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