The perfect trip: Croatia
The frontier spirit has never quite left Paklenica. Rangers strut about the park entrance relating anecdotes about the park’s dangerous wildlife with wellpractised indifference, warning visitors to be wary of branches where horned vipers are particularly fond of sunbathing. Recent years, however, have seen a new set of pioneers come to the park. High up above, Spiderman-like climbers shimmy up the cliffs, scaling walls of rock that lean forwards at baffling angles. Each route is named by the first person to ascend it, and it seems that much of Paklenica was conquered by a Fleetwood Mac fan; Black Magic Woman and Albatross both look equally impossible.
‘You don’t get scared’ says Marta Gozdz, a Polish doctor preparing to scale a cliff-face with the dimensions of a minor skyscraper. ‘You feel that the rock is looking after you, and that it won’t let anything happen to you. Sometimes you feel you aren’t even climbing, just dancing with the rock.’
Where to eat
Fosa is an accomplished seafood restaurant in the nearby town of Zadar, with a spectacular terrace overlooking the harbour (mains from £7).
Where to stay
The Hotel Alan offers comfortable rooms in a modern tower block in Starigrad, just outside the national park. The hotel served as the base for the actors and crew working on the Winnetou movies – the Winnetou Museum is located on the edge of the car park (from £60).
Mljet: Best for islands
It is just after lunchtime on Mljet island, and most of its residents seem to be fast asleep – or if not asleep, at least in advanced stages of dozing. Window shutters are fastened closed, and empty rowing boats jostle about their moorings in the quays. Cats and dogs are engaged in a permanent state of siesta – those human residents who do venture out into the midday sun do so largely to shuffle from one shady doorway to another.
Few places can induce a state of happy torpor like Mljet. One of the southernmost and the most beautiful of Croatia’s islands, it is a grand finale to the succession of mighty headlands, sweeping blue bays and meandering inlets that stretch south from Split along the Dalmatian coast.
Less than an hour by ferry from the mainland, Mljet is an island of just a few hundred souls, a dozen villages, two tidal lakes and one solitary road that scrambles its way across the thickly wooded hills of the interior. It is a place where the pace of life seldom nudges above the lower end of the speedometer; where fishing, eating and napping have been priorities for as long as anyone can remember, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Mljet’s capacity to lull visitors into a state of idle contentment is nothing new. Local legend has it that Odysseus loitered here for seven years before he decided he really ought to be getting back to his family on Ithaca. Back in the 12th century, Benedictine monks from Italy decided they liked it so much, they built a grand Romanesque monastery in the middle of one of the island’s lakes. It’s still standing today; visitors can see where monks could have cast fishing lines out of their windows without so much as getting out of bed. Yet of all tales of visitors to the island, one story in particular stands out – a yarn worthy of a Dan Brown novel.
‘When I first discovered these ruins, I felt a mixture of happiness and fear,’ Baldo Kraly tells me, squinting at a pile of stones in the afternoon sunshine. ‘You weren’t supposed to discover these things during communist times.’