NICK RIGGS' HOLIDAY TO ISTRIA, CROATIA

Who: Nick Riggs 

Where:Zaton Holiday Resort, Zadar and Bi Village, Istria - Croatia

When: October 2016

Travelling: Campsite Zaton is a short trip away from Zadar Airport and, naturally, the city of Zadar. Flights can be made by Ryanair for the best value for money. You can drive, but it’s quite a long journey, so I can highly recommend a cheaper, faster return flight. 

DAY 1: ARRIVAL - ZATON HOLIDAY RESORT

Campsite Zaton is a large powerhouse of a site rivaling Union Lido in size and scale. It’s 11 km from Zadar and 25 minutes from the airport; Ryanair flies in from Liverpool and Stansted so it’s easy to get to and you’ll be ready to unpack before you know it.  
 
The campsite is right on the edge of the Dalmatian Coast, meaning it’s boasting some seriously impressive scenery. Add into this the local sandy beaches and you have a modern park with a bit of something for everyone. There are two pools full of slides and water games, so kids are fully catered for.
 
For my trip, the draw of historic Zadar just 8km up the road, along with Croatia’s fascinating culture, drew me out into the local vicinity to find out what was on offer. Once I’d settled in, I headed out to discover what was on offer. 

DAY 2: MASTERING THE LOCAL LANGUAGE

Croatia has suddenly made a lot of sense as a holiday destination thanks to European membership - it’s time to give it a serious look. It’s a stunning place to visit, but learning about its culture is just as rewarding. 
 
For many years, I've been put off by the exotic and slightly foreboding letters ć, Ž, and č you see in Croatian words. Sometimes vowels are missing from their place names and you’re left wondering if there’s been a spelling mistake. 
 
Take Krk, for example, an island off Istria. Somehow it seems like somebody stole the “I” during the Yugoslavian war and they haven't agreed to give it back yet. But after spending last week in Croatia with one of the locals, much of that bemusement has been replaced with a new insight and appreciation of the place.
 
I've learnt ć isn’t a c with an accent but a bona-fide letter in its own right. When strange letters run together, you have to pronounce them all. Take Hrvatska (hurrah-vatska), the local name for the country, abbreviated HR as the perfect example. 
 
Along with pronunciation lessons, I’ve discovered fascinating facts from the local area, such as there being 30 letters in the alphabet - they have fables about farming gods who grow corn from their chins and the air is so pure on Cres your lungs actually grow in capacity when you spend a week there. 

DAYS 3 & 4: ISTRIA BY THE ADRIATIC SEA

I’ve never been out of Istria County before now, the diamond shaped jewel at the most northerly tip of the country. I know Porec, Rovinj, Pula and Umag are still incredible pearls of the former Venetian republic of Istra and offer fascinating timeless portraits of constant occupation by empires great but seldom good to the locals. But I’ve never done Dalmatia or island hopped around the archipelago before. After this week I’m hooked. 
 
Heading off into the nearby city of Zadar I found an epic Roman port town with a forum, triumphal arches and fountains like Rome. All of which was then embellished by the venetians with statues of San Marco, campaniles and piazzas in luminescent marble.  And then the ramparts were reinforced by the Austro Hungarians and 19th century refinements were added; then it was all flattened by the Allies. 
 
Goodness only knows how beautiful the place was in 1940 because today it is still marvellous. I was particularly drawn to the atmosphere at the Piazza 5 fonte or square of 5 fountains. The square directly looks onto an atmospheric port called Fosa. The fish restaurant’s manager was drumming up trade by singing popular opera arias, all under the watchful eye of the lion sitting proudly in the heart of the land gate who seemed to have countenanced such tricks since roman times. 
 
Suddenly, the equivalent of the Adriatic red arrows zoomed into view and started barrel rolling towards the shore as if to put the opera soloist off his stride. And then to the far side of the roman gardens overlooking the square the funkiest of bars started some dub step beat and suddenly the hip and trendy had grabbed their moment in the spotlight. Check out the bar Ledana for probably the coolest setting in the Adriatic and cocktails only £4 a pop!

DAY 5: COASTLINE COASTING

Leaving behind Zaton, I moved on to Bi Village and the fishing village of Fazana (fa-jana) - this involved an epic ride along the coast to reach. It's the most perfect Italian fishing port facing Italy anywhere in the world! We ate in the harbour at a restaurant called Varysyum - the seafood was out of this world, including some cape lunghe which were served in garlic and oil. They grow apparently in the sand and are served in their straw-like shells; mighty tasty, though. 
 
Nicola is the maître d here, but his wife is definitely the cook and the master. As the conversation with Nicola flowed and we monopolised his time a little too long, cries emanated from the kitchen giving first orders, then threats, which gave an inkling as to the potential severity of Croatian who definitely wear the trousers. If the men folk don't perform, so the saying goes, they get both a kick and a slap at the same time… seems a bit harsh, but I guess Nora Batty's rolling pin would probably hurt too.
 
Vasianum is in walking distance from Bi Village. The campsite is another vibrant location and sits opposite the rocky shores which the Adriatic shows off spectacularly to tourists. As with Zaton, it has a wide mix of kids clubs and family entertainment, including swimming pools and a shingle beach nearby! You can even get a few scuba diving lessons in if this suits you. 
 
Best of all, especially for couples, you can enjoy food by the beach and then kick back to watch the sunset cascading over the archipelago.

DAY 6: FEELING LIKE ROBINSON CRUSOE

Having over-estimated travelling time so far across Croatia (a world first for me), space had freed up to get another island in, this time Cres (shhh-res). A one hour drive across Istria gets you to the port of Brestova where you cross to Porozina; as soon as you hit the island you feel like Robinson Crusoe - this feeling only intensifies the longer you spend there.
 
Getting back to the mainland involved another fun ferry crossing from Merag to Valbiska for a tenner. Not quite on the mainland, you eventually cross from Krk to Croatia over the bridge, which is quite spectacular in itself. 
 
I had decided to finally visit Plitvice Lakes as a counterpoint to all those islands and olive groves. Plitvice is Croatia's foremost national park and a Unesco protected attraction around three hours drive from Pula and two from Zadar. The unique combination of nine lakes interacting with limestone bedrock has created a simply astonishing natural wonder of cascades, waterfalls and gorges. 
   
Fully exploring the main park on foot takes 7 hours and is jaw dropping. The riot of spring colours, as well as wildlife, is overwhelming - I kept mainly to the marked paths, but saw lizards, snakes, foxes and many shoals of fish. Brown bears roam freely in the park but weren’t for joining me on the day; I saw some in captivity the following day.

DAY 7: HAPPENING HRVATSKA!

All in all, Croatia is one of the happening countries in Europe right now. If you’re looking for something a bit different, campsites like Bi Village and Zaton offer families or couples a launchpad into all the cultural wonders in the local vicinity. 
 
In Croatia, campsites are overtaking hotels in terms of investment opportunities and the one big difference to other beach-side resorts anywhere else in Europe is space. One park I visited had 4km of uninterrupted coastline! 
 
There’s no denying it - Croatia lives up to its tag of “Europe as it used to be”, and it’s definitely worth adding “and where you’ll want to be”.