Back to the Sea

4. Nov, 2018

We left Zagreb and drove the 120 or so miles westwards, over the Velika Kapela mountains to drop down to the coast at Rijeka, a busy port on the Gulf of Kvarner, then along the Opatija Riviera to Moscenicka Draga where Lesley had spotted a little campsite which might well suit us. The problem with campsites in Croatia, particularly in Istria, is that nearly all of them are huge.  Sites with 1,000 touring pitches, permanent pitches, cabins, apartments and a hotel complex are commonplace.  Although we have nothing against such sites, as off season they can be quiet and attractive, we far prefer a small site that has good facilities and is run by the friendly owners rather than a team of students.  Autocamp Draga promised to be such a site so we though we would give it a go.
 
Well, we arrived last Tuesday, booked in for a night or possibly three, and are still here a week later.  The site is terraced, with well kept lawns and gardens broken up by gravel hardstandings for caravans and motorhomes.  There are three toilet blocks, all spotless, with loads of hot water.  It is about 200 yards walk down to the beach, passing a small Konsum supermarket on the way.  The seafront has a small harbour, a white pebble beach, a number of local type cafes and bars, several good restaurants and two ice cream shops.  Croatian ice cream, as I've said before, is a remnant from the Italian Occupation (Venice for 400 years and Mussolini for 24 years), but is even better than the Italian version.  And the usual price is 7 Kuna (73 pence) a scoop.

The Opatija Riviera is not as well known in the UK as the other coast of the Istrian peninsula, where the resorts of Porec, Pula and Rovinj are situated.  It stretches for about 40 kilometres on the eastern side, where the mountains of the Ucka range come down to the sea, opposite the island of Cres.  The main town, at the start of the Riviera, is Opatija itself, then there is Lovran, Medveja, Moscenicka Draga and smaller towns in between.  In actual fact the coast is almost entirely developed between Opatija and Moscenicka Draga, then more open between Moscenicka Draga and Brestova, whence the Cres Ferry plies its trade.  Imagine the French Riviera, with Italian and Hapsburg buildings, the clear blue sea and island views of Croatia, then throw in the Isle of Man on TT week, and you have a good idea of what it is like.  I mention the Isle of Man, because the corniche from  Moscenicka Draga to Brestova is a clear open road with sweeping bends, absolutely ideal for the weekend motorcyclist, mainly Germans I have to say, to let loose their throttles and terrorise other motorists and cyclists and deafen the inhabitants.  Fortunately these seem to be mainly a weekend occurrence. During the week it is relatively peaceful.

Like many coasts, the Riviera started life as a series of hilltop villages, most having a little fishing port in an inlet below.  The Draga which features in many place names here means 'creek'.  Only one, Lovran, has its old village (now a town) at sea level.  There was no proper road linking the villages, communication being by boat.  In fact the boatmen, as well as being fishermen, ran ferry services.  It is said that they have been called Barkarijoli for at least three thousand years.  The French and the Venetians stole this word to describe the sort of song traditionally sung by the Gondoliers, the Barcarole.  Having spent so much of its history occupied by the Venetian, then the Austro-Hungarian empires, there are many words in all three languages that can be sourced to Croatia.
 
Opatija began its life as a Benedictine Abbey, dedicated to St Jacob; in fact Opatija means Abbey in Croatian and in German the town is still referred to as Sanckt Jakobi, whilst the Italians and Hungarians refer to it as Abbazia.  The first development was not until 1844 when the Villa Angiolina was built by a wealthy Rijeka merchant.  When the Ljubjlana to Rijeka railway was completed in the mid 19th century the area was developed as a resort, with many huge hotels and mansions being built in the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg style.  It became hugely popular with the well-to-do of Europe.  Emperor Franz Josef I used to winter here, where he met Kaiser Bill II.  Other regulars were Mahler, Chekhov, Freud and Nabokov.  Isadora Duncan was inspired to create one of her best known dance moves when she saw a palm tree waving in the breeze outside her window here.
  
In the 1920s Opatija became Italian once more, and Mussolini's Fascists enforced Italian as the main language.  To this day Italian is the main second language of most of the older population, and pizza and ice-cream the most common foodstuff.  Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Opatija has gone from strength to strength.  Apparently its main hotels are booked up a year in advance.  The words 'Belle Epoque' and 'Fin de Siecle' are often used to describe the resort.  Indeed we felt there was a very old fashioned upmarket feel to it, in spite of the rows of tacky souvenir shops at one end of the promenade and the inevitable boat trip kiosks, competing with one another to sell tickets for the same boat.  The 'beach' is concrete, as it is with a number of the resorts here, with convenient seating just below water level and steps to aid entry and exit.  On the day of our visit there seemed to be a disproportionate number of young mums pushing their babes backwards and forwards along the promenade, which made an interesting theatre as we sat with our morning coffee.

At the smarter end of the sea front, beyond the concrete bathing platforms, there are rocky outcrops and a little harbour, and a coastal path leading to pretty parks and lots of bars and restaurants with lovely views of the islands towards Rijeka.  On one of the rocks is a statue of a girl with a seagull, which has become a mascot for the town, along with the huge Hotel Kvarner, with its posh harbourside restaurant.  Just past that was the Villa Angiolina, which started it all off, with neatly laid out flowerbeds in front of it which the gardeners were in the process of stocking up with red begonias.  In contrast was a rather scruffy looking wall at the edge of the gardens with a huge long mural of pictures of the famous who had visited over the years. On our way back to the car we visited St Jacob's Church, built on the site of the original abbey, where we noticed a bronze relief of the Pieta by our old friend Mestrovic.

We visited briefly the next bay along, Volosko, where there is a little fishing port and village set on the steep slopes above.  It had a pleasant marina and is supposedly famous for its fish restaurants.
  
Closer to home was the town of Lovran.  This is built where once stood the home (one of many no doubt) of Marcus Agrippa, friend of Augustus, father in law of Tiberius, grandfather of Caligula and great grandfather of Nero, altogether quite a well connected dude.  There is no trace of this now.  The town was in the middle ages one of the most important ports and shipbuilding base in the northern Adriatic, but the growth of Trieste, Pula and Rijeka put paid to that, leaving Lovran to sink into insignificance except for the production of sweet chestnuts and cherries, until the Hapsburg nobility discovered it and filled it with grand buildings for a brief fling as an upmarket resort.  Today there is a marked contrast between the narrow arched streets and walkways in the old town, where well maintained tenements stand cheek by jowl with decaying ruins, and the main street, named after Tito, with its grand Hapsburg and Italianate mansions and villas.
 
The main church in Lovran, like so many in Croatia, is named for St George, and opposite it in the wall of a grand house is a wonderful relief of St George slaying the dragon.  The church contains medieval frescos, although as usual it was locked, while the bell tower opposite is 14th century.

On another day we went up the hill behind Moscenicka Draga to the hill top town of Moscenice, from which the views, as expected, were excellent. I hasten to say we drove up to the town, rather than climb the 750 or so steps, which is the way the fisherman would have descended and ascended twice a day. There is an old church dedicated to St Andrew dating back originally to the 8th century, but much amended and enlarged over time.  The town is small, village sized really, but fortified in that the outer walls of the outer houses once formed an unbroken barrier.  There are still plenty of alleyways and stairways to explore, but the overall feeling was it is long past its sell by date, even though it was still occupied and quite busy when we were there.  One thing which I am sure is contributing to its decline is the complete absence of a coffee bar.

We were not there at the right time for either of the two world championships that are held here though.  Here I feel I have to quote from the guidebook so kindly supplied by the  Moscenicka Draga tourist office.  In the first, "Local and foreign visitors are invited to throw paper planes of their own creation over the town walls down towards the sea". Bizarre. One has to wonder why.  The other is perhaps stranger. The 'picanje jaja' is held every Easter. “Participants try to hit an egg and pierce its shell with a euro coin from a distance of 2.8 metres”.  

Suitably impressed, from there we drove down to the coast at Brsec, another pretty little town/village on a cliff above the sea. More little narrow alleyways and steps, houses clustered on top of each other, another ancient church and evidence that this was a thriving town as there was a bar/restaurant serving coffee.
 
I have to say I was not expecting much of this stretch of coast.  I thought we would have a few days looking around then move on.  How wrong I was.   Moscenicka Draga has turned out to be a lovely relaxing spot.  The campsite was excellent, the surroundings interesting, the beach and seafront were good.  We even managed some time lounging on the beach and had a swim.  Well, Lesley had a swim while I plunged in, submerged, and then got out again sharpish.  On the whole the weather has been kind to us, with a number of hot sunny days, although we have had a few torrential thunderstorms.  We also had a good day trip around inland Istria, about which I will write in a separate chapter.

But now we are coming to the end of our stay and on Thursday we begin the long trip home.

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