We write to you from a cafe beside the sea, enjoying two glasses of chilly red wine for only 16 kuna. Zadar is in the northern part of the Dalmation Coast, which is a 375 kilometre section on the Adriatic Sea renowned for sunny skies, clear waters, and rich history. The beaches make this area a major tourist attraction in the summer, but now the foreigners are few. Some of the locals wonder why we are visiting Croatia now, but we are really enjoying being here in the off-season (and the reality is that cycle touring in Europe for a year means we have to spend winter somewhere)! We enjoy the chance to meet more locals, seeing how cities exist without tourists, less traffic on the roads, and appreciate the cheaper rates and the fact that we don’t need to reserve anything. Sometimes we feel we have entire places to ourselves, and that is truly magical. We also find the locals more hospitable and accessible than they otherwise might be (for example, a waiter we recently had treated us to coffee and several shots). The atmosphere is certainly quieter, and thus seems less hectic, which matches our cycle touring mentality perfectly.
Although the temperature is quite comfortable for cycling, we have been seeing some rain. Our tent has been keeping us dry for the most part, and it really proved itself after an epic thunderstorm on Thursday night. It was by far the most intense storm either of us have experienced, and we did so from inside a tent! The storm showcased a ridiculous amount of lightning, incredible cracking thunder, gusting wind, and seemed to be stuck right above us for over two hours. The storm was perhaps even more unnerving as we think we witnessed our first tornado on the distant horizon earlier that day (see photo). Needless to say, we were happy to take accommodation in Zadar.
On a humorous note, a man serving us pizza last night informed us that this winter was going to be the worst winter in Europe in the last 1000 years. We did some Google research, and haven’t really found any reputable sources telling us the same, but we did get a chuckle out of this one: . Fingers crossed we will continue to enjoy some warmth!
And we are glad for this warmth, since we have been traveling at slightly higher elevations lately. From Rijeka, the coastal route to Zadar provided many ups and downs as we spent two days riding alongside The Velebit, Croatia’s largest mountain. Although it was a bit more physically challenging than the Netherlands, it was incredibly rewarding. A somewhat funny episode was our first attempt to reach the island of Pag: after gleefully descending 1000 meters to catch a ferry to the island, we were informed that the ferry was shut down for the off-season and we had to re-ascend to the highway and go to a town 15 kilometres south. For some reason, the ascent was less joyous.
But getting to the island of Pag was definitely worth the burning thighs. Croatia has over 1000 islands and each seem unique to each other. Pag was certainly not what we were expecting for a Mediterranean island, but we liked it a lot. The island changed landscapes more often than we changed gears: a rocky, almost lunar eastern side transitioned into rolling grasslands which eventually changed to a dense coniferous forest on the west. Because of this bizarre geography, the citizens of Pag have had to be creative with how they make a living. Historically, this island was invaluable to the Romans for salt production, and this industry still exists today. Although the island could support no agriculture, it supports a robust population of sheep. These sheep produce nationally famous cheese; we purchased some from a family-run dairy we cycled by… a delicious decision! For us, this dairy highlighted that despite the strong presence of tourism on the island, a more traditional way of life still exists. We enjoyed passing through communities that seem to take you back generations: dogs roaming the dirt roads, worn one-room homes, and chickens cooped in stone fences being fed by the hands of weathered old women. And speaking of women, we recently read a good explanation for the famous lace making industry on the island: “Since, once upon a time, there was nothing better for the women of Pag to do than keep an eye on a few sheep, watch salt dry and wait for hubby to come home with the days catch, they kept idle thumbs at bay by lace making.” Another interesting piece of Pag was a heavy artillery piece we assume was from the Yugoslavian War in the early 1990s. We again can’t emphasize enough how interesting we are finding this relatively modern history and are enjoying learning as much as we can about the conflict and its causes.
Another highlight of coastal living has been the food. Today we enjoyed Greek oranges and Croatian pastries for breakfast, a lunch of shell fish and shrimp, and a snack of cheese bought off the side of the highway. Today we also enjoyed some coffee at one of the numerous cafes in Zadar. We love the cafe culture in this country. The cafes are always full of a diverse group of people carrying on lively conversations, often with a dog in their lap. Unlike what we are used to in Canada, people rarely are on laptops (as we are now) or reading a book… they are very interactive places. We must admit, that although the coffee is quite cheap, we aren’t really taking to the espresso based drinks and crave a big cup of quality black java! It is also not uncommon to see people enjoying a beer in one of these cafes at 9 am, which we continue to find hilarious.
Of course, Zadar offers more than cafes. The old part of the city, which remains walled today, was founded by the Romans, and largely developed again under the occupation of Venice. Although the city is rich with history, it is also exudes a sense of modernity. For example, not far from the old Roman Forum, you can find the worlds only Sea Organ, which plays random, yet harmonious, music by the interaction of sea waves and tubes. The Sea Organ is accompanied by the Greetings to the Sun, which is a 22 meter circle of PVC cells that displays beautiful light patterns during the night. Very cool! We are liking the fact that Zadar is a harbour city, and that we (a.k.a. Alec) can gawk at the various docked boats. One of the first things we saw upon arriving in Zadar was the harboured mega yachts, which are multimillion dollar vessels, all custom built. Another cool thing about this places it that every Saturday in Zadar is the Day of the City, in which various events are offered free of charge. We are planning on capitalizing on this Day of the City and are attending a concert showcasing traditional Croatian music, which is being put on by members of the surrounding villages.
In fact, we are running late! So we will bid a warm farewell!
Alec & Caitlin