When I was asked if I wanted to take part in a press trip to Rab I was somewhat perplexed, firstly where, who or what is a Rab? The name didn’t offer any clues, it wasn’t Arabic, Spanish or of a Caribbean nature. Research was obviously required so I set to work interrogating the internet; the first results were rather discouraging.
Goli Otok, or naked island lies to the north of Rab, not a venue for naturists as the name suggests but a barren place where only inquisitive tourists visit. It was the most infamous political prison in Yugosalvia, built in 1948 after Tito’s break with the Soviet Union, it housed supporters of the Stalinist regime. Also adjacent to Rab is the Island of Sveti Grgur (St. Gregory) an infamous women’s prison. But to really jolly things along, the town of Kampur on the Island of Rab proper was host to a concentration camp during the Second World War. I thought long and hard about the invitation.
I soon discovered that Rab is an Island of the Kvarner Group in the northern Adriatic and forms part of the Republic of Croatia. It is 22km long and 11km wide at its extremes with the main town of Rab itself accounting for half of the Island’s population of almost 10,000 souls. The principle industry is tourism, in fact apart from a few fishermen and the odd goat herd it is the only industry.
The airports of Rijeka, Zadar and Pula are serviced by airlines from the UK but are lengthy drives from the ferry port of Jablanac the main crossing point, Rijeka the closest is 102km away. A state run catamaran service also runs form Rijeka, but there is only one sailing a day and it is at the mercy of sea conditions. In my opinion the prospects of Rab taking off as a tourist Mecca were diminishing the more I researched. I decided to stop surfing and sent off an email accepting the offer.
Rijeka Airport is on the Island of Krk and is a left over from Croatia’s austere communist days. It is nothing more than a hollow concrete block with a few windows, a cold structure with all the joy of a closed pub. The Airbus I arrived in was the only serviceable aircraft at the airport, there was however a rather sorry looking F-84 Thunderjet and a t-33 Shooting Star both well into terminal decay. The United States supplied 219 Thunderjets to the Yugoslav Air Force in the early 1950’s, a controversial decision at the time.
The airport shuttle bus shook and rattled its way southward along the coastal road with the Dalmation Islands to the right and the rock strewn hinterland to the left.
A winding decent took the bus into the town of Jablanac, a pretty little harbour with stone red-roofed buildings and crystal clear water. It was in marked contrast to the desolate spectacle of Rab a short twelve minute ferry ride away, its low lying hills were virtually devoid of vegetation, the white stone reflecting a fierce sun more like a Saharan landscape than the Adriatic. The north wind or Bora lays up salt deposits on this side of the Island preventing the growth of all but the hardiest and dowdiest of plants.
The ferry Sv. Grgur ploughed its way across Velebitski Kanal towards Mišnjak, Rab’s southern most port. The barren landscape continued subduing the spirits of the occupants of the mini-bus, glum faces peered through the dusty windows as we drove down the small exit ramp and onto the Island.
First impressions of Rab
As the towns of Barbat and Banjol sped past so the vegetation became greener, holm oaks, century cacti and palm trees covered the landscape. The sigh of relief amongst the passengers was audible. As we approached the town of Rab the changing landscape became more luxuriant and complex. Some flora reflected the exuberance of the Mediterranean while other the olive drab of northern Europe, all things to all Europeans.
The main town on the Island is Rab itself, a town of two halves with modern residential Rab an efficient dormitory town for the tourist industry, but it is the old town which is the jewel in this Adriatic crown. Built over Roman remains and on the western side of the harbour the Old Town is a separate entity with its unique skyline of four bell towers all struggling for prominence. To the east is the holm oak forested Komr?ar Park which acts as a buffer, keeping modern Rab at arms length.
The Old Town of Rab is spotless, as if purged by some huge nocturnal pressure washer. The standard of cleanliness is such that seagulls give the town a miss and head for less fastidious landfalls squawking their displeasure as they fly over at medium altitude. The three main thoroughfares are Donja Ulica, Srednja Ulica and Gornja Ullica, lower, middle and upper street. A confluence of tiny streets loosely aligned to these three main thoroughfares host many small shops, restaurants and bars, hand made jewellery is sold from stalls which spring up around Sv Kristofor (St. Christopher) Square at nightfall.
Croatia is rich in legend and Rab is no exception, a rather interesting fable concerns a youth named Kalifont who fell in love with the Shepherdess of Draga. Not the usual tale of unrequited love, it was most certainly requited so much so that the Gods banished Kalifont to the Oak forests which he was doomed to walk until he became assimilated with the trees. His forlorn arboreal likeness now sits in St. Christopher Square staring fixedly at a fountain bearing the resemblance of the amorous young Shepherdess, highly unlikely but great fun.
It is not necessary to speak Croatian on the Island but a working knowledge of German would be a distinct advantage. Figures supplied by Kristijana Ribari? President of the City of Rab Tourist Board show that German visitors form over 40% of all tourists, while guests from the British Isles were heaped into the 2% of also-rans, rather like our national sports teams.
Many restaurants cater for German tastes especially those situated around the main squares, this is a pity as the local cuisine is an integral part of the Rab experience. Seafood from the clear Adriatic, grilled meats with delicious piquant sources, the cured hams can rival any of the Iberian varieties while the Pag cheese complemented by fresh black olives is a superb way to round off any meal. So don’t settle on the more obvious eating houses, don walking boots and rummage through the small back streets, watch where the locals eat, you will receive wonderful food and a warm welcome.
While in the Old Town I had the immense pleasure of meeting Zoran Mar?i?, as a young man of 20 he fought alongside Tito’s partisans, taking up arms after his family was incarcerated in the Kampur Concentration Camp. One of his anecdotes centred around three British agents put ashore on Rab in 1943. They were closeted in the house of Sersic Ivan close to St. Christopher Square which the occupying Germans used as a parade ground. It was decided to move the agents, to this end they were dressed as abattoir workers with their radio hidden on a donkey, they were then marched passed the drilling soldiers and taken to the village of Palit and from there to safety.
One rather interesting association with the Island is the familiar St. Christopher, not only the patron saint of travellers but also the guardian of Rab, a busy chap. In the catacombs of St. Justine’s Church there is a small collection of interesting relics including the skull of our industrious saint. It appears that when the Island was under siege from the Normans St. Christopher turned the arrows of the invaders onto themselves and saved the Island. The skull has not been carbon dated the custodians do not believe it is necessary, why spoil a good story.
Away from the main town other resorts such as Banjol, Barbat and Lopar to the north offer a variety of activities including bathing (costumes optional) walking and cycling. The terrain ranges from the flat to the mountainous, so bicycle paths reflect this, from the easy going to just plain silly. Diving is well catered for as you would expect with the crystal clear waters, graceful schooners and barques of the diving schools are regular visitors to the Island.
The secluded bays with crystal clear water offer superb bathing and the Island has a long tradition of naturism. In 1936 when Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson visited they were reported to have indulged in the nude bathing at Kandarola Bay, however after an exhaustive search no photographic evidence could be found.
A small flotilla of craft offer boat trips around Rab and the adjacent Islands, these can be seen leaving each morning awash with waving arms and legs. The boats range from sleek modern floating gin palaces to old and listing derelicts chugging their way worryingly to the open waters of the Adriatic. However it was pleasant enough to walk by the harbour in the early evening, full of bonhomie, good food and wine reading the boat’s bill boards and selecting a trip for the next morning. It is advisable however not to have too much to drink as you could find yourself as a cabin boy on a tramp steamer headed for Montevideo.
Tourism is well established on the Island and the City of Rab Tourist Board is a professional and capable organisation which regards the industry with the utmost importance, not only because it is the mainstay of the Island but they also understand just how important the annual or biannual break is to the many individuals who holiday there. The entry of Croatia into the European Union in 2009 also commemorates the 120th year of tourism. It was in 1889 that the local council of Rab decided to gear up for touism and work began on the first hotels.
Modern Rab is undoubtedly a tourist destination; with a permanent population of 10,000 it has 30,000 tourist beds across all sectors. Many of the islanders work in the tourist industry from May until October, returning to secondary occupations in the winter or just idling, gathering their strength for the spring onslaught. Prices are very favourable compared with the UK, meals and drinks are perhaps 30% less. There is no mark-up during the tourist season nor is there a difference in prices from residential Rab to the touristic Old Town.
Rab from seaward at dusk
The northern Adriatic is a meeting of cultures. The exuberance and passion of the Mediterranean meets the methodical understated humour of northern Europe. Palm trees and holm oak grow side by side, while the Green Lizards scamper through the undergrowth, the only creatures I saw moving with any rapidity during my stay.