Lake Bled, Slovenia, September 24, 2012
In order to drive from Split to Dubrovnik, both in Croatia, one has to cross a small stretch of Bosnia-Herzegovina at Neum. When the former Yugoslavia was split up
it was decided that Bosnia should have a coastline and a port, and this is it. However there is no navigable road inland from here to the rest of Bosnia. Bosnians wanting to use their port or the nearby resort must go into Croatia to get there.
We transferred car and caravan insurance to Saga last December on the basis that they would provide 365 day cover abroad, and on the specific question re a green card for Bosnia, one of the few countries in Europe that still requires one. I told the agent we would be away all year and that at some point we would be crossing Bosnia and would need a green card. We did not know the dates so she could not sort one there and then, but I was assured that if I e-mailed them with the dates they could e-mail me a green card by return, no problem.
On September 12th we decided we would move on to Dubrovnik the following week, so I e-mailed for the green card. On September 17th, the day we had intended to leave, I received an e-mail advising that they could not issue a green card and I should purchase insurance at the border. I then had a lengthy phone call (Croatia is not in the EU so the cost was 81ppm) explaining the situation and asking why. Very helpful lad took all the details and felt sure he could get the underwriters to cover what was in effect less than half an hour in Bosnia. Apparently Saga ceased doing green cards for Bosnia on January 1 this year, just 6 days after I purchased the policy. He would call back. We were departing next day and set off confidently. If we did not get a call I would purchase at the border and later on argue with Saga for re-imbursement.
The border came with no sign of any insurance offices, exchange or anything suitable. The border guards just looked at our passport covers and waived us on. Fifteen nervous minutes later we were back in Croatia. Ten minutes later the phone rang to say that Saga could not provide a green card as they had no agent in Bosnia. The result is that I drove through Bosnia without insurance. God only knows what would have happened in the case of an accident, although strangely the Saga breakdown insurance does include Bosnia! I have since had a profuse apology from Saga and following investigation compensation has been offered and accepted.
Other than that nerve-racking half hour, the drive down was fine. We decided to avoid the coast road as it was so busy and took the inland motorway, smooth, scenic and very empty (both the road and the scenery). Eventually the motorway comes to an end and all traffic has to wind down to the coast near Ploce and on to the Bosnian border. After Bosnia the road hugs the coast and there are super views across the islands.
At Dubrovnik we had decided to use Camping Solitudo, a site recommended by many, close to the city centre and close to the port. Using camping cheques it was very cheap, at €12 per night, but the downside was that we were directed away from the premium pitches to the discount pitches, which were not much more than rocks and rubble. The toilet block was clean but rather dated and the water heaters broke down several times while we were there, resulting in a lack of hot water for showers or washing up. The site was supposed to be on a beach, but it was a good 500 metres downhill to get there. All in all a bit disappointing, but at least it was handy for Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik, one of the top tourist attractions of the Adriatic, has a long and chequered history. Founded by Romans fleeing from further south, it came under Byzantine and Venetian rule until gaining its independence in 1382, as the republic of Ragusa. At one stage it boasted a fleet of 500 ships. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1667 and was rebuilt in its present form. It was destroyed again in 1991-2 being hit by over 2,000 bombs and missiles during the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia. It has since been rebuilt in its 17th century format, funded by UNESCO and the EU.
All the guidebooks suggest getting into Dubrovnik before 10, before the cruise ships start disgorging their masses. Our neighbours at the site pooh-poohed this advice. To see Dubrovnik, particularly to walk round the walls, you have to be there at 8am when they open. This we duly did, very aware that there were two ships the size of small cities moored in the port and another one moored just off shore. What good advice. We climbed on to the walls and did the circuit, with wonderful views of the town, the shore, the islands, changing at every turn. It was a good 90 minute walk to get round the full circle and then we dropped back onto the main street for a coffee. By then the town was getting busy, with group after group, wearing name badges or lanyards, following like sheep after guides waving placards or umbrellas. We looked back up at the walls and it was just a heaving mass of bodies. We'd obviously made the right decision to get an early start!
We wandered the town for a while, taking in the palaces and many other restored Venetian buildings. Dubrovnik had been heavily shelled, almost destroyed, during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but the reconstruction and restoration has been superb. Only a few patches now remain where there is evidence of the destruction. Other than these you would never have known of the damage caused. After an hour or so we tired of the crowds, returned to the car and drove on down the coast to Cavtat. Dubrovnik was a really magical place until the crowds came. Sadly, like many other cities, it is fast becoming a victim of its own success.
Cavtat had once been a very popular resort in the Yugotours days. It lost popularity for a while, but is now popular again. It is a town of two halves (Oh no, they cry, not Split again!). There is a large sweeping bay where the ordinary boats are moored, and a lovely harbour, lined with restaurants where the posh boats moor. Some of these are so big one has to wonder what on earth they do with all that space?
We had a snack lunch on the waterfront, a Dalmatian sandwich and a beer. What is a Dalmatian Sandwich? It was described as containing Dalm, so we were none the wiser. When it came it was a strange bread, a sort of cross between a pizza and a pitta, containing smoked cheese and smoked ham. Which was the Dalm we never found out. Was it cheese made from Dalmatian milk, or ham cured from Dalmatian meat? There were no spots in sight on either. Nevertheless it was good.
One night in Camping
Solitudo we had the by now almost compulsory storm. The red soil between the rocks on the pitches turned to red mud, which had the exceptional ability to indelibly stain everything it came into contact with. It was still raining hard next morning when
our neighbours were packing up to leave. I felt very sorry for them, or rather for him, as she and the dog sat in the car watching and shouting instructions. He ended up plastered in red mud from head to toe and had to shower before he set off.
Solitudo did have one good point though, a number of friendly cats. They were not the feral sort that we so often see, timid, scraggy and dirty, they were obviously well cared for, but were being allowed to breed indiscriminately. We had a lovely little kitten who used to come begging, which caused many a cry of Aaah how sweeeeet from Lesley. She did not think one of them was so sweet though when it jumped up onto a chair and put its red muddy paw on the pillow that was airing there. The indelible red pawprints are still there after three washes!
We hiked down to the beach on a couple of occasions. It was a very pleasant beach, with a sandy bathing area, crystal clear water and lots of fish. On our last day in Dubrovnik we both had a swim, probably our last sea swim this year.
At one of our earlier sites in Croatia we met a couple in a motor home who were going to Dubrovnik and catching the ferry from there back to Rijeka. We’d not heard of this option before but thought it sounded like a good idea, saving the long drive back up the coast, which would have involved two overnight stops. We priced it out, and given the saving in fuel and the overnight camp fees, thought it would be worth splashing out on. A day cruising up the Croatian coast, calling at various islands, a meal on board and a cabin for the night would make a nice break. We had bought the tickets in Split for the early Sunday morning sailing, to arrive in Rijeka early Monday morning. I say we bought the tickets; we paid loads of money for a piece of paper which we would have to exchange for boarding passes on the morning of the sailing.
I subsequently read on line that it was cheaper to buy the meal ticket in advance, so the day before the sailing we went down to the port to suss out the boarding arrangements and buy our meals. We learned from a bad experience in Patras some years ago that when you are towing a large caravan you need to know exactly where you are going. On that occasion I had pulled in to get the boarding passes only to find there was no way out and we had had to unhitch the caravan and pull it out manually.
So early Sunday morning we turned up at the port. I followed a sign for Rijeka/Bari ferry and turned in to a waiting area. I was waved on by an official who said "Bari?" “No, Rijeka” I replied nervously. “You need to be in the next car park, go out of here, turn right and join the queue there”. Easier said than done. We were between two rows of coaches and at the far end were three million Italian Saga tourists standing all over the road. Turning with a caravan needs quite a bit of space, which they were most reluctant to give up. Eventually we got out and joined the next waiting area queue, where we were summoned up to the front to wait. I popped over the road to exchange our printed sheet for the boarding passes, which consisted of a ticket for the car, a ticket for the caravan, a ticket for each of us and a ticket for the cabin.
The ferry calls at several islands en route, picking up and dropping off. Although it is a roll on roll off, with doors at front, back and side, the approach to some of the smaller harbours is restricted. Loading therefore has to be very specific, to ensure all can get off through the appropriate door at their appropriate stops. The first cars to be loaded at Dubrovnik where getting off at Split, so they drove straight on. The Rijeka cars were last, and entering one by one they seemed to be taking quite a while. Then we realised that once on board they were being asked to do a U turn or three point turn inside. We were last to be called, and were told to swing round in a circle so we could reverse on. "Don't worry" says the supervisor, "I'll help you". Whereupon he leans through the window and does all the steering for me while walking alongside the car. I only operated the pedals and gear lever as we backed and forwarded so many times Lesley was sea sick before we even got on board. There were countless mats and planks to cover the rather steep ramp, to lift wheels as appropriate whenever there was any danger of grounding, but even so there were one or two moments when the Croatian shouts and expletives from the back gave me cause for concern. It is possible I could have done it myself, given an English crew, but there is no way I could have understood the instructions being shouted out by the men at each of the four corners of the van and at each end of the ramp, all shouting at once! Of course all this was in front of a large audience of foot passengers waiting to board, and passengers already on board leaning over the aft railings cheering and clapping. Once on board I felt like crawling into a small hole with a bottle of whisky. I was later reassured when on one of the islands I watched even single small cars struggling to get on!
All that was soon behind us as we cruised out of the harbour, past the amazing harbour bridge, past the campsite beach and onwards through the passages between the islands. The views all the way were superb, the distant hills and mountains, the green of the islands and their rocky shores, the little villages tucked in the hillsides. We sat all day on deck, watching the scenery change and speculating on the antics of a couple of groups. On the very top deck were four American lads, backpacking round Europe, being loud and important. On our deck were two attractive Croat girls in bikinis, sprawled on beach towels using their bags as pillows. Also on our deck were a group of middle aged English, one strangely, in a brown kilt, though his accent was Lancashire, quaffing beer and talking football.
Come lunchtime we opened our cool box to devour our burekis. These are the Croatian national pie. Cheese, or cheese and spinach, are very like Greek tirokopita or spanokopita. The meat version is somewhat akin to a veg- free Cornish pasty in filo pastry, whilst the sausage one is just like a sausage roll. They are truly delicious and satisfying. One thing we had noticed on Croatian beaches and promenades, you see as many people walking along scoffing a bureki as licking an ice cream. In fact one resort we visited had no ice cream shops at all, but had bakers selling burekis every 50 yards.
The afternoon was passed in the same way as the morning, sitting in the sun, reading and watching the islands go by. I have to confess it was very relaxing and enjoyable for a while, but there is no way I could do it for days on end on a cruise. I suppose on a big cruise ship there are other entertainments, most of which no doubt involve eating and drinking!
We called in at the islands of Mljet, Korcula and Hvar, unloading and loading at each, before arriving at Split at sunset. It was nice to see Diocletian’s palace from the harbour, then the sun setting over the islands.
Come dinner time we went down to our tiny cabin for a shower and change of clothes. Tiny is the operative word. Built in 1965 the ship was still clean, but had not been decorated or refurbished since. The en-suite was a wet room, with loo at one end, basin at the other and shower in the middle. Nowhere to put clothes or towel when showering! The cabin was two small bunk beds, a desk and a cupboard, with a space about a foot wide between. We argued about who should get the top bunk, but in the end common sense prevailed when we realised that neither the ladder up nor the bunk itself was likely to take my weight.
Dinner was a farce. First we saw that the published table d’hote price was cheaper than we had paid for the advanced booking. Then it turned out that I should have handed the advance booking receipt to the check-in office at Dubrovnik to get to proper meal tickets. After a long argument the meal was eventually served with not very good grace. Spaghetti Bolognaise, followed by a strange piece of meat they called a steak, with cabbage and chips (at least the chips were nice), followed by a piece of sponge cake. Not very impressed. After dinner we went for a coffee and a final stroll on deck. Interesting to see that the American lads and the Croat girls had managed to get together and all were considerably the worse for wear. In spite of this one of the lads appeared from the bar with yet another bottle of wine. Many passengers do not book a cabin, they sleep on deck under the stars, or take over the bar and coffee lounge. There were sleeping bags and back packs everywhere.
We eventually turned in and I had a good laugh watching Lesley clambering upstairs into her bunk. We slept fitfully, because, as on all ferry boats, the engine noise and vibration was all pervasive. Hilarity again in the middle of the night when Lesley had to visit the bathroom, banging her head on the ceiling, dislodging the steps on her way down, then repeating both on her way back up. I was just grateful that she had remembered where she was and not just rolled over the edge.
Arrival at Rijeka was 7:30, so by 6:45 we were in the restaurant again, having a reasonable breakfast, with a good choice of cereals, fruit, juice, breads, ham, cheese, boiled eggs tea and coffee. By 8 we were on the streets of Rijeka, finding our way to the motorway. The journey to Lake Bled in Slovenia was a four hour one, but with such an early start we had time to kill. We stopped to fill up with cheap Croatian fuel, then we stopped again for a leisurely coffee. Lesley was beginning to feel the effects of a bad night, so we stopped again and she had an hour’s kip in the caravan. Even so we arrived at Lake Bled at lunchtime. But more of that in the next episode.