Dario skidded on the dirt track, the back wheel of his bike spraying dust into the dry air. “Viper!” he shouted. “Be careful!” I braked hard and looked to where he was pointing, just in front of my wheel, to see a mottled brown sliver of tail slide into the dense maquis. My heart pumped. But I was exhilarated as much as frightened. Croatia’s horned vipers are Europe’s deadliest snake, but their presence was a sure sign that the surrounding countryside was pristine. It certainly felt so. The empty road stretched bone-white in front of us for 3km, winding round the distant spur of a hill.
Above to our right, the maquis-covered mountainside rose sharply and peaked at a soaring ridge-top lookout. To our left the bush dropped in waves of green, broken by pale grey crags of rutted, weather-worn limestone. Below lay Vransko Jezero, a limpid lake, blue as a summer day, fringed with rushes and busy with herons and bitterns. The sea shimmered beyond, dotted with dimpled islands that merged with a distant, hazy horizon.
Even in March I was sweltering. Dario handed me a bottle that he’d filled from a rushing stream at the start of our ride. I took a long, cool swig and thought of England. It would be raining at Stansted, just as it had been when I’d clambered aboard the cramped Ryanair flight a few days before, on my way to somewhere called Zadar. I knew nothing of Croatia beyond the Balkan conflict and the pretty pictures of Dubrovnik I’d seen on the internet. And while Dubrovnik flights had been pricey, Zadar – some 220km to the north – was the cheapest Mediterranean destination I could find. It sounded like something from the Arabian Nights – but was probably, I’d reckoned, a grey Eastern European town of choking chimneys and tawdry Iron Curtain tower blocks. My plan had been to find a hostel for the night and then catch the bus south.
But Zadar was a delight – a labyrinth of streets built on a tongue of land extending into the bottle-blue Adriatic. The skyline was of terracotta roofs and the domes and spires of Renaissance churches. Searching for a room, I wandered through streets lined with Venetian houses. They led to airy piazzas lined with cafes and paved with flags polished marble-smooth by the passage of time and the shuffle of myriad feet. Nestled next to the water were the ruined columns and broken pediments of one of the Mediterranean’s few remaining Roman Forums. The hostel, housed in a building next to the towering Romanesque cathedral, was cheap, airy and surprisingly empty. I checked in and, while sipping a macchiato out under the stars, I resolved to stay in Zadar and use it as a base to explore the Croatian coast.
A bit cheesy – My first day was spent on Pag, a long, low island famous for its beaches, summer revelry – and cheese. Arriving by ferry from the mainland, the landscape looked as barren as a rocky moon: lifeless limestone burnt by the fierce sun, crenelated by the desiccating bura wind and set stark white against a Matisse-blue sea. The tiny main town, set under towering crags in a long, lullaby-calm cove, was in low-season sleep. Streets echoed with footfalls. A single fisherman carried his catch home from the harbour. A widow knitted intricate lace in the shaded doorway of the 15th-century Gothic cathedral. Tourists were limited to a handful of Italians eating fresh sardines by the waterfront in the warm sun.
The guidebook called Pag the new Ibiza. I hitched a ride to Zrce, the party beach. It was deserted but for the gulls in the sky and the dolphins in the adjacent cove. The turquoise water lapping the polished pebbles was warm on the toes so I took a refreshing swim. Then I climbed the hill and walked inland through rocky fields of bleating sheep, criss-crossed by dry stone walls. The scented air was filled with bees and butterflies, and the fragrance of wild rosemary and sage.