Wednesday, 15 August 2018


Croatia has been at the top of my Must See Destinations list for a good few years now.  From all I had read and seen on YouTube and elsewhere, and heard from friends who have been there, it’s always seemed a pretty cool place.   But for a variety of reasons, it never seemed to happen.  We got better last minute deals elsewhere - Crete, Portugal - , or good offers for other places - an apartment in Spain, cheap, through a relative a couple of times - , or for financial reasons decided to stay at the Polish seaside (where we still spent considerable amounts of dosh so probably didn’t save a huge amount by going there).   But this year, we finally took the plunge and headed to the Adriatic.

We ignored the travel agents in favour of making our own plans.  With a decent car now, the drive seemed to be a bit of an adventure in its own right, if a bit on the long side (a good 1300 km plus each way).  But the kids are that much older now, and armed with tablets and mobiles and books (well, we live in hope….) we figured they would cope with being cooped up in a confined space for the better part of two days each way, not counting fuel and pee breaks.

Accommodation proved relatively easy too.  We started searching at the beginning of the year and used, and found stacks of choice to be had.  Once we had settled on dates (last two weeks in July) and a rough budget it became a matter of trawling through what was available and making a choice.  We wanted something in a small seaside town rather than a major resort like Split or Dubrovnik, and within walking distance of the sea.  House, cottage, bungalow or apartment: we were not fussed.  We ended up settling for a small but pleasant looking apartment sleeping four in a little village called Bibinje, a few miles from the resort and airport of Zadar on the Dalmatian coast (so quite central).  And a good choice it turned out to be: about three weeks before we were due to travel, some bright sparks at work organised some workshops that clashed with the first week and insisted I simply HAD to attend.  I insisted if that was the case they simply HAD to buy my airline tickets to Zadar or they could find someone else.  They bought the tickets, via Munich, at an extortionate cost booking that close to departure, and as two singles (to Luxembourg one way on the Monday, then from there to Zadar on the Saturday).  Serves ‘em right…….they got their pound of flesh (mine - well, 90 odd kilos, anyway) for the cost and I lost a weeks’ vacation but kept my job. I think it’s called a win-win situation, although it didn’t feel like it to me or Ania and the kids, now faced with a long one-way drive solo, with an overnight in Bratislava (Airbnb again), and no Robster to lug the bags and share the drive.

They kept in touch with me while they travelled, and in the event the trip wasn’t so bad.  The traffic was quite light so speed limits could be largely ignored (at least when there were no cameras in evidence) and they arrived safe and sound in the late afternoon on the Tuesday.  The pictures they sent, beautiful as they were, depressed me, stuck in meetings as I was when they beeped onto my phone via WhatsApp…… So I got through the rest of the week, with regular messages, pictures and calls on Skype from Bibinje to cheer me up.  They were loving it, and I couldn’t wait to join them.  I left instructions to find as many good beaches and bars as possible…..and dragged my way through the week’s business (successfully, as it turned out: by and large we achieved everything we had planned beforehand).

On Saturday morning, it rained on my way to Luxembourg airport.  Not hard, but it was a lot cooler than it had been for a couple of weeks.  It seemed my Rain Man Curse (wherein whenever I have a holiday it rains….even in Hurghada on the Egyptian Red Sea coast it rained on the third day of my visit, breaking a 7 year - yes, SEVEN YEAR - drought) was about to bite yet again.  At Munich, I was convinced that would be the case - it was pissing down as we landed.  By the end of my two hour layover the rain had eased to a fine drizzle.  By the end of a further hour’s air traffic control delay, the sun was breaking through the clouds and I felt a bit better.   In Zadar, it was still cloudy, and several degrees cooler than it had been all week, and my kids were not impressed.  I did my best to cheer them up and assure them it would get better…..

On our final approach we had tracked down the coast of Croatia for about 20 minutes, and through the clouds I saw that the guide books and travel shows had by and large been correct.  It looked a beautiful country.  Inland, mountains towered, and dropped down almost to the coastline.  I glimpsed some of the 2000 odd islands that lie offshore, many of them not much bigger than a football pitch (some even smaller than that and mostly unoccupied), with a few larger ones scattered between them.  As we descended, the towns and villages on the islands became clearer, all white-washed or amber sandstone with red-tiled roofs, jumbled around mazes of streets, and each seemingly with a little harbour or marina.  Boats of varying sizes sprang into view, criss-crossing the sea between these islands.  As we swung inland and swept into Zadar (the big port city off to our left, and as it turned out passing pretty much overhead of Bibinje), I thought to myself I like this place.

There were only two gates, and we parked perhaps 20 paces from the Arrivals entrance, so clearing passport control took no more than five minutes.  But it took another 40 minutes for the bags to make the same journey.    Then through quickly to hugs and kisses all round, into the car and off along narrow and winding roads between low stone walls, very similar to the roads in Malta that we drove many years ago now, to Bibinje.  A brief call at the apartment to drop my bags and change into swimmers, then a five minute drive to the little beach beside Bibinje’s small marina for a swim.  The clouds broke away while this was going on, so the swim in warm crystal clear (but salty!) waters was exhilarating in the still hot evening sunshine.

Bibinje is a small town, and quite scruffy.  Anyone looking for mile after mile of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs will be disappointed.  There was a beach bar by that marina, and back one street a small cluster of souvenir shops, a pizzeria (that was very good) and a local Croatian restaurant that we never got around to trying.  A little further along the seafront there was another pair of bars sandwiching another souvenir shop, and around the corner from that a third small gift shop over the road from the local health centre (that always seemed to be closed).  I saw one ATM, outside one of the restaurants on the waterfront.  And that’s about it.  A very quiet little place, not really a resort at all, and certainly never a tourist hot-spot.  But for a quiet relaxing holiday after a stressful couple of months on the treadmill, all the more welcoming to this old man.

If it had a down-side, it was one common to every seaside town we visited (bar one) during the holiday.  The beach.  Anyone looking for golden sandy beaches with sheltering palm trees, umbrellas and sun-loungers will have a hard time finding anything remotely like that in Croatia.  Its shoreline is rocky with mostly pebble or shingle beaches that make finding somewhere comfortable to lay down and tan a bit challenging.  On most of them a few paces into the warm Adriatic waters take you beyond the rocks and onto a sandy sea-bed, but even here there are often slippery submerged rocks suddenly appearing through the sand to trip you up.  And sea-urchins abound - I still have three small quills embedded in the soles of my feet from stepping on them - and that despite wearing beach shoes.  The spines were sharp and strong enough to drive through the rubber soles and into my feet. 

There are three small beaches in Bibinje and all of them follow this pattern.  On drives further afield, down towards Dubrovnik, the road passes within a few feet of dozens of small coves and inlets and they too were the same.  Most of the beaches had no more than a handful of people on them, and even the bigger ones like our three, and the ones either side of the marina in the next village south, the pretty and charmingly named Sveti Petar na Moru (broadly, St.Peter-on-sea) were less than crowded on the days we visited. 

The only really sandy beach we visited was some 50 km north of Zadar, one of four in a small resort town called Nin.  It’s a nice little place, and nestles on an inlet at the far north of Zadar county; to the right the peninsula rises up to a small mountain range and on the left peninsula there is a range of low hills, so it’s quite sheltered.  Here the main beach we used is indeed long and sandy, with loungers, umbrellas, food shacks and pizzerias, and very shallow warm sea - I walked out a good 200m and the water was still not much above knee deep.  Because of this, it’s popular with families and hence when we visited crowded with swarms of kids galloping around, yelling, accidentally kicking sand over us and generally behaving as little kids do on every such beach.  It was not for us, I’m afraid, and we didn’t stay very long.

Our lovely hosts, Ante and his wife Tanja, offered us a treat the day after my arrival, so Sunday - a trip out on their boat “to the island”.  We jumped at the chance.  A couple of miles off the mainland from Bibinje are two of the bigger islands in Croatia: to the north lies Ugljan, and by its town of Kukljice a bridge links it with the more southerly island of Pašman.  So we boarded a small wooden fishing boat (built in 1922, Ante told us, but fully refurbished the year before last) in Bibinje marina, erected a canvas sun shelter, cranked up the old diesel engine and off we went.  It was a hot sunny day, with a calm sea, so we looked forward to a little run up to one of the little harbours and bays that dot the inland coasts of both islands, a swim and some lunch somewhere, then back again.

Ante had other ideas.  We chugged across the strait, under the bridge and into the more open waters beyond, heading roughly in the direction of Italy.  More islands, big and small, lay spread before us, and with Ally taking the tiller - under Ante’s supervision of course - we chugged on.  The sea was a little heavier here, but the bottles of home made wine that Ante produced regularly from below and served up in an old shared tin mug, plus the sandwiches and Polish sausages Ania brought along with us, kept us going.  We weaved around a handful of small islands and approached the biggest island in the region, now the Kornati National Park.  We had by now been at sea a good couple of hours, and Ante took over the tiller and steered us around the sheer cliffs that face the open and rougher Adriatic Sea and Italy over the horizon beyond.  He told us stories of his childhood on the island, before it became a park, and pointed out some apparent ruins on top of a cliff that were in fact an old film set from a 1950s movie set in Greece in which the 10 year old Ante played a minor “extra” role and was nearly adopted by the film’s leading lady (his mother refused the opportunity).  Quite a character, was Ante.

Shortly after that we entered a small harbour on a neighbouring island, and tied up outside one of the half dozen surrounding fishermen’s cottages.  Ante owned it and rented it out, this week to a family from Slovenia.  It was a lovely but primitive old place on three floors, with a tiny kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, a small sitting room and a rooftop terrace with superb views out to sea and Kornati.  Best of all, it had no tv or internet, making it the perfect place to relax and get away from it all for a couple of weeks, swimming in the clear warm waters of the little harbour and hiking over the island to other little coves and inlets.  The kids were not impressed by our idea of booking it next year……

We stayed for an hour or so and had a swim and food and a chat with the current tenants, then headed off again to another of the little group of islands that border the park.  It was only a 15 minute cruise away, and we tied up at another small harbour and hiked about 400 metres over the peninsula and past a little campsite to a small shingle beach with a clear sandy sea bottom three paces offshore.  There were perhaps 8 or 9 people there, of whom only 6 or 7 wore anything.  We spent an hour or so swimming there too, and it was delightful.  Most of the other people there left during that time, to be replaced by another dozen or so folk from the campsite, none of whom were dressed, and clearly knew each other as they set up a picnic and barbecue on one corner of the beach.  Lovely place….

We headed off shortly after that, and another 15 minute cruise took us to another little harbour on yet another little island (or perhaps it was on Kornati itself: we were quite lost by then).  Beside the quay was a small restaurant that was owned by Ante’s cousin’s wife, and there he had arranged for us to eat.  We sat on a terrace overlooking the harbour, and ate a quite superb home-cooked meal of scorpion fish oven cooked with a mix of potatoes, carrots, onions and olives, in its own juices and olive oil, followed by little crayfish (or perhaps small lobsters, or big prawns, I have no idea which) fresh from the grill, all washed down with local beer and home-made wine.  It was delicious.  

By this time it was dusk, so we settled the bill, clambered aboard the boat and headed off.  Once we were beyond the harbour, Kuba took the tiller and with Ante’s increasingly slurred directions (the home-made hooch continued to flow) steered us back through the islands and towards Bibinje.  By the time we approached the bridge at Kukljice Ante took over steering duties, took us through safely and across into the harbour at Bibinje.  The whole cruise amounted to just under a hundred kilometres, and was without doubt the highlight of the entire holiday.  We got back to the flat tired but happy just after midnight after a quite brilliant day.

On Monday we decided to explore further afield, and headed off on the motorway to Split.  We were all a little sunburnt, especially the kids, who had been lolling around on beaches for nearly a week as opposed to my 36 hours, so we figured a day out of the sun would do us all good.  It was a nice drive, on one of the toll roads that stretch from southern Croatia (and possibly beyond) to our home in Warsaw.  The scenery was spectacular all the way: the road is a few kilometres inland, and elevated so that there are frequent glimpses of the sparkling Adriatic and the islands off to our right, and the mountains, dotted here and there with crystal clear, sparkling lakes,  rising along on our left.  The traffic for most of the way was reasonably light, most of it tourist traffic, including motorhomes and big caravans heading for the numerous campsites that proliferate the entire length of the coast from north to south, and we made good progress.  It took us a little over an hour, but then, perhaps 10 km from the Split exit and toll booths, we hit a traffic jam that blocked the entire slow lane.  We thought it was probably roadworks, but it turned out to be a traffic queue leaving the road at our exit, and drivers did not take too kindly to us forcing our way in. 

From there to the port city centre took another hour and a half, and then another half an hour and two circuits to find a car park close to the port itself.  The queue was another long one, and most of it inside the car park: it was full but the barriers still opened to let you in and you basically had to stay in line until someone else left and opened up a parking space.  But eventually we bagged a place, and crossed to a parade of food outlets.  We bought pastries and cold drinks, then found a seat on the quayside overlooking the cruise ships moored up, and settled down to eat.

The Old Roman town is alongside the port area, and is of course pedestrianised with market stalls, bars and restaurants, and loads of expensive gift shops and boutiques lining the footpath.  At the end of the old Roman city walls, perhaps four or five hundred metres along from where we parked, the roads wound away into a maze of little alleys and narrow streets that make up the bulk of Old Split.  Off these streets were many little courtyards with small and pretty old houses, most of them divided into apartments, and boutique hotels and art galleries.  Parking looked a nightmare on these narrow one-way streets, and scooters and motorbikes proliferated, weaving through the tourists like ourselves, wandering around and perhaps lost (as we were for a while).  The place was beautiful and I felt I could happily settle down in a room somewhere to do my stuff, in my own time, away from the stresses and strains of big city life.  A pipe dream, of course……

Eventually we made our way back down towards the port, and bought delicious ice creams from a little shop in one of the alleys, then found some shopping streets where we bought the obligatory post cards, fridge magnets and decorative coffee cups.  We found a post office and sent the cards off, then ambled back down to the car park.  Since we hadn’t left Bibinje until lunchtime, it was a short visit, but now as it was well past 6 p.m., we figured it was time to go, with the expectation the traffic would be equally bad leaving town.  It actually wasn’t too bad, but still took just over an hour to get out of the city and back up to the highway.  It was dark by the time we eventually got back to the flat, but it had been a pleasant day.

One evening, after a day on the local marina beach, Tanja suggested we go for a drive to another island, about 70 km away, where you cross a little bridge to get from the mainland, there are pretty towns and villages and “the best ice cream in Croatia”.  Sure, why not?

It was another outstanding trip.  The drive took just over an hour, and the road ran right along the coast, often no more than a few metres from the sea.  As ever, it was a rocky outlook with not a sandy beach in sight, but a succession of bays of varying sizes from table top to a few yards across.   Off shore was the usual chain of islands, including Kornati, and we frequently passed campsites by the roadside.  Some of these were official, with entrance gates and probably power and bars and toilets, others were no more than campervans pulled off the road into the shelter of straggly, stunted beach-side trees, or little tents pitched on the shingle.  There were small and picturesque villages, too, usually not much more than a handful of houses, a small shop, perhaps a chapel and a little cafe.  The more I saw, the more I liked the country.  One day, perhaps, I’d like to spend a whole summer just driving through, pitching a tent on the beach, maybe rent a boat and island-hop… would be brilliant.  But probably just another pipe dream…...I wish I was 10 years younger and several hundred thousand euros richer sometimes!

Eventually, we swung right at a roundabout, and approached the little bridge across to the island, which is called Murter.  It’s a small bridge that opens between 9 and 9:30 every morning, and 5 and 5:30 every evening to allow sailboats to go through the little strait between it and the mainland.  A couple of years ago, a lady returning to the mainland after work was running a bit late and found the bridge opening.  Undeterred, she put her foot down, drove quickly up the island side road and jumped the gap in her Ford Fiesta, then drove off quite happily on the mainland road.  The whole episode was captured by CCTV, and made that evening’s national tv news programs.  We looked it up on YouTube and yes, it’s there.  Never seen anything like it!

The town we entered was quite beautiful - called Tisno, it lies mostly on the mainland, but with a strip on the island side that is mainly hotels, holiday apartment complexes and restaurants.  It’s one of only four real “towns” on the island, alongside nearby Jezera (which we didn’t visit), and to the north a lovely little beachside village called Betina, and close to that Murter itself.  As you drive out of Tisno, at the top of the hill, you can look back down across Tisno, on both sides or the strait, and it looks spectacular, like an older, less developed Monaco, with little houses rather than modern tower blocks.

A  little further on there is an outlook on the other side, towards Kornati on the horizon, that takes in a small bay populated only by a hotel and a couple of restaurants, with sailboats and cruisers anchored just offshore.  In the early evening light, with the sun dipping down over Kornati it was yet another stunning outlook.  Croatia is simply full of them.  We drove on through the narrow winding streets in Betina and into Murter, and Tanja directed us to the marina, then left past a garage to where there was an extensive outdoor arcade of gift shops.  At the end of this stood Frozen - selling “the best ice cream in Croatia”.  Of course, we pulled in to sample their wares.  It also allowed Tanja to deliver some bits and pieces to her son, Ivan, who owns the place and lives in a big house next door, that he is renovating to rent out as a holiday home - more custom for Airbnb.

We had a wander around for a half hour, eating a second ice cream, enjoying the view of the marina and looking at the huge range of goods on sale in the market stalls, then back in the car and Tanja navigated us through another typical maze of little windy roads, out of town, over the crest of a small hill (more sandstone walls reminded us of Malta) and down to a big and ill-maintained car park sheltered by trees and bushes by the waterfront.  We parked and strolled along to a pretty expansive beach that was actually very close to sandy - at least the shingle was quite fine so that you could walk barefoot on it.  The sea was quite shallow, calm and bath-water warm, and beyond the mouth of the bay the sun was going down behind a small unnamed island.  There were a couple of food shacks and a beach bar, and on the other side of the bay a footpath ran along the shoreline under sheltering trees and giving access to a string of little inlets and beach areas similar to those we had seen on the drive down and on the little beach we had visited on Kornati.

Although by now it was close to 7:00 in the evening, it was still warm and many people were enjoying the water.  We joined them for a good swim, and then while the ladies continued bobbing about in the sea chatting about who knows what, and the kids queued at a snack shack for hot dogs and lemonade, I decided to explore a bit.  Perhaps a hundred metres offshore and linked by a narrow man-made causeway lay a small island, perhaps a couple of football pitches in area.  There were a number of boats tied up on the quay, people were fishing from the rocks overlooking the bay, and a stream of people both leaving and going to the island.  I ambled across, and did a circuit of the place in perhaps 15 minutes.  The centre of the island rose some 25 feet above sea level, and was topped by a little wood of gnarled and windblown olive trees.  A network of paths and little dry stone walled enclosures encircled this, beyond which the rocks of the island dropped into the sea.  No sand, no shingle, nothing you could consider a beach, but many of the rocks were flat topped and offered good, if exposed, sun terraces, and most of these areas allowed access to the sea with care.  By this time of the evening most of these were deserted, but one rock was topped by a young naked sun-worshipper, sitting in the lotus position facing the now setting sun, her long hair blowing in the sea breeze, without a care in the world.  On the next rock, another blonde nymph, equally undressed, lay on her stomach reading a book.  They ignored both me as I passed in one direction and the family of four passing in the opposite direction.

I headed back to the mainland, and met up with Ania and Tanja and the kids, and we headed back to the car and Bibinje.  We decided on the way to come back to this place the next day, spend more time swimming and sunning, have an evening meal there washed down by some more of Ivan’s excellent ice-cream (the best in Croatia indeed), and maybe do a bit of shopping in the market.

So we did.  We left earlier, just about lunchtime, and were crossing the bridge to Murter by one.  We paused on the drive through Tisno and took some pictures, again at the westerly lookout point a little further up, and finally some more on the approaches to Betina.  At this earlier time of day, in brighter sunlight, the island looked even more lovely, it seemed.  We briefly paused in Murter for ice cream, then attempted to find the road Tanja had led us down previously.  After only two wrong turnings we found the right way, and arrived at the beach car-park by perhaps 2:30.  It was crowded and we had difficulty finding a sheltered place to park, and eventually we had to leave the car on the road just by the entrance to one of the parking areas.  It was safe enough though, and undamaged when we returned later. The road led on back towards Murter, by a different route, most of it through a big camp site that offered road side pitches on the rocks overlooking the sea and the little island, and others across the road in the shelter of the trees.  All of them seemed to have power points, and there were a couple of bars and a little shop in the main site.  I’m guessing the sea view pitches were more expensive, and they were all taken by a variety of camper vans, cars and caravans or tents, and most of the vehicles had Polish number plates.

We decided to go to the island rather than the beach, which by the time we got there was quite crowded.  This time we went to the left after the causeway, in a clockwise direction, and moved perhaps a third of the way around, then settled on a big flat rock that overlooked the campsite on the mainland, and offered access to the sea. As usual, it seemed, swimwear was the exception rather than the rule, but it was all very natural and comfortable - no stareing, no comments, no intrusion.  Just a group of people enjoying the hot sun and warm sea in their own way, all doing exactly the same things…...reading books, eating, drinking, swimming, talking and so on.  Many people were just doing so naked.  Which is exactly how it should be, in my view.

Getting in and out of the sea was tricky, but with care we managed ok, and were rewarded with the usual sandy bottom a few feet offshore.  It was a little windier than previous days, and the sea a little rougher, which made it more fun.  Typically, I managed to slip the first time I clambered in over the rocks, and scraped the skin off both knees, one shin, my back and my bare arse.  My family found it highly amusing, especially the blood……   But it didn’t deter me and I had several dips (largely to cool off) over the four or five hours we spent there, and managed to do so without significant further damage.  It was a terrific afternoon, I have to say.

Around 6, we packed up and left, again vowing to come back, perhaps next year.  Back in Murter, we found an excellent restaurant in a little side-street behind the marina, and had a good meal to celebrate Kuba’s Name Day.  He and Ania shared a mixed seafood pot (a couple of fish - not sure which kind - grilled octopus, calmari - that’s squid - , big juicy prawns, and vegetables).  Evidently it was delicious, but not to my taste, or Ally’s.  I had a very tasty chicken risotto washed down with two excellent and rather strong large local beers, while she had a huge cheeseburger with bacon and fries that she couldn’t eat, so the Family Bin (a.k.a. me) ate half of it.  It was good.

Then to Frozen, for a final ice cream.  We had a chat with Ivan and complimented him on his ice cream, which (all joking aside) is indeed delicious - the best I’ve had for sometime, and in a huge variety of flavours.  It’s the only place I’ve ever found that does Jaffa Cake flavoured ice-cream…...and very good that one was, too!

The next day we packed, and after a final swim by the marina in Sveti Petar na Moru, we drove into Zadar with Tanja for our final expedition.  The outskirts are typical of any good sized port-town by any sea in Europe.  There are industrial areas where the factories and warehouses are separated by a succession of big food stores and supermarkets like Lidl and Intermarché and the local equivalent Tomy, or used car showrooms and petrol stations and apartment blocks.  As you drive into the city centre, these blocks get bigger and squarer and shabbier, and would not look out of place on the outskirts of Warsaw or Bratislava - or for that matter Liverpool or Sunderland.  And of course there are the obligatory shopping malls that are the same everywhere.

But then you get to the old port area, and the place takes on a whole new aspect, more like the old Roman port area in Dubrovnik.  Parking was a challenge, but we found a courtyard next door to a block where Tanja works, and our guided tour began in earnest.

We were right on the waterfront, overlooking a harbour where ferry boats were moored alongside yachts and motor cruisers - clearly, the area is a popular destination for the well-heeled amateur sailor.  We headed left, away from this, towards the real old port area.  There was a big paved square with a very modern art installation that involved a glass skylight (that was on our level so walked across), below which a network of coloured lights flashed in random patterns driven somehow by the sea water and waves flowing through a whole range of buried pipes.  The water movement also powered some bizarre pipe organ instrument that made musical sounds similar to those made by whalesong……  It was all very eerie and extraordinary as the sun set over that bay.  The installation was designed and built by a local architect who had also designed the construction and subsequent conversion of Ante and Tanja’s place where we were staying - clearly a talented and innovative guy as the two projects could hardly have been more different.

There were crowds of people there, lined up along the quayside waiting patiently to take pictures of what was a spectacular sunset.out over the bay, dipping below the usual islands dotting the near horizon.  Zadar has a reputation of having some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.  All I can say is it was beautiful, but I have seen others equally spectacular elsewhere - and indeed have some incredible pics of a sunset from about four years ago, taken on a beach on the Baltic in northern Poland on a beaten up old Sony Xperia mobile that are as good as anything I’ve ever seen.  I use one of them as the wallpaper on my laptop, and the picture is as good as any provided by Microsoft, Android or any other operating system I’ve seen.


                                                                Or Jastrzebia Gora?
                                                                      YOU decide......

The day marked the start of a local Festival of the Moon, held every year at the end of July to celebrate that month’s last full moon, and features outdoor concerts and street theatre (all free of course), open air markets and food stalls in abundance over the entire weekend.  It turns a lovely Old Town into something extra special, full of people, tourists and locals, having a great time in the warm summer evenings.  The market stalls and food trucks serve exclusively hearty, local cuisine, mostly seafood, regional wines and beers, and locally made jams and pickles and preserves, souvenirs and gifts that are all handmade and better than you find at most seaside markets at other times.  Quality stuff, all of it.

We wandered through the old streets and squares in the area (it is all pedestrianised), past lovely churches and buildings two and three hundred years old, serenaded by local musicians and performers and mime artists, and stopped for a while watching a concert of local folk music that featured a group of a dozen men in traditional costume, singing exquisite a-cappella harmonies in a language that meant nothing to us but sounded wonderful in the echoing old square.  Not one of them could have been less than about 70 years of age.  They were followed by another elderly couple, again in local costume, the husband playing a battered old acoustic guitar, his wife an equally battered tambourine, again singing in perfect harmony.  It was easy to imagine them sitting in an old cottage in the nearby mountains, singing together before a roaring fire on cold winters’ evenings, with no electricity or tv or internet, making their own age-old entertainment.  So they probably had a 35 square metre apartment on the outskirts of town……  Either way, they were great.

We walked around a huge citadel-like building, surrounded by another small harbour where little fishing boats were moored, that was something like 400 years old and had once been the main fortress in the town but now housed the local university campus and a primary school that Tanja had attended back when Croatia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia.  The path led us back to the main promenade, and we strolled back through the market (pausing for some more delicious sardine sandwiches - basically, three or four ladles of freshly caught and grilled fish in a kind of pitta bread with garlic sauce), back to the car.  It was a lovely end to our holiday.

The next morning, we loaded the car and headed off for home.  The drive back through the mountains towards Zagreb and the Slovenian border was spectacular - I think I passed through more tunnels in those few hours than I have in a lifetime driving in the UK - despite sometimes heavy traffic.  The little trip through Slovenia was easier and less crowded, the scenery as mountainous as in Croatia but more forested and greener, then into Austria.  We overnighted in an apartment (good old Airbnb) in Vienna that was probably built before World War 2 and not decorated or renovated since, but it was comfortable enough and we slept well, despite a thunderstorm that rumbled through half the night.

We left there about 10 the next morning, and took a brief detour through the city centre, just to have look at the Vienna Opera House and other lovely old buildings from the country’s Imperial age.  I worked in Vienna for about 6 or 7 months some years ago, but I recognised absolutely nowhere this time round.  Big changes - even the trams have been modernised.

The drive through Austria and into the Czech Republic was pleasant enough, motorway all the way, and this continued through that country towards the Polish border near Ostrava.  I didn’t notice when we crossed into Poland - there was no border post or even signs that were visible and we didn’t slow down at all, but at some point the road signs changed from the Czech language to Polish, and we began recognizing place names.  The joys of the Schengen Zone that we British have always been against (along, it has to be said, with seemingly every other EU institution) but that unquestionably makes travel through its member states so much quicker and easier…..
And we were home safely by tea-time.

In summary, Croatia is a great country (even if their football team did put us in our place at the World Cup this summer), with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.  The people were without exception friendly and welcoming, and the food and drink delicious and reasonably priced.  The roads are good, the sea warm and the clearest and cleanest I have seen anywhere in the world - crystal clear and the most astonishing blue.  It’s just a shame about the beaches, but you can’t do much about geology.

Did it meet our expectations?  No.  It easily surpassed them.  It’s fair to say we fell in love with the place.  Admittedly, we’ve only seen a very small part of Croatia - the Dalmatian Coast around Zadar and its surrounding islands, and of course the spectacular drive over the mountains and past Zagreb to the Slovenian border - and there is much more to see.  But that was enough, at least for me.  I want to see more.  Maybe try Istria, to the north, where I gather there are a few more sandier beaches and a more Italian feel to the place due to its proximity with Trieste in Italy only 40-odd kilometres from the Croatian border with Slovenia.  Or perhaps head south towards the coastal area around Makarska, between Split and Dubrovnik.   We’d definitely like to spend more time on the island of Murter, too.

So, yes.  We WILL return…… year for sure.