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Croatia: Notes by Brian Picken PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

CROATIAN CHALLENGE

A JOURNEY BY MOTORHOME

Brian Picken (First published in the MMM (Motorhome Motorcaravan Monthly). This article describes a journey to and through Croatia in an Auto-Sleeper motorhome.

With five years of motorhoming experience behind us, including a lengthy journey down to Greece, our confidence was high. However, having traded our Auto-Sleeper Trident for a Nuevo, we wondered how we would cope with the demands of the new, low-profile coachbuilt, which seemed so much larger than our panel- van-sized Trident? Croatia, with 1100 miles of spectacular coastline, bordering the crystal clear Adriatic Sea, looked appealing. After the troubles of the 1990s, tourists were returning. September and October seemed particularly attractive months to visit as the summer crowds had departed, the sea was warm and the climate benign. Several national parks and historic cities, including Dubrovnik, would provide variety to our regime of walking, swimming and sun worshipping. This was the Nuevo's maiden voyage: we'd go for it!

We made preparations. Lonely Planet's Croatia by Jeanne Oliver and The Rough Guide to Croatia by Jonathan Bousfield supplemented the generous pack of information from the Croatian National Tourist Office. This included maps and guides to the 127 campgrounds, nearly 90% of which are along the Adriatic! Caravan Europe Volume 2, updated annually by The Caravan Club, has a Croatian section providing information and sites recommended by members. Our route from Leeds, Yorkshire was via Hull, using the P&O North Sea ferry to Zeebrugge then through Belgium, Germany, Austria and Slovenia to Opatija in the Kvarner region of Croatia. We expected to take five days to do the 1000 mile journey from home.

Before our departure, we needed to resolve a number of matters. Our comprehensive European insurance cover (with Safeguard) provided cover only as far as Slovenia: an additional 15 per week premium was levied for Croatia. Our AA European breakdown cover included Slovenia, but not Croatia. An International Driving Permit was required for Slovenia, but not Croatia. Although our Nuevo has a European style number plate, as we intended driving in countries outside the EU, it was necessary to display a separate GB plate. Campingaz cylinders are not available in Croatia. While Euros are easily obtainable in the UK, purchasing Croatian kunas would be left to local ATM machines (our bank card incorporates the Cirrus network). The Nuevo's clear headlamps lens needed Super Beam Benders to adapt them for continental driving. To use Austrian motorways, we would have to purchase a vignette (tax disc) at the border. We could also expect road and tunnel tolls in Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. On the brighter side, it was not necessary to apply for travel visas.

We left Leeds on a Tuesday, sailing overnight to Rotterdam, having been re-routed because of a ferry fire. We reached our first campsite in Croatia on Saturday having covered 966 miles, 354 of which were done on the first day, thanks to an early start. The Nuevo's two-litre HDI engine was responsive, coping magnificently with all inclines and road conditions. The only embarrassment was at the Tauern Tunnel tollbooth in Austria, where an irate queue formed behind us as we failed to understand the attendant's request for the weight of our vehicle!

What follows is based on our 37 nights in Croatia, staying on eleven, mostly coastal, campsites. Our original intention was to visit all of the coastal regions, from the relatively commercialised Istria in the north to the visually stunning Dalmatia in the south. An island visit or two was another aim, as were visits to some national parks.

The guidebooks rightly compare the resorts around Opatija with the rather faded glory of the French Riviera: the stately mansions and tree-covered slopes adjacent to the sea create this feeling. Autocamp Medveja nestled in a spacious valley, opposite an attractive pebble swimming beach. Although we did not realise it at the time, its facilities were typical of many we were to encounter in Croatia. Reception is welcoming with English spoken, but a passport is required in addition to an International Camping Card. The overnight fee with electricity is similar to UK prices (on the pricier end of the European scale) and includes a local tax. The pitches are not marked. The ablutions, although reasonably clean, are fairly worn and not equipped or maintained to the standard of premier European sites. Washing machines are a rarity, although for a fee a laundress washed and dried our laundry.

There were few other British outfits around. The one caravanner we met, also aiming for Dubrovnik, intended to take a ferry across to Italy for his return journey. Minimarkets abound in Croatia, as do street stalls selling fresh local produce. Although you can happily survive from shopping locally, don't expect the choice of goods you find at home. Prices, including a 22% VAT on most items, are higher than you might expect. There are plenty of ATMs for cash. Any criticisms were minor when compared to the benefits of good weather, crystal clear sea and the relaxed ambience of Autocamp Medveja.

With the dramatic limestone crags to the left and the deep blue Adriatic to the right, driving south on the long coastal road towards Dalmatia should be an idyllic experience. It isn't! The road surface is unpredictable, the bends are sharp and barriers are flimsy or non-existent. If this isn't frightening enough, too many Croatian drivers seem to leave an unacceptable margin of error when overtaking. Helmetless local motorcyclists feature in stomach-churning accident scenes. A great number of radar-gun-toting police officers attempt to deter speeding offenders. On a second visit an alternative would be to catch the overnight Jadrolinija ferry from Rijeka to Korcula, operating throughout the year.

It was with a feeling of relief that we reached our next site, Hotel Alan Camping at Starigrad Paklenica, ideally situated for a visit to Paklenica National Park. With its Mediterranean vegetation, the attractively positioned camping area for 500 people is reached after passing a modern hotel. It is an ideal location for spectacular sunsets and easy access for swimming.

Next day, visiting the National Park (fee about 3 each), we hoped to use the car park 2km from the entrance and nearest to the gorge, but this was full! However, at no extra cost, a mini-bus took us up there. The dramatic, sheer-sided limestone rock faces are a Mecca for climbers, supporters and spectators of all ages. Between these are well-marked trails including one taking an hour and a half one to a viewing platform at the entrance to the Manita Pec cave, which was open until 1.30pm. Eating lunch on a rock surrounded by towering crags, we weren't sure whether to feel disappointed or relieved that we hadn't stumbled across three of the park's residents griffon vultures, puff adders and bears!

Krka National Park, just inland from Sibenik, famous for its waterfalls and lakes, was our next destination. Camping Slanica, on the island of Murter was to be our base. A bridge gives access to the island and to the town of Murter, where the site overlooks the seductive town bay. The narrow coastal track, leading to its entrance was not wide enough for motorhomes, nor were the pitches, but what a position! Reluctantly, we backtracked and made do with the large, anonymous, expensive, well-equipped Camping Jezera-Lovisca.

On previous trips, I felt that I'd seen enough waterfalls for a lifetime, but I was both pleasantly surprised and mesmerised by the beauty of the numerous cascading, low-level falls at Krka. The entrance fee included parking, a twenty minute boat trip through the gorge and unlimited time at the falls. Here there are walkways and trails, stalls, restaurants, swimming areas and a working folk museum. Like other parks we visited in Croatia, the facilities were well organised and designed to blend sympathetically with the environment.

It was a long 35 miles to Camping Seget on the outskirts of Trogir. This is a small, friendly site with rather ancient facilities. The 2km stroll to Trogir is well worth it. A vigorous local market is just outside the compact old town with its narrow passageways, cathedral, ancient castle and busy yacht-filled waterfront.

If Trogir delighted, it was only an appetiser for Split, Croatia's second largest city, which we headed for on a Sunday. Following the signs for ferries, we located one of the world's most scenic car parks on the quay overlooking the harbour. Our guidebooks outlined a two-hour walking tour of the famous old city, which grew around the amazingly preserved palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian. It is worth a small fee to experience the vaults and foundations beneath. Driving out of this unmissable city, we were amazed by its accessibility (or maybe we were just lucky)?

What a welcome we received at our next site Autocamp Sirena, Lokva Rogoznica, Omis! The English-speaking manager and his female assistant of this two-year-old cliff-top site allayed our fears about the rather steep descent to our chosen pitch, then invited us to a free barbecue that evening. Here, about twenty campers of all nationalities were treated to local wines and spirits, roasted meat and fish, and a guitarist singing moving local songs including one about a post-mortem! A lovely little beach and bay is reached directly from the camp. In autumn in this region, two winds the Bora and the Mistral can blow up suddenly and dramatically. The Nuevo's rear steadies coped with a wild night.

Travelling on down the increasingly dramatic coastal road, we were ready for a longer stop on the highly recommended Makarska Riviera, as we reached the resort of Podgora and Autocamp Sutikla. Amongst the olive trees and overlooking the beach we managed to secure a wonderful spot. This proved an ideal site to rest from driving. Sea swimming is a few yards away. There is a promenade leading to an attractive fishing village one way and the other, local shops, where we discovered a tasty Croatian salami and delightfully strong Paski Sir sheep's cheese made on the isle of Pag.

Here, after talking to other travellers, we made the best decision of the trip. Dubrovnik's campsites were not highly recommended and their opening at this time of year could not be guaranteed. Driving there, although scenic, would continue to be arduous. However, if we took a ferry from Ploce to Trpanj, we could explore the Peljesac peninsula, visiting the island of Korcula from where a hydrofoil runs to Dubrovnik. At the Jadrolinija terminal at Ploce, the 16 for the ferry to Trpanj cost less than expected (it runs several times a day, all year).

On Peljesac, a short, steep, exciting drive through tiny vineyards took us over the island ridge to sheltered south-facing Orebic, where our chosen camp was closed. Fortune favours the brave and, after passing through Orebic, the lane beside the sea narrowed to a single track eventually leading to Camping Antony Boy, situated between the tiny fishing villages of Kuciste and Viganj. Another warm welcome awaited us from the owner and his family. The thirteen days on this site were the best of the trip. The clear sea was still warm and ideal for swimming, snorkelling and sail boarding; the immediate area is unspoilt with good walking; the two nearby villages offer minimarkets, a post office and a bar with occasional live music.

All Croatian guidebooks rightly extol the charms of Dubrovnik. From Korcula, the hydrofoil takes 90 minutes and the tour includes a coach from the port to a scenic panorama above the city and a short, guided tour of the amazing old town. It returns in late afternoon allowing plenty of time for your own exploration. Walking the walls provides an unforgettable experience, giving a rooftop view of the restoration work done after 2000 shells hit 824 (two thirds) of its buildings in the hostilities of 1991-92. Free from driving and parking problems, motorhomers are advised to consider this way of seeing one of the most beautiful cities in the world!

After this spectacular success at our most southerly point, we planned our return carefully, as many camps would now be closed. Our next destination was Croatia's premier national park at Plitvicka Jezera. After nights at Camping Vrila, Trpanj and Camping Solaris, Sibenik we headed inland for a sombre drive close to the Bosnia Hercegovina border. Passing through an abandoned village and gutted, smoke blackened shells of houses, we imagined the terror, despair and helplessness that war brings to ordinary people caught up in it.

The cooler, misty October weather inland was brightened by the offer of free camping, just before it closed for winter, at Autocamp Korana, the park's official campsite. This modern, well-equipped site with plenty of hardstanding pitches with CEE electrical connections is a five-mile drive from Entrance 2 of the extensive national park. Its entrance fee includes a leaflet showing marked trails and walkways around the lakes linking with boats and specially designed tractor trains. Even in the mist, the views, enhanced by the autumn colours, are unforgettable and the organisation within the park befits a World Heritage Site.

Before leaving Croatia we visited Rovinj in Istria, the most popular and easily accessible province, renowned for its strong Italian links. From Camping Porton Biondi in Rovinj we could view St Euphemia's Church, whose 58m high tower resembles on St Mark's in Venice. Istria, although appealing seemed more commercially developed and consequently less charming than places further south.

Our return journey to Zeebrugge of 1150 miles was via Italy, Austria, Germany and Holland and took four days. The Nuevo had performed faultlessly, was a joy to drive and live in, especially appreciated were its large double bed, oven, Truma heating, and shower room. Vehicle size had not been a problem and the additional surge of power from the HDI engine had been a bonus.

Motorhomers, who use official campsites in Croatia, should be prepared for variable standards of cleanliness and maintenance, unreliable opening dates, an unfathomable official star grading system and directional signs (when they exist) open to misinterpretation. Criticisms pale into insignificance when balanced against the stunning location of many camps, which are spacious, uncrowded, relaxed and informal. The country, which has gone through so much relatively recently, is not rule-bound: parking, walking and beaches for swimming are freely and readily available. At all times we felt safe, the popular tourist areas appearing noticeably free from petty crime.

Driving through Croatia, you can appreciate the special qualities of the country which include scenic roads bordered by jutting, gleaming, grey limestone peaks; unspoilt, accessible pebble beaches beside the clearest, warm sea; wonderfully preserved historic towns; lush, well-organised national parks; and most areas still free from many of the commercial trappings of today's world. It is the Croatian people who create the warmest feeling: they are uncomplaining, welcoming and getting on with their lives. Not only do many speak and understand English, but also they seem to appreciate, more than many other nationalities do, the peculiarly English dry sense of humour. At least they smiled a lot at me for whatever reason! We will return.

AT A GLANCE

Croatian National Tourism Office, 2 The Lanchesters, 162 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 9ER (tel: 020-8563 7979; e-mail: ; www.htz.hr).

Routes and comparative fuel prices were obtained from www.theaa.com/travelwatch/planner and www.rac.co.uk/routeplanner.

For details of Super Beam Benders, see Marketplace, March '03 and www.saxonind.co.uk.

Jadrolinija ferry: www.jadrolinija.hr.