, or splashing about in the warm, shallow waters of the bay. If the swimming pool had been usable we would probably have stayed another couple of days, as the atmosphere was so relaxing, but we decided to move on to Split. (I’m sure there are lots of possible puns here but my brain is tired and I’ve run out of witticisms.) Split has not just a few broken Roman columns but an entire palace built by the Emperor Diocletian, one of the most impressive Roman ruins in existence. As my lovely future daughter-in-law once said, Bring on the awesomeness!!