Tues 27 July
Itís been a long time since I last wrote anything, approximately 3 weeks. I've not been working on anything very much recently except my tan, which I have to say is coming along nicely. As long as I don't open my mouth, people seem to think I'm Italian, which is fine by me.
The first two I spent in Zadar doing the language course. We had 3 and a half hours of lessons in the morning. mainly revising grammar which was very useful. I'd like to think that I'm starting to get the hang of the grammar now, although I still make a lot of mistakes in conversation, but I'm pretty sure my written Croatian has improved, although not my spelling! I just need the extra time to work out the case endings! The class sizes were quite small - there were 6 of us in our class, a good ratio in my opinion.
After the lessons ended we were free to do what we wanted. Most days this just involved going to the beach. Having a car was useful as it meant we could get to a nicer location slightly further out of town, where there was shade and a small cafe. Having come equipped to go camping ( you know me, I like being a bit camp) I had all the essential extras that make a stay at the beach just that bit nicer; airbed, collapsible chair and rug. The water is pretty warm, but occasionally there are colder currents. I believe that these are related to springs in the sea-bed, but wouldn't want to claim this as fact! In the evening the usual procedure was dinner and drinks in the old town. This is situated on a peninsula and there is a harbour between the old town and the main land. There is a pedestrian bridge linking the two. The old town itself is walled in, with impressive ramparts leading all the way round the harbour front, to the open sea-side, the Riva. Zadar has a lot of cafes for such a fairly small place and they all seemed to be packed. On Fridays in the summer they have festica, a small festival, where the cafe owners lay on live music and free grilled fish. We hadn't realised that the fish were free (or least ways I for one hadn't) so we kept ordering more, possibly abusing our host's hospitality. There was supposedly a new cafe owned by 2 bad members from UB40, but it was still being finished whilst we were there so we never did get to go, unfortunately. There is though a nice night-club, with an extensive terrace outside, which was very pleasant. They also had a Brazilian dance troupe one night a week, so of course that was an added attraction.
The school has its own accommodation - an apartment block with about 10 rooms, where most of the other students were staying. It struck me as being a nice way to do it... - there was a kitchen, as well as a library and computer with internet access for those who were interested. I opted to stay with a family instead so that I could get some more Croatian practise in. My landlady, Jasna, was a retired primary school teacher and keen to help me with my studies. She was extremely kind and really couldn't do enough to help - it was a bit like having a Croatian mum fussing over you. Men just aren't allowed to do any housework - not that I imagine many offer. Typically though they will do the BBQ, something about getting back to the basics of cooking I suppose. She also agreed to be interviewed by a fellow student who was doing research on women's attitudes to the war and their religious beliefs for a PhD. We both had to smile, when in typically direct Croatian fashion, Jasna opined that one of the questions was not a good one, and had to be re-phrased!
The school also laid on a couple of excursions, one to the Kornati Islands and one to the old royal town of Nin. It's about a 2 hour boat trip to the Kornati, a national park consisting of over 100 islands and islets, most of which are uninhabited. I would say it is probably a sailor's paradise. I can well imagine having a small boat and leisurely sailing around the islands, dropping anchor for a cooling swim, then upping sticks and pootling off to the next islet. I would think it would be great to dive as well, but I believe that there are some issues with free-diving - as I understand it, to dive without a dive master here you have to buy a special license which costs 400 Euros. And you also have to get a Croatian diving licence for any diving you want to do.
Nin, originally a liburnian and then a roman settlement, is famous as the seat of the first Croatian royalty. Its heyday was in the early middle ages and in the tenth century, Grgur Nin, the archbishop promulgated the use of the Croatian language in the catholic liturgy, replacing Latin, so it is significant from the Croatian nationalist point of view. It was fought over by the Venetians and the Turks, the latter of which razed it to the ground. Now it is a small village on an islet surrounded by salt flats, the source of its wealth, and overlooked by the karst hills of Velebit and the Paklenica National park. It also has the smallest Cathedral in the world, a white domed building built by extending one of the roman houses.
From Zadar we also went on a day trip to the Krka river and Skradinski buk waterfalls. The water is very clean and very green and it is very picturesque, although I have to admit the actual falls are not as impressive as others I have seen. The vegetation around is very lush, in contrast to the stark desolation of the Velebit and the islands, a lot of which were deforested for ship-building centuries ago The journey to get there, across the hinterland was interesting, if that's the right way to describe it. There were a lot more signs of the fighting here - burnt out and collapsed houses, with some villages almost deserted. It's surprising though, and also somewhat disturbing, how quickly you get used to the sight.
After Zadar I set off for Split with a new-found friend from the course. It was a bit of a wrench to leave - I'd got used to having other people to call on at any time. The journey down was notable for 2 things - a short stop in Primosten, a beautifully preserved Dalmatian village, again on a promontory, and closed to traffic most of the time, and the sight of some of the clearest, bluest water I've seen anywhere. The road follows the coast closely in parts and, although slow, most people seem to be content to dawdle and admire the sea and the spectacular views of the islands off-shore. This is something that Istria doesn't have to the same extent, although it does have a more verdant landscape.
We pitched up in Split in the early evening and looked for accommodation. Our first attempts were fairly fruitless - we wandered around for a good half -hour following a very drunk Croatian who kept promising that the accommodation was just around the corner and who wanted £40 for us to sleep on someone's sofa. In the end we went to a hotel, recommended in both of our guide-books, overlooking the harbour, but as expensive as accommodation in London! Unfortunately there seems to be a bit of a problem with the sewage in the direct vicinity and there was a malodorous whiff of sulphur in the air - it was a hot, still night, and the room had a fan, not air conditioning, which proceeded to alternately deafen us and blow us out of bed. The old town is based around the Diocletian palace and is a pleasant enough place for a day or so, but there isn't really that much else to do there. It' entertaining enough wandering round the maze of streets for a morning, and again I was amazed at how full the cafes are, even in the middle of the day. I get the impression that people have a lot of time on their hands - certainly the pace of life is completely different to northern Europe. I've adjusted to it now, and wonder how on earth I'm going to fit in with a normal 9-5 routine when I get back. Probably best not to devote too much energy to the thought - I need it all for carrying my chair and cold drinks to the beach.
Having exhausted the delights of Split, we decided to move on to the island of Brac. I had thought the islands were several hours ferry ride away, but the journey is only about an hour, to the port of Supetar, from which you can catch buses across the island. We opted to take the catamaran which goes via Hvar. I've always been somewhat against the idea of buying anything on an island, as I didn't fancy having to be dependent on the weather to get anywhere (besides which we already live on an Island, albeit quite a big one....!) but I have to admit they are beautiful. Hvar town was particularly pretty, with an extensive and well-preserved old town and is justly famous. The beach, Zlatni Rat, at Bol, where we stayed, is featured in most guide books about Croatia - it's a shingle spit which constantly changes shape with the prevailing tides. In the mornings the weather was still, but in the afternoons the wind picked up and there was always a cooling breeze. This can of course be quite dangerous - the sun is hot and fierce and the breeze is deceptive; it is easy to get burnt, as I found out! Bol is also a wind-surfer's paradise and we also saw a lot of kite-surfing, where the surfer uses a huge kite instead of a sail - apparently the kite surfers can reach up to 120kph! (That may be Croatian hyperbole!).
I went diving whilst I was there. First I had to do a test-dive; a bit embarrassing as I managed to put the air-tank on back to front first time round, but my buoyancy control was "better than ok" so I was happy about that. In the afternoon we went out by boat across to neighbouring Hvar, to a small bay with a sheer reef down to about 30m. It was the first time I'd ever worn a balaclava to dive and I was somewhat apprehensive about being to equalise the pressure in my ears, but it all went ok. The visibility was pretty good, in fact a lot better than I'd anticipated. But beyond about 15m the water gets a lot colder. If it's that cold here, God only knows what it must be like in the UK! The fish life was more colourful than I had expected - although you never see any of these colourful fish in the markets... I saw my first cuttle-fish and some huge shell-fish, although I still don't know what they were.
I left Marc to the delights of Bol for the last few days of his stay and crossed back to the mainland, heading for the island of Murter to meet up with a friend from Zagreb. I made a detour to Zadar to meet up with Jasna and take her out to dinner. It was strange going back to Zadar, it felt like I was going back to do the course, although of course everyone had moved on by then, and the place was comfortingly familiar after the travelling. The next day I went diving again off the islands of Dugi Otok. Again the water was exceptionally clear, but this time the current was much stronger - it was great, just drifting along with the current, hovering around 15m or so. The nearest I'm ever going to get to a sense of weightlessness. Back on Murter there was no accommodation so I pitched tent for the first time. One thing I would recommend is doing a dry-run before putting up a new tent in a strange environment! It took me a couple of goes to work out how to set up the tent and by then it was getting dark and the wind was picking up. Added to that the fact that I was a bit woozy from the boat trip and the diving and it made for an entertaining hour or so! The ground was like cement and I couldn't get the tent pegs in - I had to get my luggage from the car to weigh the tent down, before it blew away. But at least I've used it now, so can justify the expense! It actually turned out to tbe more expensive than a night in private accommodation, but I've done it now, so can cross it off the list of experiences! The campsites here are pretty well organised with showers and fridges you can rent. There were a lot of East Europeans on the site and in the morning a little girl spoke to me, in what turned out to be Czech. I thought she was speaking Croatian, so took her to a family to get them to help. They pointed out my error and suggested we go to the reception where the staff are multi-lingual (who here isn't?). I was surprised that they didn't take her themselves - I could have been anybody. I dropped her off at the reception and on the way back saw a young woman who seemed to be looking for someone, so in my best Czech (ok pseudo Czech/Croatian) asked if she was looking for a little girl. It was the girl's mum and she went rushing off to the reception. It was actually quite emotional... I would have liked to suggest to her that she tell the daughter to approach a family rather than a man, but that would have been far too complicated. Maybe I'm just too cynical after all the child-abuse cases in the UK.
After I made my farewells in Murter I headed up the coast again to Vir, an island just north of Zadar. It is linked to the mainland by a bridge and is fast developing into a tourist complex. It overlooks the island of Pag, famous for its cheese, but is not a particularly attractive place - there is a lot of new housing springing up all over the place, apparently without restriction. As elsewhere a lot of the housing is not finished and there are half built houses and flats everywhere. People tend to build the houses in stages, finishing them off as and when they can afford it. I was meeting up with a different friend from Zagreb (I count anyone that I've met here for more than a couple of hours as a friend now!). At this point the weather changed and the Bura, the wind from the interior, blew up and proceeded to bring the rain with it. I'm not sure that Vir would ever have been my favourite place, but in the grey and wet it looks even less attractive.
Sunday was spent recovering from a long Saturday evening - out till 4.30 in the morning drinking vile red wine watered down to make it more palatable. They have some strange drinks here; red wine and normal water is a bevanda, and is usually palatable, as is white wine and mineral water, known as a gemischt (linguists amongst you will have noted the borrowings from Italian and German). Some less potable concoctions include, red wine and mineral water, red wine and coke, known as a bambus (because it bamboozles you? or maybe it turns you into a panda head) and white wine and fanta. I personally think its all done just to disguise the taste of some pretty awful plonk. There are however some very good wines here, and some of the domestic production is very drinkable - a lot of people have signs for home made wine and rakija, the local fire water, which is basically grappa. I get the impression that drink-driving is fairly common here, despite fairly stringent drink driving laws - the legal limit is currently 0.5 pm, but from the middle of next month there will be a new zero tolerance law, as well as fines for not wearing a seat belt, using a mobile phone whilst driving and stiff speeding fines. Conversely and perversely though, petrol stations sell beer!
I arrived back in Istria on Monday and have spent a lot of time since with estate agents trying to sort out a potential house purchase. But more of that in my next instalment - got to keep you on tenterhooks!
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