Pula, Porec, and Plitvice - Croatia
The Three Ps
Romans, and every shade of green
19th to 24th September, 2019

The influence from Italy on the Istrian peninsula was obvious. There were Roman and Venetian ruins scattered all over the place. Coming into Pula still felt like Croatia, though, even though the Italian border was only a hundred kilometres north of us.

We had put together the travel spreadsheet from hell before we started our trip, listing all the things we wanted to see in Croatia within the time we had. The Roman amphitheater in Pula and the Euphrasian Basilica at Porec were on the list, as well as just having a good look around. We had hired a GPS for the first time, and found its limitations as soon as we got anywhere confusing. Tracking down our AirBnB took some time, and required working around the Garmin's encouragement that we go the wrong way on one-way streets.

Fly Away
Flocks of birds, circling the amphitheater
Our apartment was worth the time to find and one of the best we'd stayed in. After a quick resupply of perilously-low breakfast fixings, we wandered into town. I was still feeling a bit sick, so our pace was slow as we zig-zagged through the streets. Pula was interesting. We liked it straight away. It was a living, breathing town that had a strong history. The buildings were often a bit more careworn, and the paint on the shutters cracked and peeling. But, there were lots of people just going about their business.

The Roman amphitheater had been built in about 80AD and was touted as one of the most intact in the world. It was amazing. It was much smaller than the Colosseum in Rome but, unlike the Colosseum, the arches, pillars, and even the guttering endured in a complete oval of stone. Also unlike the Colosseum, it wasn't crowded, and the setting sun highlighted its graceful arches. We waked around it, then went home. I was a complete man-flu wimp, and even that short(ish) walk had been enough.
We planned to visit nearby Porec as a day-trip, rather than move towns. The highway north was great, and super-easy to drive. Not long after we turned off it though, the first signs of a tourist-processing facility appeared. Tourist stalls lined the road. Plastic tables under trees were stacked high with bottles of olive oil, honey or handbags for sale. Parking lots ringed Porec's old town like a filter. We were deposited inside one and disgorged into the streets.

The place remained me of Venice, but with a little less sophistication. What a snob I must sound like, but that was the impression. The cobbled streets were in limestone, polished to gloss by the passing of hundreds of thousands of people, just like us. Sequinned bags, T-shirts and cheap porcelain figurines were stacked high on all sides. We circuited through town until finding the Euphrasian Basilica almost by accident, but certainly with relief.

The Basilica dated from the fourth century AD, and had been modified a few times. From outside it just looked like a high stone wall.

Porec’s Euphrasian Basilica
quiet please
“Eventually, she took her clipboard, her Roman sandals and her friends with her."

Quiet, please
Once through the doors, a wonderful calm laid over us and blanketed out the bustle. We climbed the bell tower to see the view, then descended through many rooms where old mosaics showed their faded beauty. Underfoot, half-uncovered stonework rested in layers of history. It felt like a very simple place, and true to itself.

The only discordant note came from an old, short, pompous, badly-dressed English woman who was on some sort of historical tour with a group of other grey-haired, bespectacled, pottering academics. Her well-enunciated vowels rang informatively throughout the chapel, declaiming the representation of this or that iconography, or the truer interpretation of the statuary on display, or how the restoration could have perhaps been a little more accurate.

That's nice to hear, love. Perhaps now you'd like to shut up and just listen to the place. Eventually, thank God, she took her clipboard, her Roman sandals and her friends with her.
Outside along the promenade, we found a group of divers set up to explore an old Roman wall that had been found submerged in five metres of water, just offshore. They were using a pump to circulate seawater around it to clear fine silt away, so they could study it and learn.

Further along, we stopped for yet another bad coffee, before walking back through the town and to our car. There seems to be a bad habit of using UHT milk in coffee, that only a good amount of brown sugar can disguise. We don't think we'll get used to it.
Our last day back in Pula was low-key. We only went for a walk back through the town, following a circuit that took in some old city gates, a temple, and a Venetian fortress on top of a hill. The amphitheater was being prepped for a jazz concert that night, so we didn't go inside. It looked more interesting from the outside, anyway.
For a complete change of scene, we headed east the next morning to Senj, then up over the coastal range to Plitvice National Park. I was curious to see more of the terrain the Via Dinarica trail went through on its way south, and the road up from Senj crossed right over it.

Senj was another one of those tourist-processing facilities where you could buy bad coffee and soggy pizza. Perched on a narrow strip of rocky coast, Senj might have had some interesting things to see, but we were pressed for time, so didn't explore. The pass at the top was quite flat, with gravel tracks meandering up into the hills in several directions, as though unsure of where they wanted to lead. I guess one of them was the Via Dinarica.

The popularity of Plitvice made itself more apparent the closer we got to it. We hadn't realised until talking to our host in Pula that it was one of the busiest tourist destinations in Croatia. As we drove past the park entrances, the reality became clear. There were multiple tour buses, ticket booths, and walkways with tourists swarming all over. A little frightened, we found our AirBnB and hid.

Our place was a symphony all in wood. The host had built the place himself, including a lot of the furniture. The wooden bed he'd made was enormous. Some of it was a bit creative in the way it had been finished, but it was fun to stay there. Their dog, Jonnie, was a yappy little bloody thing that looked like an Ewok.

Faced with an unsettled weather forecast, we took a short walk along a gorge the next day and saved Plitvice for the day after, when it would hopefully be nicer. In the gorge was an old mill that had been built about 1870, by our host’s grandfather. The river was dry this time of year, so we climbed down into the race and had a look at the timber flue and simple pelton wheel on a wooden shaft. Inside, through the dusty window, we could see the shaft fixed to a big millstone. Since the river was dry for much of the year, I wondered what they would do after harvest. Wait for the rain, I suppose.

Further along the track, we came across a partially-restored tower and medieval fort in Dreznik Grad. I can't recall exactly, but it was captured by the Turks in about 1588 and successfully liberated in 1591. Or something like that. Either way, a lot of people were probably killed because someone powerful wanted something that somebody else had. And now it's empty and crumbling, and nothing's forever. War doesn't make sense.

Our host brought coffee one evening and stayed to talk. I was naively surprised when she said she'd moved to Zagreb as a child to get away from the war and I wondered, what war? Then I remembered that the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina was only fifteen kilometres away. I realised that the war ended less than twenty-five years ago, and that coming from New Zealand meant I had absolutely no concept of it. Her face changed when she spoke of the war. She said it was in the past now, but still very fresh.

It made me feel sad and inadequate, and reminded me that people are horrible to each other all too often. It only seems to take a generation or so before we forget everything and start the cycle again.

“Plitvice is, in essence, a huge water feature."
That evening the clouds split, and rain hammered down. By afternoon it was dry again, with the ground washed clean and the colours fresh. That was perfect timing for us to go and see Plitvice National Park. One and a half million visitors each year couldn't be wrong.

Entry to the park was cheaper after 3pm, which suited us. The streams of visitors exiting the park also gave us hope that it wouldn't be too crowded. Access was controlled by electric-powered barges that plied across a long and narrow lake. It took a while for the clot of tourists to clear, and we left most of them at the halfway point, where an easier return was offered. Ninety percent of them took it. We continued around a lake with still water, enjoying being away from the jabber of the masses.

Plitvice is, in essence, a huge water feature. Dams of tufa have formed between limestone cliffs to give a series of perfect, primeval cascades and pools. Every shade of green could be seen, as well as some shades that I'd never imagined existed. Gentle waterfalls added a soft, continual music as backdrop and the streams below them rushed away to other deep, green pools that teemed with fish. Within the park, the flora was very different, with broad-leaved water plants replacing the drier pine of the forests above. We spent about three hours walking the trails and, despite the initial crowds, were so glad that we went.
Looking for a good view on our trip to Seline the next day, we drove a little north past Velebit, then over to Karlobag on the coast. Velebit is the highest mountain in Croatia but I think it's not that spectacular in itself, and the weather was misty with the onset of autumn. We missed it, regardless.

The pass down into Karlobag demarked an impressive geological border between the lush, forested interior of Croatia and its rocky, almost barren coastline. The offshore islands looked like the moon. The Via Dinarica trail appeared at the high pass, too. We weren't tempted to follow any little red and white dots, but went down into Karlobag for another bad coffee. The winding road south along the coast was fantastic, and would have been heaven to drive in our old Mini.
Our next place to stay was a restored farmhouse above Seline, close to the Paklenica Park. It was amazing. The house, the park, the quietude, everything. There was only one thing for it and that was to put the kettle on, take a couple of chairs outside, and enjoy the sun.

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