Down the Dalmatian coast…. .

Ok.  So.  I’m sitting writing this blog post from the quiet comfort of the library in Harrogate, UK.  Tim is currently ‘home alone’ or maybe I should say ‘van alone’ back in Croatia.  Oh don’t worry, he has a list of chores.  I flew into Leeds Bradford airport on the tail end of Storm Brian last Saturday.  To say it was a bumpy landing is an under statement.  After one aborted landing and a circle around a bit we came in for a second go.  I think it is fair to say the atmosphere on the plane was somewhat tense.  Cheering and clapping commenced as soon as the rubber hit the asphalt.  I don’t think we were quite out of the woods at that point but it did break the tension.   I’ve got to give it to these pilots, trying to tame a bucking Boeing 73 something or other in winds gusting at 40+ mph must be no mean feat.  They deserve whatever they are paid.   End of.

Anyways, meanwhile back on the coast of Croatia last week……….

Leaving Plitvice Lakes National Park we headed back down to the coast taking the A1 toll road to get us through the Velebit mountains.  Oh yes, we’d done our homework this time on how the toll system works in Croatia.  Pay a human at a toll booth.  Simples.  We’d learnt from our past mistake.  Right decision.  Several tunnels, including Sveti Rok tunnel at five kilometres long, convinced us that the alternative route would have been d.i.v.o.r.c.e. inducing.

Pitched up back on the coast at a smallish campsite at Tribanj Šibuljna some more walking was to be had.  And swimming (that’ll be me not Tim, he prefers terra tarmac).

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Campsite at Tribanj Šibuljna .

The weather was superb, the campsite quiet and a footpath across the road led us up and up (and up) into the Paklenica National Park.  The cloud was still hanging low across the sea towards Pag island.  The views were phenom.

 

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Climbing above the cloud.  The sea and Pag island are out there somewhere.
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After another hour of climbing the sea and Pag island in the distance were revealed.
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Sunset over Pag island.

Pag island, from a distance, looks like a giant pumice stone.  Just bleak and barren.  Twenty four thousand sheep call it home.  As do eight thousand people. The sheep support themselves mostly from sage which carpets the eastern side of the island.  The people support themselves from the cheese provided by the sheep.  That and tourism, clubbing and olives.  Novalja, one of the main settlements on Pag is said to be the ‘prime venue for Adriatic clubbing’.  I presume it’s not the stone age kind of clubbing.

 

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Pag sheep.

Judging by the size of Šimuni campsite where we stayed for a couple of nights the island must be rammed with people in the height of the summer.  I say campsite but it was more a camping village with restaurants, bars, supermarket, holiday homes, private beach and shower blocks that wouldn’t look out of place in a boutique hotel.  Just enorm.   Out of season with our ACSI card it was about £16 per night and exceedingly quiet.  A bargain.

 

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Our pitch on Pag at Šimuni camping.

The coast of Croatia seems to close by the second week in October.  That suits us but wouldn’t suit everyone.

 

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Walking the lunar landscape of Pag towards Sveti Vid peak.
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Views from Sveti Vid.
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Looking down on Pag town.
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Stone stacks on the beach around the coast from the campsite.

Onwards then to Split.

P1090936.JPGWe took the toll road again.  Can’t get enough of them now!  The drive through the outskirts of Split on the D1 is all downhill and pretty dramatic.  Yes it’s exceedingly busy and a culture shock after having tootled about at a leisurely pace for a week or two but the views made up for that.  Backed by an ominous grey wall of mountains, the D1 sweeps down past little hillside settlements and Klis Fortress, a medieval castle teetering on a rock above the city.  We installed ourselves at Camping Stobreč, seven kilometres outside the city.  That is where Tim is now, you know, quietly working his way through his list.

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Camping Stobrec.

Before I left for my little sojourn back in blighty we took the bus into Split from just outside the campsite.  Split and around is one of the most urbanized areas of the Adriatic coast.  As with all urbanised areas some of it is pretty grim but the overall situation of the city with the mountainous backdrop is very agreeable.  It’s a lively place even at this time of year with its bustling markets, seafront cafes, ferries, boats and marinas.

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One of the markets in Split.
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The seafront in Split.

The piece de resistance of Split, for me at least, is its warren of alleys hidden away behind the remains of Diocletian’s Palace. Built in 295 AD by the Roman Emperor Diocletian as a retirement home, measuring 200m by 240m, with a fortified keep and four towers, it must have been quite the des res.  Over the ensuing years after Diocletian’s successors had departed it was gradually, over time, remodelled into a labyrinth of houses, tenements, churches and chapels.  It really is fascinating with so many nooks and crannies to explore.  Boutique shops, little cafes and restaurants sit cheek by jowl with apartments airing the days washing.

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Apartments within the old walls of Diocletians palace.
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Washing day.
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More washing within the walls.
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Busy alleyways…..
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……and not so busy alleyways.

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Diocletian’s Palace.

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We loved it.

Zbogom!

 

Plitvice Lakes National Park…. .

A detour from the coast.  This will be a short post as I will let the pictures speak for themselves.  You don’t need me going on yada yada yada to see that the Plitvice Lakes National Park is quite something.  It is the single most visited natural attraction in Croatia.  Sixteen lakes strung out over eight kilometres with a series of waterfalls and cataracts connecting them.  It’s a pay to go in affair and needless to say can be very busy, especially along the boardwalk areas.

The pictures are courtesy of Tim’s camera.  My camera opened and snapped shut again on the first picture of the day.  Battery dead.  Tim’s words to me at breakfast that morning were ‘have you checked that your camera is charged’?  My reply ‘I had it on charge yesterday’.  Did I check it had charged though?  No.  Another lesson.  I am soooo rubbish with technology.

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This is the scene that greets you on entry to the Park from Entrance 1.  You can see the line of people on the boardwalk in the sunlight to the left of the picture.

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Quite a few people in the ‘must see’ bits of the Park.
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The water is so clear.
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October is a good time to visit for the autumnal colours.

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A series of boardwalks guide you through parts of the Park.
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The trails away from the boardwalks were very quiet.
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The views from above the lakes were superb.
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You can see the boardwalk beneath the falls.

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Back down at lake level on a boardwalk.

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Back towards Entrance 1 in the afternoon was much quieter than it had been in the morning.

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October is certainly a good time to visit as it is less busy, still warm and the colours of the trees are striking.

Bok!

 

 

 

Cracking Croatia…. .

Krk is the largest of Croatia’s islands and apparently the most developed.  It is linked to the mainland by what our guide book describes as ‘a dramatically arcing bridge’.  We had to take the guidebooks word on that as we’d arrived in the pitch black after our little detour over Mount Učka avoiding what we had thought was a toll road.

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Just around the coast from Njivice, Krk island.

The first thing that struck us about Krk, and much of the rest of Croatia we had seen, was how hilly it is.  In the years leading up to our trip I would come home from work, slump onto the settee with a cup of tea, and binge on repeat episodes of ‘A Place in the Sun’.  Not one of those episodes that featured Croatia do I remember it looking lumpy.  It is hilly, rocky and steep though.  At least on the coast.  And all the more appealing for it.

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A Lidl taste of home found in, er, Lidl just outside Krk town.

I think October is a great time to be here.  The weather has been superb, the sea water is crystal clear, the campsites are very quiet, the traffic has been light and some of the small seaside towns are still quite lively.  For us it’s perfect.

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Mmm, interesting technique!
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Sunset at the beach just outside the campsite at Njivice.

It’s a walkers paradise with trails leading up into the hills directly from the coast.  We were spoilt for choice from the campsite at Baška, a beautiful seaside resort on the southern end of Krk.

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Baška
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The view above Baška.
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So many routes it’s difficult to choose.

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Blue is obviously ‘the’ colour for sheep this year.
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All the trails have been well marked.
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View towards the southern tip of Krk and the islands beyond.

The views from the Obzovo peak towards the other islands of Cres and Rab were fantastic.

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Excellent free map given to us at the campsite at Baška which, unusually for a free one, showed the contour lines.

Back on the mainland again we pitched up at Camp Selce just outside the seaside resort of Crikvenica.  A perfect spot for some more swimming and hiking.

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The water may be crystal clear but it is cold.
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Our pitch at Camp Selce just outside Crikvenica.

A trail out of the town took us up to the peak at Drenin with more spectacular views.

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On the top of Drenin peak looking towards Rijeka (Krk island to the left).

 

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Wonderful walks and views direct from the campsite.

We had high hopes for our stay in Croatia and, so far, it hasn’t disappointed.

Laku noć!

 

Finally….Croatia…. .

Croatia……………at last.  This time we came prepared waving our passports in our grubby little mitts.  Having been turned back at the border on our bikes the day before for not having our passports I was a little disappointed when we were waved through border control with hardly a cursory glance at the passports in my out stretched hand.  I might as well have been waving my shopping list.  Still, we were pleased to be going in to Croatia, another new country for us.

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Yay, Croatia is finally on the map.

Croatia boasts nearly 2000km of rocky coastline as well as over 1000 islands.  After not having seen the sea for nearly five months we are going to be spoilt for choice.  Ironically, though, we started our tour inland just outside the hilltop town of Buje.  After visiting a cashpoint to pick up some Kuna’s (no euros here) we pitched up at Eco Gecko Camping in Triban, a little hamlet deep in the Istrian countryside.  What a little find.  Just four pitches in the owner, Michaels, garden.  Excellent.  Washing machine included in the price.  Big tick.

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Master chef at Eco Gecko Campsite.

The site was also a short distance away from the Parenzana Cycleway where we would be able to cycle to Grožnjan, our first hilltop town stop.  The Parenzana was a 130km long narrow gauge railway line linking the port of Trieste in Italy to Poreč in Croatia which was only operational from 1902 to 1935.  In 2006 work began on converting the former track into a foot and cycle path.  Our Rough Guide informed us that the most breath taking sections of the route were those connecting Buje, Grožnjan, Livade, Motovun and Vižinada.  After having cycled some of the route from Lucija to Koper I was really looking forward to some more.  What the Rough Guide failed to mention, though, was that not all of the route is suitable for road bikes.  We picked up the trail not far from the campsite but it was an unsurfaced rough track which, although doable on our touring bikes, would have been slow, uncomfortable and tedious.  We decided to go by road instead.

The Istrian peninsula is dotted with historic hilltop towns overlooking forest, farmland, vineyards, orchards and olive groves.  Many of the towns suffered huge losses of population after World War II when local Italians were forced to leave.  In the 1970’s, in an attempt to keep the towns alive, empty houses were offered to painters, sculptors and musicians which also stimulated tourism.

Grožnjan was alive with people enjoying lunch at the many cafes, wandering around the tight cluster of cobbled streets or poking about in the numerous galleries and craft shops.

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Groznjan, it doesn’t look busy but there were lots of people about.
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Groznjan.

In contrast, the following day we walked to Buje, another hilltop town which had a much more deserted feel to it.  We loved it though and practically had the place to ourselves feeling slightly like voyeurs nosing in on other peoples everyday lives.

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The footpath to Buje.
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Approach to Buje.
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It was washing day in Buje.
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Restored homes stand side by side with derelict buildings.
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Buje old town is a warren of alleys and dead ends.

Novigrad, on the coast, was our next stop.  A pleasant spot for a couple of days with the bonus of an outdoor pool on the sea front.

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Colourful umbrellas in Novigrad.
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Fishing is still thriving in Novigrad.
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The pool to myself.

Back inland again we headed for a camper stop below the hilltop town of Motovun where Mario Andretti was born.  At €23 per night for what is effectively a car park it’s a bit steep but inland Istria is limited for campsites or motorhome stopovers.  Wild camping is forbidden in Croatia, with a knock on the door and a subsequent fine from the police being the likely outcome, so we parked up and paid up.  However, included in the price was free use of the hotel swimming pool.  The only drawback was the hotel was at the very top of the town, a fifteen minute brisk walk up the steep hill.  After a three hour walk taking in the town and the surrounding countryside I did that fifteen minute brisk walk up that hill and had that swim.

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Motovun
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The narrow streets of Motovun.
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Motovun from below.

Our Rough Guide  recommended the Trail of the Seven Waterfalls, or the Staza Seven Slapova, which has a better ring to it I feel.  The 15km walk starts in Buzet and takes in the Mirna Canyon, the water features of Kotli and several ‘slaps’ before returning to Buzet.  We almost didn’t start the walk as it was raining but refused to be dictated to by the weather.  We got water proofed up, set off and hoped for the best.  The first part of the walk up through the canyon had some interesting climbs with ropes and rails to cling on to which was just as well with it being so wet.  The only disappointment was that the river was so dry with just a trickle of water over the falls.

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Vela Pec Slap (or no slap)
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Up through the Mirna Canyon.

We emerged through the trees at the top of the canyon just as the rain cleared and the sun came out.

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The hilltop village of Buzet in the background.

 

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Lunch stop at Mala Pec slap (again no slap).
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You can keep your fancy restaurant lunches – an egg mayo sandwich and a flask of coffee is all we need.  Slap up.

I’d taken my swimming costume hoping for a bit of fun in the natural pools at the little hamlet of Kotli but alas no water was to be had.

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Kotli natural pools (Kotli apparently means hollow in Croatian and from which the hamlet gets its name).
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Kotli hamlet now mostly holiday apartments.

All in all an excellent well marked trail that would be spectacular with higher water levels.

Krk island was our next destination, an 80km drive.  No probs, it should take an hour or so.  That was before the sat nav diverted us off the A8 and onto a minor road heading up the mountain.  How was I to know that the A8 was a toll road?  It didn’t look like one on the Maps.Me app.  A tortuous, winding climb up and then down the mountain road to avoid the toll road delayed us somewhat with darkness approaching.  Driving in the dark is something we try to avoid in unfamiliar territory and I can’t actually remember the last time we drove in the dark on our trip.  Looking at the map it now seemed likely that we’d have to drive right through Rijeka, a huge industrial conurbation, before reaching Krk island.  Now, we would have been happy to pay the toll for the drive to Krk but as we’d made the decision to avoid toll roads back in Slovakia neither of us had bothered to research how the system worked in Croatia.  Do we need to buy a vignette?  A go-box?  A pre-mid?  Or is it just a pay at the toll booth affair?  Too late asking the questions now.  We did the only available option and pressed on.  We were so relieved when the sat nav directed us back on to the A8 before reaching Rijeka and then had us take the A7 avoiding the city.  Mmm, weird.  We arrived at Kamp Nijice on Krk island without further incident and settled in.  (Note to self: Even if you don’t intend using the toll roads still do the research stupid).  It turns out that the toll on the A7 is just a one off payment for the five kilometre long Učka tunnel and not a toll road as such.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, no?

Doviđenja!

Slovenia…Italy…Slovenia… .

Biking in bright sunshine the beautiful eight miles or so to the Bohinj Bovine Ball we were in high spirits.  Arriving bright and early at 10.30am things were just starting to kick off.  Accordion music blasted from outdoor speakers, craft and food stalls had set out their wares and the barbecues were just cranking up.

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Cheesemaker’s at the Cow Ball.

We looked set for a good day out.  No cows to be seen yet as the parade was to be later on.  Three hours later on.  That would have been fine if the weather hadn’t deteriorated.   The clouds appeared, got lower, and lower, and lower, then drizzle came and then the rain.  Not torrential rain but that steady wetting sort of rain.  Not prepared, we mooched about in our sandals, shorts and non waterproof jackets slowly getting wet through.

Three hours was a long time to wait in the rain, with no shelter, for the parade of the cows.  We broke up the wait with a traditional Slovenian lunch of sausage, corn mush and sauerkraut which I can only describe as a flat sausage patty served on a bed of grit.  The cows, led by their herdsmen, were worth waiting for though trotting through the crowd, bells jangling, replete in their bouquets.  Calves, some as young as a few days old, and a bit skittish, hopped, skipped and jumped along after the adults.  They will graze in the valley now until early spring when they’ll go with their herdsmen back to their mountain pastures again.

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The parade of the cows.
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What handsome cows!

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Traditional cheesemaking equipment.

Back at the campsite we wrung out our clothes and sat steaming away in the van with the heater on full blast to dry out.   After another couple of days hiking and biking in dodgy weather we threw in the towel and headed for the north eastern coast of Italy.

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Savica waterfall.

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Bohinj Lake.

Once again, it was a bit of a culture shock driving back to civilisation once away from the Triglav National Park.  Several miles of retail outlets lined either side of the road into Udine where we’d planned a stop for the night.  It was one long strip of Malls, DIY stores, food outlets, supermarkets, garages and car showrooms which seemed to go on forever.  And ever.  The weather was warm and sunny but I already had that sinking feeling of ‘what are we doing here’ having no interest in any retail therapy and already missing the calm tranquillity of the Slovenian mountains, albeit a grey, wet and cold tranquillity.  We did, however, walk to the Decathlon shop a mile or so away after we’d parked up the van at the aire to peruse the miles of aisles of sports equipment.  Yeah, I know, double standards.

Not feeling the love for Udine, even though it is said to have a historic centre, we pressed on to the coast the following morning.  We were waylaid for a few hours in Palmanova though.  We knew nothing about Palmanova but the shape of it on the map drew me in.  Planning our route I hadn’t even noticed it.  It was only when we were a few miles outside the town, whilst I was faffing with the Maps.Me app zooming in and out, that I realised it was definitely worth investigating.

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Palmanova on the Maps.Me app.

 

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Aerial shot of Palmanova courtesy of Google images.
Built by the Venetians towards the end of the 16th Century the nine pointed star structure was conceived as a defence system to keep out the Turks.  The town is now designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Walking the ramparts.

A walk around the inner ramparts followed by a second lap around the outer ramparts and a mooch about the town square took up most of the afternoon and we were really glad we had stopped.

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The centre of Palmanova.  The fair was parked just to the right of the picture!

Not least because we spotted these guys basking in the sunshine in the moat below the upper path.

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Turtles catching some rays in the moat.

We hit the Italian coast at Grado. This was our first glimpse of the sea since early May when we’d left the French coast.  The sun was out, it was warm and there was an aire (aka large carpark) fifty metres from the beach at €4 per night.  Life doesn’t get better than that let me tell you.

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Carpark aire at Grado, Italy – living the dream!

Approached by a four kilometre long causeway Grado, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, is a little island beach resort backed by lagoons teeming with birdlife.  It was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days enjoying the sunshine whilst biking around the nature reserve.

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Grado.
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Fishing boats in the Valle Cavanata Nature Reserve.
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Cycling the causeway into Grado.

Onwards then east along the coast and back into Slovenia.  Slovenia has just over forty kilometres of coastline sandwiched between Italy and Croatia.  We based ourselves for a couple of nights at an aire on the marina at Lucija.  When we arrived there were only about seven or eight vans parked so we felt mightily pleased with ourselves that we were able to bag a ringside seat right next to the sea.  Perfect.  When we returned from a bike ride to Piran several hours later though we were completely surrounded by Slovenian and Italian vans settling in for the weekend.

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Aire at the marina in Lucija.  It filled up on the Friday night.

Piran, set on a triangular shaped peninsular, is just charming.  Thanks largely to nearly five hundred years of Venetian rule much of Piran and the coast of Slovenia is Italianate.  It’s a compact warren of alleys lined with narrow houses and tiny churches.

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Approach to Piran.
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The narrow alleyways.
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Looking down on the rooftops of Piran.

 

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Tartinijev square, Piran.
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Looking towards the square from the harbour.

The following day we thought we’d cycle to Croatia.  Now, Tim has been itching to get to Croatia for months and his plans have been scuppered by our dilly dallying here and there.  But finally, finally he was going to get there.  We picked up the Parenzana Cycleway just outside the marina which took us past the salt plains to the nearby border.  Once at the border we were confronted with passport control.  What?  Taking our passports hadn’t even crossed our minds.   We haven’t needed them on any other border (apart from Gibraltar).  I tried it on with my driving licence but passport control man said ‘NO’.   Croatia, then, still eluded us.

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Passport control on the Slovenian-Croatian border.  No passport.  No entry!

Returning to the van I left Tim to check on the back of his eyes whilst I cycled to Koper along the Parenzana Cycleway in the other direction.  And what a great mostly traffic free ride it was too.  A bit up and down, a couple of tunnels, views of the coast, vineyards, and olive groves.  A very popular day out it seems and a well used section of the path.

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One of the tunnels on the Parenzana cycle trail.
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Looking towards Izola.
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The old coast road from Izola to Koper is now traffic free.  It felt like riding on a road that had been closed for the day.

On Sunday morning we nudged Ollie out through all the vans, camping tables, chairs and bikes surrounding us and made our way to the Croatian border.  This time clutching our passports.

Tako dolgo!