Some relaxing days at the coast

It was totally worth swapping the baking hot and dry interior of Croatia for the cooler coast. We chose the campsite in Moşčenika Draga, Istria based on its convenient location and relatively reasonable prices. When we turned up we were lucky to snatch the penultimate spot which happened to be next to a major roundabout. During our check in we were told about the fishermen’s evening with a famous Croatian male octet as this evenings main act. After setting up for the night and dinner we strolled down to the harbour to join the party. It was interesting to see teenagers as well as 60 year olds singing along to the same music. The atmosphere was very relaxed even when the fireworks started 5 minutes early and cut off the encore of the band. A shame after their two hour concert.

The promenade

The next day we ventured to the beach less than 500m away from our campsite for some swimming and scouting for activities. The hot weather and location of the village in a wide bay made boating and stand up paddleboarding (SUP) rather unexciting. Diving was a very tempting alternative especially because it involved actually being in the cool sea rather than on top of it. Of the two dive centers in the village we chose Marina Diving Centre located in the resort with the same name and 100m away from the beach. We went to their office before we actually went to the beach and after a chat with the super friendly staff signed up for a trial dive. It all happened so fast we ended up with less than two hours on the beach before our first dive together.

Our instructor Bojana gave us a quick introduction into our equipment and the exercises we would be doing under water. After a bit of a struggle with the neoprene suits we found ourselves walking down the beach through sunbathing people and little children in our full scuba gear; thankfully carrying our flippers.

Cute little fish

Zoë has been diving once before but for Matthias this was the first time he was able to breathe and stay underwater for more than about 40 seconds. It was easy getting used to the constant breathing but getting the buoyancy right was a bit trickier. There were so many valves on our vests to let air out and working out how much air to put in took us some time. Before the proper diving started we had some training exercises. The easy ones included re-capturing a lost regulator and clearing the mouthpiece both by blowing through it and using the cylinder air. After this it became slightly more difficult. We had to half fill our masks with water and then clear them again by breathing out through our nose. It works well but definitely requires some practice; especially in sea water. Saltwater in your nose isn’t very pleasant even if it’s only a little bit. There are a lot of things to get used to whilst diving, particularly breathing underwater, equalising your ears to adjust to the pressure and adjusting your boyancy. Despite all the new things to learn, we both really enjoyed our 2 hour diving experience (roughly 45min in the water). It was thrilling to feel like we were a part of the submarine life rather than looking down on it like you do when snorkelling. Even after it had ended we didn’t manage to leave the office and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting to the staff in the office.

Sky on fire after a thunderstorm

Now we were in a slight predicament. We had planned to do a diving course for quite some time but never had the time to do it in the UK. The local schools (in Glasgow) were expensive and had inconvenient times and we had been too busy with our wedding and travel preparations. Usually an open water diver course consists of 10 lessons: five in a pool and five in open water which are held over ten weeks. After our dive we were even more determined to get the open water diver (up to 18m deep) so we can go diving in other places during our travel. We had considered doing it all somewhere in Southeast Asia but the course costs are actually not much different from those in Europe. Marina Dive Center offered an express version of the course including only the minimum number of required dives (five) for a lower price than UK and Germany. Our trial dive counted as the first and we could complete the other four within two days.

Starfish

In the end we decided to sign up and finish the course we had already sort of started and get our open water diver licences in Croatia. We did this for a few reasons. The first was the time and being able to complete the whole course in two days. We knew this was pushing it and more dives during the course meant more experience and time under water. The other advantage was that having the license opened the door to spontaneous dives during our travel before we get to southeast Asia where we originally wanted to do the course. Once there, we also won’t have to bother about finding a good and trustworthy diving school but can go underwater almost anywhere. We had met almost all the staff during our first afternoon there and got a very good impression about them and their level of training and professionalism. It was also cheaper since our trial dive cost got deducted from the course price.

Since the school was part of SSI we could access the theory material online and through their app for free instead of having to buy a book (PADI). The only annoying thing about this was that it took one hour to download the version with videos. When we signed up the next day we met our two other fellow participants and teacher. Zoë was the only non-German speaker but was happy to do the course in German. It turned out that the dive centre owner Robbie, Susanne our instructor and Matthias all come from the same region of Germany: Schwabia (a lot of Schwäbisch Deutsch followed this discovery).

Leopard snail

After a more detailed introduction into the equipment, hand signals and more exercises we got suited and booted and went into the lovely adriatic. The worst exercises this time were completely filling and clearing the mask as well as removing it, swimming some distance before putting it back on. We also practised taking of parts of the equipment, such as buoyancy jackets and weights, and putting it back on both on the surface and under water. Each of us had a panic moment during this session but we still managed and completed them. After all this work we also did some fun diving to practice our more general diving skills. Apart from various fish we found a white and blue jellyfish and starfish. Susanne even found an octopus hiding under a stone. We quickly forgot about our panic moments and really enjoyed being part of the underwater world and we were sad when Susanna told us the lesson was over and we had to wait till the next day to play fish again. Back at the campsite we spent the entire evening learning about the theory of diving.

Jelly fish

Dives four and five the next day were completely different. Dive four was another training dive at the beach with some more exercises and we had our first underwater photoshoot with a seahorse!

For our fifth and final dive we loaded our gear onto a trolley and went to the harbour to explore the schools’ house reef. It showed us why we did the course and what to expect from a reef. Since we had completed and passed the practical part we were free to explore the reef and it’s inhabitants. Susanne showed us some very colourful snails, fish and plants. There was a hundred times more things to see and discover that the dive was over far too quickly.

Matthias’s new friend

Zoë and I were the only ones from our course to take the theory on the same day. This left us with four hours to finish the last chapters, repetition and question each other. The exam consisted of 50 multiple choice questions and had a high pass mark of 80%. Both of us got three questions wrong (different ones; we didn’t copy off each other!). Now we are certified divers and free to dive up (or down) to 18m using compressed air. We cannot wait to put this to good use and explore seas and lakes around the world. We celebrated our achievement by joining the staff in a lounge bar where the boat captain played the drums during a salsa night.

Overall we were very happy with our experience and totally recommend the Marine Diving Center. We paid 2600 Kuna each (£313) all in which is a good price.

Zoë’s new friend

The next day we checked out and drove back to Rijeka after picking up our tempory diving cards and certificates. After restocking our supplies we headed north and into new adventures in Slovenia. Again we have proven that we aren’t very good at keeping still and doing nothing for greater lengths of time but we had an awesome time in Moşčenika Draga. The only thing we regret is not staying an extra day to relax and just lie on the beach but who knows what else we would have picked up then…

All photos in this post were taken by our instructor Susanne Frank. Thank you

Birds and baking hot Croatia

Leaving Romania was a little sad but we still had more adventures planned. Next on the list was Croatia and it’s national parks but to get there we had to leave the E.U. and drive across Serbia. We had heard a few bad things about border crossings out of the E.U., in particular long waiting times and bribes. We arrived at one of the minor border points early in the morning and had our passports and car documents ready. The only disconcerting part was the man without a uniform who asked to see into Trevor and asked us if we had any drugs. Thankfully the border crossings and drive across Serbia were pretty straight forward and we made it to Croatia.

A historic monument of Vukovar

Our first town in Croatia was the town of Vukovar, which is where the Seige of Vukovar took place when Croats were fighting for their independance. As we drove into town it was obvious that heavy artillery had been used by the Serbs in fight for Vukovar. The most astonishing fact in this seige was that ordinary Croats held the Serbs at bay for 3 months before they were overcome and many of the them murdered. The town was almost entirely demolished but what was left standing is still spattered by bulllet holes including the towns huge water tower. We were particularly shocked by how recently the wars of independance in this area of Europe were, since we don’t learn the history of these nations in either the U.K. or Germany. There isn’t much more to do in the town except visiting memorials or a museum but it’s a reminder to everyone that events like these should not be repeated.

The boardwalk of Kopački rit

Moving on we finally reached our destination of Kopački rit, a national park on the Western border of Croatia. We visited the visitor centre and booked the 9am small boat tour for the next day for just 190 Kuna including 2 Coca-colas thanks to a promotion. The park consists of a large marshy area around the Danube which is home to birds, frogs, snakes, wild pigs, jackals and deer. The area floods when the Danube rises and creates a fantastic habitat for water birds and a great stopover for migratory species. Following a recommendation from the lovely people at the visitor centre we went to a local restuarant to try the local specialities. We ordered a fish platter which included pike, cat fish, carp and rather dubiously frogs legs, which we were assured by the waiter were the best part. Well the pike and cat fish were pretty tasty for fresh water fish, even Zoë liked them. The carp was decidely muddy in flavour and as for the frogs legs they are something we won’t be having again. A frog pelvis with two legs attached and deep fried isn’t anywhere as tasty as the waiter promised, but the restuarant cat loved them.

A lucky frog that avoided both the frying pan and the local snakes

At 9am the next morning, we went to catch our boat tour. We walked along the board walk which was defintely lacking water and started to worry that there wouldn’t be any water for the boat to float on. We left the boardwalk and climbed over the dyke flood barrier to find 4 boats floating on a large lake. Three of these boats were large tour boats and one was our small 5 seater complete with tour guide and two park wardens. Normally there are two accesible channels but with such low water levels only one was open for boats. Setting off on our tour was quite exciting, we were immediatley in a world full of cormorants, herons, little egrets and greater egrets. As we drove along the channel we came across river turtles, ducks and a huge number of white tailed eagles. We also saw kingfishers, night herons and a sadly deceased wild pig. It was great being on the water speeding along and racing herons and egrets. The only disappointment was the the noise of the boat engine scared off a lot of the birds. We definitely recommend the first private tour of the day since we saw so many fabulous birds, but if you do visit, call up before and check the water levels.

Some cormorants just chilling

A white tailed eagle taking flight

Fantastic greater egret in flight

A jackal from the Danube region

With temperatures in central Croatia hitting 40 degrees  celcius every day it was hard to do very much after about 10am, so we decided to visit a local swimming pool to cool off and relax for the rest of the day. We had hoped to spend longer in the national park, but without much water there isn’t much to do. Instead, the next day we drove onto Ljonske polje, a national park south of Zagreb which promised kayaking, cycling and many birds online. Already knowing we weren’t visting at the best time of year we expected to see fewer birds but still be able to enjoy the wooden villages and outdoor pursuits. We visited the national park office and were given hope that there were still birds at the hide and we could still go kayaking so we bought a 2-5 day ticket costing 60 Kuna each and set off in search of a campsite. We stopped at Plesmo where the least recommended campsite was and got a bargain stay for 10€ for a night but had to share the facilities with 15 very messy Belgian scouts.

A sunset and a stork


We got up early to visit the bird hide which promised a colony of herons and the only population of European Spoonbills that nest on an ox-bow lake. At the hide we climbed the stairs, opened the windows and found a beautiful purple heron preening right in front of us. The spoonbills were a little less forthcoming but made a few flights across the lake to their feeding sites although we are sure they were trying to hide amongst the large number of egrets too-ing and fro-ing. Unfortunatley a noisy Swiss family turned up and reduced our chances of spotting much more; still not sure why you would bring a very young child to a quiet place. After a late breakfast we drove on to check out the kayaking lake. Disappointingly it was a stagnant green ox-bow lake which would be full of mosquitoes but little else so we gave it a miss. At the next visitor centre we got a map of a 4km walk to see the landscape, dyke and local farm animals. We completed the walk but it was far to hot and pretty uninspiring walking between fields of maize.

A flying spoonbill

Surely another european spoonbill

A purple heron?

Our plans were pretty flexible from here so we decided to leave the centre of Croatia to bake on its own and drive to the coast. Since the last journey on a motorway cost over €16 we opted for the scenic and budget route to Istria. Four hours of driving later we got to our campsite in Moscenika Draga, a seaside town on the eastern side of Istria. We knew this area was going to be expensive for campsites but we felt we needed some time to cool down and relax for a few days. We are totally hopeless at doing nothing but we decided to try it anyway. Find out whether we were successful or not in our next post…