Wednesday, 21 April 2010

hanging around and pottering on

written 19th April

So, now I have got over not being in Slovenia, I'm finding I quite like Croatia too!  Which is lucky.  I mean, a summary which says 'Croatia - it's no Slovenia' would be no fun for anyone :)  Way back when, Croatia was one of my planned highlights for the trip - we are even off the Lonely Planet Mediterranean Europe book and have a whole lp book, just about Croatia, that's how much I was looking forward to it!

After the drama that was gasket foraging and grounded flights, the first couple of days in Croatia were spent hanging around in limbo, waiting to see what would happen and whether Will would fly or not and thus we found ourselves in Istria.

Istria is a heart-shaped peninsula, jutting out below the boarder with Slovenia and separated from the rest of croatia by the Cicarija mountains and the Adriatic sea.  According to history and ledgends, there have been people in Istria since before the end of the second millenium BC.  Jason and the argonauts apparently came here - don't know about him yet, finished the Iliad, halfway through the Odyssey (it is on Will's pda, I keep getting distracted, the translation I have found is a bit hard and not one of the normal ones and it doesn't help me with my understanding of the gods as they all have different names from the ones in the Iliad I read...) I still have Dante to read and now I need to know about Jason and the Argonauts!  This travel broadens the mind lark is too much like hard work...  The Romans were here, then the byzantines, then some struggles between the Slavs, Franks, Germans, Venetians  and Austrians and then some turkish pirates... basically a lot of kicking and shoving has all left its mark here.  Particularly the Venetians (somewhere on the coast was a favourite holiday hideaway of Cassanova - mmm lovely David Tennent...) and later the Italians who occupied a great chunk of the land after the 1st world war.  Italian is the 2nd langage here and you can't move for pizza and pasta restaurants - it's all quite lovely.

Although only small, Pula was very pleasant in the sunshine, old town, typical streets, roman forum/square,

city gates, fortress on a hill,

an impressive amphitheatre

and lots of icecream (not sure exactly what flavour the blue one is...),

but on the second day, in indifferent weather, our planned outing to the Rt Kamenjak national park, the tip of the Istria peninsula, was subverted by the chance discovery of municipal wifi in a deserted village square so the day was profitably be spent doing some of the things will had planned to do from home.  useful if not inspiring. 

In anticipation of an impending departure, Will also got his haircut - the first time for at least 9 months - and just when it was beginning to behave itself long.  Well, for a version of behave itself, it had got to a point where it wasn't so sticky up and I actually quite liked it at least.  Bit scary, the woman in the barbers spoke no english so all communication was by gesture and there was a particularly fine mullet stage, after which I could not longer look... :) 

but it was all fine in the end, if a bit action man.  He's just missing a lever to twitch his eyes about and a string to make him say things like "enemy tanks, approaching" and other useful phrases... we shall see if this new action hair cut has any effect of van fixing strength...

With the uncertainty over and the flight cancellation confirmed before we even got to the airport, our course was set.  We did think about hanging around at the airport a bit to see if there was anyone who was desperate enough to get back to the UK that they would pay our return petrol costs to taxi them, but, having been alerted in advance, there was virtually no one there and anyway, as we subsequently found out, no chance of a eurostar ticket even if we got to northern france.  We also wonder what became of the family Will met on the first day who had been bumped from an easyjet flight from Ljubljana on the wednesday as ljubljana suddenly decided to retarmac their runway (what???), so were trying Ryanair from Pula instead only to have this happen.  After a nice chat about europe and travel and etc, we left them still in the rebooking queue with the husband wanting to do the sensible thing of getting on a saturday flight from either Trieste or Pula and the wife consumed with the romantic notion of sleeper trains across a continent (a seed planted by me I'm afraid, inspired by a friend's recent plans for a journey from Paris to Florence by sleeper train - I mean, how fabulously romantic and victorian grand tour does that sound??  Although I suspect the reality was probably somewhat different, we have yet to hear...)  we surmise that in this new case, the sensible option was chosen and is now being regretted (and that he knows about it :) )

So we headed instead up to Rovinj, a venetian coastal town, billed as the last true fishing port on the med and it's most romantic town - Will says this makes up for him not taking me to benidorm for valentines day....  Not sure it is the most romantic but it is jolly pleasant. 

Crammed on to what was once an island, the old town definately has a venetian feel to it, typical streets and all. 

The church is apparnetly the largest baroque building in Istria  - we are coming to realise that all churches seem to be the biggest, smallest, oldest, or mostest of something or other! -

and is dedicated to St Euphemia, a christian martyr who was killed in 304 and whose undecayed body alledgedly floated up to Rovinj in a marble sarcophagus in 804... 

hmmm  apparently all the villagers tried to haul the things ashore and failed but the saint appeared to a small boy with two weak calves (cows not legs, I misread it the first time!) who pulled it in single handedly.  It now sits in the church and is worshipped annually with some sort of pageant.  Well it takes all sorts... :)

We spent a happy day wandering the streets and the nearby national park, stopping to watch the free climbers

and for a lovely cool beer by the sea with a view of the archipeligo - my favourite!

The next day we left the coast behind and travelled to the Istrian Interior, a land promising rolling green hills, olive groves and truffles.  and we were not disappointed.  well, not about those things anyway.  We headed first to Pazin and the promise of a 100m chasm, tearing into the landscape.  The LP write up said that there were no staff on site out of season so you walked the path at your own risk - sounds great for adrenaline junkies like us who love danger and really wild things... ;) - and we had seen pictures of caves which resembled Skojan and with memories of Ronda still in mind we were expecting big things.  Sadly, not to be.  Legend has it that the giant Dragonja created the rivers of istria with his giant plow.  The first furrow he called Dragonja (it is the border with slovenia), the second he called Mirna, after his wife, and the third he was in the middle of when the duchess of Pazin started mocking the size of his plowing equipment (or something!).  In a huff, he stomped off and the waters rushed in to the unfinished furrow and threatened to flood the town.  At the last minute, he relented and stamped on the ground, casuing a massive crack, and the waters disappeared into the abyss.  To this day, no one is 100% sure exactly where all they end up.  The place is also the inspiration for a Jules Verne book (Mathias something, I forget what exactly), who's protagonist is improsioned in the castle, escapes to leap down the cliff, falls into the torrent and, by dint of clinging onto a branch, floats out the other end unharmed before travelling the Rovinj to be last seen leaping off the town walls in a hail of bullets..  exciting stuff.  That Jules didn't actually go there, he just wrote about what other people told him.  This Jules did and after all that build up, it was a bit of a let down. 

A pleasant walk down the valley, across the little bridge and up the other side and that was it. 

No cave, no danger, nothing, not even much of a view as too many trees everywhere :(  at least out of season it was free.

So we were preparing to head on eastwards when we met some croats in the carpark admiring Jules and stopped to chat about life and travels.  They happily filled the croatia pages of our atlas - had been looking a bit sparse as far as circling went - and almost as an after though, recommended a could of perched istrian villages.  Well we do like a good perched village!  so of we set westwards instead.

Motovun, the first, was lovely, the most unspoilt perched village yet.  a brisk 1km climb up the hill along a mule track got us to town, where, despite this being the major tourist route in, there were no tat shops, nothing! 

A couple of nice pavement cafes on the sunny terrace at the top, a fancy hotel, a couple of poshish restaurants

and some fabulous views from the castle walls.  everything one could wish for. 

We managed to taste some truffly things in a shop - v nice bit v expensive! - and have a nice wander and it was all lovely. 

and, as with the rest of this country, full of renault 4's!  we have no idea why.  seen a few Yugo's which is more understandable (Yugo = small yugoslavian car, few = they were apparently renowned for being rubbish!)  but had not expected the huge number of renault 4's.  most in very good nick, some not, many used as sheds in gardens, very strange.  They all smell like the one Will used to have though :)

Onwards once more to Groznjan, another perched village, this one a mediaeval one which was nearly abandoned completely before being taken over in the 60's by a colony artists who set up workshops and galleries and gradually breathed life into the place once more. 

More quaint that Moduvun, we wandered the streets and then sat in the square watching the sun setting and the first swallows of summer chansing across the pink sky by the light of the moon and contemplated how it was probably this quiet around heathrow that evening, for the first time in many many years - every cloud has a silver lining (even if it is made of glass...).

Stopping to watch a couple of rounds of bowls - bit like UK bowls but with some rogue element whereby every so often the goal is not to get your ball closest to the jack, rather to lob it at the opponents' as fast as you can and blast them out of the way, looked dangerous! - we headed out and tucked ourselves away for the night in the out of town carpark, behind a bank or olive trees - full on stealth mode! - and awoke the next morning to the sound of tour buses. 

fortunately they were only stopping for coffee so by the time we were up and out, we had the town to oursleves again to see what we had missed in the dark. 

Which wasn't much but it was very pretty and the art was nice for a mooch, before back on the road, eastwards and downwards and ferry-wards - to Cres!
 and our first view of the adriatic

Cres sounded lovely, both from the book and our new croat guides, undeveloped, wild forests, open roads with endangered griffon vultures to see. 

The crossing was quick and simple,

turn up,

wait a bit,

eat lunch, drive on,

sail, drive off, done. 

and off we went, first to Beli, another perched village - yes there are a lot of them!,

this one had a view of the sea though! - which was nice, but tiny, and then the the griffen sanctury.  This had sounded good, birds, exhibitions and access to 50kms of eco trails through prehistoric forests to deserted villages where you expect elves and fairies at every turn, but sadly we got there a bit late, although there were people in there, the gate was shut and it was more expensive than we expected anyway - oh well, one for another time.

So we headed to Cres town, another italian feeling harbour town with typical streets and wide squares. 

Over a coffee overlooking the sea we considered more perched villages and inalnd lakes but in the end, couldn't quite summon up the enthusiasm  - suffering from perched village fatigue! -

so stayed put with our coffee and very nice it was too.  We decided to move on - have fantastic lakes to see tomorrow - but I could easily see how Cres, and its siamese twin island Losinj, could make a lovely relaxing holiday destination for pottering and sitting.

But, we have no time for all of that!  places to go, things to do! 

so back on a boat

So croatia is starting well.  the money (kuna (kn), or kilonewtons as will keeps calling them!) is taking a bit of getting used to - the numbers seem so big, when in fact they're not (1:8, which is at least easy to work out in your head!) - and if we spoke german or italian life would be slightly easier but other than that, all good so far.

Plitvice lakes tomorrow, Croatia's star attraction, looking forward to it!

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