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Published: June 28th 2010
a perfect gem
Motorhome News from Europe 40
12th - 21st June 2010
Adriatic Riviera, Porec, Pula, Rijeka, Dalmatian Coast, Zadar, Knin, Paklenica, Krka National Park, Plitvicka National Park, Zagreb, Badacsony - Lake Balaton, Salfold, Tihany and Lake Velence.
'Dobrodosli' - Welcome, to Croatia
There's a strong feel of the Mediterranean as we drive south into the Istria Peninsula from Slovenia along the Adriatic Riviera. They're still working on the motorway as we cross the border into Croatia; great earthmoving machines removing mountainsides of rich terracotta soil and limestone, and toll-booths at the latter stages of development waiting to pounce on the weary traveler. Croatian customs cast a cursory glance at our passports as we passed through control out of the EU on newly surfaced tarmac beside fields of vines, poppies and olive trees - and roadside stalls offering grappa, cheese, and honey, a local specialty.
The Istria Peninsula’s west coast brims with hill-top towns and our thirst for local markets took us first into Porec, a perfect gem of narrow cobbled streets, fine churches and terracotta tiled villas, shuttered windows to fend off the searing summer heat, Venetian Gothic style windows and Italianate architecture at every turn. For we
are but a short boat-ride across the water from Venice - and the Venetians came and stayed awhile from the 13th-17thC. This is cherry time in Croatia and we left Porec's busy market clutching a punnet of rich-black maraschinos for tea. And the stunning gold mosaics in the Byzantine Basilica of Euphrasius help to make it a town to remember.
The Romans were here along this coast too, their legacy proudly displayed in the fascinating town of Pula, a little further south, with a huge amphitheatre that might be better associated with Rome or Athens on the edge of the Old Town, magnificent arches which marked the town boundaries and the Temple of Romae and Augustus standing at the top of the forum square. Pula's streets are incredibly clean, the attractive shops an indication of the town's well-being.
There was a classy little beach of sparkling white pebbles where we strolled awhile that evening. Local waterside bars were buzzing with holidaymakers and bow-tied waiters proferred menus in true resort style as we passed. 'We've just eaten,' we responded a dozen or more times, but we were finally lured to a crowded bar with a TV where we sat with
a cool beer to watch England playing the USA in The World Cup; surrounded by inconsiderate smoking German couples with their much-spoiled yappy dogs. Some of the locals appeared to favour the USA, perhaps as the under-dogs or to enhance their own chances of advancing into later rounds, and with the half-time score 1-1 we thought it best to leave and avoid acute embarrassment! We seem to be in the minority down here, not having seen a British motorhome for more than a week. Campsites are packed full of Germans, Dutch and Italians in motorhomes, caravans and tents.
The ATM continues to be our source of finance as we travel (they never seem to run out of money, do they?). The local currency in Croatia is the Kuna - around 7.18 to the Euro in the 'currency exchange' shops, but our ATM receipt in Pula failed to show the rate for the day. It's only money - we'll check the bank statement on the internet later. Internet is often available on better campsites and is always included in the price - as it should be, but never is, in the UK. At first glance this appears to be a
well-heeled country, far beyond that war-torn image we might have of Croatia of recent years. That said, we are indeed in a tourist area and there is doubtless much foreign money lurking under the limestone rocks along this coast. Every other house offers, 'Apartman, Rooms, Zimmer or Camere' as we whisk along the roads. It's much like Ireland in that respect! An elderly gent sat astride his moped at a busy road junction one evening, with a sign on his windscreen saying, 'Rooms' and an arrow pointing to his house. I can hear his wife shouting to him as he nodded off reading the paper in the stifling evening sun. 'Don't just sit there on your bum, Jozef. Get out and find us some customers!'
East of the peninsula densely wooded hillsides stretch in a rolling line across the horizon, a few delightful Italianesque villages dot the coast with little harbors hosting small fishing boats akin to Devon or Cornwall, the serpentine road lapped by the placid Adriatic reminding us of the Monterey coast highway. Little food is grown in these rocky hills; Croatia's bread-basket lies further to the north and east. Rounding the top of the bay, grotesque
tower-blocks in the port town of Rijeka reminded us that remnants of the Eastern Europe of the latter half of the twentieth century still exist.
The coast turns south once more at Rijeka, the ever-winding road along the waterline of the Dalmatian Coast here overlooked by steeply rising limestone hills dotted with scrub. Off towards the setting sun, the islands of Krk, Rab, Cres and the featureless outline of Pag floating on a turquoise Adriatic. We followed the road south as far as Zadar. I have never encountered a town with polished streets before, but the spotless marble pavements of Zadar, set in Roman grid formation, shone like glass in the afternoon sunlight. Zadar hums with atmosphere, its Roman forum, its narrow Venetian streets and high buildings with rustic shuttered windows, its smart shops inviting and extravagant, and the magnificent round Byzantine church of St Donat - or 'St Donut', as Janice would have it. Zadar should not be missed.
This narrow sliver of land between Bosnia Herzegovina and the Adriatic runs monotonously southwards for several hundred more miles to Dubrovnik and many of those who have travelled this road before have warned us of the long drive
back! With this in mind we chose to turn inland to visit some of Croatia's National Parks for a spot of hiking and birding before heading north once again. We'll give Dubrovnik a miss - if we're not there, we'll be somewhere else.
Here in this barren landscape lies the other face of Croatia, the dark shadows of conflict cast like a storm-cloud across the shallow tree-clad hills around Knin. Small villages line the roads, lifeless and grey. Empty, abandoned, half-built red-brick houses appear, un-rendered, unfinished and sometimes bullet-riddled or with their roofs blasted off. People came and people went I guess; their dreams of a new life turned to nightmares no doubt, displaced or deceased, as the consequence of yet another senseless war. War, like love, thrives on ideals and passion. It's a far cry from the luxury villas of the coast where all of this seems to have been forgotten as the sun shines on flourishing tourism.
Our passion for walking and wildlife has taken us into several of Croatia's National Parks seeking wildlife, solitude and fine hiking. This has proved to be somewhat difficult without detailed maps and we have consequently been led by what
these parks have to offer. In temperatures sliding up beyond 30C as the day moved on, we headed off early to Paklenica National Park, a deep limestone gorge with good tracks rising steeply at first and climbing steadily for three hours beside the fast-running river. Many moons ago we hiked in the Picos mountains in the north of Spain on a strenuous hike we later called 'walking with choughs', those delightful little corvids with yellow beaks and red legs that frequent the high meadows. Our walk here in Paklenica reminded us of this as we traced our way uphill through riparian woodland - to the constant sound of nightingales, that unmistakable trill that thrills each time we hear it. We'll remember this day as 'walking with nightingales'. Despite that, the hike was arduous without any specific features: no vistas and no other highlights of great interest. As ever, we had the track to ourselves at first, but we encountered hundreds of other walkers on our way down around midday, many of them ill prepared for the tough climb and the heat of the day.
Krka National Park, our next port of call, charged an entrance fee of 95kn (£12)
each and a shuttle bus took us to the start of the boardwalk trails. We quickly realised that hundreds of other day trippers would be joining us on our walk as bus loads of camera touting tourists converged on the trail to see the waterfalls. That said, the falls were stunning and the boardwalks provided easy access to wooded hillsides and rushing streams teeming with fish - and people were swimming and sunbathing below the falls. One might say it is more a lido than a National Park.
The entrance fee for Plitvicka National Park further to the north was 110kn (£14) each - but this one was rather more special. Arriving fifteen minutes before the official opening time of 8 am, we were there before the crowds once again - and crowds there were before we left some four hours later! We took a walk of about 8km across good tracks and boardwalks, ever upwards past rushing streams, sky-blue lakes and gushing waterfalls; waterfalls everywhere, a truly amazing waterfall extravaganza, water seeping from multi-tiered lakes through forests of mature beach and alder and narrow paths in tranquil woodland draped in dappled sunlight. A pleasant ten-minute boat trip along
the sparkling lake (included in the entry price) broke the journey.
But this is all far from the Croatian 'National Parkland' we had been dreaming of. We were not prepared for either the entry fee ('Do you think we're made of diamonds?' one South African visitor was heard to respond when quoted the price at the kiosk), or the crowds. Imagine this in July! The problem seems to be that there are few 'attractions' beyond the coast and the Croatian National Parks here have become tourist hotspots instead of reserves and areas of recreation, and visitors are herded in and out in long snaking lines as a result.
There were hundreds of motorhomes at the Plitvicka National Park campsite just beyond the park entrance. Most were German, Austrian or Dutch, a few French and Italian, but only one other from the UK, an Autotrail, but we didn't get to meet the owners. Campsites do vary of course, but we discovered one of the best near Krka, called, surprisingly, Autocamp Krka; our cheapest, best serviced, shady (most important when without AC and daily temperatures top 28 degrees) and the most welcoming. The most difficult to find was the camp
at Lucko, Zagreb. This site can only be accessed from the motorway, but TomTom would not recognise the address, the minor road we were travelling from the south was closed a mile from the camp with diversions, the directions in the Camping Club guide were both inadequate and inaccurate and our efforts to find the right lane of the right motorway sent us half way round the world it seems. That last mile took us one and a half hours!
It would have been a tragedy to visit this country and not visit its Capital City, Zagreb; to walk the cobbled streets and avenues of grand buildings or sit on a bench in the cool of a shady park. We found time to gaze in wonder at the finely decorated roof of the church of St Mark, the twin spires of St Stephen's fortified Cathedral, breath in the lime scented air and feel the rich cultural heritage of this city, springing to life after years of unrest. Early morning drizzle turned to sunshine as we arrived at the central square at the meeting point of the upper (Gornji Grad) and lower (Donji Grad) areas, to start our day in
Many of Zagreb's monuments were lost to an earthquake in 1880 but the city boasts a host of fine buildings, restored, repaired or rebuilt: museums, galleries, churches and government offices set amongst tranquil green parks. Our special treats of the day were an enthralling hour at The National Museum of Naive Art, followed by lunch in a small bar below the funicular, local cuisine (Vinski Gulas and marinated beef, 'Sibenik' style) shared with the locals - and very inexpensive. It's always cheaper to eat out with the locals at lunchtime.
Graffiti abounds around the edges of Zagreb, providing the scars of emerging youth, new blood to feed this country's future and put the past to bed. The people smile little, but in this still rather grey city they are living in good Western style with a solid infrastructure, good public transport, a sound road system - and education; a strong youth presence exists in the city's busy cafes. However, they do have to suffer a 23% tax on goods and services as part of the rebuilding process (a foretaste of things to come throughout much of Western Europe in these economically challenged times). Within minutes of returning
by bus to our campsite late in the afternoon the temperature rose and the air turned heavy, thunder roared overhead and storm-swept rain brought fresh air once more.
Dovidenja - Goodbye, from Croatia.
.....and Szervusz, Hello, Hungary.
The fuel gauge was reading empty as we finally passed through Croatia's tiny fields of maize, tobacco, sunflowers and scattered vineyards and into Hungary. We had delayed replenishing the diesel in anticipation of things being cheaper across the border, but our first fill-up with diesel produced a bill of 24,314Ft - that seemed a lot of money in any terms. Janice checked her notes from the internet and we soon realised there are about 320 Hungarian Forint to the £1, and Eurodiesel cost around £1.10 per litre, just a smidgen less than currently in the UK.
We left the narrow strip fields of mixed crops of Croatia at the border and entered the New World of Hungary; great deciduous forests of managed timber and vast rolling cultivated fields stretching to the horizon. This is indeed a productive country, a country where scale and efficiency is a sign of contentment and security, with the knowledge that tomorrow is likely to be
the same as today and the sincere hope it will be even better. In Croatia, recovery is still tentative and security perhaps uncertain. Left behind are the many detached, slightly uncared for or unfinished two-storey houses of a rural Croatia in transition; before us the more mature single storey cottages of Hungary with the ubiquitous front fence and gate - yet another indication of a settled society.
Stamp collecting featured amongst my many hobbies as a wee lad, encouraged as ever by my dear old Dad, and there was always something a bit romantic about my page or two of stamps from Hungary. I think it was the 'Magyar Posta' bit that stirred my imagination, with images of warriors on horseback for some reason. We might yet find an association with those images whilst in this friendly country.
There was much confusion with place names in Croatia. Names on the map were rarely spelled the same way as on the road-signs. It's much the same in Hungary. If it's not difficult enough to have yet another new currency, things get more complicated still with this new language. We now have to contend with these different spellings and the
fact that any one town name or word is likely to contain a large proportion of the 26 letters of the alphabet and at least a couple of Z's. I see from our itinerary, we'll be visiting Bukkszentlaszlo in the Bukk Hills in a few days. That's no problem for us, now well-seasoned travellers.
Birdlife has been somewhat scarce so far on this journey. We're a little late in the season I guess, the trees are in full leaf and, whilst we are about early in the day in 'tourist', terms, the heat of the day drives the birds to cover even before we're out of bed. But in Hungary things were about to be different. Our first encounter with wildlife was at Kanyavar Island near Zalavar on Lake Kis-Balaton, recommended in our guide book, where we spent a delightful couple of hours after lunch. There were more birds here than we had seen since we left home: a great reed-warbler, white-backed woodpecker, penduline tit, night heron, squacco heron, a grey heron with a giant fish stuck in its gullet - and whiskered terns diving for tidlers. Golden orioles were calling everywhere in the woods and a cheeky red
fox stood and watched us watching him in the car park. Now, things are beginning to get exciting!
A golden oriole was also singing its head off in the campsite at Kamping Badacsony on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. It's still 'out of season' camping here, and we took advantage of the special 'senior's discount and free breakfast' in the camp's restaurant - all included, for £12 for the two of us! Never before in all our years of travelling have we been offered a free full English breakfast on a campsite! The locals tucked into their raw peppers.
Shortly after breakfast we took off for the little villages at the foot of the hills in the Balaton Uplands National Park. These pretty villages of whitewashed and thatched cottages now being faithfully restored will become touristy in years to come no doubt - and then their beauty will be lost forever! The secluded little village of Salfold is particularly beautiful and the surrounding herb-scented meadows pulsated with wildflowers, butterflies, golden orioles, red-backed shrikes and crested larks!
A couple of walks noted in our bird guide drew us to the small town of Tihany at the head of
a tiny peninsula on Lake Balaton. It was Saturday. It was as sunny as ever and the week-enders were out in force. The streets were packed with happy families strolling through the lines of craft-market stalls and souvenir shops along the rise to the church. This, we discovered, is tourist Mecca; every spare piece of ground imaginable turned into a car park with a seated attendant waiting to take our money. We objected to being charged double as a 'car and caravan' and only taking up one car space, and left within the hour - there would be no birding here today with all those folks around anyway! People were lining the streets as we left, clearly anticipating a cycle race or something, as yellow-coated marshals twiddled with their mobile phones on street corners. The last thing we needed was another cycle race to bar our way!
Groups of Traffic Police ignored us as we passed quietly out of town on the empty road at midday, until a Police motorbike hurtled towards us with flashing lights, the policeman waving his arms frantically and shouting something to us, forcing us to pull to a stop off the road and on to
the grass verge. Directly behind him came a thousand or more - not cycles, but roaring motorbikes, motorbikes of all makes and vintage, their horns blazing and lights flashing, their riders waving happily to us as they passed us by. It was International Harley Davidson Day in Tihany it seems, but whether these were part of the Harley parade we'll never know. We had time to make tea and eat our lunch while we waited for them all to pass!*
Before getting onto the motorway proper to make better time we thought it wise to purchase a Hungarian vignette at a garage. The vignette cost around £1 per day to cover the next four days.
Bad signing around Lake Velence meant another wasted hour hunting down our choice of campsite. As it happens, it was a poor choice anyway; the facilities were about as bad as they could possibly get and we were immediately stuck in the mud on the wet field where we parked. But help was close at hand to get us off following a chance meeting with a lovely Romanian couple, Ildikó (one of Attila's many 'wives') and her husband, László. They have been living
in Hungary for many years now but they were enjoying an annual meeting on the campsite with other Romanian ex-pats and they invited us to join the party - for wine and goulash, and to meet all of their friends. A group of their most energetic gentlemen helped to push us out of the you know what, before we were all over the limit. Now, that's what I call hospitality! We left shortly after the singing started. Thank you both.
(A pair of Syrian woodpeckers flew around in the trees where we eventually parked on dry land - one bird we have never seen before as far as I recall)
They don't have plugs in the handbasins in Hungarian campsites either it seems. No problem; we bought one in the Spar Supermarket earlier in the week. Shopping has been fun the past few days. There's a Tesco here and there and our old favourite for their delicious cereals, Aldi! The stock's the same but the labels have been changed to make life more interesting. Goodness knows what's in that tin for supper tonight!
On a sad note, Janice broke the bad news to me this morning. We only
...and yet more!
Purple emperor. This one wouldn't leave us alone!
have three cartons of custard left. Never mind, perhaps we can get some more in Budapest tomorrow. Now, what is Hungarian for custard? Our phrase book is hopeless, it's not in there.
David and Janice
The grey haired nomads
* The following information comes from a Harley website:
International Harley Davidson Meeting, Alsoors.
The Central European meeting of the Harley-Davidson motorbike riders is organised annually in the middle of June in Alsóörs, Hungary. This unique, 3-day event is accompanied by concerts and dexterity competitions. The most spectacular part of the event is the procession of several thousand riders who come together at the Central European gathering.
Alsóörs, a town on the north lakeside of Lake Balaton, has hosted this 'roaring' festival since 2000. Besides the bike beauty contests, dexterity competitions and stunt demonstrations, one of the most spectacular happenings of the weekend is the procession of thousands of riders on the route between Tihany and Alsóörs. The parade is traditionally organised on Saturday at midday as a part of the 3-day show. Concerts featuring famous American and English rock musicians lend additional colour to the programme.
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