Croatia 2017

30th September 2017 - Pula

Up early for the two hour drive to Bristol airport in time for our 10:20 Easyjet flight to Pula, Croatia. The flight was less Easyjet and more of a private charter. There were only 23 passengers on board.

Pula airport is small and with so few passengers on the plane we were off, through immigration and in our hire car in very little time. So off we went to explore Pula before heading on to our apartment. The main reason I wanted to go into Pula was the Arena.

The Romans loved their Coliseums and built them all across their empire, Wikipedia lists more than 230. The amphitheatre in Pula which they call the Arena is one of the biggest and best preserved. The Arena’s outer walls are almost completely intact, and it is easy to imagine how the amphitheatre looked in Roman times. The scale of it is impressive; it is hard to believe that it is 2000 years old.

After an hour or so wandering around and sitting in the stands enjoying the lovely warm sunshine we wandered along the Pula harbour and then up into town for the first gelato of our trip and surely not the last. We then drove up to Rovinj where we'll be staying for the first three nights. We've got a lovely big two bed apartment a couple of km from the old town, it'll serve as a good base.

In the evening having not eaten much all day we were hungry and headed down into Rovinj and chose a big restaurant down on the harbour. Mum settled in under the patio heater and we had a nice evening. Dad and I ordered a monster mixed grill for two. Suffice it to say we weren't hungry when we left.

1st October 2017 - Porec and Rovinj

Headed up the coast today and on the way stopped off over-looking Limski Kanal. This is a big inlet which looks like a giant fjord although geologically speaking it isn't a fjord. The view up and down the 'fjord' was great and where we stopped there were a number of little huts selling local Istrian produce. Olive oil, honey, lavender, grappa, truffles and cheeses.

Our destination for the day was Porec as very popular summer resort town set around a harbour. The town dates back 2000 years and combines the old Roman (Byzantian) with the look and feel of a high class Mediterranean resort. The harbour is full of boats big and small and the class of local and tourist is well above the average.

Porec's major landmark is the Euphrasian Basilica which dates back to the 6th century. As it's Sunday most of the complex was shut but we could go into the main church and it was quite impressive for something so old; the mosaics were particularly amazing.

After a few hours we headed back to Rovinj to see it in the day light. Rovinj is great and I'm glad I chose to stay here ahead of elsewhere in Istria. Rovinj is an old fishing port. The harbour now is full of boats, not many look like they've ever done much fishing. The old town stands on a headland and is a tangle of cobbled streets all of which seem to lead to the church at the top, the church of St. Euphemia. When we go to the church it was about to host a wedding, quite a small affair but added a bit to the visit.

Below is a photo of the church sitting on top of the hill. From the church there were great views out over the sea and along the coastline both north and south. Rovinj’s old town is actually situated on what was formerly an island. The strait separating it from the coast wasn't filled in until the mid-eighteenth century

The cobbled streets were full of galleries, cafes and bars. I can imagine in high season the town is heaving with people. I could imagine little worse than visiting then; temperatures in the 30s and hoards of people. Much better to visit now.

From the old town we headed back down to the harbour for a bit more of a stroll and back to the apartment for a few hours.

In the evening we went down to Rovinj again and had a meal in a nice traditional style restaurant. They had a big open charcoal grill and a wood fired pizza oven. We had fish, tuna, shark and calamari and dad had a dark beer which turned out to be 7.3% and went down very well. The food was great and with the grill and oven on the go even Mum thought to was warm enough to take off her cardie.

2nd October 2017 - Hill-top Villages of Inland Istria

After two days by the coast today we headed inland to some of the old hill-top villages of Istria. Many of these date back to Roman times and were important during the times when the Venetians ran the area. But in the 20th century they were populated by mainly Italian descendants and when Mussolini started throwing his wait around the Croatian's weren't happy and after the 2nd world war most of the Italians were thrown out. This left many villages in the area deserted. Only in recent times have they started to come alive again and havens for artists and destinations for tourists. First up Motovun perched magnificently on top of the hill.

The village has a huge city wall running all the way around it and the hill falls away quite steeply in all directions. Motovun has been of great strategic importance over the years with it's uninterrupted views over a wide area.

Motovun is probably the most famous of the Istrian hill towns and is an attractive group of medieval houses sitting on a green wooded hill, high above a patchwork of wheat fields and vineyards. As I said above like so many towns in Istria, Motovun was predominantly Italian-speaking until the 1940s (when racing driver Mario Andretti was born here), after which most of the inhabitants left for Italy. The problem of depopulation was partly solved by turning Motovun into an artists’ colony – the godfather of Croatian naïve art, Krsto Hegedušić, was one of the first painters to move here in the 1960s and several studios and craft shops open their doors to tourists over the summer.

The village/town/city whatever you should call it is now all about the tourists. Lots of cafes and artist studios and a few tour groups being guided around. As with everywhere else we've been I guess it gets very busy in the Summer. Today the sun was out, beautiful temperature and not that many people around so we could stroll around without hassle.

Next up Oprtalj. Here we could see just how derelict some of these hill towns had become. Walking through the almost deserted town you could see half the houses hadn't been lived in for many, many years; probably since the war. What were once big solid stone houses were crumbling away. But it is turning around many now were restored and either being used as holiday apartments or artist studios. When we were there they were restoring the cobbles by the main gate.

As with all these places it seems the church is the first thing they restored. The main square looked great but there wasn't a soul to be seen. I guess in Summer all the studios are open and the town has more of a buzz.

Last up today was Grožnjan. This place is what Oprtalj wants to be. This was the first of the hill towns to open up to artists and now every other house is either an artist studio or a cafe. The whole looks great and even now there were a number of people around. It was time for a late lunch and we had a great cold meats and cheese platter. So nice to sit outside, eating bread a air dried ham; pity I was driving a glass of wine would've made it perfect.

We wondered around, saw some interesting and different stuff in the artist studios and tasted some truffles. The area around these town is famous for its black and white truffles. Along with olive oil and wine it has made this area very prosperous.

Today was a lovely contrast to the last couple of days down by the coast. Great panoramic views of the forests below, imposing stone walls and buildings with so much character and history. And so much open space with so few people. Driving around the winding roads up and own the hills we hardly saw anyone. Istria is very like Tuscany but without the people and so much better for it.

In the evening we went back to Neptun and the big open grill and pizza oven. Last night we all had fish, tonight Mum had a sea food risotto which was full of mussels and very tender calamari, Dad has a chicken cordon bleu full of gorgonzola and me a gorgeous thick and tender steak with an apple and fig sauce which was great. A great little family run restaurant on a quiet cobbled street one back from the harbour. Thank-you TripAdvisor for the tip.

3rd October 2017 - Driving Inland

Today we headed inland and out of Istria. We would've stopped along the way but the weather was a bit misty so we apart from a coffee stop we drove straight across. After checking we headed out to a local viewpoint which turned out to be up a very rough track. The view was OK but the drive up was a spectacular part of the day.

4th October 2017 - Plitvice Lakes

The Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia’s most popular tourist attraction, was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979. The National Park contains sixteen lakes, inter-connected by a series of waterfalls and surrounded by deep woodland supposedly populated with bears, wolves and wild boar; probably best we didn't get to confirm their existence.

The lakes have been created from centuries of calcium carbonate deposits. These deposits create natural barriers or dams, each of which grows by a couple of centimetres a year. The water collects behind the dams, creating the landscape of interconnected lakes, the higher ones feeding the lower ones via streams, rapids, and waterfalls small and large.

It's hard to imagine that Plitvice was the site of clashes between irregular Serb forces and Croatian police in spring 1991 and witnessed the first deaths of what came to be known by Croats as the Homeland War. Overrun by Serb forces in 1991, the park did not return to Croatian control until 1995.

The lakes are split into two parts the upper and lower separated by one big lake. We did the upper first. There weren't any really big waterfalls but lots of rapids, cascades and drops where the water streamed out from lots of separate gaps in the foliage that was growing across the ledge.

The park is very organised and easy to walk around. There is a huge network of boardwalks which make walking easy and allow you to see the waterfalls from all directions including in places where there were steps straight up over a small waterfall.

We spent a few hours walking around the upper section and then caught the park boat which runs down the big lake to the lower sections.

The lower section has a different feel. The path first runs up to a cliff over-looking the lakes. This gives great views down over many lakes and waterfalls.

The path leads to the great waterfall which we first see across the valley.

The waterfall is tall but there's not all that much water so although picturesque I wouldn't necessarily call it great.

From here we walked back up along the boardwalks, alongside more lakes and waterfalls.

We visited at a perfect time of year, the weather was perfect, there weren't the great crowds they get in mid-Summer and the Autumn colours in the trees really added to the whole scene.

After about 6 hours of wandering about we got back to the ferry pier and took the ferry back up to the upper section where we were parked. I'm so glad I decided to include Plitvice in our Croatia tour. It is far more than just waterfalls. The variety is huge and it is great to get so close on the boardwalks. I'd recommend Plitvice at this time of year to anybody.

5th October 2017 - Krka National Park

Another day, another national park, more boardwalks, more waterfalls.

A few hours drive from Pitvice and we hit Krka National Park. A closed road on the way changed our plans, maybe for the better. We ended up heading for Skradin the gateway to the park. We paid our park entrance fee and waited for the boat up to the waterfalls.

After less than half an hour we had gently cruised up to start of the trail around the Skradinski Buk waterfall or strictly speaking series of waterfalls.

Although it was more waterfalls and more boardwalks today was very different to yesterday. The main waterfalls were much bigger and more powerful than yesterday. The water really rushed over the main series of falls. This area was the site of one of the first hydro electric plants in the 19th century and from the power of the water you could see why.

The well marked path gave great views of the falls. The paths and boardwalks took us up one side across and back down the other.

Once we got above the main falls the river calmed and split into many separate strands, some small lakes and pools. The light on the water was great with light and shadow from the trees overhead.

The walk was a gentle one hour round trip which near the end gave great views down over the bottom section of the falls.

From there we dropped down through the woods and back to the pier in time for the boat back. It was more waterfalls but turned out to be a really nice day out.

6th October 2017 - Split

For the next three nights we are staying in Trogir near Split. Our apartment is on the waterfront and this was the view we woke up to from our balcony.

Today we headed down to Split, the centre of which turned out to be lovely. Split's seaside promenade is as wide and as grand as any European city and when we arrived the sun was shining and it really was great.

We wandered along the harbour past palm trees and cafes and restaurants that lined the promenade.

It was the Romans that truly founded Split with the building of Diocletian's Palace, the 4th century residence that encompasses a number of Roman ruins within its walls. Cobblestoned streets within the palace are lined with fashionable boutiques and trendy clubs along with crumbling pillars and medieval churches.

The main building is the Cathedral of St Domnius in the heart of Diocletian's Palace, this houses Diocletian's Mausoleum. The area was crowded with tour groups so we walked straight through and out to the tourist and farmers' markets on the other side.

By now the weather had started to turn. The wind really got up and it was spitting with rain. We ducked into the Split Museum for a bit. We then had another lovely Croatian meal before walking back along the promenade to the car.

We headed back to Trogir and I went for a wander under still heavy skies. Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow and we can have a better look around.

7th October 2017 - Klis Fortress

After yesterday's aberration the sun is back and it is gorgeous again. Breakfast on the balcony, a great way to start the day.

This morning we headed to Klis Fortress; spread along a limestone ridge, reaching 385m at its highest point. It is long and narrow running along the ridge and has been incrementally added to over the last two millennia.

The fortress itself is crumbling away but interesting to walk around and the view is to die for. You can see for miles down over Split, along the Dalmatian Coast and across to various islands.

Klis' history goes something like this: founded by the Illyrians in the 2nd century BC; taken by the Romans; became a stronghold of medieval a Croatian duke; fought off Turk attacks for 25 years before falling in 1537; briefly retaken in 1596; finally fell to the Venetians in 1648. But the only history that most people care about these days is from The Game of Thrones – this is Meereen. In one room there were numerous pictures of Daenerys Targaryen marching into town and slave-masters being crucified.

The fortress was amazingly empty. It wasn't all that geared up for tourists but I thought with the GoT connection there would've been more people around but we practically had the place to ourselves.

There was a small circular church at one end with a great echo when you spoke inside; I bet it would be amazing for Gregorian Chanting or something like that. But really it just gives me another excuse to show the view.

Just look at that view.

This really was a lovely place to spend an hour or two on a beautiful sunny (but very windy) day.

7th October 2017 - Trogir

This afternoon we wandered into Trogir on its own little island with its big medieval walls. But first just one more photo from our balcony.

The old town still has many beautiful buildings from its glory days between the 13th and 15th centuries. In 1997 its collection of Romanesque and Renaissance buildings earned it World Heritage status.

First up we headed to the fort and climbed up the stone steps and steep ladder to the top of the tower; the climb was worth it for amazing views back over the island and the bay.

Here's another photo without me standing in the way spoiling it.

Back down on the quay side we stopped off at a bar with lovely comfy sofas, facing the sun and over-looking the water. Time for cocktails. A mojito, a daiquiri and a pina colada whilst lazing in the sun; how decadent.

I then headed onto the big island on the other side of the Old Town for a great view back across the island. You can see the fort in the foreground and the old town with its tiny cobbled streets behind.

The quay on the big island was lined with yachts from various yacht clubs and charter companies. There must be a lot of people with a lot of money around here.

By now it was time for a gelato, but what to choose. So much choice.

8th October 2017 - Zadar

Zadar is a historic old town with Roman ruins and medieval churches set on a small peninsula. Like many of the towns we've visited the old town sits inside city walls and is car free. I love these car free towns, it makes such a difference not having the constant roar of traffic.

It took a while for the cloud to burn off today so the pictures aren't quite as vivid as usual but it was still a lovely day. Above is the Ancient Roman Forum the largest on the eastern side of the Adriatic. It was founded by the first Roman Emperor Augustus in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Some of the Romans remains that have been discovered on the site are laid out around the area.

We had a coffee on the main square and went for a wander. We took in the The Sea organ which is set into quay on far side of the old town. This is an art installation of pipes set into the marble steps. It's described as an experimental musical instrument and plays music by way of sea waves moving air within the tubes. It was interesting enough for a few minutes and certainly did make some noise, it sounded a bit like whale music. The other art installation on the quay is The Sun Salutation a 22 metre diameter solar panel which absorbs the Sun’s energy all day and then uses this to light the entire waterfront at night and put on a light display. The solar cells were quite impressive, we didn't go back down in the evening so I can't comment on it when its lit up.

The walls around the city were impressive; below is the Land Gate built in 1543. The decorated stone gate once served as the main entrance to the city. It is considered 'one of the finest monuments of the Renaissance in Dalmatia'. It has a triumphal arch with a central passage for traffic and two smaller side arches for pedestrians. It has a great setting sitting beside a pretty little harbour.

9th October 2017 - Nin and the Isle of Pag

The last full day of the holiday and we had a lovely quiet day north of Zadar. First up Nin. We stopped off at the Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts. This tiny church is now sat on its own on a little hill outside the town. It was built at the beginning of the 12th century and according to legend, seven Croatian Kings were crowned in the Church.

The old centre of Zadar sits on a small island in the middle of a shallow lagoon. It is connected to the mainland by two stone bridges. First we walked around the island and then back through the town. I love that so many of the towns over here are car free.

Above is the Church of the Holy Cross, the 'Smallest Cathedral in the World'. It was built in the 9th century and has changed little since. Next to the church is the statue of Gregory of Nin He was a medieval Croatian bishop of Nin who strongly opposed the Pope and official circles of the Church and introduced the national language in the religious services after the Great Assembly in 926. The statue has a shining toe where everyone who walks by rubs it for luck.

Nin is the cradle of the Croatian state and just outside the old town is the statue below. This is of Duke Branimir. He lived in the 9th century, and ruled from 879-892. During his reign the coastal area of Croatia strengthened its independence which is also confirmed by Pope John VIII. who accepted it as an independent country of the Christian west, this giving the Croats recognition because of their loyalty to the Catholic Church.

From Nin we drove up the Island of Pag which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The island is famous for its cheese although I'm not sure what they make their cheese from. We drove half way up the island to the main town and all we saw was barren rock not an animal in sight. Pag town was pretty and a nice place to spend an hour.

We stopped by the harbour for lunch, nice plate of dried ham and pag cheese. The cheese is hard, quite like parmasan, the ham was delicious.

Pag like many other places along this coast is a party town in the middle of summer, but now the crowds are gone it is a lovely peaceful semi-deserted place.