On a cold misty morning we regretfully left the roaring fire behind and started out on the very long drive back down out of the mountains. Ironically, to do this we first climbed up winding roads into more drizzly clouds. We crossed never-ending flat plains still bedecked in brown and orange shades where we passed lonely villages from time to time. We were beginning to regret not having had an artery-clogging fried breakfast before we set out. As always, there was nothing much on offer in the way of sustenance along the roads. Along one long deserted stretch of road in the middle of the mountains we suddenly came across a large black oil can that someone had thoughtfully placed in the middle of the lane in the few minutes since the last car had passed by. As soon as we went over it, the car complained noisily and we stuttered to an abrupt halt, just about coaxing the car to the side of the road. After some investigative efforts under the bonnet of the car, I established that the can was firmly wedged between the car and a lot of roadside gravel. This was not a good situation to be in. I rolled up my sleeves and proceeded to wrestle with the can which was putting up an admirable fight. Some time later I did emerge triumphant, but covered in enough oil and scrapes to ensure that I wouldn’t soon forget the experience. Despite our worries, the car surprisingly shook off the incident and merrily continued on, possibly also eager to get back to a warmer climate before any more sabotage could take place.
The clouds were clearing as we crossed the last of the mountain peaks and began to descend. The thermometer showed that we were finally leaving the cold behind us. However getting back down the mountains to the coast was a long, tedious exercise in constantly braking whilst following a laden-down truck that wavered all over the narrow road. We finally reached the coast and followed the horseshoe bend around, avoiding the clutches of massive Rijeka, but taking many unintentional diversions into small congested towns as the signposting led us astray again and again. It was proving to be a day of much frustration as we failed to find even one roadside cafe to rejuvenate our flagging spirits. Despite our best efforts we eventually ended up on one of the tolled highways we’d been trying to avoid. We resigned ourselves to the inevitable at this point and followed it all the way until we reached Pula at the southern tip of the area. Many gruelling hours after leaving Plitvice we rolled into the town centre and with a large degree of luck, parked ourselves outside what just might have been the only open cafe that served food (and for bonus points also had wifi). After a snack and much examination of google maps we were in a slightly better position to find our way out to the suburbs where our apartment waited for us, somewhere. Unfortunately maps and Croatian roads don’t match too well A curved road on one, is a straight line on the other. A left turn, is a slight bend. One minute you’re happily going the right way… five minutes later and you’re not sure which side of the town you’re on anymore. Croatian road signs are also small and illegible at any kind of distance – so useless, basically. There’s nothing more fun than spending a long time circling round and round, desperately trying to locate yourself when you can’t tell what road you’re on. Somehow we did eventually find our way to where we wanted to go. The family’s designated English speaker (their son, Sasha) donned his slippers, let us in to our apartment, recited a list of hints and suggestions, and retreated back to sleep in front of the tv.
Our apartment was about a 10 minute drive from the centre of Pula and located in a reasonably good area. Our first night we made the rookie error of returning to the centre of Pula to look for dinner. A horrible mistake. Not only was there no food to be found, but it turned out that finding the apartment a second time wasn’t any easier than the first. In fact after an hour of wandering dark, quiet streets where we failed to find open restaurants, it was only more difficult to find. When we finally found our way back, the decision was made to keep future excursions to a minimum. We abandoned the car and went searching for the ‘quite good’ restaurant that we’d been told was close by. Sure enough, the Marco Polo pizzeria was doing a roaring trade in delivering pizzas a couple of streets away. Conveniently for us, they also had a restaurant section where you could get a number of fine Italian pasta dishes also. The food was incredibly cheap aswell as being excellent. Weary of searching for decent food, we returned to this place not twice, but 4 nights in a row. After a long week of travelling around Croatia, we were happy to stay put for a few days. The apartment was nice and spacious, there were pastries from the local patisserie for break fast, and pizza and pasta from the restaurant for dinner. So for a few days we diligently did very little other than rest and eat. All was good – apart from the unfortunate incident where Brodie had just started to perform his ‘hungry duck’ impression and the owner’s son called to the door. A brief, and awkward conversation ensued. Funnily enough, he steered well clear of us for the rest of the time we were there.
Once we were tired of resting up, we headed northwards as far as Rovinj for a day trip. This is yet another town along the coast (Croatia managed to pretty much get the whole coastline when land was being divied up), usually connected to Venice via the summer ferry lines. The town is like Dubrovnik in miniature, with winding cobbled streets on a hill, but with a strong flavour of Venice in the building style and the houses facing out onto the open water. It’s a very pretty place, though the prices in the restaurants were shocking compared to what we’d been getting used to back in the suburbs of Pula. Our last couple of days we moved out of those suburbs and into the centre of Pula, parting ways with our car. The “toll blond woman” I was told to expect showed up to glower at us and explain loudly that there would now be yet another extortionate pickup fee even though they’d never arranged return of the vehicle, and didn’t give me any options when I made the effort of contacting them about it. By the time she finished “inspecting for damage” there wasn’t much love lost between us. As she hadn’t crawled under the bonnet to check for extra dents we were fine. As a parting shot I brought up the oil-less state of the engine on pickup. “But it is a new car!” she told us. There were some differences of opinion about whether you could refer to a dented rental car as ‘new’, or why that would make it impossible for there to be no oil in the engine. But having had the last word, we departed quickly, happy to see an end to driving on the crazy roads.
We had two days left to explore the heart of Pula and wander around the Roman forum at its centre. Our last night was spent in the regal, but very ancient Hotel Riviera. We had had little drama in the past few days (apart from the excitement of finding a real live McDonalds serving something other than pasta!). Rather than let things get dull on our last night in Croatia, Brodie saw it as his duty to fall through the planks that were being called a bed and found himself firmly stuck. A valuable lesson in approaching what looked liked (and obviously was) a very frail bed with a lot more caution. I briefly considered fetching my camera, but Brodie was not looking very happy about being stuck in such an uncomfortable position. In the interest of surviving the remainder of the trip, the camera was abandoned and a complicated extrication operation took place instead. The bed was reconstructed for a few hours sleep before our early morning departure to Italy, and the infamous Venice.