The Adri­atic High­way stretches nearly 400 miles (643km) along Croa­tia’s coast and pro­vides a front-row seat for 1,185 is­lands, an em­bar­rass­ment of cul­tural riches and slow-food prow­ess.

Lonely Planet (UK) - - Travel Quiz - Amanda Can­ning

A story of un­hur­ried ex­plo­ration amid the na­tional parks, Unesco-listed towns and sea­side vil­lages of coastal Croa­tia

My first brush with Croa­tia came 20 years ago on the Jad­ran­ska Magis­trala, or Adri­atic Hwy, which hugs the coun­try’s shore­line from Ri­jeka, in the north, to the bor­der with Mon­tene­gro. It passes nearly 1200 is­lands, end­less vine­yards, Unesco sites, na­tional parks and olive groves. But I knew none of this at the time. I was just cruis­ing the sea. On that ini­tial drive, the two-lane rib­bon of tar­mac – part of the E65 road­way fun­nelling into the smaller D8 – un­furled be­neath my rented, yel­low Fiat as I drove be­tween the Di­naric Alps, a string of jagged lime­stone cliffs tee­ter­ing above me on one side, and the sea be­low on the other. Zen-filled open roads, ex­tend­ing to the hori­zon, would sud­denly give way to whiteknuckle hair­pins and crawl­ing along in first gear as a rain­bow of sail­boats ap­peared on the rocky beach be­low. In those nascent days as a travel jour­nal­ist, my sopho­moric goal was to choose one of the many se­cluded vil­lages and hole up in a writer’s bun­ga­low. There I would craft some­thing spe­cial to stag­ger my non-ex­is­tent ed­i­tors. Salty fish­er­men sit­ting in the sun mend­ing nets while puff­ing cig­a­rettes would be a bonus. Per­haps skiffs would be scat­tered along a peb­ble beach, the deep-blue Adri­atic slap­ping at their weath­ered sterns. I knew I was in the right place when I had to slow to a snail’s pace be­hind a man, rope in hand, coax­ing along his don­key loaded with bas­kets of grapes. There were fish­er­men, by the way. And twice each day I joined the pro­ces­sion of vil­lagers fill­ing jugs with fresh spring wa­ter that flowed from a pipe stick­ing out of a rock wall. Dur­ing those com­mu­nal moments, I learned of se­cret beaches, caves, and where to go for ac­tiv­i­ties I had, un­til then, not as­so­ci­ated with the re­cently in­de­pen­dent coun­try. Not much has changed, for me, over the past two decades. Ev­ery year I use the Adri­atic Hwy for both busi­ness, as a jour­nal­ist, and for plea­sure. How­ever, Croa­tia is no longer such a se­cret. But, in many ways, the pop­u­lar­ity makes this road of slow dis­cov­ery even more spe­cial. These days, as time-pressed tourists rush to reach their must­see spots, those with a slower pace in mind, trav­ellers in search of au­then­tic adventure, know bet­ter.

‘Driv­ing along this high­way – or even bet­ter, rid­ing on a mo­tor­bike – is a great way to ex­pe­ri­ence the di­ver­sity of Croa­tia,’ says Ve­selka Huljic, the gen­eral man­ager of AndAd­ven­ture (andad­ven­ The Split-based adventure tourism op­er­a­tor of­fers trips and ex­cur­sions that in­clude ac­tiv­i­ties such as sea kayak­ing, hik­ing and cy­cling, but spe­cialises in cus­tomer-driven, tai­lor-made tours. ‘You can’t re­ally get to know the depth of this coun­try un­til you travel with­out a sched­ule,’ says Huljic. ‘Stop as you please along the coast, take in amaz­ing views of the sea, and hop onto is­lands to ex­pe­ri­ence cul­ture, the parks, the in­cred­i­ble food and wine. At this speed the coun­try starts to feel like yours.’ Over the years, the Adri­atic Hwy has be­come the ul­ti­mate in­sider ref­er­ence tool for me as I learned about the coun­try’s an­gles and tra­di­tions. It would also be a sure­fire sug­ges­tion for the con­tin­u­ous stream of visit­ing friends and fam­ily. For in­stance, the high­way pro­vides ac­cess to five na­tional parks, which each open a win­dow into the char­ac­ter of the coast. North­ern Velebit Na­tional Park, with sweep­ing sea views, is a jump­ing-off spot for long-dis­tance hik­ers head­ing into the Velebit moun­tains, part of the trans-Balkan Via Di­nar­ica trail run­ning from Slove­nia to Macedonia. Pak­lenica Na­tional Park, a con­flu­ence of sheer canyons, is a fa­mous climbing des­ti­na­tion. Krka takes vis­i­tors to some of the con­ti­nent’s most beau­ti­ful wa­ter­falls. And the is­land-based Kor­nati and Ml­jet Na­tional Parks give trav­ellers a sense of the coast’s hall­mark re­mote­ness.

‘Five Unesco World Her­itage sites crowd the high­way, not in­clud­ing the Ro­man and Hel­lenic ru­ins along the route’

Four Unesco World Her­itage sites crowd the high­way: the Cathe­dral of St James in Šibenik, the his­toric town of Tro­gir, the Dio­cle­tian’s Palace in Split, and Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town. Each of­fers an in­sight into the time­line of the Adri­atic. And this doesn’t even in­clude the Ro­man and Hel­lenic ru­ins strewn along the route with such non­cha­lance that it’s common to pass by peo­ple milling about atop an­cient blocks. The city of Zadar, for ex­am­ple, acts as an open-air mu­seum with the orig­i­nal Ro­man fo­rum and streets still in daily use. For those who have heard that Croa­tia is a gas­tro­nomic won­der­land, the Jad­ran­ska Magis­trala is as much a pro­gres­sive din­ner as it is a road trip. The is­land of Pag, in north­ern Dal­ma­tia is the coun­try’s sheep’s-cheese cap­i­tal and spe­cialises in a sort – paški sir – that is flavoured by the salty grasses and herbs the an­i­mals graze upon. The road then passes through the vil­lage of Posedarje, known for its pršut (dry-cured ham). Fur­ther south, trav­ellers wheel past the Pel­ješac Penin­sula, where driver­sturned-din­ers pair oys­ters, pulled di­rectly from the bay moments ear­lier, with some of the re­gion’s best red wine, from a lo­cal va­ri­ety called plavac mali. Two decades ago, the tastes and the im­ages and the note­books filled with il­leg­i­ble chicken scratch stayed with me long af­ter I pulled off the Adri­atic Hwy and re­turned the yel­low Fiat rental. I can’t re­mem­ber if I sold a sin­gle mag­a­zine story from the trip. I know, for cer­tain, that it was the be­gin­ning of my life as a writer. More im­por­tantly, the drive changed me for­ever as a trav­eller.

Pre­vi­ous page, clock­wise from left: sheep on Pag is­land; Croa­tia’s coast road; look­ing over Dubrovnik. Clock­wise from left: the beau­ti­ful Ma­jarska Riviera, north of Dubrovnik; lo­cals in Prožura

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