July 16, 2009 GMT
Croatia part 2

Once the weather finally cooled down, I set about exploring Split. It is very similar to Dubrovnik, Kotor, and all the other old towns along the coast - a pedestrianised city centre with tiny winding alleys and cobbles slippery as the fish sold in every restaurant. Split does have a bell-tower as well though, so you can peer down on the muddle from above.

Next day was supposed to be very cultured. I stopped off in Solin and wandered round its extensive Roman ruins. A hippy appeared out of nowhere and started singing the Cranberries to the tune of a small guitar, which combined with the already intense heat to make me feel oddly detached from my surroundings. The information boards around the site include computer reconstructions of how things would have looked - but there are no people in them. The reason these places fascinate, the reason they catch our imagination, is that people once lived there, saw these temples and streets the way we would see our local church or high street. People so very like us, yet so different we can't begin to put ourselves in their shoes.

Between Split and Trogir supposedly lie a string of castles, which were next on my list. I rode through a lot of villages with "Kastel" in their name, but not a fortress in sight, so I carried on to my intended final destination for the day, Krka National Park. I wasn't quite sure what I'd find there, but dutifully followed the signs, and to my horror ended up in a packed carpark surrounded by garish cafes and tacky souvenir stalls. The price list shamelessly proclaimed that admission in summer is three times the winter price. If I decided to visit, I could be bussed to some waterfalls for 13. Up the river is an island, where a monastery houses an old illustrated copy of Aesop's fables, which I really wanted to see. To get there by boat, with only half an hour on the island, would cost a further 14. If, as planned, I wanted to camp overnight then walk the next day, I would have to buy yet another 13 ticket. At that point I realised I genuinely disliked Croatia. It's the perfect example of what happens when greed and capitalism get hold of a beautiful place. Everywhere else since I left Austria, people have wanted to show me their country, to make sure I didn't miss anything worth seeing. Here, they're not interested in people any more, only in milking the tourist cash-cow.

So I left. had I been nearer the border, I might have left Croatia altogether. Instead, I compromised and went to Murter, where I hoped to be able to kayak in the Kornati National Park archipelago. After many enquiries I realised this wouldn't be possible, and that if I wanted to see the islands I'd have to take a boat tour. Luckily, my hunt for a kayak had led me away from the main tour operators, and my instructions on booking were "look for the smallest boat"! Where others were packed with a hundred people or more, ours had fewer than twenty people on it.

I became even more bemused by Croatia's idea of a national park, when the captain explained that all the islands in Kornati are privately owned by twenty or so families, his own among them. We stopped on "his" island, a tiny place with a picture-perfect beach, a restaurant, and not much else. After a brief swim, I left the rest of the group sunning themselves and climbed the hill next to the beach. Then the one behind it. You can only really appreciate the archipelago from above: mostly bare islands lie scattered haphazardly in a sea by turns deep blue and pale turquoise, depending on its depth.

Lunch consisted of two enormous grilled mackerel. I sat opposite a young Dutch couple, On and Yur, who are travelling round Croatia by car. Every year since they got together they have picked a different place in Europe and driven there for three weeks. So in spite of the organised side of the trip, I arrived back at my tent, packed in a tourist-filled campsite, tired, sunburnt (a downside of travelling alone; no-one to do your back!) but feeling a little more at ease with Croatia.

After Murter I was determined to try again with the national parks, and headed for Paklenica. I found myself a lovely, friendly little family-run campsite (with a kitchen! and a fridge! Luxury!), pitched the tent, ate lunch and set off. Paklenica is a huge climbing destination, which I didn't know. It's basically a pair of limestone gorges leading up to a mountain range running parallel to the coast. I'd planned a 4-5 hour wander along some of the major paths - you get a wee map on the back of your ticket, and everything is waymarked, so I didn't bother to buy one. The first stretch is up to a cave; it's one of the main "tourist" spots of the park, and the path is steep in places but wide and easy. After that, things got interesting. Immediately after the cave I found myself slithering down a leaf-strewn gap between trees - still waymarked, but with a definite sense of seeing the next mark and thinking "and I get there how?". Before long I was making good use of my climbing skills - one stretch was even roped, and involved bracing my way up a chimney! The "map" showed me skirting a peak, but the path was determined to take me right to the top! Standing on that peak was like being on top of the world. By then I was well above the main climbing face in the park. Below me stretched Pag island, and the tiny bridge that had so impressed me with its height when I'd ridden over it earlier. The rest of the mountain stretched down below me, to a ring of limestone crags arranged watchfully around a meadow. Behind, the real peaks, a patchwork of green and grey, towering up above. Getting back down was no easier than getting up, and by the time I made it back to camp I'd been walking for 6 hours!

The next day was riding only. I doubled back on myself briefly, then rode along Pag, an island separated from the mainland by a bridge on 130m or so long. Pag is barren, stark, alien. Beautiful, but hostile - you wonder why people decided to try and live here. The bare pinky-white rock is only broken by tufts of grass and a small patch of marshland in the middle. Cliffs plungs down to water so clear you can see every fish from the top. I ferried across to the mainland (last on again!), and from the mountain road watched as more and more of Pag came into view with every upwards hairpin, until I could see the whole island cloud-dappled below me.

Croatia's sunshine only covers the coast, and soon I was chilly, then damp. I had a couple of scenic routes marked on my map, so ignored the signs for Plitvice National Park. the last stretch was a cut-through between two main roads. Marked as yellow on my map, it narrowed almost immediately, and soon I was winding through mist-shrouded tress, trying not to slip on the moss-covered road, My map said 11 km, but soon I'd passed km12, then 13, then 14. Low on fuel, my best chance was to carry on regardless. Finally the main road loomed!

After that magical forest, I was damp and determined to find somewhere nice and dry to stay. The problem? There isn't anywhere nice. The entire Plitvice Lakes area is filled with ugly, new-build villages of B&B tourist accommodation - the place could be used as a definition of "tourist industry".Eventually, 26 miles after fuelling up, I ended up camping - on a site right opposite the fuel station!

Luckily the rain only lasted a day, and I had beautiful sunshine for my day at the national park. Plitvice is a series of lakes linked by waterfalls, which push their way through anywhere they can, often coming in spouts stright out of the cliffs. It's enormously touristy, but by following the longest circuit, and then adding in a lake when that didn't look long enough, I managed to avoid the worst of them - all in all I walked about 8 and a half hours!

From Plitvice I rode to Krk. The thing that has most fascinated me about Croatia's islands is that they are all subtly different. Mljet was luch and forested. Hvar scented, Mediterranean scrubland. Pag barren. Krk is rocky at the edges like Pag, but densely green in the middle, and far more extensive than the others. I rode right to the edge, to Baska, which has a staggering harbour view out to other, uninhabited rocky islands. I simply sat and gazed. And ate ice-cream.

I was not hugely inspired by that night's campsite - huge, crowded, badly designed with not enough toilets or sensible parking. But the naturists have all the best campsites on Krk, and while I toyed with the idea of a naturist beach, nude camping was going a tad too far. Which turned out to be a good thing, as, just as it was getting dark, a solo, female biker turned up to pitch her tent next to mine! Mojca (pronounced Moitsa) has only been biking for a year, but is making her first forays into touring, heading from her native Slovenia to Vienna (where she also got lost!) and then to Croatia. She'd had a bad day, having parted ways with the mand who had started accompanying her on her trip, and ended up dictating it. So we shared a beer, talked bikes and men, and hopefully I made her day better and helped her have confidence in her decision to only travel alone from now on.

From Krk I went to the neighbouring islands of Cres and Losinj. Vultures live there, and there are few creatures more contemptuous of adventure than vultures circling over hot, empty scrubland. I'd hoped to use Mali Losinj as a base for diving and kayaking, but in the end neither proved possible, so I swam, sunbathed, chased fish through deep blue sea, and generally relaxed for a day - although one sunbathing session was interrupted by a Slovenian man named Dejan, who claimed he was led to me by Jesus. It's novel chat-up line I'll give him that, but not one that's likely to work on me!

My last couple of night in Croatia are being spent in Istria, at a motorbike campsite near Porec. It's run by Dragan, and unlike the campervan sardine-tins I've had elsewhere it's friendly, personal, haphazard. I've been promised a party tonight, with goulash and a campfire! Croatia has been relatively lacking in the personal touch, so it's nice to feel welcomed as an individual again.

Today has been spent exploring Istria, which is quite different from the coast. Thick forests hide sudden gorges and cliffs, and the lack of a coastal breeze make it seriously hot - 35 today! I stopped off in Pazin, and by luck they have a fascinating exhibition on emigration in the castle. It's strange for someone like me, who has always been a foreigner in one way or another, to imagine leaving a homeland, perhaps forever, to head into the complete unknown.

From Pazin I made it to Rosinj, where I have just eaten vast quantities of grilled fish, and, for all my searching elsewhere, found a place that does kayak tours! Do I want to stay an extra day and paddle? Or stick to my plans and head to Slovenia? I am tired of Croatia in many ways, but I miss kayaking too. Decisions decisions... Most of all I think I need someone else to make them for a change! Maybe I'll just toss a coin!

Posted by Laura Bennitt at July 16, 2009 03:15 PM GMT

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