CROATIA (June 2004) (Mouse over the thumbnails for a description, and click to enlarge)
Our short holiday in Croatia seems to have attracted a lot of attention, perhaps as it is being currently touted by the travel industry as the next groovy place to go to. Perhaps it is going to be "the new Tuscany" , but lets hope that doesn't signal a rush of development, which spoils a truly lovely country. Going there has even caused me to go back and read some of the history of the country, as this area of the Balkans has had its share of ups and downs over the years, yet it doesn't show in the area we went to. More relaxed than Italy or Spain, it seems more peaceful and prosperous than you might expect for a country which has endured communism and recent wars. We liked Croatia a lot, or at least the peninsula of Istria where we were staying.
We spent a week in Opatija, chosen as it was surprisingly cheap, but also as it is one of those "faded grandeur" sort of resorts that I Iove so much. We stayed in the Villa Amalia, an annexe to the oldest hotel there, the Kvarner, which was celebrating its 120th anniversary. Glorious though it was on the outside, it had obviously had a makeover in the 70's, which left it a bit austere inside. No matter, our room was a cool oasis from the heat, and only a few paces from the swimming terrace where I swam in the clear, cool blue sea every day. Below are a few pics of the hotel and the villa.
Opatija has a long history of tourism, going back over a century to when it was famous as a health resort for the rich an fashionable of Europe before the first world war. This lives on today as it has cornered the market in health conventions, and there was a congress of Oncologists using the hotel when we were there. The most obvious legacy though is the architecture, as the place is awash with grand villas and hotels in the Italianate style. A few of these have been superbly restored, some are just as they were, but many are in a rather crumbly condition. Judge for yourself ...
We took a water taxi along the coast known as the Kvarner Riviera to the old medieval town of Lovran, where we had a particularly splendid lunch, and then walked back the 8km to Opatija along the "Lungomare", an old paved coastal path which allows you great views both out to sea, and of the lovely old private villas along this coast. A great day out.
The highlight of the holiday was a day out to the old town of Rovinj, which included a hydrofoil trip to the islands of Bryuni. This group of islands are now a national park, but were for many years closed to the public, as they had been commandeered by the former president Tito for his personal use. Suffice to say the islands are stunning, but I had very mixed views about admiring the personal pleasure palace of a former dictator. It all seemed a bit like a prototype of Michael Jackson's Neverland, right down to the personal menagerie of lions and tigers (thankfully now gone). The guide seemed pleased to tell us that when selected government lackies weren't sunning themselves here, (complete with army guards no less) the exclusive villas were now available to such luminaries as Naomi Campbell and the like. Communism may have fallen, but the same useless bunch of tossers still seem to get the cream, eh? That apart, the islands were just fantastic, more like the sort of thing you expect to find in the Seychelles, with some of the most impressive Roman ruins I've seen since Pompeii. Sadly we were whisked round too fast for me to do photographic justice to this paradise. The remaining photos are of the old town of Rovinj, where it was just too damn hot, so after hoofing it up to the church at the top of the town, we retired to a cafe for a coffee until the bus collected us.
So Croatia? Is it the "new Tuscany"? Yes and no I reckon. It is beautiful, peaceful and more prosperous than you might expect, at least the part we visited. It is by no means unspoiled though, as there are plenty of ghastly concrete block hotels left over from Yugoslavia's days as a burgeoning tourist destination, but thankfully it has a long way to go before it is as ruined as parts of the Spanish costas. We only went for a week, really to get a flavour of the place, and to suss out if it is worth a longer and more intensive exploration next year. I guess the answer to that is a definite YES.