Dario skidded on the dirt track, the back wheel of his bike spraying dust into the dry air. “Viper!” he shouted. “Be careful!” I braked hard and looked to where he was pointing, just in front of my wheel, to see a mottled brown sliver of tail slide into the dense maquis. My heart pumped. But I was exhilarated as much as frightened. Croatia’s horned vipers are Europe’s deadliest snake, but their presence was a sure sign that the surrounding countryside was pristine.
It certainly felt so. The empty road stretched bone-white in front of us for 3km, winding round the distant spur of a hill. Above to our right, the maquis-covered mountainside rose sharply and peaked at a soaring ridge-top lookout. To our left the bush dropped in waves of green, broken by pale grey crags of rutted, weather-worn limestone. Below lay Vransko Jezero, a limpid lake, blue as a summer day, fringed with rushes and busy with herons and bitterns.
The sea shimmered beyond, dotted with dimpled islands that merged with a distant, hazy horizon. Even in March I was sweltering. Dario handed me a bottle that he’d filled from a rushing stream at the start of our ride. I took a long, cool swig and thought of England. It would be raining at Stansted, just as it had been when I’d clambered aboard the cramped Ryanair flight a few days before, on my way to somewhere called Zadar.
I knew nothing of Croatia beyond the Balkan conflict and the pretty pictures of Dubrovnik I’d seen on the internet. And while Dubrovnik flights had been pricey, Zadar – some 220km to the north – was the cheapest Mediterranean destination I could find. It sounded like something from the Arabian Nights – but was probably, I’d reckoned, a grey Eastern European town of choking chimneys and tawdry Iron Curtain tower blocks.
My plan had been to find a hostel for the night and then catch the bus south. But Zadar was a delight – a labyrinth of streets built on a tongue of land extending into the bottle-blue Adriatic. The skyline was of terracotta roofs and the domes and spires of Renaissance churches.
Searching for a room, I wandered through streets lined with Venetian houses. They led to airy piazzas lined with cafés and paved with flags polished marble-smooth by the passage of time and the shuffle of myriad feet. Nestled next to the water were the ruined columns and broken pediments of one of the Mediterranean’s few remaining Roman Forums.
The hostel, housed in a building next to the towering Romanesque cathedral, was cheap, airy and surprisingly empty. I checked in and, while sipping a macchiato out under the stars, I resolved to stay in Zadar and use it as a base to explore the Croatian coast.
A bit cheesy
My first day was spent on Pag, a long, low island famous for its beaches, summer revelry – and cheese. Arriving by ferry from the mainland, the landscape looked as barren as a rocky moon: lifeless limestone burnt by the fierce sun, crenelated by the desiccating bura wind and set stark white against a Matisse-blue sea.
The tiny main town, set under towering crags in a long, lullaby-calm cove, was in low-season sleep. Streets echoed with footfalls. A single fisherman carried his catch home from the harbour. A widow knitted intricate lace in the shaded doorway of the 15th-century Gothic cathedral. Tourists were limited to a handful of Italians eating fresh sardines by the waterfront in the warm sun.
The guidebook called Pag the new Ibiza. I hitched a ride to Zrce, the party beach. It was deserted but for the gulls in the sky and the dolphins in the adjacent cove. The turquoise water lapping the polished pebbles was warm on the toes so I took a refreshing swim. Then I climbed the hill and walked inland through rocky fields of bleating sheep, criss-crossed by dry stone walls.
The scented air was filled with bees and butterflies, and the fragrance of wild rosemary and sage. It was so clear I could see cars winding down the mountain roads on the distant mainland. After an hour’s walk I chanced upon a little village that sat next to a road as tiny as a Cornish lane. It was home to Sirana Gligora, a cheese shop that advertised itself as the home of ‘Paski sir – award-winning sheep’s milk cheese’.
I addressed the smiling man at the counter. “Do you speak any English?” I asked him, hoping to learn more about the very British-looking rosettes displayed prominently in the shop, but expecting little more than a puzzled look. “A little bit, mate,” he said with a broad Manchester accent and a cheeky grin. “In a past life I was a social worker in Stockport.”
So how did he come to be selling cheese in a tiny village in the Adriatic? “My wife’s Croatian, that’s why I moved here. But I don’t regret it for a moment. I have a great life. It’s a whole world away from what I was used to. The weather’s warm. The people are warm. The food is great.”
He handed me a slice of yellow cheese. It melted in my mouth. Creamy. Delicious. “Best cheese in the world,” he said, “officially.” He explained that Sirana Gligora had beaten more than 2,600 other cheeses to win gold at the Nantwich International Cheese Awards. I bought a chunk, a bunch of tomatoes and some crusty bread. Then I picked a dozen sprigs of wild asparagus in the fields and lunched by the wayside. In the late afternoon I caught the ferry back to Zadar.
Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is littered with rocky islands, created by the clash of the African and Eurasian continental plates, which push up the sea bed. Further inland they crease the continent into a fold of jagged limestone peaks called the Dinaric Alps – a subsidiary chain of the Balkan Mountains. Broken into cliff s and cut by plunging valleys, these were the battleground of the Yugoslav war and, as such, are far less-visited than the Croatian coast.
But their forests and rivers are some of the wildest in southern Europe. Over the next two days I took short bus rides from Zadar into their wild heart. I spent the first day mountain-biking around the Vransko Jezero lake, narrowly avoiding horned vipers and soaking up the magnificent views.
On the following day I took a hike in Paklenica National Park. Paklenica is one of Europe’s climbing and hiking hotspots. Rivers cut the mountains into a series of ravines and gouge the limestone into caves and kilometre-deep sinkholes. I spent the morning walking along the banks of a rushing, clear-water stream past meadows of daisies and buttercups, and through pine-fresh forests stretching high to distant peaks.
My guide, Marin, looked up at one of the highest, a looming grey bulk dominating the skyline. “Wolves and bears still hunt on the upper slopes,” he said. “And here in the forest, European lynx are still a relatively common sight in the early mornings.” We lunched on olives, cheese and warm bread next to a vast canyon, cut by a winding green river.
“Do you think it looks like the Colorado?” Marin asked. I nodded. “Winnetou died just over there,” he said, pointing to a distant spur. “In the summer, busloads of German women come here to cry.” I looked puzzled. “Winnetou?” “Yeah, Winnetou the Apache.” I was bemused: an Apache in the Balkans that makes Germans sob? Marin also looked surprised; Winnetou is a legend, how could I not have heard of him?
Back at the hostel in Zadar, I Googled ‘Winnetou’ and discovered a whole movie sub-genre: the sauerkraut Western. German directed and penned, these movies used Paklenica’s wilderness to stand in for the Wild West, and featured minor Hollywood stars. Winnetou is the sauerkraut Fistful of Dollars – with romance and idealism replacing style and cynicism; it’s a German paean to the virtues of Native Americans and their love of the land. Tarantino is apparently a huge fan.
While walking the steep and winding streets of Šibenik the following day, I discovered that the Japanese come to Croatia on film trips too, lured by an anime film about a flying red pig.
“He’s called Porco Rosso,” a tourist called Masako told me as we visited the magnificent baroque vault in St James’s Cathedral, “and he’s a 1920s flying ace who lives in the Croatian islands somewhere near Split. We are all big fans.”
I watched Porco Rosso later that night on YouTube. The astonishing beauty of the scenes spurred me to see more of southern Dalmatia, so the next day I left Zadar and took a two-hour bus ride south to Split. Split is a bigger city, clambering from a sparkling harbour into the foothills of the Dinaric Alps in neat 17th-century terracotta rows and ugly 20th-century concrete. Like Zadar it’s an ideal base for excursions, with cheap accommodation, and a string of bus connections to the hills and ferry links to the islands.
I spent a day walking the woodland trails at Krka, another national park nestled in the mountains, where the beautiful Krka River cascades into an Adriatic fjord. And I visited the island of Hvar and its eponymous hub town, a satellite city of Venice built in honey-coloured stone around a handsome waterfront piazza. Yachts crowd here in the summer. Tom Cruise visits.
Beyoncé is said to have named her daughter after the blue ivy that creeps across the walls of the imposing fort. However, out of season the sun still shines but the town is a peaceful, local place, apparently unaffected by the Celebrity Age.
Without a yacht in sight, wooden fishing boats ruled the harbour. Old men gathered on the street corners to gossip and while away the time.
Let’s drink to that
My final day was spent on Brač island. I arrived on the morning ferry from Split in time to catch the island bus. I took potluck and hopped on, seeing where it would take me. We climbed, and soon the tiny port of Supetar was left behind in miniature – a huddle of terracotta on an emerald cove.
Brač became rugged slopes divided by dry stone. Goat herds and groves of withered olive trees speckled the hillsides. We reached a village perched on a ridge-top under the gaze of a huge windmill, houses clustered around a sleepy church. I decided to stop here and after a wander through the scattering of streets chanced on a little winery and its affable owner, Sasha Senjković.
Sasha used to play on the wing for Hajduk Split, one of Croatia’s top football teams, before retiring to spend his money on his first loves – wine and family. He modernised his grandfather’s ancient vineyards and turned them into an award-winning winery. I bought a bottle of Bosso from him and climbed back on the bus.
It continued through the hills before dropping steeply towards the coast at the town of Selca. Nataša, a local that I met on the journey, was a guide and offered to show me around. Selca is known for its stone-carving and the town is filled with beautiful statues and bas reliefs. The most startling is a bronze of Christ cast by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović from thousands of spent Second World War shell cases, collected from the hills.
“We turned weapons into a symbol of peace,” Nataša told me. That evening Nataša invited me to dine out with her friends in a tavern set by the waterside in the neighbouring village of Povlja. The fish was fresh; the olives and potatoes were from the owner’s own fields. We washed them down with Bosso wine – rich, fruity and full of character. The bill was the price of a UK café snack.
After dinner we took a walk around the harbour. Fishermen were sitting in the warm yellow light of a bar, laughing and downing schnapps. The sky was filled with stars and lit by a low, large moon. The scene was Croatia in miniature: nature and culture in harmony; intimate, welcoming, timeless. People pay a fortune scouring Provence and Tuscany for the Mediterranean as it used to be. I’d found it, perfectly preserved and free of tourists, at a bargain price. The author arranged a mountain bike trip around Vransko Jezero lake with Jure from Dalmatia Adventures. The Paklenica visit was taken with Marin Marasovic of Hotel Rajna. The Brač tour was with Nataša Štambuk. Main image: City of Zadar Harbour (Shutterstock)