And so finally, only around seven months later than in our original vague plans, we have reached Croatia. As it was late afternoon when we crossed the border, we went straight to Molunat, only a few kilometres up the coast. It is a tiny place with a pretty harbour and we had been recommended to visit by Ros who we met way back in Siena. It also has more than its fair share of campsites. The campsite Ros had mentioned – ‘Monika’s’ – didn’t look as inviting as it perhaps had when she visited, but we found a less busy and very picturesque one with a pitch right on the water in the centre of the village.
We had singularly failed to hit a cashpoint on the way, so we had to call on the good nature of the local shopkeeper as well as the campsite owner to accept our Euros. I don’t think we’ll be the first or last people to do this. Dinner was cooked and eaten to the accompaniment of the persistent miaows of a very skinny patchwork kitten, who inevitably won our hearts as well as some of our meal.
We relaxed into the feel of our ninth country as the lilac hues of dusk faded into night across the water, which was visibly and audibly teeming with fish.
Although tempted to stay at Molunat longer, we had to go in search of money and food supplies, so headed on up the coast towards Dubrovnik, calling into the larger and very scenic town of Cavtat for a wander round and cashpoint on our way. On our first full day on the road in Croatia, we were immediately struck by the number of tourists en route. Every other vehicle seemed to be a German, French or Belgian campervan or a Dutch registered car towing a caravan. We topped the brow of a hill and pulled into the layby there to gaze out over the city of Dubrovnik below us – its terracotta roofs luminous through the rather hazy light. We picniced on our newly bought crusty bread and ham.
After months of navigating by very few official campsites in the last few countries we’ve visited, and never seeing more than a handful of fellow campers at any of them, suddenly it’s June, and we are spoiled for choice with campsites all along the Dalmatian Coast, and some of them are already very busy. We wanted to allow a few days to see Dubrovnik and decided to check out the main city campsite, Camping Solitudo in a nearby suburb. We drove around the port area to get there, past the biggest cruise ships you can imagine moored alongside the road. So it was with the campsite – it was the biggest campsite we’ve seen for a while, it was also the most expensive at around 33 Euros a night. It’s rather misnamed too with more campers turning up every few minutes it seemed. The facilities looked top notch though which isn’t always the case for a city campsite and they also had expensive printed items providing the information and rules of use for the site. We said we’d think about it.
One of the must-see sights given in our Rough Guide to Croatia is a gardens and arboretum at Trsteno around 10km north of the city, it also mentioned that there was an idyllic campsite next door. We thought this sounded closer to what we were after, although it meant being further out of the city with poorer connections. We fell in love with the site from the word go, it was like an extension of the gardens with tiered lawns, olive and fig trees, and oleander blooming, and a view across the tops of the trees to the sea and the island of Šipan. As we settled into our lovely pitch, we scared a snake away. There were plenty of blackbirds, goats on the other side of the fence and it turned out later on that night that there was a family of rats that scampered in the bushes rather unnervingly too. No camping cats in sight though. With very few other campers there, it was enchanting and at less than half the price of the Dubrovnik campsite, it had at least double the solitude!
The buses into town were not particularly frequent but were quick and surprisingly good value – not exceeding the in-city fare we would have paid if we’d stayed in the city. We strolled from the top of the hill, where the bus dropped us off, into the old town, entering through the busy Pile gate. We were engulfed by tour groups from the various cruises, and sucked along in their wake. The main drag, the Stradun, is elegant, the pale stone of the city giving a feeling of space, narrow steep passages leading off uphill, monasteries, churches and fountains at every turn.
We had errands as well as sightseeing to do, firstly to buy a road map of the country, and then to see about an ankle support for Adrian who has been suffering with a recurring dodgy ankle for a few days, find a sim for our mobile wifi, and get a tyre pump for our slow puncture. We got the map, but as with so many tourist oriented old towns, there were few practical shops in evidence although you could buy any number of items with Dubrovnik emblazoned on them. We eventually got the items on a wander away from the centre.
Dubrovnik is justly famed for its city walls, these sturdy structures are 2km or 3km in length, depending on which walking tour leader you eavesdropped on. They have protected the city for centuries, some parts of the walls date back to the 10th century, and they withstood the onslaught of modern artillery during the seven month siege of 1991/92.
It is also estimated that around 68% of the buildings within the walls were damaged in some way during that conflict, whether scarred by shrapnel or shelled to near total destruction. They have been restored using traditional methods and materials by craftspeople from all over the world, and in a few years, when the bright terracotta roofs have weathered a bit more and the new stone blended in, you would never know. I found it hard to picture the horror of that time on today’s sundrenched tourist bustle streets. It’s not ‘over-restored’ either, it doesn’t have the new-old feel of some of the restored towns we saw in Montenegro.
You can climb and walk along the city walls. If you can afford it. We rarely refuse to pay the exorbitant entry fees levelled at some of wondrous sites on our travels, but sometimes you have to think of the bigger picture and this was just 20 Euros (for two) too far. The plethora of boat trips to various islands and other tours on offer were overwhelming, and instead we settled into a relaxing amble around the city streets spread over two days.
We wandered the backways and narrow passages, finding Buža, a tiny bar hidden away in the lea of the walls overlooking the sea. It is firmly on the itinerary though with prices to match, but if we couldn’t do the wall walk we could at least have a refreshing beverage beneath them.
In Dubrovnik no garish signboards for shops or restaurants are permitted – they can only use their outside lanterns to show their names and nature of their business. In so many places we’ve visited shop signage has encroached on the buildings you’ve come to the town to see, so this made a refreshing change.
We visited the Dominican Monastery art museum – a beautiful peaceful cloister with religious art and objects, reliqueries and jewellery.
We entered many of the churches, the cathedral and Jesuit church among them. We are now in a mainly Catholic country with a strong Italian influence, so the interiors are often more baroque in feel, with marble the main material used in the altar pieces.
We also went to Kamenica, a seafood restaurant of some repute. Twice. Sitting on a square eating, for once reasonably priced luscious seafood while doing some of the best people watching of the trip was a treat. The restaurant is in our guidebook, but it was overhearing a local telling another tourist about it that sealed the recommendation. Although ordering one dish each, the waitress brought out an extra side table – these were big platters of mussels and little fish – girice – like whitebait. The oysters were good too, as were the deepfried squid and baby octupi we had on our second visit. Nothing like a leisurely lunch of supremely good food to help you fall in love with a city.
We enjoyed playing spot the nationality of our fellow tourists. We have become fascinated by the cruise goers who dominate the scene and the city is very much geared up for them and many shops and restaurants have signs welcoming visitors from named cruise companies. We found out later that in some instances the passengers can charge their costs at these establishments directly back to their on-ship account. I spoke to an American woman in a loo queue who was on the huge Carnival Breeze, she was thrilled to be on its inaugural voyage, but as it was a sell-out trip it was very crowded. We checked online – it has a 3690 passenger capacity. That’s a lot of people descending on a small city in a day (not to mention a crew in excess of 1300), in addition to the other ships in port and all the land-based tourists … It is only June too, we’re glad not to be here in July or August.
Being the slow long-term travellers we are by now, we feel we still only scratch the surface of the countries we visit, but how to even begin to get the feel of somewhere from half a day of rushed sightseeing?
Back in Trsteno in our oasis of calm, we visited the famous gardens surrounding a villa built by nobleman Ivan Gučetić in the 16th century, with the arboretum planted later when the Academy of Science took the property over from the Communist government who had confiscated it from the family in the 1940s.
It’s a miracle that it has survived to this day, most other gardens of this type have apparently long since disappeared. It also received damage during the conflict of the early 1990s, but is verdant haven of beauty once again.
Not overly formal, there is a real jungly feel and trees from cypresses, to bamboo and many different palms. We spotted a snake here too, and frogs, goldfish and a terrapin in the lily padded fountain, and delicate damsel flies flitting from leaf to leaf.
We strolled down to the tiny harbour and had a welcome cold beer at the campsite café after the long slog up again.
We were thinking of everyone celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee while we were there. From people’s comments on Facebook it sounded like an amazing weekend. Although it would have been good to be in Britain for that, we’re glad to be in Croatia.