Down the Dalmatian coast

Down the Dalmatian Coast

Sunday 6th May 2007, Vodice, Croatia
As we were driving the 26 kilometres back to the mainland this morning we passed a stranded car on the empty road with a worried young man waving his arms in supplication. He spoke less English than anyone we have so far encountered but we did work out that he was out of fuel and had no idea where there might be a garage. We have already ascertained that they are very few and far between and had commented as we passed one several miles back that it was the only one we'd seen on the island. We turned around and loaded our new Croatian friend and his empty petrol can into Modestine along with the bikes and drove seven miles back the way we'd come, waited while he filled his can and then took him back to his vehicle. Did we earn Brownie points for Britain? Using his entire command of English nouns, without a single verb, he told us his friend had lent him his car for the day and not mentioned that it needed petrol. He'd never been in a camping car before and found it great fun to sit as a passenger in what to him should be the driving seat. Modestine was a wonderful car, not like his. Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping him. (Hvala, hvala, hvala.) That's one word we've learnt anyway. He then explained that his mother was a Dalmatian. This surprised us rather but we think we disguised it well enough. Except for a friendly disposition commonly found in large canines, he bore no resemblance to a spotted dog whatsoever.

One grateful motorist, Krk

Eventually, after lots of handshaking, we left him to turn left to Rejika while we turned right on the mainland and followed the coast road down towards Split. To our relief it was nothing like the twisting, switchback nightmare we'd feared. There was very little traffic, the road was well engineered and the surface good. It followed the contour of the hillside as far as possible so was very twisty and winding but there were plenty of places to pull off the road to admire the truly stunning views.

A stretch of our coastal route, north of Dalmatia

The route ran parallel to the island of Krk we'd just left. It looked a very bare and barren place from this side without a tree or blade of grass to be seen. As our route continued, for well over 100 miles we ran beside island after island, all lying parallel to the mainland and each seeming more barren than the previous one. There are around 1,100 offshore islands of which about 60 are inhabited. Eventually we reached the ferry crossing point to the island of Pag. The ferry here was running and we considered crossing to continue along the island which at this point was no more than a long finger of starkly bare orange rock with a dust track winding along the top. There was no sign of life to be seen. The mainland route was so much better than we'd expected we decided not to cross and continued through a rocky, mountainous terrain thinly covered in sparse scrubland, the cracked and crumbling bare rock sticking up above the dwarfed trees and woody shrubs. The landscape is very Mediterranean, rather like the garrigue of Southern France or the maquis of Corsica. There were pretty flowers in amongst the rocks and wild almond trees on the hillsides. From time to time the route descended down to sea level to pass through tiny towns or hamlets with small harbours and people sitting outside the village bar. In one such place we saw a fisherman catch an octopus, its legs writhing and waving until he somehow managed to kill it. It seemed rather a tragic sight. Plates of fried tentacles with their little round suckers seem a very popular seafood dish but we've not really fancied eating it.

Krk from the mainland

Harbour at Povile

Typical village along the coast road near Senj

In total today we've driven nearly two hundred miles of very twisting roads often with a sheer drop down to the sea on the driver's side. We stopped for a picnic lunch in the hot, bright sunshine. Hardly a vehicle passed us on the cliff top as we sat looking out across the blue sea towards the islands. Eventually we turned off the main road to the little seaside town of Vodice following a camping sign. It turns out to be a very pleasant little site under shady oak trees in the large garden of a private house. There is only one other vehicle here, from Germany. Some Polish people were just packing their tent to leave as we arrived. Polish people always travel with tents and we have irreverently taken to calling them "Tent Poles".

Pleasant spot for a picnic

Modestine waits patiently

Island of Pag seen from the mainland

Further down the inhospitable coastline of Pag

After a rest to recover from driving and an early salad supper in the shade of the trees we walked down into the town. It is a really lovely place crowded with happy holiday makers strolling around the harbour eating ice creams or enjoying a drink or seafood meal on the seafront. The town itself, with its narrow streets lies just back from the sea. Attracted by the sound of singing we made our way to the church. It was packed with worshippers at the evening service and most of them were young people in their teens and twenties.

Coming out of church after Sunday evening mass, Vodice

At a seaside bakery, still open late into the evening, we bought apple strudel and returned to Modestine to enjoy it with mugs of tea by lamplight outside. The sweeping beam of the distant lighthouse just touched the edge of the trees as we sat in the darkness.

We like it here so much we thought we'd stay another day. By chance though we have just read in our guidebook that the bones of St. Duja are to be carried in procession through the streets of Split tomorrow and ceremoniously laid in the church to be followed by lots of fun and celebrations. We are about 90 kilometres from Split and it might be interesting to watch the Croatians at play.

Tuesday 8th May 2007, Stobrec near Split, Croatia
Our German companions at the campsite at Vodice told us that they have visited the area for the past 25 years not even stopping during the war, when they brought convoys of aid to the Croatian refugees from Krajina who were lodged in the hotels in Vodice. They had heard the gunfire and were once stopped at a roadblock by soldiers, one of whom turned out to be the butcher in the local supermarket who recognised them and let them pass. Today all is peaceful and relatively prosperous, tourism is returning to the coastal settlements like Vodice but there is still high unemployment and in some areas bitter feelings remain.

Yesterday we decided to visit Skradinski Buk, the waterfalls in the Krka National Park. Our route took us inland to the little town of Skradin, picturesquely set on the estuary of the Krke River. It is a community that has certainly seen more prosperous days. It is an ancient Roman settlement and was once the seat of a bishop. Along the main street the houses had once been elegantly covered in stucco and painted, but now most having crumbling plaster and fading paintwork. The Orthodox Church in the main street is in a sorry state with its roof collapsed. Many of the houses bear pock marks from the fighting back in the 1990s and some even lack roofs and windows. The place suffered badly during the war that tore Yugoslavia apart as it was on the edge of the Serbian enclave of Krajina. There have been efforts at reconstruction in the town. Many streets have been repaved, handsome street names and numbers have been carved out of the local limestone and in several places houses were being gutted and restored.

Battered and pockmarked fa├žade in Skradin

Around the marina were several yachts and the waterfront bars were filled with boating people who spent their holidays sailing around the islands, calling in from port to port as they go. From here we took a boat up the river, into a wide ravine to the lowest of the waterfalls from where we continued on foot. The falls really are most spectacular, cascading from numerous river tributaries hidden amongst the trees to fall as sheets of white and azure water into the river below. They show a clear example of travertines, produced over time from the calcite material precipitated from the water as it falls over the edge, forming thresholds and dams.

View back towards the Krka estuary from Skradinski Buk

Waterfalls at Skradinski Buk

Waterfalls at Skradinski Buk

Waterfalls at Skradinski Buk

Travertines at Skradinski Buk

From the boat as we arrived we had noticed a hydroelectric dam in the woods. Below the first of the waterfalls we now discovered the disused walls and huge turbine of an earlier one. Constructed in 1895 it was the first such power station in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and entered into use only two days after the first one in the world, constructed at Niagara Falls, also designed by a Croatian, Nikola Tesla. It supplied the town of Sibenik until World War One.

Original turbine from the hydroelectric dam at Skradinski Buk

Present day hydroelectric station at Skradinski Buk

The hillsides around are heavily tree clad limestone rock with Aleppo and Alpine pines and oaks. Several falls higher up wooden walkways have been built across the river, weaving their way between the numerous fingers of the waterfalls as they tumble and crash through the woodland or over a precipice. The air is damp with the clouds of spray thrown up from the water. The forest park itself is a protected habitat for many endangered species including wolves, jackals and wild cats as well as smaller mammals that include certain bats, rodents and otters. There are several species of snakes and lizards, including the green Balkan lizard. It was a beautiful if tiring walk and there was still much to see when we realised the last boat back would be leaving in less than an hour and we still had to cross back over the head of the falls and scramble down to the main river.

Walkway across the head of the falls, Skradinski Buk

The boat took us down river passing a family of swans and cygnets and several herons in the reed beds, back to the quayside at Skradin. We then decided to retrace our route back to the same campsite we'd used the previous night rather than continue towards Split in the hope of finding another.

Returning to Skradin

This morning we drove into Sibenik which proved to be a very pleasant town once we'd fought our way through the busy streets and found somewhere safe to leave Modestine. None of the towns are particularly pleasant on the outside, many having disused or ugly outmoded factories and high, uninspiring blocks of flats with graffiti over the lower walls. Once into the old towns however, most are a lovely maze of cool shady streets and narrow passageways from which traffic is of necessity excluded as the streets are too narrow to accommodate them. So worn are the white flagstone streets that they shine like polish and they are really dangerous to walk on being as slippery as glass.

There are street markets on most days in the little towns. Frequently they are for the local people by the local people. We have the definite feeling that not many food miles are travelled in Croatia. The produce all looks really fresh, be it strawberries, oranges or cherries, all of which are currently seasonal, or the day's catch of sea bass, cuttlefish or octopus. Every three shops you pass is a butcher with a queue of customers and there are almost as many bakers shops filled with mainly white bread and sticky doughnuts.

Market at Sibenik

Around the town we passed numerous little churches, all very pleasant, rather shabby Baroque, frequently with wooden columns and altars painted to resemble marble.

We climbed up to the castle of Sv. Mihovl (what a surprise! But there is hope for Jill - Ian's knee has been hurting him and he even decided against climbing a bell tower this afternoon!) The climb was worth the effort, even in 28 degrees of sunshine. From the ramparts we could see over the red tiled roofs of the town and the 15th century barrel shaped roof of the cathedral, out to the many islands just a few minutes boats trip from the mainland. Later we stopped for a cold drink and fruit tarts on a terrace beside the theatre where H.C. Andersen's Ugly Duckling was playing to crowds of enthusiastic young school children.

View from the castle over Sibenik, the cathedral and the islands

Krka estuary at Sibenik

Children coming out of the theatre, Sibenik

Cathedral at Sibenik

Cathedral doorway with Adam and Eve, Sibenik

Townscape, Sibenik

We left Sibenik and continued along the coast to Primosten, a picturesque little town built on a small island linked to the mainland by a short causeway. Again the steep, slippery streets were unsuitable for vehicles. Many of the little gardens had vines growing and most had their own vegetable gardens where beans and potatoes were flourishing. Around the external walls of the church on the summit were garlands of pine fronds and it appeared to be decorated for a recent festival.

Gardens and stone covered roofs at Primosten

Garlanded church at Primosten

A little further along our route we stopped to explore Trogir. Set on the water's edge faced by offshore islands, it provides a safe marina for island hopping boats as well as fishing craft. The small cathedral, 1200-1598, is the most outstanding feature of this little town and the entrance porch is stunningly beautiful. Carved in limestone it is richly adorned in Romanesque style with saints, apostles, animals and grotesques. It is guarded by figures of Adam and Eve standing on lions. (This was also the case at Sibernik and is a popular motif in the area.) The porch was built about 1240. During our visit a male voice choir arrived unexpectedly and we were privileged to hear some very agreeable singing of klapa (traditional Dalmatian plainsong) as we wandered around looking at the paintings, tombs and side altars.

City walls, Trogir

Main square, Trogir

Cathedral, Trogir

Detail of cathedral porch, Trogir

Interior of the Cathedral with male voice choir, Trogir

15th century Kamerlengo fortress (and town cinema) Trogir

By now we were looking for a campsite. We were almost into Split but the site on our map no longer existed and the route became increasingly busy, industrialised, dusty and run down. As an introduction to Split it could hardly have been worse. Ugly and sprawling the route took us further and further in to the centre. In the end we picked up the bypass and headed towards Dubrovnik, doubling back to Split from the further side seeking a different campsite. That too no longer existed but after untold hassles we eventually found one a few kilometres out on a bus route into Split. It looked like a builder's yard when we arrived but the lady assured us it was open, except that nothing was really working yet as it is new so we could have a discount. There are only three vehicles here on what will be a massive site when finished. Probably nobody else has found it as there is no sign post to it yet. It is on the water's edge and fairly peaceful. We tried to do some washing this evening. The hot water goes into the sink okay but too late we discovered the waste pipes haven't been connected up properly yet! What other surprises await us in the showers we wonder! We've been chatting with a Dutch couple on the site. They have travelled from Dubrovnik so have given us details of the site they used there which will be a great help. They were very friendly and even invited us over to their camper van for coffee with them this evening.

Modestine's view from our campsite, Stobrec near Split